1.2 The Swift Killer

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Thomas waited impatiently for his wheelchair to touch the ground. The mystery of his birth mother had troubled him all his life. Had she abandoned him out of cruelty, or kindness? Surely she could have opted for an abortion. Instead, she'd granted him a chance to survive, wrapping him in a meager dish towel, as if that could protect her newborn infant from subzero temperatures. Maybe someone had forced her to dump him in the woods. Maybe, after twelve years, she was free to finally meet her son.

"Thomas, wait." Margo held his wheelchair, preventing him from moving forward. "Let me talk to her first."

The blond woman approached with a confident stride. She looked like him, she really did. Except for her eyes. Instead of pale violet, her eyes were a glacial blue.

Concern radiated from Cherise like rays of sunlight. She stepped in front of Thomas, to shield him, and Margo did the same.

"Ma'am?" Margo said. "Excuse me, but this is a private residence. Can I help you?"

Frustrated, Thomas maneuvered his wheelchair around them, bumping over gravel. He got close enough to read the woman's mind . . . but her mind was unlike any he had ever encountered. Boldly, defiantly, unlike any mind on Earth. Cherise and Margo had moods. Everyone in the world had moods, emotions, erupting like volcanoes or just lapping like ocean waves, but this woman felt dead inside. Her mind was as smooth as glass.

You.

Hundreds of distant individuals seemed to whisper inside the woman's mind, overlapping and echoing each other. Their wordless attention pointed at Thomas like a finger. Thousands more joined them, then tens of thousands. The unseen audience kept growing, far too many for Thomas to keep track of. Their combined attention felt as powerful as a god's thunderous decree.

MIND READER (YOU).

Thomas shrank back in his wheelchair. An audience larger than the population of North America seemed to be sizing him up, all peering through her gaze.

"You've caught a lot of attention," the blond woman said casually. Her pleasant voice might as well be a recording. There was no personality behind it. No emotion, no intention, no humanity. She was well-groomed, like a newscaster, but her pretty smile had nothing to do with the whispery horde inside her mind.

For the first time in years, Thomas felt like the child that everyone mistook him for. His own ignorance was staggering. He had given up searching for other telepaths. All his life, he had been alone in his own mind . . . but other telepaths existed, and they were legion. Millions. Billions. He had never been so profoundly wrong about anything before.

"Where are you?" he whispered.

Faraway minds chorused within the woman. Poor (lost) (deprived) lonely one. Their thoughts overlapped faster than lightening, collecting into an angelic crescendo. Join Us.

Thomas was distantly aware that his jaw was hanging open. All those distant telepaths seemed genderless, lacking names, as if they were mere reflections of people. They weren't wholly there. Not within his range. What if he was just hallucinating?

We live on other worlds. Perceptions crackled through the unseen horde: towers that defied gravity, needle-thin because they were taller than mountains. Flying vehicles careened between holographs that floated in midair. Urban sprawl glowed on the shadowy sides of moons and planets. We own all worlds.

They indicated the blond woman. We see you through the Swift Killer.

"How . . . ?" Thomas breathed. The Swift Killer looked human. She looked so much like him, he wanted to cry. Were all of those mind readers aliens? Or were they humans who lived on alien worlds?

Join Us and find out.

Margo and Cherise only saw an ordinary-looking woman staring at Thomas, and him gawking back. They knew nothing of the silent exchange of ideas. They might react to her title, the Swift Killer, if they could pick up on it, but they would be astonished to learn that she had access to technology that enabled her to leap across light years and walk on distant planets. With such advanced technology, the mind readers might cure any illness. They could probably cure his neuromuscular disease.

Join Us, her inner audience thundered an angelic symphony. Join Us, and you shall gain the knowledge of All.

The instant he wondered how to join them, they hummed, Follow the map (follow) (follow).

The Swift Killer placed a folded dish towel on his lap, identical to the one that had swaddled him as a newborn infant. If you want to learn (who you are) (why you were abandoned), then follow (follow) (follow) (follow) the map. Their overlapped thoughts were as powerful as ocean waves roaring against cliffs.

Margo stepped between Thomas and the Swift Killer, looking alarmed. "Thomas, are you all right?" She touched his shoulder, as if to protect him. As he was nothing more than a helpless handicapped child.

"I'm fine." He shrugged her hand off. "Go take Cherise into the house."

Margo drew back.

His tone had been too sharp, but he would apologize later, because the Swift Killer was walking away. "Wait." He tried to follow, wheels churning on gravel. "Don't leave!"

Her inner audience sent mental images of the folded dish towel in his lap, indicating that it contained a map. Follow the map, they chorused. Tonight. Don't make Us wait.

The sun was close to setting, but Thomas doubted he'd be able to talk Mrs. Hollander into letting him follow a cryptic map, especially after sundown. "Please stay." He hated to beg like a child.

The unseen audience added their imaginations together, layer upon layer. They formed a hyper-realistic imaginary scene of a woman trudging through falling snow, her braided hair pale against her long, billowing coat and the nighttime darkness.

Thomas clutched the dish towel as if it was the only thing that could warm him up. A memory had haunted him all his life, so faded it might be a dream. Frigid cold, falling snow, a glow from distant headlights, and this woman who walked beneath snow-laden fir trees. She never looked at him. No matter how he yearned for her to turn around, he never saw her face.

They knew his mother. All those millions of distant telepaths had pictured his unknown birth mother.

"Come back!" he screamed.

The Swift Killer walked out of his range. She kept walking away, just as his unknown mother had done.

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