When the Ringmaster called her Tuesday morning, Dr. Sarah Amherst knew she'd be a little late to work.
She slipped her cell phone back into her purse before lifting the bag and sliding it over her shoulder. With her coat already on, Sarah picked up her car keys as she walked through the four bedroom house she and her husband kept. Master Sergeant Hank Amherst had retired here four years ago and she found it a lovely place to finish raising a family at. At least, when she wasn't managing the infirmary for West Private University's HCP.
Hank had a newspaper in front of him as he sat in his recliner. A career non-commissioned officer, he'd served thirty years until finally drawing retirement to spend more time at home. Since retirement, Hank picked up serving on the local Homeowner's Association, participating on an advisory committee for local army recruitment and helping out with Hank Junior, the sixteen year old youngest member of their family. Junior had already left for school, of course. Given Hank's muttered comments, he'd be occupied for an hour or so yet with the old-fashioned print media.
"Honey, I may be late getting home today."
"I thought Monday was your heavy work day," Hank said, not even looking up for his news page.
"Usually. I have a lot of catching up to do from it."
"Sure, Sarah. I'll see you tonight. Just don't forget Junior has a game tomorrow, okay?"
"I'll pick up the party supplies later." She leaned over and kissed her husband on his bearded cheek.
"Hey, you seen Alley yet?"
She stopped just shy of the front door, paused with her hand on the handle. "No, not yet. You know she's busy with her own life these days. The Dean says she has a few roommates she's living with off campus."
"Not with a boyfriend, I hope," Hank said, and it wasn't a question. "She better not be living with a boy. I raised that girl right."
Sarah just turned her head away and walked out.
It was beautiful today. Little in the way of cloud cover, lots of sun in the sky already. Doubtless, it would be cloyingly muggy later in the day but it was rather pleasant for the moment. Sarah walked down the steps to her driveway and beeped the alarm off before climbing into her Jetta. The diesel engine turned over with little more noise than a gasoline engine would. Putting it into drive, she pulled out of the driveway and headed out.
By the time she reached her first stoplight, Sarah Amherst had company.
She didn't know who the Ringmaster's teleporter was. In fact, she made a point of not knowing by not even looking his way. What Sarah felt was a sudden inrush of air inside the car followed by a gentle touch on her arm once the car had come to a stop. Then she vanished. Doubtlessly, the teleporter replaced her with a driver who'd get the car to West Private University. All that mattered was that she was free to meet during a span of time no one would be tracking her whereabouts.
Sarah appeared in a rush of air...inside a limousine. The luxury vehicle rolled through a section of downtime city somewhere, somewhere a bit cooler if clothes were anything to judge by. Probably New England once she saw the other occupants.
Beside her, a handsome Chinese man with golden eyes sat half-paying attention to some conference call on his headset. Dave Sun adjusted his tie and acknowledged her with the briefest of nods. The prominent televangelist was smaller in person and a bit older. But given his extraordinary television presence, almost anything in real life would be a bit of a let down by comparison.
And, of course, the Ringmaster himself was present.
Sarah unlocked her phone and jotted off a quick text message to her day shift assistant healer at the infirmary, letting the young woman know she'd be in a little late. Then she checked her text message history and saw a message from Laura.
"Family," she murmured aloud, texting Laura back to say she'd arrange time for them.
"Children?" Dave asked, apparently finishing his call.
"And grandchildren," Sarah answered. "My oldest boy Tom and his wife Laura are coming in to Orlando for a trip to Disneyworld this October with the grandkids. They want to spend some time with Hank and I."
"Ahhh, Psalms 127:3." Dave smiled absently. Then, noticing her blank look, added "'Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him'. At least they are in wedlock."
"How is Jake, anyway?" asked the Ringmaster. It was the first time he'd spoken today and they both took immediate notice.
"Fine," Dave said. "Young. You know what newborns are like. Ruth's enjoying herself but the nanny makes a big difference. I'm just relieved Jia's back in the HCP and focused on school."
Sarah nodded. As the limo slowed to a stop beside a bus, she said at last "Did you know my Alley's her roommate?"
The normally smiling, charming preacher represented the newer breed of evangelical. Dave Sun's church didn't care what your dress code was or even how seriously you took the scriptures. But at the moment, the older Chinese man had an expression as stern and serious as any fire-and-brimstone Baptist priest.
"No, I didn't. Sarah-"
"I know, I didn't know either until the Dean mentioned it. Alley and I...we're not really on speaking terms, you remember."
"Sarah, I'm not comfortable with this," David said firmly.
"With what, exactly? What are you afraid is going to happen, Dave?"
Sarah's glare was interrupted when a young college boy suddenly appeared in the limo. Fit and attractive, he looked like the proverbial blonde college ball player complete with letterman's jacket. He bounced once or twice on the leather seats and slapped the seat cover.
