Chapter 2: Cat in the Dark
Rowan couldn’t believe she had forgotten her thesis draft. Now she was standing outside of Dr. Schwartz’s office with nothing to show him and only two minutes before her meeting time. In her mind she could see the draft on her kitchen counter right next to the coffee maker. The stained blue folder with the curled up corners lay on the faded green counter top.
Just concentrate, breathe, her hands were wet with sweat and her mind fought to find a solution. I will just have to tell him I forgot it, she thought, as lame as that sounds I guess the truth is always best. He was going to be furious no matter what she told him. This meeting was planned a month ago and the man was not the forgiving type.
Rowan closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She saw the folder on the counter. She visualized every detail, the pebbled texture, the sunlight through the kitchen window, the small brown coffee stain. Suddenly she felt as if the floor had fallen out from beneath her and the air seemed to have been sucked out of the hallway. There was no sound, no light, no feeling. It was as if for a split second she had winked out of existence and then the air rushed back into her lungs. Her eyes popped open as she fell back against the wall.
Did I faint, she thought?
Suddenly a voice boomed behind her.
“Don’t just stand there go on in.”
Oh boy, here we go, thought Rowan as she followed Dr. Schwartz into his office. On his desk she saw her thesis folder. Rowans legs went weak and she sat down hard in the uncomfortable office chair in front of his desk.
“Do you feel alright?” he asked. “You look quite pale.”
“Well I did feel a little faint earlier,” Rowan mumbled.
They spent the better part of the hour talking about the thesis. To Rowan’s surprise Dr.Schwartz was quite pleased with her progress, at least that was what she thought he was saying since she couldn’t really concentrate on anything other than the strange appearance of the folder and her momentary lapse in consciousness.
Well it wasn’t really like a lapse it was more a moment of hyper consciousness, she told herself. For one spilt second she was everywhere…and nowhere at the same time. Schwartz cleared his throat.
“Well you can go now…and try to get some rest. Keep up the good work and we will do this again next month.”
Rowan gathered up her papers and headed for the door. The large window at the end of the hall was pink with the coming twilight. Night comes early in Pittsburgh this time of year and Rowan could see a few flakes of snow beginning to fall.
She stopped a few doors down in the office she shared with three other grad students. Everyone else was already gone. She grabbed her bag from her cubicle and tossed the thesis in her desk drawer. “Don’t move,” she jokingly told the folder but inside she was still terrified.
I could be having some kind of breakdown. I know I left that thing at home. I had not even been in Dr. Schwartz’s office today. How did it get there? A hundred questions rolled over in her mind as she made her way down the stair well but not a single answer worked its way into her head.
She pushed open the heavy door and felt the blast of late October air rush in. The frigid air reminded Rowan of the coat up in her cubicle but she was wearing a heavy cable knit sweater so she decided not to go back in. She threw her bag over her shoulder and dug the car keys out of her jeans pocket. The snow was coming down harder now and the sodium vapor lights of the parking lot made the whole world pink.
Rowan crossed the street and headed into the faculty parking lot and that was when she noticed him standing in front of her old red Toyota Celica. She had parked under a light knowing she would be coming out late but now the light was behind him and he was a silhouette.
Rowan slowed her walk thinking he would move on but he didn’t. He was tall, very tall; she guessed at least six foot five. Rowan herself was no small girl. She stood six foot two in her stocking feet. It’s your Viking blood, her dad had always joked. A pain jolted her when she thought about her parents. She pushed it away, no time for that now, she thought. As a young girl her height had always been an embarrassment. She towered over most boys but as she had gotten older she had come to love her size and right now she appreciated it even more.
His clothes were strange even in silhouette. Rowan wasn’t sure but he appeared to be wearing some sort of body armor. Pittsburgh is tough but not that tough, she thought. Raised plates ran along his thighs and shoulders and his wrists were covered with some sort of large bracelet type contraptions. But they looked more like machinery than jewelry each emitting a faint blue glow as did his collar. She still couldn’t make out his face but his hair shone pink in the light so she guessed it was either white or very blond.
