Chapter 314

                “I want to be very clear about this up front, I will kill you if you try and take her from me.” Alice tightened her grip on Shelby, even as she turned slightly to keep her mother’s body out of Blake Hill’s line of sight.

                For his part, Blake didn’t seem as intimidated as she hoped. “Will you? Those are big words, Alice, but killing isn’t as easy as the Sims make it seem. You think that the first life you take can be that of someone who helped train you, guide you, and is in fact actual family? I’m not so convinced. Whether you realize it or not, you take after Shelby, and she was cursed with much too kind of a heart to do something like that, a curse she passed on to you.”

                “What about me, Blake? Think I won’t see it through?” Sean Pendleton was moving too, situating himself between his half-brother and his niece. Turning into fog wouldn’t do much to protect Alice or Shelby from Blake’s power, but at the very least it would give him another target to focus on. That might prove to be enough, if it came to that.

                “Oh no, I have no doubt you’ll kill me, with cause or without. I’m surprised you made it through this many years of teaching together without putting poison in my coffee.” Blake was relaxed, much too at ease for a situation like this.

                “I owed Blaine a favor, and paying him back by killing another professor would have been a dick move. Self-defense, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.”

                Things were rapidly building toward a fight, and while Alice was ready to throw down if needed, that would put her mother at risk. “Let’s try and talk about this for a second. The only thing we all agree on is we want Shelby to be safe, right? Maybe we’re all after the same goal for her, in which case we don’t need to go after one another’s throats. In fact, it would stupidly put her at risk for nothing more than the sake of old grudges and whose fault it is that we reached this point. I’ve got news for you both, I’ve seen what happened, I know the whole story, and I can say with total certainty that it doesn’t fucking matter who deserves the blame for her condition. It was a bad situation, and a hard call was made. Rather than waste more of her life pissing and bickering, why don’t we focus on getting her somewhere safe until she can be cured?”

                “Noble a sentiment as that is, I’m afraid it’s not an option yet.” Blake was still standing in the same space, but his footing had changed, as though he were bracing for something. Whether he was getting ready to counter an attack he expected or send one himself, however, was a mystery Alice couldn’t crack. “Bad news, I’m afraid. While your version of the procedure is the best we’ve seen, and certainly appears to be holding stable, there’s no guarantee it will last. Others have failed before you. Until we are truly sure the process will work, we can’t risk subjecting Shelby to it. There have been too many false-starts over the years, and she’s too delicate to endure another failure.”

                Information was currency. That was an idea Professor Pendleton had drilled into Alice’s head time and time again. Information was precious, vital, and could be spent in times when paper money had no value whatsoever. It should never be given away without purpose, one had to look at it the same way they viewed spending their limited funds. In this particular case, Alice was doing just that, as she realized there might be a way to buy a peaceful resolution by spending some of her most precious information.

                “It does work. We know for sure, and Shelby is the one who told us.” Alice adjusted her grip on her mother, making sure she was tucked and secure. If Alice had to make a break for it, she couldn’t afford to be slowed in any way. “Mom is still having visions, I’m betting you already know that. What you might not realize is that she’s seeing how the world will be impacted by Powereds becoming Supers, all the different paths we might go down. Thing is, in none of them does the procedure stop working. She only sees the potential futures, right? The likeliest ones? Well there is no future in which we go back to being Powereds. We have the cure. We can bring her back.”

                “Charles had the cure, and I doubt even that’s true anymore.” Despite his words, Blake looked a tad surprised by the news. Whether he believed Alice or not was another matter, but she was certainly telling him a tempting tale.

                “We’ve got all of his data,” Sean said. “Already loaded it into the HCP computers and sent it to the DVA. Maybe this was how it always happened, we found out the secret of turning Powereds to Supers, gave it to the government, and in doing so unleashed the procedure on the world. She’s telling the truth, Blake. Shelby’s salvation is at hand. The only thing keeping her from it is you.”

                The three of them stood quietly, the only sound aside from their breath was the wind blowing through the clearing. At long last, Blake took a lone, symbolic step backward. “That would all be lovely, if I could trust you. The trouble is, I’m dealing with professional liars telling me exactly what I want to hear. I’m sure you can appreciate how that leaves me with a healthy amount of skepticism. The reasonable course would be to turn her over to me until you can prove your story, but I can already tell from the looks in your eyes that you won’t agree to that. I will admit, though, that Alice is right about one thing: none of us wants to see Shelby hurt. For that reason, I’m going to propose a compromise: Alice can take Shelby and fly away. Sean, you and I will settle things between us, and whoever is left standing will be free to track her down again.”

                “Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to-”

                “Alice, go.” Sean popped his knuckles, then his neck as he put a touch of distance between himself and Blake. “He doesn’t trust me, and now he thinks I’ve turned you against him. This is something I have to deal with. Something I was always going to have to deal with. You two are more important than either of us. Get Shelby clear, and trust that I’ll be the one to find you again. Last I checked, you’re still my student, and that’s an order.”

                “When I catch up, we can talk over our options,” Blake added. “Without this one whispering in your ear, I hope you’ll be more open to reason.”

                She looked between them, mouth opening more than once to protest, but each time Alice looked down to Shelby instead. With her training, it was almost too easy to tell that this was going to be a fight one way or the other. Right now, the most she could do was get Shelby clear. All these years training, all that work and pain and effort, and here she was having to run away yet again. It was galling, infuriating, and part of her wanted to rebel. To stay, no matter what it cost. That was ego talking, however, and she recognized wounded pride no matter the mask it tried to wear. Alice had a job to do, a person to protect, and she had to see it through regardless of what path it required.

                “You’re both being idiots. It didn’t have to be this way. We had a real chance at coming back together.” With that, she took to the air, zipping through the sky and vanishing quickly.

                Now that Alice was finally gone, the two men could look only to each other, waiting to see who would make the first move.

                “Do you think she’s right?” Sean asked, studying Blake’s stance, ready for the slightest twitch of movement. “Think there was a way to get past everything that’s happened?”

                “Not unless you’re willing to let me take Shelby, to find an actual safe place to store her in. Where do you think Alice will go? Who will she trust? The DVA, of course, because that’s how she’s been trained. The DVA, who might get around to letting Shelby have the procedure she needs, one day, if it’s convenient for them. The DVA, who equally may decide to bury the secret as deep as they can rather than risk changing the world. I won’t trust her to the whims of others, not ever again. But I also won’t hurt Alice any more than necessary when I take Shelby away.”

                The last words set Sean’s teeth on edge. “I guess you’re right. With a mindset like that, we were never going to reach a common ground. If it helps, I’ll tell Shelby you died bravely. It’s not a lie you deserve, but it will help her take the loss better.” There was no more warning than that before Sean Pendleton exploded into a cloud of fog that began streaming directly toward Blake.