The Hand You're Dealt
A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
The Hand You're Dealt
Red Level, ARC
"Well, that's it then," Dr. Paulson, in a white labcoat, said with a heavy sigh to his two colleagues as a door shut behind them. "We're officially out of options."
"So what do we do with her?" the woman in the trio asked, quite obviously frustrated "We can't leave her like that. It's ... it's cruel. She's not living. She's just physically existing." She slumped into a chair, looking defeated.
The second man plopped down, his legs splayed awkwardly as he was too exhausted to sit with anything resembling decorum. Unlike the other two, he was in a neatly-tailored business suit, older, with a balding pate and whitening hair and beard. "I tried every spell I know that might have helped," he said.
Dr. Paulson nodded. "And we appreciate your efforts, Mr. Bergman."
"I burned up a lot of essence," the older man noted, his voice hardening a tiny bit. Clearly, he was not nearly as emotionally involved - or affected - as the two doctors, and he felt it necessary to remind the ARC staff of how much essence he'd used on their behalf.
"Your contract and fee were guaranteed regardless of the outcome. We'll keep our end of the deal."
The woman sighed, then looked at Paulson. "Now what? Ice her?"
Dr. Paulson nodded grimly. "Better call her relatives so they can say goodbye before we freeze her."
"There's only her mother. She's an only child, and her father had a massive stroke about a year ago," the woman replied, her voice conveying her feelings. She knew she wasn't supposed to get involved with the patients, to get attached, but somehow, this one had wormed her way into Tina Sorenson's heart.
"About the time of ...?" the older mage asked.
"Right after," Dr. Tina Sorenson explained simply.
"It'd be better if we could use the Wildman protocol," Paulson commented to himself, shaking his head sadly.
"The shaman that came with her said that's out of the question," Dr. Sorenson snapped back.
"Wildman protocol?" the mage asked curiously.
"Yeah," Paulson began to explain. "A high-level regenerator was beaten into brain death at Whateley Academy a few years back. Despite being a regenerator, his brain was stuck at birth. A mage came up with a spell which 'kick started' his brain development."
"Ah, yes," the mage said, his eyes lighting with recognition. "I remember reading about that in the American Journal of Medicinal Magic a few years ago. Quite a fascinating approach. So why can't you use that spell?"
"It's the nature of her injury," Dr. Sorenson replied bitterly. "The shaman who came in with her explained that her brain injury was caused by Mythos magic. She thought she got all the 'taint' off, but ...."
"But regenerative magic healing on a Mythos injury ...." the mage began. "Ah. I understand." All of them understood. Mixing ordinary healing magic with a Mythos-derived injury was a recipe for disaster. The best outcome would be that the patient simply died. Most often, the result was the stuff of nightmares.
Tina Sorenson pulled herself wearily to her feet. "I'll contact her mother."
"I understand she's an alumna of Whateley? You might want to contact them. They might know of any friends who'd want to say goodbye," Paulson added.
"Damned shame," the mage said softly. "She was so young and pretty. From the file, it looks like she had everything ahead of her.
Staff Conference Room 4, ARC
"Chuck!" the new director of ARC, Dr. Henry Silva, yelled at his aide, not even looking up from his desk.
Chuck Jarrett stuck his head into Dr. Silva' inner office. "Yes, Dr. Silva?" he asked formally.
"Knock off that formal stuff, okay? How many times do I have to tell you that?" Silva grumbled. "Sheesh - you guys are all acting like you're in the military." He turned his slight frown into a smile and chuckle. "I'm only a new boss, not a new Kommandant! Sheesh! Tell everyone to lighten up!"
"Sorry, Dr. ...." Chuck winced with a slight blush. "Sorry. Habit."
"How about just 'Boss' or 'Henry'?"
"Boss will work," Chuck agreed. "What do you need?"
"I've been going over the reports - you know, new director and all - and there are few cases I think the staff should look at again."
"Yeah. We're used to doing a full review every six months."
"I emailed you a list of files I think should be re-examined. Pull the files and schedule a staff meeting next week."
"Does everyone concur?" Dr. Silva looked around the table at his staff. Between nods and monosyllabic assertions of agreement, there was no dissent. "Okay," he said to his aide," make a note to prepare case 42172 for transfer to Black level."
"Got it, boss."
Silva put down the file and picked up the next one from a medium-sized stack. "Case 38008." Chuck typed at his keyboard and the case file was displayed on a projection screen in the room. Included in that data was a picture of a pretty twenty-something blonde girl. "Valerie Hinson. Mage, rating Wiz-3. Code-name Card Trick. Chronological age twenty-seven. Catastrophic brain injury resulting in loss of all higher-order brain function." His eyes widened and he looked up at his staff. "She's one of the heroes from the Lakota Demon incident?" The staff nodded their affirmation. "Wow. Didn't know we had a celeb here." He looked back at the chart. "Healing spells have been totally ineffective, so she was put on ice in Black Section in 2012."
"Yeah," one of the staff members noted. "Wasn't she Dr. Sorenson's case?"
"Yup," another staff member chimed in. "If I remember right, her brain regeneration was stuck, so she's effectively brain dead. That's why they put her on ice."
"What about the stronger induced regeneration?" Silva asked. "I read an article earlier this month in AJMM about some new hybrid shaman spells that have been developed ...."
"More like rediscovered," one of the staff muttered unhappily. "Damned charlatans claiming they've invented something that tribes used thousands of years ago."
"We can debate the spell's origin and possible plagiarism later," Silva interrupted. It was well-known that the magical healer types, especially those at universities, often exaggerated - the polite term - new findings in order to get published. Silva snorted in disgust and shook his head; he'd left a prestigious research university because he refused to play the 'publish or perish' game. The joke was on them, he added, a tiny smile flickering on his features; he headed a research institution that would make the top two dozen universities taken together look like bumbling amateurs. "I think we should defrost her and try a new healing spell."
