"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."
"Spoiled it?" she asked leaning back so she could stare at me with her warm brown eyes.
I let her become aware of my jack. Most of the time, I made it feel like I was coming in through the base of someone's skull. It was an illusion but a useful one.
Stephanie spread her feet apart as her mind told her I was getting inside through her pussy. She closed her eyes as I drove the tentacle up her spine and into her brain.
"Arms, dear," I said gesturing upwards with my fingers and taking a step back. Her eyes opened, and she looked at her arms as they followed my instruction. Her pupils widened, and her nostrils flared as she struggled to keep her arms in position. I let her think she was making it a fight to heighten the sensation of being trapped by my power.
With arms akimbo, her brow furrowed as she continued to send commands that went unheeded. I waited until drops of sweat formed on her forehead before stepping forward again.
"Let me take a guess about your experience," I said putting my hand on the top button of her blouse. "Telepathics said come, and you came."
I undid the button and the one below. I took a step back and held my hands up for her to see. She felt the third button being worked on by unseen hands; she looked around to see who was touching her, while I blocked the awareness of her hands doing my work.
"That's so easy though," I said bringing her focus back to me. "Come."
Her knees would have buckled except an instant before her pussy tried to grasp the link that only existed in her mind I slammed a wall between her and the pleasure.
"No!" she whimpered, fighting to push past the barrier. She thought she was moving but stood frozen.
"Then there's Pheromonics," I said walking behind her to undo her skirt. "But at their best, it's only your body."
I stood in front of her and tilted my head.
"Like this," I said. Every nerve awakened outward from her spine, each screaming signals of sensation at her mind. The wave spread upward, downward, and around her torso until it felt to her like she was covered in a silky web of physical bliss. I opened her mind until it could process all the pleasure I was giving her.
"But that's just physical," I said. "Your body feels to the point of need, but it's not really you. The Pheromonic isn't really in control, are they?"
I pushed her up until she got to a point that felt twice as high as the one my order to come had taken her to and cut it off again. There were tears in her eyes when she looked at me.
"And Symbolics are so..." I said. "They make you feel like one second you're going about your business and the next you're standing in your bra, panties, and heels. Like that."
She tore her eyes from me and looked down. She was standing in her bra, panties, and heels. The experience of her entire body being bathed in feeling had been in her mind; in the meantime, I directed her hands to take her down to essentials.
"Empathics are my personal favorite," I told her. "You feel what they feel; they feel what you feel. It's like sharing, but YOU don't want to share, do you?"
Her eyes bored into me. She bit her lip to the point of drawing blood. I smiled before walking behind her. I put my hand on her bra, making sure I did not touch skin. I undid the hooks and walked back in front of her. I pulled on the front of the bra, and her arms moved forward to allow me to slip it off.
Stephanie's eyes widened as she witnessed counter-evidence to what her mind told her, that her arms were still akimbo.
"What's the point of being with a Positive, if they don't take?" I asked. She bit her lip again.
"Take the panties off," I ordered. Her eyes turned fearful again as her mind said she was standing still, but her hands followed my instruction.
"You've been playing with Trainees because they're safe," I said. Stephanie shook her head hard; I smiled and shook mine.
"When I'm done, Stephanie," I said. "A part of you is going to stay with me."
I inserted a second link, making it feel like a ruthless invasion coming in through her anus, an invasion of power and pleasure. I lifted her mind with my holds on it; through the ceiling, over the building, up into the sky until there was only emptiness, the warming light of the sun, and my jacks into her. I held her there, letting the sun pleasure her with its warmth, letting her get hotter and hotter until she thought it would be over with the next degree of heat.
I dropped her mind back into its body.
"You've been playing with children getting their first taste of freedom and power, Stephanie," I told her. "I grew up in the Institute; my lessons about power were taught by the Director."
I stared into her eyes for a minute allowing her to catch her breath.
"Goodbye, Stephanie," I said.
"You're not going to be same person anymore," I said and dropped her into the Abyss. Stephanie screamed as I closed my links into a loop taking away the sensation of anything except her mind. From her perspective, she floated in a sea of nothing but herself. I pushed her mind into an endless cycle of increasing pleasure, but without the connection to her body it could only grow. I waited fifteen minutes, which to Stephanie felt like several eternities.
"Are you ready, Stephanie?" I asked through my links, the voice of God cutting through the darkness. She was in no state to put together a coherent answer; I dropped her awareness back into her body.
Stephanie collapsed as her body received the totality of what her mind had experienced. Stephanie convulsed and spit up as her mind stretched into insanity to process an eternity of pleasure.
The only Trainee, other than Elijah, who was not puking or lying unconscious walked forward and put her hand on Stephanie. She pulled the hand back immediately and curled into a ball as the backwash of Stephanie's experience took her under.
"The Trainees tried to break your hold on Stephanie," Albert said coming to stand close to me. "What were they thinking?"
