It began with a ceramic mug suspended in mid-air, a parabola of tea, frozen in time and space, curling away behind it. Ashleigh Chuskus lay on the stairs, her elbows and knees chafed from the carpet, gazing in disbelief at the apparition hovering at the end of her outstretched hand. She spent a moment wondering at it, then yelped and fell backwards as the whole mess succumbed to gravity.
She edged away from the stairs, breathing hard as she fought to reconcile what she had just seen. A few minutes passed; the memory faded and she was able to tell herself that it had all been a quirk of perception, that her mind had stretched a single moment into a feat of magic.
That was what she told herself through the rest of the day, what she told herself as she went to bed, what she told herself when she awoke the next morning.
Then, she went into the bathroom, looked out the window, and saw the man and woman on the street corner. They were staring at her.
There was the cup, just past her reach, two or three inches off the ground—
The watchers turned to face each other, huddled for a moment in conversation, then walked down the street in the direction of the Metro station.
Ashleigh sat on the edge of her bed, trying to convince herself that it was all a coincidence. They were just a couple of lost tourists looking up at the same moment she had been looking down. No one was watching her.
Today was Saturday. She decided not to leave the house.
Sunday morning, awake again, in the bathroom. On a whim, she looked out. There they were.
This time there was no talking herself out of it. Something was happening. The simplest explanation—the least interesting explanation—was that she was suffering from paranoid hallucinations. She discarded this interpretation almost immediately. Her family had no history of mental illness. Besides, who wanted to settle for insanity when it seemed something exciting was about to happen?
By Sunday evening, she had almost convinced herself that she had developed super powers, that her watchers were part of a secret organization out to recruit her to fight evil. Just before she went to bed, she realized how crazy that sounded and decided to see her doctor as soon as possible.
Monday morning, and the watchers were there again. They stood on the sidewalk, dressed in light windbreakers, their faces obscured by hoods. Today they didn't take their gaze away from Ashleigh's window, didn't turn away in conversation. Ashleigh waved at them experimentally. Maybe if she acknowledged them, they would prove themselves to be illusory. It didn't work; they kept right on looking.
She sighed and jerked the curtain closed. They were real; maybe the rest was, too. She needed something small for a test, something not much bigger than the mug...there. Her toothbrush hung limp in a metal ring above the sink, practically begging to be levitated. She widened her stance, gritted her teeth, and glared at the toothbrush. Nothing.
What did they always do in movies? Arm out, fingers splayed, gentle waving motions.... Nothing. Did she need to be expressing strong emotion? Feel danger, maybe? She wasn't about to fling herself down the stairs, but maybe falling backwards onto the bed would—
A gentle ringing focused her attention back on the toothbrush. It stood erect, floating in the air, the bottom wavering and sometimes hitting the metal ring. She gasped, and the toothbrush fell back to its original position.
She took a few steps backwards, felt cold porcelain against the back of her knees, and dropped down onto the toilet. This wasn't real, couldn't be happening, had to be—
Verification. She needed to film it, to know if others could see it, or if they would see only a toothbrush. She snorted at that. If they saw anything, they would see off-the-shelf special effects.
No, the only thing to do was to ignore this, at least for a few more hours until she could meet with the doctor. Until then, she would go to work, play it cool, hope she wasn’t losing her mind....
Back to the window, tearing the curtain aside—the watchers were gone. Somehow, they had sensed what she had done, had gone back to tell the leaders of the conspiracy that a new convert was ready.... It wasn't a good idea to think that way....
She showered, dressed, tried to brush her teeth through supernatural means, gave up, did it the old-fashioned way, and was out the door by seven. She strode down the sidewalk, scrutinizing the hedges for signs of hooded figures.
A hole opened in the sidewalk before her, and she descended into the great concrete cavity of the Washington, D.C. Metro system. There was the usual Monday morning crunch at the security gate, but before too long she was scanned, approved, and billed for her morning commute. She pushed into the crowd milling around the precipice of the platform, stopping next to the curved wall of the tunnel.
Despite the noise echoing through the tube, she heard her name clearly...too clearly. A quick look around showed that no one was paying attention to her. “Hello?”
No one took notice.
This time she noticed the smoothness of the word, the lack of acoustic distortion, a word spoken directly into her mind. She felt excitement bubbling through her; the watchers were here, were communicating with her. “Who's there?”
Instead of a voiceless word, the answer came as a vision. Sound died, everything around her began to dissolve, commuters becoming translucent and fading from existence in rapid succession until she was alone on the platform. The hallucination theory seemed a lot more inviting now.
