After our stay in Se Nadak, we travel to Se Imidar, another town in the southern rift valley. Then we move onto Se Vraja, a small town on the edge of the Da Suaung Mountains. It’s dense rainforest here, and it continues to rain every day. We’ve been travelling for nearly three months now, so we stay here for four days to rest. Some of you explore the town. Others recreate on the river. Some of you hike into the mountains in the mornings before the rain comes. A few of you truly rest and stay at the inn.
While we stay in Se Vraja, I tell you a story you’ve been waiting to hear for a long time. The full story is much too long for me to share, and some of the details aren’t interesting anyway, so I tell you an abridged version. You’re finally learning where magic came from.
* * * * *
Many of the scientists at the Aveshik Research Institute on Kareena were experts in neuroscience and genetics. When studying the brain, they came across an unused section. For years, no one could figure out why this part of the brain was inactive.
They conducted numerous experiments to see if they could determine what this part of the brain was capable of. They weren’t expecting to unlock those capabilities.
* * * * *
Selena flexed her fingers. She felt different, but she wasn’t sure why. There were hundreds of sticky pads all over her body, especially her head, that wirelessly transmitted information to the scientists’ computers. Did they know what was different about her?
“How do you feel?” one of the scientists asked. She had frizzy red hair, and according to her badge, her name was Alice.
“I’m not sure,” she replied. She was thirsty. She’d been hooked up to the wires for several hours and hadn’t had anything to eat or drink. How she wished she could have a drink.
Cool water filled the palm of her hand.
Selena was so startled, she dropped the water on the floor.
“What was that?” a scientist asked. “Was that water in her hand?”
“This region of her brain fired up right before that happened,” another scientist said, pointing to a screen. “Selena, can you explain what happened?”
Selena was still staring at her hand. “I-I’m thirsty, so I thought about wanting water, and it just…appeared. In my hand.”
The scientists murmured to each other. “We got that on camera, right?” one of them asked.
“Yes, here it is.” Someone played the recording of the incident.
“Can you do it again?” Alice asked.
Selena took a deep breath to steady herself before thinking about how much she wanted water. Her palm filled again. This time she managed to hold it there.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Alice asked the room. “We’ve somehow discovered something akin to magic.”
* * * * *
Selena was forced to stay at the lab for monitoring purposes. There were cameras all over her hospital-style room. She tried to ignore the fact that she had zero privacy. She felt like a freak on display. What had happened to her? Why was she suddenly capable of summoning water? While her job was to let the scientists manipulate her brain, she knew this was real and not some kind of hallucination. She wasn’t entirely sure how she knew, but she did. How was she able to manipulate water?
If she could do that, what else could she do? The scientists had asked her not to intentionally use her abilities right now, though they understood the powers might engage on accident since they were linked so closely to Selena’s thoughts.
Selena didn’t want to trigger any more weird events, so she tried to think of other things. She thought about her two little brothers. They were the reason she was here in the first place. After their parents died in an accident, Selena was left as the only caretaker for her siblings. Noah would be of age in a couple years, so he was mostly self-sufficient. Peter, on the other hand, was too young to be on his own. She knew Noah would take care of Peter while she was detained at the Research Institute, but she tried not to think about how worried Peter would be.
This job was risky, but it paid well, and she desperately needed the money to pay for food and shelter. What if the scientists made her stay here forever? Were her abilities permanent, thus warranting permanent observation? What had they done to her to unlock them? What was the price for using them?
Selena had too many questions to be able to sleep peacefully.
* * * * *
The next day, the scientists brought Selena back into the experiment room. She still had all the sticky pads on her body from the day before. She stood inside the glass room. What would happen to her today?
“We know yesterday was a strange day for you,” Alice said. “We’d be lying if we said we fully understand what happened to you. We would like to learn more about your new abilities. Are you willing to work with us on that?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Selena said.
“We want to see if you can manipulate anything other than water.”
“What would you like me to try?”
“Whatever you think you can do.”
Selena wondered what else she could do. If she could summon water, could she summon its opposite? She held out her hand and wished for fire. Nothing happened. She thought about being cold and pictured snow and ice and biting winds. She thought about how fire would warm her and prevent her from freezing. A small flame appeared, hovering above her hand.
