The human eye can only see so much. The human senses can only perceive…so much. That is why the Agency established an entire division to develop and test technologies that can augment and even surpass human perception.
DarkGray, it was called.
When camera technology was first being developed, a “builder,” as they were known then, working for the DarkGray division built the first camera intended to see reliably what many people around the world had been reporting seeing ever since humanity has existed…ghosts.
Those early prototypes worked as intended. But they also worked as not intended.
Detecting specters required that the cameras be equipped with imaging plates made of materials that had to interact with the spectral energies that the camera was attempting to capture on film. But as the cameras captured images of those energies, so too did the energies leave their marks on the cameras. As such, the cameras had to be essentially disposable.
Even with the Agency’s vast resources, there wasn’t enough money and material to build the number of cameras that would be needed for regular surveillance.
It was cheaper to find, hire, and train people capable of detecting what the cameras could detect: mediums, astral projectors, psychics, and the like. The same was often true of other skills that the Agency required to fulfill its general mission of investigating and managing the inexplicable, the atypical, the…otherworldly.
But over the years and decades, there was always someone at DarkGray division who continued to try and build a better camera.
The latest attempt was known as the Geistbild Spectral Camera, Model 56.
“Goes back past the invention of the modern camera actually,” the photographer said, adjusting the settings. “The attempt to capture an image of a ghost. I’m not just talking about drawings and paintings. I mean to actually capture. Glass and mirrors.”
She wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular. Her recorder was on. She was making a field observation entry as she set up the camera, mounting it on the tripod, fixing the appropriate height, then consulting her notes for data on the results of various settings.
“Okay, once again, I’m attempting to determine if this second prototype can replicate the results of the first one. Settings are matched. Of course everything else is a variable. Different day. Different weather. Different people. Et cetera. But I am expecting our special guest to arrive any time now and make her way to the Terrific Taco Truck—which by the way is a fitting name. The tacos actually are terrific. There she is.”
The photographer, Agent Sameera Lance, watched the young woman approach the taco truck. Lance was still in her probationary period of field observations training. She hadn’t been assigned a partner or even a specific division (not counting the trainee division), so she was up for grabs by any chief or director who needed a free agent. According to her last evaluation, she “demonstrated effective adaptability and aptitude with technical skills,” qualities valued by DarkGray.
She had been taking pictures of the park and the people in it for the better part of an hour, as she had done every Saturday for the past several months. Over this past month, the one difference was that she had been using a different camera, same model designation, different serial number. It was one of three identical prototypes. She had detected something unusual with the first camera and had been sent out with another prototype to compare and contrast.
During the week, she was assigned to go out with psychics and other Agency assets capable of sensing, or even communicating with, spectral beings, for the purpose of testing the camera’s capabilities. But the Saturday sessions were meant to be routine baseline assessments. Her mandate: find a clean environment—if possible—to serve as a negative control, take pictures, and make initial assessments. The Agency needed to confirm that the spectral images the camera was displaying were genuine, and weren’t caused by some artifact of construction or setting.
Per her evaluation, DarkGray division kept her number handy. They were unfazed when she noted that she had no skill or interest in photography outside of practical pictures (like when she wanted her landlord to fix the leak that was making the paint in her bathroom start to bubble) or the occasional shot during a get-together with friends or family. The camera wasn’t meant for professional photographers. It was meant to eventually be standard issue equipment for all field agents in applicable divisions.
So far, the second camera had corroborated what the first had, that there were no spectral energies present in the park or around any of the people who were in it, several of whom were regulars. There were people playing chess at stone tables, kids screaming and whooping in the playground area, a man with an ice cream cart making his rounds, joggers, dog-walkers, the usual.
Then there was her. Donna Duarte.
The first prototype camera’s viewfinder lit up when she first walked into view. Lance had taken note and snapped a few pictures. The camera was equipped with both a memory card for digital images and a special film for physical images. The idea was to discern any differences to deal with the age-old problem the Agency had always had with spectral cameras. They were practically useless after a few encounters with specters because of the residual energies those specters left on the cameras’ imaging plates.
But as she looked at the viewfinder of the second prototype, Lance frowned. Donna Duarte was clearly in view, and she was clearly not glowing.
Whatever aura that first camera had picked up, it was possible that the phenomenon causing it had ceased. It seemed more likely though that there were some bugs that the techs and engineers still had to fix in the design or construction of the cameras. Either way, the Agency wouldn’t risk missing an important find, just in case that first camera really was picking something up.
