"So where's the fire?" Sheila asked before sitting next to me in the Institute lounge.
"Shouldn't you be reducing the number of idiots in some town in the middle of nowhere?" Robert asked her with a superior smile guaranteed to get under Sheila's skin. Her work in Red Falls made her the designated liaison when a community lost its way but could still be saved. She had been working on her third town when the Director recalled us.
"All five active Operatives in the Institute at the same time," Albert said. "The last time it happened was when Jason received his grays."
"The Director called all of you in too?" Lianne asked.
"Obviously, there's something wrong," I told them. "There's no point in talking about it until the Director decides to tell us."
"You're not even a little curious?" Robert needled me with.
"Someday Robert, you're actually going to piss Jason off," Sheila told him. "If the prospect weren't so terrifying, I'd love to be there."
"Jason understands his duties," Lianne said staring at Robert. "Unlike some people!"
Robert winked and blew her a kiss. Sheila and Albert looked away, pressing their lips together.
"Each of us has our own style," Sheila said to Lianne.
"I heard you asked the Director if he had anything brighter when he gave you the grays," Albert said to Sheila, trying to forestall an argument between the youngest and oldest Operatives.
"Gray is so gloomy," Sheila said patting her uniform. "I did not ask the Director if he had something brighter, I merely suggested yellow might make us seem less goonish."
"I like my Operatives to look like goons, Sheila," the Director said, gliding up to us. "If they look like goons, they don't have to act like goons quite as often."
"Where is everyone?" Sheila asked. The Director raised an eyebrow at her.
"I know the presence of five Operatives can empty entire counties, but this is the Institute, Director," she said quickly.
"Jason was practicing his 'I'm the Prince of Broodiness' act, Sheila," Robert said. "Positives positively flee in fear for their lives whenever he does that."
"Why are we here, sir?" I asked the Director.
"There's a situation, which we'll get to later," he said turning his chair around. "First order of business is my personal assistant, Stephanie. She's playing with the trainees again."
The other Operatives groaned as we stood up to follow him; Stephanie managed to get kidnapped a few times a year.
"Whose turn is it?" Sheila asked.
"I saved the trainees last time!" Robert said immediately.
"The girl has inhuman stamina when she gets going," Albert sighed. "She can fuck two Positives unconsciousness and look around for a third to keep the orgy going. I wonder if new trainees think chasing her around a bedroom is a graduation requirement."
"There's a ribbon," Sheila told him. "Blue if you managed to catch her; her favorite in each training class gets a red ribbon."
"There aren't that many trainees a year," Albert said.
"There's only been one Trainee who didn't get a ribbon since she started working for the Director," Sheila said. Everyone glanced at me.
"Sometimes, son," the Director sighed. "You make me wonder."
There was no point in saying anything.
"So whose turn is it?" Robert asked.
Stephanie knew more about the Institute than a majority of Positives and far more than any politician or New Christian priest. Like the Director's assistants before her, she became the most valuable source of information about the Institute for outsiders. Her ventures into the trainee dorm non-coincidently corresponded with one of the Director's private meetings, which must have been frustrating for anyone using her. Everyone involved knew what was going on, especially Stephanie, but the Director was adroit at making people play the game by his rules. Anyone complaining about the system discovered the hard way that Stephanie only gossiped into a list of approved ears; getting cutoff had ended several political careers.
We walked into the trainee lounge to find Stephanie sitting in the middle with a number of trainees lining the walls. Four trainees, each at a cardinal direction to Stephanie, stood a few feet from her.
"What are they doing?" Lianne asked curiously. She was the oldest Operative and had tested Positive when the Institute was still willing to use mentors rather than bring all Positives to the Institute for training.
"It's a competition," Sheila said staring at Stephanie.
"Four Positives, one of each type, use their power to wrestle for control of someone," Robert said.
"Why do they bother?" Lianne asked. "A Telepathic shouldn't lose if he has enough brains and power to get a mental command through."
