Welcome to Paradise
'Welcome to Paradise!', the front of the brochure exclaimed. The following pages, fully illustrated with picture postcard photographs, described all the delights the tiny island had to offer: glittering turquoise gentle sea ('perfect for swimming!') lapping onto pure white unspoilt sandy beaches; pretty whitewashed villas with sea blue wooden doors and shutters and adorned with pink and purple creeping bougainvillea, nestling in the shadows of palms and orange trees ('...luxury accommodation built in the traditional style. Fully air conditioned and equipped with all modern conveniences, you will want for nothing...'); a swimming pool the size of a small lake, a whirlpool and a jacuzzi, set out around a tasteful poolside bar; two restaurants ('...offering the finest in local and international cuisine...'); luxury spa facilities, a gym, tennis courts, a golf course; the whole resort set in immaculately lawned grounds ('...perfect for taking a romantic evening stroll...'). Behind the resort, rugged mountain forests ('...for our more adventurous guests, an opportunity to explore the wilderness...').
Ten years ago the island had been a thriving high class holiday resort, the place to go for couples seeking privacy, luxury and a romantic idyll. Then the woman with the two young teenage girls came to visit. The travel agent who sold them the holiday still remembers them vividly, remembers thinking that they were entirely unsuitable people. After all, the resort was about beauty, extravagance, indulgence, and everything about them said 'ordinary' and 'sensible'. The woman was white, slim and in her mid forties, wore flat shoes, a conservative grey skirt suit, plain wire rimmed spectacles. She had a stern face and dark hair, greying at the temple's tied back into a functional pony tail. He remembers thinking that with a bit of make-up, her hair down and a smile, she'd have looked quite attractive, instead of like a schoolmistress or a nanny. And the girls. Nine- or ten-year olds, dressed like little grown ups in matching uniforms of pale blue short sleeved shirts and grey knee length skirts, hair neatly tied back, no jewellery. Like miniature versions of the woman. Except one of the girls was black. No, the resort was not for them, and ten years on, the travel agent still cannot fathom why he sold them that holiday package, much less why he gave them a discount.
Some of the former staff and guests at the resort vaguely remember the odd trio. Mostly they remember their arrival, being concerned that two young girls would cause a disruption and relieved when it turned out they were well behaved and kept mostly to themselves. If pressed to really think about it, some people recall the black girl wandering around staring at them, not speaking, just standing and staring and smiling; they remember feeling uncomfortable until the woman appeared to apologise and explain that the girl was "simple".
All of the staff and guests who were there in the final weeks remember the end.
It started with a couple of guests who'd gone out on a wilderness trek; they said they'd seen something fearsome in the forest, they weren't quite sure what, but it was big and furry, with claws and teeth. Then people began seeing things in the resort: too-big poisonous snakes and spiders slithering and scuttling in and out of the shadows, jellyfish glistening in the pool; ephemeral hints of things that were quickly gone again, yet those who had seen them swore that they were there . The resort management said that it was impossible, there were absolutely no dangerous creatures of any sort on the island. They were keen to point out that the expert trackers and exterminators who were sent to investigate (purely as a precaution) found nothing at all. They tried to suggest, very tactfully, that guests who reported the sightings were of a nervous disposition and were imagining things; or perhaps alcohol was involved... And still every day, several times a day, guests would turn up at the reception desk to report another terrible sighting. Soon the main topic of conversation across the resort revolved around who had or hadn't seen what, and what might possibly be causing it. People who had seen things were afraid, people who had not were either becoming afraid or bored. Most guests could agree on one thing, this wasn't the paradise they had hoped for and they wouldn't be recommending the resort to any of their friends or colleagues. Guests departed, new guests arrived and it seemed that a crisis might be averted. It was then that one of the resort staff was found on the beach, half drowned. When he came to, he immediately started babbling that a mermaid had tried to drag him to the bottom of the sea. The mermaid claimed many more victims in quick succession. Every one survived, just. And every one told exactly the same story. At the same time, the scary almost-imagined monsters continued to haunt the resort but now these creatures seemed somehow more believable. It was the death knell of the resort. Guests cut short their vacations and left the island. Staff handed in their notice and left the island. Those few who were still unconvinced that the danger was real, had no choice but to pack up and leave the island. Concerned about bad publicity, the company who operated the resort quickly pulled the location from all their brochures and settled any compensation claims very quietly, out of court.
Ten years on, no-one who had been there at the end could quite recall what had happened to a nondescript middle aged woman and her two young girls.
"You should've seen the look on the guy's face, when I told him I was gonna have to stun him. I mean I was only trying to be polite, let him know that it was only temporary and wouldn't hurt and he was like Oh yeah, stun me, what with? Your bare hands? Don't tell me, you've got some kind of superpowers and he was laughing cos everybody knows that sort of thing only happens in the movies and then when I touched him and shocked him his eyes nearly popped out of his head in surprise before he dropped. It was hilarious." The girl telling the story - Ellen -, was in her late teens with freckles and a mane of wild red hair. She laughed and took another swig of her beer. She was sitting on the edge of her sun lounger, too wired and full of energy to lie back and relax; every so often little sparks of electricity would crackle from her skin.
"I'm sure it was fun for you, Ellen, but the thing is, you shouldn't have been there in the first place. It was supposed to be a simple mission. Sue goes in on her own, disguised as Mr Clarkson, meets with the bank manager, collects the package and gets out; fast and easy with no unwanted attention. Except that somewhere between the floor and the vault, she drops her disguise and the next thing you know she's locked in the vault and the manger's about to call the cops. Then you had to intercept the manager and everyone in the bank saw, so you had to knock them all out and then we had to send in Melissa to do her mini memory wipe thing. Thank goodness for Thea; can you imagine what would've happened if we hadn't had a skilled Teleporter on the team? There's no way we'd've been able to get there in time without her. Then there would've been police and... I dread to think. And all because Shapeshifter Sue messed up."
The disapproving voice belonged to Norma, a rather plain looking young woman, about twenty years old, with long dark hair tied back in a prim ponytail and wearing glasses that would be the envy of any librarian. She was hiding in the shade of an umbrella and the bottle on the small table next to her wasn't beer but factor 50 sun lotion. "So what happened Sue?" the woman continued.
A brunette with the body and face of a supermodel and a purring hypnotic voice answered "I don't know Norma. I guess I got distracted..."
"Distracted? By what?" Norma asked.
Sue blushed, reluctant to answer, but her eyes strayed to the young woman who had just climbed out of the pool, water glistening off her ebony skin. Melissa.
"Oh come on Norma, don't be so hard on Sue. Life's got to be about more than just the mission. Don't tell me you've never thought about..." Melissa's voice was placatory and playful at the same time. She and Sue had recently got together and Melissa had a pretty good idea as to what had distracted her lover, but even as she said the words she realised they'd be falling on deaf ears. She couldn't recall any time, ever, when her friend Norma would've allowed herself to be distracted from the job. Poor Norma, she was the job. Melissa changed the subject. "Anyway, look on the bright side; it all turned out OK in the end and at least we all got to do something this time, you know, work as a team. There've been too many one-woman missions lately. I mean what's the point of having special powers if you never get to use them?"
I wouldn't know, Norma thought, but said, "That's all very well for you to say, Melissa, but while you all spend the rest of the day having fun by the pool I'll be in debriefing with Ma and Doc."
A silence settled over the whole group. Norma never talked much about what happened in debriefing, but whatever it was, it went on for a very long time - sometimes for a whole day and night - and the girls all knew that Norma didn't like it. On several occasions, one of the others had offered to go in her place but Ma always said no, it was Norma they needed to see, she was the mastermind, it was her responsibility.
"And it's not my fault about the missions, you know it's Ma who issues them." Norma sounded hurt and sad.
Melissa climbed out of the pool, wrapped herself in a towel, sat down next to Norma and gave her a hug. "I know, Norma. If you want, I'll talk to Ma again, about the debriefings." There was concern in her voice.
Sue walked over and squatted down in front of Norma, placed a gentle hand on Norma's knee. "I'm really sorry, it won't happen again, I promise."
A pretty, olive skinned girl with straight black hair shimmered into view in front of Norma. "Never mind talk. Take my hand and we'll just disappear. Ma will never find you."
"Thanks, Thea, but--"
"Won't touch you, still some residual electric charge, but ..." Ellen shrugged an apology and proffered a bottle "Got time for a beer, before you go in?"
