Rachel’s tail twitched as she heard Tom’s muscles relax. He rolled his neck with a low moan, taking a deep breath before letting it out in a steady stream. “Alright, well then, I think we’ve got ourselves a deal. You’re sure you can convince the others?”
She maintained her relaxed posture, legs crossed while smiling. “As long as you give me all the details, then it shouldn’t be a problem. I already plan to discuss a lot with them, but … it might have to wait until the evening. Fiona and Scarlet are barely keeping themselves awake. I suspect they’ll pass out by the time we’re done.”
Tom’s lips creased as he leaned back. “Hmm, how about yourself? I still can’t believe you’re not affected by that fight; even if you’ve got supernatural abilities, you were thrown through three buildings. Unless … do you have another ability besides Emotional Detachment to deal with the pain or mitigate the damage?”
More prodding into my abilities … I do need to solve my Lunar Pride issue. With the entire U.S. intelligence network at his disposal, he’d be well acquainted with The System, or so I’d imagine. They should have some useful intel that can help me.
Deciding to shoot from the hip, she took the risk. “I’m more concerned about another issue that I’d like your input on.”
Tom’s brow lifted. “Oh—that sparks my interest. I didn’t expect you to ask for help.”
Rachel’s mask split as her ears twitched with her left eye, and the pressure against her tail increased as she pressed it down with agitation. Dang-it … Lunar Pride. Maybe this is why Risk Assessment has leveled up so quickly; Lunar Pride’s been clashing with my other abilities this entire time … it can even break through Emotional Detachment to some degree, but it seems my stress can filter past it a bit if it gets too high.
“It’s—hard for me to talk about,” she struggled to get the words out. “This is with Emotional Detachment active—I have a Lunar Hare trait that’s called Lunar Pride. It’s likely my most detrimental change since becoming a Lunar Hare. I wanted to discuss it with the others—but this conversation has also put me at an impasse…” She trailed off, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath as the heat in her chest increased.
His surprise turned to concern; he shifted his weight, folding his arms uncomfortably. “Lunar Pride … a Lunar Hare trait. So, my statement just now about you needing my help struck at that pride factor?” He hummed as she nodded. “Okay … Lunar Pride—what do you call this change that occurred during The Oscillation? How do you define it?”
Her consternation began to fade a little as the topic shifted a little off herself and more toward defining the ability. She opened her eyes, rubbing at her burning breast, heart throbbing. “Well,” she swallowed saliva that had built up, “I’ve come to see it as something like a game system; it was first explained to me like that just after The Oscillation happened. One of the girls—another student that went to the CDC with me. She was the first person that tried to help me understand my abilities.
“Julia, one of the animal specialists that the Military recruited to analyze Mythickin in this area, also seemed to think that these abilities functioned like a game. That’s not to say it is a game—it just operates in the same manner.
“The most in-depth explanation I heard was from Relica; she was obsessed with this new system. Since her change into a Legendkin, she was experimenting and pushing her abilities to their maximum—it hurts—even to think that I couldn’t beat her. I want to think that I would have found a way…”
“The pride,” Tom mumbled, studying her struggling demeanor closely. “That is a problem.”
Rachel licked her lips as her agitation grew, making her tail twitch again. She nodded, tucking her bottom lip under her teeth. “I believe I developed Risk Assessment and Emotional Detachment to counter it, but it’s not a perfect solution—still, I can at least talk about it to some degree with it active. This is—probably my closest held secret—this consternated feeling I have toward myself, and I need a solution.”
She unfolded her legs, clutching at her tight thighs as she looked down at the table. “You mentioned others having behavioral changes … is there anything you can think of that will help me overcome this?”
He lightly ground his teeth; the silence stretched a full minute as he thought. Rachel fidgeting as he glared down at the folders in front of him. “So—this is like a Racial Trait of the Lunar Hare, correct? Something similar to say—Scarlet drinking blood? From what I’ve learned, there are different levels to each person’s abilities. Is a Racial Trait a skill; in other words, can it increase in level?”
Rachel turned her head, staring at the wall. “To be honest … nevermind, give me a second to think.” I can’t say I’m scared to ask … if Lunar Pride can increase in Levels, Grades, and Ranks, then … it’d feed off the counters I develop for that skill too. It would be a never-ending spiral.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, and rolled her neck around, trying to ease the tension she felt. Letting her head fall back, she opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling, fingers playing with her hair atop her lap.
