Cassie moaned and shifted her weight on the musty, earthen forest floor. Her head pounded as her ears rang with the never-ending litany of whispers, the volume ratcheting up and up and up until her own voice was barely recognizable in her head.
Shaking her mind clear, she peeked out from her cozy thicket and gazed across the darkened wood at the green haze creeping up on the horizon. Something told her that was the direction she needed to head. She had to find her mother, and fast.
Trudging through the pre-dawn black, Cassie fought back the fatigue clutching at her ankles and squinted her eyes through the fever-induced blur clouding her vision. She tried to concentrate on just putting one foot in front of the other as she made her way out of the forest and back towards civilization. She’d figure out the rest when she got there.
The orange-pink sherbet sun peeked over the tree line as Cassie’s sneakers finally touched pavement. Turning to follow the winding one-lane road, she dragged her weary legs in the direction of the emerald mist pooling at the bottom of the hill, the urgent whispers still clamoring in her brain.
Cassie paused as she approached a bend in the road. Despite the chaos in her head, her fever-induced auditory sense remained unnaturally sharp. She thought she heard something moving up ahead.
A gruff voice rang through the trees. “How does the boss expect us to find a lone eight-year-old girl in all these miles of wildness?” it griped.
“Just shut up and keep looking,” another snapped. “That prisoner told Emerson the girl would be at a camp in this area. She can’t be far.”
It was becoming hard to distinguish reality from the cacophony beating through her mind, but that couldn’t possibly have been in Cassie’s head…
“Talk about a needle in a friggin’ haystack…” the first voice muttered.
No, it definitely wasn’t. There was someone out here, and they were looking for her.
Her father’s survival training kicking in, Cassie quickly scanned the ground looking for a weapon. She snatched up a shard of broken grass from the blacktop and slipped it into her pocket, but before she could run, a group of armed men rounded the corner and spotted her. “There!”
Within milliseconds, there were two guns trained on her and she was being hauled into ropy muscled arms. Cassie sighed deeply, resigned. At least she wouldn’t have to walk the rest of the way.
Her eyelids fluttered shut as the group settled into a rhythmic march, headed – she hoped – back to her mother.
When Cassie next woke, she found herself in a dark underground hallway, still slung over the shoulder of one of Emerson’s men. She shivered involuntarily from the fever that still ravaged her system.
“What do you mean the boss was taken hostage?” the soldier carrying her demanded of the hulking man blocking the door ahead of them.
“I meant what I said,” the other man retorted. “Somehow the prisoner got her hands on a gun and is threatening to shoot him if anyone touches that door. They’ve been barricaded in Emerson’s office all night.”
The soldier carrying Cassie shook his head and sighed with exasperation. “Well maybe she’ll change her tune when she sees her daughter is here.” He heaved Cassie’s weight off his shoulder and placed her roughly on her feet. “Let us through,” he commanded.
The other guy shrugged his shoulders and stepped to the side. “All yours, then.”
Cassie’s soldier rapped on the door. “Emerson? I have the girl,” he called through the heavy metal.
A woman’s voice rang out from beyond the door. Her mother’s, Cassie realized with release. “Leave her here and step away,” Eve barked.
The soldier did as commanded, and a second later, the door swung open and Cassie was pulled into a dimly lit office. Eve kicked the door shut behind her as she embraced her daughter, and over her shoulder, Cassie could see a tense looking older man leaning against a desk beside a flickering gas lantern and an unlit electric lamp. Emerson, she realized.
Cassie melted into her mother’s arms, but her relief quickly evaporated as Emerson suddenly lunged at her mother. He wrenched one of Eve’s arms from around Cassie, and in one motion, stripped her of the gun she’d been holding and pushed her to the floor. Eve’s head hit the concrete with a thud.
Adrenaline buzzed through Cassie as Emerson swiveled towards Eve’s slumped form, pointing the barrel of the gun at her back.
“No!” Cassie screamed, her arms outstretched in protest.