"I don't know," Chuck mumbled, wincing. "Drs. Sorenson and Paulson were always very nervous about her case."
Chuck shook his head. "Not that they told me. It's just ... whenever they talked about her case, they got very uneasy."
"But there's nothing in the file?" Silva and a colleague asked simultaneously.
Chuck shook his head. "Nope." He grimaced. "But this is part of file set A419...."
The rest of the staff collectively grimaced.
"A419?" Silva asked, a bit confused.
"Fire in the vault, caused by short circuits when Volta went berserk." Chuck saw the confusion on the director's face. "Energizer, had a nervous breakdown, so she was put in Red Section. It looked like we had her under control, so we were transferring her to federal officials when something tripped. She basically went rager on us. Random energy electrical discharges shorted out half the complex. Her energy discharges destroyed all our on-line records. The short circuits started a dozen fires, including in the hardcopy records backups We saved most of it, but file set A419 ...."
"The Halon ...?"
"Controls shorted. Everything shorted. That bitch could fry EMP-hardened electronics!"
"And she did. Took us four months of intense effort to get all our systems back on line, and we're still doing upgrades to add redundancy and even more EMP hardening," Chuck added.
Silva stared at nothing for a few seconds. "Incomplete file."
"If there is something, healing spells might be risky," one of the senior staff noted unnecessarily.
"On the other hand," another member chimed in, "we need to reduce the power in Red and Black levels while the new power systems are installed."
The director frowned as he thought. "She's a lot lower risk than most of what's in Black. I think she's a candidate for our load-shed exercise. The only drawback I see is that if we thaw her out and it doesn't work, we'll have to refreeze her, and that shortens the odds of a second thaw."
"No next of kin," Chuck read from the file.
"So there's no-one to protest if we try and fail?" Silva asked rhetorically. "I think we should give it a try. Any objections?" When no-one said anything, he closed the file. "Matt, schedule it in Blue Section at your earliest convenience." Seeing the raised eyebrows on some of his staff, Silva continued, "Nothing in the record indicates psychosis or dangerous power. We don't need to tie up any more resources in Red Section."
Early October, 2014
Medical Wing, Blue Level, ARC
The frost on the outside of a transparent cryo-tube hid the occupant from view, but large lettering made it abundantly clear who the occupant was, at least by ARC file number. Two feet of metal caps covered the ends, studded with sensors and displays and control panels. A variety of cables and hoses connected the pod to a heavily-instrumented wall panel, at which four technicians in protective gear worked, monitoring the patient and adjusting controls.
"Ready?" Dr. Tracconi, a tall man in similar protective gear but also wearing a surgical scrub mask beneath a plexiglass splash shield, asked of the technicians. Beside him were two other team members, likewise garbed, preparing for whatever procedure they were about to perform.
"Temperature is holding steady two degrees below critical point," one technician reported, never taking his eyes from the cryo-tube monitors that displayed a huge assortment of critical information.
"Okay. Let's do this," Dr. Tracconi said determinedly. "Start purging the cryo-fluid."
A technician operated a control, and within the tube, barely visible through the frost, a bluish liquid began to rapidly drain from the cryogenic preservation pod.
"Start blood heating." Another technician activated a pump, which started cycling highly-oxygenated synth-blood through a heating apparatus and into the pod, through an insulated pair of tubes directly into the patient's veins. It was the start of a tedious and risky process of slowly warming the patient's body out of cryo-sleep without damaging it. The tube's systems were capable of defrosting a patient by themselves, but the team didn't want to take a chance, so they were closely supervising and using external equipment to be doubly-sure of success.
"Heart is still flatlined."
After twenty agonizing minutes of monitoring the patient, a technician called out, "Temp at critical point."
"Trigger her heart."
A steady rhythymic beeping began to sound, keeping time with pulses of energy the machine directed into the heart muscles through a catheter in her vein to stimulate the heart to beat. "Pulse steady. Blood pressure rising."
"Stand by on the neural trigger."
"No neural activity detected," a technician reported with a bit of concern. In the best case, the patient's neural system would self-trigger into activity when the body reached a critical temperature. The fact that she had no activity yet wasn't necessarily a bad sign.
"Okay, let's get her out of the tube." The whole team sprang into hectic action, first unsealing one end of the tube, and then transferring connections from the end cap directly to sensors and monitors and shunts directly on the patient's body. Two technicians grabbed handles and pulled, sliding the patient on a special stretcher out of the cryo tube, where two more waiting staff members grabbed the opposite end handles. While the pod was pushed rudely aside, another staff wheeled a gurney under the stretcher. Even before the patient was on the gurney, one staff member began to intubate the patient, and oxygen began to pump into the patient's lungs.
"All vitals are steady," one staff member called out, her eyes glued to a bank of bio monitors attached via wireless sensors to the girl.
"Looking good so far," the lead doctor said. He should have known better than to make such a pronouncement; it was inviting trouble - which came.
"She's coding!" the technician announced sharply out while staring at the monitor. "Ventricular fibriliation."
"Defib!" Tracconi ordered.
"Clear!" As soon as she was sure that no-one was touching the patient, the technician triggered one of the monitors to send a stronger shock into the patient's heart. "Still no beat."
Once more, the girl's body convulsed slightly as a shock was directed into the heart. "No joy."
"Probable cardiac damage!"
"Dr. Kumar, you're up," Dr. Tracconi snapped, moving to one side to make room for his colleague.
