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[Interlude:] Making the Grade


Bannon
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Thursday, 5th September. 

Project Proteus HQ, 17:43

Annette sat back in the comfortable office chair she’d picked to replace the almost throne-like monstrosity Dr Cook had sat in when the Director’s office had belonged to him, looking at the holographic display as it scrolled through the results Major Taggart had punched up for her on his tablet.  Eyebrows twitched upward over brown eyes as she scanned the contents of the shimmering screen, beyond which sat Taggart himself and two of the Project’s scientists, each of whom was a study in opposites to the other.

Professor Larry Palahniuk was a short, rotund red-faced man in an unfastened lab coat, sweater vest over a shirt, and khakis.  He was the same scientist who’d accosted Marissa and Courtney on their visit to the Project - a somewhat obsessive, if brilliant, man with PhDs in Quantum Mechanics and Astrophysics and no interest at all in organisational politics so long as he got the funding he asked for.

Next to him, all cool elegance mingled with a hint of disdain for all around her, sat Doctor Julia Carter.  In addition to being the head neurologist of the Marias Medical Center above, she had moved into the slot of the Project’s principle neuroscientist and geneticist following Cook’s removal and incarceration.  Annette wasn’t certain about Carter - Taggart’s security probing had revealed no connection between the good doctor and Professor Kline’s rogue operation.  No hidden bank accounts, no suspicious deposits, no shady communications.  And she was polite - in a chilly way - and competent - in a chilly way - and very skilled in organisational infighting to preserve her bailiwick from intrusion.  But Annette didn’t trust Dr Carter, a feeling which she’d passed off as a gut dislike both of the woman’s proximity to Cook and her borderline sociopathic detachment. That she had been brought in on this meeting was more due to her expertise and standing in the Project than anything else.

Annette forced her attention back to the data on the screen.  “These are impressive results.” she commented mildly, picking up her mug of tea and taking a sip.

“Impressive?!” Professor Palahniuk’s colour, already ruddy, deepened.  “I would say unlikely, and only because ‘impossible’ is not a word I like to throw around, given our line of scientific endeavour.”  He waved a hand at the holodisplay.  “A perfect score!  On every sub-section!  The boy must have cheated somehow.  Telepathy, perhaps.  Some manner of ESP.”

Off to one side, in her usual seat against the wall, legs curled under her and watching the proceedings with the customary mixture of amusement and aloof interest, Ellie shifted slightly, her eyes narrowing a fraction as they fixed on the professor.

“We stipulated, and Mister Bannon agreed, that no ‘Shine’ was to be used in this assessment, professor.”  Taggart responded, frowning.  “We have no reason to suspect bad faith on his part.”

“And his neural activity according to the EEG showed none of the same patterns we’ve noted when studying subjects Adams or Sykes, who were our telepath and our ESPer respectively.”  Dr Carter pointed out, studying her own tablet.  “Though his neural patterning is significantly different from anything I’ve seen.  The sheer level of synaptic engagement…  Well… His whole brain seems to light up, in layman’s terms.”

“We spent two days putting together that assessment.  I would struggle to complete it in the time Mister Bannon did.”  Palahniuk argued, somewhat plaintively as he realised that the mood in the room did not sync with his own skepticism.

“I doubt I’d even understand some of the concepts.”  Annette said dryly as she glanced over some of the problems.

“It was designed to be challenging to PhDs.”  Dr Carter responded, still avidly scanning the data on her pad.  “Covering a multitude of disciplines, to identify areas of intellectual and academic weakness.  No-one of Mister Bannon’s limited years should be able to answer all of the problems in the test, least of all in such a short space of time.”

“And yet he did.”  Taggart pointed out.

“And yet he did.”  Carter agreed, giving the Major a thin smile before returning her attention to her own screen.  “I also note a fascinating anomaly - no activity in the paralimbic system indicating nerves or tension of any kind.”  She glanced up at Annette, then across at Ellie, who met the older female’s gaze directly, without any shifting in her expression.

