By: Leslie Conzatti
This takes place between 'I Still Have a Soul' and 'I'm Still Alive', focusing on Ceras taking control of Jechorm.
The blinking, twisting, multicolored lights of Jechorm danced before her eyes as Ceras gazed over the city. Everything moved smoothly; the multilayered traffic control system regulated the hover traffic as well as the ground-level vehicles, with hairs-breadth precision. Her integration efforts with the former Guardians were met with more positive reception than she ever expected. Slowly but surely, these altered humans, rejected by their parents and conditioned to think like machines, were finding their place in the Jechorian workforce. Most of the placements thus far had been factory jobs, largely invisible positions in assembly lines or cleaning services, where those who still harbored the old resentment wouldn’t necessarily need to view these as “full humans,” but Ceras only saw this as the first increment in a long-term plan. First the factories, then the stores, then the specialized, skilled workforce. She balanced on the heels of her stilettos, drawing her eyes to focus on her darkened reflection in the window.
The one thing missing was an inquisitive, open mind to share all of this with. Ceras gulped hard and curved her lips between her teeth. One year since she watched her daughter die on the plains of Cuskelom—and yet she could still feel the sword’s edge biting into her own abdomen. A wave of nausea swept over her, a chill over her skin. When she returned to the present, her hands gripped the windowsill and her knees sagged toward the carpet. Ceras inhaled sharply and pulled herself upright.
“Madame Prime Director?” The booming voice made her flinch. It was as warm as a digitized rendering could be—but in that huge, empty, lonely room, it felt cold. “Are you all right?”
The slender redhead inhaled slowly, sliding her slender hands along the silky surface of her navy, form-fitting sheath. “I’m fine, Adwin,” she addressed the automated building security monitor.
“Your vitals register a dangerous surge in blood pressure, and your mental activity indicates great pain. Are you sure you do not want me to administer some alleviant?”
“I’m sure.” This wasn’t something a pill or a treatment could fix. “It’s just… a memory. It’s gone now.”
“Very well, Madame.”
She trudged away from the window and prepared to sleep. Exchanging her dress and heels for a comfortable satin negligee and kimono, she sat at the edge of the fluffy mattress, resting her palms on the small, round nodule next to her bed. While Adwin watched over the whole building, Ceras had Hope to watch over her while she slept. The tiny bot tracked the depth of her sleep and regulated how often she tossed and turned, soothing away the nightmares with a whole host of built-in remedies, from a gentle breeze or a soft glow, to a mechanism that sent soothing vibrations through the mattress.
“Goodnight, Hope,” Ceras murmured, slipping her feet under the covers.
Hope chimed, indicating the impending sleep mode. “Goodnight, Ceras,” the robot replied.
The Prime Director of Jechorm closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep with a reasonable facsimile of her daughter’s voice still ringing in her ears.
Her green eyes snapped open as Ceras transitioned from dead-asleep to high-alert in a single instant.
But what had prompted that instant?
Beside her, Hope purred away, not even acknowledging that Ceras wasn’t slumbering at the moment. That alone gave the woman pause—was she dreaming? If she was awake, why wasn’t the tech responding?
Her assassin’s instincts—dormant for a while now—kicked back into gear. Since when did she depend on technology to tell her what was going on? She listened, straining for even the faintest sounds. She sniffed, her mind running through the catalogue of scents she could identify after living here for a year. Finally, her eyes combed every inch of the room, from the wall immediately behind her bed, along the side with the large bay windows darkened for privacy while she slept, then across the back wall with the doorway into her bathroom—
“Ahem!” The dark shadow dropped from the canopy just above her head, and Ceras leaped into action.
She tucked her body back to get her feet in between her body and this thing. Well she did, because sure enough, she spied a knife jutting from the hand blocked by her knees. Using the momentum of her tuck to thrust out, Ceras kicked the would-be assassin out through the curtain. By the time the intruder regained their feet, Ceras crouched on the edge of the bed in a defensive position, ready to launch in any direction. A slender pipe lifted to the obscured face, and Ceras lashed out with her long legs, kicking it away while following through on an attack with her hands. Her long nails scored the skin on her attacker’s face, and the only regret Ceras felt was the fact that she had given up her poison nails after becoming Prime Director.