"Well, look at us, the gang's all here."
Dave and Sarah exchanged a look of mutual irritation. "Hello Ellis," Sarah said carefully. "That's a new look."
"They're all new for me," said the enigmatic fourth member of their little conspiracy. "Can we make this quick? I'm on a schedule."
"My shift at the infirmary starts in half an hour," Sarah said, trying to keep the ire out of her voice.
"I have a meeting with three members of the state legislature in an hour," Dave said, not bothering to hide how he felt in the slightest. "Let's get on with this."
The Ringmaster cleared his throat and brought silence to the limousine.
It was hard to describe the man. If Sarah had to use one word, it would be nondescript. He just didn't seem to stick to memory. Even looking at him, she found it hard to tell if he was tall or short, slender or heavy, blonde or brunette. But then, appearances didn't really matter. He was a man of vision, of power and with considerable reach.
"We all have schedules to keep today," the Ringmaster said. "So I'll keep this brief. Major Isaiah Diaz has taken an interest in West Private University's Hero Certification Program."
Sarah's breath caught, as did Ellis'. Dave Sun just looked puzzled. "Should I know who he is?"
"He's a Powered," Sarah said. "He's an..." she paused to look at the Ringmaster for confirmation. When he nodded, she continued. "He's an uncontrolled precognitive. His ability lets him see the future, sometimes up to five or ten years out. It's unpredictable and it's a little unstable."
"What she means," Ellis interrupted, "Is that when his ability's active, he's not in control of his own actions. He says things, does things even he can't explain because they'll ultimately prevent a disaster or make the future unfold the way it should."
"A genuine prophet," Dave said, almost reverentially. His golden eyes hardened at the disdain on Sarah and Ellis' faces. "Call it what you will but I can see why you fear him. Such a man could pull apart everything we're trying to accomplish."
"Or enable it," the Ringmaster said. He held up a hand, silencing their outcries with a thought. "It remains to be seen. We do know he's taken action, specifically asking for four students to be added to West's HCP. Those students include-"
"Alley," Sarah whispered in shock.
"Jia?" Dave looked equally astonished.
"As well as two others, an English man named Finn Barnaby and my son, Nate."
Sarah and Dave both looked at Ellis until he lifted his hands up and said "What? You're expecting me to know Finn or something? No, we're not related. Though the selection can't be a coincidence, can it? The good Major's managed to pick up the three Super kids of the three of us and put them on our scent. I wish I knew why."
"What are we going to do?" Dave asked as the limo rolled on, giving the four conspirators the privacy only a sealed, protected vehicle in motion could afford.
The Ringmaster nodded once. "We're going to be alert to it. It's too early yet to see what the Major's play is but we don't know which way it'll go. What's important is that we watch out for them. Dave, I wanted you to be aware but the most important thing you can do right now is focus on your flock and keep practicing. There's almost no limit to what you can do with your ability except one; experience. Get it."
"Sarah, I want you to keep an eye on the HCP faculty. You have connections with them no one else can rival. If you can, see if Alley's open to talking. I suspect she'll be the Major's ringleader in whatever mission he has in mind . Be safe, though. Our plans fall apart if you're removed from play. You are not to divulge anything about us to anyone, not even your daughter."
"We're not close," Sarah said, pained at the memory of the last time they'd spoken. "But I'll try to find out what I can. I understand."
"As for you, Ellis, I want you to keep an eye on the students directly." The Ringmaster leaned back in his seat, causing the leather to creak. "Track what the Major's team is up to. Keep me appraised with all you can find out. If they actually find something, I want to know about it."
"Anything you want," Ellis said. He rubbed his strong, square jawline ruefully. "Too bad I can't keep the face. But leave it to me, Ringmaster, I'll get you what you want."
One by one, the Ringmaster met their eyes. When it was her turn, Sarah could feel the force of his will flowing into her. It was wonderful, beatific, enabling. With the Ringmaster's will, she had no doubts. Fear and uncertainty were gone. Only the cause remained, carrying out her instructions so that the Ringmaster could accomplish all he'd set out to do.
All of them would live and die for their leader.
The teleporter returned, disappearing the Ringmaster first. Sarah reached out and put a hand on Dave's shoulder. "I'll make sure nothing happens to Jia," she said. He only smiled a little, showing his gratitude despite his earlier concerns about Alley being around his daughter. Then it was her turn to vanish.
Sarah found herself back behind the wheel of her car just as the light turned green. She pulled the wheel to the left and drove into the West Private University faculty parking lot. Parking, she picked up her purse and checked her phone for messages. Two from her assistant, one about the morning's cases so far. The second text was about an impending senior match that would almost positively require her personal ability.
She just smiled. The kids might be the future but some things never changed.
At least, not until the Ringmaster changed them.