Suddenly her name, Rowan, came in just as clear as if someone had shouted it but no one had, the sound was only in her head and so loud it hurt. She felt as if some switch had been turned on in her skull, as if some part of her brain instantly awoke.
Rowan you don’t need to be afraid, she heard it again making her head almost vibrate with the words. She covered her ears with her hands.
“Who are you?” she shouted back. The words echoed against the retaining wall of the parking lot.
Ask me with your mind…. The words came easier this time and didn’t bounce around inside of her head.
Are you fucking crazy, she thought not sure if she meant him or herself.
No I am perfectly sane, the words drifted back into her head. You have abilities you don’t understand and I am here to help you.
Rowan backed up a few steps.
Something happened to you today did it not?
How did he know that? She thought.
The answer came back to her, we felt it…the whole universe felt it. That is why I am here to take you somewhere safe before the others come.
Rowan was close to panic now.
What others? She wasn’t sure if she had said the words or thought them but the answer came quickly from him.
The Fades, I know the name means nothing to you but they will come for you and it will be soon and if not them it will be someone worse. Come with me now before it is too late. I can hide you.
Rowan laughed out loud, you must be crazy if you think I am going anywhere with you, now get away from my car! Rowan shouted the words in her head and the stranger was obviously affected. He took two steps back as if she had pushed him.
I had almost forgotten your strength, he thought.
She could sense amusement in his thoughts but it was definitely tempered with respect.
We have never felt such strength in any newling, my mother is very anxious to meet you.
Now Rowan was irritated. Your mother, you plan to show me to your mother?
Please, Rowan, understand my mother is the most powerful sender in the entire Division, may be the whole universe. She can protect you, train you, and help you to understand what you are. Please come with me now. They are here. He thought as he glanced down at his wrist.
The man stepped forward and the angle of the light changed. Rowan could finally make out his face and it was not quite human. His eyes were slanted and the pupils were huge like a cat, but most frightening were his fangs gleaming in the unnatural light. She took a step back.
I know I look different. I am different but we are not as unalike as you think. That is why you can hear me. Please don’t fear me. I wish you could remember….he pleaded.
Get out of my head!! Rowan screamed with her mind.
The stranger flew backwards and landed on the hood of Rowan’s car. Blue light rippled around him, she didn’t wait for more. She took off across the parking lot back to the exit door she had used coming out of the building. The door had of course locked from the inside. Rowan looked over her shoulder and saw no one. The parking lot was empty but she couldn’t go back to the car.
As she ran down the street away from the parking lot she heard a faint whisper in the back of her head.
Whatever you do don’t tell them you could hear me.
The Cellar, the bar where all the grad students hung out was less than a block away so Rowan headed down the street and ducked into the low entrance. It was the kind of place where the lighting was always dim, the place smelled of beer and burgers and the low roar of voices mixed with the clinking of glasses. The walls were thick ballast stones and the whole room had the lovely feel of a dungeon; right now it had never looked better.
Rowan scanned the room quickly and saw two of her fellow grad students at a corner table so she made her way through the room towards them.
Her mind was racing, what was going on and how was she going to explain it. Her first thought had been to come in here for help but now that she had thought it through what was she going to say?
I was just accosted in the parking lot by a giant catlike guy in body armor. Well he didn’t exactly accost me, he talked in my head. No he never touched me; actually he claimed to be here to help me. Did I mention he glowed blue?
Now that she thought about how silly she was going to sound she realized that no one was really going to be of any help. She couldn’t even tell anybody what just happened, at least not without them thinking she was crazy and suddenly that thought really hit home. Maybe I am crazy, she thought? That possibility was beginning to seem more and more likely as the day wore on. By the time she got to the table Rowan realized she couldn’t tell the truth and she also realized she didn’t know the strange man’s name and suddenly that seemed very important.
Mark looked up from his beer.
“Holy shit Rowan you look like you’ve seen a ghost; your meeting with Schwartz was that bad?”
