Genre: Young Adult Paranormal, Science Fiction
Type of Short Story: Novelette
Summary: Twenty-three-year-old Sasha is in search of a mindjacker Clan that won't force him to use his unique skill--he can't face the prospect of erasing any more souls. A revolutionary Clan leader offers him a chance to serve a higher purpose, but Sasha's wary that it's only a trick to use his ability. When a beautiful female jacker seeks refuge with them, and her former Clan leader wants her special skill back at any cost, Sasha has to decide if there are any causes worth the price of using his ability one more time.
A knife thunked into the dryboard panel I had just installed, piercing the thin board a mere two feet away from me. I reflexively lashed out with my mind toward my attacker only to run smack into the granite that was Anna Navarro’s mindbarrier. I wasn’t the strongest mindjacker around and, as far as I knew, no one could jack into her mind anyway. I’d probably just riled her by trying. She stood stock-still in her sleeveless black shirt and urban camouflage pants, returning my glare from the opposite side of the training area.
I wanted to ask, Are you insane? Instead, I pushed up the long sleeves of my shirt. “That was a perfectly good dryboard panel, you know.”
“Knife training today,” Anna said, ignoring me. “Or would you prefer close combat training again? Your call, Sasha.”
I swallowed. My bruises were still tender from yesterday’s close combat training. I had quickly learned that she had more muscles than I did, even though I was a guy and had done my fair share of manual labor. I worked the pitch-black knife loose from the board, scowling at the gash it left behind and the extra work I would have to do to repair it. Any complaints would be wasted on Anna—she thought I should be training, not fixing up the place. But the half-finished bathroom wouldn’t dryboard itself, and fighting Anna with a blade wasn’t exactly appealing. I walked the knife over and extended it, handle first. If I played it straight, maybe she wouldn’t actually stab me with it.
“I am certain I don’t want to fight you with one of these.”
“It’s not me you have to worry about.” She eyed me, as if she could size up my capability as a fighter by examining my sawdust-covered jeans and workshirt. Or possibly she was measuring me for a coffin. “You never know when a fight will find you, and you may not always have a choice of weapons.”
She pivoted away from me and threw the knife again, sinking it into one of the hundred-year-old oak beams that held up the converted door factory which served as the headquarters for her future mindjacker revolution. Our revolution. I rolled the words around in my head, but they still didn’t feel right. Her twin brother Julian recruited me into his new Clan as soon as I walked in the door, but I kept wondering if I’d made a mistake. Every other Clan had used me for their own purposes, and I wasn’t convinced Julian would be any different. And Anna seemed positive that I didn’t belong here. I couldn’t blame her for being suspicious—I wouldn’t let someone like me into my Clan either.
“If you’re not going to use your true abilities,” she said, “you’re no better than any other jacker. And sometimes you’ll be on the losing end of the jack.”
I shrugged. Little did she know, I’d been waiting for that to happen for a while. I vowed never to use my ability on anyone again, and one day, an angry jacker would put an end to me because of it. Some days I even welcomed the idea.
“Or,” she continued, “you’ll be closely matched. Then your weapons training could mean the difference between walking away or ending up in someone else’s Clan. From what I’ve heard, that hasn’t worked out so well for you in the past.”
Anna pulled another knife from the back of her pants and lunged at me, slicing the air in front of my face. I jerked out of her slashing reach and stumbled into a 55-gallon drum. It tipped, dumping trash we had cleared yesterday: rags clogged with grease, lumber singed by the laser saw, and machine parts eroded by a hundred years of rust.
I recovered my balance and righted the drum. “You don’t know anything about me.” My gaze locked on the knife as she switched hands and circled me. It was only a rubber training blade, probably dull and not life threatening. Still, I didn’t want to finding out how much it would hurt if she stabbed me with it.
“I know enough to see that your fighting skills could use some work.”
“And maybe I wasn’t clear,” I turned with her, keeping my eyes on the rubber blade, “about not opting for knife training.”
“As much as my brother would like to win this war with his words alone,” Anna said, as if I hadn’t spoken, “it’s going to take more than asking nicely to create a future where we can be free.” She lunged, and I landed a solid blow on the wrist of her knife hand, making her drop forward. My other hand swung a punch to her gut. She blocked it and brought the knife around. I pulled back, but its rough tip dragged across my chest. I swiped at her knife hand, getting nothing but air as she danced away from the engagement.
