Gwendolyn Sondalie adjusted her shaded glasses and sat on a patch of grass in the middle of a wooded area. Surrounded by trees, foliage, and humidity, no one would be able to guess that she was actually thousands of feet below the surface of the Earth. The Arboretum was her favorite place at the massive world headquarters of the Knights of Atlantis. The domed ceiling provided a realistic light that could fool anyone into thinking they could feel the real sunshine on their face.
Laying on a patch of grass, she twisted a ring around her finger and looked through the branches of an oak tree. She was adjusting well to this place (according to her “mentor”) but for the first time in her life, she was battling homesickness. Everyone she met here was awesome and extremely welcoming. She was excited about some Higher Education courses they had recommended for her. She knew that this was the stuff dreams were made of, but there was just no replacing her mum, or her comfy bed, or that favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Midway.
She blinked away a tear and scolded herself for being so stupid. It’s not like she was a prisoner! She could leave anytime, even for just a visit.
“Hey, Gwen! I see you’re getting your 100 situps in for the day!” Alton smiled down at her.
“Hey, Al. Yeah, just finished up.” Gwen wasn’t a great liar, but didn’t think Alton would call her out on her fib. Every new member of KOA got their own personal mentor, if they wanted it, to help show them the ropes around the headquarters. Alton seemed personally invested in improving Gwen’s physical attributes, which was her least favorite part of the training so far.
“Heads up, champ!” Alton tossed a ball at her as soon as she got to her feet. She barely had time to react and got her hands around the ball, but it was so heavy she fell over.
“Al, what the fuck, dude? You just carry a MEDICINE BALL around with you like whatever?! …oh god… I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said fuck.” Gwen slapped her hand to her mouth.
Alton chuckled and put his hands on his hips. “No worries! Some of us around here swear like pirates and all that! I just was tossing this ball around with your comrade, Noah. It’s tough to wear that guy down!”
“Al, do you ever say something without an exclamation mark?” Gwen stood up for a second time and brushed herself off. She eyed her friend warily to make sure he didn’t have some other surprise up his sleeve.
“Noah said I should call you ‘Mood Ring’. Cool nickname!”
Gwen rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, I thought I’d find you here. Ashton would like your help with something in the infirmary. Are you available? ‘Course you are, since you already got your sit ups done for the day! Should I let them know that you’re on your way?”
“Sure,” Gwen said. She was mesmerized by the enthusiasm of her yellow friend. “Oh, Al, can you show me how to get there? I still get a little turned around in this place.”
“Yeah! It’s two levels below the general floor. Any of the Arbiretum’s West exits will get you there.”
Gwen nodded and smiled as if she knew which direction West was.
“Come on, we can jog there!”
“Not unless you want me to throw up!”
Gwen arrived at the infirmary, behind Alton, red faced and panting. She doubled over, exhausted by her mentor’s encouragement. A nurse looked alarmed and ran off to get her a wheelchair.
Alton patted her shoulder and asked her if she wanted a drink. “We should add at least mile a day to your fitness training regiment, slugger,” he said.
“Ugh,” Gwen said between puffs. “Can’t we just montage all the training?” Alton looked confused. “You know, like in the movies, with the music. …Nevermind.”
Magic turned a corner and waved to Gwen. “Oh good! We could use your help. Come on.”
Gwen followed her friend down a hall of patient rooms.”Did you get your badge, yet? We’re going through the doors that need special clearance.”
“Uh, yeah. I got my badge. But what’s going on?”
“We don’t really know yet. Hopefully you can help us get a clue. I told them that you were very good at reading people.”
“You’ll see.” Maggie badged them into a heavy locked door. The room had a glass observation window to look into the room next to it, where a patient lay in a bed, hooked up to IVs and monitors. Although extremely faint, her aura was a dark cloud, swirling with flashes of something Gwen had never seen before.
“She’s in a medically induced coma, but we’re going to bring her out. We need to know what’s going on in her head,” said Maggie looking over some medical charts. “Anything you can tell us will be a big help to this case.”
Creepy. But finally something I’m good at.
Back at the dorms, Noah had just finished showering after an intense physical training session. High on endorphins, he collapsed on the bed, giddy with life. A job. Missions. State-of-the-art training facilities. Everything was just starting to make sense. Then he heard a rumble of commotion in the hallway.