She wrapped her legs around those of the attacker, executing a full-body slam right next to the bench at the end of her bed. Reaching up as her opponent gasped for breath, Ceras felt the row of tiny vials she had affixed to the inner rim of the bench for just these situations. Her fingers closed around one of these, but just then the attacker wrenched on her other arm, hauling her away and allowing the attacker to stand up. Ceras grunted, steeling against the pain of a dislocated shoulder and heading for another stash of concealed weapons. One was a light switch. The other pumped the room full of nerve gas that she regularly inoculated against. The minute she flipped the nerve gas switch, the attacker pulled away, seeming in that semidarkness to climb the very walls in order to get to the valve responsible for releasing the gas. Ceras heard a sharp snap, and the hissing gas line stopped. Immediately, she retreated into the darkness of her walk-in closet, taking advantage of the darkness and shadows to regroup. Who could have sent an assassin, and why? Were there still people powerful and disgruntled enough to attempt such a blatant act of aggression?
The assassin’s shadow didn’t even obscure the whole doorway. Ceras had to admire that level of skill. She leaned back, holding absolutely still in the complete darkness, recalling how many times she had gotten within breathing distance of a mark without them ever detecting her presence.
A gloved hand closed around her neck, and the mere thread of light that entered the closet was enough to glint off the blade of a knife headed for her side. Ceras whirled to face the attacker and grabbed their forearms, using her height and strength advantage to push the shorter, lighter figure back out into the open.
The two figures grappled back and forth, the invader displaying impressive speed and accuracy in landing several punches to sensitive, vital areas on Ceras’ body, while she held tightly and refused to let go. When the intruder made the mistake of sweeping her legs so that Ceras tumbled back into the armchair, Ceras pretended to flail with her hands until her fingers connected with the small, smooth mechanism. Pulling it out when the attacker closed in again, Ceras thrust the device against the cloaked chest in front over her, releasing fifty thousand volts of electricity into the other body.
The figure collapsed, and the fight ended there.
“Adwin,” Ceras commanded, staggering to her feet. “Lights!”
The valance lights along the ceiling illuminated at full brilliance, and Ceras got a good look at her attacker.
Female, dressed entirely in black with a short black cowl to cover her face, black gloves to the elbows and slender black knee boots. Her most striking feature was her bright-magenta hair. Ceras still studied her as a knock sounded at the door.
“Madame Director!” called a security officer. “What happened? Are you all right?”
Ceras glanced down at her negligee and reached for her dressing gown. “Come in,” she said once she was decently attired.
Two human security officers entered the door, stopping in surprise when they saw the body on the floor.
“Yes, it was an attempt on my life that failed,” Ceras answered before they could ask. “Take her to The Tank. I think that whoever sent her was desperate to have me eliminated for some reason, and it’s worth getting information out of her where she can’t harm herself or anyone else.”
“Yes, Madame Director.”
They dragged the slack body away.
Ceras, meanwhile, remained, staring up at the poison vent. Somehow, the girl had twisted the pipe and sealed off the valve before any effective amount of gas could escape. How? Her eyes traveled to the top of the canopy covering her bed, where the attack had originated. How had this girl entered her room undetected? How long had she been waiting without Ceras even noticing? To her knowledge, this was more skill than any of the Five Houses ever learned—and that magenta hair was certainly not a trend she’d seen anywhere in the world. Where did this girl come from? Ceras rolled her eyes and proceeded to get properly dressed. She would find out what she needed to know soon enough.
Ceras waited with folded arms as she observed the body floating in the acute sensory-deprivation observation chamber. Nicknamed “The Tank,” it was originally designed for medical use as a means of being able to observe and interact with a patient in zero-gravity, giving them the ability to perform extremely delicate surgeries without putting too much stress on the rest of the body. After a time, when security became more important than sensitivity, law enforcement found a better use for it, as a means of safe, secure interrogations.
The pink-haired girl floated in there now, suspended in the chamber by forces only Jechorian scientists could manipulate; a metallic visor wrapped around her head, covering her eyes and sealing off her ears from any noise except her own breathing and heartbeat, and the communication system was far out of her reach. When the machines reported increased heart and brain activity, but the girl hadn’t moved, Ceras knew exactly what she was doing.
In the absence of any other sensation, an assassin’s greatest advantage sometimes lay in orienting themselves, deducing what they could feel or where and how they stood. The negative suspension chamber stripped all that away. Finally, the girl spoke.
“Where am I?”