“Mister Bannon’s neurological oddities aside…”  Annette spoke up, causing Dr Carter to look back at her.  “Are we satisfied that he did, in fact, pass the test within the parameters set.”  The Project Director didn’t want Carter - or anyone else not cleared for it - to start putting two and two together regarding the Bannon boy’s strangeness.  Of course, the problem with working with very intelligent people is their tendency to think for themselves.  It would only be a matter of time until that cat was also out of the bag.

“I’m satisfied, yes.”  Dr Carter nodded, tapping her tablet off and sitting back in her seat.  Finding no support from his colleague, Professor Palahniuk ‘hmmphed’ before shrugging, nodding in reluctant assent.

“What about security risks?” he asked Taggart.  “The boy is not even seventeen years old yet, and there is the matter of his aberrant behaviour profile.”

“Major Taggart and I have determined that, given the opportunities and rewards of a paid internship here, we can convince Mister Bannon to mothball his, uh, business ventures.  From all our observations, he sells his home-grown and home-refined pharmaceuticals for money, not out of some adherence to the glamor of criminality.”  Annette tapped her fingernails against her mug.  Taggart nodded agreement.

“Fine.”  Palahniuk shrugged again, his expression petulant.  “But I’ll be keeping an eye on him and I will not-”

“Professor Palaniuk.”  Annette cut across the other man calmly, her voice taking on a cold crispness.  “Where does a six hundred pound gorilla sit?”

“Ma’am?”  The rotund man blinked in astonishment.  “I’m not sure-”

“It is a simple question.  An old joke, even.  Where does a six hundred pound gorilla sit?”

“Why… where it pleases.”  

“Exactly.  As a matter of security, and the safety of this installation and its personnel, you are not to provoke Mister Bannon - or indeed any of the gifted young people - with your somewhat abrasive manners.  If you cannot address him civilly, do not address him.  You are a leading light in your field, sir.  An invaluable asset to the Project.  But if you put this Project or its personnel in danger because you feel the need to assert yourself over a teenager, I will see to it you are unable to get tenure doing anything more than teaching high school physics for the rest of your career.”  Her tone softened slightly at the terrified look on the man’s face.  “Listen, Professor.  These young people have enormous potential, for good or ill.  We are the means by which they will realise that potential, one way or the other.  A positive experience with us means the former.  All I am asking is that you treat Mister Bannon as a talented intern to mentor.”

“Well… I… Yes.”  Palaniuk nodded at that, his expression one of a man adjusting to a new way of thinking.  “I suppose it would be a good opportunity to observe him, as well.  To learn more of how his gifts work.”

“Just so, Professor.”  Annette smiled at him, leaning back in her chair.

“And after all,”  Palahniuk went on.  “He does seem to be incredibly intelligent.  It would be a shame not to see that potential realised.”

“I agree.”  Dr Carter replied.

“Good.  We’re all in agreement, then.  I’ll have to go over the details with Mister Bannon, then likely again with his father - he is a minor, after all.”  Annette looked up as Taggart’s phone went off.  The major muttered an apology, looking down at the text he’d received, then looked up at Annette.

“I’ve got another meeting to attend.”  The major explained as he stood, giving Annette a significant glance.

“Go on.”  Annette waved him off, then nodded to the two scientists.  “And I think that’s a good place to close the meeting. Thank you both for coming.”

As Carter and Palaniuk left quietly in the wake of Taggart’s exit, Ellie uncurled from her seat and padded across to sit where Taggart had been sitting, across from Annette.  The lovely Project director studied the young alien woman, keenly aware that the sparkling grey eyes were studying her in turn.

“He aced the test.”  Ms Giles said, watching Ellie’s reaction.  The girl shrugged one shoulder.  “Are all Teulu so intelligent?”

“I have not met all Teulu.”  The girl replied with a hint of a smile and a faint tightening at the corners of her eyes.  “I can say stupid ones do not live long.  But…” she relented for a moment. “...there are differences amongst us just as there are with humans.  I could not answer many of the fat professor’s test questions.  Doubtless there are scholars and scientists among us who can.”

“I thought all Teulu were warriors.”