And before he could pull the trigger, something happened that Cassie could not anticipate or explain. Her fear released something inside her, and suddenly the room lit up, the electric lamp on the desk sputtering to life as a radio in the corner crackled with static. Simultaneously, a burst of energy issued from Cassie’s fingers and knocked Emerson back on his heels. Then suddenly it all went dark again, except the subtle glow from the lantern.
Emerson dropped the gun in surprise just as Eve’s eyes flicked open, and she grabbed it and jumped to her feet before he could regain his footing.
“What the hell just happened?” Eve challenged, pulling Cassie protectively behind her as she marched the cocked gun toward Emerson until he was backed against the wall.
He glanced worriedly towards Cassie. “She’s cracking, Eve. Please.” He held up his hands in surrender. “Let me explain. I can help her.”
Eve backed off ever so slightly, but kept the gun trained between his eyes. “Talk.”
Emerson gulped down the thick air and stood a little straighter. “You knew when the Institute helped you conceive Cassie that she wasn’t an ordinary child. But we never told you what, exactly, she was.”
Eve waited, and Cassie held her breath. Cassie had always known she was different, but she never understood exactly how. She was finally going to get some answers.
“Cassie is the antidote, Eve. She holds enough energy in her body to bring the light back to the world.”
“What do you mean?” Eve questioned. “How is that possible?”
“We knew it was only a matter of time before the electromagnetic pulse technology you were working on was used, whether by us or an enemy. We needed some kind of backup that could reverse its effects. There was an experimental technology – originally conceived by energy conservationists – that could theoretically harness the energy within a human being, a person’s life force if you will. Think of how much energy we could capture! The only catch was, the source would be destroyed when the energy was transferred to the vessel.”
“You mean that taking a person’s life force energy would kill them?” Eve hissed.
Cassie didn’t understand. Did that mean someone had died so she could be born?
“Well, naturally,” Emerson explained. “But one person’s energy would never be enough to combat the devastating effects of an EMP. We needed more.”
Eve whispered the same question that rattled under Cassie’s tongue. “How many more?”
Emerson hesitated. “Do you remember that small mining town that was wiped off the map about nine years ago by a gas main explosion?”
Emerson looked Eve in the eyes and said the words she’d already pieced together in her mind. “That was the Institute, Eve. The life forces of 25,000 people live on inside your daughter.”
Cassie and Eve gasped in unison. Cassie couldn’t even conceive of that many people dying, let alone for her. “Mom,” Cassie croaked. “It can’t be…”
Her eyes never leaving Emerson, Eve reached back and grasped her daughter’s hand. “I’m so sorry, Cass. I never imagined… I didn’t know.”
“No one did,” Emerson interjected, “except for a few select individuals at the head of the Institute. Your friend Rourke included,” he added.
Eve shook her head in disbelief. Emerson slowly stretched out an open-palmed hand towards her.
“And no one has to know, either, Eve… I’ve already taken care of everyone who was part of the experiment. We can keep it a secret. We can keep Cassie safe.”
“But why?” Eve demanded. “What’s in it for you?”
“Simple,” Emerson shrugged. “I want to keep the lights off . And as long as Cassie is alive, the world will remain dark. But you know that something’s not right, Eve – she’s been sick for weeks. We never knew how long the vessel would hold, and it’s getting to be too much for her. I can help.”
Eve hesitated as she considered Emerson’s deal.
Cassie’s head swam, the voices in her mind shrieking. 25,000 voices.
It was too much. She just wanted a release from this torture. She didn’t want to be responsible for all of these people’s deaths. She wanted the lights to come back on.
There was only one thing to do.
The chorus in her head told her what came next, and Cassie obeyed, reaching into her pocket to withdraw the shard of glass she’d hidden earlier. The voices urging her on, she pressed its razor-sharp edge to her throat, gasping at the sting as the tip pierced her skin.
Against the wall, Emerson’s eyes grew wide as he realized what Cassie was about to do. Eve swung around to see what he gaping at and froze in place, taking in her only child with a blade of glass pressed against her jugular.
“Mom,” Cassie murmured. “I’m sorry. I have to.”