Aphelion Issue 229, Volume 22
June 2018
 
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The Touched

by John Powers




We drove up in front of the bar and the entire team got out. The others were all was looking at me, some worried, others with respect, but almost all of them like they didn't expect to see me again.

“You sure about this boss?” asked Kincaid, glancing over at the front door of bar. “I mean, we know she's in there...” His jacket fell open and he put his finger on the proton gun hanging from his shoulder holster. “Things being what they are, I'm thinking a little collateral damage ain't that high a p....”

“No!” I glared at Kincaid, but there was no real heat behind it, he was one of the few long-term survivors, a team member since the beginning. He'd earned his right to his opinions the hard way, through lost blood, both his own and that of his team-mates. And I knew how he felt, we knew this was the last one, after this we could stand down until the government dreamed up the next crisis we had to fix.

I looked around, scanning the neighborhood. It only took me a few seconds to figure out it wasn't a bad place; all the street lights in the area were working and the streets themselves were in decent repair. There was no garbage in the gutters and the grass right-a-ways that he assumed belonged to the city were trimmed and picked up. If there were any drug dealers or hookers in the area they were keeping a real low profile. The neighborhood didn't seem right for that kind to be out anyways. I turned to Erickson, the newest member of our squad. “Where are we anyway honey?”

Erickson grimaced for a moment, her bright blue eyes snapping. She wasn't quite used to the loose informality of the team yet, it would take time to fit her in completely. Either that or she'd end up in an unmarked grave in an abandoned farmer's field or else in the trunk of a car that was about to put through a smelting furnace. There'd never be public funerals for us, we didn't exist and you can't bury something that's not supposed to even be alive.

Erickson glanced at her GPS. “Boulder.” She paused for a moment; she was an East Coast girl, New Hampshire if I remembered correctly. “Boulder...uh... Colorado.”

“Knew it was someplace in the mountains”, I muttered, “sky is too clear and it's chillier than it should be.” I looked back at Erickson. “Is it October yet?”

She nodded. “The 3rd.”

Like a lot of the team I had a real problem with time, we were always on the move, up all hours of the day and night. I still remember everyone's shock when we realized we'd driven right though the night of New Year’s Eve in 2024 without even knowing what the day was. Not that it had mattered much; we stopped in Baltimore later that day, killed a pyro and lost Draper. Wasn't much of a trade, Draper had been a good man and the pyro had been an old geezer who was dying already, but orders were orders, even when they came from some ignorant ass politician in Foggy Bottom…

I shivered as I brought myself back to the present. “I'm going in alone. Kincaid, you're responsible for the outside perimeter.” I looked around at everyone, marking their faces, fixing them in my memory. Kincaid started to say something but I interrupted before he could get started. “Like I said, I'm going in alone. I'm the only Nothing we have left, so that means she can't affect me personally.” There were a couple chuckles from the team, being a Nothing wouldn't prevent any Touched inside from affecting everyone else in the place. I smiled at them. “I expect to walk out the front door with her in 30 minutes. If I'm in there a minute longer, then you all follow Kincaid's lead.”

The man’s wolf grin didn’t bother me at all. If I didn’t come out in 30 minute it probably meant I was dead (or worse) and whatever he decided wasn’t my concern. His hand unconsciously reached up to check to see if his firearm was still there. I sighed inwardly, if I didn't come out it was almost a guaranteed certainty that Kincaid would make sure there was nothing left standing for 200 meters in every direction. Effective solution? Sure, but a little rough on the locals.

“Someone find that brown pack in the back of the SUV, would you?” I heard some soft whispering and then the pack was passed forward to me. I took a couple things out of it and then handed the pack back and watched it disappear back into the darkness. I then took off my jacket and handed it to Erickson. She raised one eyebrow for a moment, but took it.

I turned around and Kincaid had my armored vest held up for me to put on. But I shocked everyone when I waved it away. He held it out a moment longer, like maybe he'd not seen my gesture, but when I repeated it he reluctantly lowered the armor. I shocked everyone even more when I took my shoulder holster off and handed it to Stanton. She looked at it for several seconds like it was alive and she expected it to bite her, but then took it and looped it over one arm. Then she looked over at Kincaid for a moment, who was staring at me.

