Saturday, June 19, 1999,
Outside the church, Atlanta's late spring weather was as pretty as a peach: warm, sweet, inviting a soul to kick their shoes off and watch the clouds blow by. Inside, Justin K. Boynton ('Ground Control' to some of his gathered friends) stood nervously in a rented tuxedo, waiting for the sun and moon of his life to appear. Next to him stood his Best Man and roommate of four years Paul E. Schmidt (less affectionately known as 'Mister Morphine' in some circles,) concentrated on keeping Justin from broadcasting his raw nerves to the two families and all their friends. Paul could have done without all the traditional trappings, but he knew how much those things meant to Justin and Stephanie.
Stephanie Herrigel (Also known as 'Chercheuse' and for everyone's information, being called 'Hair gel' ends today) hoped that Paul was doing his job and keeping Justin vertical. She didn't want to know what could have gotten an exemplar that well-plowed and still conscious the next day, but the idea of her high school sweetheart stepping out of his gilded cage of expectations – even if for one night – was enough to make her smile. There were other things (a girl has her needs!), but if there were only one thing to love about Justin, it would have to be the way he'd always wanted her to be just herself: nothing more, nothing less, no one else.
The rest of the newlywed couple's perfect day passed in a blur, just as it ought to.
Lakeshore Park, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Newly-mowed grass scented the air alongside late-blooming honeysuckle. The Tennessee River itself flowed slowly by as if it could make summer last an extra month by force of will. In other words, for those who could feel, smell, and taste it, it was a beautiful day. Those who couldn't, they would have to make do.
Paul Schmidt was never known for having many regrets, but he would miss the fun he'd had in setting up today's payoff. He'd put considerable research and observation into finding a bank employee who would be a plausible match for a well-off client. Once he'd settled on a couple with more finances than emotional capital, the long game was on: getting them together, ensuring each had damaging information on the other, making himself at home in their more vulnerable interactions. Meticulously editing out his role required finesse, but that was something an esper at Whateley Academy learned in their first year. Today was his payday.
Hugh Wilkins (no relation to the monarch of Karedonia) considered himself a fortunate man to catch Robert 'Bob' Willingham III's eye. He'd do anything for the guy. Retrieving the contents of Bob's safe deposit box and meeting him at this park was an odd request, but the banker was no stranger to odd requests. The briefcase he carried out to the picnic table needed replacement, so he handed it over to his love with no regret. After a cozy afternoon luncheon, they kissed and left to carry on the rest of the day.
Bob Willingham had been amazed that anyone could see through his act, not to mention putting up with the charades expected of a closeted businessman in eastern Tennessee. Today was even more special. He planned on proposing to Hugh, his very own bright-eyed love. The simple gold band that had belonged to his father weighed so heavily in his pocket that he didn't dare do anything to break the spell. Maybe he should do this properly at a restaurant, with champagne. He could even get completely snockered if Hugh turned him down.
Georgie Fairman didn't care much one way or another. For his new clothes and a C-note in his pocket, those guys could've done a whole lot more than kiss. Like, a whole lot lower and quite a bit deeper, if anyone cared to catch his drift. He had enough money for an illegal smile or two.
The Willinghams had left their boy some bling among other negotiables. They wouldn't have approved of his relationship, but that was also part of the fun. Tomorrow, Wilkins would return what was left of the haul to the bank, despite the soreness in his lower back (the suggestion of a gym membership was paying off!) If worse came to worse, Paul had his cache of copied memories to relive and some very incriminating photographs to file as insurance. In addition to finesse, the Masterminds Club had taught him all about the value of leverage.
Duke Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
Justin wouldn't remember the doctor who'd examined Stephanie five minutes after they walked out the door. The only things in that carefully bland "Patient Conference Room" that mattered were Stephanie and the diagnosis. Picking up on that, the specialist in mutant pathology didn't beat around the bush.
He asked, "Mr. Boynton, are you familiar with the Syndrome of Overpattern Decoherence? I believe that among the terminally crass, it's also called 'Shifter's Dementia'."
Justin shook his head. How could he make sense of everything when it felt like his stomach was falling from thirty thousand feet up? The pink blossoms on the dogwoods and redbud trees had been so very pretty when they drove in for the appointment this morning.
The doctor said, "Well, shapeshifting, like any other ability, isn't one hundred percent perfect. The more adaptable a shifter is, the more chances for them to end up with leftover proteins that work well in the form they had been using but not so well in others or their own. Normally, the body recognizes these materials as foreign and destroys them, resulting in minor inflammation. However, inflammation side effects are riskier when it comes to blood cells and neurons, so the body template adjusts accordingly to avoid anaphylaxis. It's a minuscule adjustment that's as likely to cancel out the last as it is to do anything else, but in time it all adds up."