The tech glanced up at Ceras and gestured to the button controlling the receiver embedded in the visor, but Ceras made no move. “Wait,” she said.
The girl began to move, just tiny waves of her fingers, testing the air around her. “What have you done to me?”
Ceras still waited, watching the theories and assessments running through the girl’s brain. Whoever trained her was very good—but had not prepared her for what Jechorm was capable of.
Finally, the girl ceased moving, and her brain and pulse relaxed. “All right, you have my attention.”
At last, Ceras pushed the button. “Who are you?”
The girl gave a wry smile. “Where I’m from, I go by the name Black Dahlia.”
Ceras signaled one of the techs, and he adjusted the dial controlling the gravity within the chamber. Abruptly, the Black Dahlia slammed into the floor of the Tank. She roared in pain as the force of the increased gravity slammed the wind out of her. At another nod from Ceras, the tech returned the gravity to where it had been, and the girl slowly rose into midair. Her arms hung limply from her shoulders.
“Here’s how it’s going to work,” Ceras stated. “I will ask you questions. For every honest answer you give, I will return one of your senses to you.”
“Yeah, right!” Black Dahlia snarled. “Sure, you can smack me around with your fancy machine, but I’ve been controlled by something else before—and no human could have that kind of—AAUUUGGHHH!!!” The prisoner broke off with a scream as Ceras gave the signal to increase the subject’s susceptibility to pain. Once Ceras ended the agony, she continued.
“It is not my intention to torture you. I merely want information. Answer my questions, and you can leave this chamber.” Ceras smirked. “I can assure you, this kingdom is fully equipped with every kind of technological advancement to perform the impossible, and I will not hesitate to use it if necessary.” She paused to build the emphasis of her words. “Do not make it necessary.”
Black Dahlia scowled. “Understood,” she muttered.
Ceras nodded. “Now, back to my original question: your moniker is Black Dahlia, but what is your real name, and what House do you serve?”
The purple-haired girl glared in the direction of Ceras. “My name is Denahlia Firron,” she spat, “but I don’t serve any House.”
Ceras nodded to the tech controlling the gravity, and he raised the setting just enough so that the girl was no longer floating, but upright—though the suspension remained, restraining her movement.
“Very good,” Ceras responded. “Now, if you’re not affiliated with the Five Houses, then who assigned you to kill me?”
Denahlia waited just a beat too long before venturing an answer. “I don’t know—“
Ceras signaled the tech at another desk, and at her direction, the Tank reverberated with a high-accuracy frequency. Denahlia grit her teeth, but she couldn’t move to cover her ears.
“That hurt!” she screamed at Ceras.
Ceras bit her lip; she wasn’t so cruel by any means to inflict pain when she wasn’t threatened—but they had an agreement, and she needed answers. “I have already explained the consequences if you intentionally conceal information from me.”
“I’m not concealing anything!” The young assassin bellowed, as a small drop of blood began dripping from her nose. “I don’t know his name! I don’t even know your name! He just told me there was an assassin working for the government who needed to die, gave me the means to bypass your security system, and transported me here!”
Ceras pinched her lips. “This person, then—describe him.”
Denahlia fell silent for several minutes. “He stayed in the shadows mostly when we were face-to-face,” she answered. “He liked using proxies to make the arrangements, but I heard his voice a few times. He was tall, broad shoulders. Talked kind of funny; said the word issues with a hard ‘sss’ sound. Kept saying that my mission was to rectify a mistake, even when I tried to get him to admit that he basically wanted me to eliminate somebody.”
A few of the techs recognized the councilor she described; Ceras could tell, by the way they stiffened and glanced over their shoulders to gauge her reaction. She maintained a neutral expression and continued the questioning.
“What mistake? My position as Prime Director?” she asked.
“Apparently,” Denahlia replied. “I spied on him a few times, overheard him talking with somebody else about how the murderess sitting in the tower couldn’t possibly know what she had done. They said that all of this tech would be useless under your control, that you were too dull to realize it’s full potential.”
“They want to use it for war!” Ceras snapped. “They are only too happy to strip real humans of all sense of individuality, turn them into killing machines to threaten other kingdoms! I am bringing in a new age, one where the machines are tools to benefit the community, instead of trying to make Jechorm more powerful by decimating every other nation.”
Denahlia snorted. “Lady, I’m not from around here. I only know about this place what I’ve been told.”
