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Hard Being Pure - Part 1

 by GrimGrendel

1: Lighthearted Fretting

Thursday at noon, May 19th
School

When Magnolia stared at her ripped out stomach floating about in the toilet bowl, drenched in blood and vomit and bits of her last meal, she refused to think. She stopped thinking about the screams of the other girls in the school's bathroom around her. She ignored the movements of the paramedics and teachers running around in panic as they tried in vain to keep the rest of the curious students outside the door, and she tried for the life of her to distract herself from the intense pain and void that grasped her very being, spreading from that one spot where said organ was missing.

She couldn't do anything but draw a blank. Otherwise, she would have to admit the inevitable reality of facing death at the age of fourteen.

If only it had been a simple cold like Magnolia first thought.


Two days earlier, Tuesday evening, May 17th
Magnolia's house

“I'm home!”

The sound of the door closing shut was soon followed by quick steps aiming straight for the entrance. Nathan barely had the time to remove his shoes that he was tackled and hugged by a grinning Magnolia.

“Hey, Mags.”

“Don't make us worry like that!” she pouted happily.

“Good to see you too. Now, can you give me a few seconds to remove my jacket?”

Magnolia reluctantly let go of her big brother and let him enter the house proper. Their mother was there, coming just a few moments after the energetic little girl. Nathan gave a greeting hug to his mother like they usually did.

“How do you feel?” his mother inquired.

“Better. Good enough that I can go back to school tomorrow, and start working again this weekend.”

“You still need to take it easy and get some rest,” Magnolia was quick to add.

“You sound just like my doctor.” The three of them made their way to the living room and sat on couches and chairs. Magnolia sat next to Nathan, while Judith sat in front of them both, at an angle on a comfy armchair.

“That's because when your nurse called to let us know when you would be released, she left some instructions for the following weeks at home,” Magnolia replied, trying and failing to sound professional like a full-fledged doctor while she did so.

“Man, they worry too much.” Nathan gave a laugh at his sister’s poor imitation, which while bad did serve to make a point. ”They gave me those instructions too. Not that I really need them, since I already know what to do. Take a few naps if I feel like it? Sleep well? Drink a lot of water? Those are all things I do already.”

“You should worry more! Pneumonia is serious business!” Magnolia's face turned serious as to punctuate the statement, but immediately after reverted to her normal happiness to get her brother back after two weeks.

“It's not the first time Nathan had pneumonia, Noa.” her mother interjected. “There was one time he was just sick enough to need a few antibiotics and he stayed at home for close to a week. And there was that other time where he had to go to the hospital a few years back.”

“I remember neither of those. For me, this is the first time I saw Nat having pneumonia. Or at least a serious case.” She let herself drop down in his lap, holding her brother close as if he could disappear at any moment. Her head resting comfortably on his thighs, she let out a grumbling mumble. “I was worried you know.”

“I know.” Nathan gently started to stroke Magnolia's long brown hair. She closed her eyes, enjoying the gentle touch. Judith looked at the two with a motherly smile. “But it's no big deal. I've had worse.”

“That's exactly why I always worry about you!”

“You know,” Nathan started changing the subject, “I met this very cute nurse back there, that just happens to go to the same university as me.”

“Nat!” Magnolia let out in warning tone, as if saying 'Don't start on this again'. She did not want to let go of her comfortable position, so instead she just let out a small friendly growl, still laying on Nathan's knee. He kept stroking her hair with just a tiny bit more vigor, and she could just guess the teasing smile he had on his lips.

“Oh! It's been a while. How is she? Care to introduce her to us?”

“Mom? Not you too!” Magnolia rose up, groaning. Judith was smiling in a similar fashion as Nathan. Magnolia was not sure however if she was teasing her, playing along with Nathan, or putting on an ironic smile while she was really thinking 'Not again'.

“Her name is Shelly. She's in the Nursing Care Program, and she's working part-time at the hospital for her internship.”

“So after Natasha and Elizabeth, she's what? The third one you met at the hospital?” Okay, now she was definitely going for that 'Not again' kind of smile.

Nathan went on the defensive. “Hey, I've seen her on and off for a while now. We kept bumping into each other at the hospital for the last two months, and these last two weeks I got to see her a lot more. It's only normal that we'll eventually go talk over a coffee at some point.”

Judith was not impressed. “Huh uh. Just try to keep it professional at least. I didn't mind Natasha, because she was another patient, but remember what happened with Elizabeth.”

Nathan raised up his hands, conceding the point. “I know. I will be more careful this time around.” Throwing a sideway glance to Magnolia, his grin got larger. “I'll at least wait until she finishes her internship there.”

“Eww!! Gross!!” She took a pillow and swung it up at her laughing brother, who caught it before it hit his face. “Keep the innuendos for yourself.”

“You should get a boyfriend too, Mags. This way you'll be able to throw innuendos of your own.”

“You would enjoy that too much.” She crossed her arms and turned to the side, refusing to fall for her brother's words. “And stop calling me Mags. You know I like Noa better.”

“Sure, Mags.” The playfully annoyed look in her eyes was worth the next pillow throw.

“Just do like Mom! She has no problem calling me Noa.”

Her mother nodded, before adding “Mags sounds too much like my own mother. Noa is more appropriate for your age I think.”

“Well, if grandma is anything to go by, I think 'Mags' suits you best. You definitely have the granny attitude.”

Nathan was pushed into the cushions behind him by a mischievous Magnolia. She struggled to hit him without really meaning to hurt him, pushing a pillow up to his face as if to make him eat it. She was met with a stubornly closed mouth and no short amount of resistance. The two of them were half brawling on the couch, half laughing their heart out, calling each other absurd names and antagonizing each other playfully. Judith appreciated the sight for a moment longer, glad that Nathan was safely back home and that her family was again back together. It was a nice way to allow Magnolia to wash over her worry of the past two weeks.

When the two of them got tired enough of their little struggle to flop down on the couch and just take a break, Judith stood up. “I'll start preparing dinner.”

Dinner was lively. Noa described her past weeks at school, how she got to dissect a frog in her biology class, the boys that were trying to get her attention but that did it in very stupid ways, her pain staying awake in French class, and the cool end of year project in science. When she got to the science project she leaned forward, almost bouncing in her seat.

“They have this big 3-meter-wide square area in which the competition will take place. They'll throw a bunch of coins in it and spread them out about evenly. We need to build a machine that will collect the highest amount of coins in two minutes, using only mechanical energy to move around, like gravity, springs, and stuff like that. Carol and I are thinking of magnets to catch the nickels and quarters, and maybe one of those dusting roller things? The sticky ones you used to clean your dress shirt? We will use that to gather the coins we missed with the magnet.” Every student in her grade would be participating, and there would be prizes for those that ranked first in their class. The team's pairing was also open, which allowed her to tag with her best friend Carol even though they are in different classes.

“Are Carol and you the only ones on your team?” asked her mom, while taking a bite at her plate.

“Most other teams have three or four members, but we are fine with just the two of us. The prizes are team based, so the less of us, the more we will each gain.”

“Assuming you win something,” retorted her brother, but she just ignored his comment.

“And we thought about our team design. The dusting rollers we bought are already pastel blue, and Carol recently dyed her hair pink, and it looks very nice on her.” Noa could see she had her mother's attention now, if she did not already have it before. “And since my favorite color is purple, we are thinking of having blue, pink and purple on our coin-catcher and our banner.”

“That's a nice set of colors you two have there.” Judith's words were posed, letting on that she knew what would be coming next.

“So I'd like to dye my hair purple, to go with Carol and to match our color theme.”

“You suggested this before.” Her mother was avoiding an answer.

“You should get the top of your hair dyed black,” suggested her brother, “and have the purple flow down in layers, from dark purple mixed with the black near the middle of your cut, into gradually more vivid purple as it reaches the tip of your hair. I know a girl with that look, and it rocks!”

“Nathan, don't give her ideas.” Judith might have been against the idea, but it was clear that Nathan was all in favor. She wondered if it had to do with one of his past girlfriends, or if it was just a short lived adolescent thrill. Noa might be too young to really worry about the consequences, but dyed hair made it harder to get a job, and it was only one example of the many kinds of profiling she might subject herself to.

Nathan looked at Noa and whispered. “If you can get some nice curls along with the color, you'll make all the boys at school turn heads.” His voice was not so low that Judith could not hear, only so low as to give the impression of a dark confidant sharing his secrets. Judith let out a sigh, giving up in front of Nathan's tomfoolery. “You should go for it,” he said, on a normal tone of voice again.

Noa looked expectantly at her mother, trying to do cute puppy eyes. Her friends kept telling her about the power of the puppy eyes, but for some reason she was never quite able to look cute enough to get favors and special treatment.

“Give me a few weeks to think about it.”

Case in point. In mother tongue, this meant a solid 'no', and it was reasonable enough an answer that Noa could not really be pushier about it. It left just enough hope that, if she behaved like a good girl for the next few weeks, she might get her reward, so Noa did not say anything more.

Her mom surprised her when she brought up Noa’s attention back to something that completely slipped her mind. “Are you not going to eat?”

The plate in front of her, barely touched, had cooled enough that no more steam was emanating from it, which made it look a lot less appetizing. Noa had been playing with it, scrambling the different parts together without really bringing bites to her mouth. Her mom and brother's plates were already empty, and she realized that they were waiting for her.

“You talked so much about this coin-catcher project that you forgot to eat! It's rare I see you this excited.” Her brother said, deciding that the best course of action was to leave the table and clean the dishes. Her mom followed his lead, gathering the leftovers into the fridge.

“Can you clean the table after you finish?” Judith asked.

“Yes mom.” Noa returned her attention to her plate, and took a bite, but for some reason she was not really hungry. She took a few more bites of the salad and gravy-coated mashed potatoes for good measure, but felt full, and so she threw the rest to the garbage.

She had been feeling on and off for the past month, sometimes getting random cramps and headaches, other times waking up with cold sweats, or feeling slightly nauseous in class. It usually disappeared as quickly as it came though. If she had a small appetite today, she would just have to eat more tomorrow. She would manage just fine.

 


2: Meet the Hart

Wednesday morning, May 18th
School

 

Noa stepped out of the bus and made her way to her locker. Still quite groggy despite the cold morning breeze, she kicked herself for having overslept. Missing out on jogging always left the impression that the day had not really started yet, while skipping breakfast was a surefire way to feel unsettled and distracted an hour or two before lunch. Having only taken a quick shower before getting dressed, she had not felt hungry at the time, and it was only once in the bus that she regretted not grabbing an apple and a few nuts while she still could. The day promised to be a long one. She expected to be ravenous once lunch came, until she filled herself up with seconds at the cafeteria. That always made her feel bloated and sleepy for the rest of the afternoon, which was bad since she had a preparatory history exam. Straight at 2pm, right in the worse of it. This would be a pain.

“Hey, Noa! Whoa, did you just drop out of bed and drag yourself here?”

This was Carol Hart, Noa’s partner for the science project and her best friend. She rocked short spiky blonde pink hair, short at the back and sides, yet left long at the front so that it dropped from the top of her right side diagonally over her left eyebrow, reaching down just about to the start of her thin jaw. Her hair hid only partially her left eye, and with her mascara and eyeliner, it gave her face enough mystery to make her quite attractive. She wore a pastel blue short sleeved top that went along perfectly with her hair, along with a pair of black denims that called back the black rim around her eyes. She was already sporting two thirds of the colors for their coin-catcher project after only a few days since they agreed on the color scheme.

“I overslept”, replied Noa in a monotone. Giving a good look at her friend, she continued with more spirit in her voice “I love these combinations. Simple, yet appealing. It even matches your makeup! And are these new shoes?”

“Oh, you noticed? I bought them along with the top. I thought they went so well together! I overheard a senior talking about a killer sale at the market, and I couldn’t resist. It was well worth the trip.” Carol turned around and made a few poses to get a good look at the combination of shoes, pants and top. She did a curt nod of approval at her own appearance.

“You work too fast for me. I'm still working my mom to get that dye job” Noa opened her locker and took her gym clothes. She forgot this morning that today was gym day. She was not feeling as bad now about missing her morning jogging. This would do just as well. On the other hand, that lack of breakfast would come back to haunt her. She readied herself for an eventual cramp or a whiteout, or something similarly annoying.

“You promised you'd get it done in time for the competition. Don't let me down on this one. I even made a logo in our colors.”

She looked at her reflection in the mirror hanging on the inside of the locker door, tying up her hair in place with bobby pins and elastic bands. “I want to, but she gave me one of her 'I'll think about it', which essentially means 'No, unless you prove to me that you deserve it'.”

“Then what's the holdup? What kind of proof does she want?”

“Having B+ across the spectrum.”

“That's not too bad.”

“Says miss C- in biology.”

“Touché.”

Noa locked her locker and the two of them started walking in the direction of the gym. Carol had English classes in that general direction too, and they still had a few minutes before classes actually started.

“But it's not my fault that details of the prehistoric era are just plain boring and irrelevant to today's business,” Carol chattered. ”Like, who can really remember the 25 great extinctions, and the hundred or so glacial eras, with the major lifeforms that lived and died in between?”

“You mean the 6 eras, 22 periods, and five great ice ages?” Noa said this as innocently as possible, but it was hard to stifle a laughter at Carol's horrified look.

“Huff, smart ass! I don't know you.”

“I love you too.”

“This just shows you that you won't have any problem meeting her standards.”

“Think again. I have the most boring teacher ever for French class, and I can't seem to follow the hoops of logic in Ethics. How can an ideal be founded on virtue when virtuousness is based on your conformity to said ideal?! It just doesn't make sense!”

Carol put a hand on Noa's shoulder, knowingly. “Welcome to my world.”


Phys ed did not go all that well. Noa felt drained and sluggish throughout the volleyball lesson, missing perfectly clear shots and getting out of breath after the slightest exertion. More than once she had to stop to catch her breath, fighting the dizziness by drinking some water. She was feeling tired, even though normally this much exercise should be nothing to her. She might not be a volleyball expert and she might run around more than she needed to catch the ball, but she was a regular jogger, and she knew she had more endurance than this pathetic display.

She missed the more adventurous times in the first half of the year, when her regular gym classes were replaced with outdoor activities as part of a pilot alternative program. Biking, canoeing on weekend, winter camping during the holidays, skiing, they were all leagues better than being stuck in a flat and monotonous gym. She had had so much fun during those extracurricular weekends that it had felt more like a reward than a school class. Alas, those days had passed, and she was back to hitting hard balls with the flat of her arms and making it go more or less where she intended to.

When she got out of the changing room after the class, her stomach was twisting up and throbbing inside. She had to fight down the nausea before she felt ready to face the rest of her morning. It took her several minutes, but she started to feel gradually better, although still bit weak and lightheaded.

Her next classes were a slog. Retaining anything was a pain, as her mind refused to stay focused for more than a few minutes at a time. Leaving Math class in a daze, she could not remember for the life of her what the last hour had been about. She really needed a fix, and fast. Maybe she was sick? Regardless whether this was the result of missing breakfast or whether she caught a cold, the best remedy would be remain the same. Good food, good rest, and not missing out on exercise. Maybe also a good old hot tub, with lots of soap bubble.

Noa was quick to the cafeteria and got in line, picking up a tray. She expected to be ravenous, but when the food came on display in front of her she really had no appetite. Nothing looked really appealing to her, so she only grabbed a chicken salad with a side of French fries.

Noa found a seat near her usual spot and reserved the one in front of her for Carol. At this time, her friend was probably stuck in the ever growing line, waiting to have access to the food. It might take her a while, so Noa started nibbling on her fries.

When Carol finally came in sight, Noa waved to her to join her.

“Sorry for the wait. Mr. Meyer wanted to talk to me after class about my project, and when I got here there was already this monster line in front. I swear, next time I want a simple soup and a main dish here, I'm leaving class five minutes early. This way I'll get first dibs.” Carol sat, eyeing Noa's untouched chicken salad and her half eaten pack of fries. “Say, you just got here too?”

“Nah, I was actually here early, when the line was still short.”

“You didn't have to wait for me though.” She opened her foam cup soup and dived right in. “Not that I don't appreciate the gesture.”

“I know, but I don't feel like eating just now. I'm feeling off today.” Noa was playing a bit with her salad, but she was reluctant to take a bite. It just did not look appetizing. Her mom was quite clear on the fact that your body knows what's best for you, and if your body is telling you to eat or to not eat something, you should listen to it. She always accompanied that with one of the endless experiences she had sniffing traces amount of food she was allergic too from smell or from a single bite. Nathan took right after her recommendation, and in time Magnolia did too.

“That's a bit early for you.” Carol gave her a look that conveyed a lot more meaning than she let on. Girl signaling.

“It's not that.” No need to be a telepath to know what Carol was alluding to. ”I think I caught something or another. Some cold or flu maybe.”

“How bad is it?” She was now past the soup and chewing down on her curry and naan bread.

“Not too bad right now. Just some beginning symptoms, like having no appetite and feeling a bit light headed.”

“My mom would tell you to stay home tomorrow, and stay in bed all day with a bowl of soup at the ready, with no light, no book and no TV.” Noa gave a short laugh at that. It started like a normal advice, however quickly devolved into a critique speaking from experience. “On my part, I would say that so little would hardly keep you down.”

“You're right,” she sighed. ”I wouldn’t skip school if it was just this much. However, I'm worried about my brother. He just came back from the hospital yesterday, and I'm afraid that whatever it is that I caught he could catch too. And he wouldn't take it— whatever 'it' is— nearly as well. He's supposed to rest and not strain too much for another two weeks. I would feel so bad if he had another relapse just because I caught a dumb cold.”

Carol though for a few moments, and seemed to arrive at a conclusion. “Are you going to finish that salad?”

“What?” 'Finishing' would imply that Noa had already started eating it, which was a polite and ironic way of pointing out the fact that she did not. “Huh, sure, knock yourself out.”

“Thanks!” Carol grabbed the plate, and continued their previous discussion. “How about you come to my place tonight? If you avoid your brother for a few days, just the time you need to get better, everything would work out no?”

“I don't mind coming over tonight, but you do realize that a flu or a cold are contagious for about a week? I don't want to impose on you for that long. You'll catch it.”

“I might, I’ll deal. At least it will give you another few hours to come up with a plan. Also, make sure to bring all your biology stuff.”

Noa stared at Carol, then started laughing when she realized she had been setup. “You! This has nothing to do with my brother of me having a cold is it? You had planned long in advance how you would set me up for a private biology session, didn't you!”

Carol shrug guiltily. “You got me! That wasn't subtle enough I guess.”

“Hehe, not even close.” She gave another quick laugh. Swift move Carol, real swift. “But I'll come. You're too desperate a case for me not to help.”

“Yeah, I know, biology is not my forte.”

“That look you had when you accidentally pulled a nerve on that frog, and you started screaming that it was alive! Oh, you poor thing!”

“Okay, you can stop rubbing it in now. I get the point.”

“The mitosis and cell analysis—”

“I GET IT ALREADY! Geez.”

“Aw, don't be salty. Here, have some fries!”

“Puns will lead you nowhere.” Carol still reached for the extended fries.

 


3: Just Another Day

Thursday morning, May 19th
Carol's house

 

Noa woke up in cold sweat for the third time of the night. The alarm clocks on Carol's nightstand was showing a pathetic 4am. Noa shifted to a dry spot of the blanket and wrapped herself tightly, trying to warm herself back up. Now that she was completely woken up, she tried to limit the sound of her shifting, acutely aware of Carol's regular breathing.

Last evening had gone perfectly. Noa had called her mom to let her know she would be staying over at Carol's place for the night. Her mom tried to contest her decision, arguing that a sleepover during weekdays was a whole bag of trouble, but Noa managed to get her on board once she got her to understand that it would be a study session with Carol. That, and the fact that she was sick and did not want to take any chance around Nathan. They both knew how bad and sensitive Nathan could be to viruses. The last time Noa had caught the flu and involuntarily passed it to Nathan, it had been bad. One of these 'I had worse' moments when compared to his recent pneumonia. Not something Noa and Judith wanted a repeat of. Judith reluctantly agreed that it would be best for Noa to get better at her friend's place, at least for one night.

Once that was done, she and Carol had dinner with the latter's parents and little sister, and Noa even managed to swallow a few spoonfuls of the soup they served with the pork. After dinner, the two of them monopolized the kitchen table to do their homework, and before long she gave some pointers to Carol to direct her study of biology. After about an hour of studying and making sure that Carol was fine without her, she made her way to the bathroom and took a long hot bath. Giving her body a boost in temperature and simulating fever was one of the best way to get rid of a budding cold. The warmth soaked deep into her bones, letting her relax every muscle of her body. This was bliss. She stayed in the bath a little longer than she felt she needed, enjoying this moment of peace.

When she came back from the bathroom, a bag was waiting for her. Noa's mom brought her clothes for the next day, a pajama set, toothbrush and toothpaste, a cold medicine syrup bottle and another bottle of antibiotics. It was sweet of her to think ahead, although she did not have to send both a cold medicine and antibiotics. That was probably overkill since she did not even have a running nose. But it showed that her mother cared, and that she was taking her seriously.

They worked on their homework and studies for a while longer until they got ready to turn off the light and go to sleep, Noa sleeping on the futon on the ground, next to Carol's bed.

The first few hours of sleep had gone without a hitch, and she would have slept through the night if her body had not decided to run roller coasters with her body temperature. At times she would feel so warm that she couldn't stand the sheets and wished to throw away the pajama. At others she was so freezing cold even with her blankets that she wondered if she could not sneak into Carol's bed for some warmth. She did not though, as she did not want Carol to catch whatever she had.

The time on the alarm clock incremented by one, taunting her, daring her to go back to sleep for what remained of the night. Shifting around some more, she tried to fall back asleep while ignoring the light coming from the annoying clock. Her breath eventually slowed down and fell into a regular rhythm, and as she was relaxing back into sleep again, her stomach suddenly lurched violently. The cramps came in waves, crawling and pushing ever so slightly higher in her throat. As silently as possible, she quickly made her way to the bathroom, the rumbling in her belly growing more intense by the second.

Half a thought to close the door behind her, and a fraction of a second to open the toilet lid later, she was emptying what little content she had from the last two days' meals. The rancid smell of half-digested milk, soup and fries pricked at her nose. She took a few minutes to recover her breath, feeling better if only weaker. She spat a couple more times to remove the acrid taste in her mouth, took a glass from the kitchen along with some salt and gargled away the pungent saliva that remained, followed by a thorough teeth brushing to really get the taste out. It tasted better, somewhat. Now fresh mint was mixed with the rancidity of bile. The bad taste was ingrained in her mouth, and it would take some time and a few meals to completely wash it away.

Noa switched out her cold pajamas with her clothes of yesterday, took her blanket from the mattress, and walked out of the room, finishing her night's sleep on the couch in the living room. The rough edge of the leather couch combined with the uncomfortable feeling of sleeping in regular clothes actually did wonders, and she was asleep like a rock within a few minutes.

She woke up to the feeling of someone's hand on her forehead. She could not quite make out what was happening at the edge of her consciousness, but she felt like it pertained to her, and that it was important.

“How is she?” Carol was looking at her dad worriedly. She had touched the feverish skin of her friend and already knew the answer to her question, but really she was asking if and how she would recover.

Her dad stood up from his kneeling position by the couch. “She's either really warm under those blankets, or she's doing a small fever. It is hard to tell without taking her internal temperature.” He walked briskly to the bathroom, took out a med kit and found what he was looking for inside. When he came back, Noa was sitting up and yawning, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. He activated the electronic thermometer. “Sorry to wake you up, but it's almost time for school. I just want to check your temperature before you leave. How do you feel?”

Noa took the extended thermometer. “Groggy. Couldn't sleep too well.” She stuck the thermometer deep under her tongue and waited for it to beep. “100.1˚F." She sighed. "Small fever, nothing to write home about”

Carol's dad looked at Noa's disheveled hair and wrinkled clothes. Even ignoring the fact that she just woke up, she had seen better days. “Are you well enough to go to school?” Noa could detect a small note of hurry in his voice. He probably wished to get going for work soon, and did not want to take a day off to nurse a kid that was not his own back into shape. Parental restraints. He would probably offer to drive her back home, but she would not ask for more.

“If I can get a few minutes to freshen up, I'll be fine.” She pushed the blankets away and walked toward the shower in the bathroom.

“We'll miss our bus.” Carol said

“I’ll drive you.” Her father replied.

The shower was quick, and by the time Noa got dressed, the blankets had been thrown into the washing machine, her books were back in her backpack, and a peanut butter and jam sandwich was waiting for her in a plastic container. Breakfast on the go. Noa was still feeling weak, but the lingering taste of bile made it hard to think about food in a nice and positive manner. She drank a glass of water though, and off they went.

 


Thursday morning, May 19th
School

 

If yesterday was a slog, today was a drag. Noa could not focus on anything that was said in class. Her mind instead decided that the little flying specks of dust floating in the light were the most interesting things in the world. Look at them! Swirling and floating languorously without a single care, changing the texture of whatever background they were against. If you looked closely enough, you could even see changes of colors as they moved about, or the spin and rotation they gained as someone in the room made a movement, or the different densities of the nearly invisible cloud in different areas, or...

After exiting third period and not remembering a single thing of her morning, not even what she discussed with Carol during the breaks or in the car, Noa understood that she was far gone. Her attention span was reaching world records new low. She felt dizzy by all the movements and activity around her whenever she walked the corridors. She was getting sluggish, bumping into people when she knew she could have avoided them, or stumbling for no reason. And now that the taste of the early morning had disappeared, she was hungry. Her stomach growled to let her know it was empty, and had been nearly empty for the past two days. She gave half a thought to the infirmary, but quickly abandoned that idea for a more immediate need of food.

Yet once again, nothing appealed to her. Her stomach was growing more reckless by the minutes, and the noises it was giving off were getting embarrassing. She grabbed a soup with a pack of salty crackers and took out the untouched peanut butter and jam sandwich from this morning. This was very little, but it was still more than she had swallowed in any given meal since her sickness kicked in.

She saw Carol in the line waving at her, and she waved back with a forced smile. Deciding to eat at least this much regardless of how she felt, she gulped down the soup and devoured the sandwich. She had to force herself through each spoonful and every bite. Her body rebelled against the feeling of food coming down her throat, with spasms and disgust she fought to control. Regardless, she pushed through, fisnishing what she had set up in front of her.