He paused for the couple to mentally catch up.
"In the case of Alzheimer's, a build-up of amyloid proteins is thought to cause or reflect the neurological deterioration. There are hundreds of candidate proteins for SOD. I'm sorry, but there's not much anyone can do for your wife."
Surprised he could even speak, Justin asked, "How much time?"
"Your wife's line of work isn't known for longevity, but it could be years before she may have to retire. For now, annual follow-ups and what we call 'watchful waiting' is the order of the day."
Back outside, the sun felt dimmer, colder. Justin squeezed Stephanie's hand, gently pulled her close, and whispered in her ear, "Ma chère. C'mon, let's get out of here." Her hair smelt of apricots and rose. He never wanted to forget a thing, not even the lilac-scented shampoo she loved.
Thursday, December 15, 2005,
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
Associate Professor Boynton checked his watch. It had been a good run, but everything comes to an end, including semesters.
He announced, "All right, folks, time's up. Bring your exams up to the front, hand them in to Myra. I'm expecting to have everything graded by Monday, but not before then."
The job's important, but not that important.
He overheard a couple of the stragglers: "Time's up, Jay. You can keep staring at that page, but it won't do you any good."
"You never heard of last-minute inspiration?"
"Shyeah, right. Why don't you take a picture while you're at it, it'll last longer."
"Fine. I'm done."
Only the names and inspirations change.
Isn't that what he'd been doing the past couple of years: staring at Stephanie, hoping for inspiration, not living with her? Sure, they still went out on Search and Rescue calls, but had they worked together when they did? What an idiot he'd been. Time to start patching things up and making memories. Better than collecting snapshots.
Back in his office with the latest stack of exams to grade, he made his decision. First things first, though. It had been a while since he'd called the number he called up from memory.
"Paul? It's Justin. I was wondering if you could do me a favor?"
"Justy! What are friends for, when you don't have a body to disappear, if not to help each other out? Whatever I can do, just name it: you got it."
"How about not calling me Justy?"
"Except for that. What's on your mind?"
"I was thinking it's time to start acting like grown-ups and invite people to have Christmas at our own home. Starting with a holiday party on the 23rd for friends, colleagues. How about being our guest over the long weekend? Bring along whoever you're dating, as long as they know each other. "
"So cynical! I only made that mistake once or twice, and never again from the same cottage."
"Pull the other one. I'll have to make sure the bed in the guest bedroom is reinforced. I even have some ideas for that"
"For Stephie's sake I'll even arrive early to help drag you out of your workshop."
Thursday afternoon, December 22, 2005,
Carrboro, North Carolina.
To tell the truth, Paul missed telepathically sharing Justy and Stephie's bedroom aerobics. Adjusting their memories afterward was a small price to pay to play. Losing the ability to feel pleasure or pain had once felt a small price to pay for keeping the world's pain out of his head. Anyway, making his friends happy made him happy. What could be wrong with that?
Planning to surprise his old roommate, Paul made a point of showing up a day early and before Stephanie got off work from her day job. The psi shielding around the devisor's workshop should block Justy's empathy as well as it blocked probes. One added benefit to the traditional basement lab was that it was one place Stephie avoided as much as possible. Hell, she'd even hated Whateley's tunnels.
The well-organized mayhem he found down the well-hidden stairs leading past the original basement was all Ground Control. No bed, not even a cot — that was disappointing. Knowing Justy, there might be an OSHA regulation against it.
Paul said to the silent walls, "Amazing! It slices, it dices, it even makes julienne fries disappear from a hat!"
The answering grumble sounded about two meals into an inventor's fugue. Responsibilities now, fun later. Paul whispered a phrase in Justy's ear until the trigger finally took hold. Then he triggered the "write this all down, in detail, with footnotes, before you forget it" routine that he'd been so proud of years ago. Friends don't let friends flunk out or sabotage their projects over a girl!
Once everything was as on-track as practical, he went upstairs to see what he could rustle up in the kitchen to satisfy their appetites. It also gave him time to mull over Justy's state of mind. Knowing what losing Ella had done to the guy, he didn't want to think about what losing Stephie would do to him.
Friday evening, December 23, 2005,
Holiday Party, Boynton Residence.
Nothing would do but to have the entire house decorated for the season, not with Sergeant Stephie and her two privates!
Paul noticed that one of the guests was way too young to be Justin's colleague.
He worked his way to her side of the room to ask her, "Paul Schmidt. You're ... Myra, right? What is it that you do for Dr. Boynton?" Aside from being a dead ringer for his wife?