Mark and Kevin both had a good laugh as Rowan sat down in the chair against the wall.
“No asshole actually that went well but I just had a strange experience in the parking lot across from the lab building. Some guy was hanging out by my car and he scared me…that’s all, I am just a little shook up.” She realized she couldn’t really say much more without sounding like a complete fool.
Mark looked truly concerned. “Should we call campus security? Did he try to hurt you? You know you are a very beautiful girl Rowan and you really should be more careful about wandering about in parking lots at night.”
Rowan never thought of herself as beautiful. She had always been taller than all the boys and her red hair had always been something that the other kids teased her about. She thought her dark green eyes were her best feature but she didn’t think she was beautiful.
“Well thanks Mark but I don’t think he was there because of my good looks. No, he was just a little creepy. He never even got near me. I am just going to have a burger and try to forget the whole thing. Come to think of it maybe I have low blood sugar I have felt weird all afternoon.”
“Rowan I know you and you don’t scare easily.” Mark pointed out.
“I know,” she said as she waved her hand in the air to suggest that it was nothing, “but it has been an incredibly long day. Really he never got near me. I am probably over reacting.”
“Well if you are sure,” Mark said as he shrugged.
“I’m sure,” said Rowan even though she was anything but. She ordered a cheese burger with pub fries and a coke. No beer for her, she never drank alcohol especially after her parent’s death, killed by a drunk driver almost six years ago. I can’t believe it has been that long, she thought.
Rowan missed them so much and tonight she wanted to talk to them more than ever. She reached up and held the small gold charm that hung from her necklace. Whenever she held it she could see her mother, the day she had given it to her. “This is your birth right Rowan,” she had said. “It links all of the women in your family, never part with it until you can give it to your own daughter. It holds a little piece of me, of all of us.”
“I thought you were hungry?” Mark interrupted her thoughts, “you have been staring at that burger for five minutes. Eat.”
Rowan picked up the burger and as she did the door opened and into the Cellar walked the most gorgeous creature she had ever laid eyes on. His shoulder length hair was as black as the night behind him. So tall and slender, he moved like fluid silver. No Roman god or Greek statue had anything on his flawless features. Skin the color of cream, so pale it almost glowed and his eyes…his eyes were lavender. They were so bright she could make them out from twenty feet away. Covered head to foot in black leather, he also wore the same things on his wrists that cat guy had been wearing. The blue glow was less visible in the light but it was definitely there.
Tall, pale and handsome was not alone, beside him stood a much shorter man. He looked Asian, Mongolian most likely Rowan thought. Her anthropology training came in handy sometimes when she least expected it. The shorter man was wearing the same blue collar cat guy had been wearing.
Rowan’s jade green eyes met the lavender eyes and a look of recognition passed across his face. Rowan could see his surprise…almost shock. Suddenly she had the strangest feeling of calm almost sleepiness.
Nothing was wrong. Nothing could ever be wrong. I am going to get up and go to him. I have known him always. I will be safe with him.
Rowan blinked. It took every bit of strength that she had but she blinked and when she did the word others echoed in her head. The dark man looked shocked and then a brilliant smile curled on his absolutely perfect lips.
Oh my god he is even more gorgeous when he smiles, Rowan thought. What is wrong with me I don’t know this guy…I sure would like to …stop thinking such things.
Rowan shook her head and her senses cleared.
The dark man was coming towards her and Rowan realized that no one else in the room seemed to notice him. How could they not notice him? A six two supermodel dressed in leather and his Mongolian side kick. She reached for Mark’s hand to get him to turn and look but she was too late. They were at the table and the Mongol had his hand on her wrist.
The collar around his neck was no longer faint. The glow radiated out and filled the room. His face swam in a sea of blue before her and she felt that same feeling she had felt in the hall outside of Dr. Schwartz’ office. She tried to call out but her voice was far away.