Norma forced a smile. These were her friends, they cared about her. Somehow, today, that was small comfort, but it was not their fault. "I know, I know, I'm an old grump. I'm sorry. It's just, well, you know, that's just me. And the job. You know I love you all really. And I'd love a beer but I'd better not. Doc'll get mad, he says it muddles the brain."
"Terribly sorry to interrupt, young ladies, but it's time for debriefing. Norma, dear..." Doctor John Smith - "Doc" - had the face of an old man - wrinkled with a shock of white hair - and the eyes of a young boy, burning with curiosity and intelligence. He had a well heeled English accent, a voice that was cheerful but firm; the voice of a man who was used to giving an order and having it obeyed. When he smiled, he looked every inch the kindly grandfather and it was this face he wore in public, the one the girls had seen most often. But occasionally they caught a glimpse of a different face. It was not the face of a cruel or unjust man, but of one who knew things, terrible things that ordinary people should never know; a man with a purpose, a mission, who could not afford to let notions of kindness, concern or love get in the way of what needed to be done. It was, the girls suspected, this face that Doc wore in the debriefing.
Debriefing happened in the old administration building at the centre of the former resort complex. It housed bedrooms for Ma, Doc and Norma, the Lab, a kitchen, lounge and dining room. Like every other building in the complex, it was rustic on the outside, modern on the inside. The dining room was long and thin, sparsely but tastefully decorated. High ceiling with inlaid dimmer lights, pale grey-blue walls adorned with abstract black and white photographs positioned symmetrically along the two long walls, black wooden door set in one of the short walls and at the other end, a tinted floor to ceiling window offered a view down to the jetty where several boats were moored. The window did not open. The dining table was long and thin, made of black wood; the chairs were of black leather with chrome legs, shaped to be pleasing to the eye - hard seats, no cushions - they were uncomfortable to sit in. The room was neither too hot nor too cold, the ambient temperature maintained by a state of the art air-con system that made only the faintest of hums.
Norma was sitting in one of the chairs looking out to the jetty where two of the girls, Thea and Fi the Fish, were untying a small motor boat. Fi - Fiona - was bald and had an almost bluish tint to her skin, as if she was permanently cold. She had the most beautiful deep blue eyes that sparkled like the sea. Water was her home; there her hands and feet became fins, her body felt light, her breathing came easy and she felt free. She spent most of her time at sea, on long range missions, tracking and logging the movements of potential enemy submarines; it was a solitary life and mostly that suited her just fine. But when she came back to the resort to report in she liked to hook up with Thea, who she called 'my gorgeous island girl'. Thea had never learnt to swim and was afraid of the water. Fi made it her personal mission to help her lover overcome that fear.
Norma envied them, Fi and Thea, Melissa and Sue, out there, having fun. She wondered if she would ever meet someone. Didn't seem likely somehow. Her friends on the island, she didn't fancy any of them and anyway, they were more like sisters. They weren't allowed off the island much, apart from on missions, and all off-island activity was strictly monitored. No-one came to the island who didn't need to be there. No-one new had come to the island in a long time. She hadn't considered it much before, but now... It was another thing Norma didn't have: no powers, no girlfriend, no life. Norma Normal was feeling sorry for herself.
"I'm sorry I'm late dear, you must be starving." Ten years on Ma's hair was almost all grey; other than that, little had changed. She still wore the same sensible clothes - pale blue shirt, grey skirt, flat shoes - and wire rimmed spectacles. Ma called it her disguise, said it made her inconspicuous, which was important in their line of work. By which she meant spying and special ops. Ma - Ms Jones as she was known in her professional life - had spent all her career working in Intelligence. She started out as a standard field operative and very quickly progressed to running her own teams. Smart and ambitious, she had been hotly tipped to head up the whole of the European operation. Then Norma happened. Ma was always very cagey about that; she would say only that it had been a tryst that was unavoidable but necessary and that her pregnancy was unexpected. After Norma was born it became increasingly difficult to continue her work. Norma often worried that Ma resented her; that it was her fault Ma had resigned. Not at all, Ma would reassure her and anyway, her career had not ended, she had merely taken a step sideways, gone independent, and the operation she was running now was far more interesting than anything else she had ever done.
"Penny for them." Ma interrupted Norma's musings.
"Nothing much. I was just enjoying the view." This was the part of debriefing that Norma dubbed 'lunch with Ma'. The butler, Bernard, a proper English gentleman, brought in the food - soup followed by a salad and fish, all perfectly nutritionally balanced. Ma and Norma ate and talked. About interesting items of news or current affairs; about how the girls were doing and what they were up to; about recently completed missions and possible operations in the pipeline; about how Norma was doing. A perfectly ordinary working lunch. Except for the swimming cap. That's what Norma called it because it reminded her of one of those bobbled rubber caps decorated with flowers old ladies used to wear in the public baths. When she was young her nanny had made her wear one 'to protect your beautiful hair'. She had hated it then and she hated it now - it tangled her hair, made hear head sweat, felt unpleasantly rubbery on her skin and it looked ridiculous - except this one wasn't really a swimming cap. It was a web of small sensors embedded in rubber suckers, connected by filament wires; the big rose petal on the crown of the hat was a wireless transmitter. The 'swimming cap' monitored all activity in her brain and transmitted it to a bank of computers in the Lab, there to be studied in minute detail by Doc. She supposed she should be grateful for the cap; the wireless technology meant that she no longer had to spend all her debriefing in the Lab, physically wired to the machines, but that, too, was small comfort. She was at least grateful that the wireless transmitter had a limited effective range, otherwise Doc would've had her wearing the thing all the time.
Today Norma was especially aware of the hat, it seemed to symbolise all that was wrong in her life. Yesterday, for the first time ever, a mission had not gone according to plan and Norma felt responsible. She didn't get to go on missions, but Ma insisted that she be fully involved in the planning and preparation. In a way it was like Ma's old spy ring hierarchy: Norma ran the girls, Ma and Doc ran Norma. So one of her girls had screwed up and Norma felt responsible.
"Do you have any idea why Sue was distracted?" Ma was asking, gently.
Norma shrugged. She didn't want to talk about the mission. And she especially didn't want to talk about Sue's love life, that was just too embarrassing.
"Is it possible she might be losing her power?"
"I don't know. Why are you asking me?"
"Well you spend lots of time together. Do you have any reason to imagine that she might be losing it?"
"No, why should I? You know as well as I do it's the first time anything like this has happened. Anyway, if you're that worried why don't you get her in here and ask her yourself!" Norma snapped.
"There, dear, don't get upset. Nobody's blaming you."
"No? Then why do I get the feeling that you and Doc think that I'm somehow responsible?"
"Of course we don't think that dear."
"Well..." Norma wasn't convinced. "Look, I've gone over it time and time again in my mind; there was nothing wrong with my prep. It's not my fault I only get to plan the missions, not carry them out. If I had the power, I swear, nothing would've gone wrong." Norma looked thoroughly miserable now. Ma got up and walked round to give her a consoling hug.
"Be patient dear, Doc's doing everything he can."
"Of course he is." Norma had heard that one too many times to be convinced or comforted by it. "So when?"
"I'm sure Doc's making progress." Ma said softly. She cradled the young woman in her arms, willing her to feel better.
They sat like that in silence, mother and daughter, until Bernard the butler came in to clear away the plates, signalling the end of lunch.
"Time to get back to work." Ma sighed, pulling herself back into her professional persona. "And time for you to do your journal."
As part of debriefing, Norma had to keep a daily video diary, not of the things she'd done but of what she was thinking and feeling. She didn't like doing it and she didn't understand how exactly this would help Doc in his research, but, like the swimming cap, he insisted and she had no choice.
The lounge was designed for comfort and relaxation: soft chairs and sofas, and low coffee tables strewn with newspapers, books and remote controls; huge flat-screen TV, games consoles, state of the art voice activated media centre, and, in a nod to the traditional, a bookshelf bursting with books. Norma flopped on one of the chairs and leaned over to switch on a small video camera.
"Well, Doc, you want to know what I'm thinking? Ask Ma. In fact, you don't need to ask because she's probably telling you right now. But just in case she left anything out..." Norma ranted at the camera for a while then moved on to her new idea. "Anyway, this incident got me thinking; it would be really useful to have a combination of powers, then even if one glitched there'd be a fall-back and I could get myself out of trouble. I mean, I know we work as a team and even on solo missions the other girls are on standby, but if you gave me a combination of powers it would be like having two teams and that would mean we could run more missions..."