Ceras sighed, and prepared to signal the next group of techs. “I understand,” she said quietly.
The techs removed the stasis field, allowing Denahlia to move freely about the Tank. She was still blindfolded, and the bindings on her wrists blocked the nerve signals from her hands, creating a sensation of no feeling, so there wasn’t any fear that the clever stranger would manage to escape. Ceras let her wander for a bit, let her discover the lack of feeling in her hands. Touch and sight were the two most important senses for an assassin, and without either of them, she remained harmless.
“So your name is Denahlia Firron, and you are from—what’s the place, The Realm?” Ceras verified, after a tech showed her the information screen displaying no record of either name.
“Yes,” Denahlia answered, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Tank.
“Does it have any other name?”
“Not one that I know of,” Denahlia answered.
Ceras grabbed a chair and set it near the Tank as she prepared to get more personal with her questions.
“You put up quite the fight this morning,” she began with a compliment. “Who trained you?”
“I was trained by the King’s best spies, when he discovered what I could do with my eyes,” the magenta-haired woman bragged.
“What do you mean by that?” Ceras asked.
Denahlia shrugged mysteriously, and she waved both hands at her captor. “Give me my hands back, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Ceras leaned back with a smug smile. “And what if I don’t trust you? After all, you did make an attempt on my life.”
Denahlia snorted. “Well, my client was right about one thing: you do sound like an assassin.”
“Reformed, thank you,” Ceras replied. “Since taking over this portion of the Jechorian government, I haven’t seen any point in skulking in the shadows and following other people, when I can make a difference by operating out in the open like this.”
Denahlia nodded. “I once worked for the King of the Realm, as a Hunter in his special forces; I went rogue when he was murdered, and now that his son is on the throne, I am back to serving the Crown. So, I guess you could say I’m not a wanton killer who’s desperate enough to see a job through, regardless of the target’s innocence.”
Ceras rolled her eyes; rarely was an assassin so frank with authorities. “So the fact that you showed up here this morning….”
“Momentary lapse,” Denahlia supplied quickly. “I didn’t know you, I didn’t know this place, I was just sent here and told to kill the woman controlling a large portion of the kingdom’s defense systems and using them for her own purposes, or I wouldn’t be getting back.” She grinned. “For the price of my autonomy and your protection until you can send me back home, I am willing to abandon my contract. King Jaran might not like to hear that his Harbor Chief abandoned her post and took an innocent life for no viable reason.”
Ceras weighed the ramifications of the information Denahlia told her. True, if she was still intent on carrying out her contract, why indeed would she be so forthcoming? And yet—if the Allocators ever discovered she’d let a target live, her own life would be forfeit! This Hunter’s principles struck her as remarkably lax.
Denahlia couldn’t know why Ceras didn’t respond for so long. “Um, hello?” She prompted. “Please let me out of here, and give me my sight back. I promise I’ll be on my best behavior; there’s honestly no point in continuing to threaten my only chance at returning to the Realm.” Her expression dropped, and she hung her head so Ceras could barely hear her last plea, “Please?”
Ceras waited only a moment before giving the signal to all the techs monitoring The Tank. All systems restored to normal. Ceras watched Denahlia flex her hands and run her fingers over her arms and legs as the feeling returned, and the visor automatically retracted, along with her bindings. Ceras herself opened the seamless door into the Tank.
“Stand up,” she ordered the prisoner brusquely.
Denahlia’s head came up, and she flinched backwards at the sound.
“Whoa! Wait a minute, I’m not going anywhere until you give me my eyes back!”
Ceras frowned, grabbing the girl by the arm. “What are you talking about? We never took your eyes.”
Denahlia clung to Ceras, and refused to move. “Then why can’t I see?”
Ceras turned to look fully into the Hunter’s face. Her eyes looked no different than they had before. “I don’t understand,” she murmured. “Why can’t your eyes see?”
The young Hunter shrugged. “Maybe it has something to do with my Gift.”
“Your what?” Ceras led the girl out of the interrogation room and down the hallway, to a grouping of chairs in the corner.
Denahlia sank slowly into the seat, gripping Ceras by the hand all the way, as if she expected at any moment to fall backward into an empty pit.
“Special enhancements given to certain people around the Realm; they look like magic sometimes, and like a superhuman ability other times, but they’re all designed to benefit the community somehow.”