A short, dark-skinned woman stepped to the forefront and began to work her magics on the patient. From her skin tone and the red dot centered on her brow, she was quite probably from India, although any other hints of her origin, such as clothing, were hidden by the surgical scrubs. Unlike the others with their instruments, though, she had several colorful crystals which she set on the patient's body in critical points, and then she began to incant, ignoring the monitors and technicians and the slight twitching of the patient as essence worked into her injured body.
"Still have vfib."
"Shock again," Tracconi ordered once Dr. Kumar was clear of the patient.
"Clear!" The technician initiated another cardiac shock, her eyes glued to a bank of bio monitors. "It's stable, but we're pacing."
With a confirming nod that she'd heard, Dr. Kumar resumed working her healing magic.
"Let's see if she can do it on her own," Tracconi ordered when the Indian magic-user finished her spell.
The technician adjusted one of her instruments. "No joy."
"EEG is flat," another technician declared.
"Dr. Kumar, get a regeneration spell on her, stat!" Everyone knew the score - if they didn't repair the neurological damage from freezing, the patient was going to die. "Administer the regen complex," he directed. A waiting nurse plunged a needle into a port on the girl's IV line and began to squeeze a large amount of viscous yellowish fluid into the saline solution..
Once more, the shorter woman sprang into action. For a bit, everyone watched in silence as the magic-user invoked a complex and powerful spell.
"We've got some EEG activity!" the technician monitoring brain activity stated as the magic user continued to work on their patient. The mage ignored that and continued her focus on the spell. A mighty convulsion wracked the patient, but as she'd been secured on the backing in the cryo tube, she was in no danger of falling.
Still Dr. Kumar continued her chanting, her expression wary. A single EEG sign was not an indication of success by a long shot. Then she stopped abruptly, a serious and shocked expression on her face. "Something dark here!" Dr. Kumar noted with alarm. "Dark magic!"
One of the team members dashed to the doorway, where, with his elbow, he pressed a large button. "Security team to section B-3. Condition black. Security team to section B-3, condition black!" It was standard protocol that whenever someone with magic insight felt dark magic, the area would be isolated and combat-armed security teams would be dispatched - just in case something powerful and evil happened to be released. For the people in the operating room, there was no escape if that eventuality should come to pass. They all knew it.
For seven long minutes, the doctors monitored the girl's vital signs, administering medicines judiciously to counter any of the wild swings her vital signs were making, trying desperately to keep the girl's body from self-destructing, while the magic practitioner from India continued to administer the rituals to deliver healing essence to the girl, trying to induce regeneration.
"Nothing solid on EEG yet."
"If we don't save her now," the lead doctor noted, "we won't be able to refreeze her and try again later."
Dr. Kumar frowned. "I'm going to have to force-regen her neural system," she declared. Once more, she began to incant her powerful magic, this time focused on the patient's head.
"Neural activity is picking up," the technician reported after a few moments.
"Temperature is one oh one and rising!" one tech reported with alarm.
"Pulse is one eighty and increasing."
"She's burning out!"
"Burnout protocol!" Tracconi shouted unnecessarily. Even before he spoke, the team was invoking the steps necessary to save a mutant patient from burnout. If they didn't get her temperature below one oh four, brain damage was certain, and all their efforts so far would have been wasted. From waiting carts, ice packs were placed all around the patient to try to control the burnout, or at least mitigate the damage a burnout would cause.
"EKG is stable. Pulse stable," a technician reported after a couple of frantic minutes.
"Temp holding at one oh two point five."
Tracconi looked at the magic user questioningly.
"Whatever it was, it's gone," Dr. Kumar reported after focusing for a couple of moments. The entire team sighed heavily with relief.
"We've got solid neural activity," a technician monitoring those instruments finally reported.
Tracconi nodded. The patient was still far from out of the woods. "Let's see if her brain will take over pacing the heart."
With a grim nod, one technician flipped a switch on the monitors, his eyes glued to the instruments displaying the patient's heart activity. "Her brain has picked up cardiac regulation. EKG is steady."
"Well, that's it!" Dr. Kumar finally said, lowering her arms and exhaling heavily. "Now we wait and see."
"Temp one oh two and stable. EKG stable. Pulse eighty-two."
Tracconi simply nodded. There was nothing more he or any of the team members could do. It was now up to the girl on the gurney - either the regeneration and healing spells repaired whatever had gone wrong in the thawing, or she died. There was no middle ground.
The team, still in scrubs but divested of their masks and head coverings, sat at a table, most of them holding cups of coffee.
"Well, that was pleasant," Tracconi finally said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Not!"
"Let's not do that again," the woman who'd been monitoring the vital signs said.
Dr. Silva, the director, said, stuck his head into the break room. "How'd it go?"
The team gawked at him, their expressions showing their fatigue. "I don't know what it was, but that was definitely not fun."
"I don't get it," Dr. Tracconi shook his head in disbelief. "That protocol has been used a dozen times successfully, with no report of events like we just had."
"What happened?" Silva asked.
Tracconi exhaled heavily. "There's nothing routine about defrosting a patient. She coded, and we had to use regeneration magic and devisor drugs to keep her alive."
"Boss!" Chuck burst into the break room, holding a printed piece of paper. "I just got this e-mail from Dr. Sorenson." He shoved the paper into Silva's hands.
The director's eyes widened and his jaw dropped as he read the paper, blood draining from his face. Every hair on his body was standing on end from the extreme chill which had coursed up and down his spine multiple times.
In response, Silva silently handed the note to the team lead. As he read it, Tracconi paled. "The shaman ... that came in with her," he finally stammered, the look in his eyes registering surprise and worry, "reported to Dr. Sorenson that the brain wiping was done by Mythos magic." He saw the shock register on the entire team's faces. "We just dodged a bullet," he managed to squeak out.