Lance and other agents had been taking pictures of various people in various locations with the prototype cameras. No one else exhibited the glow, or spectral aura, as Lance had been calling it in her notes.
Lance triple-checked the settings to confirm they matched the settings she’d noted on the first camera. Seeing nothing more of interest, she packed up and left the park. She went to the local Agency office, checked the camera and supplemental equipment back in, submitted her daily field observations, and went home.
Lance’s first thought was that Donna Duarte might be haunted, maybe by something relatively new, or something personal. She had taken pictures of other haunted people, and the spectral energy was usually hovering near the person, something attached to them. But it never seemed to be emanating from them as it did from Donna.
Other agents were assigned to investigate Donna and her history. Lance was only privy to the general reports. As far she knew there was no indication that Donna Duarte herself was haunted. Neither was her residence, or her place of work. There was no indication that she was possessed by any entities known to the Agency. There was no history of anything supernatural in her family, at least, nothing troublesome like a curse or hex or blood feud, that might explain why it looked like a ghost was inhabiting her. There was no history of exposure to exotic energies.
Donna Duarte was in her mid-twenties and appeared to be living an active and normal life. She had just been laid off from a job that she thought was the start of her career path. She’d interned at the company while she was still in school, and had been loyal to the company and her boss for three years. But she had also just gotten engaged to the person who by all accounts was the love of her life. The joy of the engagement coupled with the disappointment and dejection of the layoff must have put her in a tumultuous nexus of conflicting thoughts and emotions.
Lance was intrigued by the details of the young woman’s life, wondering if the camera was picking up some energy associated with that nexus. That would have been beyond the stated parameters of the technology, and most likely the actual operational limits of the camera. But even if it were capable of gauging emotion, as human empaths did, Lance was given strict instructions on what she was and wasn’t allowed to do with the precious prototype, while she had custody of it. The other agents who were testing that model were all experienced. They needed a relative newbie to pitch in and see if even she could use the technology with relative ease. She suspected the assignment was also a test of her ability to follow instruction when appropriate. She wasn’t about to jeopardize the beginning of her own career by fiddling with the camera. But there was no harm in speculating.
Though she was technically on-call, Lance had not yet been assigned to work any urgent cases. So she wasn’t expecting it when she was woken in the middle of the night by a call from a division chief, who asked her to report to the general hospital three blocks from where she’d been taking pictures that same morning.
“She’s in a coma,” the onsite agent said. He had introduced himself as Murdoch, one of the agents assigned to follow up on Lance’s observations by investigating Donna Duarte.
Lance took a deep breath. After the onsite agents finished briefing her, they would be questioning her. She was apparently one of the last people to see Donna before she collapsed.
Donna had been at her mother’s house when it happened. They were just heading out, going to a cake-testing together. Donna turned the corner into the front hall, as her mother hesitated, trying to remember where she’d left her phone. A few seconds later, Donna’s mother heard the thump on the floor and found her daughter lying in the hallway, with one arm in her coat sleeve.
The paramedics were unable to revive Donna, though they judged that she was in no other apparent distress. Her vital signs were normal. She was breathing on her own. It looked as if she’d had an attack of narcolepsy, but she had no history of anything like that.
At the hospital, the doctors took her history and ran some tests to rule out certain common conditions that manifested as a sudden loss of consciousness, but with only that one apparent symptom to go on, they had come to no conclusions. As far as they knew, there was nothing wrong with her medically.
Lance glanced through the window to the room where Donna was lying on a hospital bed, her mother on one side, and her fiancé on the other. Her father, who was overseas on business, was still on his way. She noticed the tripod on the opposite side of the room, mounted with a familiar-looking camera pointed at the hospital bed.
Murdoch addressed Lance. “Agent, do you have anything to report in your background that you haven’t already reported? Psychic abilities, unaccounted for gaps in your genealogy, that sort of thing?”
Lance frowned in thought. “Not that I’m aware of. Why?”
Agent Murdoch peered at her and nodded. “Then are you certain you noted the settings exactly the way you’ve had them each time the camera detected that aura around Miss Duarte?”
Lance sighed with understanding. “You’ve already had someone try to take a picture and they haven’t succeeded, have they?”
“With all three cameras. We don’t know if it’s the camera, if it’s you, or—“
“If it’s her,” Lance said. “Maybe there’s nothing to see anymore.”