She spread out into eternity. She felt herself expanding. Not flying but expanding. Rowan had the feeling she was turning inside out. The limitless space in her mind was now opening and Rowan felt her soul unfold. There was no fear here only infinite space. No time only forever. There was no light yet everything was light. There was no feeling yet she felt everything. She had no thought and all thoughts. Rowan’s consciousness wanted to continue to spread out. She had never felt such joy.
The next second was like hitting a wall. You know how it feels when you get out of the pool after you have floated for hours; the weight is almost unbearable. Rowan hit the sandy floor hard and so did the other two bodies. The tall dark man got up first and he was angry.
“What just happened to us Sukh? I know you can handle a simple jump. Why are we back here?”
Rowan sat up and tried to catch her breath. She looked around and realized they were in the conservatory at the Carnegie Museum, the desert environ to be exact. She often came here in the dead winter to escape the snow. They were about a quarter mile from the Cellar.
Sukh the Mongol looked more upset than she was as he talked to the dark man.
“Lord Brannoc I cannot explain what just happened. When we entered the void I could not lock onto the destination point. Her consciousness attempted to spread out. My only option was to return to our last point of origin or be lost completely in the void; even that was difficult.”
Brannoc looked incredulous, “You are telling me that a newling, wearing no amplification collar almost pulled away from us?”
“No,” Sukh shook his head, “I am saying that she almost pulled us with her into the void. I have never felt such power my. She will move a battle craft one day mark my words. Your mother will be more than pleased.”
Again with the mother thing, Rowan thought…she had about enough of this.
“Hey guys remember me?”
As they both turned to look at her Rowan hit the shorter one with a round house kick to the side of the head. Sukh went down with a thud and Rowan turned on Brannoc. Fourteen years of martial arts are finally going to pay off, she thought as she swept Brannoc’s feet out from under him. He hit the ground hard and Rowan took off running.
She got to the jungle environ before he caught her; he was fast. Brannoc grabbed her from behind and Rowan rolled into the momentum pulling him over her. She elbowed him in the face and then hard in the ribs. She heard him grunt in pain and then everything went white.
Rowan came to back in the desert environ. Her head was pounding like she just came off of a three day drunk and her hands were bound in some sort of gel like strands. They were soft but incredibly tough and Rowan found herself fascinated by the substance. Tingling sensations spread out from the gel. It was like nothing she had ever seen or felt; the gel seemed to be alive.
Brannoc looked down at her, “try anything like that again and you will find yourself encased in biogel. You can breathe through it but it is not pleasant I can assure you.”
Rowan considered the threat and decided to stay still. Sukh was holding his head and Brannoc was nursing a bloody nose.
“I think if you hadn’t stunned her she would have broken my ribs,” Brannoc laughed and then winched in pain.
“I am sorry I was not there sooner.’ Sukh replied. “She certainly is a handful. I can’t remember anyone giving us this much trouble, not since that huge Stavician boy we had to grab from the mining station on Ledda Four.”
Both men had another chuckle and then Brannoc stared down at Rowan. The light was filtered through the great glass panes of the conservatory roof and shadows of the melting snow ran across the ground like living things.
“Look at me,” demanded Brannoc.
Rowan didn’t hesitate; she stood and looked him square in the eyes. They were even in height and she threw back her shoulders to let him know that she was ready to go again if he was man enough to untie her. He grabbed her under the chin and twisted her face in the splotchy light.
“What is your name girl?”
“I am Rowan, Rowan Ross,” she answered.
“The resemblance is remarkable.” He said as he looked at her. “You have her fine high cheekbones, her strong jaw, and those full lips. Sukh you met the Lady Margreth?”
“Yes my Lord but only once,” answered Sukh.
“Well this girl here could be her twin sister.”
Sukh answered, “That was a thousand years ago perhaps….
Brannoc looked sharply at Sukh. “Are you suggesting that my memory is flawed?”
“Of course not I simply think…”
“Well don’t think,” Brannoc snapped back. He let loose of Rowan’s chin and smiled the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. For a split second she completely forgot that she wanted to kill him.
Brannoc spoke directly to her.
“You are the living image of someone I lost many of your lifetimes ago. I do not understand exactly what is going on but I intend to find out.”