"The Director had reasons for choosing me to put his assistant out," I replied.
"We're been losing control of the Trainees?" Albert whispered in shocked tones.
I turned to look a Lianne.
"People are conspiring to break our hold," I said.
"The New Christian Church?!?"
"Among others," I said. "The Trainees needed to have the consequences of becoming an Operative case file illustrated, especially one of mine."
"Ten Trainees," Albert said looking around. "They could have broken anybody's hold, except yours or David's."
He looked at Elijah, who was studying the fallen Trainees, and then his eyes moved to the Trainee who had touched Stephanie.
"At least, our future Operative and the new Healer weren't a part of it," he sighed.
"The Healer has the advantage of being in daily contact with David," I said. I turned and walked towards Elijah.
"You want to be an Operative?" I asked him. He nodded confidently.
"Stephanie is mine," I said. "If by the time you graduate, you can make her hesitate to say my name when I ask who she belongs to, without giving her a command to be yours, I will sponsor and mentor you."
"When is she going to stop having that orgasm?" he said looking at the still twitching Stephanie.
"Soon," I said.
"Operatives," the Director said. "Join me."
Outside the Trainee building, the Director turned his gravchair towards the Institute laboratories. Robert and Sheila walked to the side engrossed in conversation. Lianne tried to make it seem like she was not watching me, while Albert watched her.
We entered a conference room where an Institute technician waited for us.
"Sit down," the Director told us. "This is Jeremy, a population tech; he has some findings I want investigated."
"Operatives," Jeremy said nervously when we took our seats. "What do you know about Geddonists?"
"What is there to know about a suicide cult?" Lianne asked sarcastically.
"Enough, Lianne," the Director said. "Jeremy, frame the issue and your findings. The Operatives have time to hear it all."
"Yes, Sir," the pop-tech replied, feeling more comfortable with instructions to follow. "Geddonists believe Armageddon has arrived or more generally that the human race's time on Earth has come to an end. They're not a suicide cult, so much as a 'lie down and die' cult."
"Lie down and die," Robert snarfed. "Is that the technical term?"
"Robert, this is important," the Director admonished.
"Yes, sir," Robert replied sitting up straighter. The Director did not use the word important often.
"Geddonist can register with the government, and while it is not codified into law, it is Institute policy that Positives avoid them," the pop-tech continued. "For their safety and to make it easier for the Institute to stay clear of them, Geddonists form enclaves: neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, a specific building in towns, etc. Large enclaves are rare but not unexpected so the county of Summertown being populated mostly by registered Geddonists did not raise an alarm."
"An entire county?" Sheila asked.
"We've had towns with one hundred percent Geddonist registration," the pop-tech said. "The psych-techs believe the behavior is a form of mental disease, a contagious one. The solution has been to isolate the outbreak before it spreads out of control. Summertown was isolated and if worse had come to worse they would have been allowed to die out."
"So what makes Summertown different?" Robert asked.
"There are two unexplained phenomena," the pop-tech said. "First, the presence of a New Christian Cathedral and two priests."
"The Church sends missionaries to Geddonist enclaves," Lianne said. "We've converted many who lost their faith."
"Yes, Operative," the pop-tech replied. "But Geddonism took a seat in Summertown seventeen years ago, and has continued to grow rather than recede. The Church has kept the same two priests in place the entire time, and the Cathedral was built after the county achieved nearly ninety percent Geddonist registration."
He paused to see if Lianne would say anything.
"In every other case where Geddonism has continued to spread like this, the Church has changed the priests that could not stop the disease and increased the number of missionaries," he finished.
"What does New Christian Policy have to do with the Institute?" Albert asked before Lianne could respond.
"Nothing if it were the only strange thing about the county," the pop-tech admitted. "The real problem is Summertown's population statistics."
He projected a population graph on to the wall with a curve none of us had seen outside of a classroom.
"The Positive mutation and our requirement of it to consummate human mating was unquestionably the worst of the Event effects but not the only one. A greater number of miscarriages and a climb in infant mortality made the situation worse," the pop-tech said looking at his graph. "The reaction to Positives was best in this country due to the Director's ceaseless efforts to convince the people in power of the Event's reality, but there are nations that killed off most of their Zero-Gen Positives. Worldwide we haven't come close to achieving a population growth of zero since the Event."
He stared at the graph as if it were a map to the Holy Grail, which population G-Zero was to pop-techs.
"We've discovered the higher rate of miscarriages was only among the two Zero Generations, people alive during the Event and those born of people alive during the Event. The Institute's genetic testing for viability between matched males and females has brought down the infant mortality rate, though it is more likely counseling is what really turned the corner in that area."
Geddonism was not the only form of mental despair people suffered after the Event.