“Gwen!! We don’t have time for this shit!” Doors slammed and Maggy was shouting.
“NO! I’M OUTTA HERE!”
Noah heard Baeldan’s voice join the commotion. Something was going down so he rushed to get dressed. By the time he made it to the hallway, he saw Maggie pounding on Mood Ring’s door while Sydney peeked out from behind Baeldan.
“What’s the problem, guys?” asked Noah.
Maggie shouted so Gwen could hear her from behind the door “I dunno WHAT THE PROBLEM IS. Gwen stormed off in a huff and she has no idea how much we don’t need her drama right now! You know what? I’m done.” She put up her hands. “I have a lot more work to do. Especially if she won’t help.”
Noah stared blankly at Baeldan who shrugged. “Do you know what happened?” Asked Noah.
Clueless, Baeldan shrugged again. “Maybe… Overstressed? I don’t know.”
Noah knocked gently on Mood Ring’s door. “Uhm. Mood… I mean, Gwen? You ok in there?”
The silence weighed as heavy as the miles of earth that surrounded them. Noah knew something was very wrong with his team mate and couldn’t just leave her. He kinda wished he could, though. He was not good at sorting out women issues. “Gwen? …Mood Ring? …Ya there, buddy?”
Something heavy hit the door from the other side. That was all the assurance that Baeldan needed to walk away. Sydney stood there, no idea what to do. She gestured towards Noah.
“I don’t belong here, Noah. I’m going home.”
“Well, that seems kind of sudden. Ok. Can I at least come in and say goodbye?”
Sydney whispered to Noah. “She’s not really leaving is she?” The door unlocked and Noah slowly turned the handle.
“Is that Sydney with you?” asked Gwen.
“Yep, just me!” squeaked Sydney.
“You don’t have to be scared. I’m not a violent criminal. I’m not going to hurt anyone.”
It was dark inside her room. Pitch black, in fact. Noah flipped the light switch instinctively.
“AH, JESUS FUCK!”
“Oh my god, sorry! I didn’t think! Sorry!” Noah forgot about Gwen’s sensitivity to light.
Gwen took a deep breath and mustered all the calmness she had to address her colleagues. “I really appreciate you checking in on me. But it’s time for me to go. I don’t belong here and I wish you good luck in your training.”
“Uhm, ok. Can we talk about it?”
“Nothing to talk about.”
Sydney spoke next. “Did you and Maggie have a fight?”
“No. Well, yeah, but not with each other.”
“Then what happened?”
“What happened isn’t important. I’m just going to slow you guys down and get in the way. I’m not built for speed or strength or anything that you guys need. I’m too young for this. And therefore, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Sydney raised an eyebrow. “Let’s just pretend you didn’t say that to the youngest person in the group. Not to mention the least physically gifted person of the group. What’s really going on?”
“I want out. Safe word or whatever. I can’t do it.” Gwen continued mumbling on but neither Noah or Sydney could understand what she was saying.
“Ok,” said Sydney. “But at least help us understand. We care about you and we’ve come this far together. You don’t have to defend yourself, just help us understand. As your friends.”
The silence settled in again.
Back at the infirmary, Baeldan decided Maggie was the easiest person to get answers from.
“What happened back there?” he asked.
“All we needed her to do was give us a reading of a patient. A soft interrogation. Everything was going well until the patient woke up and flew off the handle and got a little aggressive. Well, a lot agressive, but we had the situation under control. I think Gwen got pegged, but she flew out of there faster than I could tell. Obviously it wasn’t a serious injury if she could have her little temper tantrum. But whatever. I have a lot of work to do.”
Baeldan took a minute to consider how he was going to phrase his next question. “So, has Gwen had any formal training in interrogation or reading people?”
“No,” said Maggie. “But she should know how to read people, she does it all the time. She did it for a long time before we came in to the picture.”
“True. True. But up until now, she has only read people that were willing and wanting to be read.”
“Yeah, I know. She’s not trained. I get it. I just thought she could use a good challenge. I thought if she felt useful around here, she would stop moping around about how she isn’t as much of a bad ass as us. I thought she was ready,” said Maggie. She placed an eyedropper of fluid on a glass slide and looked at it through a microscope.