As she warmed to the topic she forgot about Doc and the camera and spent a happy afternoon thinking out loud, listing superpowers, their advantages and disadvantages, ordering and reordering them to find the best combination for the ultimate superhero.
It started out as a routine arrest for the City Police. A young woman picked up for fighting in the park, wild eyed and babbling, clearly off her head on something. Sure enough, a search revealed a pocketful of heavy duty prescription tranqs (not your average junkie's drug of choice, one of the officers thought, but hey, whatever) a wad of cash and a couple of stolen bank cards. It was a struggle getting her into the van (she's a lot stronger than she looks, his partner remarked) and she spent the whole ride back to the precinct screaming at them to give her her pills back, please, she needed one to shut the fuckin' voices up. What with all the screaming and struggling and babbling they had trouble processing her and the desk sergeant observed that it might not be just the drugs talking, she might be very crazy. So they cleared out all her pockets, removed her belt and shoes and put her - still in handcuffs - in the cell reserved for lunatics and potential suicides. Then they sent for the department's resident psych.
Soon after that, things ceased to be routine. The 'crazies' cell was completely bare, nothing in there, certainly nothing that would burn. But in the aftermath, all the dazed and confused eyewitnesses interviewed by the eager waiting reporters seemed sure that was where the fire had started. The news reports made a point of mentioning that. And it spread like no fire ought to. Half the precinct was gone before the fire crews arrived. Thankfully, miraculously, no one died, though there were many bad burns. And when when fire crews had extinguished the last flames and were doing a final check through the wreckage they found her, a wild eyed, whimpering terrified young woman crouched in the shell of the 'crazies' cell, not a mark on her. The news reports, especially the tabloids, made a really big deal of that .
Ma was re-reading one of those reports when the phone call came in on the special government line.
"Yes sir, that is exactly the kind of thing we are equipped to deal with." "No sir, you need have no concerns as to our security." "Yes sir, I am fully aware of how potentially dangerous the girl is." "Forgive me for speaking plainly sir, but if you didn't know about us before, it's because you did not need to know." "That will not be necessary sir, we will send our own operatives to collect her. If you give us her location, we will be there tomorrow at ten hundred hours. Please see that she is ready." "Sir, that was neither an offer, a suggestion or a request, it was an order."
Doc had entered the room towards the end of the conversation. "Our 'friends' in Division X?" He made the parentheses with his fingers.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" he asked.
"Leave her in their hands for another day? If she's anything like the papers say, things could get messy."
"I'd say that's happened already. They've have only had her for a couple of days and they hate to hand over anything they think might be an asset. My guess is, they've been prodding and poking her day and night, and things have gone wrong. So wrong that it's getting difficult to cover it up, so the order's come in from on high to hand her over to us."
"My point exactly. How much more could go wrong in the next twenty-four hours? And what about the poor girl?"
"I'm afraid it's a risk we'll have to take. Even the top brass at Division X don't know exactly what we do. They do know that we're thousands of miles away. How would it look if we suddenly turned up so soon after the call? No, we've got to make things look normal. Speaking of which, why now, do you think, after so much time? Has Norma given you any clues at all?"
"I'm afraid not. The when , I think I've pinpointed; as to the why ..." Doc shook his head. "I'll go over the all the data again, but..." He sighed. It was going to be a long night.
"I'll have a word with her, you never know, she might mention something. I wanted to speak to her anyway, about this mission." Ma said.
Doc raised his eyebrows in a question.
"I think I'm going to let Norma head up this one," Ma continued.
"Is that wise? You know how valuable she is. And vulnerable." Doc asked.
"Yes, but also upset and frustrated. And getting very impatient with you." Ma said pointedly. "We need her cooperation, and she wants to feel useful and special. This is a chance to offer her that. After all, it's hardly a high risk mission, more of a delivery job. She won't be on her own; I''ll be sending an escort, three or four burly men, to make things look authentic."
An hour later, Norma was packed and ready to leave. Melissa was with her. That had been Norma's suggestion. By the sounds of it the girl they were going to collect was, among other things, a newly awakened telepath, still trying to come to terms with her condition. With luck Melissa would be able to walk into her mind and keep her calm enough for the long journey back and they wouldn't need to resort to the drugs or the mind block helmet. Even if things got tricky, they couldn't risk using Thea for a quick transport out. Division X were not to be trusted; they specialised in being devious, they would certainly try to track Norma's team's every move and might even have implanted the girl with some kind of beacon. So they had to travel the old fashioned way.
Roman, the chef, was waiting for them in the helicopter. As well as being very handy with a meat cleaver, he was a qualified pilot. Ex military, he was one of a small group of Ma's former assets - colleagues and contacts - who she called her 'trusted men'.
Karl and Steve were two other trusted men. Both pilots, they ran a private flying school on the mainland, several miles up the coast. By the time Roman landed the 'copter at their airfield, they had the jet prep'd and ready for take-off.
The location Division X had given them was deep in the desert. The nearest airfield was fifty miles away on the outskirts of a small town that was so far off the beaten track no one would come upon it by accident. It was getting on for ten in the evening when they arrived, yet the town was booming and busy. Bars, cheap motels and diners lined the main street; they all had names like The Martian's Moorings, Little Green Men Pub and Romulan's Retreat. The team finally found a couple of spare rooms at The End Of The Universe, a little motel-diner off on a side street.
"You'll be heading out there, I suppose," the desk clerk said, nodding his head in the vague direction of the desert. "Good timing, I reckon tonight'll be the night. We sell maps of the best viewing spots. And we hire out night vision goggles."
"Huh?" Roman said.
"You know, cos rumour has it they finally bagged themselves a real live alien; so stands to reason it won't be long before its fellow creatures come to the rescue."
So much for the top secret location Melissa thought, and Norma, Roman, Carl and Steve smiled in agreement.
"Just the rooms, thanks." Roman said, trying not to burst out laughing.
They set off in the morning just as the last and most determined of the spaceship spotters were returning from another night of disappointment. Their hire car was sprayed bright green and emblazoned with the advert 'Alien Autos: No. 1 for Car Rental'.
"Very inconspicuous," Norma chortled.
After a long stuffy drive - it was already getting hot and the Aliens who rented the Autos hadn't heard of air conditioning - they arrived at a small wooden shack. Two heavily armed soldiers emerged and stared in disbelief at the car and its occupants. Norma wound down the window and handed over some official looking paperwork, which the soldiers took back inside. Eventually, the soldiers re-emerged and led them inside, into an elevator which dropped them down into the bowels of the secret base.
They were made to wait in a small lobby, still with their guards, while other burly men in white coats (soldiers masquerading as doctors, Norma thought) were dispatched to fetch "the prisoner".
The young woman was in an asbestos straight-jacket, manacled at her wrists and ankles, and so deeply drugged she was barely conscious, yet still her bloodshot eyes flashed fear. "For her own safety." one of the 'doctors' grunted in answer to the horrified looks on the visitors faces. "And yours," he continued. "In fact, it might be best if a couple of our men accompany you back to your plane." It was obvious the men at the base really didn't want to let this girl go, in spite of the trouble she'd caused. And they were desperate to get more intel on these strangers who were about to take her away. "That won't be necessary," Norma said in her best haughty Ma voice and smiled knowingly. "You have your orders, we have ours. So if you'll take off the irons and give us some privacy, we've brought some clothes for the girl." It occurred to Norma that the men at the base might be inclined to disobey their orders and not let them leave. Another good reason to have Melissa along. As it turned out, the Mindbender's skills were not called upon and a short while later the team and their newest recruit were back in the Alien's Auto headed to the airport.
Two hours into the flight, the effects of the tranquillizers started to wear off. The girl became agitated and Norma saw her hands turn a burning red. Any minute now, she suspected, there'd be fire. "It's OK", she said gently. "We're not going to hurt you. I know you hear voices. That's because you're a telepath, a bit like Melissa here. Show her Melissa." While Melissa walked in to the girl's mind and tried to sooth her terror, Norma continued. "And also, when you get scared or stressed you burst into flames. Or so we think. Don't know what that's about, we've never seen it before. The main thing is, we're not the Government, we're nothing like those bastards at the base and we're taking you somewhere where you'll be safe. I promise. But it's really important that you try to relax, so you don't set the plane on fire. Can you try to do that for me? Please?"
"She's in my mind. A poem. Can't hear anything else. It's beautiful." The girl looked surprised.
Norma smiled. "That's right. Melissa Mindbender. And where we're going we can teach you to do that for yourself. And all sorts of other ways to manage your powers. I'm Norma, by the way. And that's Roman, the chef and Karl and Steve are the pilots. What's your name?"
