How in the world was I going to convince my parents?
Just the idea of going away by myself was almost enough to kill the drive I already felt inside me. I had never been away from my parents. I had never gone to summer camp, never stayed at a relative’s house for the summer. I never went to sleepovers, mostly because I never had any friends.
My whole life had been with them, spending time with them. Time that should have run out last nearly a year ago.
I couldn’t take them with me. That much I knew. I had to do this Questing thing alone. I suspected I had crossed some sort of line asking Kevin to come with.
After returning from Kevin’s, I went in the house and lurked in the dark kitchen. The TV was going and I could see my parents’ heads silhouetted against the bright light. They were sitting next to each other, my mom’s head resting on my dad’s shoulder.
I went straight to my bedroom. Sitting on my bed, I pulled out the piece of paper in my pocket, Jeff’s scrawling writing across the top at odds with the intricate design and marks. I looked at it as long as I could, trying to see a pattern or a meaning. I had to close my eyes; it twisted around inside my head, shifting, never looking the same twice.
Sighing, I put it on my bedside table and flopped back. My wall clock was loud in the stillness, a constant, hard snap every second.
Tomorrow was the first day of spring.
I had to go. Tomorrow. I had to find out what was happening. I had to find out what was wrong with me. What had happened to me. What was wrong with the world.
No matter what Jeff said, I knew my curse and my nightmare were connected. I knew it, in a way that I couldn’t explain.
It started raining, soft pattering on my window as the wind blew it around.
I lay still, listening as the storm moved over us. My parents went to past to their bedroom, talking quietly. I don’t know why they didn’t check on me like they usually did. Fate I suppose. If I had to face them, I was afraid it would all come pouring out and I would never have the courage to leave.
When the house was still and dark, I sat up and went to my desk. I am sure whatever I wrote wasn’t enough, but I tried to explain how much I loved them and how sorry I was to have to lie to them.
I gathered up my things, clothing, my backpacking equipment we’d used a few summers ago. It made a pitiful pile on my bed. It didn’t look like anything that would help me complete a monumental Quest. It hardly looked enough to get me through a long weekend up in the mountains.
I packed it all carefully and sat the backpack on the ground next to my bed. I tried to sleep and I must have, because it was getting light when I woke again.
I grabbed my things and left, locking the door behind me.
Kevin did not look happy to be woken at six-thirty yet again.
“What?” he snapped at me. Then he blinked and took in my full backpack and my set expression. “What are you doing?”
“We’re leaving. Today.”
“I need to go. Today.”
He groaned and leaned against his door. “Why?”
“How does this all work? Can you do the spell thing or Mule?”
“Mule can, but he won’t.”
“He just won’t.”
I glared at him. “Call him and ask.”
“No way.” Kevin said flatly. “I like my scholarship, thank you very much. I’m not about to-”
“Please, Kevin. I need to go.”
I was lucky not to burst into flames under his glare. “I hate you.”
“Didn’t we cover this last night?” I joked. He didn’t laugh.
“Mule’s at CMR again.” Kevin said at last. “Let me get dressed and I’ll take you.”
Mule was even less pleased than Kevin.
I gaped at him. He’d never spoken so harshly to me. “Dr. Mule!”
“No.” He repeated. “I will not. You’re not magic. You’re going to get killed. Or worse. No.”
“Kevin said he’d come with.”
Mule turned to glare at his assistant. “You did what?”
Kevin winced. “She asked…” he shrugged, making a face. “She’ll need help. Strenton wanted her to go.”
“Then Strenton should be the one to go with. Not you.”
Kevin shrugged again. “Where is he?”
Mule sighed all at once. “I don’t know. He just took off again.”
“Again?” I asked, intrigued.
Mule shook his head. “The point is, Becca, that this is dangerous and you won’t survive-”
“I will.” I said firmly. “I will find why I was cursed.”
“No buts. Do it.”
“What about your parents? Do they know?”
I gripped my fingers together. “I wrote them a letter, explaining.”
“A letter.” Mule repeated flatly.
“I’m eighteen!” I snapped at him. “I can do whatever I want!”