Baeldan nodded. “You had a good plan. She needs to be challenged. She needs training, too. If we take one step before the other, it can result in a fall.”
“Mmmhmm,” said Maggie, examining the slide. “Oh wow!”
Baeldan was pleased his little nugget of wisdom resulted in a reaction in Maggie. Then he realized she was responding to her findings through the microscope.
“Sorry, Bael, I have to focus on this. We don’t have a lot of time. I’ll catch up with you and Gwen and everyone tomorrow. Can you just check up on her for me and tell her I’m sorry?”
That was an easy enough task. Baeldan knew that Gwen wasn’t really going anywhere anytime soon. And according to the new comlink device he and his team were given, she was located in the cafeteria with Sydney and Noah. He found them sitting at a table eating and chatting quietly. Gwen was nursing a cup of steaming hot coffee.
Sydney perked up and waved Baeldan over. “These comlink devices really make those Apple watches look like kids’ toys!”
Gwen smirked. “Well, Apple really makes those Apple watches look like kids’ toys. Sorry, I guess that was low hanging fruit.” She smiled, pleased with herself. Baeldan was relieved to see Her acting like her usual goofy self.
“Feeling better, Mood Ring?” Baeldan asked and sat down. “Would you say you are less… Moody?”
“Oh very funny, Bael,” she said in her worst fake German accent. “Yeah, but I’d feel even better if this was a beer.” She made a sour face at the coffee.
Sydney was still fiddling with her watch. “The things I could do with this software. I once created a database with a whole new querying algorithm. It would probably make load times 8 ms faster. Globally, that would be huge improvement…” Sydney trailed off because no one was listening.
“Have you started your history classes yet, Bael?” asked Gwen, making small talk. No one wanted to address the elephant in the room.
“I’ve mostly been spending a lot of time in the library. A scholar could spend multiple lifetimes in there and never run out of information. I don’t really know where to start. But yes, I have classes starting soon.”
“Sounds interesting,” said Gwen, sipping her coffee. She jumped a little because it was still too hot. Her long hair flitted back when she jumped and revealed a dark purple bruise on her neck. She quickly brushed her hair back in place over her shoulders.
A woman in lavender scrubs approached the table. She was holding a lunch tray filled with food. “Excuse me,” she said. “Sorry to interrupt, but I saw you in the infirmary earlier today and I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
Gwen recognized her as the nurse that ran off to find her a wheelchair when she first arrived.
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine! Sorry to alarm you there. I wasn’t the patient. I was there to see a patient.”
“Ooooh, sorry about that. Are you new? My name is Sandy.”
Gwen offered her a seat at the table. It was a lucky coincidence that this friendly nurse had stopped by, because she had been thinking about getting some First Aid or First Responder type training and had no idea where to start. Medical skills of any kind would be especially useful on the field, and wouldn’t require super powers. If I were to stay, that is.
Baeldan absent-mindedly pushed at Gwen’s coffee cup with his finger. “Does that mean you’re not leaving?”
“Nope, I’m still leaving. Just can’t get a ride back to St Paul until Thursday…GODDAMNIT BAELDAN!” Gwen’s coffee was now a chunk of ice. Noah laughed.
“I’m so sorry,” said Baeldan. “I wasn’t thinking. Well, I was, but not about your coffee. Sorry, I’ll get you a new one.”
“There are lots of classes on Epsilon for all kinds of medical training,” said Sandy, changing the subject. “I even teach a few basic level courses here on site. Too bad you’re not sticking around… Are you leaving for good or vacation or something? I have a one day course I’m instructing tomorrow if you want to fit it in before you leave on Thursday.”
“Epsilon?” Gwen asked.
“Remember, the training and academic catalogue?”
“Oh, I forgot that’s what it was called.”
“Yeah, I can help you get signed up, if you want.” Sandy started tapping on her watch and swiping. “Tomorrow’s class is a First Responder’s class for non-medical personnel. It’s full, but I can make an exception for you. It’s part of an Emergency Medical Responder certification. Do you think it would be something you’d be interested in?”
“Definitely!” Gwen’s wrist-watch vibrated. She saw an invitation to the class on the screen.
Sandy looked up from her watch and smiled. “You’re signed up! I hope you like it. We cover things like immobilizing patients with broken bones, obstructed breathing, and CPR. You know, basic help until help arrives. Sounds like it will be a great start for you, Gwen. Anyone else interested?”