“We wanted to get you in here to see if we can rule out one of those possibilities.”
“If it’s something to do with me, then why did I only see that spectral aura with the first camera?” Lance asked as the division chief, an agent named Schaede, walked over to them.
“I’m afraid right now, we’re dealing with a glut of questions and a shortage of answers,” Schaede said.
Murdoch nodded. “The situation seems stable for now. But that could change. So, based on what we’ve gathered so far, we have jumped to one conclusion in the interest of the ‘anything we can think of might help’ approach.”
“We think it’s a latent ability,” Schaede said. “A rare one. So rare that the Agency has next to no data or even anecdotal accounts on the phenomenon. Our database found some first-hand accounts by unreliable sources. Not very useful.”
Murdoch explained further. “The Agency has numerous records of people who have fallen into comas under mysterious circumstances—no associated violence or medical conditions. Some of these people woke up. Some never did.”
“Over the years, the Agency has tried to study the phenomenon. Our psychics have managed to determine only one thing, and not conclusively. Initial guesses were that there was some possession involved, some spirit either voluntarily or involuntarily seizing the native consciousness of the body, trapping it, suppressing it. These guesses were wrong. The issue wasn’t an extra presence. The issue was…absence.”
Lance creased her brow. She shook her head slightly to indicate that she wasn’t yet following their logic.
“We think she might be a skipper,” Murdoch said, his own brows rising. “Someone whose consciousness can skip into other dimensions. That would explain why she’s exhibiting a similar kind of spectral energy to what ghosts emit.” He smiled slightly.
“How is that different from astral projection?”
“Astral walkers send their consciousness outside of their bodies, but they’re still in this plane of existence. They’re still here on planet Earth. Your friend there is able to do what we believe ghosts do when they move on. She is able to enter another plane of existence—at least she’s able to send her consciousness to another plane of existence.”
Lance’s eyes widened. “Does that mean…is she gone?”
“We don’t know,” Schaede said.
“Her body is still alive. That indicates some commonality with astral projection. It’s just…a more advanced level. By that logic, as long as we keep her body alive…”
“She may be able to return to it.” Lance turned to the chief. “But would she know how?”
“We’ve already had a psychic try and reach her. No luck. The on-call astral walker is on his way over. We’re hoping he might be able to help us figure out how to help Donna get back.”
“But this is all assuming you’re right about her ability. What if it’s something else?” Lance asked.
“Whatever is going on, we have one piece of information that we’ve never had before in cases like this.”
Lance glanced through the window again. “The camera.”
Schaede nodded. “Maybe she’ll wake up on her own. Maybe the doctors will diagnose her with something that they can treat, or that we can treat. But if not,” he said, pointing to the camera, “maybe that can help.”
“That’s why there were never any other spectral energies around whenever she was there,” Lance said, struck with a sudden realization.
Murdoch and Schaede turned to her.
“It’s unusual,” she explained. “I’ve been taking pictures with the fifty-six prototype for several months now. Practically everywhere I go there’s spectral energy or the remnants of it. So many people are haunted—literally. So many buildings are haunted. Places. Things. Haunted now or in the past. I didn’t understand at first why it was so difficult to find a clean environment to get that baseline, why the Agency had to find a newly built building on a plot of land that had been cleared by our psychics, and asking for volunteers who were known to be un-haunted. But if she was sending out spectral energies that are similar to the ones that ghosts emit, maybe it was like putting the same poles of a magnet together.”
“Spectral repulsion,” Murdoch said, his eyes widening a bit. “Interesting.”
Schaede held up a hand between the two. “Let’s leave ‘interesting’ on the table for now, agents. Let’s see if we can help this young woman wake up.”
Schaede went into the room to prepare Donna’s family for another round of picture-taking. Murdoch leaned toward Lance.
“This is the hard part,” he said. “Trying to help people without being able to tell them everything. Though in this case, since the tech is new, we have as few answers as they do.”
The fiancé in particular had asked a lot of questions about the camera’s functions. Agent Murdoch had explained that it detected energy signatures, similar to infrared or electrical discharge, but more subtle, and different from what other cameras and imaging techniques detected.
“He asked me what else she could be emitting other than heat or electricity,” Murdoch told Lance. “That was a hard one. But we developed a script for that of course.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I panicked and followed the script exactly.” He cleared his throat. “‘Most people don’t know this, but the human body does emit some natural amounts of what we can only classify as radiative energy.’”