It basically dissolved into a shouting match after that, me declaring my insistence on going, Mule adamantly refusing and Kevin looking pained in between us.
“Fine.” I said heatedly. “I’ll just go find someone else to say it!”
“Either you’re going to help me or not, Dr. Mule. I have to leave today. It has to be today.”
We all flinched as the lights flashed around us, a vivid flurry of color before subsiding.
I took a deep breath. “Dr. Mule. I have to go. It’s tied to this disaster Jeff is predicting. I don’t know how or what or why, but I have to go find out. I have to know what’s wrong with me.”
“There’s nothing wr-”
“Then why didn’t I die? Why am I a meta-healer? Why didn’t the whatever-it-was machine not kill me? Why did it explode in the first place? I have to know!”
Mule was silent for a long time, looking down at me. Finally. “Sit, Becca.” He pointed and I sank into the chair. “Kevin?”
“Yes, doctor.” Kevin went to the window and pulled the blind. The door lock was loud as it slid home. Even the flashing gizmos along the walls were hushed.
I clenched my fists to keep my hands from shaking and stared straight at the far wall.
Mule’s hand was warm on my cheek. “Ready?” he asked softly.
“You know there is no going back.”
I opened my eyes and jerked upright. The room spun around me and I gasped, gripping Kevin’s hands tightly.
“You okay?” He asked me, anxious.
“I’m going to be sick.” I said.
“Just relax, breathe.”
I tried my best. I threw up anyway. Mule was ready with a bucket.
“A common reaction, Becca.” He said evenly. “Sit until you get your bearings.”
Bearings. I turned my head, the room spinning faster than my eyes could process it, then lurching pack into position. I tried again; the room reluctantly moved with me, orienting itself around me. I was the center of the room, the building, the city, the world. It all revolved around me, focused on me, pressing in, heavy.
I closed my eyes to shut it out.
“Keep breathing,” Kevin said, chaffing my hands. “Come on, in, out, in, out.”
I sucked in lungful of air and felt better, the colors coming back into focus, the light brightening. My vertigo eased back, the dimensions of the room returning to their proper proportions. They stayed put as I looked around this time, searching for Mule.
“Doctor?” I asked.
“Here.” He handed me a cup. “Drink this.”
I sipped at it, my stomach churning. “What happened? Did it work?”
He sighed. “We won’t know for a while. It’s a subtle thing, sometimes taking-”
I lurched to my feet. “I have to go.”
They pressed me back down. “Just rest a minute, Becca.”
“I have to go, now.” I struggled to get free, pushing at them. “Let me go!”
“Becca!” They said together.
“It’s just a reaction,” Mule was saying firmly. “You must stay and rest a moment. A few hours.”
“I have to go now,” I insisted.
“No, you don’t.” He snapped back. “And I will sedate you to keep you here. You can’t go yet. You’ll get yourself killed.”
I swallowed another mouthful absently. “I need to leave. I have to go. Can’t you hear it? Doctor, please-oh!” I sagged, holding myself upright on the chair. My legs had gone numb, my knees weak. He and Kevin talked over my head.
“It should hold her for a few hours, until the reaction passes.”
“And if she wants to leave then?”
“Let her, but keep close. Do you have any idea what she’s looking for?”
I looked up as Kevin scowled. “A few things, I think.”
“The curse, yes. What else?”
He grimaced and Mule only said. “Ah.”
I tried to wiggle out of their hands, but my limbs wouldn’t obey me. I slumped back, panting.
“Go to sleep Becca.” Dr. Mule said, his hand on my forehead. “Rest, then you can go.”
I closed my eyes and sank down, feeling the world whirl around me.
I cracked my eyes, finding myself on the low couch in Mule’s office. Kevin was sitting by me, his feet up on the desk. He saw me move and lowered his book.
“I hate you.” I croaked. He grinned.
“Didn’t we cover this last night?”
“Here,” he passed me a cup. I sneered at it and he chuckled. “It’s not drugged. This time.”
I sat up carefully, every muscle aching and crampy. The water was cool and it helped relieve my headache. “What happened?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Did it take? The Speaking?”