I shrugged as I took my suit jacket back from Erickson and slipped it on. “I'm a Nothing.” I pointed towards the bar. “She's the opposite end of the spectrum. She's the only known Everything left. But like the other two Everythings we've run into, she's a jack of all trades...”

“And a master of none,” finished Kincaid as he shook his head. “I know the theory boss. But this one's been on the run the longest. Who ain't to say she'd learned a bit more about her powers?”

I shook my head as I turned slowly, making sure I had everyone’s attention. “If she'd developed any of them we'd know about it. Her pyro? Where's the raging forest fires, entire blocks of some city engulfed in flames? Her cryo? I haven't heard any reports of outdoor ice skating rinks in Miami or Phoenix. Her ability to incite? Anyone hear of any mass suicides or public orgies lately?” I looked around again as everyone shook their heads. I ticked through the Touched list: super strength, super speed and all the rest. By the time I was done I'd convinced everyone but myself. Maybe because I was wondering if this one hadn't learned the most dangerous lesson of all... restraint.


*****



I opened the door to the bar and walked in. I liked the place immediately, it had a nice feel and it exuded a friendly atmosphere. I really hoped I could keep Kincaid from burning it to the ground.

There was enough light to see by, but with a few pools of dimmer light, mostly for the corner booths if you needed a little quiet discretion. The main room was large and not overly crowded with tables, enough room to walk around without having to play the 'excuse me' game every time you got up to go to the bathroom. Doors for both of those were in the back corner, farthest from the front door itself. The bar, which looked like it was real wood, ran the full length of the room on the right side as I came in. A tall fat man was idly polishing the counter when I came in; a short chubby girl was the other bartender, further down was talking with one of the waitress.

The notice on the wall near the door from the local health department listed the official capacity of the bar at 150 but I seriously doubted it had ever seen that number, but there were 40 or 50 people scattered around. No real obvious clumps except a group of guys I took to be college students at a couple of tables that had been pulled together. A large stack of empty beer bottles pretty much confirmed my suspicions

Looked around again and found who I was looking for, she was in the corner furthest from the door, next to the bathrooms in a booth where she could watch the front door. It was no coincidence on her part that the emergency fire-exit door was less than 10 feet away also. I didn't let my gaze linger on her any longer than anyplace else in the room.

I walked up to the male bartender, who'd been watching me since I'd come in. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out a ten spot and laid it on the counter. It was one of the new series, tough but thin plastic instead of one of the older paper bills, which were worthless and being burned as fast as they were turned in because most were contaminated with one or more disease causing bugs. Mine was one of the new 2027 series, according to the government it was theoretically worth five times the value of the old paper money. In real life it was more like a 3 to 1 ratio.

The bartender looked at it and then at me. “Drink friend?”

“7 & 7.” He nodded and built the drink quickly and pushed it over to me. I dropped a second ten on the counter and pushed them towards him. The sleight of hand that made the money disappear was something that only bartenders and skilled pickpockets ever seemed to have mastered completely.

“Thinking I might have to use the bathroom here soon.” The bartender's eyes flicked unconsciously towards the corner. I waited until he was looking at me again. “How long has she been there?”

He blinked and flicked his eyes towards the woman again for a brief moment. “A couple hours I guess. She came in drunk, she’s getting drunker. But she's quiet, tips Tammy well and she's still able to string a sentence together without mixing it up or losing track of her train of thought half way through. Damn near the perfect customer.” He looked down at the counter, polishing out some stain I couldn't seem to see as he talked.

The bartender suddenly stiffened and I sneaked a look towards the corner. The woman had one hand raised. The waitress that had been talking to the other bartender walked over to the corner and stood there for almost a minute before turning and heading straight towards us. The startled look on the face of the bartender I was talking to told me that the waitress was supposed to be getting her drinks from the other bartender, not him.

The waitress stopped beside me, close enough to touch and stared at me and then at the bartender for a few moments.

The bartender cleared his throat. “Annie's pouring for the back part of the room tonight Tammy.”