Brannoc turned to Sukh. “How do we transport her safely? Would it be better if she was unconscious?”
Rowan found that thought a bit unsettling.
Sukh though for a few seconds and then shook his head.
“No the subconscious mind is very active in the sending process. Unconscious she would have no control of her thoughts and be even more difficult to control. Since we must get to the nexus to jump home I think our best bet would be to get there by conventional means. The concentrated magnetic fields there will boost my collar’s power 100 fold and transporting her should be no problem…theoretically.”
Brannoc raised an eyebrow, “theoretically? You are still not sure?”
“As I said her power is immense. I believe a hundred fold increase would overpower her but I am not positive.”
“Where is the nearest nexus?” Brannoc asked.
Sukh passed his hand over the wrist device on his left hand. As he did a holographic image of planet earth appeared in midair. Rowan wanted to ask how he did it but from the look on Brannoc’s face she decided to keep quite. Sukh touched the screen several times; lines and symbol appeared on the surface of the holographic earth.
“The distance to the closest nexus of sufficient power is 3862 earth miles”
Brannoc made a huffing noise, “So basically you are telling me that we are an entire continent away from the nearest nexus.”
“Yes my Lord I am afraid so,” Sukh answered.
“We could rent a car,” Rowan suggested. “I could drive you there.”
“Sarcastic are we?” Brannoc replied. “I am here to take you but let me assure you that there are others looking for you as well. The bounty for you is very high and some individuals would not be as gentle as I. Encasing you in biogel would be a treat compared to their methods.”
Rowan looked right into those bright purple eyes, “If you could possibly explain to me what the hell is going on perhaps I would be a little more cooperative but if you will look at this from my perspective I am sure you will understand my, shall we say, resistant attitude.”
Brannoc seemed to take this under consideration.
“I cannot possibly explain everything to you right now. I wish I could but our time is very limited.”
He stopped as Sukh put a hand on his shoulder, “Look, I am afraid our time is up.”
In the distance, several environ rooms away a glow began to grow in intensity. The crackling blue light rolled around the circular dome of the conservatory room and then darkness. Rowan could make out a faint blue glow that she suspected was another collar device and several smaller red lights that seemed to belong to different individuals.
Brannoc and Sukh were crouched down and whispering to each other in a language that Rowan had never heard, it did not even sound vaguely familiar. Brannoc reached up and pulled her to the ground.
“The ones we were just talking about are here,” he whispered.
“Undo this stuff!” Rowan said slightly panicked as she held out her wrist.
Brannoc looked at her.
“I will if you won’t do anything stupid, like run.”
“I promise I will kick their asses before I come after you,” Rowan whispered.
Brannoc smiled, “good enough.” He held his wrist device over the goo. It vaporized as if it had never been there.
“We must try the jump Sukh, now. There are at least four of them and my bio scanner is picking up two arach with them.”
“Did you say arach? What are arach? Rowan whispered.
“You don’t want to find out here trust me,” said Brannoc.
Sukh turned to Rowan, “Listen to me carefully. You must clear your mind, think of nothing.”
“How do I think of nothing?” Rowan whispered.
Sukh whispered back, “Make your mind like the surface of a smooth pond. No ripples only smooth water. Can you do that?”
“I can try.” Rowan closed her eyes. She thought of the duck pond at North Park where her father had taken her often as a child, and then she thought of her father…no, that wasn’t working. Just the water, see the water. She felt her mind calm. She saw the surface of the water smooth like glass. She felt the lightness of the unfolding began. She concentrated only on the surface of the water, only the water.
Suddenly she felt Brannoc’s mind. She didn’t mean to. His thoughts were so clear. Images appeared on the surface of the water flickering across the mirror surface like a film. She saw rolling green hills, a large building in the distance, there was love in his mind. She realized it was always there. He held it deep and cherished it like a possession hidden where no one else could find it. She wanted to look away. It did not seem right for her to be here but the images kept coming, rushing at her, and then suddenly she was slammed back into the heaviness of being.