Linked

“She was bound to you!”

Sarah kept her head down, studying her script in the middle of the Starbucks and trying not to overhear the pair of men as they argued.

“She chose to help you, and you let her die!” The younger’s anger filled the place. He had an accent – British, Sarah decided – and could have been the son of the man he was yelling at if not for the obvious genetic differences. Together, the pair looked more like professor and student. “She was your responsibility.” Pain bled into the young man’s words now. “This is your fault.”

“Please.” The elder was a mixture of dignity and utter brokenness, trying to usher the younger outside so they could argue in private. He didn’t have an accent, so he must have been from America. “Let’s not do this here.”

Sarah’s heart went out to the man, but what could she do to help? She was an actress, a musical theater student. There was nothing in her skill set that could help them, even if she knew what it was they needed. Somehow she didn’t think it could be found in a coffee shop, though.

“You let her die,” the younger accused again through his teeth, quietly this time.

“She asked –”

“You let her die!” The last word echoed off the perfectly painted walls, quieting and drawing the attention of the other patrons in the shop. If the younger noticed, he didn’t care. “You think that because you chose her, you’re somehow better than she was. But you – all of you – need us humans.” The word surprised Sarah. It made it sound like the elder was an alien or something, but he clearly was from earth.

“Technically –”

The younger spat into the face of the elder, stopping his words cold. “You don’t deserve a student. And you definitely never deserved one like her.” The younger brushed past his elder, to the door without the coffee he was supposedly waiting for.

“Your mentor still needs your help!” the elder called after him, wiping his face. “We –”

“My help. Not yours.” The door slammed behind the younger, leaving the shop in utter silence.

The elder looked up, suddenly aware of his audience. Panic flashed across his features before a practiced calm masked it, but Sarah could recognize acting when she saw it. She also knew she had to help.

“And scene!” she announced, standing and clapping, drawing the attention to herself. The man clearly didn’t want their stares. Let the people think the whole thing was fake, and if Sarah was wrong and he did want help, she could always call on the aid of the people in charge of that sort of thing. Later.

Others applauded too, and those who started to lift their phones were putting them away again. The man gave a joyless smile and a short nod to the crowd. He clearly didn’t know what to do, or how to play this for invisibility again. So, Sarah continued. “Thank you, thank you.” The bow came easily to her, and she did so without really thinking. “Come see The Crucible out at the college – opens next week. Support your local theater! And don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel!” On her asking something from them, the rest looked away, suddenly eager to continue their conversations.

“Thank you,” the man watched her as she got closer.

“Sarah,” she supplied, considering then rejecting the idea of offering her hand to him just in case anyone was still watching. It would break character.

“Sarah,” the man amended. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know.” She smiled at him. “You looked like you could use the help.”

He watched her just a moment too long, and she could tell he was acting again. Lying – almost. “I’m good now, thanks.” He turned away from her, back to the expectant counter as they both waited on a barista to place a cup on it.

“Is there anything else?” Sarah asked compulsively. She could call for help, or something. She couldn’t pinpoint what about this particular old man intrigued her.

Pride welled up in him then, telling her without a word that he didn’t want to explain the truth behind the scene.

“Who is he?” Sarah pushed before he got the chance to reject her entirely. As a self-proclaimed student of humanity, she couldn’t help but try to understand the story – and the characters – behind what she had just witnessed.

“He –” the older man glanced at the door the younger had gone through. “Jack blames me for his fiancee’s death.” The sadness on the man’s face told Sarah that he wasn’t the only one. The elder in front of her blamed himself, too.

“What happened?” she asked without thinking.

“Black coffee!” the barista called. The elder stepped forward immediately and took the cardboard cup with a nod before returning to his post and answering her question.

“You’ll have to ask him.” Didn’t he want to share his side of the story too?

No, she realized as she watched him sip his drink and stare at the baristas as they worked. The woman’s death was too painful to him. “She” must have been very close to, not only this Jack, but them both. Maybe she was a daughter to the man before Sarah? If not, then as good as.

She was about to ask, but the look on this man’s face told her she had bothered him enough. He was bent on staring straight at the baristas, likely not seeing even one of them as he apparently waited for another coffee. Probably meant for the younger man outside, Jack.