"Abby. Abby Grant."
It gets tiring massaging someone else's mind and Melissa needed to rest so Norma explained Abby's other options - the tranquillizers or the mind block helmet. Abby declined them both. "I want to learn... to control it like she does... tell me how."
"It's a bit like meditation," Melissa spoke the words out loud, "but I think it's easier with a poem or a song. Something simple, and repetitive like a nursery rhyme or a nonsense verse."
"So... teach me... please."
Melissa sighed. It was going to be a long journey. "OK, it goes like this: Cottleston cottleston cottleston pie…"
Abby spent the next few hours looking inward and mouthing the words of her new mantra. It was hard work and there were many times when she lost concentration and started to get agitated. She was clearly exhausted but despite Norma's reassurances she refused to sleep. Eventually Norma persuaded her to take a small dose of tranquillizers; not so much as to knock her out but sufficient to help calm her mind. Half an hour later she was fast asleep.
Melissa was asleep, Roman was asleep. Norma was not at all tired. For some reason she was buzzing with a nervous energy. This was her mission, her first - even without a power, Ma had entrusted her with this. And it had all gone according to plan. But it wasn't just that.
Norma found her eyes drawn to the sleeping young woman. She was skinny to the point of being malnourished. There were bags under her eyes from too many sleepless nights and all her fingernails were bitten to the quick. There were bruises on her arms where the Division X thugs had manacled and manhandled her. She tried to imagine the girl's life, voices that would drive a girl mad, the terror of not understanding and when she had needed help the most she had been handed into the 'care' of those idiot ignorant government grunts. Norma wanted so very badly to reassure the girl that everything would be alright. But it wasn't just that either.
Abby had short spiky bleach blond hair, multiple ear piercings and an eyebrow ring. An elaborate tattoo on her left arm: a tangle of vine leaves that wound their way from beneath her t-shirt sleeve all the way down to her wrist. She looked cool, interesting.
Sexy. That's what Norma found herself thinking, and was surprised at the thought. She lived on an island with a whole bunch of good looking girls - beautiful young women - and she had never before thought that. Not once. This girl, Abby was sexy.
Abby woke up very slowly. She was in a bed. A comfortable bed. It was light. Proper light. Sunlight . The room was not to hot and not too cold. There were no chains. And no voices. No voices. She didn't believe it. All the life she could remember had been about the voices and the things she would do to make them stop. Drugs. Stealing. Violence. It was impossible that there were no voices. She must be asleep. And heavily drugged. She became aware of something tight on her head. She sensed that this was real. Then she remembered. There had been police, and a fire; needles and chains and a long journey. A lab, all steel and white walls; more needles and electrodes and chains; men in white coats with rough hands and noisy nasty minds. They had been talking about cutting her open. She didn't feel any new pain. So where was she now and what were they doing to her? She thought she remembered a plane; a girl - two girls, one white one black. The black girl had taught her a children's rhyme; "...why does a chicken, I don't know why..." Was that real? It couldn't have been; it was too silly. She heard a noise. There was someone else in the room. She sat up and looked round. It was a girl... a white girl... the girl. Abby had an idea her name was Norma. She was sitting there in a comfy chair, a plain Jane in jeans and a short sleeved shirt - so ordinary it couldn't be real, could it? Ordinary things didn't happen to a freak like her - ...and the girl was wearing a multicoloured swimming cap. Abby felt strangely relieved. That was the sort of weirdness you might see when bad men messed with your mind. They'd put her in some trance state and were monitoring her every reaction. She had no choice but to go along with it. At least they hadn't cut her up. So last night, the girl had been on the plane and had offered her some drugs, or was that the men in the lab? Didn't much matter, they wanted her to think it was the girl. Two thoughts popped into Abby's mind: 'you promised the drugs wouldn't send me to sleep!' and 'that really is a weird cap'.
"I'm sorry," swimming cap girl said. "The dose we gave you shouldn't have put you out. You must've been really exhausted. You didn't even blink when we carried you off the plane."
"I didn't say anything" Abby said.
"I figured that by the way your lips didn't move." Swimming cap girl smiled. She had a nice smile. "Well, we've learned one thing already. You can project your thoughts, even through the mind-block cap."
The thing that was tight on her head; Abby put her hands up to feel the contraption. "Is this why I can't hear anything in my mind?"
Swimming cap girl nodded.
"Is that what you're wearing?"
"Mine's different. I'm not a telepath. But yours looks just as weird." Swimming cap girl must've been lying, she had obviously read Abby's thoughts. She didn't seem angry though. Just teasing. Like friends would. Friends had not been much a part of Abby's life (except when they could get her something she needed). Perhaps as part of their experiments the men in the lab had decided to give her one - real or imagined, she wasn't sure - and see what happened. There was a mirror in the room; Abby got up to look at herself. She too was wearing a very silly hat. It seemed ridiculous to worry about her appearance at a time like this, but she couldn't help it. "Will I have to wear this all the time?"
"I don't see why not, it looks very attractive." Swimming cap girl smiled and almost blushed. Swimming cap girl was... could it be... flirting with her? Flirting had not been much a part of Abby's life (except when it could get her something that she needed) and now here she was, in what appeared to be a nice hotel room with a girl who was kind of cute even in her silly hat... Some of the men in the lab had filthy minds, she'd heard them. Maybe they thought they'd try a little extracurricular experiment. "Seriously though," swimming cap girl was saying, "no you won't. There are the drugs. But hopefully you'll learn to control your power and --"
"Where am I?"
"You're on the Island, in the Resort and this is the Lab."
The Lab. Well, at least one thing was true. "Looks more like a bedroom to me." Abby's tone was harsh. She'd do her damnedest not to play along with this 'experiment'.
Swimming cap girl seemed unperturbed by Abby's tone; her answer was delivered matter-of-factly. "It is, was. This place used to be a holiday resort. Now it's... it's a long story and Ma will want to give you a full briefing later, but I might as well give you the crib notes. This is a place for people with special powers. We've got a mindbender, a shapeshifter, a real live mermaid, a - well you'll meet them all later. Ma's in charge, Doc is the scientist and then there are the staff who help run the place."
Special powers, is that what they called it? She'd always thought of it as a curse. And there were other people, or other things in the cells next door; she'd heard their minds screaming. A little truth mixed in with the fantasy, then. Or perhaps it was her mind, fighting back, keeping a fragile link with reality.
"So what powers do you have?" Abby kept her tone indifferent.
"None. Norma Normal, that's me." Swimming cap girl sounded disappointed, almost bitter. "Most of Doc's research is about studying me; he's trying to figure out how to give a person special powers. To do that he has to analyse my brainwaves, heart-rate, metabolism and a load of other medical and psychological stuff. This is the observation room; I spent a lot of time here before Doc figured out how to put the wireless transmitters into my silly hat."
Playing for the sympathy vote; sad cute girl in need of consoling? Dream on! Abby addressed her thoughts to the men with nasty minds.
"So if this Doc is so interested in understanding special powers, why isn't he studying the people who have them?" Abby challenged.
"The others already have powers, so they don't need any." Swimming cap girl's tone indicated she thought this was a perfectly reasonable answer to a rather stupid question.
"Well when we found out about you, obviously we had to rescue you from the bastards at Division X. They call themselves scientists but really they're neanderthals who don't understand a thing."
Bastards, neanderthals: Abby had no argument against that. But why would the men in the lab put themselves down like that. Had they noted her resistance? Was this another ploy to get her to play along?
"So what happens to me now?"
"Nothing bad, I promise. You'll learn how to manage your powers. That could take some time, because by the sound of it you've got more than one, which is a first."
"Well, you'll live here, in the resort. There are plenty of rooms to choose from. There's the pool and the beach, all kind of sports. The mountains are wild and beautiful. And the other girls are nice. Of course there are rules, Ma will explain everything properly. But really, it's a great place."
It sounded good. Too good. There would be a catch.
There was a catch. There were many catches. Ma - who looked like an older version of swimming cap girl - outlined them all in great detail, sitting in her office like a strict headmistress. Life wasn't all about relaxing by the pool and having fun, she warned sternly. There were classes every morning, five days a week; even girls with superpowers needed a good education. Philosophy, politics, current affairs and ethics were particularly important. And she encouraged her charges to take up some sporting activity - healthy body, healthy mind! There were considerable restrictions on off-island activities - the general rule was, outside of missions, contact with the public should be kept to a minimum. And strict codes of behaviour: people with superpowers should not flaunt or abuse them in any way (unless instructed to do so as part of a mission); when in the general populace, people with superpowers should be inconspicuous.