“We are.  But we also have a culture that prizes excellence.  That necessitates innovation, research, science.  Fighting is as natural to us as breathing is to you, but you do not only breathe, do you?  So it is with us.  We have science and civilisation, Annette.  We are not savages.”  Ellie smiled faintly, rising from the chair and moving to the door.  Characteristically, she said no farewells before slipping out, leaving Annette alone.  The Director sighed, shaking her head and pulling up a draft document to cover Jason Bannon’s internship contract.  

=======

Aelwen found Jason in the conference room which the Fellowship had used in the previous week to plan their assault on Site C.  He was stretched out on one of the couches along the far wall, hands behind his head and his eyes closed, the white cord of his earphones running up over his chest from the phone resting on his stomach.  She slipped into the room and sat down, facing him over the width of the glossy black surface of the conference table, and studied him intently.

He was skinny, was her first thought.  A teulu male of his age should carry more muscle, should already have callouses and scars from weapon practice.  A teulu, male or not, would never close their ears and eyes and relax in this way around anyone except their own pride.  It would be easy to dismiss him as soft, too human…

“Something on your mind, Ellie?”  he asked, not opening his eyes.

And there was the other shoe, a phrase she’d picked up from Annette Giles.  Like Devin, like the other young humans of his pride, Jason was a Radiant.  He could feel her presence somehow, could kill her with a thought, freezing her solid or breaking every bone in her body, if the conversations she’d overheard were accurate.  Any apparent vulnerability was more than likely a clever stratagem, something she made a note of.  And he’d dealt very appropriately with the two humans who’d tried to kill him, even if he had ended up sparing them on the request of his human- what was the term?  Ah, yes. ‘Girl-friend’.  It wasn’t unheard of for teulu males to indulge their mates’ requests, but then no teulu female would have asked for the sparing of those who’d tried to kill her male.  Humans were strange, and confusing.

“Who is Cora and what did you do to her?”  she asked bluntly, still watching him intently.  He opened his eyes, turning his head as his hands came up and removed the earphones.  Tinny musical sounds came from the device before he tapped the phone, silencing it as, still reclining, he regarded her with those cold, shimmering green eyes.  The eyes of the Draig.  Aelwen met his gaze and the pair of them studied each other like cats for a long moment.

“What is that to you?”  he asked calmly.

“Devin mentioned her to me.  The implication was that he was displeased with things you did to Cora, to Liam, and to his sister.”  Ellie gestured with one hand offhandedly.  “It is a source of contention in your pride.  I want to know more.”

He gazed at her for a few moments more, then sat up and faced her, his shaggy hair falling around his face, framing the scar on his cheek.  “Cora was Cade’s girlfriend, one of us.  She had Shine, but didn’t seem to be interested in its ramifications or potential, or in assisting with our investigation of the strangeness that had overtaken our lives.”  he explained calmly.  “This came to a head when our investigations led to the Crossroads prison, at which her father is the warden.  She point blank refused to consider that her father may well be involved with the then-mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the prisoners in his care.”

“Explain?”

“A warden of a prison occupies a position much like Annette or Taggart do here.  It’s hard to conceive that someone of such power and responsibility and resources would be unaware of what was taking place, at least on some level.”  Jason shrugged.  “Cora’s rejection of that possibility also encompassed, by inference, a rejection of everything else I had researched.  It was the final straw: I lost my patience and told her she was a foolish, useless waste of potential.  Though in considerably more unkind wording.”

“I see.”  Ellie considered that. “And then what happened?”

“She stormed out.  And then went home and practiced her gift.  Anger gave her determination.  And the next day, she fought alongside us against a creature of the Dark.” Jason’s lips twitched in a faint smile.

“Was that your design?”  The blonde teulu girl asked, head tilting.

“It was one of the two desired outcomes.”  Jason stood, moving to pour himself a glass of water from the jug on the table.  “Either she would seek to prove me wrong, or she would continue to prove me right and stay out of my way.  No matter what, she would either be useful or at least cease being an impediment.”

“I see.”  Ellie nodded slowly, her brow furrowing slightly.  “Do you think it was wise to treat a member of your pride so?”