Knowing she had limited time, Sarah put a hand on the older man’s arm for a moment in what she hoped would be a comforting gesture, then left him for the front door.

Jack was sitting – shoulders shaking and chin down facing the traffic – on the street side of the curb, feet carelessly halfway into the bike lane. He gave no indications of noticing Sarah, but as she watched from a distance, he lifted his head as far as it would go, toward the sky. The movement could almost be considered a stretch, if not for the obvious tears that had reversed direction, now flowing from the corners of the man’s eyes instead of down the cheeks. She shouldn’t let him think he still had his privacy.

“Jack?” Sarah asked as gently as she could.

The athletic man started and spun, glancing behind her before his eyes landed on her. She wanted to say there was no one else, just her. No threats. But he spoke first.

“How do you know my name?”

“The old guy you were arguing with in there? He told me,” Sarah answered honestly, stepping toward the younger man now.

“Victor.” Jack spat the name like a swear word. Then he looked – really looked this time – back at Sarah. “Sorry to have interrupted your –” his eyes drifted to her empty hands a moment as he spoke, “– whatever it was you were doing.”

“Studying.” She had left the script inside, but she could get it later. Instead, she plopped down on the curb next to the man. “Want to talk about it?”

Jack wiped his eyes with his shoulder, back to staring at the passing cars. “About what?”

Whatever it was that made him argue with the elder man waiting inside. Victor. “Her.”

“You heard that, huh?”

Sarah shrugged, trying not to offend him. “Dear, everybody heard that.”

Bitterness curled the man’s lip a moment. “Sorry to bother you.” There was no apology in his tone.

“What’s her name?” she tried again.

“Julia.” His shift in demeanor was sudden, as if he didn’t know how to say the name without reverence.

Sarah waited a moment for him to continue, and when he didn’t, she prompted him. “What happened to her?”

“Ask him.” Jack nodded back inside.

“He told me to ask you.”

Jack opened his mouth to answer, closed it as he thought better of it, then opened again. “You wouldn’t understand.”

 

Sarah turned in her chosen spot on the concrete to face him. “I have a pretty good imagination. Try me.” She was born to act, after all. It’d be impossible to without being equally confident in her imagination.

“Immortal bounty hunters killed Julia to get to me after Victor promised to protect her. He said he’d die before letting harm come to her. He lied.”

Sarah barely heard anything beyond the first three words. “Immortal bounty hunters?” she repeated. Was he joking with her?

Jack glared at her with a scoff, as if she had missed the point of his confession. He was serious.

“Sorry, but I’m going to need a little more to go on than that.”

An angry recklessness washed over Jack then, making him give a wave of his hands before diving in. “What if I told you there are a handful of people out there that can impress their consciousness onto another mind. With enough training and time, those two minds can merge in the younger, and the mentor can temporarily control his or her student. Once the mentor dies, their stream of consciousness and knowledge lives on in the younger.”

It was Sarah’s turn to be flippant. “Fine. Don’t tell me. I only wanted to help.”

“See, that’s the problem with you! All of you!” He slammed his palms on the sidewalk as he ranted. “You live in your tiny bubbles, intent on maintaining this illusion – protecting it – as if that’s what’s really important. Well, pop! There’s a whole world out there that doesn’t care about your safe space in the least.”

“I’m aware of the world!” Sarah defended. When not doing anything else, she inevitably watched people to learn more about them.

Jack snorted. “No you’re not. Evidence is everywhere, but apparently the sand is much more comfortable of a place to bury your heads until the rest of you can finally follow.”

Sarah had entertained her fair share of conspiracy theories, but what he was suggesting was insane. Mind melding? “It’s impossible.” Like something out of a bad episode of Star Trek.

“Just because science can’t explain it doesn’t magically -” he gave a little jazz hands at the word – “mean it never happened.”

“But –”

“This.” He pointed accusingly at her, looking into her eyes and soul. “This is what I mean. You can’t explain it, so you don’t accept the idea. Well, guess what. They don’t care what you think! They’re on a warpath anyway.”

“Help me understand then.” Crazy or not, Sarah wanted to follow. “Who are they?”