Missions. Abby was curious to know about the missions; that sounded like a gobbet of truth from the men in the lab.
The woman called Ma would not be drawn on the subject of missions. Abby was new and should focus her energy on settling in and learning to manage her powers. Missions would come later.
The men in the lab were backtracking, being cautious. They probably wanted to turn her into an assassin or something.
After the very lengthy induction Abby was handed back into the care of swimming cap girl - Norma, the girl's name was Norma, it couldn't hurt to think of her by name could it? - who gave her a tour of the resort.
By the end of the day Abby had no idea what was real. Some things made her think she was in the lab and the men were off duty, messing with her mind. Like:
"How come all the people with superpowers are girls? Good looking girls?"
"I don't know," Norma shrugged, "I've never really thought about it. I suppose the guys go somewhere else, maybe..."
On the other hand, if it was a construct it was very elaborate and everything seemed accurate down to the smallest detail. Like the annoying fly that buzzed round them as they ate lunch by the pool; the little fishes that nibbled their toes as they paddled in the shallows; the fallen leaves that wafted across the lawn in a gentle breeze. The men in the lab were many things, but patient was not one of them. Abby couldn't imagine them taking the trouble to conjure up such irrelevancies.
Perhaps there was one way to find out, Abby thought.
"What if I don't want to stay here? What if I want to leave?"
Norma seemed stumped by that one. "Well, I don't know. I mean, why would you want to leave? Where would you go? How would you live? How will you handle the telepathy? And what if you burst into flames again? You could get arrested and then... Do you really want to end up back with Division X? They didn't want to let you go this time, if they get hold of you again, I don't think they'll let go so easily." Norma sounded concerned.
"So that's my choice: a prisoner here or a prisoner there."
"This isn't a prison!" Norma objected.
"It is, if you don't let me leave."
Abby felt the tightness on her head. She remembered the hat. Perhaps it was not a mind block cap, but the thing the men were using to project their construct into her mind. Why had she not thought of it until now? She took it off. Immediately, the voices were back in her head. Fi, the fish girl was trying not to get impatient with Thea; after all, how hard could it be to learn to swim! Thea was thinking about not drowning. Ellen was feeling a bit bunged up and hoping she wasn't coming down with a cold. Sue was worrying that Melissa thought she was too tall, wondering if she should shift off an inch or two and how long she could hold the shape. Melissa was annoyed at having to spend such a lovely day doing homework. Roman was trying to think of new and interesting ways to serve salmon. Bernard - the lovely English butler! - was thinking about Roman. Ma was taking guilty pleasure in reading a cheap spy romance novel - it was entirely unrealistic, and she had work to do, but, she told herself, there was always work to do and even she deserved a break from time to time. A very clever and well spoken Englishman was thinking 'perhaps if I reverse the polarity of the neuron flow...' - she hadn't met the Doc, but she presumed it was he. There were other snippets, voices she didn't recognise, belonging to the staff who worked on the island. Shouting over all this was Norma. Norma was worrying, worrying, worrying: about Abby and what if she caught fire and got caught again and would they be able to save her and yet Abby had a point about being a prisoner and perhaps if she talked to Ma, but Ma would say 'no' and if Norma let her go, asked Thea to teleport her somewhere else, how mad would Ma be and how unfair life was because Abby seemed like a really nice and interesting person and...
Too many thoughts, too many voices, but not one belonged to any of the men with nasty minds. It was impossible that they could conjure up such a detailed cacophony. This place must be real. Abby put the helmet back on. The last thought she caught before her mind went silent was Norma's sad plaintive entreaty 'Please don't go, Abby'.
"I'll stay." she said.
"Something quite exciting happened today." Norma didn't sound at all excited; her voice was level and matter-of-fact. "Abby and I went for a walk in the foothills. I wanted to show her the whistling gorge; even though there's no wind today, it's still the most amazing one, I think. We went all the way up to the point where it gets too narrow and steep, and I said it was a pity we couldn't go all the way to the top, because the views from up there must be amazing. And Abby said "why not?" and there was a glint in her eye; she's always asking me ridiculous questions, just to wind me up. So I just rolled my eyes and said "climbing gear?!" and she said "who needs climbing gear?" Then she took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a second, as though she was concentrating, then she just floated off the ground. It was only a few inches at first, but then she seemed to get her confidence and pretty soon she was up above the treetops. So that's it. Abby's got a new power, she can fly, or levitate, whatever you want to call it. Then again, perhaps it's not entirely new. It might be an extension of her telekinesis; after all, if you can move other objects with the power of your mind, why not your own body?
So I make that four powers now. Abby's really excited about this one, which I completely understand because, come on, who hasn't dreamed about flying and thought it would be the most amazing experience, I know I have.
The other thing is that Abby's finally managed to get complete control over her telepathy - isn't it funny how that power was the hardest to manage? - which is great news because she was getting really frustrated with it at times. Also, I presume that means she won't have to spend so much time with Melissa, practising her techniques..."
Doc stopped playback of the video. On an adjacent screen, the wiggly line traces of the scrolling encephalograph also stopped. "You see?" he demanded expectantly.
"See what?" Ma wasn't sure whether to be amused or bemused.
Doc rewound Norma's journal and encephalograph data. "Here, here and here!" he jabbed a finger at the encephalograph. "A definite change in brain patterns."
"Yes, I see." Ma nodded.
"One month now! The same patterns. A definite change in neural activity. And in the video journal, numerous references to Abby; Abby, this, Abby that. She mentions Melissa several times also, but even this is in relation to Abby; how long the mind training is taking, how much time they spend together. Our new arrival appears to be having a significant effect on Norma, and we have no idea why, or whether it is to to the good or to the bad. Surely this must be a cause for concern and further analysis?"
Ma tried very hard not to laugh. "Very amusing, Doc, but we both know this is no cause for concern."
"On the contrary, I'd say this is a cause for-" Doc wasn't joking.
"Really Doctor, for such an intelligent man you can sometimes be so obtuse."
Doc looked uncomprehending.
"Norma's in love. All perfectly natural and nothing to worry about."
"In love? Are you sure? Has she told you anything?"
"She doesn't need to. It's entirely obvious from the data: all the talk of Abby, brain patterns, heart rate, metabolism, hormones; she's excited, nervous, hysterically happy, a little terrified. Study the data again, Doc: she's in love."
"My dear, I'm not entirely unacquainted with the behaviour of young women in love," Doc sounded a tad put out, "I have, after all had opportunity to observe such things - Melissa and Sue, for example - and it seems to me Norma is not behaving as they do. She does not sound excited or hysterical or happy, she sounds positively indifferent."
"That's because she knows you'll be analysing every last detail of her journal and she's trying to hide it from you."
"But the purpose of the journal is to provide me with accurate data on her mental state. She understands how important this is. Why would she try to hide?"
"Aside from the fact that you - we - have inevitably failed to give her anything in return for her cooperation and trust? Because, my dear Doctor, she is a young woman in love and some things are too embarrassing to be shared with a stuffy old scientist, old enough to be one's grandfather."
Norma was, at that moment, thinking about the things she had left out of her journal. "You can climb?" Abby had asked, at once surprised and impressed.
"I can do lots of things" Norma said suggestively. She immediately regretted not bringing the climbing gear. It would have given her a chance to show off a little. It wasn't a special power but it was a skill - something that Melissa couldn't do - something she could teach Abby. Between Abby's training and her interminable, 'debriefings' they had too little time to spend together. Today, they'd had three free hours and there they were in the depths of a gorge with no place to rest and no way to go except back. Why on earth hadn't she thought to bring the climbing gear! She'd been too busy thinking about something else, that's why. Abby. Her lips, her tongue, long kisses that got Norma's whole body tingling just in the remembering of them.
"Who needs climbing gear?" Then Abby had offered Norma her hand and said "D'you wanna come flying with me" and that had been terrifying and exhilarating: the second best thing Norma had ever done. Then they were at the top of the mountain, the highest point on the island, where no-one had ever gone before; giddy with excitement and speechless with awe. They had kissed, and kissed and kissed. Abby had unbuttoned Norma's shirt, put her hand on Norma's breast. They had fallen to the floor and Norma, who was normally cursed with an annoying practical sensible streak, hadn't cared about the stony ground, the fact that her clothes would get filthy or the possibility that they might slide off the summit and do themselves an injury. She cared only about Abby's tongue that was tickling her with shivers of delight, Abby's hand that was unzipping her jeans and teasing her with the promise of more; her own lips and fingers that were doing the same to Abby. They had made love, several times, on the top of the world and that had been the best thing Norma had ever done.