"The other types don't usually win, especially with someone of Operative potential like Elijah," Robert said looking at the Telepathic Trainee fighting for control of Stephanie. "But a very good Symbolic can neutralize Telepathic commands before they become fully inscribed."
"Telepathics lose often enough to keep things interesting for the others," Sheila added.
"Elijah's good," Robert said. "He wants to be an Operative so he doesn't like to lose these and hasn't yet."
"He'll lose," I said.
"To who?" Sheila asked. "None of those three have enough power."
"The Symbolic understands her power better than Elijah understands his," I said staring at Stephanie. "She's playing for a stalemate, which makes it easier to stop his commands from inscribing on Stephanie. The Empathic is the youngest and has the least amount of control; it's a destabilizing combination. With Elijah having to deal with those two, Lucinda will win."
"You brought the Pheromonic in, Jason," Robert pointed out. "You're biased."
"They set Elijah up!" Sheila said studying Stephanie.
"Given time a Pheromonic hold is as unbreakable as a Telepathic command, probably more so," I reminded them. "You can only put the subject down and keep them down until their system purges the pheromones."
"Why would those three work together?" Lianne asked.
"They must have bet on the outcome," Robert told her. "No one will bet against a Telepathic; but if they set Elijah up, and he doesn't know it..."
"He has individual bets with the girls and thinks none of them know about the others," I said.
"He didn't!" Sheila exclaimed. Her eyes snapped at Elijah with annoyance.
"If he wins, he gets the girls until he graduates from the training program," I said. "If he loses..."
"They get him," Albert said shaking his head. "The fucking idiot!"
"Positive on Positive sex, that's disgusting!" Lianne said. "And willing sex slaves! The perverts!"
Lianne had New Christian doctrinal views on the role of Positives and their interaction with others.
"He had to have set it up so the girls wouldn't find out," Robert protested, "or he's not Operative potential."
"Elijah needed a lesson in humility," the Director said. "I asked Jason to take care of it."
"Still..." Sheila started to say.
"Elijah thinks the girls hate each other," I said. "They've spent the last three months baiting him into the bet."
Robert, Albert, and Sheila broke out laughing.
"At least, we know he respects the minds of others if he didn't look to make sure his plan was working," Sheila said nodding towards Elijah with respect.
"He would have gotten the surprise of his life," I said, "and ended his chances of becoming an Operative."
"If you didn't kill him for it," Albert said seriously. I shrugged at the obvious.
"Elijah believes his power makes him special," the Director said.
He did not have to continue; an Operative's rite of passage was killing or dying at the hands of a Positive who thought they were special.
"That's surprising," Albert said when Elijah took a step back and nodded at his opponents.
"He can still win," Lianne said.
"He could," Sheila said.
"But it's not just about Stephanie," Robert said smiling. "He could win, but the ladies beat him. A man takes his lumps."
Sheila and Robert shared a warm smile. With only ten percent of Positives being Telepathics, few were in the same Training class. Sheila and Robert entered the Institute the same day; the chaos they caused made most pray we were never so lucky again.
Stephanie let out a frustrated gasp as the other competitors released her. She looked around to see what had happened. Her kidnappings usually ended much differently.
"I guess there's no one to rescue this time," Robert said.
"Jason," the Director said loudly. "Show the trainees how it's done."
Everyone in the room turned towards me; Stephanie's eyes lit up, and she leaned in my direction. I nodded to the Director and walked up to Stephanie.
"Stand up," I told her.
"Make me," she purred.
"The Director wants privacy for a few hours, darling," I replied. "You need to go to sleep. We can do it your way or mine. Which would you prefer?"
She got on her feet so fast the chair tumbled behind her.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "My way is quicker."
"And miss the opportunity to see the Director's Bastard in action," she said. "I've got a lot of experience with Positives, Jason. Can you live up to my expectations?"
I got close enough for her to feel the warmth of my breath against her cheek.
"Do you know why I never touched you, Stephanie?" I asked. She would have touched my skin with hers as she shook her head except I moved away. "Because for you, this is a game, and I would have spoiled it."
.... There is more of this story ...