What’s the level, grade, and rank of Lunar Pride … one, Novice, rank nine. Crap. At least I haven’t put any points into it, but will I get a Proficiency Skill when it reaches max? Of course you’d be silent; you never give me answers to things I don’t already possess. What type of skill is Lunar Pride … a Lunar Hare Racial Trait … great.
“You look like you’re sucking on lemons … is it bad?” Tom asked with a grave tone.
Should I tell him about what information I have on The System? I do need his help, and if I can provide him with information, then he’ll owe me for that. I think it might be beneficial in the long run.
Bending forward, she rested her head on the table, looking down at her bunched hair in her lap; it slid down, stopping just above the floor. “I’ll share the information I’ve gained with you … I need solutions.”
He grunted a soft laugh. “I get you; go ahead.”
“Skills, Traits, Abilities, whatever they are, they have three different categories,” she mumbled. “They have Level, Grade, and Rank, but they each are connected in a way. Increasing the level will unlock higher grades, and as you use that ability, it will increase the rank, which will then increase your grade if you’ve opened the appropriate grade level. It’s a cycle.
“So—if your level is four in a skill, and you use that skill often, then it will reach Novice Grade, Rank-Ten, and cap until you level that skill up to five, unlocking the next Grade and resetting your rank back to zero. You have the Level System that requires points to put into and the Proficiency System that requires effort or use to increase.”
Tom nodded slowly. “I see—it’s a bit more complicated than I was led to believe; it draws the question, how many grades there are and how high you can level something up. Do you know how to obtain points to increase levels?”
Rachel lifted her head, shaking it. “I don’t know that yet … my Lunar Pride is Level one, Grade Novice, and Rank- Nine. Once a Grade reaches max Rank, then it seems to gain a Proficiency Skill; that’s how I obtained Emotional Detachment.”
What are Racial Traits … the skills passively learned upon unlocking a Tree. Does increasing the Level and Grade lower its effects or increase it? No answer … wonderful…
“You’ve given me more information in thirty seconds than thousands of people that are working on this issue,” Tom muttered heavily. “So, there are negative traits that can be leveled up … for what purpose, though? Why would you want to level them up?”
She sat up, repositioning her hair across her front. “It won’t give me an answer; it might just be because I’m not asking the right question, though. The knowledge we gain from this system is minimal and really depends on the question asked and the person’s desire. So—there’s nothing you know that could help me?”
“Not at the moment,” Tom said, frown deepening. “However, I’ll keep my ears open, and if I do hear something, then I’ll let you know.”
Shoot and miss… “There’s at least that,” Rachel chuckled tiredly. I just have to hope they’ll learn something that will help me in the long run; it does provide good faith with Tom too … I’ve really made my bed with him, but it’s a calculated risk with the potential for high reward.
The sharp emotions bleeding through Emotional Detachment began to fade, and her cool composure returned. “Alright, now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to know what you have planned for us. I’ve already accepted your offer, but I’m finding it hard to believe the U.S. Military needs the help of four girls.”
“Still cautious,” Tom sighed. “You don’t have to reveal much about yourself to me; consolidating information is important, but I’m glad you told me about Lunar Pride—even if it was a potential risk. I’m hesitant to even dig deeper on the subject; I might be compromised at some point in the future—there’s a lot we don’t know in this changing world.”
Rachel hummed darkly. “Compromised? Relica, I assume.”
“There’s a lot in your report to Captain Jerry that caught my interest, but Relica was a key point. I’ve been briefed on a lot of incidents regarding people with powers, but Relica’s are very disconcerting. When I read that report on my flight over, it reinforced my decision to come personally.”
“She is a major threat,” Rachel nodded, vision dropping to the table.
Tom’s features hardened as he studied her. “Obviously, you didn’t provide all the details, which is fine—I’m actually glad you didn’t. The fear of ability users has caused many factions to divide Washington; there’s a reason I wanted this meeting to be private.”
“So,” Rachel stifled an involuntary yawn, fatigue hitting her mind. “How much of this meeting will return to Washington? It sounds like that’s a concern of yours. Do you actually think the White House is compromised?”
“Nothing so conspiratorial,” Tom grunted with grim amusement. “No, but the possibility nags at the back of my mind. It’s no secret that many politicians are motivated by counter ethical standards to the U.S. staple of liberty. There’s been a movement internally to try and find authoritarian means to limit those changed in the same way they want to restrict and ban guns.
“In fact, they’re flipping many of their opinions on firearms; ironic, the moment someone else holds power outside their control, they advocate for something they supposedly hate. Getting past the hypocrisy, they’re scared.