While her eyes followed Carol as her friend put dishes on her plate, her stomach buckled. Not again! Noa tried to keep it in, but the cramps were slowly getting stronger in a fashion she was all too familiar with now. Swallowing multiple times, she fought the rising feeling, trying various positions in her chair to relax the tension on her belly, or taking deep breaths, but nothing did it. It only got worse and worse. Unable to contain it further, she jumped from her chair, forgetting even her bag at her feet, and she rushed to the nearest bathroom.

Her limit was breached as soon as she reached the stall. The feeling was much more violent than the first time around, as if her insides were being torn apart, and the amount she threw up felt significantly more than the soup and sandwich she just had. There was also blood mixed in with the bile and saliva, a lot of blood in fact. Something had been seriously damaged to produce that much blood. She felt completely empty. She though grimly that she got significantly lighter on this one, which was not a good sign.

For a few more minutes, Noa did not move. She stayed on her knees, her hand grasping the ridge of the toilet the only thing keeping her from collapsing on the floor. She was folded in half, her head bent so far down that her forehead almost touched the ground, a stream of saliva and blood dripping from her gasping mouth. She needed help, but she was not sure she could call for someone right now, nor could she stand up. It was all she could do to slowly unfold from her clutching stomach, millimeter by millimeter, as she rose her head up. The pain in her belly was still fierce and not receding in the least.

She tentatively and delicately tried to touch her belly, trying to scan for the source of the pain or for the wound if one was there. Her muscles were all extremely sore around that area, and even the slightest pressure made her cringe, but she kept probing, trying to feel the extent of the damage. Beside the sore muscles, she could not find anything. And this was what worried her. The place she prodded gave easily under her push, as if it was completely empty, missing a significant portion of flesh.

It was then that she noticed the contents of the toilet. Along with the red blood and yellow bile, there were pieces of flesh floating about, surrounding one larger smooth pink bag that was ripped open to reveal a mix of barely digested broth and wet bread. Tears of horror started to drip down at the realization of what she was looking at.

That was her own stomach floating there, in the remains of her lunch. The sight was too much to bear. Lurching back, she reached on all sides for something to grab that would allow her to leave this scene of horror as quickly as possible. She tried to scream but the pain of her throat recently enlarged by the mass that passed through it prevented her from forming the slightest of sound. It was even amazing that she was still able to drag herself out of the stall.

In her dazed state of pain, she had not noticed that two other girls had entered the bathroom in the last few minutes she was recovering on the ground. One of the girl jumped back in a scare, screaming “Jesus!!!” at the top of her lungs. The other was frozen still, staring at the flask of blood that flowed down Noa's shirt from her mouth.

“Are you okay?!” Times like these, and people just had to ask the dumb questions. Noa could not reply though, and turning her head in any direction hurt like hell, so she just resolved to give the girl a pleading stare. That got the first girl to snap out of it. “Al, go get a teacher, any teacher. Quick!!” The smaller of the two girls snapped to attention, realized the gravity of the situation, and ran out of the bathroom. Noa just flopped down to the floor, trying not to move her hurting body. “It's okay, we'll get someone. What the hell happened in here?!?” The taller girl followed Noa's stare toward the stall she was in, and she poked her head inside, noticing the blood on the floor and side of the toilet. “Man, that's not pretty. This must have hurt like crazy! What have you got—” Without finishing her sentence, she gave another scream. God, she had good vocal cords!

The smaller girl came back with two teachers, while the taller one was furiously calling an ambulance. Everything started to move in a blur around Noa, and she did not have the patience nor the energy to deal with any of it. It was all she could do to keep herself from moving into any position that would bring stabbing pain and agonizing throbs. She also tried to keep her mind from delving too deeply into the consequences of no longer having a stomach, if what she was seeing was really what she thought it was. And who could tell? She was not a specialist. Who was she to tell apart a piece of her anatomy from another? It could have been only a strip of flesh that separated from the wall of her stomach, giving the impression that it was the whole thing in the mess that was the toilet, or maybe simply an effect of her troubled mind, or the reflection of the water, or...

She was going to die, was she not? Yeah, she was. Who could live without a stomach? Maybe, just maybe, they would bring the ambulance quickly enough to get her to the hospital before she grew cold, and they could probably put her on artificial life support, but in the end she would be but a mass attached to a huge machine, unable to move from her hospital room. What kind of life was that? She would be living alright, but would it be worth living?

Truth be told, Noa did not want to die. She wanted desperately for someone to save her. There was all those mutants and superheroes on the television, doing extraordinary deeds to the awe of the public. She never met one in the real, but since she was little she looked up to them, and all the amazing thing they could do. Maybe one of them could heal her with special magic. Or maybe they could transfer her mind into another person. Or maybe they could clone her. Transform her into a dog. She was so desperate she would settle for anything! Even a huge metallic hunk attached to her for life if that was all she could get. She would settle even for that.

Just, don't let me die, please?

 


Thursday afternoon, May 19th
Hospital

 

Four people were anxiously waiting in the lobby of the hospital. Carol, her dad, Judith, and Nathan. When they first arrived, there had been two others waiting on the seats, the school nurse and Mr. Chavez, one of the two teachers that rushed into the bathroom. They had given a detailed description of the state in which they found Noa. Judith had gone livid hearing about the details, and Carol had had to control her own nausea.

An hour before back at the school, the ambulance had come as quickly as it could. When they got there, the paramedics had to move through a huge crowd gathered around the bathroom. Pushing their way through, they found that the inside had been properly evacuated from all but the two adults and the two girls that found Noa. Everyone else deemed unnecessary had been pushed outside, the teachers trying unsuccessfully to order the students back to their own business. Carol was outside at that point, curiously looking around like the hundred other students looking for sensationalism. She had found Noa's bag abandoned by the seat, and as everyone had gathered around, she expected Noa to be somewhere lost in the crowd. Never did she imagine that her best friend was actually the one that caused this huge gathering, until Judith called her on her cell phone, en route to the hospital, asking for details. Half an hour later, Carol was picked up by her dad and they aimed straight to the hospital.

The nurse and Mr. Chavez had trailed behind the ambulance as it left, and they gathered as many details as they could on the 14 years old girl's condition from the paramedics. The last they saw of her, she was on one of those stretchers, a neck collar protecting her already severely damaged esophagus from any movements or shocks, another paramedic holding a sealed transparent bag containing the remnants of her ripped stomach. Noa was awake and aware through it all, and even though her movements were limited and she could not talk, the stare she gave Mr. Chavez conveyed a message he did not want to see: resignation.

After the nurse and Mr. Chavez explained the situation to Judith and company in more detail, they left, aware that they were unable to do anything else for the poor girl. Noa was brought immediately to the emergency operative unit for abdominal surgeries. The doctor that stayed behind to explain the details said that Noa would need a substitution of the esophagus. The damage was too great, and so they would need to remove the whole thing and replace it with a plastic tube for the time being, at least until her state was stable again. It was an intrusive surgery, and there were poor chances that she could ever eat or drink normally again, although through some rehabilitation she would eventually get used to a different consumption method.

And then there was the problem of the missing organ. A missing stomach was a nasty affair, but by connecting the plastic tube all the way down to her intestine, she wound still be able to eat. Eventually. The doctors first had to drain the blood and debris, clean and remove a significant amount of damaged flesh, and reinforce the surrounding muscles to keep the tube from moving too much. More than once someone expressed concern at the procedure.

When Nathan and Judith started to ask more and more questions about the expected recovery, they were met with hesitations from the doctor. This was the first time he was presented such a case, and nothing really prepared him to treat a patient like that. What left him perplexed was that Noa was still alive despite the major wounds and internal bleeding, and that she was even conscious and aware. Normally, throwing up an internal organ was physically impossible due to the way it was attached to muscles and ligaments, unless the organ had significantly liquefied. It was of a level up and above a simple organ dysfunction, which is seldom seen in young kids. Also, the unknown cause of this 'attack' as he liked to call it was brought back multiple times into question, without him being able to offer a solid answer.

After turning around the issue long enough, someone spoke up. “What if she's a mutant?” Most people in the room had thought of this improbable possibility in the last few hours, but no one was yet ready to confront the plausible truth. Carol reacted more strongly to the suggestion, evidently not having thought of the possibility, and scared of its ramifications.

“Wouldn't she need a different treatment if that was the case?” Judith was the first one to admit the possibility and to move forward with it, despite the unpleasant thoughts that came to her mind of mutant deformity and people killed by their own uncontrolled changes.

“That might be the case,” replied the doctor, “but her biology is still normal as far as we are concerned, and giving her first aid and stabilizing her current state is the first and foremost priority right now. I want you to understand that at the moment, we only have doubts of a potential mutation, and nothing has been confirmed. Blood samples are being tested, but until we get the results back the best line of approach is to treat her as a baseline, while being mindful of the possibility she might not be.” There was something to be said about the trust people gave to doctor wearing the white coat. Seeing that he had the group's attention, and was in a position of expertise, he continued. “I can call a resource that specializes in mutant treatment however. I think with our current limited knowledge, knowing at least whether Miss Magnolia really is in the middle of her mutation, or whether she is an unlucky baseline with an unknown condition, would let us plan the course of the treatment much better than if we were left in the dark.” Everyone nodded at the proposed suggestion. The doctor turned to address Judith. “If you agree with this approach, I will need you to sign a few papers for me Ms. Flores, indicating that you consent to that treatment.”

Judith was quick to reply. “Of course! I will sign whatever you want if it gives better chances to Magnolia.”

Carol's father was a bit more apprehensive at the prospect. “Why do you need informed consent for this particular treatment? Is there anything special we should know about that 'specialist' as you call him, or the kind of treatment you refer to?”

The doctor gave him an appreciative look. “Let me assure you that he is particularly effective when it comes to mutants. However, please understand that his method is still classified as experimental. Also, a lot of parents and guardians are still afraid of mutants, and reject with vigor the implication that their child could be one, regardless of the illogicality of such a reaction or of the consequences for the kid. We have been prosecuted in the past by parents disgusted by this treatment. We are no longer taking chances on this matter, and request consent since two years ago.”

The doctor gave the informed consent form to Judith, along with a pen. She sat on the chair nearest the small table and started reading it over, listening to the rest of the explanations with one ear.

The doctor continued. “As for the 'specialist' that will be coming, he has his eccentricities, but he is also the most qualify when it comes to the initial manifestation of a mutation. He successfully treated more cases of Gross Structural Dystrophy since his appearance in the medical field five years ago than the rest of regular medicine in the last twenty years.”

Mutants with GSD have some visible non-human physical deformity. There are multiple levels of severity, from an unusual eye or hair color at the lowest level to extra limbs, wings, and alien morphology at the highest. Severe GSD cases are often crippled and disabled by their mutation, if they survive in the first place. Some mutants even die before the end of their manifestation, their body unable to deal with the changes. Those deaths were usually thrown under the rug and forgotten, until five years ago when a significant number of GSD cases started flooding into the mutant community. It had made the news at the time. The doctor in front of them was hinting that this specialist was at the root of this GSD boom.

Carol's dad was still perplexed with the doctor’s answer. He was a man that would judge the worth of people with his own two eyes, and would not trust blind faith from others. “You talked of eccentricities. I can't talk for Judith, but personally, I do not like surprises. Should we be expecting a maniacal scientist with lightning striking in the background and a brain in a jar?” He said that last line with a completely straight face. The doctor wondered in a passing thought if Carol's dad was speaking from experience.

“Nothing so extreme, rest assured. Although, I wouldn't let your expectations drop too low. Dr. Evans is a lab rat.”

Four pairs of eyes were staring at the doctor. Was this some kind of joke? Even Judith had stopped reading the form and directed all her attention to him, waiting for further elaboration.

“A large group of around a hundred mutants, many devisors but also business men, healers, mages and mutants of all kinds, worked on integrating a highly focused AI into the medical system a few years back. The AI collects every bit of medical data related to mutant medical care across the planet and offers suggestions in dedicated medical centers in over two hundred big cities. Its worth is however much greater than the simple extent of the AI's processing power. This group of mutants created a living interface as a physical presence in hospitals outside these designated cities, and that interface is called Dr. Evans. His role is to relay contact with the central AI, and to provide assistance for actual doctors within the area. And for some reason, maybe to be approachable by children or as a joke of poor taste, they made Dr. Evans as a white rat. Right now, the closest Dr. Evans is temporarily located in Hamilton, but for a case like this, I suspect he will gladly come over and offer assistance.”

The doctor stared at each of them in turn, making use of his presence of expertise and authority. “Let me stress again that Dr. Evans's assistance is the real deal, and that nobody comes close to his rate of success in stabilizing emergent mutants.” He looked deeply at Judith. “The choice is yours to either accept his expertise, or to rely on the methods we have readily available here. I would understand if you felt you could not entrust the safety of your daughter to a rat, but please think it over carefully. We cannot call Dr. Evans without your consent.”

Making sure the group had no more questions, the doctor let them know where to find him, and left to waiting room, leaving them staring at the blank signature space on the consent form.

 


4: To Call a Rat

Thursday late afternoon, May 19th
Hospital room

 

Noa slowly let her mind drift back to reality. Sensations started to come back to her, or more appropriately she allowed herself to feel again. Her body was hurting from everywhere, especially starting from her throat all the way down. She felt like she had just drunk molten lava, and the lava had been dragged down by the gravity, burning and melting everything in its way. The feeling was mixed with a fair amount of numbness, but the numbness did nothing to hide the blazing pain, and instead the two sensations mixed together into a permeating mass that reached new levels of discomfort.

She was in a bed in a hospital room, laying completely flat on her back, staring at the dotted ceiling overhead. She could feel the slow drip of the intravenous in her left arm. The liquid was dark, not unlike blood treated with some other agents.

On her other side, another bag containing a much thicker substance was pushed by a small rotor into another tube, this one reaching directly through her belly and into her intestine. A feeding tube, as she recalled the doctors calling it. The place where the tube connected into her hurt just as bad, if not worse, than the other wounds she had. Like a knife stab, but renewed every few seconds as the next angular motion of the rotor pushed this disgusting stuff inside her. She tried to reach with her right hand and pull the tube away, but she was too weak, and only managed a pathetic tug that just sent more painful liquid her way. Reluctantly, she left the devil's tube where it was, doing its thing of forcefully feeding her.

She remembered the operation, every single detail of it. Since they strapped her on that stretcher back at school, it was all she could do to beg for sleep to take her, to lose consciousness and wake up free of pain, skipping the whole process of the surgeries. She had not been that lucky. The stuff they gave her, some strong sedative, did nothing to knock her out. It only overlaid everything in this maddening powerlessness which prevented her from moving the slightest muscle. Everything was felt just as strongly as before. Every little torment tugged at her awareness, every single cut they made, every single bone they pushed out of the way. She felt her own flesh being scrapped away and removed, the burning antiseptic they applied to wash everything in that new emptiness in her belly. The cold of the plastic tube had rubbed against her burning insides when the assistant made a slight mistake, sticking the tube at a wrong angle before fiddling with it, trying to push it back into place, a maneuver Noa had perceived as a series of excruciating pulls.

It had been torture, and she had been helpless. She had tried to think of anything else but the endless movements going on all around and within her. At some point, she had stopped caring, and simply stopped thinking altogether. Now that the doctors had left for a significant amount of time, she was slowly coming back from that blank state, refusing to think back over the whole ordeal.

At some point her mom and Carol came into the room to see how she looked. Nathan waited behind the two, and Carol's dad stayed close to the door with a doctor, looking from afar.

The talk was one-sided, Noa unable to communicate in her current state. Most of what they said flew right over her head, and all too soon it was time for them to say goodbye.

Her mother put a gentle hand on Noa's forehead and delicately brushed her hair away, bending down to lay a soft kiss where her hand had just been. “I love you. Stay strong. I'll come back tomorrow.”

There was the growing need to be held in her mother's arms, to be comforted just like a child, the fear of loneliness gripping Noa, but all too quickly the four of them left and the door closed shut, leaving her alone with her misery.


Later that night, her door opened once more, letting the light from the corridor flood into the room. A nurse walked in, took Noa's evaluation at the end of the bed, and read it over slowly. Noa could hear a male voice coming from her though, which left Noa confused to say the least.

“Please put me down,” ordered the little voice in a very respectful manner. The nurse reached up, and when she brought her hand back down, a large white rat with red eyes was standing on it. The rat was actually standing on its rear legs, using its tail to stabilize its walk. It jumped onto the covers and started walking up-straight toward Noa. “Hm, she is awake?”

“Looks like it.” the nurse replied. “Or she could be zoned out. Alex told me that her eyes were slightly open throughout the surgeries. The anesthesia should have dissipated a while ago, but she could still be out of it.”

“I doubt it.” The rat was now at the level of her wrist, stopping his walk forward there. “Raise her a bit so that she can see.”

The nurse clicked on a button on the bed, and the top half of it started to angle slightly upward. Noa grunted in pain as she was moved slightly by the raising bed. Once her head reached about 30 degrees and she could clearly see the rat and the nurse, the bed stopped its forward motion. The rat raised its arm high and snapped his fingers, drawing Noa's attention. He repeated the snaps on his leftmost and rightmost, staring her in the eyes the whole time.

“Her ocular reflexes are good. She seems to be aware.”

The nurse scribbled something on her pad. As soon as Noa was distracted by the nurse, she felt something prick her right thumb, and looked to see the rat touching the drop of blood with its hand before licking his hand. Disgusting!

“I know! I know! But it's faster this way.”

What? She had not said anything, and neither did the nurse. The rat looked to the ceiling, scratching his chin in contemplating as he rolled the taste on his tongue a bit, then licked his hand again before rolling some more. After about a minute of this foolishness, he gave his verdict.

“I'd rather have a hamburger.”

Oh come on!! What kind of answer was that!? And here I actually had some expectations for a walking, talking rat ordering a nurse around. Get real!!

The rat broke into a grin.

“Indignation. Quite strong at that. You seem rather lively for someone who just lost a lot of bits.” The rat looked back at her, its hands behind its back in the stereotypical pose of an authority figure. “And before you ask, no I can't read your mind. Simple empathy that's all. I can feel your emotions, but your thoughts remain your own.”

Noa was not too sure what to feel about that. In another situation, she would be concerned for her privacy. Right now, she was just glad that there was a semblance of communication going on.

“Dr. Evans, the blood test please,” prompted the nurse.

“Oh, right. Definitely a mutant. The meta-gene complex is there, plain as day. She might even have awakened a few weeks ago without noticing.” He took some time to ponder something. “I would say, she's only starting her changes. The FG-T5 is still extremely faint. There are also leftover MBC-K43, meaning that she's coming back from stasis. That is a little worrisome. It begs the question of why her manifestation was in stasis in the first place.”

The nurse was jotting down everything he said.

The rat turned back to Noa, trying to sound reassuring. “I need to do a few more preliminary tests here, nothing too uncomfortable I assure you, miss...”

“Magnolia Flores,” the nurse provided.

“Miss Flores. Can I call you Magnolia? Thank you! You are a charm!” The rat did not even wait for Noa to form a thought of protest, not that she could really protest right now. It did not really matter what he called her, she thought. “So let's just get this part over with.”

The rat stopped moving and only stared intently. After about a minute of his intense staring, Noa started to grow impatient. Nothing was happening.

“No psychic or empathetic reaction. I think we can safely rule out telepathy.”

He reverted to silence, this time with his eyes closed. His nose was twitching a little as he sniffed around. This lasted for another long minute, running around on her bed and sniffing her from head to toe.

“No residual magical presence. Probably not a mage, or if she is, she did not cast a spell in the last week.”

He climbed up the slope of the bed, his little claws gripping on the sheets, until he was at her eye level.

“Miss Taylor, if you could please open her mouth so that I can have a look inside.”

The nurse came on the other side of the bed, and carefully and slowly pushed Noa's jaw open, making sure to not move her neck too much. Still, just this much movement was painful, and Noa reflexively crisped her eyes. “Sorry,” said the nurse, sounding apologetic.

The rat took a long look inside Noa's mouth. He asked the nurse to scratch a part of the inside gum with a little hooked tool. He shook his head. “Confirming what the surgery team said, there is no necrosis of the tissues. You are not turning into a zombie or a typical undead, at least not yet.”

He ran back down the slope and landed next to her hand. The nurse put the tool in a basket where other dirty tools were put to get decontaminated later. The rat stood back on his hind legs again, and raised an arm. Immediately, the whole room was lit up in a soft blue light, much to Noa's amazement. The rat was also somewhat surprised by this positive response for some reason. Was that not the result he was expecting?

“Interesting. Positive presence of a passive telekinesis field, but this is quite unlike most superman-type's TK shells.” The rat doctor was intrigued by the phenomenon, and he started running all around, observing it from many angles, and maybe doing some kind of test at the same time.

Noa was fascinated by the blue light. Completely new senses opened to her as she was made aware of the existence of this field. If she had to describe the feeling, it was as if all her life she wore the same pair of socks thinking they were her feet, and one day someone pointed out that was not the case and removed said socks. It felt so completely right! She even wondered how she had not noticed this before. Now that she had, the aura was monopolizing her whole attention and curiosity. As she looked closer, she could see the light was emitted by tiny particles floating about, just like flying specks of dust in the light, only this cloud seemed a little denser than your regular dust cloud.

“The TK field is densest closest to Magnolia, and thins out further away.” The rat came back to the bed, and looked closely at the skin on her arm. He prodded the skin with his tiny hands, moving it this way and that, pinching it, and even plucking out a body hair. Noa barely felt it, not bothered in the least. He seemed surprised to be able to pluck the hair at all. He finished by scratching her skin enough for it to turn red. Or it would be red in normal cases, but here it seemed to turn a deeper shade of blue as he scratched a little deeper. “The TK field permeates her skin, and I am willing to bet it permeates her whole body. No resistance at all, and it offers none of the usual protection superman-types have. It must have some kind of role other than defense. It bears looking into a little latter.”

The blue ambient light vanished, and he was back to a still state. The rat started to shiver strongly, all the fur on his body standing on end. Funnily enough, he looked like a porcupine. He stayed in this state with his eyes closed for another minute before reverting back to normal, stroking his fur back into position as he spoke to the nurse. “No trace of a Class-2 entity. No goblin, fairy, or spiritual influence. There is always the possibility she could be an avatar that hadn't combined with a spirit yet, or she might have combined but with some class-3 or class-X entities. I can't feel those, so it remains possible.”

The nurse flipped her page on the notepad, darkening her third page of notes. Most of these appeared as scribbles that Noa did not think she could understand even if she stuck her nose to the paper.

“Before we proceed to the last test for the night, —” He stopped dead in his sentence, gave a look outside, and seemed to realized something. He put his tiny hand to his face and sigh exaggeratedly. “Oh dear me, it's the middle of the night, and I didn't even notice. What a goof I am. Let's wrap this up quickly and let you get some rest. I am sure you are feeling tired by now Magnolia.”

Noa could not reply, so she just stared at him. What kind of mad doctor gets so wrapped up in their work that they forget the time of the day?

“Miss Taylor? A notebook and pen please,” said Dr. Evans. From under her writting pad, the nurse pulled out a small notebook that she placed open under Noa's right hand and slid the pen between the latter's fingers. "Magnolia, could you please write down something? Anything is fine."

The first few movements were jerky, the writting messy. 'Who are you?'

“Oh, where are my manners, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Dr. Long Evans. I specialize in young mutants, and I do whatever is in my power to facilitate the manifestation process. Pleased to meet you!” The rat, or rather Dr. Evans, bowed gallantly to punctuate his introduction. He turned to the nurse behind him, introducing her at the same time. ”And this is Amanda Taylor. She is the one in charge of you, and she will assist me in your treatment.”

Noa gave him a thumbs up, her own form of greeting. The rat grinned, as much as a rat can grin.

“This is what I like to see! We also want to establish simple signals for 'yes', 'no', 'maybe', 'I don't know' and 'help'. Miss Taylor, if you could demonstrate."

They took a few minutes to go over the five different gestures until Noa was confortable using them. It was quicker in some cases than writting the answer in the notebook and waiting for someone else to read it. The nurse also placed a small emergency call remote easily accessible between Noa's right arm and her hip and they went over that too.

Once this was done, Dr. Evans faced Noa once more.

“This is basic communication, but between you and me, we can go a little further. Remember when I said I was an empath?”

Yes

“Well, you can communicate emotions if you make yourself feel certain ways, and I will understand. For example, if I say something too fast or you don't understand, you can try to make yourself 'questioning' and exaggerate the feeling. This way I will receive it loud and clear. One way to do this is to remember a moment in your past when that emotion was particularly strong. Give it a try.”

Noa thought for a moment about which emotion she wanted to send, under the expectant look of Dr. Evans and Miss Taylor. She finally decided on one, and started to remember a time when Carol bought her a surprise gift for her birthday. She tried to focus on the moment she received the gift, the feeling that filled her at that moment.

Appreciation.

Dr. Evans smiled of his ratty smile. “You are welcome dear.” Miss Taylor gave him a curt sign that Noa could not quite make out, and Dr. Evans thought for a moment before turning back to her. “There is one more test I would like to do, but I do not want to keep you awake longer. You must be pretty tired.”

No

He looked surprised. “No? Then would you mind if we did the last test now? It will take only a moment, but I must warn that I will need to touch you for this part. Are you alright with this?”

Yes

“Miss Taylor, could you please hold me and move me right over Magnolia here? I would normally walk over her, but it would be a bad idea to put my weight over her wounds.”

He kept giving specific instructions to the nurse so that she moved him all over Noa's body. The thin sheet was pushed aside for this test. Whenever Dr. Evans would request contact, the nurse would move him close enough for him to touch Noa’s skin. He always put his four paws in extremely specific areas, as if searching for pressure points or something. Thanks to the nurse holding him, his touch was really delicate, and it even tickled a little. He touched around her forehead, on her neck, above her heart, her arms and legs, the bottom of her thoracic cage, and her belly. He sometimes visited an area twice to confirmed something or the other.

When it was all over, Miss Taylor tucked back the sheet in place while Dr. Evans was deep in thoughts. “There are definitely some electromagnetic shifts not unlike some energizers I know, but the field is irregular, and really weak. I wonder what it means...”

After this, both Dr. Evans and Miss Taylor wished her good night and left the room, leaving Noa alone with her thoughts in the dark.

 


Thursday night, May 19th
Hospital's help desk

 

Elsewhere in the hospital, at this late hour, Dr. Evans met with Dr. Ferguson, the one that was in charge of the surgeries for Magnolia Flores. Dr. Evans was standing on the help desk, empty at this hour, his hands behind his back, stretching tall and straight for his small form.

On a tone he wanted flat and controlled, he asked. “What were you thinking when you decided to stitch Miss Flores and to intubate her from head to toe?” He put enough restraint and intonation in his question for it to actually sound questioning, instead of oppressively angry.