"Of all the things to not be in her file!" the director managed to say once his shock subsided enough to allow him to speak.
"Final item. What's the status on our ... experiment?" Silva hit the last item on the morning staff briefing's agenda.
"Full burnout. Level 4, but we have it under control," Dr. Tracconi, the lead doctor of the team tending to the girl, reported.
"Her body is probably changing, but we don't know into what!"
"Remanifestation, maybe?" Silva speculated.
"This is new territory for us. I've never heard of anything like this." Tracconi sighed. "You want a suggestion?"
"I'm going to get it either way, aren't I?"
"Yup." The doctor paused a moment. "Call Whateley. See if we can borrow a couple of their power theory boffins for a couple of days."
"Okay," Silva acknowledged. He wasn't so conceited that he wouldn't reach out for help when his team was over their heads - which they all knew they were. "I'll give them a call as soon as we're done here."
"Remarkable!" Dr. Aranis from Whateley said as he gazed down on the young woman. "It appears that she's younger than her calendar age!"
"We estimate that her physiological age is mid-teens," Dr. Silva, standing beside the Whateley powers genius, reported. "And it hasn't stopped. She's still getting younger - and the rate of age loss is unpredictable. From her old MID, she was only a Wiz-3 rating," Aranis commented. "So she doesn't have a BIT that is resetting."
"Then ... what?"
"Dr. Hewley and I speculate, from the evidence, that she's actually de-manifesting!"
"What? That's ... impossible!" Dr. Tracconi gaped at the words.
"That's what we've all been taught. And yet," Aranis looked away from Silva toward a random ceiling tile, "there's so much about mutations that we don't understand." He made a sound that was halfway between a snort and a chuckle. "What if it is possible?"
"If we could demanifest ragers and other dangerous power ...."
Hewley's grimace spoke volumes. "The MCO and their like would find a way to demanifest every mutant."
The director nodded with a serious frown. "As of right now, every bit of documentation, every conversation, everything about this is classified. Access is need to know, TS or higher clearance, my level or higher approval only." Silva looked at his aide. "Activate countermeasures, then have security start a full sweep of this level, and have them debrief all staff who have had any contact with the patient or documentation."
Chuck nodded grimly. "Yes, sir."
Medical Wing, Blue Level, ARC
"How fast?" Dr. Sorenson, back from the conference and a subsequent vacation and walking beside Dr. Tracconi, asked. With them were Dr. Hewley from Whateley and two staff members.
"We're not completely certain ...." Hewley cut off his words when the group turned a corner and were faced a security checkpoint for Blue Level's controlled access area. Two armed guards stood by a reinforced door and a badge scanner. One at a time, the party inserted badges into a reader, typed in a personal ID number onto a keypad, and then looked into a retinal and facial scanner. When a green LED lit up on the panel, accompanied by a heavy metallic click as the lock mechanism was released, the person went through the door, then waited for the rest of the team to scan in.
"We're not certain that she's reverting in age," Hewley continued the conversation that had been interrupted by the checkpoint.
"What else could it be?" Sorenson snorted in disbelief. "To my eyes, she's visibly younger than the photos immediately after she was thawed."
"I haven't noticed any change ..."
Sorenson shook her head. "Her age loss is slow enough that you wouldn't see it day-to-day." She glanced and saw the looks of disbelief on Hewley's and Tracconi's faces. "Besides, you men don't notice the subtle changes in a woman's features and body associated with aging."
Tracconi's jaw dropped, then he nodded. "You've got a point. But it's possible that it's not age reversal, but that she's gained a BIT."
"A remanifestation?" Hewley gaped at Dr. Sorenson. "That's ...." He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. "I would say that's impossible, but we all deal with mutations, and we all know there's no such thing as impossible when mutations are involved."
"I see you've done some limited testing for powers," Dr. Sorenson continued to read from the file.
"Correct. There is no detectable affinity for essence, so it's safe to say that she no longer has a Wiz rating. There's no detectable energy fields, so she isn't an external energizer, and highly doubtful that she has an internal energizer trait." Hewley shrugged. "As to any other powers, we won't be able to test anything until she's consciously able to participate."
The group turned into one of the patient rooms, where a young woman lay in a hospital bed with side railings that were more reminiscent of the sides of a crib. Her arms and legs moved around haphazardly, and her head turned toward the sound and sight of people entering her room. There was no look of recognition, however. It was more the curious look of an infant who was taking in a cacophony of sights and colors and motion.
Dr. Sorenson frowned at the sight. "She needs a bigger bed with much higher railings," she said sternly. Once more, she read the expressions of her male colleagues. "I almost went into pediatrics, so I have a lot of background coursework on child development. From your reports, I know what the situation is. She's essentially got a newborn's brain in her body. She needs a crib so she can safely move her limbs and scoot and roll around."
"That makes sense."
"She needs simple color and shape stimulation, like a crib mobile." She turned toward the bed to look more closely at the patient, and she smiled when the girl's blue eyes locked onto her and then tracked her head motion as the doctor slowly moved above the girl's face. The doctor then began to gently touch the girl's limbs and torso, watching the reactions.
When Dr. Sorenson finished her exam, the three doctors huddled to discuss the case. Because of her experience, the two male doctors deferred to Dr. Sorenson, and readily agreed to changes in the room's layout.
Within a day, the patient's bed more resembled a vastly-oversized crib, complete with a couple of crib mobiles. The incessant beeping of the monitors was hushed, replaced by soft background music. Most importantly, a nurse was now constantly present, like a nanny, to provide stimulation of the girl and to monitor all the health probes and devices attached to the girl. They were tending a newborn in an adult body.