“So…you told him that you’re checking to see if she’s more radioactive than normal?”
“Hey, you weren’t there.”
Lance took a breath and straightened her back as Schaede waved them in. Murdoch was right. She might not have managed such a calm response if she had been in his shoes.
Lance smiled awkwardly at Donna Duarte’s mother as she entered the room. She introduced herself and asked permission to take a few pictures, even though Schaede had just covered that. The family had already granted permission when the doctors assured them the Agency’s efforts were in good faith and their experimental imaging equipment was non-invasive. It also helped that they didn’t require Donna’s loved ones to leave the room.
Agent Schaede watched as Lance examined the camera’s settings.
“This all looks good,” she said. Then she spotted something. “Except this.” She pulled a multi-tool from her pocket and swung out a screwdriver attachment. One of the settings, which allowed for fine focus of any spectral energies detected, was way off according to what she’d had the camera set to when she had first detected the spectral aura around Donna.
“That’s not something you should have been messing with, Agent,” Schaede said, but he didn’t stop her.
“It’s not? The instruction was in the manual I received.”
“Are you certain?” He produced a manual from his coat and flipped through it, shaking his head.
She had been certain, but now she began to wonder.
“We’ll have to look into it,” Schaede said.
“Do you still want me to proceed?”
Schaede was frowning but he nodded. He returned to flipping through the manual. Murdoch peered down at the viewfinder screen. Lance adjusted the setting to where it was when she first detected the spectral aura.
“And you changed this setting for both of the cameras you used?” Schaede asked.
“Yes, sir. I did note it in my detailed report.”
“Then it was missed. Who issued you the manual you used?”
“What is that?” Murdoch whispered. His tone expressed a restrained urgency, as if he was stunned by something, but maintaining his cool for the sake of Donna’s family.
Lance and Schaede leaned over the viewfinder.
“Give no indication of alarm,” Schaede said. “Don’t try to look at where it is in the room. Keep your eyes on the viewfinder.”
The viewfinder showed them Donna, lying in her hospital bed, in a slightly tilted three-quarters view. It showed them her mother on the opposite side of her bed, starting to doze off in her chair. It showed them Donna’s fiancé from the back, leaning toward her, and occasionally glancing up at the window. They were still running some more tests, and he was eager to find out the results. The viewfinder showed them the table beside Donna’s bed, the IV bag suspended from a pole, a corner of the window to her room. And it showed them one other striking detail.
It showed them a swirling rippling pool of energy suspended right above Donna’s head and about the same size. The energy converged at the center of the pool. The pool glowed. It glowed in the same way that Donna had glowed.
But Donna herself now looked as dim as her mother and fiancé.
“It looks like some kind of drain,” Lance said. “Like in a sink.”
“Trans-dimensional breach maybe?” Murdoch said.
“Could that be where she went? I mean, her consciousness? Is that how they do it, the…skippers?”
Schaede sniffed. “Seems likely, doesn’t it?”
“So we should probably…should we close it?” Murdoch said. “But how?”
Lance gazed at the figure on the hospital bed. “We should get Donna back first.”
Schaede straightened. “Keep an eye on it,” he said. “Report to me if anything changes. And lock the display on the baseline images. I have an idea for how we can close it. I’ll put in a call for the proper equipment. Have it on standby. And I’ll check with our astral walker. See if he can help us get our skipper back if this anomaly is stable.”
“And if it’s not?” Murdoch asked.
“Just keep an eye on it, agents.” He handed Lance the camera manual and left the room.
“What was that setting you adjusted?” Murdoch asked.
“It’s labeled ‘SES Fine Focus.’”
“Spectral energy signature.”
“That sounds vague.”
Lance stared at the viewfinder. “Murdoch, I don’t think that thing is stable.”
Lance briefed Schaede in the empty room across the hall from Donna’s room, where Murdoch watched the viewfinder and was doing a fair job of looking bored. The camera could only take still images. Two rolls of film were still being developed, but she had taken dozens of still shots. She displayed them in succession on a laptop screen, attaining a video effect.
“It’s growing,” she said. “And look.” She stopped at two images about seventeen minutes apart where the pool of energy seemed to spark. It nearly saturated the image.
