27: A Compass

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Jared was staring down at her, his brow wrinkled in dismay. She had never expected to open her eyes again, and she was looking into his. It was almost funny. He helped her sit up; the weakness she had felt had disappeared, though the pounding in her head was, if anything, worse.

Acel had an arm around Sephine, who was weeping openly.

"Greta?" Ever asked. Sephine shook her head.

"I felt her go," said the blonde woman, her eyes wet and wide. "I felt her go. She didn't even have a chance to say anything."

Ever got unsteadily to her feet and squeezed Sephine's shoulder, certain she should be feeling something more than what she was. Greta had undoubtedly saved her life. She should feel sad, or at least grateful. She felt only resigned determination. She'd come this far; the way was open. She couldn't stop to think of one old woman. She added Greta's name to the long list of people she would cry for later. If later ever came.

Lia had reformed at the center of the room, her expression as placid as ever. The ghost-woman managed to convey both patience and expectation, as if she would suffer Ever's human need to interact with her friends for as long as necessary, but clearly didn't think it relevant to the task at hand.

"Are you...you again?" Ever asked. She couldn't keep a bit of resentment out of her voice; they were putting so much trust in this thing, and it couldn't even defend itself?

"My systems encountered unexpected interference," Lia explained, as if it should be perfectly obvious. "I am unable to identify the source, though my systems are now beginning to identify several patterns in the data stream consistent with recorded neurological activity in your own cerebrum."

"What?"

"The intruder is likely another human with a mutation similar to yours. This person's ability to infiltrate my systems remotely is...unprecedented. A complete log of the incident has been added to the device for further analysis by my central node."

"Device?" said Rolan. Ever paid no attention.

"I know who it was. It wasn't unidentified. It was Azariah Thayne," said Ever, impatiently. "Who is he?" She didn't know why she expected Lia to have an answer, only that she was tired and hurt and anger and she wanted someone to have an answer.

"He appears to be a man. Nothing more."

"I'd say he's a little more than just a man," said Jared, behind her.

"Couldn't you see him?" Ever asked. "He took over your...your body."

"His ability to project a holographic image into this simulation is, as previously stated, unprecedented. But my systems were blocked from doing more than perceiving it at the time."

Ever stayed silent for a moment. There were so many questions she could ask—though if she were honest with herself, they were slipping away from her with each passing second.

"But we're safe, for now?" she asked.

"This system is once again secure," said Lia, "and improvised firewalls have been established to counteract the intrusion should further interference occur."

"Then show me what I'm here to see."

* * *

It began when she touched the device, a ball of curious workmanship ensconced in the top of a plain pedestal in an adjacent room. She touched it and saw the featureless gray void, but without the corruptive presence of Thayne.

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