Tammy smiled, but it seemed forced. I looked at her face closely, it more resembled a doll or mannequin's smile than anything else, “Oh I know Teddy. Just wanted to say Hi.” She looked at him for a few more seconds and then at me. “Friend of yours?”

Teddy reacted so well that I decided on the spot to make sure he was rewarded handsomely if we all made it through this. He didn't blink an eye, his composure didn't change one bit. “Yep, old friend up from Salt Lake. Frank, meet Tammy, one of my best waitresses. Tammy, Frank.”

I extended my hand and she shook it and even that seemed forced. I smiled and turned back to Teddy. “So you were saying about tomorrow night....”

Tammy shuddered very slightly, looking puzzled at the same time. “Uhhh... glad to meet you. Need to go get the lady sitting at 14 a drink.” She walked down to Annie, ordered a drink and took it over to the back corner booth. Then she stood there for a few seconds more than necessary before she made the rounds of her section, checking on everyone else.

Teddy looked towards the corner for a moment and then at me. “Touched?” His face reflected his fear.

“Yes”, I said quietly. “We think she's the last one.”

“Oh Christ”, he said softly, “and in my bar.” He looked around. “Will I be able to get...”

I shook my head before he could finish. “No, we can't alert her. No telling what she'll do if we spook her and in the confusion she might get away. We can't afford that.” It didn't seem like a good time to tell him that Kincaid and others outside would make sure nobody made it out alive if I didn't walk out of here in less than 20 minutes.

“What do I do then?” He looked around the room and then at the clock on the wall. “It's late enough, not many more people gonna come in, but those that are here...” He nodded towards the group of young men at the double table, “especially them, they're probably going to be here a while yet. And they’re drunk enough that if something starts, they’ll probably want to mix in.” Even as he spoke another waitress with a tray full of beers was serving them a round.

“Nothing to do,” I said, shaking my head slowly, “so just keep on doing what you'd normally do. I'm going to try and get her to walk out of her with me.” I finished my drink. “What is she drinking anyway?”

“Single malt Glenmorangie. Annie asked me to get a bottle out of the locked storage for her.”

I slid another ten over to him. “Give me a double and another 7 & 7.”

Teddy silently poured the drinks. I picked them up and looked around the room, like I was trying to decide where to sit. Then I started towards the back corner, not directly at her, but in the general direction. She wasn't paying any real attention to me; she was staring into her glass, one finger tracing idle patterns on the table.

At the last possible moment I veered off from the table it looked like I had been heading for and slid in across the table from her. Her head snapped up and her mouth opened in surprise. Then her forehead wrinkled and she got an intense look on her face. But moments later it faded, to be replaced by a combination of confusion and fear.

“You're a Nothing”, she said quietly, her eyes darting around the bar.

I smiled at her. “And you're an Everything. Hello Cynthia. It's been far too long.”

She sat back in shock, one hand raised up to her face. The scar on her left cheek was barely noticeable, at some point over the past few years she'd had some nano-surgery done. The original scar would have stood out too much, made her too easy to recognize, I didn't want to imagine how many times she'd had to bend people memories to make them forget they'd seen her.

She looked into my eyes for almost a minute and then shook her head, smiling sadly. “Jack. I thought you were dead.”

“I am.” Her confusion got more intense. “I'm a Chaser now Cynthia. I don't exist. There's no record of my birth or death. The NSIC's AI spent an entire week scrubbing every mention of me from any database it could find around the world. A week is a long time for an AI Cynthia, equivalent to a few centuries human time. That's how long it takes to erase a person.”

She looked shocked. “No family, no friends, nothing?”

I let some cold crept into my voice. “Always been a loner Cynthia, no wife, no kids, thank God. So I have my team, others that like me have been erased from all records. That's my family and my friends in one convenient package.” I'm sure she heard the bitterness in my voice. She flushed and stared at the table for a few moments.

She looked up, her eyes locked on mine. “But I did escape from that so-called research lab.” She touched her cheek for a second. “That's where I got this. A gift from you.”

“You were fleeing Cynthia. You were one of the Touched. What did you expect me to do?”