"Not that, if that's what you're thinking!" Myra laughed at the thought, even though she had noticed how much she and Mrs. Boynton resembled each other. "Last semester, I TA'd one of his classes in addition to working as a research assistant. He's even got me researching and ordering parts for the project he's starting after the break!"
"Another of his projects? I hope it works better than the improved toaster he made back in high school."
"Nah. This is way better." Myra scoffed at the idea - a toaster? "You know how criminal investigations are always hitting roadblocks because people forget what they saw? What if that could be recorded straight from the neurons in the brain? No worrying about witnesses forgetting or being bought off or any of that stuff like on CSI, y'know? It's going to be crazy awesome!"
"We won't know until he finishes, but it does sound grand."
It sounds like a fast track to a .50 caliber round to the brainstem the first time that record gets accepted in court as evidence.
Hours later, Paul found himself back in Justy's workshop. Something someone said had set off the man's invention instinct, and Stephie wasn't in the mood for a cold bed. Good old Paul to the rescue!
"I noticed that your assistant – Don't worry, we've already called a cab to take her home – looks a lot like someone familiar. Why don't I think that that's an accident?"
Justin didn't look up from the workbench.
"It isn't. Memories aren't snapshots, they're film clips with lots of added sensory channels. I have to be able to write them back to someone to know what the recorder picked up. I'm certain that one of the reasons that long-term engram implanting fails is that the recipients subconsciously reject sensory data that doesn't match their native patterns."
"At least you aren't planning on using it on yourself. How will you know any of it worked?"
"I have some ideas for a succinct interview process that I can use to compare the original and the copy."
Paul thought to himself, 'Of course, there has to be a survey. Plus a hundred or two pages of instructions.'
Instead Paul suggested, "Wouldn't it be more effective to have a telepath do that? Human minds aren't tinker toys."
"Maybe. We can talk it over later, after you ravage that blushing bride upstairs."
"But it's only ... oh! Oops." Justin's face reddened. "We'll talk more in the morning!"
Duke Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
Justin's office was piled with more books, articles, and stuff than he had shelves for. At least he hadn't gotten to the point of blocking ventilation or access to and from the door. Paul hoped this didn't reflect the state of his friend's mind too closely. That's not what his abbie-normal psych books would have told him. He still had to pull a short stack of papers out of the sole chair left mostly unfilled.
"What's this?" Paul joked. "Putting more time into your day job? Whatever will the boss say?"
Justin said, "He'd tell me it's a sunny day and time I worked on my golf game. However, that's not the real reason I asked you to drop by."
No lie. He looks like he hasn't slept in weeks.
"Paul, I need more money than my job's bringing in, and I need it in a way that Stephie won't find out how I got it."
He skipped 'asking as a friend' and the 'offer to pay me back'. We must be short on time.
"Justy, I know some people who would love to hear more about your work, above-board and under the table. What I need to know from you is how serious you are. You can't be just a little bit pregnant or just a little bit associated with certain organizations. Why don't you tell me how far you've gotten today, and tell me your decision tomorrow. If it's any consolation," Paul needed to pitch this low and slow. "Some of the equipment you can't fit in your budget might be more affordable with certain discounts in play."
Late evening, November 15, 2006,
Carolinas Medical Center, Charlotte, North Carolina.
Hospital waiting areas have a sameness to them that blurs together after a while. The minute details may change – gray vs. beige tile, Good Housekeeping vs. Southern Living – but it's all the same. Psychometrists might be able to tell the changes, if they didn't run screaming from what they pick up. Chercheuse was too tired to tend to the follow-up paperwork; Mister Morphine could take care of it. He'd have to stay with the injured until anesthesia could be safely administered anyway. He came out too soon to have good news.
"How's the old man?" Stephanie asked.
"Not good. No. No, Steph, don't."
Tears don't stop falling just like that. Not when the memories and the trauma are so fresh.
"It's my fault. If I'd gotten there sooner, maybe, just maybe." Stephanie buried her head in her friend's shoulder.
"The refrigerator had already done its damage," Paul said.
It wasn't the right thing to say, but there wasn't a right thing to say. Paul felt her shudder, but inside Stephanie's brain, a storm raged to match the murderous squall line still stalking the North Carolina night. He stopped speaking until it passed, knowing she wouldn't remember, afterward. "We – we are a team, remember? – are lucky someone thought to check on him."
"I know. I know that." Stephanie sniffed, trying to regain her composure. "Speaking of checking in, Justin's gone ahead to Fort Bragg in case there's damage for someone to take advantage of."
"Then let's get a place to crash for a few hours and hope the worst of tonight's outbreak is over."
Early morning, November 16, 2006,
Motel 6, outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Two packs hit the floor barely inside the room. Paul rushed for the bathroom, giving Stephanie time to sit down on the bed. She still didn't care that there was only one, just that it wasn't too lumpy when she gave up and lay down.