Dr. Ferguson swallowed, refusing to be intimidated. “It was the best course of action to stabilize her and limit the damage she sustained. Would you have done differently?”

“I would not have used any kind of foreign body, be it stitches or tubes. I concede that the wounds needed to be cleaned up, especially with the rupture of the stomach, but I saw enough mutant cases to know that when one organ rearanges itself, more usually follow. There is a high probability that she'll regurgitate her lungs, spleen, or even her heart in the near future. The tube will get in the way sooner rather than later.”

Dr. Ferguson took the brunt of the assault without flinching, even as Dr. Evans took a moment to let his concerns die down. the rat doctor wanted a partner in this, and he knew far too well that his influence went only so far as the other doctors were ready to tolerate. He could be the most knowledgeable in his domain, but if the other doctors did not allow him to put his expertise into practice, he was as good as useless. Having taken a moment to straighten up his priorities, he asked in a much more respectful tone.

“How would you proceed knowing this now?”

This took the Dr. Ferguson by surprise. “What do you mean? You know more than me on mutant cases. You should have the final say.” Ferguson was still on the defensive, trying to gauge whether the question was a test or some other hidden motive.

Dr. Evans shook his head. “I value your opinion, and you already started treatment on Miss Magnolia Flores. I assume you will be the one to do further operations where necessary. This is something I cannot do, as my expertise is limited to data collection and finding treatment options. I might decide on an unconventional treatment, but you will be the one to enact it, and so I need to know what you are willing to do and what you do best. I would not want to force you into an uncomfortable position, and so I need to ask what are the preliminary treatments you would give.”

Ferguson tried to decipher the facial features of the rat to figure out his thoughts, but to no avail. Those large red eyes only looked back expectantly. He decided to accept Dr. Evans's request as an honest one, and to show his cooperation Ferguson replied with similar honesty. “If you really want to ask, I would look into organ rejections first. Considering the similarities of her symptoms compared to transplant rejection, I would test her immune system to see if there is effectively a rejection of her own organs, and if so, which organs are affected. As for treatment, I would try immunosuppression to try to stop or delay the rejection of organs. We could also use several agents and inhibitors to help stabilize her. If this proves insufficient, we could do a blood transfer to replace her blood with one lacking antibodies, and do a marrow transplant to replace her immune system with an all-inclusive one, although this is getting drastic. Regardless, I would start looking into donor's organs for transplants of whatever organ failed during the treatment process if any. The stomach, unless further complications, I would leave as it is, since it is perfectly possible to adapt and live while lacking one.”

Dr. Evans pondered for a long time on what had been said. “This would assume that the problem lies in her blood and antibodies.”

“We would need blood tests for that, along with an analysis of the different reactions her immune system would have with different grafts.”

“It would take a while to get those tests. What would you do in the meantime?”

Dr. Ferguson pumped his chest in pride, having thought this far ahead. “Actually, I took a few blood samples after the surgeries and lost no time to send them to the laboratory, with an urgent notice. It might be possible to get the results within the next few days.”

Dr. Evans nodded in appreciation. “Impressive. I appreciate quick thinkers.” At odd with his words, his face became worried again. “But this treatment assumes that Magnolia can live with human organs. This would only work if her current situation does not evolve further. The timing for action is crucial here, and missing it could lead to her death.”

Ferguson paled a little. The job came hand in hand with sickness and death, but no doctor wished to be responsible for their patient's death. To have a patient die while one is doing everything in their power to save them is one thing. To have a patient die for a missed judgment or an avoidable mistake is another, and would lead to that practitioner’s expulsion from the health care service.

“We could proceed as soon as the blood tests' results are known. From there, the process would be quick, assuming we find donors in time. I can start looking into blood donors or artificial blood that would be safe for transfusion, and the same with the bone marrow.”

Dr. Evans nodded. “Please do and stay at the ready.”

Dr. Evans was engrossed in his thoughts for a few moments too long. Dr. Ferguson waited for him to give his own input, but the rat seemed to have forgotten that he had not yet provided a solution. Impatience gaining over, Ferguson spoke up his mind, a little frustrated that he had to give the rat all the answers and that he had to do all the work. “I can start the preparations without delay, but I thought that her condition was her development as a mutant. As much as my medical expertise supports me, I don't know anything about mutant treatments. Don't you have anything to add from that point of view?”

The rat lifted his head in realization. “Oh, right!” Dr. Evans took a few minutes to relay his findings from his initial tests on the girl, namely that she had an unconventional passive telekinesis aura and that her energy levels were weak and erratic.

Ferguson furrowed his brows. “I am sorry, but I do not understand how these two points affects Miss Flores's condition.”

Dr. Evans shifted his weight from one leg to the other, a little uncomfortable. “I am not too sure of that either. Both are irregular, even by mutant standards. Assuming from her energetic signature that she is an energizer, and considering the fact that she lost her stomach before any other organ, I think her new biology has a different way of providing energy. She might feed on emotions, sunlight, luck, specific types of matter, radiation, and so on, but the exact type and feeding method is still undetermined. She does not have psychic powers, so feeding on emotions is probably out, but other than that I would need more info before I could take a guess at which one.”

Dr. Evans waited for Dr. Ferguson to show his understanding before continuing. He did not want to lose the other doctor in terms he was unfamiliar with. “One thing is for sure though, she does not seem to have the necessary instincts to feed herself yet. Most mutants with different needs feel urges guiding them, and those urges can be hard to repress initially. It is a survival method that ensures that the mutant becomes aware of their new needs. However, Magnolia here does not seem to have ‘fed’ since the start of her mutation a few weeks ago. I detected traces of the protein MBC-K43, which usually appears when the condition for a mutation are unfavorable. This protein slows down the mutation into what is called a stasis, until the conditions are sufficient for whatever the mutation needs. In this case, I believe it was a lack of energy, or maybe more accurately a lack of the appropriate kind of energy, that started her stasis.”

“That is all fine and dandy, but what would the treatment look like in this case?” His impatience was palpable. To his credit, it was the middle of the night, and he had already pulled more than his regular shift.

“The first thing would be to figure out what her new metabolism needs. Tomorrow, I will try to come up with a few ideas and try to get her to 'eat' something. All I need is a single success, and that should trigger her instinctual needs.”

Ferguson took off his glasses and cleaned them on his white coat, stoking his eyes in the first sign of exertion since Dr. Evans arrived. “What about the healing process?”

Dr. Evans did not lose a beat. “Most mutants heal by themselves. Especially when the changes are significant, mutants unually gain some regeneration, at the very least for the initial transition. I expect the same here.”

Having put back his glasses on his nose, Ferguson gave a deadpan look at the rat. “You can't really be telling me to just 'wait and see'? Miss Flores has shown not the slightest hint of any kind of regeneration until now. What if she never regenerates?”

Dr. Evans looked straight into the man's eyes. “That is strongly improbable. Her body might just not know how yet.”

This sparked a bit of anger from Dr. Ferguson. “It's not because it's unlikely that it's impossible. Mutants are the very definition of impossible, and they keep breaking expectations every day. As a professional, I refuse to delude myself into ignoring the facts in front of me. Miss Flores recovers at baseline speeds, and as such cannot be expected to recover by herself.”

“In the worst case,” Evans said, poised and unimpressed, “I will call a healer to accelerate her recovery. If she does not regenerate on her own, we can do the equivalent with external help. A mutant solution to a mutant problem.”

The two doctors took a moment of silence to think, each looking at the problem from their own personal point of view. After a moment, Ferguson said, in a controlled but still disdainful tone. “I am a doctor, not a priest. When there is a problem, I act. I do not sit by the sidelines. I have trouble putting my faith in a stranger who is supposed to wave his magic wand to fix all my problems.” He gave the rat one long and hard look. “Will this be all?” The look in his eyes implied the underlying message, 'Is this the extent of your competence?'. There was some mixture of disappointment.

De. Evans's confident facade cracked somewhat to show hints of vulnerability as his shoulders slumped, the next words heavy. “To be honest, I do not want to have to resort to magical healing. It requires a ton of paperwork, and involves multiple layers of security, including people that would give too much attention to Magnolia for her own good. There is also the problem of providing anonymity and confidentiality to the healer. It is a trump card, to be used when all else fails.”

Dr. Ferguson’s gaze did not waver, although he did concede a sympathetic nod to the rat. Regulations were common in their practice, and he himself had on more than one occasion been unable to provide proper assistance due to a misplaced rule. The hospital had been sued not too long ago, not through any fault of their own, but from a patient’s family’s perception that the given treatment had been unethical. Such things happened.

Encouraged by the silence and curt nod from his coworker, Dr. Evans’s tone became friendlier and more patient. “You might be one to act, but I am one to analyze and organize. As I said before, I am unable to do the surgeries by myself, and must rely on others to be my arms and hands.

“I see no problem in relying on external help when all the other methods at hand prove limited or inefficient. My top concern is the safety of my patients, and I will use any means necessary to ensure their health. I am however lacking definite answers, and my task for the immediate future is to extend my understanding of the situation. While I work on my tests, we will also proceed with what you recommended. Are we agreed?”

Dr. Ferguson looked at the white rat for a moment, finally giving his nod of approval, glad that this talk was over with.

 


5: Whispers of a Mute

Friday morning, May 20th
Hospital

 

The next day, Judith and Nathan came back to the hospital early in the morning. The two were worried about Magnolia's condition, and the short message left by the hospital during the night saying that her state was now stable did little to calm their relentless need to see her with their own eyes. Neither of them slept well the night before, too worried and expecting another call at any time.

The nurse came into the room first, walking past the first empty bed to the second one hidden by separator curtains. In a soft voice, she spoke to the immobile girl laying on her back and made sure that she was awake. Opening the curtains, the nurse left the room, allowing the other two inside.

Judith gasped as she took in the scene. Magnolia lay there, a collar around her neck, dark rings under her eyes and a white completion that screamed sickness. She was tucked under the sheets and it was clear from the way the sheets were still perfectly taut that she had not moved an inch since she was put there. An IV was plugged into her left arm, the bag empty but for a small film of red liquid, and another one was linked to her stomach through a square hole in the sheet, the tube larger. This one too was empty, the feeding machine stopped. Her bed was slightly bent upward, allowing Judith to see clearly the breathing tubes inserted into Magnolia's nostrils. The girl's eyes followed them around, the only part of her that was moving.

Noa lifted her right hand weakly in an attempt at a greeting. She would have accompanied the gesture with a smile if it did not pull in a dozen uncomfortable places at once. Nathan was quick to come closer and grab her weak hand, stroking it gently. “Hey Mags. How are you doing?”

Noa pulled her hand from her brother's. It was nice to feel his touch, but she needed that hand to communicate. She wrote down 'OK' in her notebook, moving it slightly for him to see.

Judith went on the other side, pulling the corner chair next to the bed. She reached with her own hand and brushed Noa's hair and forehead, noticing the high temperature. She smiled. “Are you sure you're okay? We did not get too many details yesterday, but from what I heard...”

'I'm fine. A bit roughed up, but alive,' she wrote. It calmed Judith a little.

“You know Mags,” started Nathan with a smirk, trying to dissipate the worried tension in the room, “the stomach is on the left side of the body. Now that you're missing a bit left, you're alright.”

This made Noa laugh a little, then jerk back in pain as stabbing spasms took over the laughter. The reaction was short, but violent, and both Nathan and Judith were scared away from the resting girl. Noa quickly waved her hand, indicating that it was nothing, gesturing for both to come back closer. Nathan was feeling more than a little upset at his lack of forethought. Joking was out of the question, leaving the three of them in an awkward silence even thicker than before. No one really knew what to say until they got saved a minute later when another nurse walked into the room.

“I hope I am not intruding or anything.” The voice had not come from the nurse, but from the white rat straddling her shoulder. One could have been mistaken the confusion, if the rat's voice had not sounded like a 50 year old man instead of a 20 year old woman.

Judith recovered from her shock faster than Nathan. “Dr... Evans? I presume?” She looked at the rat as if her eyes were deceiving her. Nathan stood up from his kneeling next to the bed and took position behind Judith.

“Affirmative,” replied the rat. “And this lovely lady here is Nurse Taylor, specifically assigned to Magnolia here.” The two of them took a look at the nurse. Besides her short blonde hair held by barrettes for hygiene's sake, her short nose, and her face having yet to lose its roundness of youth, she was unremarkable. Cute, maybe pretty, but one that fades easily into the background.

Nurse Taylor walked to the bed with a quick and subdued "Excuse me", before placing the rat down on the sheets. She walked to Noa's right, replacing the feeding bag with another one full of the same thick substance. As soon as she activated the machine again, Noa started to feel the same regular pain in her gut indicating the influx of nutriment in her body. The angular motion of the rotor was slower this time around, taking a few long seconds between each new push, making the stabs of pain all the more distracting.

Dr. Evans grabbed everyone's attention as soon as he started to talk. “Since you are here, there are actually a few things I would like to talk about with you two. Magnolia too. If you think you have something to contribute, please do so.”

Noa gave him a thumbs up, and Judith nodded, prompting the doctor to continue. “Go ahead, we're listening.” She sat back into the seat, while Nathan took position of Noa's left, holding her hand softly and not intending to let go.

The white rat cleared his throat. “First of all, as you might have suspected, Magnolia here is a mutant. She has the active genome, and started manifesting some non-baseline attributes.”

“She has powers?” asked Nathan, unconcerned about the news, almost expectant instead.

“Every mutant can be said to have powers, but as it is right now, she has not displayed any active behavior that was outside of the norm. Her current changes are for now passive. Her body is most probably reshaping itself, and it emits strange electromagnetic waves that are similar to other mutants. She also produces a wide telekinesis field around her.” He punctuated this last sentence by raising his hand and illuminating the room in the blue light characteristic of a TK field under scrutiny.

Judith looked all around, deeply intrigued, noticing the hue was denser around Noa and lighter further away. “What does it do?” She reached out with her hand, moving it left and right and noticing the tiny particles swirling in her wake.

“This is something we hope to discover today, if all goes well. We will start conducting tests to understand her new morphology better.”

At the word 'test', Judith looked back, her worry not completely concealed. “What kind of tests are we talking about? I heard a lot of... things.” She spat the last word with enough emphasis to convey her utter disgust. Dr. Evans could relate. Mutants were still widely resented for being outside the norm, and some medical ‘aid’ was actually closer to animal abuse, completely disregarding the mutant’s dignity and humanity.

“Most of which are true, I fear. I understand your worry, since on more than one occasion, I was called to clean up after the previous doctor was finished doing those, as you called them, things. Despicable.” Judith relaxed, understanding that the feeling was mutual. “Rest assured that everything I do, I do it for the sake of my patient and not for my own. The tests we have planned include a series of blood tests, skin and tissue samples from multiple organs, bone marrow, saliva and urine. Her condition is still unstable, and neither I nor the other doctors know in which state Magnolia might end up. For now, we are taking measures against further organ failures or rejections, which will include some amount of medication, but to confirm the diagnosis, we need those samples as soon as possible.”

“I understand.” Judith could not conceal her growing worry as the rat was laying down the details in front of her. Things like 'blood marrow', 'unstable condition', 'organ samples', and 'organ failures' did little to lighten her mood.

Nathan was white, but did not lose his resolution. “Is there anything we can do?”

“For now, we are lacking information. A mutation is often, but not in all cases, related to a person's psychology, their life and habits prior to the manifestation, their fears, likes, dislikes, repressed emotions, and so on. I would like us to go over a few of these points, to help guide us in identifying her needs.” He turned to Noa. “Magnolia, your input is also most important in this.” He received the okay sign back from her. Giving a look at Miss Taylor, he saw her ready another sheet and to take some notes. “First off, what is your occupation, Magnolia?”

“Student,” supplied her mother, saving Noa the time of writing the short answer. “Fourteen years old, finishing her eighth grade this year.” She supplied the info as if she was used to dealing with this sort of thing.

Dr. Evans waited for the sounds of scribbling from the nurse to stop before asking his next question. “Working? Unofficially of course, or some volunteering?”

“Not working, but she was looking into doing voluntary work at the library this summer. The manager is a friend of mine.”

“Any hobbies or activities outside of home?”

“Some classes of ballet a few years back, and traverse flute for two years around the same time. Other than that, she was in a special outdoor program earlier this year, which gets the students to try many outdoor activities like camping, biking, climbing, canoeing, skiing, and so on. She enjoyed that program quite a lot.”

Evans nodded. “The outdoor program is interesting. What about likes and dislikes?”

Judith turned to Noa, who understood her stare and started jotting down notes. “Noa would give you a better list than I could.” After a few seconds of waiting, she realized that it might take Noa a little while to write down a relevant list, especially since she had to constantly move the notepad to keep a comfortable writing posture. “Maybe we could move on?”

“Of course. The next one is a little sensitive, and I want each of you to know that you are by no means forced to answer if it makes you or Magnolia here uncomfortable.” He paused to make sure that Noa also gave her consent before continuing. “Has Noa ever suffered any traumatic experiences in the past? Anything that left a mark, either physical or psychological, even if it healed and is old news by now?”

Judith looked up at the ceiling for a few moments, pondering the question, trying to remember any such times. Noa was also considering the question, no longer writing her list, but trying to come up with moments that marked her. “We all have difficult moments here and there, but nothing really jumps at me as a trauma,” said Judith.

“Really?” replied Nathan, as if he expected better from his mom. “Because I can think of a few.” He pointed alternatively at her and himself.

“Oh.” She seemed to come at a realization. Turning back to the doctor, “Yes, there might be something, but it's not directly related to Noa. Both Nathan and I have weak bodies, and we are often sick. Nathan has it worse, and he had a few near misses that really got us worried.” Noa twitched a little at the mention, for little she could move with the collar.

This mention caught Dr. Evans's interest immediately. “How old was she?”

“It happened a couple of times,” supplied Nathan. “I had a serious attack when she was six. I remember that she felt really guilty about it, because she had spent the day to her friend's place with a cat, and I'm severely allergic to cats.”

“I'm partly to blame for that one,” replied Judith. “I should have sent her to get changed and done laundry immediately.”

“Doesn't matter now.” Nathan shrugged. “Later, when she was around 9 or 10, I got my worst one yet. I was sent to intensive care for a while. It was apparently a virus I caught at work or something.” Nathan took a long breath, gathering the confidence necessary for his next confession. “I seriously thought I was going to die.” Noa had her eyes closed, water gathering near the edge, trying not to remember.

Miss Taylor was jotting down the relevant points. Dr. Evans nodded once more. “Anything more recent?”

“A few pneumonias in the last few years. Serious ones here and there, but never as bad as that one time.” Nathan's knee was starting to jump up and down, visibly uncomfortable with the topic.

Dr. Evans turned to Noa, who was crying two tears of remembrance. “Are you okay?” He received the hand gesture for 'Yes'. Nurse Taylor grabbed a paper tissue and dried gently the two streaks down Noa's cheeks. Evans turned back to the two other adults. “Thank you for sharing these details.” Nathan was patting Judith's back. The last few details had brought back difficult memories for everyone. “Is there anything else you can think of that might impact how her subconscious views mutants? Any idols, or prejudices, or experiences with mutants?”

Judith snickered. “Which child does not look up to bright heroes like Champion? Shows about him were some of her favorite. She would wait for them diligently every Saturday morning, and then run around in the house with a towel as a cape.” Her smile expanded as she recalled a funny memory. “One time, there was a documentary on the Amazing Three, and after the show, she tried to fly on our trampoline as if she was Galaxy Girl.” Her laughter was barely contained.

Nathan was trying to hold his laughter down too, not quite managing it. “The outdoor table did not survive.”

From the bed, there was a small hiccup of a sound that could have been a laugh, quickly followed by a fit of painful coughs. After she recovered, Noa brushed the stares away with another 'Ok' sign, adding something more on her paper and drawing the nurse's attention to it.

“ 'I'm okay. It was funny, and definitely not my brightest moment.' ”

Judith smiled warmly at Noa. Nathan just kicked himself mentally for making the same blunter twice. It would be hard, but jokes would be prohibited until Noa's throat healed some.

“Thank you both.” Dr. Evans came over on the other side of the bed and extended his little hand for Judith and Nathan to shake. With some hesitation, Judith extended a finger and gave the rat a small 'handshake' for lack of a better word. Nathan followed after his mom's example. “Is there anything else you would like to share?”

Judith shook her head. “If I think of anything, is there a way I can contact you directly?”

“Please contact the hospital directly. I do have a personal phone number, but I keep it for matters outside of work and anonymous calls.”

Nathan rose an eyebrow. “Not to be disrespectful, but how can a rat have a personal phone number?”

Dr. Evans pointed to his head. “I am a rat only in appearance. Beneath these cute whiskers, you would find a complex electrical and bioengineered system.”

“Why is that so reassuring.” Nathan was smiling, sarcasm heavy in his comment.

Dr. Evans agreed with the sentiment. “The ones who made me where quite thorough in putting all the utilities they could get away with without offending certain governments and agencies. And the MCO. They are the most easily offended by what I do and what I am, but our lines of work are often closely related. We learned to tolerate each other, to some extent.”

The nurse's attention was grabbed by Noa, who had written her question down. “ She asks 'Is this why you're not a telepath?' ”

Dr. Evans nodded once, regaining his serene attitude. “Nothing scares people more than a small unseen agent that can read their darkest secrets. If I petitioned to get telepathy at my next upgrade, I would become illegal in no less that 23 countries. Considering that I currently have 467 active bodies spread throughout the world working at once, it would severely limit my abilities.”

At that, everyone in the room blinked once, digesting the information. Dr. Evans looked around surprised by the reaction. “Oh, did they not inform you of what I was?”

Judith jumped back to her feet, getting back her countenance. “Yes, they did. It was part of the informed consent. Just, it's one thing to read that the doctor that will come to help is an AI, and it's another to hear the technical details of what that entails.”

“If it reassures you,” started the rat, “I am compliant to every code of ethics for AI accepted at a national level.” He turned back toward Noa and started to walk to the notebook, where she had finally finished writing everything. “Now, before you leave, let's have a look at what Magnolia wrote down.”

After reading a few lines, Dr. Evans started to chuckle. Intrigued, the nurse, Nathan and Judith came behind the bed to have a look at the scribbles on the white pages.

“ 'Dislike traveling on a plane?' ” read Nathan, remembering a few family trips, as a grin appeared on his features.

“ 'Like chocolate,' ” read Judith.

“ 'Like cooking,' ” continued the nurse.

“But Mags, your cooking is atrocious!” teased Nathan.

“Nathan, it wasn't that bad. She'll learn with practice.” admonished Judith. With a chuckle, “Still, this comes up as a surprise, I must say.” Noa was blushing a deep shade of red as they made fun of her.

She started writing down something for her brother. “ 'It's Noa, not Mags, Nat,' ” read the nurse for everyone's intention.

Nathan smirked at the shout-out on what passed as a running gag between the two. “Yep, I can see you're in top shape, Mags.” He laughed as Noa rolled her eyes in irritation.

“ 'I'll get back at you, eventually.' ”

Not losing a beat, he countered, “Really, why do you whine so much? 'Mags' fits you perfectly! Except for your cooking. Grandma's cooking was at least edible.”

Noa knew she was falling prey to the teasing, but she did not care. She was actually enjoying the exchange. It was a glimmer of normalcy in a moment where she needed it. She wrote back her counter, tit for tat.

“ 'My last quiche was edible! You at least had a nibble before you had to run to the bathroom.' ... Do I really want to know about this?” complained Miss Taylor, after reporting what was on the notepad.

“Hey, I wasn't so bad. I didn't run at least. Just a brisk walk.”

"Okay, you two, quit it," said Judith with a smile. "Moving on. Next on the list is: 'Like 11:11:11 on November 11' ... some sort of lucky charm?”

“ 'Dislike showers when hot water runs out' ” by now the four of them were taking turns reading random lines in the notebook that grabbed their attention.

“You just have to wake up earlier Mags. It's not my fault that you do your jogging in the morning. By the time you come back, well, cold water is only the natural result right?”

“ 'Like massages and hugs.' ”

“Oh, that's a family thing.” Judith punctuated her comment by enveloping both Nathan and Noa in her arms, or at least best she could for the later.

“Okay everyone,” called Dr. Evans, “but I think this is enough. We wouldn't want Magnolia to die from embarrassment, so please, a little restraint.” He neatly ripped off the page containing all the incriminatory comments, folded it in four, and gave it to the nurse, who tucked it with the rest of the notes. He would read it later, at his own leisure. To anyone who would ask, this was business. He would not admit looking forward to the enjoyable little comments.

Judith and Nathan were still smiling mischievously. “Thank you doctor, for talking to us.”

“It was my pleasure.” He accompanied his comment with a bow. “Thank you for your time. You two helped a lot more than you might think. Please visit often.”

Nathan patted one last time Noa on the head. The two exchanged a glance full of promises and future teasing, from both sides. “We will.” Noa forced her lips up into a smile, despite the discomfort.

 


6: Refection and Reflection

Friday morning, May 20th
Hospital room

 

The rest of the day passed by almost in a blur. First, after her mom and brother left the room, Dr. Evans warned her that the tests would start soon, and that some of them might be uncomfortable. She had to bear with it.

It was not long before another doctor came, introducing himself once again as Dr. Ferguson. A man in his late fifties, with peppered hair, small rectangular glasses on his bumpy nose, thick caterpillar eyebrows on perpetually furrowed brows, with a bony face to match his anxious and severe looks. Noa almost forgot him. Almost, but not quite. It was hard to make out any feature of a doctor while he was in his green operation coat, his short hair hidden under a similarly green cap, and his glasses replaced by bigger magnifying glasses. Besides, during her operation, she was doing her best to be distracted, not that it helped much. That he introduced himself once again was appreciated.

He explained in details what he was about to do, the slight feeling of discomfort that may linger, and the expected time it should take. Frankly, she just wanted him to get on with it. From what she learned last time, she just had to focus on the small bird chipping out the window, building a new nest after the first one was brushed off by stupid squirrels. Or maybe count the number of trips the bird was making and the number of branches it added, so that she would be sufficiently distracted to ignore anything the doctor would be doing, with more or less discomfort.

Why were those two squirrels so stupid anyway? There could have been eggs in that nest! Did they not care for the bird's chicks?

Ah, there we go, first blood sample successfully ignored! Dr. Ferguson filled up a few vials with a few drops of blood each. The doctor patted the hole where the needle had been with a cotton and applied a skin colored round bandage on it. Not that it was going to bleed much, compare to what she had bled only recently. Or maybe he was concerned for the sheets? A dried bloodstain was hard to wash away, even if it was a single drop, and in a place like a hospital, it would not do to give a patient a sheet that had traces of a drop of blood. They could think that the previous occupant died in those sheets. They could panic.