Cynthia slapped her hand on the table. “To be a damn human being!” she hissed, color coming to her cheeks. The scar stood out vividly now. “I was a lawyer then, an expert in US commercial law so I could help my British employers work with the government. I had a life then myself Jack! A nice apartment in New York City. A couple of wonderful men I could call up for a date any time I wanted! I flew to Britain and the Continent on a regular basis. I vacationed in France, Spain and Italy!” She was breathing hard, mere moments away from a full-blown rage. “And I didn't sound like some hick mid-west farmer's wife, that's for damn sure! Do you know how long it has been since I could talk normally?” She'd been born and raised in southern Tennessee. I'd noticed that she'd lost her soft southern drawl, but had decided not to mention it, but apparently it pained her a great deal. Her face hardened. “Fifteen years I've been on the run now, fifteen years of constant lying, pretending to be anyone except who I really am.” She was breathing hard now, her eyes glittering.

I shrugged and looked around the room for a moment to make sure no one was paying any particular attention to us besides the bartender. Then I turned back to her. “It was pure luck I was even there that evening at the lab Cynthia. We'd picked up a kinetic, Susie I think it was and we were bringing her in. Normally a pickup team would have met us and then taken her in, but we were less than an hour from the lab so headquarters told us to just bring her straight in.”

I let the memories cycle through my mind again. I'd been with the FBI then, less than two years out of the academy. The Touched were still big news, the terrorist attack on the New York subway train was still on the TV least once a week, maybe more often.

The terrorist didn't even know what he'd unleashed; the canister had been delivered to him by a shadowy group that to this day no one has identified. Theories abounded, including the ever popular one that it was the US government itself. And the terrorist was himself a US citizen, a member of a very tiny wild-eyed right wing tax protesting group. Including himself there'd been only four other members and every one of them had been found dead when the police had arrived to arrest them. Every one of them was young, very fit and up until they died, in good health. And yet every one of them had died of a massive coronary which was just a bit too convenient and threw even more fuel on the conspiracy theories fire. I doubt there was a single person in the whole world that thought four deaths like that was a coincidence.

There'd been 104 people on that New York subway car that morning in late July 2012. Cynthia normally traveled to and from her ritzy offices near the Empire State Building by car-service, but that morning the car had gotten snarled in a huge traffic jam and Cynthia, already late for an important deposition, had decided to take the subway. The initial release of the gas had gone almost unnoticed; it had been colorless and odorless. Then people had started dying, their bodies swelling grotesquely, skin turning black and falling off. The driver of the train had refused to open the doors of that car to let anybody off, he’d even hit the security override to prevent the emergency windows from opening. That was an act that made him a hero to everyone in the city except those unfortunates trapped inside.

38 people, 24 women and14 men, had survived and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why they had. They were randomly scattered all over the car, one woman had been standing right next to the terrorist himself, the others here and there, some unable to move due to number of dead bodies around them.

It had taken six hours before they'd opened the car, six hours that probably felt like six centuries of hell for those 38 people stuck in a metal box that must have seemed more and more like a coffin the longer it went on. The other cars had been emptied, the passengers rushed to every available hospital and checked thoroughly, but the gas seemed to have confined itself to that single subway car. When they had finally opened the car Cynthia had been the first one off, already in the throes of changing into one of the Touched.

No one was ever sure where that name had come from, probably one news agency or another had coined it and it caught on. But at first the living victims had been more pitied than anything. They were just referred to as the survivors of Train 219. They'd been quarantined and rushed off to an 'unnamed medical facility for their own protection' as the press blurbs read. I'd found out later it was a secret CDC facility in up-state New York near the Canadian border.

After that the survivors effectively dropped off the face of the earth. The US government had shoved the New York officials aside and taken over completely and both the city and state officials seemed happy to let them have the whole mess. There’d been rumors of hundreds of millions in grant money for some of the projects the state of New York had applied for suddenly and miraculously appearing, but once again, nothing provable. There were conflicting reports issued from several federal agencies, from the State Department all the way down to the Department of Agriculture of all people. Most of the attention was centered on the terrorist himself and getting the subway cleaned up. The people of New York could not said to be insensitive but it was a higher priority to them to get one of the main subway lines working again than what had happened to the 38 survivors.

