Chapter 18.5: The Enhanced Gene

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"Contact: Astral Daamon."

A severely fractured image appeared on his tablet. From what he could tell from the fractured images of multiple people, she in a meeting with the E.M.I. Poor protocol to answer a call, he thought. If she wasn't expecting his call, she wouldn't have picked up. Astral cursed. He got the distinct impression she was cursing at the technology rather than him, but it was clear by her tone, she was in no mood for social niceties. The image blinked out, leaving her voice. "Seth you had better be in that goddamn meeting before Erick get's a leg up on you. If you're calling me to check in, I'm fine. Now go make yourself useful."

"But-"

The call ended. How'd she know about the meeting? Was Erick that predictable? It wasn't like he could authorize anything significant without him, could he? A chill washed over Seth. Erick had more time to rally the troops to his cause. It didn't matter if the rumour was true, Erick would sacrifice anyone if it meant discrediting Seth's leadership. This was a bid for power and for whatever reason, Astral wanted Seth to remain in a position of power. He was another tool in her arsenal, another option; he was plan Z if all else failed.

He felt his resentment shift. He needed to get ahead of the real problem. His squad mates needed to feel heard, their concerns validated.

His personal feed had exploded with bystanders and student opinions, and grew by the second. Public opinion didn't matter for the most part. His thumb hovered over the delete button. The grief of the public's trivial gossip mongering was going to be migraine inducing. But if he wasn't aware of what was being said, then he wouldn't be able to foil the real threats. He supposed it was one way of using his environment to his advantage, though he felt the arena was beneath his concern.

He prioritize his squad's messages. He pulled the ear plug module from his device, freed it from it's container, and inserted the plug in his ear. It was easier to listen to the messages while he made his way to the main floor.

Esmey had sent only one message, laced in odd pauses where she struggled to find the right words. "First, I want to say I'm not taking Erick's side..." Seth glanced at the time stamp of the message set to minutes after the ordeal had settled. "...and given that some in Daamon's position would have been flagged a million times over before setting foot on campus, this whole thing is just a little too convenient."

"I'm thinking social sabotage. The guy was with Squad IV right? You think this is a setup to get us out of the running? I don't know if it's been tried before, I want to comb through the game history but it's going to take some time. I did a quick search on Astral though just to shut the loud mouth up..."

"I'm sorry, Seth but I think I may have made things worse..." She took a moment to compose herself. "Alexander Daamon is listed as her adopted father. She's not even a Daamon. She was adopted from an old couple Iris and Dan Howell, both listed as deceased. She has no birth parents listed, off-record parents is never a good thing. Hell! She doesn't have a birth date listed. The official record created one for her. Everything she's told us is a lie."

"Look, I don't know what's going on with that kid, but I think we need to give her a wide berth. For now at least. None of it is her fault, but it doesn't mean it won't be used against us." The message ended.

Astral had never been forthcoming about her history. The nuances of her life may have given him insight into who she was, but it looked like those details may be muddled even to Astral. It's no small wonder she treated her history like it didn't matter. It was too complicated to explain, and what answers she may have still didn't make sense.

It dawned on him that people were looking into her. Not just people associated to her like Esmey, but the general curious public who liked their daily conspiracy theories. In a few hours nothing in Astral's life was going to be a secret. Everything about who she was was going to be scrutinized and challenged. Goddamn William. Even if the rumour ended up forgotten, she'd remain exposed to the world. How long would it take for the right mind to figure out that she was an unregistered Hunter.

Seth stopped to type his message to Esmey. He needed to see the words to weigh them. He wanted to be concise but not dismissive. He rewrote his reply, struggling to find the right words. "I understand your concerns. I don't know anything about her family history. I never thought to ask when I recruited her. I don't recall anyone else asking about her birth parents and the impact it would have on our performance in the game. We all knew what we were told. That much I'm sure wasn't a lie." It would have to do.

He didn't have time to address everyone individually, not if he wanted to get to Erick before any serious damage was done. He'd have to address the whole team and hope that it was enough. He targeted his squad's communication center, enabling the message to be accessed by all. He followed up by including Hope and Gemma in the tagged receivers, knowing they would show the rest of the team the message. It would have to buy him time.

He adjusted his posture and activated the devices camera. He stared into the device imagining his squad staring up at the big screen listening to him.

"I have received a number of messages over the past few hours with regards to our situation." He sounded to formal. He was distancing himself from them, he needed to fix that. He needed them to feel like he cared about their situation. "I have responded to a few, but given the number of requests, I think it's best we air out the details in person, as a team. We are stronger together."

"I remind you that game registry requirements are very strict. Unless you personally know of a way to cheat the DNA validation protocols, I am doubtful of the legitimacy of the accusation." He took a breath, mentally lecturing himself about the accusing tone that had seeped into his voice.

"As a compromise I will request that Astral submit herself to a DNA re-examination for peace of mind. In the meantime, I will bar her from participation but I will not removed her from the team. Such a premature move without the appropriate evidence is uncivilized and barbaric. On a legal front, it opens us up to liabilities, especially if this ordeal turns out to be speculation. We are better than that."

"I have been released from questioning. I can make it to the command center in the next ten minutes. If anyone is unable to attend due to curfew restrictions, I will accommodate for a private online discussion." He'd be cutting it close with curfew himself. He was willing to risk spending the night in a cell. He doubted that anyone else would share his dedication. All he needed to do was buy time, settle their minds so they could discuss the issue at nauseum tomorrow. If it was a priority for the team, he'd schedule it first thing. They'd have all day to figure out where the lines were drawn. He closed the connection.

His device chimed that the message had been opened. A minute later, Gemma replied. "Come quick." Two words. That was all Gemma had time for before Erick bullied his way back into focus. He'd hold them hostage until they agreed to his demands. Seth ran.

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Sorry for the late update. This part was not at all supposed to happen this way but I started seeing a pattern in my chapters that was beginning to irritate me. Basically, I have characters run in one direction and are forced to go in another for one reason or another. On the one hand exploring the concepts of orchestrated destinies can be interesting. Writing it makes a lot of the active decisions that the characters make redundant and I feel like I'm adding word count for nothing. On the other hand, it demonstrates (in some instances) the character's personality, on the other, I really don't like the hand of god feeling it has. But that's just me. Have you guys picked up on what I'm talking about? Or am I just too close to the work?

Anyway, I decided to remove pretty much all of last week's work and ended up having the revise other segments to make sure I don't have the lead in to the alternate version. 

Hit that vote button if you liked this segment. If your REALLLLLLLY like this story, please add it to your public reading list so that others can find it too.

In other news, the website for the Awakening is fixed up. I want to add reader exclusive content, some wikis and what nots, polls for commissioned art and so on. I'm hoping I can get to adding those pieces next month. If you want to check it out, you can visit: 

www.AwakeningAnthology.com

I also offer a free short story to those who subscribe to the mailing list. Next week 'might' be a hiatus week. If I finish Chapter 17 this week, I need to buckle down and finish Shadow Prey Part II (the bane of my existence at the moment). My editor is losing his patience with me :( I don't blame him. 

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