He snorted. “I’ll say. I’ve been sitting on you all afternoon to keep you still.”
I looked out at the orangey skyline. “So, I can go?”
“If you want.” He said casually. I pressed my lips together. I didn’t want to. I wanted to curl into a little ball and die. But I couldn’t die. I should have, underneath the PF machine. I should have, last summer.
I got to my feet carefully, groaning. Kevin held me upright, helping me lurch to the door.
“He went home. He was exhausted after working on you.”
I gripped the door handle, gathering myself. I barely had the energy to stand. The hall was empty and quiet, everyone gone home for the day.
“Where’re you going?” Kevin asked. I jabbed the elevator button and leaned against the wall to rest.
“Downstairs,” I said faintly. He helped me inside the little box, his arm around my waist. I noticed absently he had my pack.
I pressed the B7 button and tried not to throw up as the car fell into the earth.
“Easy,” Kevin said as I stepped off. “Take it slow.”
“Does it go away?” I whined, pressing a hand into my head.
“It will, after a few days.”
I groaned and pushed open the door. The PF machine was still sitting in a heap on the floor.
“We’ve been doing diagnostics,” Kevin explained, leading me over a tangle of wires and cables. “Trying to see what happened.”
“Anything?” I asked, even though I knew I wouldn’t understand the answer.
He shook his head. “Nothing. All I can tell, it just froze up and overheated.”
I reached out and pressed a hand to the gleaming metal. It was cool, now, not searing as it had been. I leaned over to look under the mass. Kevin snapped his fingers and a light flared behind me. I turned and gaped as he gestured for the cavity and a little ball of light zipped inside.
“What?” he asked, looking uncomfortable. I closed my mouth.
“Nothing.” I lied. Stepping through doors was one thing. Seeing him work magic as if it was nothing was something else entirely. I focused on the machine.
The space where I had been was a smooth half oval. I gritted my teeth and wiggled back underneath. It was just larger than I was. Instantly claustrophobic, I scrambled out again and lurched back, leaning on my knees and panting.
“You okay?” Kevin asked.
“Fine.” I gasped. “You saw it happen. Tell me.”
Kevin shrugged. “I was watching the screen, not you.”
“What did you see?”
He frowned. “It was normal, the flux-waves in acceptable levels. Mule started up the K driver and I switched to the output screen.” He closed his eyes, thinking. “I felt the catch in the machine, but before I realized what it meant, Mule and I both were blasted back.”
“Blasted.” I repeated.
He rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah. It hurt, too. I still have a lump.”
I turned to look at the stronger-than-diamond shield, the piece of metal stabbing through it, fracture lines radiating from it in all directions. “Blasted, through the shield?”
Kevin went still, jerking around to stare at it, too. “Through the shield.” He said slowly. “Why didn’t I…?” He shook his head and grimaced. “Doesn’t matter. How did it happen?”
He eased over to it and put out a hand, feeling the material carefully. I let him ponder it for a while, gathering my own thoughts. I was exhausted, like I’d spent the day running. My legs were rubbery and I felt sick and dehydrated.
“If someone was cursed and it detected it, what would happen?”
Kevin let out a long breath. “It would show it on the polarity. But you’ve always been within normal parameters.”
“How do you know?”
He grunted. “I looked at your chart. You’re the least magical person I’ve ever seen.”
“Much good it’s doing me.” I grumbled. He cracked a smile.
“Why did you want to come down here?” he asked after a moment more of staring at the shield.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“That’s the speaking, then. What’s important about down here?” he mused. “Besides that fact that the shield didn’t stop a thursta-wave, which is impossible. But if it’s impossible, how did it happen? Was it not a wave? Was it an attack? But even then…”
I interrupted his thoughts. “I need to lie down again. And maybe throw up some more.”
“Come on.” He said at once, coming back to me. “We’ll go to my place. We’ll think again in the morning.”
I limped out of the lab and followed him to his car. I fell asleep on the ride to his apartment, rousing enough to climb into another elevator and stumble into his apartment. It was just as cluttered and amazing as before. I didn’t care. I took the pills he gave me and fell onto a couch, determined never to move again.