“I didn’t consider her a member of my pride.”  Jason responded.  “I’d met her a handful of times, and only then through Cade.  I protected her from three idiots who tried to assault her, because she was Cade’s friend.  But my tolerance for her was not sufficient to put up with her willful foolishness.”

“And where is she now?”

“New York. A school for performing arts.”  Jason shrugged lightly.  “A shame.  She was just starting to show her spine.  But she wanted to be a dancer, so…”

Ellie considered this, reaching over and getting her own glass of water from the jug Jason had placed back on the table’s surface.  “Devin believes you are a coward because you attacked this Liam with your Radiance rather than ‘being man enough to look him in the eyes and punch him in the jaw’.”

Jason’s eyebrows raised faintly, his lips twitching in amusement.  “And what do you think?”  Ellie studied him over her water glass as she took a sip.

“You would only be capable of cowardice if you were capable of fear.”  she answered.  Jason nodded slowly.  “So it makes no sense to call you a coward.”

“Making sense is not the Jauntsens' strongest suit.”  Jason shrugged, a wry look in his eyes.  “From everything I have observed, they see the world one way - their own.  Anything that does not fit in their mold of the ‘way things should be’ is therefore automatically wrong.  Any evidence that does not support their personal view of their own innate superiority is to be discarded.”

Ellie frowned, her eyes tightening.  “You dislike them.”  she said, a note of accusation in her inflection.

“I saw their true face on Tuesday.  All their previous pretensions of friendship, of care, were a facade.  They don’t like me, don’t trust me, and even fear me.  Devin said as much to my face.  You know what I ‘did to his sister’?”  Jason took a sip of water, leaning forward in his seat.  “I took her at her word.  There was a time I was attracted to her, desired her, and told her so, even foolishly kissed her believing she harbored desire for me.  She rebuffed me, which was fine.  She said she was not interested in a relationship. Also fine.  And the next day she starts dating Cade.  That was also fine.”  He spread his long-fingered hands.  “Confusing, and inconsistent with her own words, but fine.  So I assumed she had made her choice, and I moved on.”

“I see.”  Ellie nodded slowly, frowning a little.

“I found myself attracted to Autumn, we ended up together.  And it seemed Marissa took that as a personal affront, as if she has some claim on either of us.  Which she does not.”  Jason shook his head.  “And then, on Tuesday, it comes up that she only dated Cade because she was afraid of me.  That she feared I would hurt her and believed that Cade would protect her..”  He snorted lightly.  “None of it makes any sense whatsoever.  She is apparently jealous I date Autumn, but is so afraid of me she seeks protection from someone.  She supposedly didn’t want me dead, and yet allowed someone to try and kill me without warning me.  I think it’s possible she’s insane - unbalanced enough to actually believe whichever version of the story she currently finds most convenient to present to others.”

“This makes my head spin.”  Ellie shook her head slowly, her steel-grey eyes grave.  “Your pride is more fractured than I thought.”

“My ‘pride’,”  Jason said with slow, cold precision.  “Is Autumn.  Sean.  And Cassandra.  The others are, currently, allies - whom I will work with in good faith so long as that is reciprocated.”

“Devin saved your life.”  Ellie reminded him, cocking her head slightly to one side.

“And that is why I still consider him to be an ally.”  Jason responded.  “And would do the same for him.”

“I see.”  Ellie finished her glass of water and stood.  “I thought perhaps I could mend the rift between you.  You would be stronger working together.”

“I’ll work with him.  I just don’t trust him.  And he doesn’t trust me.  So we’re even.”  Jason looked up at her.  “I can appreciate your goal in talking to me about this.  You may want to avoid swimming in these waters, though.”

“I can see that.”  Aelwen’s lips pressed into a line.  “I think there is more to Devin than you see, though.”

“Perhaps.  And  in turn, there is more to me than he sees.  Again, we are even.”  Jason replied wryly, then considered, his eyes on hers.  “Devin is brave, and a part of him strives for what he perceives as nobility.  His worst enemy is himself, not me.”