Ceras raised her eyebrows. “Who gives the enhancements?” she asked. With her archaic style of clothing, Ceras had expected this Realm of hers to be a place of tech-less magic, sort of like Nirrom, and yet when Denahlia spoke of “enhancements”, it sounded more like science and tech.
Denahlia pinched her lips. “They’re called Abnormals, I guess—they live in another dimension from ours, and they are kind of like… well, like Celestial Guardians, or something. They give a Gift when it is needed, like the ability to heal with touch, or to produce and manipulate water, and it is by using the Gift that we become stronger and more adept with it.” Denahlia rubbed a hand across her face, as if to brush away the blindness. “Mine was always a little different, though,” she mused. “It had to do with my sight; I could see the heat of living bodies inside of a closed room, and with another blink, night became day, and I could see in complete darkness.” She smirked. “It’s how I was able to find you, no matter where you hid.”
Ceras stared at the girl. “Night vision?” she gasped. “These Celestials gave you natural night vision?”
Denahlia wrinkled her brow. “Green sight, is what I called it,” she muttered.
Ceras started up and took Denahlia by the hand again. “I think I have something that can help you get your sight back,” she said, leading the young woman to another laboratory down the hall.
“You’d better,” Denahlia grumbled, staggering along behind her. “You promised to let me see again.”
They entered the room, and Ceras activated the cerebrograph, a machine normally used for scanning brain activity and activating certain nerves. “Here,” she placed a smooth white helmet connected to multiple electrodes into Denahlia’s hands. “Put that on; I’m going to wake up your optic nerve; maybe that will help.” She began entering commands into the machine.
“Ah,” Denahlia said, complying with the directions. “Like a system reboot on my eyes?”
Ceras turned her head and squinted hard at the surprising young woman. “How would you know about system reboots?”
Denahlia shrugged, tucking loose wisps of hair behind her ear under the helmet. “Just something that my Gift tells me.”
Ceras returned to the task at hand. “Anyway, yes—I think it would be like that, in a way.” She started the machine and declared. “Here we go!”
The cerebrograph hummed to life, and the blinking lights indicated which electrodes emitted a signal.
Abruptly, Denahlia’s head came up, and her eyes opened wide. “I think…” She closed her eyes, still leaning forward as if craning to see something. “It’s working, I think! I can see—“ Her voice cut out, and her jaw hung slack. Ceras watched as her head wobbled a little, and in the next instant, Denahlia flopped backward in the chair in a faint. A tiny trickle of blood issued from her nose.
“Oh no!” Ceras powered down the cerebrograph and paged the medical response team.
“Quick!” She instructed the medics who swarmed into the lab. “I want scans of this woman’s head—every type of scan you have! X-ray, magnetic resonance, tomographic scans… Go! We need to figure out what she has in her brain, and how to fix it!”
“Yes, Director Ceras.”
“Pardon,” Adwin’s voice came through the wireless receiver attached to Ceras’ ear. “But is this not the same intruder whom you remanded into secure custody only a few hours ago? Did she not threaten your life?”
Ceras wagged her head. “Adwin, she was acting on limited information, a patsy for the ones who truly wanted to do me harm. She is no longer a threat.”
“Very well; I will update her status with the authorities, then.”
“You do that.” Ceras wandered after the gurney bearing the unfortunate young woman. What secrets did she hide behind those blind eyes?
Ceras stood against the large window, peering into the small room where the unconscious Denahlia lay.
A slim, silver-haired man in a white uniform approached her, bowing respectfully.
“Madam Director,” he said, as Ceras turned to face him, “I am Dr. Garten, the specialist for Ms. Firron’s case.”
Ceras tilted her head, running her fingers through her red locks. “Specialist? What did she need a specialist for?”
The doctor pulled a slim glass tablet out of his pocket and activated the hologram feature. “Well, we took the scans you ordered, and quite frankly, we can’t believe what we found.”
Ceras stared at the information hovering in the air before her. Could it be?
Dr. Garten cast a brief glance at the window. “You did say she was from Jechorm, did you not?”
Just then, a blond-haired nurse emerged from the room. She nodded respectfully. “Sorry to interrupt,” she murmured. “But Director Ceras asked me to inform her when the patient awoke.” The nurse nodded toward the tall, slender woman. “She’s asking for you.”
Ceras followed the nurse into Denahlia’s room.