Ah! There, another needle successfully ignored. She was doing great so far! This time the needle had been slightly bigger, and no blood was extracted, even though the hole was bleeding a little more. There was serious concern for those sheets! Doctor, please save the sheets from the dirty drop of blood! That's it. Good doctor!

As it was, the larger needle was to take a sample of her internal organs, starting with her spleen, intestine, and liver. Ferguson would select a point near each organ, clean the area with alcohol, and would insert the needle with a small prickling and burning sensation. He would probe around until he found what he was looking for, would apply the tip of the needle on the organ, and then he would do something that would suck a piece of the organ into the needle. The probing of the needle made Noa uncomfortable. That thing was pointy! Pointy things should remain outside of living bodies, as often as possible. Sure, there were occasions where needles were necessary, like when playing Pick-a-stick with friends. But in most situations where she was concerned, sticks, needles, sharp blades and other scary things should remain where they belong, in the garbage.

And, there. Dr. Ferguson had taken a satisfactory amount of tissue samples from over five different places, she did not really count (16. Okay, yeah she did count). He proceeded to put a few cotton swab into her mouth to collect saliva. This was almost pleasant compared to everything else. The embarrassing part was when he asked a nurse to change her diaper. She did not even notice she had a diaper, nor that she had leaked anything since she got here. From the way the doctor and the nurse moved, she could not tell whether the diaper was soiled or not, but she definitely could not smell anything. Noa decided to be optimistic, and assumed the diaper was still as fresh as new.

However, since they could not take a urine sample from the simpler method, the doctor helped by the nurse brought back some kind of tube. They were considering something down there involving the tube.

It was time to be distracted again. That stain on the ceiling, how could it had got there? She tried not to focus on its yellow color, which reminded her too much of what was, or was not, going on down there. Maybe it was a leak in the plumbing? Maybe a pipe was transporting some form of liquid to, let's say, the cafeteria, passing in between the ceiling of one floor and the— WOAH COLD COLD COLD!

Seriously, they could have warned her before. Not that she was listening however. Proper gentlemen would care for the comfort of the patients, and would think of warming... stuff... before inserting it into... places.

Dr. Ferguson came to Noa's side, explaining the last procedure, which was something scientific sounding like a bone marrow sample or something. Of course Noa knew what a bone marrow sample was like, since she had studied a few basic medical procedures at some point or another. Hey, if Nathan could not go to the hospital, she would be the one stuck doing these. Well, it made sense when she was 8 at least. Now, Noa did her best to forget what a bone marrow sample implied, so she was actually surprised when the doctor flipped her nonchalantly on her side, moving both of her arms and her upper leg into position so that she would not fall over.

Noa wanted to scream. Instead, she clasped her jaw shut, almost biting her tongue. After spending almost a day on her back, she had started to get used to the general feeling of slight discomfort and forgot about the state of her insides. It was a brutal awakening to feel internal tears and swollen muscles stretch over their limit in this one simple movement. The weight that was uniformly distributed over her uninjured back was suddenly pressing down on all of her left side, where she could feel the gashing cavity of an absent stomach. Her neck twisted, sending spasms of pain up and down her spine in a shiver to raise the dead. Her esophageal tube, forgotten until now, became obnoxiously obvious as it pulled down with the weight of gravity, the two sewed bits of flesh that kept it in place straining to keep up. The tubes outside of her tugged, as if trying to pull her back into her original position, the needles in her arms shifting uncomfortably under the skin. The tubes in her nose and privates were just as uncomfortable, if only for the fact that those areas were by nature more sensitive.

It took her a moment to manage the pain and calm down, just in time to feel yet another needle injecting something just above her right buttock. The doctor walked back around, pulled the chair, and started talking to her, but Noa was not listening. She had decided that she did not like this doctor one bit. From what he was saying, he was waiting for the anesthesia to take effect, before proceeding with the extraction. He made it sound oh so reassuring from her point of view, laying in pain on the wrong side of the wound. Seriously, what kind of dope would flip her on the side of her missing stomach? Noa did not fail to notice the dark rings under his eyes. Trust was not easy to come by.

After a few minutes, Dr. Ferguson stood up, and walked around the bed once more, opening the back of Noa's hospital gown to get access to the right bone. A small cut to open the way, and he started inserting a needle that was much bigger than any previous one. Not that Noa could see it, but she could feel it perfectly well. It pierced into the bone of her hip with one sharp pain, and then it began sucking the marrow away. The pain was there, vivid and constant like it was not supposed to be after local anesthesia. Noa could guess as much. With her one good hand, she tightened her grip over the railing of her bed, gripping the metal bar so hard that her knuckles turned white. She just had to bear with it for a little while. Think of squirrels, of bald people, or count a thousand sheep, or...

When the needle finally retracted, she felt a wave of relief wash over her. Muscles she did not even know could tighten loosened as she took a moment to actually breath in and out.

Before she completely caught her breath back, another, even thicker needle pressed against her. She knew what was coming, but once again tried to push all rational thoughts out the window and put all her focus into simply enduring. Why that damn useless anesthesia, if only it could have worked properly, she would have felt barely anything!

The bigger needle pierced the bone once more, and at that singular moment where a bit of the bone got dislodged and aspired into the empty cylinder, Noa let out a guttural sound through her teeth, no longer able to keep it in.

The sampling done, the doctor patched the hole and more carefully rolled her onto her back, as before. He took care of replacing the notebook and the nurse calling remote back where they should be, with the pen tantalizingly close to Noa's hand. She could just grab it right now, and paint him a new one to let him know how to treat wounded people decently. Taking too long to decide where on his body she should stab the pen, she lost her chance at retribution as he walked away, the samples carried in so many vials in a plastic bag with her name written on the side.

She was alone once more, and as uncomfortable as always. The movement to the side and back had shifted things inside, and she could not quite make herself as comfortable as but thirty minutes ago. Her right hip was throbbing, a faint sensation of lack in a place she never thought she had felt before. The sensation was annoying.

She hated needles. She wished, at that moment, to never see another needle again, temporarily forgetting about the IV in her left arm.

 


 

It was a solid two hours before someone came visit her again. Her food bag had emptied itself by that time, and she was glad the pulsating pains were gone, at least for now. She had enough pain for one day, but something told her that more awaited.

Her visitor was Dr. Evans, with Nurse Taylor tailing him like his shadow. She quickly wrote a short message, 'I hate needles', but only received a comforting smile and a "There won't be any more today". Hurray, although did it promise some more on the next day? Crap!

Dr. Evans went through the same testing routine as the night before, testing her for psychic powers, empathy, spiritual residues, and so on. All the same tests, mostly the same results. After tasting her blood, he declared that he could not find a single trace of the stasis protein. He was still perplexed whether that was a good or a bad thing. Other than that, the results were the same as yesterday. She had not suddenly become a wizard overnight. She still had a strange electromagnetic biology, which actually got slightly weaker since the last measurement, and she still had her telekinesis field.

The telekinesis field still fascinated her. It felt to her like another limb, one she knew she could use but did not yet know exactly how to use. She was reminded of those people in rehabilitation that had legs that could not support their own weight, hands that could not grasp properly, or more closely to home, people that needed to learn to eat all over again. It was a sad thought, and her mood took a drop. She would have to learn how to use this new limb of hers just as she would need to relearn how to eat.

Dr. Evans dismissed Miss Taylor after she took note of the last batch of tests. He walked over to Noa, and stood in between her right arm and her torso, looking down at the notebook. “We will proceed a little differently today. It will be just you and me, so feel free to write whatever thoughts cross your mind. No need to be formal or polite, I will not be offended.”

Deciding to test his offer, Noa wrote something down. 'The other doctor is a prick! He flipped me on my stomach side. That hurt like hell!'

His brows furrowed. “I will have a talk with Dr. Ferguson afterward. He is not one to make such basic mistakes.”

'And the anesthesia had no effect. That was nearly as bad.'

“Really now?” He was thinking deeply. “That bears testing. Were you always resistant to analgesia?”

The scribbles were coming more quickly, her hand getting used to the motions of writing and repositioning the pad. 'Don't know. First time. Yesterday's operation didn't knock me out either.'

That seemed to shock him. “You were awake during the whole operation?” Yes. “And you felt everything that they did?” Another yes. “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a paper cut, and 10 is the most painful thing you experienced in your life before you got hospitalized, how would you rate the operation?” She jotted down a solid 11. “And the pain from being flipped on your side?” A 6, a good point of reference for future measures. Dr. Evans got lost in thought. “I see. We could get you something stronger, a good sedation to get you into a deep sleep. Maybe you were just not unconscious enough?”

'I don't sleep.' He seemed even more perplexed after that last comment. Noa explained, 'I was not able to sleep yesterday, and I no longer feel tired.'

“There are many things that could keep you awake, the pain and anxiety being but the most common.” Noa gestured for 'maybe', unsure with only a single day how she should interpret her current awareness. “In any case, there are neuraxial anesthesia which are supposed to make the pain more pleasant, and we can always resort to hypnosis as a last measure if you think you can't stand anything else. Please let me know of any more developments concerning your sleep patterns, pain, and reactions to medication.” She gave him a thumbs up. “If you would, I would like to proceed and see what you can do with your telekinesis field. That's the biggest known unknown that we have right now.”

Even though Noa did not move a muscle, Dr. Evans could feel her trepidation and impatience, her worries brushed aside in one fell swoop. He had felt her curiosity and fascination each time he lit up the room in blue. Once more, he raised his arm, and the now familiar color spread everywhere around them. The other times, he had made the field visible for only a few seconds, but this time he expected to have to hold it up for an hour or two. The rat got settled comfortably against her chest, his arm held upward by her abdomen.

“Can you feel it?” The answer was swift. Yes. He had not expected anything else, since almost every TK manifested as some presence in the mutant's mind. Even those mutants with a psychokinetic shell stuck to their skin had some feeling or intuition that it was there.

“From a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being extremely faint and hard to feel, and 10 being as clear as your strongest senses, be it your hand, tongue, ears or eyes, how present is this field of yours? How much do you sense it?”

He left her some time to think about it, her hand moving this way or that as if it helped her get an idea of the thing. Once she had enough of an idea, she wrote a series of notes. 'Rough References - Forehead 3, Hand 8, Underarm 10, Tongue 6, Nose 7, Eyes 10, Ear 9' Underneath of this first line, she wrote another one, nearly as complete 'Aura - Texture 14, Volume/Space 11, Temperature 0' She spent a long time considering whether she should write down the last one or not, but in the end decided to do it 'Soul/Something weird 2???'

That was more than what Dr. Evans expected. Noa could perceive her field more clearly than any of her other senses. It was not uncommon for mutants to develop senses that were stronger than their regular ones, but when it came to telekinesis, usually it also implied a strong psychic receptiveness, which Noa was apparently lacking. It could, in all theory, develop later, after she completed her manifestation, or as another step of it.

“I will need you to explain what you mean with each entry. By texture, you mean touch right?”

'If I pay attention, I can feel each individual thread of the sheet.'

“Would you be able to count the number of hair on my body?”

He felt more than he saw the feeling of obviousness looking at him from behind. 'I could with my eyes and fingers, but I would lose count. Same here.'

He nodded his understanding. “What about Volume/Space? What do you mean by that?”

'I can feel the whole room, even if I close my eyes.'

“In that case you would not mind if I challenged you a little, would you? Please close your eyes.” She did as asked. Without moving more than was necessary, Dr. Evans raised his second arm, closing all but 2 fingers of his little hand. Catching on immediately, Noa wrote down the number 2, her writing more scribblingly and slanted now that she could not see where she was writing. He started to change the numbers without moving the rest of his body, doing each change faster and faster. She noted down all the numbers in the correct order. Evans jumped down from the bed onto the floor, and placed himself against the wall, lined up with the middle of the bed. He made three quick numbers with his hand still held high, then walked in a straight line toward the door for about a meter before doing another series of three numbers. He repeated the same process every meter until he was out of the room and the TK field no longer shone blue from his spell, making sure to memorize every number he just displayed.

When Dr. Evans got back to the room, using the chair still by the bed to climb on it, he looked over at Noa's results.

“Hmm, you put down question marks for the last three meters, got two wrong just before that, and got a streak of good answers closer than this. So you can accurately perceive about 6 meters around you. Good to know. You can open your eyes now.”

Truth be told, Dr. Evans was impressed of the results. It was little compared to some stronger empaths and telepaths, which could perceive any conscious being several dozens of meters away if they put their mind to it, but on the other hand she probably had spacial depth that the others did not, if she was really feeling by volume like she said.

“Next is Temperature 0.” Dr. Evans continued back from where they were in her field ratings. “Why did you feel relevant to put this one?”

'It feels a lot like skin, and I remembered that skin feels temperature.'

“Good thinking, but I do not think that you would get any significant data at room temperature. Wait a minute.”

He ran out of the room on all four, and came back several minutes later with Miss Taylor, who was holding a steaming cup of something. Tea or coffee probably.

“Can you feel the heat?”

Noa scribbled down some more as the nurse placed the rat back on the bed, quickly dismissed. Her presence no longer needed, she went back to whatever she was doing before, a little annoyed that the doctor had called her in for no reason.

'I can't feel the warmth, but I could feel the presence of the steam.’

“Okay, let's keep you at Temperature 0. Finally, for the odd one, Soul? You don't look so sure. Can you really feel the soul of things with your TK?” That would be a first, as far as he knew. Usually, soul receptiveness was more common in espers and avatars, not telekinets. Although he would be the first to claim that he was not all knowing, and that his database was far from complete.

Noa gave a 'so so' gesture with her hand, trying to come up with the right words for it. 'Hard to describe,' she started 'like paint on the wall, or dust under the bed, or the flower petals. They are more than just there. Kind of like I feel them on a deeper level. It's a bit numb though.'

That was strange, and the description did little to help grasp the feeling. “Can you compare it to other sensations, or is it completely different and new?”

She made the 'I don't know' hand gesture. 'Too numb to tell.'

Maybe this was the solution to her energy problem and her lack of stomach. “Are you able to connect to the soul of stuff through your TK? Like the flower petal you mentioned?”

He saw her focus her attention on the petal, followed by the strong sense of surprised she was emitting. Excitement and eagerness quickly followed the first feeling. Her hand moved on her own, her eyes still transfixed on the petal. 'I can feel it much more if I focus on it. A 10 or eleven now. It feels good, but nothing like I'm used to. More like I know everything about the petal without having to think about it.'

Dr. Evans jumped on the chair, climbed on the chair's back, and aptly jumped to reach the little corner table on which the flowers were kept. There were only three flowers, orchids with six petals each. He could not tell any difference on any of them. Turning back, he asked Noa “I will touch each petal. Stop me when I get the right one.” Eight tries and two hand gestures later, he was apparently looking at the same petal that Noa was supposedly connecting with. Yet, the petal looked identical to every other. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He had seen a few mutants absorb the soul of plants and animals before, and usually the target tended to shrivel and die as soon as its soul got plucked out. Noa did not seem to be absorbing the soul. There had to be something else.

Putting this thought aside, he focused on the other things he wanted to test as he plucked one petal from the flower, the petal Noa was connecting to just now, and he went back to the bed, snugly making himself comfortable again and reactivating the blue hue that he let drop. He would need it for the next step. He placed the petal on Noa's belly, clearly visible to them both.

“We will figure out this soul thing in time. You know, your telekinesis field is quite receptive, Magnolia, but being telekinetic in the first place, its first purpose should be to allow you to move objects. Let's try something small. Can you try lifting this petal here?”

The next half hour was excruciatingly slow. Dr. Evans kept the blue hue of the field active so he could see what was happening. At the same time, Noa was concentrating as hard as she could on the task. It took all of fifteen minutes for her to create movement in the field. Simple movement, like a ripple propagating in three dimensions, but it was enough movement for both of them to notice. Dr. Evans could feel a strong sense of accomplishment and pride from that one initial, minimal reaction, as Noa lost her focus and the ripple faded out. She was too happy to care for this little slip of the mind.

They took a five-minute break, commenting on this first result and how it had felt. It had been too quick, and Noa had tried too many thoughts to know what exactly had worked. They got back to work, trying to effect different kind of movement in the blue particles with moderate success. Each time she would force her telekinesis to move a certain way, the field would bounce back to its usual uniform self. Dr. Evans hypothesized, even though it was too early to confirm, that this was her rest state, and that she would need to strain to move her field away from this state.

They were still a long way from actually moving the flower petal when Dr. Evans decided that this was enough for now, and that Noa should rest. A nurse would come check on her at lunch time, after which they would continue to experiment.

 


 

Noa was thus left alone once more. The clock on the wall indicated a little over 10 in the morning. She had so much time on her hands, and so little to do. The doctor had forbidden her to try to manipulate her field without him present. He had said that she might get exhausted by the manipulations, but that she might not realize her level of fatigue until it was too late. She wanted to complain, but he was adamant on this point. For a mutant, she lacked the usual instincts associated with her powers, and he was afraid she might hurt herself or trigger a burnout if she exerted herself too much. She gave in under his authoritarian stare.

But, 'for a mutant', huh? That's right, she was now a mutant. She had not really thought about it until now, with everything being so frenzied and so uncertain, although things had settled down now, and Dr. Evans was helping her grasp what she was supposed to be doing. What exactly she was becoming was still nebulous in her mind. She had a field, and that field was sensitive. The new sensations felt good, kind of like opening your eyes and watching the real stable world when all you knew before was a fluctuating dream. They felt more real that the sounds she heard, or the colors she saw, or the stench of hospital scent she smelled. It felt like a part of her had been missing until now, and that now she was finally complete, even though she never knew before that she had been lacking anything.

On the other hand, how could she tell that the aura was not controlling her? She saw movies, and she read books. There was always one where the evil guy hypnotized or mind controlled an innocent girl into being his slave, her will merging with his own. Or those werewolves in that shiny vampire series, which became love-struck to a single girl for life, and for which the whole world no longer existed but for the presence of that one girl by their side. At the time, she had thought this kind of love at first sight was the most romantic thing ever, but now thinking back, it felt utterly creepy. Mental influences, the kind that leaves you completely fulfilled and happy and unable to realize that you lost your will and autonomy, the kind that could make you do horrible things without a single concern for danger or safety. Decisions you had made before the shift no longer appealed to you, no matter how rational or emotionally involved they were before. You were not the same person anymore, there was a break in continuity that left one wondering where that innocent little girl or little boy disappeared to.

If she allowed her mind to wander a bit further, there were those cases more deeply rooted in horror movies. Zombies, parasites, symbiotes. Things that modify your urges and give you new desires, even though nobody in their right mind would want them. She thought back to a book she read once, about the romance between a boy and a zombie girl growing more difficult and painful the further her mind slipped away from her humanity.

Being inhuman was scary. How could she be sure that this would not happen to her? How could she tell if the feeling she had of her field was healthy, something that was always meant to be, or artificial, a construct imposed on her to make her accept blindly what she was becoming?

The thought made Noa shudder. What was she becoming exactly? Dr. Evans had told her that she had probably been changing gradually since a couple of weeks now, without her even realizing it until two or three days ago. And even then, she thought that it was just another stupid cold at first. She could not be certain of anything. Her own body was betraying her, in the most painful of ways. How would it proceed? Would she puke out her heart, lungs and brain before her body eventually decided to kick the bucket? She was not healing, for God's sake! Even the doctors and nurses seemed worried about the development of her condition, their blank stares hardened with resignation not escaping Noa's vigilance. Would her body continue to degrade, bringing her closer and closer to death and further out of reach from possible medical treatments? And would she feel more and more blissfully happy and whole the greater the lack and hurt became, just like what happened with her stomach and the appearance of her field? She could envision it clearly, gaining a new power with each crisis and each failure of her body, slowly feeling more while being less.

She felt cold. The sweat of her anxiety sticking to her and cooling off the sheets and her skin. Shivers ran up and down her spine, due in part to the cold, and in part to fear of the unknown. She had admired Champion when she was younger. She wanted to become like Galaxy Girl and live the same adventures as the Amazing Three, or fight along STAR League members like Lightwave and Red Archer, but she never stopped to consider what it really meant to become a mutant. Would she still be allowed to go to school? Would she be a crime magnet like in the shows and live a life that gave her no respite, or would she be shunned away like so many others for being different?

Would she be pretty? Would she turn into an abomination? Would she still be herself, with the same likes and dislikes as she wrote on that piece of paper, with the same attachment to her family and friends, with the same strengths and weaknesses at school, the same drive to jog in the morning, the same personality to poke fun at her brother? Or would she change so much as to become unrecognizable, unhinged and unsettled, not caring about the things she lost?

Would she ever hurt the people she loved, even if only by accident?

So many questions and so few answers. She liked who she was right now. She loved her family, she loved her friend Carol, she had plans for school and for the summer and both of those meant a lot to her.

Noa decided that she needed to protect those things. No matter what she might become, those things needed to still be a part of her, or else she would lose herself. She turned her notebook upside down and flipped the pages until she was at the official last page of the notebook, which from this upside down position looked for all intent and purpose like a first page. She started making a second list. Likes and dislikes, just like the one she gave to Dr. Evans, but also much more. Her relationships with her bother, mother, Carol, grand-parents, and past friends she lost contact with like Candace, Ismail, and Ysera. She wrote down her internet friends, and Carol's cat, and her school project. She wrote down everything she could think of that she still cared about, with a few short words describing what this thing, person or event still meant to her. Close people like her mother and brother had lines after lines of short two word descriptions explaining the richness and complexity of her relationship with them, and everything she valued, from their good points to their little eccentricities and flaws that made them unique and precious to her. She made a vow that every day until she was reasonably sure her mutation was over, she would go over each element on the list, take a moment to remember the feelings she felt right now as she wrote them, and put a little check mark next to it if and only if she still felt the same as what was written here. This list would become her anchor, and if her mind was ever altered, she would know.

By the time noon hit and the nurse came in with the dreaded bag of liquid food, Noa had finished filling up six pages, front and back. In one of her entries, she put her telekinesis field, along with her impression of completeness and missing link. She had considered not putting it since her mind might have been affected by it already, but she resolved herself, rationalizing that it was now too late to think of life without her TK. So she put it down, with a special mention to watch how it evolved attentively.

Not wanting anyone to see notes that were even more personal than the one Dr. Evans had access to, she flipped her notebook again, going back to a page half filled with scribbles and unintelligible comments. The nurse only gave her the briefest of glances, and Noa could see that blank and resigned look now that she knew what to look for. It made her sad to know that the nurses saw her this way. Noa would have liked to compare, and see the look in their eyes when they attended to other patients. Maybe it was simply the look every hospital staff gave to every patient. That would be a downer in its own right.

 


 

It was almost 5pm when she received an expected unexpected visitor. With all her free time, it was all Noa could do but to wonder how school had been and when Carol would visit, but she knew her friend might be busy, and that she should not expect a visit, especially not at any specific time. Still, the anticipation was there, if only unconscious, and she was more than glad to see Carol step into the room.

Her pink hair was a bit ruffled, a few strands lifting up and away from her frontal locks, as if her hair caught in the wind. Which was improbable considering how short her hair was, exception given to her long side-swept bangs. She still had her backpack, meaning that she came here straight from school. How nice of her.

“Hey Noa,” she said, throwing her bag away and pulling the one seat closer to the bed. “How are you doing?”

Thumbs up. Noa wrote down some more details. Carol, short as she was, had to stretch over the railing of the bed to see what Noa was writing on the other side of the bed. Seeing that this would not work, Carol stood up, holding the chair in a still sitting position, and decided to walk around the bed, the chair awkwardly swinging over her back like a clumsy turtle, the legs almost hitting the small cabinet with the orchids on top. Noa was also worried about the walls, but somehow, Carol managed to walk around the bed without tripping anything with the chair. She did look awfully silly doing so.

From there, she could read perfectly. 'Doing well. Wish I could work on coin-catching though.’

Carol was about to inquire more about Noa's health and welfare, but thought better of it. She was worried, but her friend seemed to be doing well. If there was anything bothering Noa, Carol was sure she would tell her. She would wait for a better time. “I brought my logbook and the designs we decided on. We can go over it if you want?”

'I'd love to!' Noa drew a little heart next to her line. 'Beats the boredom of not having access to TV.'

“Oh, poor you!” The melodramatic tone was way past the point of simple mocking. “How are you able to live a single day without your favorite show, Cutie Cutie Plushie!”

'I know! Can you even believe they moved it to Saturdays now? Right at the same time as Champion: The Animated Series. The dilemma, it hurts!'

“Completely unreasonable!” Carol laughed as she went to get her bag on the floor. Fetching inside, she pulled out a thick binder with plenty of loose sheets of paper, diagrams, notebooks and post-its slid in between the actual bounded pages. A few color-coded separators were indicating different parts of the project: investigation, design, implementation, notes, annexes. “But fear not, for I have a solution! You can come to my home, and watch both simultaneously on our two televisions!” As she pulled out the binder, a few sheets dropped loose and fell back into her bag. She let out a small curse and fetched them back, spending more time than she should trying to find exactly where they had belonged.

'And bring my biology books with me?' teased Noa.

“Girl, you read my mind!”

Noa waved her hand in a dismissive manner. 'Or, better solution, you record one while I watch the other one.'

“Your television is an antique! This is the third millennium you know. TV contracts now come with over a thousand channels and hundreds of hours of recording time. I could record both shows if you want.”

'Nah, too easy. 12 channels and good old VHS recording for the win.'

Carol chuckled. “What does your mom do again? Isn't she rich or something?”

'Working for the government does not make you rich, especially when single with two children.'

Carol felt a pang of guilt at her lack of forethought. “Sorry.” She turned her head away, hiding her shame. She felt Noa's hand gently stoke hers and she knew she would be forgiven, but still, that was uncalled for.

When she finally looked back, some more text was waiting for her. 'Ready to get working?'

Carol gave a weak, still guilty smile. “Rock on!” Immediately after, she switched gears and started talking about things that she had thought up in the last two days. Specifically, she wanted to go over the models for their little machine. They would only officially get this weekend to cut down the wood and planks as they needed, so they had to make the best of it. If they messed up, they would have to compete with the rest of their classmates during Science class for the limited tools available. Considering that their time was limited and the student body was huge, they might not finish their coin-catcher by the date of the competition.

