The atrium of the house is huge, the wide sweeping staircase goes up in the open room to the first floor and beyond. I look around and see first the men, stood either side of a grand fireplace, with two wingback chairs. They look calm and relaxed, aware of my arrival. The skidding car must’ve alerted them as soon as I turned off the road. I look around the room in a panic, taking in every piece of furniture and art. The floor is marble, and all the walls are exposed stone, limestone or granite, I don’t know.
I slow to a walk as I get deeper into the atrium. The fire in the fireplace is burning gently, and I see a tea set on a tray in-between the chairs. As I get closer I see first legs, then arms, then the rest of the two women sitting there. It’s Jules and Esther. Jules has a teacup and saucer in her hands, and looks at me with compassion and calm. Esther looks at me as though I were late, and it was most inconvenient of me to arrive this late.
I stop dead in my tracks, confused, bewildered, discombobulated. I go to speak, but can’t find the air, or the words. Jules puts her cup on the tray with a gentle chink of porcelain, stands up and, nervously checking to her left and right, walks toward me. She looks nervous, but calm. She must have arrived an hour before me, but it feels like an eternity.
Jules comes close to me, putting her arms around me and tucking her head under my chin. She feels warm, and I look over her head at Esther. She had no right to take this girl from me, to take away the woman I care so much for.
Jules unhooks herself, against my pressure to stay clasped around each other, and walks back to the chair, resuming her position with tea in hand, in front of the fire. I wonder why Jules doesn’t run, why she doesn’t run to me and we escape the way I came. I’m tired and scared and don’t fully understand the situation. More than that, no-one has spoken yet. The five of us in this huge atrium are silent, and the noises of our movements echo around the great cavern.
“Come and sit with us” Esther breaks the silence with a beckoning gesture, “and take some tea.”
I look at Jules, who is sipping her tea. I don’t understand her nonchalance at this situation. It panics me that she is not more anxious. Above all things I feel like I need to get out of this place, fast. I can’t leave Jules here and I need to know what these people want from me. I feel my options slipping away. There are no glimmers here, no indication of what options I have. I have to make my own decisions, unaided and unwarned of any possible outcomes. I decide to sit down and have some tea, finding that my sense of apathy is getting the better of me.
I walk forward and take a seat on the puff nearer the fire. I’m sure I’m being uncouth sitting here, but the fire warms my back, and I can face the two women sitting here, rather than join at the side and lose sight of one of them. Esther pours me some tea and I accept it, thanking her automatically.
“Biscuit?” she holds out a plate of biscuits: bourbons, digestives and, by the looks of it, hobnobs. I do enjoy a biscuit with my tea, so reach out and take one. The warm fire, the warm tea, the biscuit all add to the fantasy of this being a normal tea party. I let the pretence wash over me for a moment, but then jarringly return to the actual situation.
“What do you want from me? Why did you bring Jules here and not take me?” I ask, hearing the pleading tone in my voice. I want answers, but know Esther holds all the cards in this particular exchange. I sit back, sipping my tea and looking directly at Esther, sitting there in a complete state of calm.
I look across to Jules, who smiles nervously at me. All of her flair and beauty seems muted here, like she has been confined in her mind, rather than with bonds or locked doors. I well up the best smile I can think to bring forth and even wink at her. This momentarily restores the colour in her eyes, but it fades again quickly.
Esther moves in her seat, seemingly to gather my attention, and as I look round she begins to speak.
“I’m going to talk to you for a while now, ok?” without pausing for acknowledgment she carries on. “I’m going to tell you the same tale my men told your young friend here, and that I elaborated on when she arrived here. You see that she is quite calm and relaxed. That is how I want you to be during this, well, lecture of sorts. I may say some things that you may not want to hear, but mostly this will be about history. My history, and the history of my family. I told you some of it when you were here last, but I omitted so much that I think the meaning was lost on you. You need not be scared of me, for I am well-versed in the process working it’s way through you.” she pauses to take a sip of tea and a breath. I feel the warmth on my back holding me in place. I want quick answers, but it seems they will come slowly and methodically. I look around and see the two men, stoically standing guard just at the edge of our little circle.
“I won’t repeat myself, but in summary, my family have watched people with your abilities for hundreds of years; archiving, monitoring but never interacting with the power you possess. The truth is that my family have always wanted to find and examine a person such as yourself, to ascertain what it is, if that is possible, that allows you to see multiple timelines and make decisions based on what you can see. We have vaults of anecdotal information from the decades of research, but no hard science to give us any more answers. In the past, from my grandfather backwards, they were content to observe and try to glean the source from a distance. My father, before he passed, imbued me with a need for more. He sent me to the best schools for scientific research and then university, to work with people deep in the realm of organic chemistry, physics and the fringe sciences around paranormal events. At his command I threw myself into the work, coming home in the holidays to continue researching the archives of evidence that had been collected. My father was getting slow in his advancing years, and looked more to me for the discovery of new models and methods of researching our data. When he passed, his final words to me were that I keep on searching, by any means necessary, for the source of the power. I admit that up until now I have only had some mild success with clustering the data and performing some artificial recognition on the events surrounding those who are affected with this gift.”
Again she pauses, leaving a moment of dead air. I think of asking a question but my voice hangs dead in the back of my mouth. The information I want is more immediate, but I cannot prevent her from telling me about the other times this has happened. I start to realise why Jules is so calm. She, like me, wants to understand what is happening to me, and to find out why Esther is involved so deeply in this occurrence. I just sit quietly, sipping my tea.