Schaede released a controlled sigh. “We’ve been monitoring hospital communications. Over the past hour, two patients have collapsed and fallen into comas. It’s a hospital, so this kind of thing happens. The staff isn’t spooked or alarmed yet. But I’m guessing if I were to check the time signature of those two sparks, it would coincide with the time that those two patients collapsed.”
“So, we need to find a way to shut it down.”
“I’m afraid so. We’ve lost three people already. We can’t risk any more. I’ll get our onsite team to compare information on the patients who collapsed, see if we can get a profile of who’s at most risk and get them as far away from that thing as possible, in case we can’t shut it down right away. In the meantime, I’ll order the scrubbers to be put into position around that room. You and Murdoch be ready to get the girl’s family out of there.”
Lance’s gut lurched at the mention of the “scrubbers,” large machines capable “cleaning” spectral residue. In the early days of the Agency, the machines were made to destroy harmful ghosts. But their emissions were difficult to direct. There was a lot of collateral damage of harmless specters. And the general hospital had a lot of harmless specters floating around.
“Sir, I have a suggestion,” Lance said. “For at least trying to save those three people. But I’ll need to get in touch with whoever built the cameras.”
A camera engineer had already walked the onsite agents through troubleshooting—with no luck—before Lance arrived. Also, as an “end user,” it was a breach of testing protocol for Lance to have any contact with the designers and builders of the technology she was testing. But this was an emergency, and a notion had begun to gnaw at her mind, especially after Schaede pointed out the setting she wasn’t supposed to have changed. She expected some resistance, but Schaede simply nodded.
“We can get them on a video call,” he said. “But whatever you’re thinking of doing, you’ll only have as long as it takes for us to get the scrubbers set up.”
Schaede connected Lance and Murdoch to the one of the camera engineers, while he dealt with the challenge of bringing more agents and equipment into the hospital without alarming the staff and the patients. Over the past half hour, he’d been glued to his phone, working with the Agency’s contact in that hospital administration staff.
“Can we turn the imaging plate into a magnet of sorts?” Lance asked. “Maybe we can pull her back from wherever she is. Or at least a beacon, so if she’s able to sense it, she can find her own way back.”
The camera engineer shook his head. “The danger in spectral photography is in attracting what we’re trying to detect. That’s been the core problem that every engineer has faced. We built this camera to solve that problem. It’s effectively invisible to specters of all different energy profiles.”
“But the older models did have this problem. Do we have access to any of those old prototypes?”
“I’m sorry, Agent Lance, but probably not, not in the timeframe you’re working with there. The old prototypes are locked up at central headquarters.”
“But if model fifty-six is detecting those energies, than it should have some way of affecting them.”
“Not in any significant way. It’s like a regular camera taking a picture of you. It captures your image, but you don’t feel a thing. You don’t feel the light particles hitting your body and bouncing off to hit the camera lens. Hasn’t Agent Schaede ordered scrubbers to be set up? That might work.”
Lance had been leaning down to make sure she was in view of the laptop webcam. She straightened now and crossed her arms. “It’s Agent Schaede’s job to save everyone in this hospital. But it’s my job, and your job, to save Donna Duarte and the other two people who’ve gotten sucked up into that portal or exotic shower drain or whatever it is. Because if she’s a skipper, then she’s gone her whole life without exhibiting that ability…until I pointed your camera at her.”
The engineer’s eyes widened a bit. “Are you suggesting the camera triggered the anomaly?”
“You tell me. Is it a coincidence? Could be. But if it’s not…”
“Then the camera did affect her. And if it affected her one way, then it might be able to affect her again. Okay, let me take a second look at the blueprints and the settings you sent over.”
“I messed with the SES fine focus,” Lance said, feeling her face grow hot from embarrassment, and her chest grow cold from the dread of being responsible for the current crisis. “I’m told I wasn’t supposed to. Could that have caused all this?”
“That’s unlikely, but let me get back to you. Give me fifteen to twenty minutes.”
Murdoch walked into the room, holding out his hands in a “what’s the news?” gesture.
Lance shook her head.
“We got three astral walkers in, but they haven’t come up with anything,” he said. “The scrubbers are all set up. Her family is out of the room. I told them we may have detected some unusual radiation after all, and that the scrubbers would help us to reduce it. Not an exact lie.”
“Can you get Schaede to give me a few more minutes?” It had been thirty minutes, and the engineer still hadn’t called back.