Noa felt bad that she could not assist during the weekend. It was this weekend that would determine the quality of their frame, and without a good frame, the whole thing would just fall apart or get stuck at the first opportunity. She pumped herself up, putting all her effort into thinking up everything that could go wrong with their current design, and finding solutions for each. By the end of the hour, their diagrams were blackened with notes, and the two girls were confident they got the most out of their original idea.

“I should get going,” said Carol, eyeing over at the clock. “I told my dad I would come check on you, but he'll still get worried if I skip dinner. Counting the time for the bus ride—”

Noa interrupted her. She did not need to know the specific details, and she definitely did not want to hear her best friend try to convince her that she should be going. 'It's okay, I understand.' As much as she selfishly wanted Carol to stay a little longer, Noa knew that it would eventually cause problems for her. Carol had people waiting for her, and she probably needed to do some homework too. Thinking about homework, Noa anticipated with anxiety the time she would be released from the hospital, and the two or three weeks of classes and final exams she would need to catch up on. She would start lagging behind soon. No need to drag Carol down with her.

The large and unwieldy binder found its way back into Carol's bag. Noa could still feel her hesitation at leaving. “Is there anything I can do?” From the sound of it, Noa knew that Carol would not take 'no' as an answer. Or she would, but she would beat herself up over it and try to come up with something anyway. Yet, Noa could not think of much Carol could do in the current situation.

'Visit again soon?'

“Of course! Who do you take me for?” She had to repress a few tears. Tears did not suit her. Especially not with her mascara and eye shadow. “Next time, I will get you something nice.”

'A surprise?'

“Yep. Not telling anything now.”

'As if you already have something in mind. You're probably just making it up.'

“Hey!” Her indignation was back into playful territory. “Thanks girl! Glad to know how much faith you have in me.”

'All hail the Hart!' Carol's last name made for some nice teasing.

“Stop that!” She chuckled. Noa had some controlled spasms that Carol decided to interpret as laughter.

'Okay, but no flowers, and no chocolate.'

“What? But you love cho... oh.” The obvious dawned on her. “No food, no drink. Right. I'll think up something!”

'I knew it.'

“Shut it! That doesn't mean I didn't come here with an idea already in mind. It was just a bad one, okay?” She crossed her arms and humphed away at Noa.

'I believe you.' Carol somehow doubted that. 'Now, get going before you embarrass yourself even more.'

“Yes mommy.” With one last chuckle, Carol swung her backpack on her back. She looked back one last time, serious and caring. “Take care.”

'I will. Thanks for coming.'

“Don't mention it.”

 


7: Of Worries and Values

Saturday early morning, May 21st
Hospital room

 

Five thirty A.M. She could tell from the clock in the dim light that filtered through the window into the room. The sun was rising, the birds were singing...

... and the heart monitor stopped beeping.

Instead of the usual regular beeps the monitor now emitted a single continuous droning note. Elsewhere, several other alarms went off, pulling the night staff, who were waiting for the opportunity to go home, into wide alert. The first staff member to enter Noa's room was a nurse she had never seen before. Tall, built, tough, a real matron with years of experience, a dark ponytail trailing behind and a stare at the same time more caring and more detached than the other nurses she had seen. When the nurse saw Noa waiving 'hello', seemingly perfectly fine, she let out a breath of relief. She immediately left the room, talking loudly to some other nurse manning the reception desk, and tapped a few keys herself to stop the alarms.

Five thirty A.M. The day promised to be interesting already.

No less than four nurses came in her room to see what the problem was. Obviously, the heart rate monitor could not find a pulse. Just as obvious was Noa, comfortably lying in her bed, writing reassuring comments to the nurses that she was fine. Really!

The matron came next to her and took her pulse at the wrist. She could find it without any problem. Two other nurses had to test for themselves to be convinced that Noa really did have a pulse. Noa knew that she was a mutant, but the incredulity of these nurses was still impressive. Half of them were expecting her to be dead, or a talking zombie of some sort. It was really reassuring to be within the hands of so many frightened and jumpy people.

The matron took the electrodes that were placed all over Noa's torso and belly and applied them to herself, to test whether they were defective or not. Strangely enough, the heart rate monitor caught right back up, showing a decreasing heart rate of 98 beats per minute. Just as with the pulse, two more nurses had to try the machine for themselves. They were the same two, maybe they were new here, and still in training?

Once they were convinced that the machine was working perfectly, they tried reapplying the electrodes on Noa, making sure that they stuck properly. Nothing happened. No heartbeat, no nothing. The machine was displaying warnings for cardiac failure, a big ol’ 0 wrapped in a red warning square, plainly obvious. The matron tried various positions for the electrodes, none of which gave any signal.

They could not understand it. The four of them could clearly see Noa's veins pulsating regularly with blood flow, and each of them had felt her pulse one way or another. Talking quickly to each other they went over how the monitor's mechanism and the different ways the capture of tiny shifts in electrical current running through the skin at each heartbeat could have been affected in Magnolia's case.

When asked, Noa could only supply that Dr. Evans keep saying that she had strange electromagnetic patterns. That seemed like an answer enough for the girls waiting for the end of their shift, and after turning off the heart rate monitor, they filed out of the room. The matron wrote a report of the incident to the intention of Dr. Evans, to be read when he would be available.

When the nurses left, Noa decided it was as good a time as any other to look over her six-page value list and check today's mood. For the most part, she was agreeing with her sentiment of yesterday and put a check mark next to matching emotions. She still loved her family and Carol, and she was still determined to do her best for the coin catching competition.

But somehow, there were some things that no longer made sense. Her favorite toothbrush? Her teddy bear when she was three years old? Her memory of being bullied into doing the homework for three of her friends at the time? Why did she still value those? Or for the assignment one, why did she ever value it at all? She had put a small comment saying 'Accepted' next to that last one. Having written this note, she knew what it meant. At the time, she was trying to join the group and be a part of it. She was friend with Candace, but over time Candace started to spend less time with her and more time with Edith and Riki. Being young and amenable, Noa had accepted to do an assignment that the other three had forgotten to do. It was just one assignment, and Candace was her friend, so it was no big deal. That was what she thought at the time. Looking back now, she just saw that she got used.

Oh, she had remained friends with Candace, even after this event was hidden under the rug. Just not with Edith and Riki. When she and Candace were alone, the two got along together perfectly. When Candace was with her two other friends, she was in a completely different world, inaccessible to Noa. They had stopped seeing each other over the years, for reasons that Noa did not quite understand even to this day.

Why did she value this memory again? She never got accepted into their group in the end, so why?

And this was not the only memory. Here and there, a couple of entries jumped at her for being overly emotional and idealistic. Did she really change this much overnight? Was her mind influenced?

Noa gave it some serious thought. She came to the conclusion that she was probably not being influenced. Most of the entries she was having second thoughts about were in a similar vein, showing a stronger attachment yesterday than she really felt today. Her powers could be influencing her mind to be more cynical, or it could be simple variations in her mood. Occam’s razor dictated that the simpler explanation was best. Yesterday, she wrote down this whole list while she was scared and craving mental and emotional stability. Today, she was looking at them while being bored, as if she could not care less. It was most probably just a shift in emotion, but even so it posed a problem. How could she make a list that would be valid from day to day, through her moods and daily variations? Could she define a range of emotions that were valid for each specific thing? Or should she note what kind of mood she was feeling each time she inscribed her thoughts on paper?

The task seemed daunting, and Noa was considering giving up the whole process. It was just too difficult, like documenting shifting sands.

She spent a while trying to sort her emotions, what defined her from what did not. It was more self-reflection that she did in her whole life, but she guessed it was only a natural result of having too much time and too little to do.

It was when she looked back at the little asterisk and the margin note that she made up her mind. ‘* Be careful, TK is changing me.' That was a warning that did not change. She had grown more accustomed to her TK overnight, and it just felt completely natural, like this was what she should be doing for the rest of her life. The lack of worry over this major change in her life scared her. If she accepted her TK now, what else would she one day be ready to accept? Death of a loved one? No thanks.

Noa was ready to accept that yesterday she was definitely more emotional than today. Deciding to keep to her project until it became truly impossible to pull it off, she added in the margin notes explaining how she felt at that time, her current boredom and her new, reformed evaluation. For good measure, she also added a new entry called 'My Value List' with a note on the side. '* Never forget’.

 


 

Dr. Evans came in at the same time as yesterday. Noa was disappointed that her mom and Nathan had not come to visit her, but was gently reminded by Dr. Evans that today was Saturday, and that they might sleep late or have things to do during the day. Only two days here and Noa was already losing track of time.

“Who turned off the heart rate monitor?” As soon as he was on the bed, he was concerned at the black screen facing him and the electrodes hanging on their hook on the side.

'It stopped beeping this morning. The nurses didn’t tell you?'

He looked back and forth between Noa and the monitor, wracking his little brain to figure what was amiss. Jumping over Noa, the rat put his ear close to her chest where the heart should be. “Strange.” She knew her heart was still beating, so she assumed that he was calling strange the situation or the monitor, not her per se.

“Give me a minute.” Dr. Evans quickly left the room, making a beeline to the front desk. Jumping on the desk, he asked the startled secretary, “Was there an event this morning involving patient Magnolia Flores?”

The boy sitting at the desk opened and closed his mouth a couple of times like a goldfish. Once his brain caught up with his mouth, he replied, “Uh, yeah, well sort of. Machine malfunction apparently. There, um, was a report left to the attention of Dr. Long Evans.”

“That's me.” Obviously the young nurse had not been informed that a rat was now in charge on this floor. The boy opened and closed his mouth a couple more times, looking around to see if someone would help him out of his little bind.

Dr. Evans sighed. “Miss Barker!” He called to the large matron that was walking by, not yet done with her night shift. Hearing her name, she came and recognized the little white rat for who he was. They had been introduced on the first night, when Dr. Evans came in a rush and strict order was needed on the floor.

“What is it doctor?” The eyes of the boy opened wide, taking in the sight of the huge woman listening with deference to a small critter.

“I am looking for a report that should have been filled up this morning concerning Miss Magnolia Flores.”

“It's right there. I wrote it myself. Williams, dear, could you give this file to Dr. Evans here please? Thank you.” You obey the matron, no questions asked. The boy, Williams, hurriedly took the proper report and opened it for the rat's convenience. Satisfied, the matron looked back at the doctor. “Do you need me, or—”

“I trust that this report is complete. Unless you would like to tell me something in person, you are free to finish your shift. Thank you for your help.”

She gave him an appreciative curt nod, and was on her way.

“Hmm, the monitor was fine for everyone but Magnolia? And yet she had a clearly visible pulse. Side note: check electrical capacity of the electrodes. Hmm.”

Giving back the file and politely thanking Williams for his help, Dr. Evans went back to Noa's room.

Putting aside the matter of the monitor for now, he started with the same battery of tests as usual. Still no ghosts, spirits, witchy powers or empathic receptiveness. Dr. Evans was actually quite cute when he was all furry like, the fur of his whole body standing on end while he was searching for spirits, his little whiskers twitching in concentration. He patted his fur back down into position, and for the next test, with a quick stab of his claw he drew a drop of blood from her finger. Still no traces of MBC-K43 stasis protein. If the stasis was over, then her mutation might be kicking into high gear. That might explain the monitor case as a sudden but less visible mutation.

Dr. Evans spent a lot longer than the two previous times testing her electromagnetic pattern. He moved around close and over her body, mindful of where he was putting down his weight, and spent extra-long over her chest and front area, where the electrodes were supposed to go. “Your electromagnetic field is normal. It is a little stronger than yesterday, which is a nice constant growth since I first tested you, but nothing that would incapacitate the heart rate monitor. First of all, even though your pattern is unique and the strength constantly growing, you are still emitting less than a baseline. Second of all, the electrodes don't even capture your electromagnetic field, but instead detect skin level electric current...” He stopped abruptly as realization hit. “Give me another minute.”

This was becoming a common thing. Dr. Evans ran back to the reception desk of the floor, grabbing Williams as he was about to return to his tasks. “Williams!” The nurse jumped, hoping he would not have to deal with the rat doctor again.

“Uh, yes? Can I help you?” He was unsure of the hierarchical level of the little rat, but since he was at least a doctor, it would not do to be impolite.

“Do you know if we have some accurate voltage tester or an electrical test meter?”

The boy thought for a second. “Not that I know of, but maybe the instrument maintenance team would know where to find one. What do you need it for?” It still felt strange to converse with a rat. His friends would not believe him when he would tell them that.

“It's to test the electrodermal activity of a patient. So it needs to be quite accurate.”

“I'll ask them.” Williams sat back behind the desk and made a phone call. “Hi, Roger? Yeah, it's Will... Yeah... No... Well, ya'see, I need something to test the electrical activity of a patient's skin... Yes... Maybe... Dr. Long Evans I think...” His eyes bulged out a little as he listened to a comment on the other side of the line. Throwing glances at Dr. Evans, Williams put his hand on the phone's receiver and asked the doctor, “The mutant?”

Evans sighed. “Yes.”

“What level of voltage are we talking about? One thousand volts? One hundred thousand volts?”

“Regular normal baseline.” He gave another sigh. The tech team had also been warned, and their concerns were sort of justified, but it was still sad how far the reputation of certain mutants reached.

“Regular normal,” parroted Williams into the phone. Nodding his head, he put his hand once again on the receiver to address Dr. Evans. “They say you should use a heart rate monitor.”

“I already did. I would like a second opinion. Don't they have another machine or detector that does something similar? Or that could maybe test under the skin even?”

Williams copied over what he had just been asked, nodded a couple more times even though the other end of the phone could not see him nodding. After a minute or so, he put down the phone. “Roger is coming.”

“Good.”

Waiting for a few minutes, Dr. Evans finally saw a tall man in a white jacket wheeling a small cart containing measurement devices of all kinds. He led the man into Noa's room, explained what he wanted him to test, and the man got to work.

He pulled out a few sheets listing expected results for a couple of tests and grabbed a multimeter. The multimeter looked like a small digital box with a screen display and several buttons. From the multimeter extended two wires, one red and one black, connected to two thin pen-like tools with a pointy metallic tip each. Those pen-shaped tools were used for the detection. Activating the machine, he first tested it against his own skin, applying the two tips of the pens about an inch apart, and checked that the readings were normal according to his various spreadsheets. Satisfied, he proceeded with the same test on Noa's arm, placing the two tips an equal distance as he had. The multimeter's readings remained at 0, not detecting any current or difference in voltage on her skin. He tested a few more areas of Noa's body, then tested the metallic railing of the bed. That got a reaction, so he knew the machine was not broken.

“Doctor,” he asked, “may I?” He made a movement indicating that he wanted the rat to be his guinea pig too.

“Sure.” The reading for Dr. Evans didn't match anything on his spreadsheet, but then again, that was not really what the technician was looking for either. The simple fact that he got a reaction was telling.

Trying to understand what the results meant, the technician went back to Noa. He tested at many end points of her body, but each time the readings stayed the same.

Finally, he gave his verdict. “Doctor, either she does not have an electrical current to her body, or she is somehow insulated.”

Dr. Evans nodded. “Could we also try inside? Like the inside of the mouth?”

The technician raised his shoulders. “It's worth a try.”

The results were normal. Which was totally unexpected at this point. After placing a pen on each side of the inside of her mouth, and apologizing for the discomfort, the multimeter showed a differential in voltage that matched that of a regular baseline. Both Dr. Evans and the technician were expecting values of 0, just like her skin.

Thanking the technician for his time, Dr. Evans started to ponder the meaning of his find.

'Am I sick?' wrote Noa.

Dr. Evans took a few more seconds to think some more, pacing around the bed. “No, you would know better than I if you were sick at this point. I think it is just a new development of your mutation, strange as it is. Your skin seems to have changed into some sort of insulation.” He peered more closely at her skin, stroking it with his hand. “I don't see any body hair either. I will make sure to get a word in with the testing team when they come around to your skin and tissue samples.”

He was not really impressed by her lack of body hair. A lot of mutants shed those at some point to conform to their idealized Body Image Template, or BIT for short. Most Exemplars only had any kind of hair if it fit their vision of beauty. Or if it matched their vision of what a human body should be like, he amended. A few of the most beautiful Exemplars still had to shave their legs and trim their beards because they deeply believed that they needed to do so to be beautiful. So they made their hair grow unconsciously, only so that they could feel the satisfaction of cutting it. It was strange how the subconscious worked sometimes.

Dr. Evans left the room just in time to see Judith and Nathan Flores turn the corner of the corridor, coming this way. It was nice for Noa to have a caring family. Evans did not want to intrude, so he left the room inconspicuously. There was somewhere else he needed to be right now.

He went to meet with Dr. Ferguson in the on-call room. The doctor was sleeping on the bunk bed intended for this use, a magazine open and plastered on his face to block out the light. The on-call room was supposed to provide adequate sleep facilities to the staff doing overtime. As far as Dr. Evans knew, Dr. Ferguson had finished his shift early yesterday afternoon. He should have had enough rest, unless he had stayed way past the end of his shift.

The movement and the squeaky sound of claws on the tiled floor caught the apparently sleeping doctor's attention. He lifted a corner of the magazine and looked to the ground, cringing his eyes at the sudden ambient light.

“Taking a little nap before the start of the day?” The rat was sympathetic to the doctor's plight. All too often, he saw medical staff push themselves beyond their limits to provide for whatever care was required at one time. It was hard to leave the work place knowing a patient needed your help, and that no one else could provide it in your stead.

“Those shifts are killing me.” Ferguson sat up on the bed, rubbing his eyes underneath his glasses.

“I thought you left the hospital at 2pm yesterday.”

“The ambulance called. It was an emergency. First floor, room 103. Broken ribs, pierced lungs, and fragments dangerously close to the heart.” He took a deep breath, reaching for the cold cup of coffee that was waiting on the table. He did not even seem to mind that it was cold as he sipped it. “Anyway, I believe you want the test results?”

“I would like to go through them with you, if you feel up to it. It can wait another hour or two.”

“I'm fine, I'm fine.” He stood up, opened up a filling cabinet and took out a folder from it. “I was expecting you to show up at any time, so I kept the results close at hand.”

This was thoughtful of him, but not a good practice in this line of work. With his state of fatigue, documents could all too easily get lost. “Be careful not to lose these. We will need them in the archives at some point.”

Dr. Ferguson dropped the file loudly on the table as he sat down on one of the two chairs. Dr. Evans used the other one to jump on the table, looking at the papers that were being spread out in front of him.

“Her blood tests are unusual, but I can't say I expected anything less. Her dietary levels are normal. Sodium, potassium, cholesterol, glucose, all normal for a baseline.” He pointed at a sheet containing many tables, each depicting several ratios and characteristics for the value measured. “Her hormones are also relatively normal, or rather within range. Low estrogen, but that might just be her cycle. Low Thyroid that might indicate weight loss, high white cell count and hemoglobin count that suggests high blood activity. CRP is through the roof however. It indicates a high activity of her immune system, and that she is fighting off something like an infection or illness right now. The LFT, Liver Function Test, is abysmal, as if her body is not producing any waste. The liver is essentially not used at all.”

He stopped to let Dr. Evans consider the numbers by himself. When he saw that the rat doctor was following, he continued. “After that, it gets weird. Her blood type is B positive. They tested it first on her own tissues, but it will make more sense if I explain the results in the reverse approach the testing team took.”

He took a breath before delving into the better part of the test results. “They tested her blood's receptiveness to blood samples of an A positive donor, to check her cross-matching compatibility.”

“But it's an A type. Of course it would be rejected.” Dr. Evans did not see the point of this experiment. It went against a lot of things that were considered common knowledge. Why did the team even think of that?

Dr. Ferguson continued with a dismissive gesture of the hand. “It will make sense. Just wait until I get to the other tests. So they mixed both samples, and sure enough, her B positive cells attacked and rejected the A positive cells. A completely normal rejection.”

Dr. Evans was growing impatient, tapping his foot rhythmically in the table. “I am still waiting to see where this leads us.”

Ferguson did not let himself be rushed into the rat's pace. “They did the same with that same donor's tissues instead of blood. Again, the B positive cells attacked and rejected the tissues, as expected. This is a good frame of reference of what a normal baseline rejection is supposed to be like, because before they got to those tests, they tried doing the same with a B positive theoretically compatible donor.”

“So, what happened?” Dr. Evans looked into Dr. Ferguson's eyes. “From the tone of your story, I take it something when wrong.”

“The blood started to boil.” Ferguson was disappointed that the other doctor was not dumbfounded by the revelation. He should have expected at least that much when dealing with a doctor specializing in difficult GSD mutant cases. “The reaction was much more violent than with the A positive type. Miss Flores's blood cells not only rejected the donor's blood, they eradicated it in short order. All that was left was a thin black residue at the bottom of the vial, which were found to be denatured proteins.”

Dr. Evans nodded his understanding. “I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. There is more to it than just that.”

Ferguson sigh. “There is no impressing you. The test with the B positive donor's tissues were similarly spectacular. The boiling lasted longer, about an hour for the small piece that was mixed in, but the end result was the same.

“Going back in time further, the testing team started with the obvious first test. I asked them to check whether Miss Flores's blood rejected any of her organs. Well, it does, but not by the standard later discovered with the A positive test. Her blood dissolved the pieces of tissues that we placed in, some taking longer than others. Her intestine was dissolved within the first hour, her liver followed quickly after, her lungs in five, heart in six, you get the idea. When the tissues were sufficiently absorbed and no residue remained, the blood changed shape and reformed itself into a flexible material.”

Dr. Ferguson took a vial out from his pocket. The vial had a uniform semi-transparent milky white substance stuck at the bottom, with crystal clear liquid over it. Dr. Evans took the vial and shook it a little to see the malleability of the white substance. It vibrated like rubber, but remained otherwise still, even when flipped upside down.

“The liquid is distilled water, plain and simple,” provided Ferguson. “The blood sucked in every solid matter into that white shape you see here, and drained out all the water particles.”

“What is this?” Dr. Evans was eyeing the glassy white rubber closely, bringing the vial almost up to his nose.

“The testers don't have a clue. The compound is quite complex, and contains elements that are not usually found in the blood. They would need a lot more time to study this material in any great detail.” He took the vial back from Dr. Evans after he finished inspecting it, putting the vial back in his pocket. “They did test it for a few things, like they would for a new metal or plastic components. First of all, it is highly conductive…”

“That can't be right.” Dr. Ferguson rose an eyebrow at Dr. Evans's interjection. He waited patiently for the other doctor to elaborate. “This morning, Magnolia's skin morphed into what I expect to be this same compound. Through an issue with her heart rate monitor, we discovered that her skin was insulating her and preventing electrical current.”

It was Dr. Ferguson's turn to furrow his brows. “We might need new skin samples if her complexion changed overnight, although from what they tested, her skin was already the same stuff as what is in the vial.” He took a long breath. “That was something else I wanted to touch upon,” he admitted.

“There was also something else.” Ferguson turned toward Dr. Evans, listening with attention. “The inside of her mouth was still conductive.”

Silence fell in the room as both doctors tried to parse through the accumulated knowledge.

It was in a resigned whisper that Dr. Evans asked, “Was the blood tested for immunosupression and inhibiton?”

“And a few anti-proliferative agents. Strangely enough, the mixture was enough to completely stop a O negative rejection that was going on otherwise.”

“She was also tested for O negative?”

“Same reaction as the A type, unless the right drug cocktail was administered. The drugs, obviously, did nothing to stop the A positive rejection.”

Dr. Evans sat down. “So what are our options?”

Dr. Ferguson gave a sinister cackle, looking to the sky in the same motion as he laid back into his chair. “Assuming we had unlimited funds, the medical staff needed to do all those operations, the necessary donors readily available, a signed consent of the patient, and no ethics, we could either replace all of her organs, including the missing stomach, with O negative ones and drug the rejection away; or we could do a full bone marrow transplant for every large bone of her body, followed by a full blood transplant, and use some artificial all-inclusive blood that would not have the nasty reactions we just talked about.”

There was a long silence lingering between the two doctors, as they both considered the inevitable situation. Ferguson removed his glasses and put them carefully aside. Dr. Evans watched as the man held his head in his hands, rubbing his eyes once more. He could not help but noticed that Ferguson's fingers came away wet, trying to hide it as he might.

“I can't save her.” The breaking voice of the man betrayed his unwillingness to give up, even as he was forced to face the ugly reality. “Her organs are just about to give up, and the best we can do is delay the reaction with some immunosupression. Her intestine could fail any moment now. And the worst part is,” he pulled out some paper tissues from his pocket and cleaned himself up, “from the behavior of her blood, her mutation will probably wait until all her organs have failed before kicking in. She might be long dead by that point.” At this moment, he felt like he had failed in his profession as a doctor. He was no longer a doctor, but a crying man faced with helplessness. There came a time in every doctor's profession where the responsibilities became overwhelming, and the inevitable happened. It was not the first time that Ferguson saw one of his patient die on him, but it was the first time that he saw all the signs pointing to this inevitability, and struggle as he might, he could only watch and count the days tick by until the impending doom.

Evans came closer and patted him on the hand. He would have provided more comfort if he could, but his size did not lend itself to reassuring holds or comforting touch. “I will contact someone that might help. Dr. Ferguson,” It felt important to Dr. Evans to stress the man's title at this juncture in time. The other man weakly came to attention, the tremble in his hand barely contained. “Dr. Ferguson, I will do my best. You can count on me.” The man nodded, almost ready to believe anything. “Dr. Ferguson, do you have those immunosupressors ready?”

Another nod, more vigorous this time. Each time his name was called, the man regained a little more awareness and confidence. It was a shame that he let his emotions get the best of him. “Yes, I had some prepared for the testing team. There is enough remaining. Should I administer it?”

Dr. Evans wanted to say no, that someone else could take care of it, to tell the doctor to get some rest, but the remaining glint of desperation in the man's eyes told him that the man in front of him needed to do everything that was in his power to help. Dr. Evans resigned himself. “If you think you can stop the trembling in your hand, I won't stop you.” As soon as it was pointed out to him, Ferguson gripped his right hand to stop its trembling. “And Dr. Ferguson, after you administer the immunosupressors, please take the day off. We will find someone to replace you.”

“But...” The look of shock on his face faded out into acceptance. He knew that he was in no condition to work today. “I understand. I will get some rest.”

“Be sure that you do. I have not yet given up on Magnolia Flores, and I expect your help in the future. You did an amazing job up until now, and it is thanks to you that Magnolia is still alive.” His praises were not said to raise the man's morale. By this point, they were more than well deserved.

The praises struck home, warming the old man's heart. “Thank you, Dr. Evans.”