And then the first of the Touched had escaped. A man named Bob Gleason somehow burned through one of the walls of the room he'd been confined in and got away. Closer examination of the video surveillance had shown that Gleason had simply put his hand on the wall and it had burst into flames. And apparently Gleason was immune to the flames themselves, he'd simply stood there as the room burned around him and then had punched a hole in the burning wall and walked out.

Two nights later he was followed by a little Hispanic girl, Maria Gonzales, aged 13. She'd frozen her way out, turning her entire room into an ice-cube and then shattering the door with a single kick. Like Gleason and his fires, she seemed to be immune to the cold. On her way out she released four others whose rooms were in the same hallway as hers.

At that point the doctors had started heavily drugging the rest of the survivors, keeping them doped up 24 hours a day. And they'd called us in to bring back those that had gotten away.

Two of them we'd picked up almost immediately. Diane Stanwick had been a housewife before her exposure, she'd gone home and simply started acting like nothing had happened. The fact that she walked four inches off the floor and could make almost anything else float by simply touching an object didn't seem to bother her, but it had scared her husband and three children quite badly. The team that had arrested her had shot her with a tranquilizer gun, much like darting an animal for capture.

Maria had been next, she'd gone home to her mother, who had immediately rushed her to a priest to have the 'demons' exorcised, terrified of a daughter that could freeze a glass of water solid in two seconds by just touching it with her finger. It had been the priest that had turned her in, himself a fairly educated man, but he was terrified of the girl also. Once again, a tranquilizer dart had done the trick.

We'd picked up Susie a week later right in the town where the CDC research center was located. It turned out she'd not gone anyplace, Watertown was a large city and she'd simply gone to ground. Susie had been a hooker in New York, on her way home when she'd been gassed. She knew how to survive unseen, years spent avoiding the police in NYC had made her wise about those kinds of things and she had maintained a low profile right under our noses. She lead us a merry chase when we finally figured out where she was, stealing two cars and hiding in several different buildings. It didn't help that whenever we got close to her she'd start throwing things. I don't mean bricks or shoes or anything small like that. It was small cars and metal dumpsters. Hers was the first big public display of Touched power; anything before this the government had hushed up or explained away.

We'd finally captured her when she was asleep. Turned out that the using Touched powers drains you horribly. The Touched ate twice or three times as much as a normal person and after prolonged use of their abilities they were known to sleep up to 24 hours afterwards. Susie had lost 16 lbs and was exhausted when we found her, snoring in the basement of a warehouse near the Black River.

She was still asleep when we got to the research facility. Another agent and I were hauling her inside when suddenly it seemed like the whole world exploded and then those around me that hadn't been injured in the blast dropped to the floor, out cold. My ears were ringing from the explosion, flames crackling around me and people dropping like flies and I stood there with my mouth open, watching as Cynthia and the rest of the Touched walk out of the building.

She'd stopped to look at me, her face puzzled. She said something to a little Asian man standing next to her and he'd looked at me, his face all scrunched up like he was thinking the deepest thoughts in the world. Then he shook his head and said something to Cynthia and she'd looked at me again.

I finally recovered my wits and jerked out my pistol. “Halt. You're under arrest!” Silly, I know, but it was the best I could do at the moment, just a knee-jerk reaction from my academy training days. Cynthia had simply turned around and I fired once, off to her left into the doorway she was framed in. The bullet had hit a bad angle and ripped across her cheek. I would be hearing her scream in my nightmares for months afterwards.

She'd spun around, her hand to her cheek as blood streamed down her face and over her shirt. She'd glared at me, but two others in the group grabbed her and pulled her away. That had been the last time I'd seen Cynthia until tonight.



Cynthia was looking around the bar and then back at me. “You came in alone. No one else came in for at least a half hour before you. That's damn brave. Even being a Nothing doesn't protect you from everything I can do.”

“My team is outside Cynthia. You're the last Touched that isn't account for. If I don't come out with you peacefully; they're under orders to turn this place into a slaughter house.” I looked around. “There are some that would think it's a small price to pay to get the last one of you” Cynthia shuddered as she followed my gaze. “That's why they wipe any records of us out Cynthia. If we get caught, we can't be traced back to anything or anyone. If our bodies are found, we're nobodies, disposed of wherever the locals bury their indigent and homeless. We're the ultimate deniable assets.”