"What are you doing here?" Abby was surprised but pleased to see Norma standing on her doorstep. "Aren't you supposed to be tucked up in bed in the Lab?"
It was almost midnight: asleep in her room, transmitting her dream thoughts to Doc's computers is exactly where Norma should have been. But despite Ma's and Doc's platitudes, she suspected that they were no nearer to giving her a superpower now, than they had been in the beginning. And right now, sex with Abby seemed infinitely more important than having a superpower.
"Couldn't sleep, so I sneaked out. Shock, horror, Norma Normal does something naughty." Norma grinned. That in itself felt good.
They wasted little time in conversation; there were far more important things to focus on. Like trying not to make too much noise as they fell upon each other in a frenzy of lips and tongues and fingers, breaking apart on occasion to drink wine, eat chocolate and offer up elaborate and heartfelt declarations of lust-love.
The sun was up early, about five in the morning, and Norma and Abby were still awake, just.
"I suppose I'd better be going." Norma said, not wanting to.
"Stay" Abby murmured, her hand wrapped around Norma's waist.
"I'd love to..." Norma was too tired to move. She could just stay here and fall asleep in Abby's arms. "...but if I leave it any longer, Doc'll be awake and I really don't want to bump into him as I sneak back in."
"He'll figure it out. Your sexy swimming cap's been transmitting sweet nothings all night."
"Yes, but that'll be later. Gives me time to think up a good excuse."
"You could always tell him I lured you here with my special powers," Abby giggled.
Norma rolled her eyes and reluctantly hauled herself out of bed.
It was Ma, not Doc who opened the offensive. "You look a little tired dear," she observed casually, over breakfast.
Norma nodded and studied her muesli intently.
"You weren't in your room last night..."
Ma was more perceptive than Doc; there was no point in lying. "I went to see Abby. We... she... she's been getting stressed about her new power, so I went to talk to her about it, try to help..." It sounded unconvincing, even to Norma's hopeful ears. She tried hard not to blush.
"Of course dear." Ma suppressed a smirk. "Well I'm sure I don't need to tell you how very annoyed Doc is. You know important it is for him to analyse your sleeping brain patterns."
Norma kept silent, still examining her breakfast bowl.
"Don't worry, I'll speak to him, this time. But perhaps in future, you could try to spend at least a few hours of the night sleeping in your room. Shall we say, back here by one o'clock?"
That arrangement worked for a couple of weeks, but it was not entirely satisfactory for anyone concerned.
Norma quickly came to resent her curfew: Ma and Doc were treating her like a child; she wasn't a child any more! And sometimes it was damned inconvenient.
Doc was concerned about the quality of the data he was getting. "When she returns, she is often agitated," he complained, "and it takes her several hours to get to sleep. The brain patterns from a relaxed deep sleep state are vital: they provide me with baseline data."
Abby was always reluctant to let Norma go. Her multiple superpowers were getting in the way of a good time; Ma had doubled her training programme and she saw more of Melissa than she did of Norma. "I don't get it. Fair enough, Melissa was great with the thought blocking and mind control exercises, but I can do all that now. And I suppose I can see why she's helping me with the telekinesis stuff, even though she's not one: it's all mind work really. But what the hell does she know about flying?"
Melissa was finding that Abby's training regime was getting in the way of her relationship with Sue. There were times when she couldn't help wishing Abby had never come to the island; moments when she dropped her guard and let her thoughts slip out.
Norma suggested several times to Ma and Doc that they reduce Melissa's workload. She, Norma could help with Abby's training; that really would be for the best.
Ma at least listened to Norma's proposal, though she doubted that much would get done. Doc dismissed the whole idea as "impossible". They, however did take on board concerns about Melissa's involvement. From now on the other girls would be called upon to assist with Abby's training: Electric Ellen would handle the fire power; Thea would work on the telekinesis; Sue would shape-shift into a bird and help with flying practice.
"I'm sure you'll agree that is a fair and equitable arrangement" Doc said in a satisfied tone, and smiled his best grandfatherly smile. "There, you see Norma dear? problem solved!"
Norma ignored the curfew that night, and the one after. On the third evening she found the doors to the main building locked. She thought long and hard about Abby until her lover came to let her out.
On the morning of the fifth day their slumber was interrupted by a loud banging on Abby's door. It was Ma, doing her best to look relaxed and unconcerned.
"Norma, dear, we need you to come with us please. It's important." She was trying to keep her tone conversational.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"I'll explain everything back at the lab. Please dear, don't argue."
Melissa had disappeared overnight. Sue had woken from a very deep sleep to find her lover gone from their bed. At first she had not been overly concerned; Melissa often woke early and liked to go for a swim and watch the sun rise. When she didn't return for breakfast, Sue went straight to Ma: something was wrong, Melissa never missed breakfast.
Norma couldn't believe it. Her mind was a whirr with possibilities. "We should send search parties out. Are all the boats moored up? Have you checked with Thea? It's Sue's birthday next week, maybe Melissa went on a jaunt to the mainland to buy her a surprise-"
"In the middle of the night? Trust me Norma, we are doing everything in our power to find her. And you will agree, we have more power than most. Thus far all the evidence suggests that she simply disappeared. For now, the safest place for you to be is here in the Lab."
"Nobody just disappears, it's imposs-" Norma stopped mid sentence. The resort was full of impossibilities. In their world, the impossible happened every day. "You think there's something out there, something new, that can make people disappear? Could it be Division X?"
"We're not jumping to any conclusions at this stage." Norma sensed that Ma wanted to end the conversation.
"But I want to help-"
"You can help by putting on your cap and getting yourself to the Lab. Trust me, Norma, that is the best place for you to be."
"But if there really is someone or something that can pluck people out of thin air, then surely the Lab is no safer than anywhere else. And if it is Division X coming after superpowers, they won't be interested in me, it's the other girls that are in danger. Abby-"
"Enough! For god's sake Norma, just shut up and do as you're told!"
Norma was shocked into silent obedience. She went to the Lab.
Norma spent the rest of the day in the observation room wired directly into the data-banks - no wireless hat today, that had been Doc's orders - thinking about Melissa's disappearance and Ma's surprising outburst. In public and in private Ma could be many things: businesslike, cold and unemotional, stern, but something had to be very wrong to make her lose her temper. And now it had happened when Norma mentioned Abby... Could it be? Norma wondered. They suspected Abby. Surely not? But then again it made sense. Even Norma had to concede that Division X were unlikely to be responsible. All she had learned about them led her to believe they were idiots blundering in the dark. Which left two options. Something new and unknown out there ; or something new and unknown in the resort. Abby was new. She had four powers already; who knew what others she might develop at a moment's notice? And in some way, she wasn't like the other girls. They all seemed perfectly content with life in the resort, as if they couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Which wasn't surprising since they'd all had their powers from a young age. Melissa was the first, of course; she been Norma's best friend before they'd come to stay on the island. Then there was Fi and then one by one the others turned up. They'd grown up together on the island. In a way, they were family. Abby wasn't family. She'd had a life before the island, before special powers. Snippets had come out in conversation. She'd been planning to go to college to study art or music. Or maybe just join a band. Or pack her bags and travel the world. Abby was an individual, challenging, a bit of a rebel. She was the kind of girl who could make trouble.
Norma realised with alarm that she was making a strong case against Abby and immediately stopped that train of thought. It was ridiculous, of course. Abby was the love of her life, Abby would never do anything like that. But still, if Ma and Doc suspected... she should warn Abby. Her mind called out to Abby, but Abby did not come.
Melissa's disappearance unsettled the girls. They had searched high and low and found nothing. Now there was nothing that they could do but sit and wait, speculate and worry. There was a danger that they would whip themselves into a panic. Ma was eager to avoid panic and decided that the best way to do this was to keep the girls busy. Fi was easy - she was dispatched back out to the oceans to search for Melissa's body, in ever widening circles. The others however... Over the years, Ma had received requests for help from ordinary citizens. These usually involved mundane matters to do with cheating partners or unscrupulous money lenders and Ma had politely declined, suggesting they employ the services of a private investigator. Nonetheless, requests continued to come in and by lucky chance they had a few that were still awaiting a reply.