“You are ‘dating’ a human.  Are friends with some.  Your father is one.”  Aelwen stated.  “Are they all this difficult?”

“No.  They can all be to varying degrees, though teenagers are the most confusing.  Because they are the most confused, I think.”

Ellie shook her head, stepping towards the door.   “Strange people.  Oh, it seems the Project will be employing you after all.”  She said as she reached the door and paused, glancing back at him.  “Why do you want to work for them?”

“Why would I not?”  he countered, his gaze and expression giving nothing away.  She smiled slightly, nodding, and slipped from the room as silently as she had entered.

======

“...so Marissa had every reason to believe that we would take action to prevent the attempt on your life.”  Annette explained, peering at the lean figure sitting across from her over her tea.  “Though it was not our intention to do so, we let her and you down.”  Damn, but the young man was hard to read.  Even Ellie, as inscrutable as she could be, was more expressive than Jason.  A function of his intellect, perhaps.  Or of a life spent hiding his true nature from a world that wouldn’t accept it.  Not human, Annette thought, studying the impassive scarred features, the unwavering frozen green stare that seemed so ancient in a young face.  She wondered if that expression would change a jot, give her any warning before he incinerated her, then forced herself to relax.  He wasn’t a mad dog.  He was a rational creature who had had plenty of provocation from others and not lashed out.  Everything she had observed and studied of him indicated that Jason Bannon responded to sincerity and understanding in kind.

Nevertheless, when he finally moved his hand and picked up the tea she had served him, taking a sip, Annette softly released a breath she’d unconsciously been holding.

“So the Project is infiltrated.”  he stated calmly, his eyes still on her face.  She nodded.

“My thinking is that whoever it is is covering their tracks too well for myself or Taggart to uncover - but not too well for Sean Cassidy and Cassandra Allen.”

He nodded agreement.  “How can I help?”  he asked simply.  Annette smiled.

“Once you sign on the line, you will be working for the Project.  You’re a person of interest for our enemies - for whatever reason, Enterich singled you out for killing and exposed the infiltration of our security to ensure it would succeed.”  She frowned slightly.  “It’s possible they will make another attempt on you.”

“Which would serve your purpose also - forcing them to expose themselves further and expend resources.”  The young man’s calm as he discussed the notion of being bait in a trap was eerie.  He sipped his tea.  “I will be on my guard - another attempt will be even less successful than the first.  But I feel you should omit that aspect of the arrangement when you speak to my father.”

Annette blinked, then frowned.  “You think he would stop you taking part in the plan.” she stated, nodding, then stopped as Jason shook his head.

“No.  I think he would try to, and fail.” the Teulu youth explained simply.  “He cannot stop me doing what I choose to do, but he will worry, and the stress will not be good for him.  I’ve not told him the details of the attempt on my life for that very reason - which turned out to be prudent, given that before just now I didn’t know the whole story.  It would have caused additional strife at the parents meeting if others wrongly believed Marissa was party to the murder attempt.  As the evidence up to that point strongly suggested.”

“Was that why you didn’t bring it up?”

He was silent for a moment, his cold eyes distant.  “I was not one hundred percent sure she was an enemy.  If I had been, there would have been no discussion at all.” he said with dreadful finality.  “As it is, I believe she is unbalanced, inconsistent, and dangerous to herself as well as others.”

“You realise the twins say similar things about you?”  Annette’s gaze was grave.  Jase met her eyes and smiled, very slightly.

“Unsurprising.  I wonder who will be proven correct.”

“You have to admit that your… nature does not lend itself to inspiring comfort or reassurance.”

“Indeed?  And yet some find me pleasant company, even comforting, being able to accept that I am different and so approach me in that manner.  So, to borrow a phrase, perhaps the fact that some find it beyond their ability is a ‘them’ problem.”  Jase retorted bluntly.

Annette shook her head, smiling ruefully.  “You genuinely don’t care what people think of you?”

“I care what some people think of me.”  He shrugged.  “Others are irrelevant except in the sense they might interfere with my path.”  Annette considered that, studying him as she tapped her fingers on her desk.