Lance thought it would take longer to haul in and set up the scrubbers. The prototype camera had been moved out of Donna’s room and into the room across the hall, where Lance was stationed. From there the camera could monitor Donna and remain out of the range of the scrubbers, in case they had a damaging effect.
Murdoch nodded, but before he could even turn, they both heard the particular hum-click sound of the scrubbers starting up.
“Stay here,” Murdoch said as he dashed out of the room. “In case he calls.”
Lance watched her laptop screen helplessly as Murdoch sent her a text. He had tried, but Agent Schaede ordered the scrubbers to proceed and stay on until that anomaly above Donna Duarte’s head was gone, and stayed gone.
Murdoch returned to his post at the camera, watching the viewfinder, monitoring the portal. It had grown to almost three times the size it was when they first saw it. The ominous halo swirled around Donna’s head.
By the time the camera engineer called Lance back, the scrubbers had been on for an hour.
And the anomaly was still growing.
“Agent Lance, what made you change that setting you mentioned? The one you weren’t supposed to touch according to the manual’s instructions?” The camera engineer peered at her from the laptop screen.
“Well that’s just it. My manual included instructions on how to adjust that setting. It showed up on the viewfinder status display. So it was the reason this happened to Donna?”
“Not exactly. What you did shouldn’t have made much of a difference. We may need to find the specific copy of the manual you were issued. But first I’d like to walk you through a bit of dismantling. I want a closer look under the hood. Something seems to be off.”
“I don’t think Agent Schaede will allow it,” Lance said. “The other prototypes are here, but they don’t see what this one sees. This one is our only way to monitor that portal.”
Once again, Agent Schaede surprised Lance by agreeing to the diagnostic of the camera. She had a feeling that if she’d asked earlier, he would have said “no.” He would have still had hope that the scrubbers would work. They should have, if the energies swirling around over Donna’s head were the typical spectral energies.
He was also preoccupied, on the phone again, no doubt, calling in more personnel and more expertise.
Lance couldn’t help but to think that she had caused all of it. She insisted that Murdoch watch and make sure she followed the engineer’s instructions exactly. They didn’t have to dismount the camera. She opened the panel around that same setting that she believed had caused all the trouble.
Per instructions, Lance carefully slid the panel door aside and as she did, she heard a click and a small object dropped into her hand.
She held it up to the laptop camera.
The engineer frowned slightly. “That shouldn’t be there.”
Lance glanced down at the object. “Should I be wearing gloves?”
It was the size of a large sugar cube, and it looked like a cube, or rather three cubes merged together so that their edges made each discernible. At some angles, it appeared dark gray and metallic. At other angles, it appeared sheer and glassy. The engineer looked troubled but not surprised.
“No,” he said, “You’re good. But it would seem that you’ve been testing a different camera from the others. That part isn’t…ready yet. It was meant for the next model. But we’ll have to deal with that later. For now, we have no good choice but to use it.”
He walked Lance and Murdoch through some more dismantling, then reassembly, and readjustment. In the process, they embedded the strange triple cube part right in the heart of the camera.
“It’s done,” the engineer said. “You both did a great job.”
It felt to Lance as if hours had ticked by, but it had only been about ten minutes or so.
“This will close the portal?” she asked.
“It shouldn’t. But it will do what you first suggested we do, Agent Lance. It will turn the spectral camera into a beacon. With the adjustment you made, it’s no longer detecting. It’s projecting. That’s the best I can offer. It’s up to the subject—Miss Duarte—after that.”
As soon as Lance and Murdoch explained about the modifications they’d made to the camera, Schaede ordered the scrubbers to be shut down. He directed Lance and Murdoch where to set up the camera, or rather, the projector.
According to the engineer, there would be no adjusting it while it was in operation. There was just turning it on.
Lance pressed the button to turn on the camera.
At first, nothing happened.
A point of light appeared above Donna Duarte’s head. Not on the viewfinder, but there, in the room, visible to all eyes. The point of light flared out, shimmering different colors, like a soap bubble. Lance heard a rushing sound, like water, only it was crackling too, like electricity. She smelled the odor of rotten fruit. She tasted sweet, then bitter, then sweet, alternating again and again.
“How will we know if she’s come back? Will she wake up on her own?” Agent Schaede asked, to no one in particular.
And because no one knew, no one answered him.
They kept the camera on and watched for a few hours. With the scrubbers off, there was no reason to hold back her family. They wouldn’t let her mother and fiancé near, for the danger the portal posed to them. But they let Donna’s family share the watch.