Ma called the girls in to a meeting. "I know you're all concerned about what happened to Melissa. Rest assured that we are doing everything we can to investigate that, and if there is any way that any one of you can help, I promise I will ask you. In the meantime, we have missions to perform." Ma handed out several manilla folders. "I realise that these are not our usual fare, but, nonetheless, these are citizens who need our help and are willing to pay handsomely for it. I trust you to give them your fullest attention."
She dismissed them all, except Abby, who she called to one side. "I'm sorry Abby, but you're not mission ready yet." she said in her most authoritative tone. "You should continue with your training. For now, please join me for lunch. I want to talk with you about your relationship with Norma."
"You did what ?" Doc asked incredulously.
"Sent them out on missions." Ma responded evenly.
"And what happens if one of them suddenly vanishes?"
"It's a chance I had to take. Most of them are low level operations, barely requiring any special powers, so hopefully... Anyway, what choice did I have? If I'd locked down the island-"
"I know, panic and possible mayhem. But if someone else does disappear mid-mission, how will we pinpoint the time and the exact situation?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"She's resting" Ma smiled wryly. "I fed her enough tranquilliser to knock out a herd of horses for several days. So you have approximately that long to work out what's happening, and how to prevent it happening again. I take it you have news."
For two days Doc had played and re-played Norma's recent journal recordings and bio-data and finally found something potentially significant. He showed them to Ma. "These entries; six separate references to Melissa in the space of a few days: Melissa is spending a lot of time with Abby; Norma is concerned that Melissa might be overworked; Norma isn't sure how much more Melissa has to teach Abby; she thinks that perhaps Melissa might enjoy some time off. I didn't pay much attention to them at first, because Norma was betraying no particular emotion and her words seemed to suggest no more than a simple concern for her friend. But when you mentioned the possibility that Norma might be hiding things from us, I went back to study the bio-data. There, at the same time frames: strong emotions."
"Jealousy, resentment, anger" Ma interjected.
""Exactly," Doc nodded. "So it occurred to me that Norma might have good reason to want Melissa gone. And here, in the deep brain scan, intensive activity; the patterns are exactly the same as we have seen before. Except there is no apparent trigger point..."
"Because shortly after that Norma began sneaking out and we have huge gaps in our data." Ma finished. She had allowed Norma that little bit of freedom. What else could she or should she have done?
"Precisely." Doc looked pointedly at Ma.
"You've decided to let me out then," Norma said sarcastically. For two days she'd been locked in the Lab. She'd called for Abby but Abby had not come. A prison is a place where they won't let you leave, Abby'd said. She was a prisoner. Now, suddenly, 'lunch with Ma'. Business as usual? Hardly.
"I'm sorry, dear, we had no choice."
"Of course you didn't. Where's Abby?"
"She's on a mission."
Norma had never before seen such a pathetically transparent lie. "You've got her drugged up and locked down somewhere haven't you? You think she did it."
"Not at all-"
"I can't entirely blame you. When I first thought about it, she was a logical choice. Except that we were together all night. And even if she'd developed her telekinetic powers to work beyond the line of sight - which she hasn't but yes, I'd thought of that - I'm pretty sure that all her attention was focussed on me. Do you want the gory details?" Norma's voice was harsh.
"I assure you, Norma, we don't think it's Abby."
"Then where is she. Why didn't she come-" Norma swallowed her words. There was a sad, kindly, gentle expression on Ma's face, a look she almost never wore; the look of a mother who felt sorry for her daughter.
She had called for Abby and Abby had not come. Because Abby was gone. No! It couldn't be. It was impossible. It wasn't fair. Abby was everything to her. Nothing else mattered; not Ma or Doc, not her friends and their life on the island, not the missions, not even her getting a power. Only Abby and Abby was gone. She would give anything, everything to make it not so.
(In the lab, Norma's real-time deep brain scans were fluctuating off the chart. Doc had never seen the like; it was as if multiple trigger points were going off at once.)
"What's wrong dear?" Ma was asking. She still looked kindly and concerned.
"Nothing." Norma shrugged. "What did you want to talk to me about?" Her voice was flat.
"Melissa..." Ma began cautiously. "I wondered... were you jealous of her? Jealous of the time she was spending with Abby."
Norma shrugged again, and said nothing.
"Please dear, I know you think this is an invasion of your privacy and you don't want to talk about your feelings, but it's very important. You mentioned several times in your journal how much time they were spending together; you even suggested to Doc and me-"
"Yes, I was jealous, so what? What's that got to do with anything?"
"Tell me honestly, Norma, did you ever, at any time, wish that Melissa wasn't around?"
"What?! Why... You think I did it? That's crazy. You're crazy! OK, so maybe there were a couple of times when I was a bit annoyed and I thought it would be better if Melissa wasn't here, but, what, you think I waved a magic wand and made her disappear? And even if I had a magic wand, I wouldn't have done it, because Melissa's still my friend even when I get pissed off with her. Also, it stands to reason that the person or thing that got Melissa also disappeared Abby and there's no way I'd want to do that."
"Abby? Abby's not gone, dear."
"Not gone?" Relief.
(In the Lab, Doc watched Norma's brain activity subside to normal levels.)
Then puzzlement. And suspicion. "Then where is she? I've been calling for her, but she never came."
At that moment Abby was slowly coming round. She felt groggy. Heavy duty tranqs, she could feel them in her system. She heard Norma's mind, very faint, calling for her. Norma was in trouble. But in this state, Abby was useless; she needed a boost. During her time on the island, she'd had several routine visits to the medical centre; they kept all sorts of drugs in there. She'd been a street kid and a thief; old habits die hard and it's much easier to steal stuff when you've got the power of telekinesis. She emptied out her underwear drawer and rummaged through the assortment of phials and syringes. Thankfully, something useful: adrenaline. A few minutes later she was buzzing.
She opened her mind and listened. The resort was strangely empty of voices. No girls, none of the staff, except for Bernard and Roman. Just Ma and Doc, who were both really worried, and Norma who was sad and scared and angry and calling for her. Listening intently, she followed the voices to the dining room. Doc had just arrived there, he had some important news about Norma; bad news. Ma had a dilemma... about something she should or should not tell Norma... about Norma's special power. Abby stood silent outside the door while her mind walked inside and listened .
"I'm sorry to interrupt, Ma, but this is important." She's done it again, multiple triggers, but triggering what? "What were you and Norma discussing just now?"
"We were talking about Melissa. It seems Norma was jealous of her." There's no way I can pinpoint the exact trigger moment, but really do we need to? We both know Norma's responsible. And she knows we suspect her. We can't keep it from her much longer, Norma has a right to know the truth. she's old enough to handle it.
"Ma thinks I made Melissa vanish, what d'you have to say about that , Doc." Why would she say something like that? Does she think I'm a murderer? Why would she think that? Pompous old bastard. I hate you. Keeping me prisoner. And what have you done with Abby. Abby!
They were just fragments of thought; Abby couldn't make sense of it. She would have to look deeper. Each one in turn, she walked into their minds.
Doc looked at Ma; Ma looked at Doc. The silence was disquieting. Finally Ma said "My daughter deserves to know the truth."
Doc sighed. So be it. "Your mother is correct, Norma. It was you who caused Melissa to disappear."
"You too? How? Why? Why would you say that?"
"I say it because it's the truth, supported by all the evidence; the journals, the bio-data and the brain scans. Why you did it; I think that's straightforward: Melissa was spending too much time with Abby, you wanted her out of the picture. As to the how, that is both very simple and extremely complicated. In essence, you thought her out of existence."
"That's ridiculous! How could I do that? I can't- Is this a power? A special power?" Norma was aghast. "All those years of research and this is what you come up with: the power to make someone disappear? That's cruel and horrible. What, did you want to turn me into an assassin? And why didn't you tell me? Why did you let me do that to Melissa?"
"It's not like that, Norma. We didn't know, until it had happened. More importantly, you didn't know either." There was anguish in Ma's voice.
"Didn't know. What do you mean?"
Doc continued the explanation. "We all, every one of us, wish for things, many times a day. Idle thoughts, good and bad - wouldn't it be nice if this, I'd love to have that, I wish something or other would or wouldn't happen - this is normal. But with you, beneath those throwaway surface thoughts your subconscious mind is working hard, much harder than any other human. Every so often, circumstances converge - and the 'why' of this is what we still do not fully understand; perhaps when you want something badly enough, or you become completely obsessed by something or are experiencing strong emotions - your subconscious mind goes into overdrive, we call it a trigger, and what you think about becomes real."