Paul spoke first. "See? They did leave the light on!"
Stephanie wasn't having that.
"Paul, I know what you've been doing. It can't work."
"What is it you think I've been doing? I can sleep in one of the chairs if you want."
"You're helping him... Justin. I've seen records of the accounts myself. Do you think that if I could arrange for my mind to be copied to a clone, I wouldn't try that for him? Even for you?"
"Force-grown clones have too much risk," Paul could admit that much. He'd asked some of the best around.
Stephanie sat up to face the jackass. "Risk? Too much risk? First, we have the ethics questions, which means paying the Syndicate — at Syndicate rates. They never let debts like that be paid off. Even then, everything from mimicking maternal antibodies to long-term protein stability can go wrong. Then! Then, even if the engram transfer works – Doctor DNA is one of the few who've pulled that off, and all his creations are real-life furries – would it be me or would it be a facsimile of me? So Justin gets, what, a handful of years with whatever comes out? No. Just, please, no."
"It would break his heart and soul not to try. You know that. You can't ask me to do that to him."
Stephanie tried to hold Paul's gaze with hers, "What I want you to do is to help him find a human being, not some flesh doll, to fall in love with all over again."
"That makes me sound more like a pimp than a best friend."
"Fine. I promise. Go out in a final blaze of glory. Leave the rest to me."
Paul's voice softened, "I wasn't lying about leaving the rest to me."
Stephanie's did as well. "I don't want to rest. Not tonight. Not yet."
Early Thursday morning, November 16, 2006,
Fayetteville, North Carolina.
"In this morning's headline news, nine North Carolina residents in the Riegelwood, Columbus County area, are dead, and one from Statesville remains critically injured due to a tornado outbreak. That outbreak started early yesterday morning in Lousiana and finally ended only a few hours ago here in North Carolina. Among the deceased is the superheroine Chercheuse. We're told that she'll be laid to rest in a private ceremony; the family has asked that the media not attend. Chercheuse was overcome by an F3 tornado as she attempted to evacuate a family from their trailer located directly in the storm's path. The names of the other victims have not been released yet, pending notification of their own next of kin.
It's always so sad when that happens, Bob.
It is. It's times like this that we need to think of our first responders and all the others out there keeping us safe."
Justin Boynton sat numbly on the motel bed, staring at the news that wouldn't, couldn't, sink in. None of this could be happening. Paul Schmidt reached over and grasped his old friend by the shoulder. He pushed just enough of his power along the connection to make his words heard without betraying more.
"Justin, let's go. There's nothing for you here. The funeral. God. That still needs to be taken care of."
Justin muttered, "Atlanta."
"She wanted to be buried next to her father. That's in Atlanta."
"Atlanta it is, then. Seriously. Let's get out of here."
Sunday, November 19, 2006,
Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.
From the stumbled-through eulogy until after most of the other mourners had paid respects, Justin had remained too still and quiet. This didn't feel like proper mourning, though that wasn't at the front of either man's mind.
"Paul, I've decided to move to Florida. There's a research position with Shands Hospital in Gainesville, where I think I can still do some good. Access to the latest in prosthetic and automation technology is a plus."
Paul asked Justin, "Does this mean you've shelved your project until you're thinking clearer?"
"No, it means that some weasel working forensic accounting for Duke Medical is getting too close to the project. With North Carolina being the buckle of the Bible Belt, I doubt they can be persuaded once they smell blood."
"You know what? With the holidays coming up, I might just follow you down. There's an insane need for effective pain clinics down there."
"And moving costs don't cover themselves?"
"Nope. Until then, I'm keeping an eye on you. I know how you hyperfocus on your work, but I want to see improvement before I let you out of my sight," announced Paul. It would also help him to help Justin into the right frame of mind to work.
"It's not like I have Diedrick's!"
"Without Stephanie as your anchor, you might as well have Diedrick's Syndrome."
It was saddening to watch Justin search his heart, only to find that he couldn't deny what could be true.
Paul didn't take much joy in his friend's shocked look, but best strike while the iron's hot.
He said, "I think I know of a person who can help you solve your problems, maybe even a couple of mine." He pulled a manila envelope from his briefcase and slid it across the table to Boynton. Inside, Justin found what looked to be a complete dossier. Whoever it was, they were a shifter with a high susceptibility to mental coercion. However, it wasn't likely that any shapeshifting mutant off the street would agree to being a test subject. Even if there were material benefits to what they might learn, the answer would be a resounding 'no!' On the other hand ... the included photographs ... some of them were of women.
"I see a line of cars and they're all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back"
—Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, "Paint It Black"