“The way we do it, the mentor is supposed to die first,” he responded with a glare inside. So, at least in his mind, Victor was a mentor. “They treat their students like they’re expendable, even maintaining more than one. See, if the student dies first, all the knowledge imparted reverts back to the mentor, and they can find another. We teach – it’s supposed to be a symbiotic relationship. But they’re parasites, sponging off the students until they find one worthy.” He spat the last word.

Sarah decided as she watched Jack explain that she didn’t have to believe him to be a friend. She was beginning to follow now. “And Victor was Julia’s mentor?”

Anger morphed back to sadness in the man again as he nodded.

“Does this him a –” what did Jack call them? “– a parasite?” If so, why was the man waiting for Jack’s coffee inside?

“No.” Jack swallowed before continuing. “Incompetent, maybe, but he’s no villain.”

“Then who –”

The door opened behind them, letting someone out of the coffee shop. Sarah mimicked her companion’s quick turn to see who it was: Victor.

The elder had pointed himself at them, but his eyes went wide as he recognized something across the street. Sarah turned back to see a group of four joggers heading down the block toward them. They weren’t as dangerous as Victor’s expression accused. The only thing weird about them was their matching jackets, but some people equated sweating extra with weight loss. They were just exercising.

Victor dropped the coffee. “Jack, to the car.”

Sarah would have laughed at the over-the-top reaction if Jack hadn’t been so quick to obey. Instead she stood too, alarmed and suddenly equally ready to bolt.

Jack was already on the far side of the elder, ready to turn the corner of the building when he looked back. “Victor.”

To Sarah’s surprise, the man was looking straight at her. “Open your mind.”

“Victor! Don’t you dare.”

Before Sarah could understand what was going on, the older man had both hands on the sides of her face. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for –”

“Victor!”

“Open your mind, Sarah.” The old man’s eyes milking over was the last thing she saw before her life changed forever.

The world she knew flew away from her in a rush. Her breath caught in her throat. Memories flooded her, edging out everything Sarah to make room for what felt like scenes from a movie she had never seen, and the longest movie ever at that. Years of knowledge crammed into her in a matter of seconds. Suddenly Sarah was just an observer in her own body, usurped by this new experience. By Victor.

The Starbucks returned to her in an equal hurry, giving her enough time to see Victor collapse there on the sidewalk. Her world had morphed, almost like a dream stasis. She was aware of everything, yet in control of nothing. Four joggers: too many for Jack to take on without his mentor’s help, and for Victor’s old body to take on without a student. Seventeen potential witnesses inside, two of whom had badges. To be avoided. They wouldn’t understand.

“Get me to the car,” Sarah felt herself saying, reaching down for the unconscious man at her feet. She even knew which vehicle to aim at, though the part of her stuck as an audience in her own mind understood she had no reason to know that.

“Damn it, Victor.” Jack seemed to be addressing Sarah as he spoke, though it felt perfectly natural to be called by either name now. “We are going to have a long talk when we get back.”

“Later,” came Sarah’s compelled response.

She checked the shop’s bay window as a mirror as they picked up her own body. No, Victor’s body. Same thing. The joggers were stuck at the light, traffic buying them time to get away. She didn’t slip on the spilled coffee as they dragged him through it, off the concrete and onto the asphalt of the parking lot.

The light changed.

Third car over: an indistinguishable silver Toyota. Sarah let go of their burden, letting Jack hold him up while she got the back door. Together, they shoved him in.

“Go,” she ordered. “I’ve got this.”

Jack’s immature frustration made its way out then, flicking the forehead of the unconscious man once out of spite. Though somehow expected, it still felt like a violation.

“You’re a child.”

“You’ve ruined Sarah’s life. You deserve worse.” She couldn’t argue with that.

What? The audience part of herself wanted to get an explanation, but Sarah was far from in control.

Steps behind them, and too many at once to be someone innocently departing the coffee shop. She turned to face them, aware without knowing why that they had technological bracers under the left sleeve of those jackets. Those bracers were the targets; breaking those would weaken the link between these guys and their mentors. Or mentor. It didn’t matter in that moment.

The car started up behind her, driven by Jack as they got away safely. Good. Now it was just a matter of saving Sarah’s body, if she could. The mind, on the other hand, would more than likely be an unfortunate sacrifice.