"The truth is even in areas most accepting of the Institute, we have yet to reach G-Zero," he said turning back to us. "Therefore a Geddonist enclave of this size having a population growth of Zero-Plus is an anomaly of monumental proportions."
Even I sat up and leaned forward.
"Migration of new Geddonists to Summertown," Sheila suggested.
"People without children are ten times as likely to become Geddonists as those with children," the pop-tech said. "Summertown's expenditures on schools is growing and not receding. Those financial numbers is what brought Summertown County to my attention."
"But people with children do become Geddonists," Robert pointed out. "So it is possible, especially if the enclave is recruiting, which has been known to happen."
"The Summertown hospital recently expanded their maternity wing," the pop-tech replied. "These people have been obscuring their finances for years, but it was easy to find a host of things no other Geddonist enclave spends money on."
"Positives are far from saints," Lianne said. "A few could be using Summertown as their personal sandbox."
"The Director has assured us, it is not happening here," the pop-tech said looking over at him. The Operatives turned towards me instead.
"These people can't be this stupid!" Albert said. "Someone had to know we would notice."
"Actually, Operative, an expectation that we would not notice is reasonable. I only ran into them because of a pet project," the pop-tech said. "A Geddonist enclave is a waste of our resources."
"Geddonist enclaves were a waste of our resources," the Director said.
"Do we know what IS happening in Summertown?" Lianne asked the pop-tech.
"No, I do not; but I want an answer," the Director said turning his gravchair towards us. "No controls, Operatives; dissect the residents of Summertown County if you have to."
He turned his gravchair and glided out of the room. The pop-tech nearly ran after him when five Operatives turned towards him like we were going to start the dissections with him.
"They're angry," the Healer said.
"They have a right to be," I replied watching Robert and Sheila's gravcars seem to vibrate with emotion.
"I guess I understand the pain of the people in Summertown," she said.
"No," I said. "You understand the pain the world feels over their crime. Selfishness when everyone has sacrificed is cancer."
"Robert and Sheila are so angry," she said rubbing her temples.
"They had hope; maybe it was something in the water or anything, as long as it showed the human race was healing," I said. "They did not expect to find such a base answer in one sweep of Summertown."
Since the first Operative, Santos, our gray uniforms identified us. There were jokes among Positives and non-Positives about Operatives fucking in the uniform. It made things easier when Operatives needed to go unnoticed during investigations. No one in Summertown County thought a couple looking to buy a house was something to worry about, especially with their mental powers pushing people away from asking too many questions.
"Are you sure calling David in from the Euro-Institute wouldn't be better?" the Healer asked. "I haven't finished the training program."
"He has confidence in you," I told her. "Institute training isn't just about your power."
I watched in the mirror as Albert's gravcar came to a hard stop and turn to block the road behind us. He stepped out of the car and put his hand up. The vehicles had been following us since we entered the County; they halted as Albert's mental command gripped the drivers.
A few minutes later, our four gravcars came to a halt in front of a building. I stepped out and walked towards the front door with the Healer following me. Robert, Sheila, and Lianne fell into step at my sides with the three most powerful Symbolics at the Institute walking behind them.
There was a large crowd in front of the edifice looking like they were building up the courage to mob us. Robert hesitated in his step, and I felt the shockwave as rage fueled the power of his Scream. Everyone in the crowd grabbed their heads and shouted in pain. We walked around them until we were at the doors. Sheila turned around and waited a few seconds before layering a Scream of her own on top of Albert's. The people passed out from the Operatives' combined effort.
"Was that really necessary?" the Healer asked rubbing her arms. "Either of you could have knocked them out."
"It wouldn't have hurt as much," Robert told her while holding the door open for us.
I walked in first, people were pouring out of offices. A man stepped in front of me.
"You can't come in here!" he shouted. The other occupants screamed as my bullet entered between his eyes. I put two more bullets into his chest as I walked by.
"Stop!" Lianne ordered. The fleeing people froze in their tracks. I halted and waited for the Healer to finish walking through Lianne's statues, putting a hand on each of them.
"They've been Healed," she said in amazement. "All of them!"
"But he's a Symbolic!" Sheila protested.
"The Director has always considered Symbolics and their form of Healing our best hope," I reminded her.
"Then he knows how to Heal consciously," Robert said, "and not the way other Symbolics do it."
"Or he loves all of these people," I said. "There's been documented cases of Symbolics Healing their parents and friends so it does not have to be 'in love', just love."
The Healer closed her eyes and stretched out her arms. I felt her reaching out with her power.
"There's too many," she said opening her eyes. "Everyone in my reach has been Healed. That's more than the combined total of ALL people Institute Positives have ever Healed. One man couldn't have done this!"
"If he's powerful enough, he could," one of the Symbolics said with tears in his eyes. "He's in there, Operatives."
He pointed to doors at the end of the hallway. I walked to them with everyone a couple of steps behind me. I opened the doors and took a few steps inside.