She leaned forward, her eyes locked on mine. “And when we're all accounted for Jack? When the last Touched is rounded up and slaughtered, what then? What will the government do with their pet killers then?”

I shrugged. “They've got plans. Now that the whole world knows that something like the Touched aren't just legends or the subject of overblown news reports there will be attempts to repeat the process. And some damn fool will succeed either here or someplace else in the world. And they'll send us out to deal with the problem.”

She didn't quite sneer, but came damn close. “So are you going to kill me here, in front of everyone? Seems kind of public. A big finish to close out the campaign as it were?”

I managed to put a surprised look on my face. I leaned forward much as she had earlier. “Kill you? Why?” I shook my head. “Don’t you follow the news at all Cynthia? Some damn egghead out of UCLA developed a drug that suppresses Touched abilities completely. As long as you take the pills, you're normal. Interrupts some stupid mental signal or another. I don't pretend to understand it at all.”

Cynthia stared at me. “You lie! I can be so drunk that I can hardly remain conscious and I can still use my power.”

I shook my head. “I'm going to reach into my pocket, okay? Just bringing out a piece of paper.” She glared at me but nodded slowly. I pulled out an envelope and handed it to her. “Don't open it yet. Tell me who has touched it.”

She closed her eyes for several seconds and then her hands started trembling. She opened her eyes, bright with unshed tears. “Betsy.” Cynthia swallowed and a single tear tracked down her cheek. “She was the best and the brightest of us Jack. And a child, a real child, only 10 when she was changed.”

I just sat there and waited as Cynthia turned the envelope over and over in her hands, like she was afraid to open it. Like Cynthia Betsy had been an Everything. And being an Everything, Cynthia could aura read, she could tell who had touched something in the past. A Touched who was only an aura reader could tell you down to the hour when someone specific last touched something and their state of mind in a lot of cases. But it took time to develop any of the Touched talents and an Everything never did get to be real good at any of them. So Cynthia knew Betsy had held the letter at one time, but little beyond that.

I looked at my watch, there was less than 10 minutes of my self-imposed deadline left, but I dare not try to hurry Cynthia, she was still dangerous, capable of turning the situation into a bloodbath and escaping. Cynthia opened the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of paper inside. She scanned it once quickly and then again, slowly. She looked up at me then, her eyes wide. She ran a finger over the signature at the bottom.

“It's true? If I agree to take the medications I can go back to my life?” I nodded and she closed her eyes, tears leaking down her face. “Oh God. To be able to stay in one place for more than a few days... to be able to tell people my name and not have to remember which one I'm using this week.” She looked at me. “I won't have to beg any more, I won't have to trick people out of money or food. I won't have to make people forget what I've done to them.” She looked down at her drink. “And maybe I can dry out. I can't honestly remember the last time I wasn't at least partially drunk.”

“Well, don't start the process yet Cynthia.” I pushed the scotch over to her I'd picked up at the bar. “Or maybe this can be your last one.” I picked up my drink and raised my glass. “To a new life. For both of us maybe.”

She stared at me for almost a full minute and then picked up her glass and downed the scotch in one shot. I followed suit and then stood up. “We need to walk out the door in the next minute or two Cynthia, or my team is going to reduce this place to rubble.” I looked around. “I'd rather not be responsible for the murder of all these innocents.”

She nodded and stood up herself. For being as drunk as she was, she had remarkable balance; she didn't sway much at all, just a brief touch to the table to steady herself. She picked up the letter, put it back in the envelope and put that in her jacket pocket. She looked around the room again. “Yeah, let's get out of here.”

I waved to Teddy as we went out the door, both Cynthia and I could hear his heartfelt “Thank God...”

Outside my team was spread out in a semi-circle around the entrance of the bar, weapons out, all of them pointed at Cynthia and myself. She stopped short, her mouth open, turning to look at me. I waved to the others while smiling at her. “It's okay everyone, she came out willingly.”