Her pink hair had been chopped very short, since the operation required access to multiple parts of her skull. Her bright-blue eyes gleamed brighter than they had before, and roved around the room as she tracked the movement around her instead of staring blindly in all the wrong directions.
“How are you feeling?” Ceras asked, clasping her hands in front of her.
“Well,” Denahlia grunted, “at least I can see now… Though my head still feels a little funny.” Deliberately, she closed her eyes and opened them again. “Hm,” she sniffed. “My Gift isn’t working.” She glanced up as far as she could, noticing the wires that seemed to connect somewhere at the back of her head. “What are those?”
Ceras bit her lip. “Well, I’m not sure how else to tell you this,” she began slowly. “But Denahlia—you aren’t Gifted.”
The blue eyes honed in directly onto her face. “Yes I am! You don’t understand—“
“No,” Ceras raised a hand to stop her. “I wasn’t finished. The device that is connected to your occipital lobe right now is a bionic implant designed to replace a failed optic nerve.”
“Failed?” Denahlia’s chin trembled. “Wh—what are you saying?”
Ceras placed a hand on the monitor. “I’m going to deactivate it now, for a little bit, to show you what you would see in your natural state.” She pressed the button, and Denahlia stiffened.
“Wait… Blind?” She cried. Frantically, she shook her shaved head. “I can’t be blind—I’ve always been able to see!” When Ceras turned on the machine and restored her sight, Denahlia glared at her. “You did this!” she seethed. “You with your crazy machinery and fancy electric weapons! You stole my sight!”
Ceras also shook her head, but more slowly. “No, Denahlia; if you had a functioning optic nerve, this implant would not have worked.” She beckoned Dr. Garten and his tablet into the room. “Look; we examined your brain. You can see the implant here,” she tapped the small device, and the hologram lit the area a different color. “That was what we found in you while you were unconscious. You’ve had an implant your whole life.” Ceras swiped it all aside to look straight into Denahlia’s eyes. “It’s a Jechorian implant, from a few technological generations ago.”
The young woman on the bed sat up as quickly as the wires would allow. “Look, Madam Director—“
“Ceras,” snapped the redhead quickly. “Just Ceras.”
“Ceras, then,” amended the patient. “I know this thing I have is a Gift!”
“Do you?” Ceras folded her arms and arched an eyebrow. “How so?”
“Because…” Denahlia seemed to shrink a little into her memories. “Not long ago, The Realm was almost overtaken by a malevolent Abnormal, a Shadow by the name of Troy. He had the power to manipulate and control Gifts—and he could control mine!”
Ceras shook her head. “Well then, he must be electrokinetic or something, because that is definitely tech and not magic!”
“Denahlia! I don’t know anything about the way your Realm works or what these Abnormals can and cannot do, but I do know a whole lot about what I can see, and what I can see is this!” She pointed again to the hologram of the implant.
Denahlia wilted, and Ceras felt the old, maternal ache in her chest. Wasn’t this just how she would imagine it felt to argue with Ardenn? Ceras let out all of her anger in a heavy sigh and dropped into the chair beside the bed. She rested her head against her fingertips and tried to sort through her thoughts and emotions.
“How?” Denahlia asked softly.
Ceras looked up. “How what?”
Denahlia stared at the hologram, spinning the digital model with a wave of her fingers. “How can I have tech in my head from this place, when I’ve only ever lived in the Realm? How is that even possible?”
Ceras sighed, massaging her temples as she wondered how she could go from almost being killed by someone from another dimension to informing that same person of the fact that they might be Jechorian. “Something you should know about this place, Denahlia, is that it’s similar to your Realm: there is magic here, alongside the technology, and it is powerful enough for the sorcerers here to travel to different dimensions and worlds. Quite possibly, your parents used either magic or technology, or some combination of the two, to leave Jechorm and travel to the Realm after you received the implant as an infant.” She watched the young, hardened face very carefully. “How much do you remember of your parents?”
Denahlia sat silent for a long while. Finally, she shook her head. “I’ve always grown up around adults, whether it was the King’s Army or on the streets as a mercenary Hunter. I don’t remember my parents at all.” She lifted her gaze, hope now in her bright-blue eyes. “Your theory does sound plausible.”
Ceras heard a light tap on the window. Doctor Garten stood outside, pointing at the tablet she held, but refraining from coming in and interrupting the conversation. Ceras checked the incoming information, and her eyes lit up.