“The work I have done so far on the small vial of blood, that we took when you were last our guest, has told me more about the process than any of the millions of words in the journals and archives here. I could throw it all out and just keep the small glass tube! Of course, I would never do that. The archives are very dear to me, representing many hours of work from my lineage. They are my path to the past, and to the people that created me, in this place, with this goal. It is this small vial that brings us back together so soon. You see, many members of my family, going back, believed the power was ethereal and external, some kind of spiritual ‘aura’ that surrounds you and gives you this ability. I myself have always thought this theory to be representative of people who know little of science, or who had limited access to the latest scientific theories and methods. Not their fault, you understand, they are products of the era they were alive in. I am far luckier to be here in the modern day, with resources that enable me to access the very pinnacle of technological advances. I have always thought that some genetic, or physiological, cause was the source. Your blood has not quite proven this, but has gone a long way in my understanding of how the ability begins to manifest itself. In your DNA I found small, irregular, anomalies. This is not unusual, DNA is very likely to contain anomalies and defects, but the anomalies I found in your DNA match precisely with anomalies found all through the fossil record. I checked with an academic we are funding in Greece, who confirmed that the anomalies have been present, intermittently, all through the ages we have to study. This means the chance of them being unique are too far from possibility, that they are intentional and purposeful. We have already sent the results off to be studied more closely, of course, keeping your and my identities completely untraceable. I need unbiased and verified results, and could not get those if these scientists knew what I was looking for. We are already very close to sequencing your entire genome, and matching it against known genetic traits, to see if there is anything close to an answer to what these anomalies are. You are not unique, but you are incredibly rare. That is why I asked my men to collect you by any means.” she stops for a moment to look over at the two men.
“My men have a certain lateral ’stretch’ in their work. I ask them for high level results, and trust them to work out the low level intricacies. In this case they saw you with this young lady and decided that it would be easier to capture her, and rely on you to come for her, post haste. Bravo for you for coming so quickly.”
My teacup lay empty on it’s saucer, and I couldn’t decide whether to put them back down on the tray, requiring me to lean in, or to just sit here holding them. I leant forward and Esther intercepted the cup, placing it gently on the tray. She looked at me quizzically, expectant of some reply to the lengthy speech she had just given.
“Go on” I said confidently, though not sure where my certainty came from. “Please continue. I can tell this is the beginning of the pitch, so please, continue with your story.” I could hear the cutting edge in my voice, but still had no idea where it was coming from.
“I do understand your impatience, coupled with your concern for this young lady, and yourself. I can assure you that this background is vital to where I wish to go with our relationship. If I may beg a bit more of your time, I am sure the questions you have shall be answered, where I am in a position to answer them.” She adjusts her position in the chair, crossing her legs the other way, and continues. “The facility downstairs, that you saw on your last visit to us, contains more than the small clinic where I drew and analysed your blood. There are a number of rooms I have equipped for just such an encounter, training rooms of a sort, where you can hone your abilities and perhaps gain greater control. The genetic markers I have studied show signs of an ancient mutation that has all but been wiped out. When the archives were first populated there were many such people as you, but as the years have passed they have either become more adept at hiding their ability, or there really are less of you. It is certainly possible you are the only person in your generation who has this ability. Would you care to tour the training rooms, and perhaps try out some exercises?”.
I’m torn, truly. My mind knows that, sensibly, we must leave as soon as possible, that there is a danger here. At the same time I am wholly intrigued by the training rooms, and the possibility of working out what is happening, and then to be able to control it, is extremely attractive. I ask for a moment to speak with Jules, and Esther calls one of her men forward to escort us to a small anteroom off the main atrium. I stand up and take Julie’s hand, cold and clammy, and walk her to the small room. As we step inside I turn, facing the man, and pull the door closed, watching a small grimace appear on his face as the door closes. We are alone.
I lean forward and take Jules by the hand to the desk, and pull her hard into my clasp as I rest against the wooden bureau. I put my arms around her, spread out to encapsulate as much of her body as possible. Her hair fills my mouth and nose, and she jerks a few times as I feel moisture on my shoulder and neck. She’s crying and shaking. I turn her slowly around and guide her into a chair, following her head down until I am kneeling on the floor in front of her. My finger guides her chin upwards, bringing her eyes into view, and I see them looking straight back at me.
“It’s okay now, I’m here. I’m so sorry this happened to you, that they took you, that I couldn’t stop them. I’m so, so sorry Jules.” I can feel my eyes begin to glisten, the weight of today is starting to catch up with me.
“I was so afraid for you, watching that car pull away with you in it. It all happened so quickly that I just couldn’t stop it. I’m sorry.” I say this and my head drops to my chest, imploding around the sorrow for her pain and fear, that I caused just by being with her. I sob and feel water drift down my cheek slowly, ebbing towards my jaw and then dropping off.
“It’s not your fault” her voice sounds soft and barely audible. I lift my head a little, just enough to catch a glimpse of her eyes looking down at me. She leans forward and kisses my forehead. I try to smile but I can’t bring my heart up to the task, the sobriety and drama surrounding us right now prevents me feeling anything but remorse for the past week.
I look up further and see Jules is looking brighter than when we first came in. She’s almost smiling, her mouth straight but her lips are soft and warm. We kiss for just a moment before I remember where we are.
“Do you want to leave? I don’t know, but it seems that mad woman has no intention to hold us against our will. I am intrigued by the training rooms she has built, but I realise it’s not safe here. Shall we go?” I ask, trying to deliver a fair description of my feelings.
“Not yet,” she smiles at me “you’ve got training to do.”