Secure Conference Room, Blue Level, ARC
"Welcome back," Dr. Silva addressed the trio of Whateley staff who had joined his own staff.
"We appreciate your generosity in letting us participate in this case." Dr. Polland and Dr. Aranis represented the power labs from Whateley, and Dr. Ted Rascomb represented the Doyle Medical Center at Whateley. The fact that three of the academy's top researchers were at the meeting gave hint to the importance of the meeting.
"Let's get right to it, then, okay?" When the others nodded, Dr. Silva sat down and Dr. Sorenson rose. "Her age regression is variable, judging from physiological standards of height and weight for girls and women and based on her old medical records." She tapped a spot on her laptop and the image sprang to life on a wall display screen. "As you can see, the patient's height and weight track the seventieth percentile of the CDC chart for female development, and the correlation with her old records is nearly perfect."
"What's her estimated physiological age now?" Dr. Rascomb asked the obvious.
"Approximately eleven and a half years." Dr. Sorenson tapped her laptop again, and a sequence of pictures lit up the screen. "The photographs are one day apart, and the computer has corrected the size and angle according to the background grid you see." As the image stepped forward, the girl visibly lost age and size. The display froze on the last image, a picture of a cute little blonde-haired pre-teen girl.
"Is the regression still proceding?" Dr. Hewley asked.
"So far, yes."
When Dr. Sorenson sat down, another ARC staff member spoke up. "We done full gene sequencing when we revived her, and the result is an exact match with the sample you provided us."
"Is it possible her genome has changed since?" Dr. Polland queried.
"We tested her DNA every couple of weeks. It's invariant, except for a few genes associated with normal maturation processes being switched on or off as the regression progresses."
"Your power testing results?" Dr. Hewley piped up.
"So far, no signs of manifested powers."
Dr. Sorenson clicked her laptop, and the projected display showed what appeared to be a live cam shot of the girl's room, which appeared to be a freakishly-oversized baby girl's room. In it, a caregiver was playing with the girl on the floor, watching over her charge as she rolled and tried to crawl around the room.
"We have her on a schedule that's very heavy on stimulation whenever she's awake. Wake, eat, play, nap. She's taking a thirty-minute nap ever three hours, and she sleeps six hours at night."
"She's ahead of the standard for a newborn's mental development, but that's not surprising. We've observed the same phenomenon several times, like the Wildman case. She's making rudimentary sounds. She laughs. She is starting to crawl. She can grab an object in front of her." Dr. Sorenson smiled to herself. "She already recognizes the color blue, and has associated it with the word. If I hold two blocks in front of her, one red and one blue, and I say the word blue, she tries to grasp the blue block."
"Have you tried any projective telepathy or empathy with her?"
"No. The literature varies widely on how helpful that is to early childhood development, so I don't want to take any chances." For the next several minutes, Dr. Sorenson discussed her plan to develop her patient's mental abilities.
When there was nothing left to discuss on that topic, Dr. Polland turned the subject to the causes. "We've been working with HPARC ...."
"As have we," Silva added.
"Um, yes, I understand," Polland stammered. "There were multiple casualties in the ... incident ... whose injuries were similar to those of your patient. They attempted a healing, and the results were, to say the least, catastrophic. Seven dead, twenty-five million damage to the facility."
Dr. Silva frowned. "I thought I read about a few cases - back around 2008 - where a shaman healed some ... boys, I think it was ... who'd had similar brain injuries."
Sorenson sighed. "Those cases were caused by the sons of the demon, not the demon itself. The working theory is that the mythos 'taint' is much more severe when it's caused by the demon. The boys were healed because their brain injuries weren't as badly tainted, and the shaman successfully cleaned the taint."
Dr. Hewley nodded. "And we all know that healing magic with mythos injuries is a bad combination."
"We have a faculty member who was injured by the same demon," Polland added. "Even though there's no detectable dark magic left, nothing that has been tried has been able to heal her."
"I'm familiar with that," Tracconi commented. "I've consulted with your medical center on that case."
"Our working theory is that in this case, the mythos contamination has had the same effect that imposing a BIT would have," an ARC staff member observed.
"There are no signs of an active BIT," Hewley replied with a bit of a scowl.
"You've had a few notable cases of mutants age-regressing because of a BIT, right? That ... strange little goth girl a few years ago?" Tracconi countered. He didn't notice that the Whateley staff members stiffened and frowned at his comment. Whateley tended to very closely guard the secrets of its students. "I'm just saying that it wouldn't be unheard of for her to have had some kind of BIT imposed."
Dr. Silva decided it was time for him to intervene in the lively discussion. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to observe and wait until she's able to speak and control herself so we can see if she has any powers. Until we see something different, we're going on the assumption that she hasn't had a BIT imposed."
Blue Level, ARC
"No!" The girl very awkwardly threw a red ball away from the woman in the room with her. "No!" Her cute little face was bunched up in a big pout, with her lower lip stuck out as to emphasize the girl's defiance.
"Valerie," the woman said with a heavy sigh, "you need to play catch with me. It's important." She knew that the girl had to learn muscular coordination, and that the games she played with the girl would help develop motor skills, but when the girl was being obstinate, it was hard to make progress.
"No!" The girl turned abruptly away from the woman, and lacking good coordination, promptly fell on her side. Fortunately, the floors were well-padded, so the girl did little more than bump her arm and head lightly. For a moment, she looked puzzled and her pout deepened, and then the girl's mouth opened and she began to wail as tears poured from her eyes.
The nanny scooped up the girl into her arms, cradling her in her lap and comforting her. "It's okay, Valerie," she cooed softly, her demeanor having instantly changed from semi-stern instructor to loving caregiver. "It'll stop hurting in a moment or two."