 


8: Breeze of Fresh Air

 

Dr. Evans left Dr. Ferguson to his preparations, and instead made his way to the reception desk. The desk was not currently attended, so he had to look for the proper form himself. After he found it, he grabbed a pen about as tall as him, and started filling the form, writing down the details and specifics of what he had in mind. He had been preparing this since yesterday, making a few calls here and there. He would take full responsibility for this.

Williams, who was coming out from a patient's room, needed to input some test results into the computer. He was surprised to see the rat doctor at the desk, doubly so when he realized that the doctor was writing something. He doubted he would ever get used to having a white lab rat as a superior. Trying to ignore the rat, he sat down in the chair and started typing away.

Noticing his presence, Dr. Evans turned around. “Williams!” The nurse jumped, grimacing slightly. He had hoped to evade the doctor's attention and not have to deal with whatever he was doing. “Can you check something up for me?”

“Sure,” he said, even though he did not quite feel like it. “What is it?”

“I contacted two off-duty paramedics yesterday. They told me they would arrive around 10am. Has anyone heard back from them?”

Typing a few keys and opening a few documents, Williams found the answer. “Yes, they called this morning to confirm the equipment. You did ask for a multipurpose stretcher, with emphasis on comfort right?”

“Yes, with their regular medical kit, security tools, blankets, a pack of cards, and snacks for a five-hour trip.”

Williams nodded at his screen. “All there. They should be around in about thirty minutes.”

“Please let me know when they get downstairs.” Dr. Evans got back to filling up his form, giving him authority and responsibility during the following outing.

“I will leave a message at the first floor's reception.”

The two aides were right on time. They were both dressed casually, one a young man rustling with energy and positivism, the kind of guy that spent all of his time outside and being active; and the other slightly older but still vigorous, early thirties, buffed, the top of his head shaved clean, a mustache falling down each side of his mouth. He looked tough where the youngster looked swift, yet you could sense a calm and protective aura emanating from him. With a hint of a smile, he was calmly analyzing his surroundings, completely at ease and yet ready to react to anything. A real pro.

Dr. Evans introduced himself. The two had been warned that their services today would be unconventional, and that the two would need to follow the instructions of a rat. The two asked a few questions, but readily accepted Dr. Evans's presence as natural, and followed through with the more relevant planning and danger risks. These guys were quick to adapt themselves to the situation, and the younger one, Milton as he introduced himself, even seemed strongly interested and fascinated by Dr. Evans. He asked most of the probing questions, while Richard, an old bear of a man, asked the more technical ones.

After all was said and done, Milton ran out on his thick boots which must have been too warm in this time of the year, and fetched a bright orange stretcher from their truck. The stretcher was a simple one, merely a large plank with two handles at each extremity so that the two of them could carry someone on it. He was proud to say that this stretcher was heavily padded and was slightly concave in a form fitting shape. The many blocks of foam attached to it, especially around the head and the neck area, served to immobilize and secure the patient in place. It was definitely the most comfortable stretcher they had. He tested it himself!

Without further ado, the three of them walked up to Noa's room, and everyone was introduced. Dr. Evans shared his plan for the day.

“Magnolia, I thought it would be good for you to go out and get some fresh air today. I asked these two to help move you. They are both certified paramedics and they will take good care of you. The park we are going to is close by, and has a field of flowers. I am sure you'll like it. If anything happens, they will get you back here in a flash.”

Noa was not sure what to think of this. For one thing, she was starved for something to do, and she really thought she would enjoy going outside for a little while. For another, how safe was all of this really?

'Is this some kind of trick?'

Dr. Evans shook his head. “It is not a trick. I was hoping to do a few tests that required a different environment than a hospital room, but really, I thought it might do you some good to move around a little.”

'Why now? It has only been three days.' Three excruciatingly long days, but only a few days nonetheless. From what she remembered, Nathan sometimes spent two or three weeks in the hospital when he was really sick. Three days could hardly compare to that.

“For the tests I want to make, the earlier the better.” He did not mention that with the recent results of the testing, Magnolia's days were numbered. “So, are you ready to head out?”

It did not take her long to consider her answer. 'Sure! Let's have some fun!'

The young medic smiled. He could get behind that. Be paid to have some fun with a cute, nearly paralyzed, sick little girl. Milton would make sure that today was as enjoyable a time as she had had since getting stuck into this bed.

Dr. Evans relaxed a little. He should have asked her consent before making all these arrangements, but he got the idea at the last minute yesterday, and things just sort of happened. “Mister, could you please stop the feeding machine and disconnect her tubes and IVs? Thanks.”

The two men might not have been full-fledged doctors, but they came close, having the skills to use those tools all the same. It was one more reason why Dr. Evans turned to them, and not just anyone. Richard pressed a few buttons on the feeding machine knowingly, carefully disconnecting the tube from the fixation device, leaving the fixation in. He cleaned the fixation and attached a sterile gauze over it, sticking it in place with some medical tape. This was to prevent anything getting in, and to reduce the movement and risk of the fixation getting stuck in a branch or something. They did the same with the IV fixation on her left arm, and the catheter down below, wrapping her in a diaper instead. The embarrassment was real, and Noa could not help but notice the little smirk on the youngster's face. Bastard! He was enjoying it.

Enjoying it or not, the two were nothing but polite, their touch caring and reassuring. They disconnected the tubes in her nose, blocking the end of the tube again with a gauze and sticking it out of the way.

“The next part might hurt.” Said Milton. “We'll move you on our stretcher. Tell me, do you think your legs can support you?”

“I would not risk it,” said Evans. Noa agreed by making the hand gesture for 'I don't know.'

“Okay. In that case, I'll lower the bed, then lift you on your side. We will slide the stretcher onto the bed and roll you back on it. You'll be fine?”

Noa appreciated the explanation before the actual act. That was something that was lacking from Dr. Ferguson's touch. Since she had already once felt this same movement, she knew what to expect now.

'It will hurt, but I will be okay. Right side though. My left is sensitive.'

The bed was lowered, and they started the procedure, the bald guy standing at the ready at the end of the bed, the bright orange stretcher in his hand. He had removed all the foam padding and left them on the floor. They would secure her after.

Noa barely felt any movement. Milton gently slid his arms under her shoulders and hips, and in one quick motion angled her slightly on her right side, just enough for the stretcher to slide in place, and he lowered her back again. She was never put completely on her side like she had expected, and the whole thing had not even taken three second. They were impressive!

They shifted her into position and secured her with straps and foam and more straps. Some foam acted as pillows, stopping the straps from digging into her more sensitive areas like her belly and neck.

Once Noa was strapped from head to toe, they were off. A short trip in the elevator later, Noa was lifted out of the hospital, feeling the sun on her skin for the first time in a short while. It was a nice and warm sunny day, a few white and puffy clouds strolling around leisurely in the sky, the leaves rustling in the wind. She was exposed to a whole new set of sensations, and for a few good seconds she closed her eyes, enjoying the flowing knowledge of the dirt, flowers, grass and ladybugs that she was aware of through her aura.

They put her in the back of the truck, securing the stretcher with straps running through the floor so that she did not move around during the travel. Richard fixed a few more things inside and was off to the driver's seat, while the young one placed Noa's notebook and pen next to her hand where they belonged, before going back into the hospital with Dr. Evans. Milton jumped up the three stairs leading to the entrance, bustling with energy. He came back not too long after with Noa's feeding machine and a fresh matching bag. And here she thought she was finally rid of the damned thing.

Milton took place with her and Evans at the back, closing the doors of the truck from the inside. The truck started to move, and without windows, Noa had nowhere to turn her eyes other than at the 20-so years old boy sitting right next to her. He was cute, with his short light hair trimmed army style, his eyes sparkling of curiosity and interest and his lips constantly upturned in a way that would make you forget all the worries of the world. His t-shirt was fit and short at the sleeves, showing the subtle definition and sculpting of years of exercises and outdoor activities. She could imagine the same kind of muscles hidden under his baggy pants, that he kept tucked in his thick brown boots.

Noticing her staring, the boy started to talk. “How do you feel? Anything not to your taste?”

Noa blushed. 'Everything is perfect,' she wrote. 'I feel like I have not been out since forever.'

“How long have you been in the hospital?”

'Three days now, but I don't sleep, so it feels much longer.’

Dr. Evans took note of that. “So it's there to stay, uh.” Noa confirmed once again.

“How come you don't sleep, if you don't mind me asking?”

She threw a glance at Dr. Evans, projecting a strong sense of questioning and complicity. They might not have been the best emotions to transmit her question, but she could not think of anything else on the spot. She received a meaningful nod.

'Because I'm a mutant.'

The boy chuckled. “That's all? I already figured something was up when I saw the mouse.”

“I am a rat,” corrected Dr. Evans.

“I'm sorry.” He did not look particularly apologetic. “If you don't want to talk, that's your secret, don't mind me. But we are going to spend the next five hours together, so let's find something enjoyable to talk about. Do you do sports?”

'Little bit. With my school, we did some canoe, rock climbing and winter camping this year.'

“Oh, I love rock climbing! Tell me where you went.”

The two of them exchanged stories about outdoor activities and climbing spots. It took Noa long enough to write each reply that they only covered the start of her fall excursion with her school when she and the paramedics arrived at their destination.

 


Saturday morning, May 21st
Park

 

Arrived at the park, the cute medic got out the back of the truck and went to discuss with Richard about the path to take at this time of the day. It left Dr. Evans some time to give Noa instructions.

“Tell me honestly, have you been playing with your telekinesis lately?” The severity of his look conveyed the importance of the matter.

Noa was put off by the serious vibes the little rat was giving off and, ashamed, made a positive gesture.

“How far along are you?” Noa was still waiting a thorough admonishment at any point now, so she played the good girl and gave him a list of what she had practiced.

'I can lift the flower petal and move it around, and I sort of constantly connect to objects without thinking about it.' Feeling the need to make excuses for herself, she wrote some more. 'Sleepless nights are boring, and there's really nothing else to do.'

“Do you feel weak after practicing for too long? Or any side effect that you noticed?”

Noa vigorously shook her hand, trying to reassure the doctor that nothing bad had happened. 'No, only a little bored after a couple of hours.'

He dipped his head in consideration, maintaining his authoritative airs. “I had good reasons to tell you not to practice without supervision. Actively manipulating any kind of mutant power requires energy, and I still do not know where you get your energy from. The feeding tube might have helped, but we had not yet done the tests we are about to do now. If you did not have a steady supply of energy, you could have burnt yourself out without meaning to.”

Here it was, the anticipated admonishment. The concern in his words however made Noa realized how much he cared for her safety.

Dr. Evans sigh, giving out instructions for the trip. “I want you to listen this time around. For the few hours that this little picnic is going to take, I want you to abstain from using your telekinesis, unless I give you permission to. No floating petals, and no soul-reaching. Otherwise, it will give my already shabby tests poorer results. Can you do that for me?”

Noa gave him both a yes and a thumbs up. After having spent a day stuck in her bed with nothing else to do than to play with her powers, it was quickly becoming natural for her to feel and conect through her TK, so she had to make a conscious effort to not reach out for it to stop.

Dr. Evans pat her hand kindly, sealing the promise with one of his own. “When we get back to the hospital, you can go back to doing whatever you want. Have fun and knock yourself out. But for now, please restrain yourself, and just enjoy the wildlife. Oh, and before I forget...”

He jumped on her, carefully moving around and placing his hands and feet in positions that Noa now recognized as his electromagnetic ratty detector. “Just taking a reading before we go. I will need to take a few more throughout the day, so don't be too surprised when I do.”

After Dr. Evans was done his careful prodding, the two medics came back and took Noa outside the truck. It was not so much a trip as it was more of a picnic. The two guys carried the stretcher down a slope and a couple of stairs into a grassy field right in between a calm lake and a carpet of flowers. A trail was running along the edge of the lake, and they put her down between the trail of dirt and the reed at the edge of the pond. There was a slight incline, allowing Noa a nice view of the lake. A few boats were plodding gently over it, some fishermen armed with patience drifting afloat.

The view was nice, the wind catching into her greasy hair that had not been cleaned properly in a little while. The cool breeze sent a shiver of pleasure running from the tip of her head to her toes, leaving goosebumps on her exposed arms and legs, which the warm sun rays quickly dispelled.

Noa was still half expecting something to happen, but after a few minutes of just being there, the cute Milton sitting next to her, she accepted that noting would be happening and she allowed herself to relax. She and the medic continued their discussion where they had left of, him sharing a story of a time where he went cordless climbing with a few of his friends, climbing small but challenging boulders near a desert. They went there for their vacations, taking the airplane and allowing themselves a whole week dedicated to nothing but climbing and having fun. He got to tell her about those really awkward positions they ended up into, and even showed her a few pictures he had kept on his phone of that time.

Richard sat down with them and shared stories of his own. Having spent some time as a ranger in the past, he encountered plenty of strange stuff, from people stuck in meters deep of snow out of the trails during winter to a pack of teenagers running away from a skunk walking down the road. Sometimes, people got hurt, but that was why he did the job, so that he could assist and make those activities he enjoys so much safer for everyone.

Dr. Evans stayed a little behind, upward on the slope, not really participating in the discussion. He had other plans. He took note of the time through his internal clock, and told himself to count an hour from now. After which, he puffed out his fur like a porcupine and closed his eyes, attentive to the slightest variations. If a class-2 entity like a forest spirit decided to show itself, he would know.

For the next hour, he kept watch, his eyes closed and fur standing on end, for spiritual lifeforms. There were several small ones that kept away from the group, probably used to hide with all the visitor coming here every day. It might not have been the best place to fish for spirits, but it was safer than the alternatives, and even though he needed to run the test, he was pretty sure that Magnolia was not spiritually enhanced.

An hour passed, and he allowed his fur to drop back into position. Taking a minute to clean himself up from the pollen that his fur had caught, he walked over to Noa, not wishing to interrupt her lively exchange with the medics. He just went along with his work, and jumped once again on the girl, trying as much as possible to avoid being an annoyance or a distraction. He stretched his sensitive paws onto the expected pressure points.

Her electromagnetic weight had not changed. He crossed out sunlight as a potential power source for Noa. From her admiration of heroes like Lightwave, Galaxy Girl and Champion, light was the first source of energy he thought her powers might use. She had a certain fascination with pure superheroes, and what is purer than light? From the few hundred mutants he knew that fed on light, nearly all of them captured it through skin exposure. Thin layers of clothe did not impede this energy capture, and the only recurring constraint was that the light must be natural. The vast majority of them used sunlight, but some could only absorb the more diffracted light coming from the moon. Moonlight energizers were rarer, and usually came along some obvious package deal like werewolves, spirit avatars, or other nightly creatures or behaviors. Except for her lack of sleep, nothing in Magnolia's behavior nor in her list of interest hinted at any nocturnal affiliation.

So his first conclusion: sunlight energy was out.

He kindly interrupted the ongoing talk at this point, asking simply if they could move under the shade of a tree. His excuse was that Magnolia had enough sun exposure for the day. Which was true, considering that they did not apply sunscreen. Richard was actually thoughtful enough to bring some, but Dr. Evans gently declined, saying that it would not be necessary this time around. Noa might get a slight sunburn from this, but it was all in the name of science, so it was fine.

He asked the paramedics if Noa could be unstrapped from the stretcher. Maybe she would be more comfortable if she could move a little. Noa agreed with Dr. Evans's thought, commenting that as much as the stretcher was comfortable, she would like to go without for a little while. The latter also had to politely ask Richard to put back the blanket in the truck. As thoughtful as it was of him extending a blanket down on which everyone could sit, the doctor needed Magnolia to lay down on the ground for this next experiment. Contact with the earth and dirt was indispensable, at least for the next hour or so.

The earth was filled with energy, which some people called chakra, Qi, Chi, Prana, Leylines, or life force. The name did not matter, only the fact that it was one of the most widely use and tapped source of energy for mutants. Wizards and psychics, just as much as devisors, energizers, bricks and telepaths, all of them sometimes tapped into the earth's electromagnetic field and used it as fuel. Direct contact with the skin was preferred, although just as with sunlight, thin blocking layers did not usually prevent the flow of energy.

Leaving Noa back with Milton under the tree, Dr. Evans went back into spirit mode detection, setting his internal clock for another hour of wait. Noa was rubbing her legs and feet around in the grass, enjoying the feel of the blades sticking out through her toes. She also found out that she could move her legs freely, without too much abdominal pain. At the hospital, she was constantly on her back tucked under the sheets, so her legs did not have the full range of movement that she had now. She fully enjoyed this newfound freedom, bending her knees and running her ankles in circles. The topics of discussion with the medics drifted to a comfortable natural rhythm, sometimes allowing for long minutes of silence that were neither awkward nor uncomfortable, listening to the chime of the birds and the breath of nature all around them. Silence was sometime its own form of appreciation.

An hour later, it was time for another electromagnetic checkup. Dr. Evans could feel a minute drop in her field, almost inconsequential. He was expecting this, and did not take notice. It was normal for her energy to lower slightly with time. He knew that she was not actively using her telekinesis, or at least he trusted her not to, but her field was constantly active, and something was needed to power it up. Or even the simple fact that she was breathing and alive took some amount of energy to sustain, so it was expected that her energy would drop. What he was on the lookout for was an increase, significant enough that he would be able to determine with exactitude what exactly fueled her.

He crossed out Qi from the earth from his list of suspects.

During these past two hours, Dr. Evans had not remained completely idle. He had tagged a few spirits that were passing by, and engaged discussion with them. He could not see them nor could he listen to them, but once he knew the location of a spirit, he could project enough empathy to understand and communicate feelings with it. Emotional communication was quite effective to engage them, since most spirits were animistic in nature or had been around for a long enough time to develop some animistic means of communication.

He had told them of Magnolia's sickness, and asked for their help and presence. More than a few young fairies and curious animals answered his plight, and currently, he could feel a few of them floating around Magnolia or cuddling her.

After he was done with Noa’s next electromagnetic evaluation, he explained to everyone the situation, puffing up his fur once more to enhance his receptiveness. “Magnolia.” The girl moved her head slightly inside her collar, trying to give the rat doctor a better look. “We have some company. A few spirits of the park came to see how you were doing. Can you feel them?”

Secretly, Dr. Evans wanted Magnolia to absorb one or two spirits, or at least feed from their presence. The former would sadly scare the spirits away, but the later might not, and might work even if she was not aware of the spirits. Although a rarer form of mutation, most Avatars absorbed spirits to power their mutation. Some more naturally inclined mages and psychers were receptive to spiritual energy and spiritual residue, and Magnolia seemed inclined toward nature and wilderness. She loved to be out and about, and enjoyed outdoor activities nearly as much as Milton and Richard.

Noa tried to focus. She expanded her senses around her, paying close attention to the movement of volumes within her reach, but she could not feel anything. The only indicator that there was any spiritual life form around was Dr. Evans, his fur rustling and spiking about. Deciding it was worth giving it a shot, Noa directed her field to completely surround the little puffy rat. She was aware of each individual particle when she let them drop gently on every single one of his hair. Once everything was set, she tried to push away any other thought and concentrated exclusively on the movement of his fur.

It took her a while, but she started to discern a pattern. His fur was sometime vibrating close to the skin. It was pretty distinct from the movements effected by the wind, or by the rat's breathing. Here and there, a few patches of his skin would vibrate, the vibrations sometimes moving in regular patterns across his skin. Noa could guess that this was the general direction, from Evan's point of view, of where the spirits were, although she could not tell the distance, nor could she feel anything herself beyond Dr. Evans's extrasensory organs.

She did try to humor the spirits though. She would try to write as if nature was the recipient of the message, to the lake, or the grass, or the flowers, her words conveyed by Milton, the reply from the spirits given by Dr. Evans. It was not really working. It was fun, and the three humans felt kind of silly talking to imaginary friends, but no communication was established. Dr. Evans hypothesized that they were confusing the spirits by having someone other than Magnolia relay her writing to them.

Communication and receptivity ended up in failures, and from the following electromagnetic check, her energy level dropped a fair amount. After asking Noa, Dr. Evans understood how tightly she was pushing her sensory abilities, and used that cause to explain the drop.

After this, Dr. Evans finally gave in to Richard, and they installed a comfortable blanket for everyone to lay on. The two medics also took out lunch, and offered to share some. Dr. Evans politely took a thin slice of ham, but explained that Magnolia could not eat properly because of a wound in her stomach. No need to go into the specifics. To break the silence that was getting established as they ate, he suggested they play a game of card.

This was one of the items he had requested from the two guys, and as for everything he did today, it was with a specific purpose in mind. Luck, fate, destiny, aura, or astral energy was one of the main driving factors behind esper powers specifically. It was more apparent with things like clairvoyance, divination, astral projection, and probability manipulation, but it could theoretically extend to the whole branch of esper powers, from an aura reader to a gadgeteer's intuitive knowledge of whatever gadget they are trying to build. Telekinesis was not exactly a sub-branch of esper powers, or at least not on a first level basis, but Magnolia had shown some significant increase of her senses developing along her main power, and that certainly was an esper talent. Dr. Evans would not be surprised if further testing revealed that she had super senses, danger sense, or some limited omniscience.

In all of those cases, cards were often used to verify the level of connectivity with fate or destiny. So him playing blackjack and Grand Millionaire with Magnolia and the guys was purely scientific. Even if he enjoyed himself. Some arrangement was needed so that Noa could hold her cards without anyone else seeing, but it was all done in laughter and good faith. He won only twice at Grand Millionaire, and never got a great hand of blackjack either. Richard stole the spotlight at blackjack, winning a majority of the games. The games of Grand Millionaire were wild, and everyone got their turn being the Millionaire. Magnolia's luck did not stand out compared to the rest of them.

Checking her levels once more, he noticed that she kept weakening slightly. Another strike off his list. He was careful not to overdo it, and asked her if she was tired and wanted to go back.

'Are you kidding? This is the best! I want to spend my whole day here,' was her reply.

He asked the two medics for their opinions, but both were enjoying their time here too. They were essentially paid to take vacation and watch over a nice, talkative girl. They could not be bothered to leave until the lady said so.

“Fine,” admitted Dr. Evans, glad that he would be able to check two more things he wanted to check. “But she does need to eat a little. Could one of you grab her feeding tube?”

They needed to move slightly to a flatter surface for the machine to stand upright. The two medics did not bother putting Noa back in the stretcher, instead carrying her inside the blanket and swaying her around like the kid she was. She was delighted by the treat, asking for more, until Dr. Evans put his foot down. He could take a lot, but seeing his patient being swung around with the risk of being dropped was a bit too much.

They connected the feeding tube, and relaxed. Milton dozed off slowly into a nap, while Richard took out a book and started to read, his back against the tree. Noa closed her eyes too, content of simply being, feeling the breeze move through her sensitive aura within a ten-meter radius area. Every little movement all around her was pleasant and new. The moths sleeping on the tree, the ants working between the blades of grass, the pollen drifting from one flower to the next, the fine textured dirt, the pulsating veins of the leafs. She was melting in all those sensations and more, feeling as one with everything that is, forgetting even any and all discomfort caused by her very body. For an unending moment, she was more than just pain and flesh. Oh so much more.

Until she was brought back to reality by small prodding hands and a pink tail swooshing too close to her nose to her liking. She understood what Dr. Evans was trying to accomplish, but it had cut her from her meditative state of appreciation.

'Can we stop with the tests now?' She was slightly annoyed, albeit resigned to a negative response. She could put up with the little doctor if it meant another hour of undisturbed rest.

It took Dr. Evans the time to finish his exam and drop off her before she could get his attention to read her plea. “Sorry, but I will need to take at least one more reading.”

He asked one of the medics to stop the feeding machine and to disconnect the tube. According to him, an hour of food intake would be enough until they got back. As they worked their way through the machine and tube fixation, Dr. Evans got to thinking. Magnolia's reading had jumped up significantly, meaning that she was absorbing food properly. No, that was not exact. She was not digesting the food, but absorbing it. By now he was fairly sure that Noa was some kind of energizer that stored energy under an electromagnetic form, and not under the usual glucides, lipids, proteins, vitamins and minerals as other baselines. Dr. Ferguson had said that her liver was not used, and that she did not generate waste. This was unlikely considering that they kept feeding her through the tube since her arrival, so she must process the food into another form. 'How' was the question.

Knowing that she could draw energy from the feeding tube helped shed light on another phenomenon he had been unsure about. The MBC-K43 protein, or stasis inducing protein. The protein was usually generated by mutants when the body was in no condition to provide for the manifestation. In Magnolia's case, if her stomach had failed, let's say, a week before her outburst, it was obvious she would have been lacking in nutriments, fasting and considerably weakened. The protein might have delayed her manifestation until she was brought to the hospital and plugged on the feeding machine. Her first outburst thus had not been not spontaneous, but the result of a continued degeneration that started a little while before the stasis started. Now that she was properly fed, her manifestation was picking up, as was shown by her skin this morning, the blood samples and her new found awareness of her telekinesis powers.

But the problem persisted. According to the tests, her intestine could fail at any time. At that point, the feeding tube would be rendered useless. They could use pre-processed blood transplant, rich in everything the body needed to survive, but that would only be delaying the inevitable as her blood had been shown to solidify after a while. This was also not counting on the risks associated with any kind of blood transplant. IV feeding did not have the transplant problem, but the first problem persisted. Would she live through the solidification of her blood? Would it be fast enough for her brain and cells not to die?

Dr. Evans was slowly coming to the same realization Dr. Ferguson had had this morning. He did not know what would happen, and the worst possibilities seemed more real the longer he spent thinking about them.

Disheartened, he walked around, picking up dead leaves, small twigs, and flower petals. If this did not work, he was not sure what else would. Furthermore, now that Noa has been fed, he could no longer get an accurate reading of her energy levels. Assuming she was processing the nutriments at baseline speed, she would be absorbing her meal for the next few hours, her levels steadily increasing over that period. He would not be able to tell if the rise was caused by her digestion and absorption, or by any further test he would do. He would still get a reading, for prosperity's sake, but there was no meaning in taking more electromagnetic tests today.

Holding his twigs, petals and dead leaves, he walked back to Magnolia, and dropped his luggage unceremoniously on the blanket. That got an eyebrow raised from Richard reading his book, and a quick sideways glance from one eye of the otherwise apparently napping Milton.

“Last test for today, Magnolia,” he declared, “and this is an active one. I want you to 'connect' to anything and everything that you can within your reach, and especially this pile of leaves here. I will be checking those for any change. If you have a sensitivity limit, I want you to try to reach that limit. One hour. Do you think you can do it?”