Weapons were lowered slowly and then holstered and everyone relaxed. Cynthia relaxed herself, but then frowned and put a hand on her stomach. “Guess that last drink didn't agree with me”, she said as she wavered on her feet.

Suddenly she fell to her knees, gasping and clawing at her chest. She looked at me, fear and pain in her eyes. “What...??” Her lips were turning purple and her face was ashen.

I knelt beside her, taking most of her weight on me. “I'm sorry Cynthia. I really am. But there is no miracle drug.” She stared at me, her eyes wide and terrified. “We can't control a single Touched. Not one. I dropped a fast acting neurotoxin in your scotch.”

Cynthia's lips opened and closed a few times.”Betsy...”, she finally manage to gasp out, barely understandable. Her hand clawed at her pocket and the envelope fluttered to the ground.

I frowned, but I figured I owed her the truth. “I was holding her when she died Cynthia. I put that envelope in her hands and made her hold it until she stopped breathing. I knew you wouldn't be able to read the envelope to know what had happened, you could only read it just enough to know that Betsy had held it.”

Cynthia was still staring into my eyes. “..kill her...” It was a gasped whisper; I had to put my ear close to her mouth to hear her.

I shook my head. “No Cynthia. When Betsy knew she couldn't get away she took poison. I was the first person inside.”

Cynthia shuddered and clung tight to me, seeking human contact even as she died. Like Betsy, Cynthia died in my arms, the last Touched I ever saw.

I lowered her to the ground slowly and then looked around at those surrounding me. They stared back, some smiling, others almost unbelieving. Kincaid squatted beside me, looking first at Cynthia and then at me. “Is it over Jack? Are we done finally?”

I shook my head and looked around at everyone. “I don't know. I really don't.” I touched Cynthia lightly on her scarred cheek. “She's the last one.” I stopped for a moment, racking my brain. Kincaid stared at me as I desperately tried to remember his first name. Steve, Stephen, maybe even Kevin. I couldn't remember and that frightened me. We'd let our government reduce us to mere things, tools to be used for their benefit. That didn't mean we had to start treating each other that way.

Two other team members came up and picked up Cynthia body. She was headed for a crematorium, there wasn't anything useful to be learned from the body of any of the Touched. Despite extensive autopsies and postmortem tests, whatever it was that changed them faded as soon as they died. I stood up and looked at everyone. “Good job people. Glad we didn't have to burn this place down.”

There was chuckles and soft laughter from the group. I looked around. “Erickson?” She nodded and stepped forward. I struggled with my memory again… Erikson… Erikson…. She hadn’t been with us long… Amanda! That was her name, Amanda! Feeling rather pleased with myself I pointed back towards the bar. “Amanda, get the bartender’s name. How much cash we got on hand?”

Amanda blinked in surprise but recovered quickly. She pulled a small pack out of the back of the SUV and counted quickly. “Let’s see… just a touch over $11,000 I guess.”

I chuckled quietly. “We're getting low on cash then, have to hit our controller for some more. Give the bartender $5,000. He was really great under a tremendous amount of pressure. He could have folded, done something stupid and I’d be dead and probably so would everyone inside and you’d be trying to explain to Washington why you burned a bar in Boulder Colorado to the ground.”

The woman nodded. “Okay, sounds like a hell of a bargain to me then.”

I shrugged. “We’ll get back to him later with some more. Might not be money though. Maybe cut him a tax break for a few years or something.” I sighed and flexed my shoulders to try and relieve the tension. “Any orders from on high?”

Amanda smiled but shook her head. She just might fit in I thought. “Nothing. I just sent the confirmation of Cynthia's death.” She looked at the data-pad in her hand. “Not even an acknowledgment.” Confused, she looked around at the others. “So...uhhh... what do we do when there's no Touched to chase?”

Startled, I looked at everyone else and then back at her. ”Don't know”, I said. “It's never happened before.” I looked up; it was a clear, cloudless night. “Somehow I don't think we'll get bored...”




THE END


2018 John Powers

Bio: John Powers is a retired computer tech with a deep interest in science fiction, science fantasy, military science fiction and almost anything related to AD&D type stories.

Email: John Powers

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