In an adjoining room, behind a large two-way mirror, Dr. Sorenson and Dr. Silva observed the girl as the nanny tried to play with her. "Terrible twos," Dr. Sorenson said with a mild chuckle.
"You said she's making progress," Silva said with a scowl.
"She is," Sorenson replied. "She's picking up language very quickly. She's speaking words that take an average baby two years to pick up."
"She's certainly mastered the word 'no'!" Silva noted with a bit of sarcasm, before his countenance mellowed. "Any predictions on how fast she'll get up to age? Or how far she'll develop?"
Dr. Sorenson shook her head. "No clue. Fortunately for her, the neural connectivity in her brain is very plastic so she's picking up things very fast. That might be an effect of the induced regeneration."
"How long will that last?"
"We don't know. It might be a few days, or it might be a permanent condition." She shrugged. "It could wear off in ten minutes. We just don't have any experience with this."
"So you're cramming as much into her as you can to take advantage of it, in case the effect wears off?"
As they watched and listened, the nanny's cooing and tender ministrations had soothed the upset girl and her tears stopped. But the two staff members weren't in the observation room to watch a nanny playing with her charge. Like it was scripted, the door opened and a woman walked in, closing the door behind herself. She fixed her gaze on the girl, who with the nanny had turned to look at the newcomer.
The newcomer was dressed in a buckskin dress, her long dark hair braided and tied with bands of intricate beadwork that matched the adornments on her dress. She started upon seeing the young girl and gulped uneasily, as if the girl was a reminder of something unpleasant. It was with visible effort that she recomposed herself. With the girl staring at her the newcomer walked over and then went down to her knees to be more face-to-face with the girl.
With a fearful expression, the girl drew back into the arms of her nanny, despite the efforts of the newcomer to reach out to her. Eventually, though, she was convinced to hug the buckskin-clad woman, who was very visibly fighting distress.
After a minute or so of hugging, the woman opened a pouch and extracted some materials, crushing dried herbs and plants into a small gourd-like cup as she chanted something that Silva and Sorenson, in the observation room, couldn't hear, and all the while the little girl watched with nervous fascination.
As the nanny held the little girl, the woman dipped her finger in the cup and with the girl watching her very nervously, painted some on the girl's forehead and cheeks. Then she sat down cross-legged and began to sing another spell. For nearly thirty seconds, the shaman and the girl seemed fixed in place and unmoving, and then both flinched as if startled, and the girl dove into the arms of her nanny, quite probably crying judging by her expression.
After trying to sooth the girl and apologize, the buckskin-clad girl rose gracefully and left the room, pausing in the door to look back at the girl, heartbreak writ large on her otherwise pretty features.
Moments later, the girl entered the observation room with the two ARC staff. She paused to look again at the girl, and she sighed and wiped at a tear that was trying to trickle from one eye.
"What's the verdict?" Dr. Silva asked, businesslike and unemotional.
"I can't find any trace of mythos contamination," the shaman-girl reported sadly. "But then again, I was dead-certain that she was clean before you did the healing."
"How did this slip past, then?"
"I guess I'm not infallible," the shaman admitted sadly. "At least she's got a life ahead of her. It could have been a lot worse." She shuddered involuntarily as she spoke the last words; she'd seen, first-hand, the results of some magic on mythos-contaminated people. "I'll review what I found with your staff mage. Maybe she'll spot something that I can't see."
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
The headmistress opened the door to her office with a smile on her face. "We'll meet in my conference room, down this way," she said to the three people waiting, gesturing with her arm down a short corridor to the conference room that was a part of the administrative offices suite.
One of the admin staff followed the group into the conference room. "Would you like some coffee or tea?" After noting the requests she ducked back out of the room. Before all the introductions were done, she returned with a tray of drinks, which she set before all the guests and left, closing the door behind her.
"Well, Dr. Silva," Liz Carson began, looking at a hardcopy printout from a folder in front of her, "I read the summary report you sent over." She looked up at the ARC group. "I have to note that you used quite a few words to say very little." She watched, secretly amused, as the ARC director flinched as if he was being disciplined by a school marm. "I understand the sensitivity of the case, but our researchers have been assisting you whenever you asked, so I think more details are warranted."
"Mrs. Carson," Dr. Silva began, his voice smooth as satin, "we really appreciate the assistance from Whateley Academy, and hope to continue a fruitful relationship in the future. I assure you that the lack of information in the summary was not intended as a slight, but rather a security precaution, in case the message, or a copy thereof, ended up in unwanted hands."
"MCO," Mrs. Carson said firmly.
"Among others. Because her injury was caused by mythos magic, the magically-induced regeneration caused unpredictable outcomes, including her demanifestation."
"And you're convinced that if they got their hands on that information, the MCO might attempt to create a device to force demanifestation of mutants?"
"If you were the MCO, wouldn't you?" Dr. Tracconi asked.
"Touchè," Mrs. Carson replied with a wry smile.
"Her physical changes have finally stabilized - we think. Based on height-weight charts and her old medical records, we estimate she's physically between four and four and a half years of age."
"She's gaining knowledge rapidly. Dr. Sorenson is using the best methods known to teach and stimulate her brain. Her motor development is equivalent to that of a three-year-old. Her speech is a little ahead of a three-year-old. Emotionally ... well, let's just say that she's lagging worst in that area. She's rather shy ...."
"That doesn't sound like the Valerie Hinson I knew from her Whateley days."
"After such a complete brain wipe, I have no doubt but that she's developing a completely different personality," Dr. Sorenson chimed in.
"So how can we help?" Mrs. Carson cut to the chase, asking the question that the ARC group had been tap-dancing around.