“Can you work with the twins, despite differences?”  she asked bluntly.  “Not to be rude, but I get the impression greater forces are at work here than adolescent rivalries.”

“I will work with them if they work with me.”  he shrugged.  “I will meet them precisely halfway in all things where such cooperation is necessary.”

Annette sighed, rubbing lightly at her brow with her left hand as she eyed the spare form in the chair across from her.  He meant it, she knew.  He would cooperate, but not give way.  No doubt about it, this was going to be interesting.

“Alright.  One final thing.”  she said at last, straightening.  “We ran a genetic test on you - on all of you, to be honest.  We wanted to see if there was a common genetic marker component to all of the gifted, and in light of Ellie’s existence, well…”  she spread her hands in an elegant shrug.

“And?”  Jason’s gaze did not even flicker as he studied her.

“And I think you know what we found.”  Annette came straight to the point.  “Only myself, Taggart and two scientists we trusted to run the tests know.  And to be honest, yours is far from the strangest DNA.”  She saw his head tilt, his gaze taking on a curious glint.  “Have you told anyone?” she asked him.

“I’ve told people whom I trust.” he answered.  “I only found out myself very recently.  But I am curious why you are telling me.”

“Consider it an extension of trust.  I know about your heritage, and yet I still am willing to work with you.  I am willing to believe you are proof that we can co-exist with Ellie’s people, should that prove necessary.”

“Culturally, I am more human than teulu.”  Jason shrugged.  “My instincts and emotional similarities notwithstanding, I know very little of my mother’s people.”

“But you are in a position to find out.”  Annette pressed.

“And you assume I will share all I find out?”  he countered, regarding her calmly.  “I might decide I have more in common with them.”

“You might.”  Annette nodded, her expression sober.  “I am counting that you care about your friends, and your father, enough that should it be necessary, you would at least help keep things peaceful.  I’m counting on the fact that you seem to remember kindness when it is extended to you.”

“I remember everything.”  he replied simply, something shifting behind the green ice of his stare, and for a moment Annette wondered at the depth behind the simplicity of that statement.  She herself had learned to train her memory, to remember details with mnemonic tricks, but it was largely abstract facts - dates, faces, people’s names, pets and favorite wines, useful tools of diplomacy and connection-building.  What would it be like to perfectly recall everything, including the emotional context, smells, sounds and sensations?  To literally be able to step into a memory, good or bad, and re-live it? To have the sort of intellect that left multiple PhDs scratching their heads trying to comprehend?

Lonely.  She realised with a sudden flash of insight.  Even for a boy - and he was a boy, hard as that was to remember sometimes - who didn’t experience sorrow or loneliness like she did, there had to be some sense of… isolation.  Of looking around and realising None of these are like me.  Even allowing for his Shine, even allowing for his other-than-human nature…  Without either of those factors he would still find it hard to connect.

And with that insight came more, a clarification that expanded and revised her impression of Jason Bannon.  Naturally he connected first with Sean Cassidy, finding at least some common ground of intellect.  Through Sean, he had connected, tenuously, with others in his age group, finding some sense of belonging.  Given his nature, of course he would fight tooth and claw (literally) to protect or avenge his connections to the world, without any compunction, restraint or morality playing a part.

Annette Giles studied the lean young man with a fresh perspective now.  He was still dauntingly composed, still capable of the savagery he’d inflicted on Liam Day or Marshal Dale.  But she understood better now where the source of that fierce protectiveness lay.  A combination of his predatory teulu nature and the simple fact that he didn’t count on being able to connect to others, so treasured the connections he had made.  By the standards of human society he was a potential danger - but then so were the Jauntsens. So was Sean Cassidy.  So were all the ‘kids’, to quote Taggart. 

“I’d be interested in seeing the test results myself.”  Jason commented, getting the conversation back on track and jolting Giles from her reverie.  Annette nodded agreement.

“I was planning to include you in that area of study.  If for no other reason than so you could ensure we were not doing anything amiss with the data.”  she replied.  “Do you have any questions for me?”

Jase cocked his head, smiling very faintly as he regarded her.  “When do I start?”

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