Sydney shook her head but Noah seemed interested. “I have a pretty packed day tomorrow, though, but I might consider taking it in the future.”
Later that evening, Maggie knocked on Gwen’s door. Gwen could tell before opening the door that she was holding something cube shaped and cold. Her shades of red were no longer projecting frustration. Now a deep red, they had changed back to her usual grounded and detail oriented self. “I just came to apologize for being short with you. This case has been really stressful and I thought you’d be able to help. I should have prepared you better for it, though.”
“No big deal, Magic,” said Gwen. “Come on in.” Gwen put on her special shades and turned the light on in her room.
“Got a bottle opener?” The cold cube Maggie had brought was a 4-pack of Gwen’s favorite craft beer.
“I’m sorry I freaked out and ran away. I know that wasn’t very professional of me. I hope those officers don’t think we’re a bunch of noobs.”
Maggie chuckled. “No, just you.”
Gwen grinned. “That’s what you get for throwing me in front of a train with a blindfold on!”
“I know, I know… I wish I had done things differently,” said Maggie.
“What were you doing there anyway?”
“Analyzing the patient’s DNA. Seeing if we could identify her, or find out if she had some indicator of Genome enhancements or…”
“A descendant of Atlantis?”
“Maybe. Doesn’t look like it though. We don’t have enough information yet to make any conclusions. At least nothing that they’re sharing with me.” Maggie sipped at her beer.
“Ashton? You think he has secrets?”
“No, well… It makes sense that they can’t just start speculating before we have a complete picture. That’s how rumors start.”
Even with her extreme intellect, she couldn’t fool her friend. Gwen knew there was a lie somewhere in there, or that she was hiding something, but she decided to let it go. “Sorry I couldn’t help. She really didn’t seem to like me.” Gwen rubbed at her neck, still sore from the attack.
“Yeah, good thing I was there to stop her from choking you out. After what she’s been through, I don’t think she’ll like anything for a while. A field unit discovered her being held prisoner…”
“I know.” Gwen cut her off. “I don’t know exactly what was done to her, but it was so bad… I have never seen someone’s aura so tormented. If I hadn’t seen her before she woke up, I wouldn’t have believed she was human. Ugh, I feel a little sick just thinking about it again.”
“Our guys call it ‘liquid torture’. We don’t know what the purpose is exactly but it’s administered through an IV infusion. Worse than a death sentence and changes a person right down to the cellular level. She is the third victim the KoA have come across and we haven’t been able to reverse the process.”
“We have to help those people!” Said Gwen.
Maggie shook her head and took a drink. “Person. She’s the only one still alive. We put her back in the coma, where we can at least keep her alive for now. They have senior level agents working on a treatment plan, but no one is terribly optimistic. ”
Gwen swallowed hard. It was hard to stomach that what she saw was done to someone on purpose. “Why would anyone do this?!”
Maggie shrugged her shoulders. “We don’t know. Some kind of experimental conditioning program, maybe? We don’t know who’s responsible or how or why they would be doing this.”
“I guess I probably should cancel my flight out of here, then. I want to help stop this from happening to anyone else!”
“What?! You were serious about leaving?!”
“Well… Yeah,” said Gwen in a quiet and embarrassed voice.
“You were just going to up and leave the team?! Well don’t let me stop you!”
“Wait! That’s not what I meant! I’m sorry. I just didn’t know what to do. You guys are all really good at this super hero business and I’m just kinda tagging along.”
“Gwendolyn Sonalie!” Boomed Maggie.
“You sound like my mom,” interrupted Gwen.
“What would your mom say if she found out you were going to give up this opportunity to do great things for the world?! How would she feel if her daughter ran away at the first sign of danger?”
“No, you’re right. I won’t leave.” Gwen never thought of it like that and felt so stupid.
“Ok, but only stay if you’re never going to threaten to leave again. I won’t tolerate stupid threats and drama!”
“I won’t! I mean, I’ll stay and I won’t threaten to leave again!”
“Ok, Gwen, drink some cement. ‘Cuz you gotta harden up.” Gwen could tell she meant that as a show of support and comfort. Maggie extended her bottle towards Gwen. They clinked them together like champagne glasses.