The concrete of the station began to soften and run, transforming from a vaulted construct into a dark cube, disappearing into shadow all around. She was so caught up in watching her location melt away that it took her a moment to realize her clothes were fading, too. She watched in horror as her garments disappeared layer by layer until she stood naked and alone in the great chamber.
She whirled around in panic, trying to cover herself, then realized it was a pointless gesture against someone—something—that could speak into her mind, play with her perceptions.
“Hello?” she called, her wavering voice echoing through the dark chamber.
Pretty detailed perceptions. She stamped down on the ground, felt the rough surface digging into her feet. Whatever was going on, it seemed real enough.
Footsteps echoed from the darkness, followed seconds later by two human figures: a man and a woman, naked as she was, skeletal, bald and pasty. They looked as though they had been through hell.
Instinctively, she knew they were her watchers.
She folded her arms over her breasts again. “Um... Hello? What...what the hell's going on?”
Neither watcher looked to have reacted, but within a few seconds a voice, crisp and echoless, spoke into her mind. You slipped, just as we did... Your body has remembered what your mind has not...
A shiver of excitement passed through her. Her delusions of grandeur—her fantasies of adventure—returned, pushing away that still, small voice that told her, You need professional help.
Ashleigh tried to respond to them, to push her words out of her mind and into theirs, but could only muster the mental equivalent of a nervous chuckle. “What do you want me to do?”
A mixture of regret and anger washed over her. Remember...
People sprang into being around her, as dead and naked-looking as the watchers, moving at an exaggerated pace, jumping as one body from place to place, individually moving like swarming insects. Every once in a while they'd fall down, lay prone for several seconds, then stand and repeat the cycle. As this happened, two men moved among them, both dressed in military fatigues. They seemed to be in charge.
As Ashleigh watched, metadata were applied to the stream of images. Names, biographies, intimate fears and desires. Whole personal histories flashed before her, and she was caught up with them, became a part of them, remembered she had been a part of them already. She knew who they were, how she had lived with them, died with them, been reborn with them...killed with them. Above all, she remembered the two clothed men. One young, inexperienced, always hungry for power, for dominance over them.
The other...she loved him, revered him. They all did. He was their leader, their prophet, the one who would deliver them and lead them into their destiny—
The vision exploded into violence. Ashleigh's dead-looking cohort escaped their bonds, flooded out of the cube, followed their prophet as he led them out of the grave and back to the land above. Then it all reversed. Swarms of warriors, dressed in impenetrable cocoons of grey armor, drove their captives back into their bonds and their tomb.
Then they were there, in real time, kneeling around their fallen prophet, the concrete digging into Ashleigh's knees as a new man, a dark presence who had been lurking at the edge of the vision all along, entered the cube. He was gnarled, old, even more dead looking than the cohort. He smiled at them, told them in no uncertain terms that they had failed, that they were his now. He approached their broken prophet, allowed him a final word before he was put to death for his rebellion.
Their prophet stared into the crowd surrounding him, body broken but spirit intact, and willed them to listen, to take his words to heart. “We are Defenders. We will defend. We must tick on,” he said. “The Q-bomb must tick on.”
Then he was dead. Then the pace picked up again, then Ashleigh was alone with her watchers, collapsed at their feet, weeping for a past life that she had never wanted to know.
We can still do as he said... We can still be the Q-bomb...
“No....” The words were low, raspy, but hers. Made with human lips, shaped by a human tongue. They were not the words of...of what she had been.
It is what he wanted...
“No!” She was on her feet now, charging at them, ready to hurt them far more than they had hurt her. “You can't have me back! I won't go back!”
The platform was back, the commuters were back; thank God, her clothes were back. She whirled around, terrified by the now alien world that moments before had been her own. A sea of shocked faces stared at her, expressions of concern and annoyance distributed more or less evenly among them.
The two faces she needed to see most weren't there. They came, they destroyed her life, tore down the second chance that she had been given, and didn't even have the decency to show up in person.
Little squares of plastic began to rise around the crowd, mobile cameras ready to document the crazy woman's breakdown, to expose her shame to the world. She tried to pull in on herself, to separate herself from the world around her, but the minds were too frenzied, too loud and insistent, all focused on her, all yelling, screaming out the pain she had suffered.
Then she tried to push out, to send out her pain and terror and hatred into the crowd, into her unseen watchers somewhere out beyond the Metro, beyond her little world.
For a single, perfect instant there was silence, and she was able to forget about the past life she had been forced to confront.
Then Ashleigh was gone....