She wasn’t going to wait for the group to surround her. Instead, she threw her skills at the closest jacketed man. She spun as she met him, left arm colliding with her target’s as her right elbow met the man’s nose. She slid her left arm down across the technology under the leather until her wrist caught his. Stepping backward, she tugged him down, throwing the man wholly over her. The student landed with a thud, giving her enough time to shove her heel into the bracer, shattering it. One down.

The closest to this kind of combat Sarah had ever gotten was closer to dance, back when she played Peter Pan and fought Hook on stage. What she was doing now was something else entirely, and Sarah had no clue how it was happening.

A tug on her collar yanked her backward and down. Reflexes she’d never had before compelled her to go with the pull, dropping all the way to the ground and rolling flat on her back. The man looked upside down for the briefest of moments as he loomed over her. Then, she gripped his ankles over her shoulders, throwing a foot upward and into the man’s face. He recoiled, head bouncing all the way. She continued her backward roll – all the way now – until she was yanking his feet out from under him. Her movement countered his, standing to a crouch over him as he landed flat on his back.

She dropped a foot in favor of a wrist, gripping the edge of the man’s bracer and tearing at the fragile wiring underneath without looking, instead glaring at the final pair of students as she disconnected the man under her from his mentor.

“Is that you, Victor?” the student in front of her asked as she stood.

“Yes,” Sarah felt herself respond. “And who might I have the pleasure of addressing this time?”

“The council knows what you’ve done. You need to come in, or this will not stop.”

“Spare the girl.” Some part of Sarah knew, even as the words spilled out of her, that she was talking about herself. “She’s not involved.”

“She is now.”

Ferocity curled her lip as she launched at the one she addressed, hand outstretched to claw at his windpipe.

The man swatted her assault away before she could threaten him, but after it was too late to stop her charge. He stepped into her path, other arm bent, extended forward as he set his weight. Sarah’s upper lip slammed into the point of his elbow, cramming her chin down and backward as the rest of her plowed forward. Pain rocked throughout her whole body. Though Sarah was unable to control her reaction, she still felt every ounce of the man’s powerful blow.

She didn’t even realize he had his arm around her neck until he had spun her around, facing the other jacketed one as he stood by. The man snapped to alertness, telling her without reason that the villain behind he man holding her had transferred his consciousness to control the other. That also meant the one closest to her was vulnerable.

She dropped her weight in her left fist first, letting gravity aid it as it slammed into the groin. The now-unskilled man offered no protest, releasing her as he bent forward. The one in front charged, so she launched a foot his direction, shoving him off and buying time to wrap both arms around the neck of the one behind her. Sliding back, it was easy to throw the unconnected one into his ally. Together the pair tumbled to the ground.

She launched herself on top of the pile, kicking the one underneath as he struggled, seeking freedom. Finding the top man’s left arm was easy enough, so she snatched it with one hand and identified the unlocking button with the other. In a moment, the arm fell free, so she tossed it under the nearest car, assuming it would be driven over before it could be fetched.

While she was watching it skid away, the student underneath swung his only free hand, slamming the reinforced arm into the side of her head. She went reeling, still oddly aware that his bracer was nearby. The back swing responded quickly, aimed at the other side of her face, but she could see this one coming. Leaning past the incoming fist, she put all her weight onto her crouched right foot, following her target over and down with a side kick, ending with a pinching crunch and zap as she stomped it into the asphalt.

She stepped away as the man yelped, suddenly terrorstruck as he pushed his comrade away. Some of the joggers were moving faster than others, but they were all scrambling to escape her. Not one was able to contact their mentor anymore. Satisfaction rolled off of her as she watched them go.

Whatever had taken her over – suppressing Sarah to unleash this… whatever it was – released. Sarah felt her true self surface, breaching through her consciousness and handing her control again. She could only stare, appalled at her actions, as one of the men managed to stand to a run. He glanced back at what she had done, and she could see the fear in the strapping and capable-looking man. Was it even her that had fought them off? Sarah didn’t know how to tell. The rest of the group seemed to think so, as they escaped her standing there, panting in the middle of the parking lot.

What. The hell.

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