“It’s no longer fear the big muscle guy or their laughably ignorant stance on weapons; did the prohibition or banning drugs ever stop anything? Regulations, sure, but banning, no. I’m getting off-topic … now you have teenagers that can throw fireballs and babies that can spit acid or that chase after mice and eat them. It’s a scary new world, and there’s talk of segregation already … stupid, but understandable stances.”
Rachel nodded. “I can see that, but it would only bring about a division; just like the African American segregation, it would break at some point. It’s best to learn how to live together than breaking up into factions or tribes.”
“That’s the problem,” Tom sighed. “It started with the Culture War, and now this has tipped the whole boat; tribes are forming everywhere in Washington. Right now there’s a ban on weapon sells during Martial Law, but people are scrambling to seek personal protection, which means they’ll find a way.”
She frowned, head tilting to the side. “It’s a complicated issue that would require a lot of critical thinking; it’s not easily solved. Yes, people need to feel safe, but at the same time, not ruled by fear. You can take away a gun, but you can’t take away someone’s ability to cast a spell that causes frostbite by shooting out an ice bolt from someone’s palm.”
“Therein lies the problem,” he rubbed his forehead, blinking a few times. “Weapons allow the weak to stand up to the strong. That’s why the Second Amendment was created in the U.S. The Founders were the little-guys taking on the big-guys, and they wanted every citizen to have the ability to do the same; it’s a check, a balance for tyrannical power.
“However, the power scale just changed. If someone with powers decides to be a terrorist, for whatever reason, then how do you catch or stop it? A man that can cause explosions without any ingredients walks on a plane and blows it up … how could we prevent that?”
“I see your point,” Rachel mumbled. “As your report mentioned, we did meet some teenagers that were playing hero. We scared them into not going to South Beach and trying to rescue people; one mistake can cost lives. We even acted like them. You have vigilantes like Carter that’s amassing support against Mythickin in general with a focus on Scarlet. There are a million issues to solve, and things are escalating too fast for the government to keep up.”
She looked up at him with narrowed eyes. “That’s something that’s bugging me … you’re sidelining all of that—more specifically, you’re pulling away from all that to meet me. I can understand it on a few levels; Relica for one as a major national security risk, but that first file you showed Ruth has me worried.
“I assume it’s one of the main reasons you’re recruiting Scarlet, Fiona, Maria, and me. Everything we’ve discussed right now, the millions of issues branching from The Oscillation, we can’t really help with. However, Ruth said this file makes all of our current issues look like a picnic … that’s terrifying.”
Tom looked down at one of the files that were spread across the table in front of him, tapping the blank surface. “I’ll start with your first question. When it comes to the information about yourself … I won’t be sharing much with the president; that’s not his main concern. I’ll just tell him that you accepted the proposal.”
He paused, taking a drink of his vitamin water. “You don’t need to tell me much more about yourself, either. Lunar Pride answers several of my questions already, as well as the leveling system that you kept out of the initial report, and yes, a primary factor for this meeting is this new intel we’ve received that has everyone at the top of DOD jumpy.”
Rachel took a few sips of her own water as he paused, looking for the right words. “We need someone with combat experience that can get results—someone able to get the job done and intel back at any price.”
Rachel’s tail stiffened as she set her bottle down. “Sounds dirty, but you have plenty of men for that.”
“It might be,” Tom shrugged, holding eye contact, “and yes, I do have very skilled men that could take part. However, it’s the mystery behind it all, that is what makes this situation so dangerous, and why I need a wild card; I don’t know how long we can hold onto this information before releasing it to the public, which is why we need actionable intel as soon as possible.”
His hand slid across the table to a file half shown by the folders atop it; pulling it out, he tossed it across the table to her. “You’ll need to sign that NDA first.”
She opened the file and quickly read down the page. “A Non-Disclosure Agreement. So—I can’t speak to anyone about this—not even people here at the FBI. The only person I’m allowed to discuss this with is Maria, Fiona, and Scarlet; if they’ve signed the same NDA themselves. Breaking this agreement will mark us with Conspiracy to Commit Treason … that’s death.”
She looked up at him, still relaxed with Emotional Detachment. “You expect this information to be made public knowledge given time, though?”
Tom’s tired expression turned to steel. “Yes, however, you’re never to disclose your involvement in this matter. It’s a complete black book operation; even if we disclose details about the mission, there will be no record of your involvement.”
Looking back down at the NDA, Rachel traced a circle with her middle finger. The record doesn’t even state what we’re to keep secret; it merely says the information disclosed during my meeting with Tom, and related intel to the event are top-secret.