The two medics were not quite following, but they had both decided at the hospital that they would not ask probing questions. They were here to enjoy their time, and to make a little girl enjoy hers, nothing more. They each returned to their previous occupation, if napping even counts as an occupation.

'Sure,' answered Noa to the doctor's question. ‘I'll try.'

Noa felt relieved that she could finally let go. If she had believed she was one with the world not too long ago, that was nothing to the exhilaration she felt as her aura came to life. After releasing what little restraints she had, an even deeper universe opened to her. It was no longer on the level of feeling and being, it went a step deeper into merging and complete understanding. She was the very life, and blood flow, and water drops, and the beings living within said water drops. The connection she felt to each individual being was so deep that she felt their biorhythms as her own. She could not focus on any one thing so much as everything was pulling her attention at once. The information influx was too intense, and before she lost herself in everything that is, she stopped, returning to a level of activity that she was familiar and comfortable with.

Dr. Evans noticed her panting. Immediately, he assumed trouble. “Is something wrong?”

Still a little unsettled by the initial experience, flustered by the depth, intensity and quantity of connections, Noa signed that she was okay. 'TMI' she wrote, expecting the rat to understand the acronym.

She dived again, trying to not focus on any single point she was feeling and instead take in everything as a unified whole. She constantly needed to bring back her attention to the whole, her thoughts too easily distracted by the novelty of the experience. New tastes kept coming, essences of things containing all that they are in this one moment. Some substances felt somehow more than others, not all sharing the same amount of complexity and presence.

She had to stop again, her head spinning from everything that existed within their small share of land and water. With all this jumble of information, she was almost forgetting how to breathe, her breath short and inconsistent, hyperventilating in quick seizures.

“Magnolia, that will be enough.” Dr. Evans was alarmed at Noa's violent reaction. He had not anticipated this. Richard jumped out of his reading and ran to the truck to fetch a med kit, an oxygen tank and a face mask, before running down the slope and stairs. Milton was immediately by Noa's side, not a single hint of drowsiness in his movements, taking her pulse and asking Dr. Evans if her condition allowed them to do CPR. “Yes, if it comes to it,” was his reply. He was aware that the pressure of a cardiac massage would definitely hurt the girl, but better that than suffocation.

Luckily, Noa got the spasms and her breath back under control within a reasonable amount of time. When she was well enough to think clearly again, the other three pressed her for details on her condition and whether she was feeling well or slightly light headed.

'I'm fine, really,' she started writing. 'When I activate it to the max, I just feel so much that its overwhelming. I will try to tone it down a little.'

“No.” The reply was stern, coming from the authority in charge. “It's too dangerous.”

'I'll be careful.' Noa wanted to go back. Even in the short span of time she had dived, it had felt amazing, giving her so much that being limited to her own thin shell of flesh left her meek and lessened. 'I want to try again. I will start small this time.'

Dr. Evans looked at her straight in the eyes. “Give us a minute to put you back on the stretcher. At the slightest reaction, you pull back, and we head back to the hospital. No maximum output this time around, understood?”

She gave him the thumbs up. 'Perfectly clear.'

Putting her back on the stretcher was a matter of two minutes, give or take ten seconds strapping included, and just like last time she felt barely any discomfort at all. They used the blanket to lift her onto it, moving her only slightly so that they could remove the blanket from under her. When she got the green light from the doctor, she focused her aura only around the twigs and leaves that were put back next to her. The first two times, she had completely forgotten the existence of those, lost in the flow of everything. This time, starting small, she touched each item, connecting to a new one only when she felt she had the previous mass under control.

It felt different from connecting to everything at once. It was as if a part of her was there, beside her, feeling and being the twigs and leaves instead of a frail human girl.

Noa took a few deep breaths and relaxed, taking her time to maintain the focus, growing it only so large as that pile was tall. Seeing her ease, the others calmed down a little, keeping an eye open in case of trouble.

The more she relaxed, the deeper she could go. She no longer expanded the area she was exploring, keeping it to a small circle about fifteen centimeters in diameter, but as her mind cleared up and control became more familiar, she pulled more of her field into this tiny area. The denser it became, the stronger she was aware of the leaves and the more she was being the twig, although she never let herself forget that she was a girl first and foremost.

Time passed by, and eventually she was awakened from her reverie.

“Magnolia,” called Dr. Evans. “It is time to go back.”

It was late in the afternoon, the sun still high and the park still full with people, but the atmosphere was different. There were less movement, the fishermen had pulled back to the shore, kids were resting next to their dogs instead of throwing balls around. The park that had been so active in the morning was now drifting into silence, everyone by an unspoken agreement waiting until the right time to go home. In a few more hours, the sun would be down, and the park would be empty.

'I'm ready.'

They packed up without hurrying, putting Noa back into the truck along with her feeding machine and the unused first aid kit and oxygen tank. Richard and Milton cleaned up the blanket and folded it neatly while Dr. Evans was taking his last reading for the day. A subtle increase of energy. As he had thought, a completely irrelevant measure. The electromagnetic patterns were the same, and he could not tell if it was or not due to her metabolism digesting the food from the bag earlier.

They finished packing up as other people were starting to leave the park, Richard taking the driver seat and Milton taking a seat on the cold floor of the cargo, watching over Noa. She looked at him dearly, and he looked back, the hint of a smirk back where it belonged. His eyes had taken a deeper quality, filled with insatiable curiosity and mystery. He had had a taste of what she was like, and his interest was piqued. The questions were on the tip of his tongue, but keeping to the agreement he made with Richard, he kept his thoughts to himself.

Noa pushed her notebook toward him, drawing his attention to a small scribble in the corner of the darkened page. 'Thanks. For everything.'

“You are welcome.” He got closer and stroke her hair widely in every direction. A few locks fell over her eyes, which she had to push away with an annoyed sigh. He sniggered back into his sitting position. “I'm pretty sure I enjoyed today just as much, if not more than you.”

'I'm hard to beat.'

“I got a paid nap in the sun.” He laid back with a 'Try me!' attitude.

'I got to look at a cute boy.' Noa was blushing as she wrote her comment, half wishing to hide it with her hand and half pushing the notebook away for him to read.

He smiled at her innocence. “Maybe in a few years. You ain't half bad yourself, after taking a bath maybe.”

She blushed from head to toe, suddenly extremely self-conscious of her hospital gown. That she had only been quickly washed with a wet sanitized towel once or twice by the nurses did not help her embarrassment. 'I know!!!' she exclaimed. 'That would really make this the best day ever!!!'

Milton turned to a preoccupied rat facing away from their discussion. “I can put in a word for you.”

But Dr. Evans did not hear him. He was lost in thought over what he saw back when he had asked Magnolia to activate her powers. Her backlash had been impressive and alarming, but it was not what was holding his attention right now. After she had settled in what looked like from all outside appearance into a gentle sleep, he and the two medics ended up relaxing too after a while. What bothered him was that all the smallest twigs and leaves he had set aside had vanished, and neither him nor the medics had noticed when or how. The bigger ones had remained, distracting him into believing nothing had happened there.

Maybe he had his answer.

 


9: Once More with Feeling

Sunday morning, May 22nd
Hospital

 

Before it was lights out in the hospital, Dr. Evans came one last time to check on Noa. Now that the heart rate monitor was no longer working for her, nurses would have to come check on her every few hours throughout the night. She was fine with that. She was physically tired, but not fatigued, and she did not feel like sleeping any more than the previous nights.

He also wanted to discuss a matter a little more important. It was about how she said she 'connected' to things. He explained that throughout the day he had kept a watchful eye over her, and that her ability did not seem to have anything to do with souls at all. He suspected that she was instead absorbing parts of those things she connected with. In his opinion, it was closer to tasting and eating than soul-reaching. He gave the example of the leaves and twigs disappearing after a while, much to Noa's astonishment. He also gave her a few examples of powers he was certain did connect to souls. Some involved disintegrating puppies into dust as their soul was sucked out, or avatars absorbing and merging with spirits, sharing their mental privacy with one another. Some examples he gave were disgusting, others were intriguing and fascinating, but none of them came close to what Noa was actually doing.

'But then, why do I feel so much when I connect?' she asked, trying to come to grasp with the intricacies of her power.

“I have a few theories, but this is something you will have to answer by yourself. You said before that you understood completely what you connected to. You might be absorbing little parts of the object and merging them into you, and given the sensitivity you showed previously, it could be that you simply feel everything there is to feel at once of those things you absorb.

“If I assume the tasting analogy to be accurate, it would be like taste buds. Your tongue cannot taste anything unless it dislodges little particles that it can process. This is why people normally do not taste anything from licking a block of metal, because their tongue is not able to rip little particles from it, as opposed to an ice cream which breaks down easily. To get back on track, your aura acts just like your tongue, only with a higher level of sensibility. It absorbs small bits of your surrounding and processes them so much that you 'taste' everything that composes the object.”

It was a disturbing thought. When she had let go of her limits previously in the pack, she had connected to everything within a few meters from her. This included Dr. Evans, Milton and Richard, along with the grass, birds, fishes, worms, and a lot more. She had essentially taken a 'taste' of all of them. Did that make her a cannibal, since Milton and Richard were included in it? Or what would happen if she kept doing this over a long period of time? Would she make everything around her disappear like she did with the twigs?

Noa was deeply upset. How could she have missed this? Dr. Evans was surely wrong. There had to be another explanation. The thought that everything around her 'tasted' so good was unbearable. ‘Good’ did not even begin to describe the complicate, delicious and exotic feeling that came from that taste. She still hoped that it had a higher meaning, something spiritual and pure that did not affect the target of her attention. How horrible would it be if her power ended up eating everything around her in a ravenous and unstoppable hunger? She could already picture herself clearly: a monster leaving but dust and emptiness in its wake, a force of nature that did not think, but only acted on an insatiable feeling of emptiness waiting to be filled.

Her powers were scaring her.

Dr. Evans set up a little something for the night. It was a platter with food on it, nothing that would go bad before the next day. An apple, a granola bar, a glass full of water, and a bowl of flakes cereals without milk. He also asked the technician to install a small camera pointed at the tray, with each aliment clearly in view. The camera would take a picture every ten seconds, and they would check tomorrow what happened during the night. Noa was instructed to connect to these like she did in the park, and to not move them from the plate with her TK. No worries there; Noa's telekinesis was not strong enough to lift the granola bar yet, let alone the apple. Two or three flakes at once might be possible, but that was it.

Complying to the task, she extended her senses to wrap around and into the platters of food, even though she was afraid of the results they would get. Worried thoughts flashed one after the other in her mind, wondering whether she could get sick eating through her aura, whether she could get nutrition from stone and metal, whether she could control her eating enough to not eat the plates along with what was in them, or whether she would put on weight if she used her aura too much. For that last one, Dr. Evans reassured her that her weight would probably remain constant, from past experiences with tons of other energizers, which did little to soothe her. Her control was weak, what would happen if she lost it? What would happen if her powers went wild?

Noa decided that she would do everything she could to prevent that from happening. Once she was left in her room all alone, she started to exercise her control over her powers with newfound resolve and motivation. She would not slip. There were so many stories of villains and heroes alike that overextended their powers, or that never learned to control them in the first place and were at one point or another pushed over their limits, usually with dramatic results. It could be while under stress from their job, or a moment of emotional weakness, or just a plain unpredictable accident, but they would snap. There was a reason why a lot of people feared mutants, just as so many people found them fascinating. Noa thought she always belonged to the latter category, but now she was no longer sure. She was the mutant; she could not deny that. And she was terrified of what she might become.

Her notebook was there to hold her thoughts on paper. She added 'control' and 'safety' to her list of values, with triple stars indicating how important those were and would become.

She did not reach any definitive conclusion that night. As she was absentmindedly aware of the tray of food, she made two petals fly around over her bed, at the same time as she was feeling the dust laying under the bed. She was getting better at multitasking, each task requiring only a little of her attention at any one time. Noa would shift her attention from one to the other to make sure she remained constantly in control, and this back and forth was enough to keep the petals in the air.

Even with all this going on, her mind could not stop thinking back on what Dr. Evans said. Absorbing things, if that was really what she was doing, was only a problem for those things that people would miss. Nobody would miss a little speck of dust disappearing here and there, or some fingerprint fat removed from the window. She allowed herself to connect to those. Connecting to things felt so good that she could not really stop. If she stopped completely, including the tray of food, she quickly started missing the sensation. It felt like blocking your ears when your favorite music was playing, or closing your eyes when a really cute boy grabbed your attention. However, as opposed to those two examples, the feeling was there all the time, nagging at her with endless new possibilities all around her. As much as the thought disgusted her, Noa thought maybe she was getting addicted, yet she did not feel like she had enough self-restraint to stop. And besides, Dr. Evans wanted her to focus on the food, so it was not like she could really stop tonight.

She made a note to try to stop later, after this experiment was over. Maybe she would go into withdrawal? If so, she was not looking forward to it.

 


 

A few nurses came to check on her before the sun was up, and then a few more before the hospital started rustling once again with activity. People walking hurriedly in the corridor, either to get to the next task or to visit a family member. Noa tried to guess their occupation from the sound of their footsteps to kill time. This one was a woman in high heels, maybe a stripper working in a bar. That one had short soft steps, a kid. She imagined him walking the dogs of his whole neighborhood all at once, getting overwhelmed by the German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. That man's steps were wide and squeaky, clearly a clown working in a circus. That one had heavy boots, and steps that were just a little too long to feel natural. An astronaut walking on the moon surely.

She was busy with her fun when Dr. Evans came in for his morning check. He greeted her and made a beeline under the bed for the food tray. Noa did not have to look. She was all too aware of the state of the tray. She had been overly conscious of it throughout the night.

The bowl of cereals was empty, clean as if it never contained anything. The granola bar had completely disappeared, and so had the apple. There was only a thin film of water at the bottom of the glass indicating there ever had been any water in it, one or two millimeters that Noa had not had time to absorb.

This confirmed that. The doctor stopped the camera recording and proceeded with his usual battery of tests. That done, Noa demonstrated her dexterity by floating three petals in complex circles, and he later took a measure of her electromagnetic field. All normal it seemed.

Dr. Evans left the room, the camera held over his head as he walked past Dr. Ferguson. That would be Noa's morning injection and new blood tests, to see if the immunorepressors cocktail was having any effect. Dr. Ferguson seemed rested and confidant. The dark rings under his eyes had not disappeared with a single day of rest, but his overall demeanor was one of assurance and conviction. That day off really did him a lot of good. Dr. Evans could relax while he called the tech department to check the content of the camera.

It took the technician about fifteen minutes to get all the pictures taken through the night uploaded on his computer and animated into an accelerated video. He set the speed so that the last eight hours would run in five minutes. Dr. Evans watched attentively the time-lapse of the food tray. He had to look at the video multiple times, asking the technician to stop and rewind here and there to note the time of certain events.

“The flakes disappeared first, at 00:09am, three and a half hours after the start of the experiment. The granola bar was next, not twenty minutes later. The apple took almost another four hours to disappear completely, which brings it to not an hour ago. At the pace the water was absorbed, it only needed between twenty to forty more minutes for the glass to be empty.” He looked over the video once more, trying to see anything that would signal a difference between the four items. “Why were the flakes absorbed first and the water last...”

Taking a closer look at the flakes, he asked the technician to accelerate the images slightly. It took him a few cycles but he finally found what he was looking for. The flakes were eaten from all sides all at once, whereas the apple only disappeared a layer at a time. The granola bar was getting thinner in every nook and cranny in its almond shape, and for one moment it even seemed to be eaten from the inside.

“It's the surface area.” Even though the different aliments were eaten at different speed, if one was attentive enough, one could notice that the flakes were not actually eaten any faster or slower than the apple. It was only that Magnolia was eating by wrapping everything into her telekinesis field, and if her aura was solid and could not pass through matter, she would naturally absorb the exposed matter before anything inside. This also meant that Magnolia's telekinesis was solid matter, or had a manifestly solid psychic component. If he could get one of her specks under the microscope, he might learn a lot.

His attention was pulled back from the video with a ping in his mind. He took the call, pressing two fingers to his temple. “Dr. Evans here. What is it?”

Dr. Ferguson was at the other end of the line. In the background, Dr. Evans could hear many panicked calls and shuffling staff. The man's tone was low and ominous. “Miss Flores had another attack.”

“I'm coming.” Dr. Evans jumped from the desk and landed on all four, running out of the tech room and to Magnolia's room. He had to be careful not to get trampled by the three nurses and two doctors moving in and out of the room. The staff looked confused and unsure how to proceed. One nurse came out of the room with sheets covered in blood before being called back in by the strict voice of Dr. Ferguson.

Once Dr. Evans was able to jump on the bedside chair and take in the situation, he too had a moment of indecision.

Magnolia was in the same position as he left her, laying comfortably in bed, but there was a large puddle of blood coming out from between her legs. She was writing replies to Dr. Ferguson's queries, and once she saw Dr. Evans she sent him a powerful reassuring mental wave, along with a gesture from her left hand indicating that she felt fine. She kept on writing to the other doctors as nurses worked around, pulling most of the blood, liquid and bits off the bed and into one of the basin usually used for bathing and cleaning.

Dr. Evans jumped onto the bed, careful not to step on the bloodied sheets. He went next to her notebook, where he could read her future responses. Dr. Ferguson recapped what he knew.

“It's the intestine, as we expected. She said that she feels fine, only a little more in pain than usual. A 4 out of 10 on her pain scale.” He shook his head, as if he could not believe this. “She compares it to having her periods.”

“That is too much blood for a simple period.” Then a thought stroke him. “How is her uterus?”

Dr. Ferguson shook his head once again. “From the amount of flesh that was ejected, I would say ripped out or damaged. It is hard to tell since everything got liquefied. I have yet to look too closely at the puddle. The liquefaction might also explain her lack of pain.”

Dr. Evans patted gently Noa's belly, feeling his hand sink without much resistance. He stopped as soon as he felt Noa become uncomfortable. “The immunosuppressors?”

“Too early to tell.” Dr. Ferguson had thought about the possibility that the mix had affected this attack, but he was yet unable to tell if the drugs delayed the attack, if they caused it, or if they accelerated the liquefying process. They could just as well have had no impact at all. Only further tests on new blood samples would give any answer.

Dr. Evans nodded, aware of the complexity of the situation and their lack of info. “It could also have been triggered by tonight's test.” He looked straight at Magnolia and addressed the rest of his sentence to her instead of the doctor behind him. “Now that you are able to absorb the energy you need, your manifestation will probably pick up pace. Don't hesitate to use the remote to call us if anything happens.”

Noa smiled at him, letting him know that she understood.

Dr. Ferguson looked at Dr. Evans with some impatience. “I will get her on intravenous feeding from now on.”

Dr. Evans added his two cents. “Since now she developed enough control over her powers to take in some food, I suggest we also provide her with regular meals. We need to keep the supply steady so that when she finishes one tray, another is ready to replace it. Energizers need to consume a lot of calories to remain active, and that is doubly true during the manifestation process.” He called out to one of the nurses. “Please bring her a meal from the cafeteria, and make sure everything solid is cut down in little pieces.”

“Another thing,” started Dr. Ferguson, addressing the rat doctor. Taking after Dr. Evans, he took two fingers and similarly probed Noa's belly, but this time he was looking for something specific. “Her tube got ripped off. I will need to operate her and remove it. And clean whatever is left inside.”

Dr. Evans looked back grimly. “I told you.”

“I admit that it was not the best decision.”

“I need to make a few calls.” The rat looked once more toward Noa, giving her as reassuring a smile as he could, before jumping into Ferguson's outstretched hand. The nurses were finishing cleaning up Noa and her bed, and two other doctors left aside would prepare her for the operation before long. “If she can get enough energy from both the IV feeding and the platters from the cafeteria, maybe her body can start the healing process, but I am not taking any chance.”

Ferguson walked at a quick pace to the operating room, grabbing a gown and a mask in the process. “Who are you calling?” Once in the room, he put Dr. Evans on the small counter by the sink. The rat already had two fingers to his temple, initiating a call.

“A list of healers. I will deal with the MCO and legalities later. Let’s see who's available.”

Dr. Evans started his list from the top, calling every healer that had agreed to be on his contact list that resided within a 500-kilometer radius. He would extend his search further if he could not get in touch with someone within that range, but from past experiences, the further away he requested help, the more people were hesitant to go through the trouble of helping.

With Noa being scanned for both a CT and a MRI for her diagnosis, he had the surgery room to himself for a few minutes, maybe half an hour at most. He started his calls. The first one on his list was called Panacea. Within the area, she was holding the name of number one proud and loud, and advertised that she could cure any illness and disease. She was a high level devisor that dealt in biological enhancements and reparations, and there was even a rumor that she had succeeded the feat of bringing the dead back to life.

The phone rang five times before being picked up. “Private line. Who are you?” Wherever she was, there were noises of cars running pass in the background.

“Hi Panacea, it’s Dr. Evans. The lab rat.”

“Oh, how is it going? It's been a while.” The noise of the cars lowered as she moved away from the road to hear the call more clearly.

“I am doing just fine, but I have a patient here who’s not. I am calling you because you agreed to be on my quick list in case a special case happened.”

“Oh. Sure. I'd love to help. Where are you? Anywhere near Mersin?”

Dr. Evans sigh. He knew where this was going. “No. Toronto General Hospital. Do you think you can get here? I would cover the plane ticket from Turkey, and your salary for the days you missed, along with a generous extra.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she really did sound disappointed. “But I have a reputation here, and people who depend on me every day. I can't do a trip halfway across the world on a whim like I used to.”

“I understand. Please take care.”

“I'm sorry,” she repeated before the line went silent.

He wasted no time calling the next member on his list. Knowing that one's character, Evans switched to a different speech pattern. “Hey! Healbot! How is it going?”

“Well, if it ain't my fav' lil' rat! Doin' well, doin' well.”

“Listen, I'll ask straight up. I have a special case in Toronto. Are you up for it?”

“Sure! T'last special case was fun. How about next week?”

“No can do Bot. Tomorrow at the latest.”

“Aww, I'll miss all the fun. You sure ya can't wait?”

“It's fine” Although he thought it was anything but. It will take a few tries before finding someone suitable. “I'll try someone else. Maybe Elixir?”

“Nah, man, he's out and gone. Some secret stuff in England. Prob'ly won't take calls at all.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

Regardless, Dr. Evans tried to call Elixir, just in case. He waited twelve beeps before hanging the line. Even though Healbot had warned him, Evans was still disappointed to learn that the guy did not even use any voice mail. That was not professional.

The next one was someone he only had the occasion of working with once. He had tried to call him multiple times over the past years, but Evans was never able to get in touch with him. The only reason he kept trying was because every time he called, the guy’s voice mail message would change, indicating that the line was still alive. “Hi Antiplague? It's the Doctor Long Evans calling from Toronto.”

“Who? I do not remember any such name in the last 1334 days, 13 hours and 21 minutes. You’ve called the wrong number sir.”

“No, Antiplague, we worked together in 2012, a year after my going public. Try to remember. A white rat specializing in mutant manifestation. Rings a bell?”

“Have you not read my work contract? No contacts allowed past three years. It's already hard enough to managed the few brain cells I got left, I can't keep track of every bozo that won't make an effort to keep in touch.”

“You signed a quick list agreem—” The line went dead. He had to admit that the guy had his eccentricities.

The next three numbers were answered by voice mail. Dr. Evans did not even bother leaving an emergency message.

Althea was next. He got her on the line, and after she seemed interested and was not put off by the thought of going to Toronto, he explained the situation. “She has a severe case of Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome. She ejected her stomach earlier this week, and she is currently on the operation table after losing her intestines.”

“Does she have a BIT?” The Body Image Template was the idealized image some mutants possess of themselves. All exemplars have a BIT, and so do most shifters and some other kinds of mutants. A mutant with a BIT will see their body change over time to reflect this idealized vision in their mind. It was usually accompanied with higher than normal recovery, strength, and endurance.

“No, she does not have a BIT. She does not even regenerate, which is most of the problem here.”

“Sorry, I can't work properly unless I have something to build toward to.”

“It was worth a try.”

He tried another superhero not too far from there called Hyginus, but the man was apparently recovering from a fight with supervillains and would be unconscious for a few days. No such luck.

The remaining superheroes and healers were getting farther and farther away, and their quality was quickly diminishing. Biting the bullet, he decided to call some supervillains and see if he would get any more luck there. He considered himself neutral on the matter of superheroes and supervillains, but it was a fact that for most supervillains, walking into a public hospital would cause issues. Be it panic, or recognition, or a fight with the local superheroes, being public was not what most supervillains were looking for. The only reason he even had villains on his waiting list was his extremely solid anonymous clause and secured means of communication. Without either of these and the signature from the country he was operating in, the Mutant Commission Office would be jumping him every opportunity they could, demanding reports on every non-baseline aid provided, which would inevitably lead to a villain hunt regardless of the good intentions of the villain.

“Padzahr speaking. How may I help you?”

“It's Dr. Long Evans from the Toronto General Hospital. I have a special case that requires delicate attention as soon as possible. Are you available?”

“Dr. Evans? The little lab rat? The public Whateley Legacy?” The other man was laughing at his end of the line, finding something apparently extremely funny.

“That's me. You signed your name on a quick list of contacts in case of emergency. I am calling you out on it.”

He laughed some more, making not the slightest effort to not sound insulting. “My poor rat, I thought you were smarter than this. They were praising your cutting edge AI not so long ago. What has become of you? Tsk tsk.”

“I will take that as a no, then.”

“I only ever put my name on this list as a brick joke. And here we are today, and I can cash in on that joke. Hilarious.” Evans hang out on him. Disrespectful prick! With no small haste he removed his name from the database.

Dr. Evans was starting to lose hope. Still, he had a list, and he would see this task through.

Ring, ring, ring. When the next call picked up, Evans was blasted out with the sound of an explosion going off inside his head. It took him several seconds to recover from the unexpected noise, during which time he could hear several gunshots and loud pounding.

“Rosemary Klein, pizza delivery at your door in thirty minutes or less. The special of the day comes with popcorn.” Two more explosions went off farther in the background. “May I take your order?” Her voice was flat as a board, stern without a hint of the joke she was playing on him. The contrast sent shivers down his spine.

“Phobia, I caught you at a bad time, I apologize. I won't call again.” He was about to hang up when she called out with more energy.

“Evans? Hey, don't go yet. I'm free to talk right now. It's been so long since we last had a chat.” A few more gunshots were heard, along with the ping of bullets against metal, followed by screams of agony. He heard her shout in the back, her hand pressed against her cell phone muffling the sounds, 'Do you mind?! I'm taking a call here!!' “Geez, no manners at all.”