“There is good news, Denahlia,” said Ceras. “Even now, the reconstructive specialists are reverse engineering your old implant, which the surgeons removed, and they are building you a better, updated version, complete with all your usual upgrades.”
“Really?” Denahlia’s eyes sparkled, and she ventured a small grin.
Ceras nodded. “Meanwhile, I’m afraid your temporary stand-in here will have to stay plugged in if you want to continue seeing—or if you want to unplug and go without your sight for a while…”
Denahlia shook her head emphatically. “Oh no! I definitely prefer the un-enhanced sight over being stark blind.” She paused and ran her fingers over the textured hospital blanket. “And what comes after that, Ceras?” she asked. “Once I get the new implant, will I be able to go back to the Realm?”
Ceras pursed her lips as her mind traveled back to the sorcerer prince Lorrek, and his astonishing abilities. She hadn’t heard from him in a while—typical of him. “As a matter of fact, I do know at least one person who travels between worlds, and if anyone had the power to send you back to your own place, it would be that man. I’ll see what I can do about contacting him. Meanwhile,” she reached to take Denahlia’s slender, pale hand, “while you’re here in Jechorm awaiting your new implant, I would be willing to give you a room near my living quarters, and we can work together to search the Jechorian Archives for information on whom your parents might be.”
Denahlia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Really?” She breathed. “You would do that for me?” Her brow creased and she tilted her head. “But why? I mean, I did almost try to kill you, and it’s going to be almost impossible to find my parents when I don’t even know who they are.”
Ceras chuckled. “You’d be surprised at how much can be accomplished when magic picks up where technology falls short. And as for why…” Her gaze softened as she placed a gentle hand on Denahlia’s back. “Family is very important to me.” She felt the sobs climbing in her throat, but she swallowed it down and kept her voice even. “Truth be known, you remind me of my daughter, Ardenn. She died…” The tears rose underneath her eyes. “Almost a year ago.”
Denahlia brought her other hand over and placed it on top of Ceras’ hand holding hers.
“I know how it feels to lose someone very close to you,” she murmured quietly. “Maybe we can help each other.”
Ceras took a long breath through her nose and simply nodded. She left Denahlia to rest for a while, and headed back to the old Senate Tower to calm the sudden surge of emotions.
“Good evening, ma’am,” Adwin greeted her. “Was the interrogation successful?”
Ceras stopped. Interrogation? A slow, cheeky smile spread over her face, and she chuckled at the idea. My, what a day it had been! “Yes, Adwin; I suppose it was. By the way, set some housekeeping droids to prepare the guest room. I’ll be hosting someone for an indefinite period of time.”
“What name should I identify, ma’am?”
Ceras couldn’t stop smiling. “Denahlia Firron.”
A chime rang as Adwin processed the information. “Very good, madam,” he replied in his bland, digitized voice. “As for the matter of the assassination attempt—security forces report no sighting of any of the disgraced senators, much less the man Miss Firron identified.”
The mirth faded, and Ceras felt dread settling in. “Meaning?” she prompted the security system.
“Meaning, madam,” Adwin responded calmly, “the man who intended that you should die is still unaccounted for.”
There it was. She felt a little bit like Denahlia had been, when her implant malfunctioned—casting about blindly, not knowing which moment could be her last. The inability to predict when this unknown enemy might strike again was bad enough; that she couldn’t even identify the enemy felt even worse!
Ceras sighed and stared out the window at the beginnings of a golden sunset over the cityscape of Jechorm. Ardenn would have loved to see this, she thought.
“I’ll take it one day at a time,” she promised herself. Come what may, she would be ready.
Notes about the title: “A double-blind experiment is one in which neither the tester nor the subject knows whether a particular subject belongs to the control group, or there is some variable in play.”
It could be that “blind” in the title refers to Denahlia’s natural state, and the fact that she did not know: a) she was naturally blind; or b) she was originally from Jechorm.
It also could refer to a sort of “experiment” being run by the third party, the deposed Senate; but who is the tester, and who is the subject of the experiment? It could have been Denahlia—after all, she was sent to kill, without knowing even so much as her target’s name. Or it could have been an experiment to see if Ceras still had the skills of her assassin past, whether she would kill first and ask questions later, or lose the fight against a killer from another dimension.