“Don’t lose track of the knife,” she said.
“Well, there’s a handy tip.” I glowered at her, then took a fighting stance as she circled me again.
“If you’re going to be a part of this Clan,” she switched hands and changed her grip, so the knife now pointed down, “you need to contribute something. I assume that you still don’t want to use your real skill.”
“That would be a good assumption.” Other Clans used my ability—to control, to punish, to gain power—always for the greater glory or security of the Clan. There was a time when I didn’t even know there was something wrong with that. When my mentor, Arlis, found me, I was a dazed changeling horrified at permanently erasing my gym teacher’s mind. He took me in, helped me recover, and taught me how to control my ability to erase a person’s mind, down to every last memory and personality quirk, and rewrite them into someone new. It took a long time for me to realize that anyone who plucks a thirteen-year-old boy out of school and turns him into a weapon isn’t a savior, he’s a monster.
“Your brother, Julian,” I said to Anna, “seems to understand that destroying people’s souls isn’t the most righteous way to fight for his cause.”
She flipped the knife up and down, alternating forward and reverse grips. “Just because he won’t force you to use your ability, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it anyway.”
Her words set my nerves on edge more than the knife. That was the truth that I feared—she and Julian were just waiting for the right moment, the right pressure, to trick or force me into using my ability. I wouldn’t do it, but even thinking about it set off a twitching in my stomach that made it seize up.
She tucked her free hand close, then swiped a back-slashing strike across my neck with the knife. I dodged back, the tip missing by inches, and shot my arm out, knocking the inside of her knife-arm and latching onto her wrist as it swung past. I jerked her arm down and twisted, using her momentum to throw her off balance and trying to break her hold on the knife. As she fell in closer, she hit me clean to my stomach with her free hand, forcing me to double over her and lose all my breath. I twisted harder, and she dropped the knife. I released her and fought for air as I snatched the knife from the floor then scrambled back before she could hit me again.
“Better,” she said, rubbing her wrist.
My lungs sucked in air, but the shakes in my stomach were climbing up my throat. I didn’t want her to see me lose my lunch. I dropped the knife to the floor, where it clattered dully on the oil-stained concrete, and turned away to the bathroom. The door wasn’t installed, but the dryboard gave me a little privacy. I bent over the sink and splashed near-freezing water on my face. The hot water line wasn’t hooked up yet, but the shock of cold successfully quelled the shakes. The mirror reflected back the dripping face of a man ten years older and a lifetime more worn than the thirteen-year-old changeling Arlis had whisked away from school to join his Clan.
Following Arlis had taken me down a path where I had destroyed more souls than I could track. They invaded my sleep, becoming a tangled mess of personalities and histories that nearly drove me mad. I left Arlis behind and worked the handyman trade, but was quickly pulled back into the underground mindjacker Clans. I had sinned so much, what was the point in stopping? There was no redemption for me, no more than it was possible to return the memories and lives I had stolen.
I wanted to believe this Clan with Julian would be different. He was practically bursting with hope for the future. Maybe I could help him deliver on that promise of hope for others, even if there wasn’t any left for me. Perhaps then there would still be a reason for me to exist.
I looked away from the dark, soulless eyes in the mirror, not sure who was I kidding.
I heard Anna scuff the concrete outside the threshold. I swung blindly, missed, and then caught her by the throat with my other hand, shoving her up against the half-constructed wall. I held off on the punch that was about to follow, partly because I didn’t want to put her through the dryboard I had just finished putting up, and partly because she had a crazy sort of grin above my hand clenched around her throat.
Heat rose up my neck and I dropped my hand. “Sorry, I thought you were…”
“I wasn’t,” she said, her eyes lit up. “But maybe I should have been.”
I rubbed the back of my neck, having a hard time meeting her eyes.
“Julian wants you up front,” she said.
“I need to finish work on the bathroom.”
“He has a new recruit coming,” she said. “He wants you to be there.”
I eyed her. “Why?”
She tapped her fingers against the wooden frame I’d put up for the door, avoiding my gaze. “You know he can’t jack, right?”