Evans could not help but ask. “Are you robbing a bank?”

“No. Why do you ask?” she asked in a completely straight voice as he heard a rover storm by. When silence was up again, she was still expecting an honest answer from him. That girl had issues.

“Must be my imagination. I don't take it you could come to Toronto today or tomorrow. I will find someone else.” He did not even have the motivation to formulate it into a question.

“I'm free.” Once again, an expecting silence rose between the two. Evans knew she was expecting him to give her more details.

Ah hell! He needed the help. “I have a special case at the Toronto General Hospital. A girl evacuating all the organs she has, but she does not regenerate afterward. I need a healer to provide the support. She is degenerating too fast for baseline treatment.”

“A hospital you say? How much do you value the life of your staff?” Again, her tone was flat, neither serious nor joking, which made the question all the more unsettling. She really could not care less. It was for her of the same importance as asking for the weather.

“No deaths please. You can come in by the window. Third floor, I will make sure to stick a red paper circle so that you find the right one. This way no one will see you.”

“Can I bring Cuddle?”

She was one difficult child. “No. I will ask you to leave your pet at home. His terror aura would cause more heart attacks than yours.”

“Boohoo. You're no fun.” She perked up a little from her mocking. “Say, are you giving her to me?”

“I don't own her. You'll have to ask her yourself.” He had learned the hard way that trying to push Phobia away from something only made her desire that thing more. It was well known that she was a troublemaker, and that she had a large ‘kill on sight’ on her head. He did not want Magnolia to get tangled with that girl if he could avoid it. Unfortunately, right now he could not afford to be picky. Phobia would not pose a threat to Magnolia unless the later survived first. He would deal with her when the time comes to cross that bridge. ”And before you ask, yes she still has a heart.”

“Hm. Tricky. I might accidentally kill her you know?”

“I trust that you won't. Now, when can you get here?”

She paused for a moment, trying to count the hours and the time zone difference. “Four hours, is that fine? We just need to wrap up around here. Shouldn't take too long.”

“I will be expecting you then. And by the way, which military base are you hitting?”

“What tells you it's a military base?”

“The sirens gave it away.”

He could hear the smile stretching across her features. “Not telling.” Then she hung up. What had he got himself into? If Magnolia pulled through this in one piece, he would have to prepare some serious security measures.

 


 

When Dr. Evans turned back, the group of doctors with Dr. Ferguson at their head had just finished the diagnosis testing before the emergency surgery. They were bringing Noa in from the scanners and setting her up. She got connected to a ventilator that would breathe for her for the duration of the procedure. A few of the scans were placed on a light table for everyone to see. The gaping hole in her entrails was plainly apparent, and so were leftovers and blood pouches that needed to be evacuated as quickly as possible. Noa was starting to squirm after one of the assistants injected her with anesthesia. Noticing Dr. Evans on the counter, she projected complete awareness, apprehension and fear, but there was nothing the rat could do. He knew the anesthesia would not put her under, but it would prevent her from moving her body. The surgeons would not be able to work properly if she moved every which way during the operation.

He came close to her head and stroke her hair gently. “It's necessary. Be brave. I know you can do it.”

Only fear answered him back. Within a few minutes her body stopped moving, the ventilator in her mouth doing its job of keeping her oxygenated.

“Sirs, let’s start.”

Dr. Evans was left on the sidelines while Dr. Ferguson and his two assistants got to work. It was not pretty, but he forced himself to watch, whispering soothing words in Noa's ear when her discomfort became too much to bear. At some point during the procedure, when Noa's belly was cleanly cut open for all to see, Dr. Evans got curious.

“Sirs, I will light up this room for a few minutes. Please don't be alarmed and keep doing what you are doing.” He raised his arm and activated Magnolia's TK.

The whole room shone a soft blue light at once. The light was not intense enough to hamper the actions of the doctors. After a slight moment of surprise, Dr. Ferguson got back to work, which pulled the other two back into his rhythm.

Magnolia's aura was completely still, not moving but for the movements the doctor made, flowing around them like imperceptible water. The whole room was filled up in it, all but a single area which stood out like a sore thumb. Through the opening in her belly, Dr. Evans could see the aura fading away one or two millimeters below the skin. The rest of her inside was as red as it should be, no trace of blue specks emanating from her scarlet flesh as opposed to her skin. It made the task easier for the medical team to see what they were doing.

It took them over two hours to clean everything that was to be cleaned, to remove and cut damaged areas away and to fold back whatever was left in a new configuration that would not rip at the first movement. Her body was now empty of her bowels, and everything this implied. She would no longer be able to evacuate wastes herself. From previous tests, her liver was underused, and her blood was clear, meaning that she was producing a lot less waste than a normal healthy person, but it was not zero either. Her spleen and liver would have to cover most of it, but her risk of infection in the long run just rocketed sky high. Unfortunately, there was little they could do if her systems just kept failing one after the other.

Noa was placed in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit once more, waiting to be able to regain control of her body. A hand grabbed her own, and her mother's face appeared in her field of vision. Her mother had dried streaks running down her cheeks. Noa could also feel Nathan in the room, outside her field of vision but still reassuringly within her aura.

Nathan and Judith talked together waiting for Noa to be able to move again, commenting on the surgeries, the implications, how they would bring her home eventually, what were the costs, medications, etc. When she moved enough to get their attention, Judith placed her hand over the side of Noa's head and laid in closer until their forehead touched.

“They called as soon as they got you out of your room.” She pulled away gently, love and worry mixing together in her teary eyes. “We arrived as quickly as we could. We saw...”

Judith could no longer hold back her tears. What she had seen in the surgery room was enough to give her nightmares for the rest of her life. Pints of blood drained from her daughter's body, with just as much smeared all over her lower section, on the doctor's hands, gown, and tools. Metallic trays holding pieces of organs and unrecognizable flesh. And among them, one shape that was very distinct from the others, the source of every woman's pride and joy. It was one thing to be told that your kid will forever be unable to bear children; it was another to see the bit of dangling flesh be extracted, irrevocably damaged but nonetheless unmistakable.

It had been too much for her to take. She had crumbled into Nathan's arms, unable to watch anymore until they pull out of the operating room. Nathan did not crumble in such a manner, but he was just as affected. His stare was blank, his movements stiff, replaying the scene over and over again in his mind. The first time they had been spared the gruesome details. This time, he blamed himself for his inability to see what the first time had been like, his inability to understand the reality of it all.

Noa wrapped both arms around her crying mother, her embrace weak and fragile. It felt as if a single touch would break her bones like shards of glass, that a single misstep would blow the last speck of life that coursed through her body away. Judith allowed herself to be embraced, but she was too afraid to return the gesture. She held her body stiff, putting all of her weight into her legs and lower body to counterbalance her top, hanging but a few millimeters over Noa's shape. She could not risk coming closer, her hand and forehead the only parts she allowed to touch her daughter.

Opening her arms, Noa let her mother slip away, still holding her hand. She made a scribbling gesture with her left hand, asking for pen and paper. Before Judith could turn around and place a word, Nathan was out the doors, asking a nurse for the supplies. He slipped them as carefully as humanly possible under Noa's hand, and was rewarded by a sigh of relief on her end.

He was about to pull away to leave the place back to Judith, but Noa grabbed his sleeve, stopping him in his movement. She pulled her arms open, inviting a hug. Hesitant, he got closer, and just like his mother before him, held lovingly Noa's face in his hands without the rest of him touching her. Her left arm wrapped around him, while her right wrote something for him. Judith provided the voice to Noa's writing.

“ 'That's not a hug dummy. Do it like you mean it.' ” Her mother brought her hand to her mouth, her lips shaking and the tears hard to repress. “... Noa... that's...” She could not finish her sentence, her emotion getting the best of her.

Nathan was shaken by those words. It hit him like a ton of brick, his mind for a second reminiscent and foggy. It did not take him long however to ever so gently slide his arms under Noa and to pull her to him, lifting her torso away from the inclined bed. Noa grimaced at the discomfort and pain surging in areas she had been able to ignore until now, her body flaring with myriads of stings and pulls and burns. She gritted her teeth, forcing the pain away. Nathan's embrace tightened as he moved a hand up to support her head. Her own arms found their niche comfortablly at his waist. She turned her head as far as she could in her neck collar, laying her ear against his beating heart, and she closed her eyes in contentment, all pain diapering in this one moment.

Nathan kissed the top of her head, his hand stroking her hair without ever letting go of her head. Without needing to look at him, she could feel the warm tears that fell down onto the mattress, the taste of salt and regret imprinting deep into her mind.

The two stayed in each other's arms for a long time, the one not willing to move for fear that his hold might break, the other not desiring the moment to meet its end. They were all too aware. Any day now, they could be brought apart for good.

Eventually Nathan had to let go of Noa, and she was brought back into her room. They spent a long time talking to Dr. Evans, and the more they listened, the lower their morale dropped. They left the hospital with the assigned task to resolve themselves for the worst, and hope for the best. It went unsaid, but even the doctor was giving his prayers to the girl.

Noa was back in her room, her body too weak and unresponsive for her to write anything. The mere actions she had taken back at the Post-Anesthesia unit left her drained, for so little that she actually did. She did not feel like doing anything, not even playing with petals or caring about what her aura was nibbling. She was completely dazed. The hours seemed to stretch into infinity, time grinding to a halt. At some point, she noticed a nurse cutting a red paper into a circle and sticking it into the window, before opening said window. When the nurse left, she heard the door get locked, leaving her alone with Dr. Evans. Noa was too stunned to question why they had locked the door, or why the rat was pacing anxiously, counting down the minutes. It was a shame that she did not sleep, because she felt like now would be a great time for it. She closed her eyes. Even if she would not sleep, it was one less thing to think about.

Noa could not tell how long it had been from the moment she had closed her eyes until she heard the sound of someone slipping from the window and tumbling into the room. She caught a 'Whoopsie' as the person shifted back up on her legs. Clearly a girl from her presence in her aura, between a tall teenager or a small woman. Noa allowed one eye open to see the unexpected and loud visitor.

When her mind caught up with her eyes, she shot both eyes open and tried to push herself away with her weak arms, fear gripping her. Unfortunately, the metallic side bars of the bed only allowed her to move so far. She stuck to the bars as if her life depended on it, making herself as small as possible on her bed, the pains of her scramble completely ignored before the threat that was standing in her room.

The woman seemed young, although Noa knew that despite her twenty-years-old appearance, she had been in activity for over a decade now. Black hair dropped in menacing spikes all around her head. The locks held together as if they were wet, although by the flat texture they had they were anything but. Her face was heavy with piercings, with no less than three over her right eyebrow, three under the left, two down her bottom lips, and two thin bars piercing her ears from top to bottom, each piecing ending with a conic spike. Contrasting with her sinister appearance, the older girl wore a bright yellow and white spandex suit with a cape and long boots, a classical superhero costume. On anyone else, it might have accentuated their features and made them look professional, but on her it fit all wrong, a mockery of any superhero with two cents of respect.

Noa knew her. Everyone knew her. She was an international phenomenon. Phobia. Her name ranked high in the list of supervillains. She was one of the most visible on any media available, a real force of nature. A lot of people even wondered if she was human, or even sentient from the way she acted. She always made her strikes as spectacular as possible, coming from miles away from her target, broadcasting her presence to all, and ripping apart everything that stood in her way. Nobody knew how to classify her, but everyone knew the signs. Electricity within the entire city would shut down, water would stop running, animals and pets would flee away from her presence, while crows and birds of prey would come flying her way, forming a forbidding back cloud circling above her. Forests and houses were devastated in her wake as if a tornado passed through, and she always walked right up to her target, taking her leisurely time so that everyone felt doom approaching. She was feared enough that there have been multiple cases of people fainting from just watching a helicopter captured video of her in the middle of her destruction.

And the worst part, the one that put everyone on edge, was that she could appear anywhere. Her sphere of influence extended to the entire globe. She could be hitting one city one minute, and be halfway across the globe attacking another city the next. Many governments had issued kill orders against her, and some even prepared measures on par with tsunamis and hurricanes, to limit the collateral damage and the lives of civilians.

That monster was standing here, in Noa's room, taking a disdainful look around.

“You did not have to come costumed you know,” casually remarked Dr. Evans. Noa could not believe her ears. He had called her here! The damned rat was in league with one of the most feared supervillains on the planet!

“I am here on a noble mission. It is only natural that I come dressed as a superhero.” Her face was blank and inscrutable, her tone rough and dead.

“You are registered as a villain though.”

“Villains can dress as heroes too you know.”

This was absurd! Completely absurd. It could not be happening. Surely, Noa was somehow dreaming. Or having a nightmare rather.

Before she could pull herself together, Phobia stepped in close, her face just in front of Noa, her expression deadpan. “So you're the one I came to see.” Noa's heart was pounding. She tried to squirm away ever so slightly, but could only put an inch more between her and fear incarnate. She felt like her heart was about to burst out of her chest when the girl put her hand in between Noa's breasts, catching the rhythm beating underneath. “You still have a nice beating heart.” Noa let out a strangled gurgle of a scream which caused the woman’s features to extend to Noa’s horror into a passionate and gingerly wicked smile. “I could remedy that you know.”

“Please control yourself, Phobia.”

“Just making sure my patient is properly... excited.” Noa wished she could disappear, to be anywhere else on the planet but trapped in the confines of this bed, stuck close to the ultimate nemesis. “It wouldn't do if your sweet little heart stopped beating before I have a taste.”

“Phobia!”

“Yeah, yeah, you give the word, I do my thing.” She pulled away, a finger tapping the side of her jaw in a typical questioning posture. “We have not talked about payment yet.”

“I have money,” replied the rat, not having moved since her appearance though the window.

“I want the girl.” She gave Noa a stare that could pierce the soul, reaching deep into her most secret confines with twisted delight. “I save her, I have her.”

“As I said before, she is not mine to give. You'll have to convince her yourself, and let me say that you are doing a really bad job of it until now.”

All of a sudden her expression changed to a sweet and caring one. “I wouldn't hurt a little cutie like you, would I?” The sudden contrast was more disturbing than anything else. Phobia extended her hand toward Noa, which incited another jump from her away from it. “Let's be best friends. How about family even?”

Her hand hanged in the air for a stretched moment, awaiting a handshake. Noa had no intention of touching her hand, nor of letting her touch her. Seeing that she would get no response, Phobia lowered her arm.

“You're boring.”

Turning around, she took two steps toward Dr. Evans. Even just this meager amount of distance was enough for Noa to feel a slight tingle of relief and relax her cramped posture ever so slightly. The pain she had until now ignored came back in waves, and she had to steady herself when her vision blacked out for a moment, the sensations overwhelming. She did not think she would survive the encounter. She would die of fright, unless Phobia killed her first.

Phobia stretched, her fingers linked, arms reaching up toward the sky. “So, what's the deal? Tell me everything you know.”

Dr. Evans described in detail Noa's condition, her mutant power, her rejection of her organs, and several theories that he had shared with Dr. Ferguson but that Noa was surprised to learn. He showed Phobia a few MRI and CT scans, and explained the dark spots that were empty and the areas that had been cleaned out. He finished with an explanation of how they were currently keeping her stable, the mistake of the esophageal tube, and her recent surgery earlier today. From what Noa could see, Dr. Evans was completely open about everything, although the amount of trust he showed Phobia was minimal. It was a good indicator that Noa too should be on her guards and not leave the girl out of her sight. She was even ready to nibble on her skin with her aura if she had to, even though she doubted it would do much.

“I get the gist of it,” said Phobia, turning back toward Noa and giving the girl a good once over. She pointed to Noa with her thumb, drawing the attention toward the fact that the younger girl was still pressed as far as humanly possible against the edge of the bed, utterly terrified. “But you'll need to get her center on the bed. And she must not move too much while I do my thing.”

“You have only yourself to blame for that.” He sounded exasperated, but still jumped onto the chair and then jumped onto the bed. “Magnolia, everything is okay, I assure you. There is no need to be afraid.”

“Oh yeah there is. She should be terrified.” Phobia was back to her flat voice, merely bringing to attention a point of little importance.

“You're not helping.” Then, back toward Noa, “Listen Magnolia. Phobia is here to help. She is a powerful mage, and she can heal you. We have an agreement. She won't hurt you, you have my word.”

“And mine,” Phobia added, “whatever that's worth.”

Dr. Evans nodded. “See? Nothing to be afraid of. Now, just lay back in the bed properly, and we can start the healing process.”

Noa did not trust Phobia for a single second, but in the past days she had learned to trust, respect, and even depend on the rat doctor for everything surrounding her health problems. He must have had a damned to God good reason to call upon the most violent supervillain she could think of. Maybe her case was just so desperate that such drastic measures were necessary. If that was the case, then the question she should ask herself is: is it better to die, or to let Phobia do whatever the hell she was about to do on her? All of a sudden, her fears of mind control and personality rewriting and fates worse than death no longer seemed so crazy and improbable anymore.

However, Phobia would be under the supervision of Dr. Evans. Whatever the deal was between the two, he had some sway over her, and Phobia would not do her absolute worst on her. Dr. Evans trusted her enough to expect her to hold her part of the deal and heal Noa, so did Noa trust Dr. Evans enough to entitle him to make life and death decisions for her? The answer was obvious and came without an ounce of doubt. Yes, she would trust him with her life. She already did, every day she had occupied this bed.

Her decision was made, but Noa did not yet move into position. Her fear gripped every one of her limbs, making her hand tremble and her touch numb. With great difficulty and a great display of will, she reached out with her trembling left hand to the metallic rail on the other side of the bed, and with a herculean effort, against both her suffering body and her tormented mind, she pulled herself closer to the source of all fear. The movement made her whole body throb, and she had to try multiple times interlaced with long pauses to get back to the middle of the bed. Not once did Phobia make any movement to help, and Noa was appreciative of that. She did not think she could take a sudden movement from the young woman without running into the corner once more.

After she caught her breath once more, Phobia addressed her. “You're determined; I'll give you that.” She was still not moving. The playful expression that had flashed her blank features before was gone. She was all business now. “Here is how we will proceed. I will tell you what I plan on doing, and you will tell me when I should be doing what. I will not move from this position until you give the order. The power is with you. What do you say?”

Noa wrote down a sentence in her book with a still trembling hand. Dr. Evans walked over her and read it for Phobia's intention. “ 'Give me your worst!' she said.” Under the intense stress, Noa sought relief in being confrontational. It barely helped.

Phobia nodded in acknowledgment. “Here is what I'll do. I will start with a magical scanning. It will emit nice white light, and it will give me a first-hand understanding of what is going on inside of you. Then, I will cast a healing spell, which will have a less nice purple and dark light. The spell will let me see countless possibilities of your state within a short range in time, let's say from yesterday to tomorrow. Once I find a version of you that looks in better shape than you do, I will imprint this version on you, and provide the essence needed for it to overwrite the parts of your body that need healing. It will not be pleasant. Are you following?”

It took Noa a moment to think it through. “ 'Yes.' ”

“Then whenever you feel like it, give the word.”

Noa readied herself mentally. She did not know what the older girl was playing at, but she must admit that being in control did sort of reassure her just a little. Not that she was forgetting the elephant in the room, but if everything went exactly as Phobia said, Noa would feel slightly better. Once she was ready, she gave her green light. “ 'Scan.' ”

Not wasting a second, Phobia mumbled a chant and passed her hand over Noa's whole body. As she had said, the light she emitted was a pure and divine white, warm and calming. Once the scan was over, Phobia returned to her static position, waiting for more orders. Was she playing at being a robot or something?

Noa prepared her next command. “ 'Heal, but stop if I touch the railing.' ” That was a security measure. She did not trust Phobia enough to hope that the villain would stop if Noa gave the sign or thrashed about, but it was still something that gave her a semblance of control in a situation where she very much needed it.

The purple light was a lot darker than she expected. Noa could not see Phobia's hand through it, the cloud absorbing light into its darker folds. Phobia continued her chanting while the tendrils of smoke crept closer and closer. Noa was having second thoughts about the whole thing now, the ominous look of the spell triggering her fight or flight reflexes like nothing else she ever encountered. Her hand reached out to the railing, but the cloud blocked everything from view. She was not even sure if Dr. Evans could see her anymore. Blindness took her, her aura the only hint of the position of the other two in the room. She knew it! That Phobia was not listening to her. That dark scary cloud could be anything. She could see infinite nothingness hidden between the folds of purple, and the closer it got the more it pulled her in, the fog seeping into her mind, making her forget about everyone and everything.

The cloud pulled back, leaving her gasping, weakened and completely disoriented. What had happened? Where was she? Who was she? It all came rushing back within a few seconds, giving Noa a solid headache and a few excellent new reasons to be completely terrorized by her predicament.

“Damn it,” said Phobia. “I can't see far enough. It's as if all your alternatives at this point are either death or various states of mutilation. I will need more power.” From a pouch behind her that could not have held more than a thick wallet, Phobia pulled out a decorated athame. The blade of the knife was twisted, encrusted with several emeralds and turquoises. Pristine metal covered the handle, with drawings of demons and humans dancing around a fire engraved on the whole surface. The blade was beautiful, and looked ridiculously expensive.

When she saw the blade, Noa could not help but to reach out for Dr. Evans. It was all she could do to simply hold still, but it would not take a lot for her to crack and break down. The knife pushed her dangerously close to the edge. The rat doctor grabbed Noa's hand and whispered in close, just like he did during the operation. Noa had to screw her eyes shut and push her aura away from her, effectively becoming completely blind to everything around her. Isolated in her bubble, she did not notice Phobia place a raven skull on the other side of her, leveled with the athame, a bottle of quicksilver down her by her left leg, and a container of moondust by her right leg, completing the magic circle.

Phobia started the spell once more, trying to reach further into Noa's potential futures. Noa felt the emptiness of the void envelope her even with her eyes closed, and before long she lost all sense of self and all perceptions. She no longer even was, which some would equate to the death of the soul. Her past, present and future disappeared, along with everything that made her exist and be her. She was wholly swallowed by nothingness.

When she came to, her whole body tensed. She gasped for air as if she had stayed several minutes underwater, her mind a complete mess. It took her a lot longer than the first time to get back her bearings, and when she did, she noticed that she was sitting in her bed, her hands grasping the railing, her whole body turned to her right as if to puke over the side of the bed. What was strange was that she did not feel in as much pain as before. And she was sitting. And panting. And she had a voice.

“... ar... gh... fu” Or at least something that passed close to a voice. That was a good enough start.

Several other things became clearer the more she became aware. All her senses were in overdrive, but she was not overwhelmed by it. She could see the little details on the wall that before she had only been able to feel through her aura. She could hear the steps of everyone in the building distinctly, and closer to her, she could hear the heartbeat of the two patients in the room in front of her and of the three patients in the room behind her. The question of why she was alone in this big room when other rooms seemed crowded rose to her mind, but she filed it for later, distracted by every new sensation in turn. She could smell the components in the air, things that before blurred themselves into a single gaseous mass were now distinctly clear to her. And her aura got even more sensitive. Without even looking, Noa was aware of the four piles of ashes fuming on each corner of her bed, along with the panting supervillain on the ground beside it, holding herself upward only by an arm grasping the railing. Noa could taste the sweat running down Phobia's forehead, the sweetness of her breath, the manicure on her hands.

The taste of fear and death sticking to her hair like so many grim reminders of what she truly was.

Noa laid back down into her bed, patting down her belly with more energy than she had since she got here. A lot of places were still sore, and she could still feel a few depressions here and there where the hole inside her had not been filled up, but beside these her belly was back in shape. There was something inside her, but it was not soft like it was supposed to be, or even like abs were supposed to feel like. It was harder than regular muscles yet still remained flexible, something strange and foreign that she was not sure belonged there.

Phobia got back up on her knees in her own time, visibly drained and exhausted. She crossed her arms over the railing, resting her chin in the fold they made. Reaching up with her right hand, she poked Noa on the nose, her business like impression vanished and replaced by triumphant smile. Noa jerked back from the touch. “You're mine now.” She sounded so satisfied with herself that Noa got the chills.

“... Wh.. at.. did... you do... to me?” Her voice was rough, her throat sore, but she could talk.

“I healed you dummy. Or at least I tried.” She was up on her feet now, brushing her costume back into the shape it never had to begin with. “I used up four artifacts to fix you up.” She pointed to the four steaming pile of blue dust. “Those were expensive, so you better pay me back eventually. Well then,” she turned her back on Noa and Evans, sashaying to the window while waving goodbye. “See ya later folks.” She dropped out of the window, landing without a fuss three stories below.

“Phobia, please wait!” Dr. Evans ran after her, jumping on the table to grab a Ziploc™ plastic bag containing a few vials he had prepared. Without hesitation, he jumped through the window. Phobia was already a hundred meters further, walking away. He called out once more, as loud as he could. “Phobia! We are not done!”

She stopped and waited for him to catch up to her. “What's up? I did the thing didn't I? What do you need me to stick around for?”

“You are still working with Rust are you?”

“Yeah, we are close like this.” She crossed her index and middle finger together. “Family you know. You need Felix for something?”

“I need him to analyze the molecular chemistry of these samples.” He pulled up the transparent plastic bag containing a vial of semi-solid translucent white goo, and a second vial containing a tiny sliver of metal with blue reflections.

Phobia bent down and grabbed the bag. “What's in it?”

“They are labeled. One's a sample of Magnolia's flesh, while the other is a piece of her bone. They are both beyond what this hospital can manage.” She looked some more at the two vials in the light of the sun. She showed a particular interest toward the metal fragment.

“That’s another request. I’ll need payment.”

“What’s your price?”

“You know what I want.”

Evans shook his head at her stubbornness. “You seem to have taken a liking to her. Knowing you, you won't let go once you have your eyes on something. I will send you updates on Magnolia’s development, but nothing more. That will be your payment for today, and for the analysis.”

Her smile grew large. “So you ARE giving her to me.”

He shook his head once more. “She would be more exposed to danger with you than alone. And as I keep repeating, this is her decision not mine. If you truly want her to accept you, you'll have to put in a lot of effort.”

“I can wait,” she said, looking back toward the window with the red dot. “At least until she loses her heart.”

Comments   

0 # alisa28 2016-12-31 00:28
This was a hard introduction to wade thru. OK no expectations but, methinks mags might have a positive influence on this villaness.
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+2 # Podracer 2017-01-03 23:45
Sometimes there are no simple routes through an affliction, or no routes at all. This has been quite a contrast to many of the startling but relatively painless manifestation stories, and fascinating for that. I hope that Noa finally gets a future, though it looks to be more interesting than she would have liked.
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