Dr. Silva exchanged a nervous glance with Dr. Sorenson. "Well, among other things, she needs a new identity."
"Given what has happened, yes, that's sensible." Mrs. Carson reached for a desk phone and pushed a button. "Ms. Hartford, could you join us in the conference room?" Moments later, Amelia Hartford entered the room and sat near the headmistress. After introductions, Mrs. Carson summarized the situation.
"So you need a set of papers for her? Birth certificate, SSN? Probably a baptism certificate to make it look more complete," Ms. Hartford conjectured.
"We can get them through our contacts," Dr. Silva noted with a frown. "But that would leave records in the government that ... given what's happened, I think we'd all prefer weren't there."
"I agree," Mrs. Carson said with a nod.
"You have a reputation of being able to ... find ... documentation when necessary," Silva continued. "Without leaving traces."
Mrs. Carson allowed herself a small smile as she shot a glance at Ms. Hartford. "Well?"
"Should be relatively easy," Ms. Hartford said confidently. "The more time I have to work, the fewer tracks there might be."
"It would probably be helpful to have some medical records ginned up to cover some early year doctor visits - the usual things like ear infections, vaccinations," Sorenson added.
"I presume she will be an orphan," Hartford continued. "I can get something worked up for parents who are tragically deceased. I would suggest you put her address in a small Midwestern city. It'll be much less likely that anyone will be searching through the records and accidentally see something that would trigger some intervention by Child Protective Services."
"The parents will have to be New Hampshire residents," Mrs. Carson noted, "or members of the Medawihla tribe. Otherwise, we'll run into issues relating to her custody."
"Good point," Silva replied. "That's a good segue into our next problem."
"What to do with her," Mrs. Carson said with a grim expression.
"Exactly. We would prefer to have her near a research center like ARC or HPARC since we don't know what's going to happen as she re-matures. She might manifest again, and if she does, she might have radically different powers."
"So you'd like to keep her close to monitor her development, correct?" Mrs. Carson asked.
"I know Dr. Aranis and I would like to be able to monitor her, since she is such an unusual case," Dr. Hewley, seated to Mrs. Carson's right, spoke up somewhat insistently.
"But she needs parents, not scientists studying her," Dr. Sorenson countered.
"And am I safe in assuming that there aren't any prospective parents in your staff?" Ms. Hartford speculated, quite accurately it turned out.
The headmistress exchanged a glance with her assistant. "Let's take this one step at a time. First thing is to re-educate her and get paperwork. I suspect it'll be a while before you think she's ready to be placed with a family," Mrs. Carson finally suggested.
"Yes, I agree," Silva replied with a nod.
Blue Level, ARC
"You think she'll be ready?"
Dr. Sorenson nodded in response to Mrs. Carson's question. Mrs. Carson and Dr. Aranis were with the ARC team to discuss the special patient. "Yes. Mentally, she's doing some first-grade work. She's very proud of being able to read some of her favorite Dr. Seuss books," she added with a smile at how her patient was learning. "She's very curious."
"Her coordination and motor skills are lagging a little bit, but she's progressing very rapidly. She's also a very determined little girl."
"Well, now, that's the weak spot," Dr. Sorenson admitted grudgingly. "Emotionally, she's probably about three and a half. She's going to be a challenge for whoever we place her with."
"Do you have any possibilities for placement?" Mrs. Carson asked.
Sorenson shook her head. "No. We've interviewed all our candidate staff, and all have ... issues."
"Once we explained the ... potential complications and her special needs, all of the potential volunteers backed out. The fact that she's probably going to manifest and that her, um, condition is a result of mythos magic is a huge deterrent."
Mrs. Carson nodded grimly. "Understandable. We've found the same reservations on candidate families."
"Well, we need to find something!" Sorenson blurted out in frustration.
"Agreed. We're still working on it."
"Is there anything else?" Silva asked, looking around the room.
"No, I can't think of anything," Mrs. Carson reported. Dr. Aranis likewise shook his head.
"Well, then, I think we can adjourn. I'd hate to keep you away from all your paperwork at Whateley," Silva said with a sly grin.
Mrs. Carson resisted the impulse to roll her eyes at Dr. Silva. "And no doubt you have your own share of forms to fill out and file," she deadpanned.
"Touchè," Silva grinned.
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"Did you get ahold of Walt?" Mrs. Carson asked of her staff. Ms. Hartford, Mrs. Shugendo, and Ms. Claire occupied part of the less formal conversation group that made up part of the Headmistress' office furniture.
"Yes," Amelia Hartford replied. "No joy. They've both retired from the heroing business, and he isn't coming back to the US. We don't want to deal with the various French ministries and the State Department to get them custody. I also got the distinct impression that they're in no hurry to start a family."
Mrs. Carson nodded. "After Unhcegila? I can't say that I blame them.
"Debra? They're residents of New York City. Besides, no CPS office in any state would allow a same-sex partnership to foster a child, let alone adopt one."
"Don is single, RF's wife would never accept a mutant. And Catapult?" She shook her head sadly. "He's ... he never got over seeing Ping Pong and Farm Boy killed. He's ...."
"Understand," Mrs. Shugendo relieved Ms. Carson of having to specifically spell out the youngest hero's mental problems.
"That leaves the Bartons," Ms. Hartford suggested hopefully.
With a grimace, Mrs. Carson shook her head. "No, not with her condition. It wouldn't be fair to either Vanessa or Val."
"Would it hurt to ask them?" Mrs. Shugendo asked softly.
The Headmistress shook her head. "I'd rather not. Knowing Jake and Vanessa, they'd accept out of a sense of obligation to Valerie, even if it caused them more problems for their marriage."
Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy
"You wanted to see us, Elaine?" Jake Barton asked poking his head into the Dean of Students' office
"Come in and have a seat. Is Vanessa with you?"
Vanessa Barton drove her power chair in behind her husband. "Yes, I'm here."
"Can you close the door please?"
With a shrug in place of his curiosity, Jake shut the door and then eased his bulk into a chair. "What can we do for you?" he asked.
Elaine Claire winced. "It's not so much for me," she replied. "It's someone you know that needs some help."
Jake glanced at his wife, who shared his puzzled look. "Who?"
"Valerie Hinson," Elaine said slowly, watching their expressions.
"Card Trick?" Vanessa blurted out. "But ... she's ..."
"ARC had a mage come in with a new healing spell. It ... restarted her brain. She has to learn everything again, but she's making very good progress."
Jake frowned deeply. "That sounds like a job for ARC, not us."
"There was a complication," Elaine said cautiously. "Because her injury was caused by mythos magic, there was an interaction with the healing spell. She ... she's not the young lady you knew."
Vanessa glanced at Jake, her eyes wide with surprise and concern. "What ... what is she?" she asked, fear in her voice. Everyone who was a mage, like Vanessa, knew what happened when any kind of magic mixed with mythos magic.
"Oh, she's human," Elaine replied quickly. "The problem is that she de-manifested, and the magic combination put her in a low-level burnout which ... made her age regress."
"She's younger?" Jake stammered in disbelief. "How young?"
"About five," Elaine answered, trying her best to keep a neutral expression.
"So, you're asking us if we can care for a five-year-old girl who happens to be a younger version of our former teammate?" Vanessa asked bluntly.
"Yes. We ... we know it would be a burden ..."
"Mrs. Carson was working the issue with ARC. We couldn't find anyone who'd foster her."
"A few reasons. First, you know her."
"We knew her," Vanessa corrected. "Kayda told us that if she ever recovered, she'd be a completely different person."
"Second, you're at Whateley, which gives our power testing labs access to her."
"Why would that be important?" Vanessa asked, perplexed.
"She demanifested," Jake answered with certainty. "That's ... huge."
"And third, being here, it's easy to keep her condition secret."
Vanessa bit her lower lip as she thought. "I don't know," she muttered softly. "It'd be ... very difficult."
Jake, however, was already shaking his head. "I don't want to put more burden on Vanessa. It wouldn't be fair to her. Or to Valerie."
"Can you at least think about it?" Elaine was practically begging them.
The Bartons exchanged a glance, and then Jake nodded. "I guess we can do that."
Barton's Apartment, The Village
"I need to ask you something, Lanie," Vanessa said hesitantly to her red-haired neighbor.
"What's it like ... being a parent?"
Elaine Cody winced; she dreaded these kinds of discussions with Vanessa. The injury that had paralyzed her had left her infertile, and it was clear that Elaine's kids were sometimes a bitter reminder that the Bartons would never have children. "It's ... it's a mixed blessing," she finally admitted.
"You've seen how much trouble they cause our sitter, right?" Lanie chuckled. "They're always up to something, and sometimes it's a struggle to stay ahead of them. Sometimes they are frustrating, and then they do something so angelic that it melts my heart." She frowned. "Why?"
"No reason," Vanessa lied.
"Vanessa, tell me the truth," Lanie shot right back. "Ah can tell you've got something on your mind." When Vanessa hesitated, Elaine frowned at her. "Vanessa!"
"It's Valerie - Card Trick," Vanessa admitted. "They found a healing spell that restarted her brain function."
"But ... what does that have to do with ...?"
"It also caused her to demanifest and reset her age to around five," Vanessa finished. "They need to find a foster family for her."
"And you're considering ...?"
Vanessa Barton nodded, a solemn look on her face. "Jake doesn't like the idea. He thinks it'll be too much of a burden for me."
"He's right," Lanie shot back solemnly. "With your disability, a five-year-old would be a huge challenge."
"But you'd do it? If you were in my shoes?"
Mrs. Cody bit her lip, flinching. "Um, yeah," she finally admitted.
"Do you think ... maybe Laura would mind helping? Based on how she interacts with your kids?"
Lanie chuckled. "She loves kids and they love her. Yeah, Ah think she'd be a huge help." Then she grinned. "But if you think I'm going to let you hog our sitter, you better think again!"
Vanessa nodded, then looked away. For several awkward moments, she sat silently, staring at the living room curtains. "This may be my only chance," she finally said softly. "I ... I want to be a mother."
"You already made up your mind, haven't you?"
"Does Jake know? What you've decided, Ah mean?"
"I think he does."
Several hours later, after Elaine had gone home, the Bartons were snuggling on the sofa. Vanessa was being unusually quiet, and Jake couldn't help but notice. "What's on your mind, hon?"
"I was just thinking," Vanessa started, and then halted, not quite sure how to present her views to her husband. She knew he was very protective of her, and that he'd be against anything that would be too burdensome to her.
"You were thinking that you want to foster Valerie," Jake said with certainty after a moment of silence. "Right?"
"Yes," Vanessa answered softly.
"It's going to be tough."
"And you still want to go through with it?"
Vanessa nodded slowly. "Yeah."
Jake lay silent for several seconds, staring at the ceiling, before he turned his head toward his wife. "Okay. Tomorrow we'll go talk to Elaine Claire and get started on whatever paperwork we need to fill out."
Vanessa turned to look at her husband, love and thanks gleaming in her eyes. "Thank you."
Jake chuckled. "Remember this when Valerie is being a brat and more than a handful."
Vanessa smiled. "And no doubt you'll remind me, won't you?"
FIN (for now)