If what he’s saying is to be taken literally, then the only people that know about this situation is the president, Tom, DOD top brass, and Ruth probably has a general understanding of what we’re being asked to do. Whatever this is, it’s under the highest levels of security; this is far more serious than a simple one and done event. The mystery behind it all is what makes this dangerous…
“Can you tell me how dangerous this will be?” Rachel asked, looking into Tom’s blue eyes.
“I can’t until you sign the NDA.”
His tightening muscles told her everything she needed to know. He expects this to be highly dangerous, which is why he’s come to us after reading through our engagement. We may just be the most suitable candidates; we have the rap sheet that requires high levels of authority to sweep under the rug and the power and history to make tough calls. I don’t know if we could make those kinds of tough calls in every situation, though. In any case, there’s a limit to what we can do in the short-term.
“To be clear, we’re very fatigued right now. You said that you needed actionable intel as soon as possible, but we need to recover. Realistically, Maria could restore us to our physical health, but our group is only functional during the night, and I’m reliant upon the moon. That also means that Maria would be expending her strength.”
Tom took a deep breath, slumping back in his chair. “Yes, I understand there are compounding issues. Once you sign the appropriate documentation, I can tell you the details.” He tapped the first file a few times.
Rachel closed her eyes and sighed before opening them back up to glare at the large mysterious cream-colored folder. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice.”
She held out her hand, and Tom produced a pen from inside his jacket. Taking the pen, she twisted it open and signed the NDA. She closed the folder and slid the pen back over to him.
He shook his head. “Keep the pen for the others to use.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Rachel’s tone was even, “but I don’t trust that it’s not bugged. I’m sure I can find a pen elsewhere.”
Tom smirked, pushing it back. “Fair enough, and no, it’s not bugged, but I understand.” He slid over another file. “Just one more to sign, and then you’ll have the clearance needed.”
Opening the folder, she scanned down the page; it seemed like a simple clearance acceptance form referencing back to a host of legal documents regarding the Department of Defense. “Explain this one to me.”
“It’s just the standard DOD Security Clearance issued by DISCO or the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office; you’re basically under contract.”
Rachel’s brow furrowed. “Wait, does that mean we get paid?”
He chuckled, folding his arms. “Well, you could say that your freedom is your reward, but expenses will be covered for the job we’ll be contracting you for.”
“For a black list mission, there’s more red tape than I thought there’d be,” she muttered. Signing the document, she set the pen down beside the two closed files. “I assume the others will need to sign the papers issued behind mine before I talk to them?”
Tom stretched. “How it is.”
“Alright then,” Rachel sat back, hands folded in her lap. “I took the bait; what’s the top-secret agenda?”
She kept her posture lax; Tom’s demeanor sagged as his muscles loosened, and he slumped back in his chair with a long sigh. “Finally,” he chuckled, closing his eyes.
The silence continued as he breathed softly, obviously deeply relieved. I suppose I haven’t really considered it, but him being here with all this preparation … how much was he banking on this discussion being a success?
Her ears twitched as she heard Scarlet moan. “Aw, Rachel’s talking with some Army guy … wait, he has four stars on his shoulder.”
“That’s pretty—high in the Military, right?” Fiona yawned, shifting atop something fluffy.
“Yeah, like—super high. I think he’s pretty stressed, but it looks like Rachel said something that’s making him relax.”
“How long do you think they’ll talk?”
Rachel looked toward their voices and held up her thumb with a soft smile and slight nod.
“Who knows … she turned her head to look at me—I think she’s telling me we can get some sleep.”
“Really?” Fiona hoisted herself up with a short huff. “That’s wild … you can see her, and she can hear you.”
“I’m kind of becoming used to it,” Scarlet giggled. “Maria’s awake—it looks like she’s pretty drained still, though; she’s leaning up against the glass resting. I hate the freaking sun—it’s so bright … It’s like I’m going blind looking at it.”
“It’s—okay to go to sleep, though?” Fiona stifled another yawn.
“Yeah, I think so,” Scarlet mirrored her. “Let’s sleep … my mind is dead.”
“Ditto—well, goodnight,” she groaned, snuggling into what Rachel assumed was a pillow.
“Do you want a napkin or tissue or something to cover you?”
“Mmh—that’d be nice,” Fiona mumbled sleepily.
Scarlet giggled softly as she got up; Rachel assumed she got a tissue and placed it over Fiona’s likely nude body before snuggling into her own blanket beside her. “Night…”
Rachel’s attention shifted back to Tom; he was still in his silent stupor, and his body almost seemed like it was on the verge of sleep. She decided to break the peaceful atmosphere. “It sounds like you’re close to passing out?”