Selena jerked her hand away, and the flame disappeared.
* * * * *
The scientists spent weeks determining the extent of Selena’s powers. During this time, they allowed her brothers to visit her, and they increased her salary in exchange for her agreeing to stay at the Research Institute for continued monitoring. Selena had a total of five powers: she could manipulate water, fire, earth, air, and electricity.
But only part of Selena’s brain was engaged. Most of the unused portion was still a mystery.
The scientists gave Selena the option to undergo further experimentation, but Selena declined. She missed her brothers too much. The scientists agreed to let her return home as long as she agreed not to talk about or use her new powers. They continued to pay her as further incentive to hide her abilities, and they hired a bodyguard to monitor her and her safety from a distance.
Even though Selena was done experimenting with magic, the scientists weren’t.
* * * * *
Their next volunteer was Jason. Jason’s parents were wealthy politicians, so he wasn’t motivated by the money. He was bored and thought brain experiments would be an amusing form of entertainment. The new agreement requiring volunteers to live on-site didn’t bother him. He never saw his parents because they were too busy with non-Jason things. To him, the whole thing was an adventure.
The Research Institute built a top-secret laboratory on an island exclusively for experiments related to magic. The scientists didn’t want to put citizens in harm’s way if the magic got out of control.
Jason had a bag of personal belongings on the seat beside him as the plane flew to the island. He wondered what kind of experimenting warranted such a secret base. Jason had seen movies about people getting superhero abilities from experiments gone wrong. He wondered if something like that would happen to him.
* * * * *
After Jason had been at the laboratory for several days and had gotten settled, he was brought into a glass room, and sticky pads were placed all over his body. The head scientist, Alice, said they would be conducting their first experiment today.
The scientists were gathered around a bunch of screens, which they either watched or tapped. Jason wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he didn’t feel any different. Then the temperature in the room dropped.
“Can you stop yourself from freezing?” Alice asked.
“Don’t worry. We’ll raise the temperature in a moment. We just want to see if you can do anything about it.”
“What do you mean ‘do anything about it’? There’s nothing in here I can use to keep warm.”
“Please don’t panic. Just think about being warm.”
Jason didn’t need to be told to think about warmth. He desperately wanted the room to be warmer. Please be warmer, he thought over and over again. Something shifted in him, and the room’s temperature changed. He wasn’t cold anymore. They must’ve given up on him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how you want me to keep myself warm in here short of magic.”
“We didn’t change the temperature,” Alice said.
“That was you.”
“We’ve learned how to unlock a part of the brain that was never used before. This is only the beginning. Some of your brain function is still a mystery.”
“So, I have superpowers now?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. Everything that’s happening has a scientific explanation. We just don’t fully understand it yet. That’s why we want to monitor you. We want to learn the boundaries and limitations, if there are any.”
It took them several months, but they were finally able to determine the extent of Jason’s powers. He had fifty-six of them. They hadn’t asked him to complete anything other than small tasks, but so far they hadn’t encountered any problems.
They couldn’t find any limits to the powers either. They didn’t appear to take a toll on his energy, even when he spent entire days using magic for their various experiments. But these were only small tasks. They hadn’t attempted the big ones yet.
* * * * *
While the scientists were experimenting with Jason and some other volunteers, Selena was trying to enjoy living with her brothers. She kept her powers hidden like she had promised, but she worried. What if someone found out she had them? What if someone wanted to use them? Was she safe?
Her fears weren’t unfounded. The Shikan government had a spy amongst the Research Institute’s employees. He was a new hire, added on after the addition of the top-secret laboratory on the island. It had taken some digging for him to find Selena’s file, but he had found it. The government didn’t want Selena on the loose. She was a danger to society and a weapon for their country.
The Shikan military was tasked with finding her and experimenting on her until they were able to duplicate her abilities. Then they could use this technology to create an army of unstoppable soldiers.
* * * * *
Selena was awoken in the dead of night by a group of uniformed soldiers surrounding her. They were all armed. Her first instinct was to shield her face with her arms.
“Please don’t hurt me,” she said.