Doc made it sound so scientific and plausible, it might almost be true, but... "You're talking as if this has happened before!"
"It has." Doc nodded.
"All your life."
"You're lying, that couldn't be true. I've never had any special powers before. That's why you've been studying me-" To study my power and use it? Please, no! "No. I would never wish for anyone to die, or not to exist. It's murder; I'm not a murderer. And anyway, you're telling me all I have to do is want something badly enough' and it happens? Well I've been wishing myself out of the Lab, out of this prison for days and yet here I am!"
"Please calm down, Norma. Nobody is accusing you of being a murderer. As I said, you are, have always been entirely unaware of what you were doing. And this is the first time you have wished somebody out of existence. In the past, it has been quite the opposite."
"I don't understand," Norma said even as she was beginning to. "What do you mean?"
Spoken words and hidden thoughts; outside the room, Abby had heard enough. She opened the door and stepped in. "He means me," she said, dully, "and Melissa, and Fi, Sue, Ellen, Thea; all your friends with superpowers. We're not real; you made us up."
Norma refused to believe it, even though some part of her suspected it was true. "But you're real people, how could I make you up?"
"Damn good imagination, is how. I suppose I should be grateful."
"It's more complicated than that." Doc interjected, wanting to explain. "We still don't fully understand the subcon-"
"Yeah, yeah, Doc; subconscious mind, deep brainwaves, all that scientific shit. The bottom line is, Norma here was never normal. She was a lonely only child who read too much and thought to much and conjured herself up a friend. Most people's imaginary friends stay imaginary."
Norma was upset. She looked pleadingly at her mother. "Is it true?"
"It's all true dear. It started when you were six. Do you remember how badly you wanted a monkey for a pet - not a cat or a dog, a monkey; on and on you went for weeks - and how pleased you were when I gave in and got you one? I never got you a monkey. Melissa, the original Melissa, was real; your best friend in kindergarten. Then we moved and you missed her so much, wouldn't stop talking about her. And I came home from work to find her sitting at our kitchen table - 'she's come to stay for a while' you told me happily. So I rang her parents to discover that she was tucked up in bed a thousand miles away. Meanwhile your version of Melissa was reading minds, because you had been obsessed with some comic book hero telepath. Thank goodness I worked in Intelligence and had contacts, people I could trust; otherwise we might all have found ourselves trapped in the bowels of a Division X base. Fi; I admit, Fi was partially my doing. When we first came to the resort we needed more than just Melissa's conjurings to clear the place. I gave you that book about the legendary mermaids and you, of course, became completely obsessed-"
"Stop it! I don't want to hear any more. All my life I wanted to be a superhero. All my friends were and I felt so left out, Norma normal, and you never told me -" The full truth sank in. Norma's face and voice were bitter with accusation. "You let me believe I was normal! You figured as long as I kept wanting a power, thinking about it, I might make you more superheroes to run your damn missions! Where are the others? Do they know? When I tell them-"
"They're gone," Abby interrupted.
"All of them? No! When? Why?"
"Why not? You made 'em, you got rid of 'em. Didn't need them any more. Not that it matters now, Doc, but since you're obsessed with figuring out her trigger points I can tell you exactly when it was. Earlier today, when you were noticing all those brain spikes, Norma here was thinking she would give up anything and everything to have me back. She thought I was gone, you see. So bye, bye, in the blink of an eye."
"No! Please, no! It's not my fault, I had no idea." Norma was crying now. "Please Abby, I love you."
"Makes no difference. They weren't real. I suppose I should be flattered, really, that you would sacrifice them all for me. Your dream girl." Abby laughed harshly. Except that, since I'm not real, I have to wonder who I am and if anything I think or feel is real, or did you make me up just to love you?" Abby's face was a mix of pain and fury; her hands were burning red and she was hovering a couple of feet off the floor.
"If you will let me explain!" Doc barked, trying to bring a modicum of calm rationality to the proceedings. "Norma has never consciously, intentionally created anybody. On each occasion it has been a chance convergence - I call it chance because that is the part we still do not fully understand, what triggers a convergence, but I digress - a convergence of her conscious and sub conscious thoughts. In your case Abby, Norma did not think 'I will make a beautiful super-girl with blond hair, green eyes and a tattoo, this and that power and she will come from the city and she will be called Abby and she will love only me'. No, that is not possible. Rather it was several disconnected thoughts; perhaps 'I wish I could meet someone' and 'which combination of superpowers would be most useful'. Her subconscious mind filled in the gaps using all the information at its disposal, and came up with you. Of course there are some parts of you that might be directly attributable to Norma's conscious mind; she is attracted to tall girls, and so you are tall, for example; but there was no template. Norma's subconscious simply picked out random attributes based on all the things Norma has ever read, seen, heard or experienced. And now that you are here you are real, you are not a facsimile or an avatar. Real blood pumps through your veins and your brain patterns are fully human. Your thoughts and actions are your own and like any child, the moment you appeared, you interacted with the world and that changed you in ways that Norma could not possibly have imagined."
During the Doc's explanation Abby's anger abated; she was back on the floor and her hands had stopped threatening fire. Norma was in her mind crying in anguish, thinking They were real, and I killed them. Why? No! and wishing for it all to just stop. Abby felt suddenly tired and sad and wanted it all to stop too. The four of them stood in silence and wondered what to do next.
There was a knock on the door; it was the butler. I'm sorry to interrupt, he said, in his most proper English accent, but there is an urgent telephone call for you Ms Jones; somebody requiring our help."
"Tell them we'll ring back later, please, Bernard."
"I would prefer not to ma'am. It is a mother and father and they are both very distressed. Their daughter is a journalist and has been captured by some rather nasty and violent men out in the East. The government will not find the time to act on their behalf and they have been refused by several other private agencies. We are their last resort. It would be a shame to disappoint them."
Bernard, kindly Bernard, the wise old butler, was looking straight at Abby as he spoke.
"What shall I tell them, Miss?"
It was lonely on the island, the four of them - Ma, Doc, Norma and Abby - rattling around the huge resort with a skeleton staff - Roman, Bernard and two general handymen - keeping the place clean, tidy and in working order. Norma and Abby had stopped being lovers on that day ; despite the fact that each of them still harboured desires, somehow it just felt wrong. In the months that came after they had slowly become reconciled into an uneasy but growing friendship that was nurtured in the rare moments when time permitted. These days, Abby was all about the missions; helping people, she said, was the only thing worth a damn, the only thing that made her feel real.
Ma spent long hours in the office dealing with clients, shuffling and rearranging Abby's hectic timetable. They were getting many more clients, ever since Abby insisted that they take on more work for regular citizens - "real people who need our help and not that government crap!"
Norma spent most of her time in her swimming cap, in the Lab with Doc, monitoring her mind. She would stare at the rolling computer screens while interrogating her private thoughts, every moment fearing that one of those ominous over-active spikes would appear on her brain scans; always relieved when the readings showed up normal. Although it was an efficient way of keeping a journal, she'd never really liked talking to a camera; instead she kept copious hand written notes. One day, shuffling through reams of paper, she'd come across a faded old brochure for the holiday resort; she stuck the pictures on the wall to brighten up the place. The thought of paradise always amused her.
Today someone new was coming to the island. Norma didn't know whether to be pleased or terrified. Steve the pilot was bringing her in. It was an old spy buddy of Steve's from out West who had found the girl on the edge of the desert, half dead but still somehow crawling on. She said she'd escaped from a 'horrible place', which Steve's buddy took to be the Division X base, and that she was 'trying to get to Paradise'. It was a place she'd heard about, an island, where she'd be safe. She had jet black eyes and said she could 'see through people' which Steve presumed meant she had X ray vision, though he was no expert.
Waiting on the landing pad, Norma flicked through her conscious thoughts of the last few days and could find nothing possibly relevant. When she got back to lab she would be sure to thoroughly check all the data; Doc would have already done it, but still, he might have missed something...
The 'copter had landed and Steve was helping a young woman down the steps. She bore all the signs of Division X abuse - shaved head, electrode marks, bruises, cuts and the eyes darting around in terror - and still, she was pretty. Relief flooded her face as she saw Norma (minus swimming cap; for appearance's sake she could risk losing a few minutes of data) and the island spreading out before her. For a moment Norma thought she might fall to her knees and kiss the grass. Instead she just said, very faintly, in a tone of wonder, "It's beautiful."
"I suppose it is," Norma smiled. "My name's Norma. Welcome to Paradise."