It was her fiancé who spotted the first flash.
Lance had closed her eyes for a moment, sitting in a dim corner of the dimmed room across from Donna’s room. But she knew almost as soon as Donna’s fiancé knew. Lance’s mouth felt as if it were suddenly filled with salt. She sat up immediately.
It was almost dawn.
Agent Schaede reported to all agents present that one of the patients who had fallen into a spontaneous coma the night before had woken up.
Lance was watching the portal when it flashed again. The light seemed to intensify and turn a slight blue before it pulsed, growing bigger, then smaller.
And another patient woke.
Dawn came and went. It was nearing noon, and Donna’s poor family, still waiting for her father to arrive, and tired from their overnight vigil, had dozed off.
So Lance stayed in the room, pacing and watching the portal. Murdoch brought her cup after cup of coffee, and a sandwich. He offered to relieve her. Lance glanced at the wall clock. It was five minutes till the hour. She would wait that long before taking a break.
If she hadn’t waited, she would have missed the third and final flash. The portal pulsed then blinked out of existence, or at least, out of view.
Donna woke slowly. She was understandably confused at waking in the hospital. Agent Schaede allowed her doctors to come in and examine her. Her mom and fiancé, waited outside the ring of doctors and nurses. Donna knew who she was and could discern where she was. She asked what had happened. The fact that she found herself with no apparent wounds or sickness seemed to cause her more alarm than waking to find herself in the hospital.
The agents hung back in the hallway. Donna would have some questions that the doctors wouldn’t be able to answer. But they could wait.
The camera was still on, though now there was no way to tell. Agent Schaede ordered that the camera remain on for a while, just in case the portal anomaly showed up again.
Schaede, Lance, and Murdoch convened in Schaede’s office later that day. The camera that Lance and Murdoch had modified, which Lance now referred to as the model fifty-seven prototype, was locked up in their building’s vault. It was already scheduled for transfer to central headquarters for detailed examination.
Schaede had requested that it stay put, arguing it was the only way to detect any further manifestations of Donna’s ability. But higher powers had determined there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that what happened was connected specifically to Donna. Schaede, however, suspected that higher powers had determined that the camera and Donna were too important to leave in their hands. He was expecting “the call” any minute, the one that would politely suggest they move on to other cases, while someone else followed up on this one.
“The mysterious manual, the triple-cube camera part, the trans-dimensional consciousness-hopping…it looks like someone wanted to get around the usual quality control and approvals and permissions procedures,” Agent Schaede said. “We’ll keep investigating. No one has ordered us to stop. We’ll need to question you further, Lance. And the engineers and other photographers.”
“How’s Donna?” Lance asked.
“Fine for now. But we’ve made an appointment for tomorrow to brief and debrief Donna and her family.”
Lance was assigned to go and lead the debriefing, and develop a rapport, if she could, with Donna Duarte, in the hopes that Donna would volunteer to let the Agency study her ability and even help her manage it. Considering that two other people had been harmed by whatever it was that happened, Donna would be closely watched by the Agency either way. But it was always preferred that they had an amicable relationship with the people they were monitoring.
“We live in a crazy world,” Murdoch said, as they walked out to grab a late lunch. “Skippers, teekers…you know there are rumors about people who can actually physically move through time?”
“Here I was thinking technology was the only way we could reach farther than our natural-born senses, that our greatest power was whatever processes happened up here,” Lance said, touching her temple with her index finger, pointing past it to the sparking mass of tissue that comprised her brain. She moved the finger away and pressed the elevator button.
“Shouldn’t our greatest power be here?” Murdoch asked, holding the palm of his hand against the left side of his chest.
Lance sighed, but she smiled as well.
“Are you worried about what might happen, with Donna, the camera?”
“I don’t know,” Lance said, shaking her head. “I should be, but it hasn’t hit me yet. I’m relieved that she’s okay. That they’re all okay. Well, they’re still in the hospital, but they’re not in comas anymore.”
“You in the market for a partner, Lance?” Murdoch asked suddenly.
Lance raised her brow. “I am actually, but we don’t get to choose, do we?”
“If we did?”
“One partial case worked together does not a partnership make.”
He shrugged as the entered the elevator. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Lance nodded. And she knew exactly what would make a good start. She looked at him. “How about tacos?”
Murdoch raised a brow.
Lance smiled. “I know a place.”
Copyright © 2017 Nila L. Patel.