“Come with us, and no harm will befall you or your brothers,” a soldier said.
Oh no. Her brothers. What had she gotten them involved in? She knew the job was risky, but she didn’t think it would put her brothers in danger. She rose and followed the soldiers to a heavily armored vehicle. They drove in silence for a long while.
“What are you going to do with me?” Selena asked.
No one answered her.
“Tell me now, or you’ll be sorry.” Selena’s voice shook.
“Any attempt to use your magic against us will result in the deaths of your brothers. Understood?”
Selena didn’t say anything.
She was forced into an underground military base and locked in a room. It reminded her of her hospital room at the Aveshik Research Institute except it was far less cozy. Why had she taken this job? Now her brothers were in danger. If she didn’t cooperate, the soldiers would kill them in an instant. They hadn’t been in the armored vehicle, so she hoped the soldiers would let them live their lives as normally as possible. It was better for them to be free than be stuck here with her. Would she ever see them again?
A military doctor came in and examined her before attaching sticky pads to her body. He nodded at a hand-held screen.
“Interesting,” he said over and over again. “Do you know what they did to you?”
She shook her head. They didn’t share the specifics of their research with her.
The doctor left, and Selena sat alone in her cell.
Using the information from the government’s spy, the military doctor and his team were able to increase the number of powers Selena had from five to fifty-six. They put her through rigorous exercises to determine the extent of her abilities. Selena hated it. But she reminded herself what would happen to her brothers if she failed to cooperate. So, she continued without a complaint.
* * * * *
The scientists from the Research Institute were able to create a dozen successful super-powered durmiads. Two of the people they experimented on died. Their brains couldn’t handle the extra abilities. After that, they stopped giving people powers. It was unethical for them to continue until they could determine the differences between the successful people and the dead ones, allowing them to select volunteers accordingly.
Jason learned more about his abilities every day. And every day his thoughts strayed more and more. What if he used his powers outside of the experiments? They couldn’t keep him contained in the laboratory. He could teleport wherever he wanted to. He could leave this place and do whatever he wanted. They had cameras on him at all times, so for now, he stayed put. Using his powers outside of the experiments would irreversibly alter his relationship with the scientists, and he needed to think it through first.
He thought it would be rather entertaining to show the world his powers. See the excitement, admiration, confusion, and fear in their eyes. Were the scientists going to share this information with the world? Or was it going to remain a secret forever?
What could he do with his powers? He could establish himself as a leader. He could build an empire like the warriors of old. Emperor Jason. He liked the sound of that.
* * * * *
The military didn’t want the Research Institute to be able to stop their soldiers. Something had to be done about their magic-wielding durmiads. The spy had managed to fake two deaths, and those people now resided at the military base. They still needed the others. If they could get the other twelve, they would have fifteen total, and the Research Institute would have none.
The Research Institute was already on the defensive because of Selena’s disappearance. The military would have to be strategic about capturing the others.
The army broke into the laboratory in the dead of night, slaying anyone who stood in their way. They used Selena’s powers to combat those of the other magic-wielders. They quickly subdued their targets and loaded them into a transport vehicle. That’s when they gave Selena the order.
“I won’t do it,” she said.
“If you don’t, we’ll kill your brothers.”
Selena knew they were serious. Her brothers’ lives meant nothing to them. Doing what they wanted would kill a lot of people. Should she do it and save her brothers? Or should she sacrifice her brothers and refuse? The military would probably kill those people with or without her help. Either way, those people were dead. At least if she did it, her brothers would be safe.
Selena raised her hand in the direction of the laboratory. Nothing happened at first, so she raised her other hand. Sweat beaded on her brow as she attempted to summon the massive amount of magic required for the task. Then the compound exploded. Selena fell to the ground, dead. It appeared there was a limit to their abilities.
When the soldiers got all of the magic-wielders to their base, they did a head count. Thirteen plus the dead one. Where was the fifteenth?
* * * * *
Jason watched the military caravan from the safety of his lofty height. He loved flying. He loved being invisible too. Both abilities certainly came in handy. He followed the military vehicles to their base. While his comrades were in military custody, Jason was free. Free to do whatever he wanted with his powers. Maybe he would become that emperor.