I narrowed my eyes. I’d seen Julian subdue a jacker from my old Clan that no one else could stop. And he had asked me to jack into his head, just to show me that it couldn’t be done. Jacking Julian wasn’t the normal mental wrestling that one mindjacker did with another, each fighting for control of the other’s mind. When I mentally reached out to push into Julian’s head, all of my nightmares raged out from the depths of my mind, tipping me toward the madness that made me leave Arlis in the first place.
I would never try that again.
“What do you mean, he can’t jack?” I asked. “Julian’s some kind of extreme jacker, like the rest of us. You with your hard head, me with my ability. I don’t understand exactly what he does, but it trumps jacking by a long shot.”
She dropped her hand from the door and looked me in the eyes. “Julian can manipulate your instincts, but he can’t jack you directly. That means anyone he can handle will be easy for him to control, but if he can’t reach their instincts, for whatever reason, he’s virtually powerless.”
“He’s not exactly defenseless,” I countered, a chill running through me.
“Agreed,” she said. “And I thought he could handle anyone, anytime. I never worried about him, until…”
“Until Serena came along,” I finished.
Anna’s jaw worked, the angles of her face flexing under her brown skin. “Look, I don’t know who these recruits are that he’s bringing in, and neither does he. Julian’s far too trusting. Until we know better, we have to assume that every one of them could be another Serena, or even worse.” She had the same brilliant blue eyes as Julian. They both could burn you with a look—his eyes blazing with hope, hers with something more raw. Anger? Hatred? She was legitimately dangerous, yet here she was, frowning with worry about her brother. It almost made her seem human.
“I get it,” I said. “You want to make sure someone’s there who can protect him, in case things go south again.”
“Exactly,” she said. “And I’ve been banished from the new recruit interviews.” She clenched a fist and pressed it against my fresh dryboard. I hoped she wouldn’t put a hole through it.
“I can’t imagine why that is.” I struggled not to laugh in her face. She might have another knife tucked in her pants.
She didn’t take my bait. “Sasha, I need to know.” She laid her palm flat on the wall and leaned closer to me. A reflexive sense of self-preservation made me rock back against the sink. “If it came down to it, and you had to use your ability to protect Julian, would you do it?”
“He said I wouldn’t have to…”
She waved away my protest. “I’m asking you—would you do it? To save him? Because he’s key to everything, the revolution, all of it.”
“I thought you said your cause wouldn’t be won with his words.” I couldn’t help but grin.
“Not on his words alone.” She narrowed her eyes. “Would you be thinking you could have a chance at a new life, if he hadn’t convinced you it was possible? Would you have even tried to come to us, if you hadn’t heard about how different he is?”
Well, she was right about that. Julian could sell ice cream to an Eskimo; or in my case, salvation to a hopelessly lost sinner. Charismatic didn’t touch it. His hope was an infectious disease that had infiltrated my mind.
“No, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” I said. “And I appreciate that he’s willing to take a chance on me. But I’m not going to use my ability on anyone. Ever again. No matter what.” She didn’t know what she was asking, and she didn’t need to know. My victims lived and breathed, but they were hollow copies, empty of the uniqueness they were born with. The simple truth was that I’d rather have my pitiful life end now than destroy another soul. And I couldn’t chance bringing on the nightmares again. They would only carry me off into madness, and who knew what kind of harm I could do then.
She gave a tight nod. That obviously wasn’t the answer she wanted. “I’ll be watching the new recruit from back in the racks. I’ll be nearby, within jacking range, if there’s trouble.”
She pulled a knife, sheathed in a strap-on case, out of a pocket in the leg of her pants and handed it to me. “You know where the guns are,” she said, referring to the ancient wooden cabinets up front in the kitchen area where she kept her arsenal. “Make sure you’re armed before she gets here.”
I took the knife, not sure I would know what to do with it, and even less sure that weapons would make a difference. I strapped it under my pant leg anyway.
Julian’s first recruit, Serena, nearly killed us all before Julian stopped her. She had already wiped out my old Clan, setting one member against the rest, until he killed everyone but me. I only escaped because I managed to steal his soul first. If this new recruit was like Serena, Julian might be able to stop her too. If Julian couldn’t control her, then Anna’s weapons would be all we had.
Because using my ability wasn’t an option I was willing to consider anymore.
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