While The Phoenix Project is on summer hiatus, here is an excerpt from a short story that takes place ten years before the first novel. Anyone who has read the novel will recognize the central character! As always comments, questions, and criticisms are welcome.
Catherine felt the betrayal of her body as she walked to the observation room in the main research complex. She still had at least another fifty years left in her wrinkled mortal coil but at ninety-eight any walk over twenty minutes made her legs ache. On top of that, the contacts she wore for the subject ignorant of her true abilities were irritating the all-white irises of her eyes. She mentally made a note to move the experiment within the main building’s thick stone walls away from the outskirts of MERA headquarters. These long walks were more than her aged body could handle and she despised the idea of keeping him in the dark when it came to their true abilities.
As head of her organization, she rarely had to leave the main building, but this experiment was far too important to leave ignored, and the walks were necessary for her continued involvement. The subject was beginning to manifest abilities that no one else in the Modern Enterprise Religious Aggregate had ever possessed.
She walked into the high two story stone facade of the research center and down the central corridor adorned in rich mahogany fittings and elegant benches. Catherine ignored the fine wooden staircase to the second floor and opted instead for the small, ancient elevator huddled in the wall beside it. Catherine pressed the second floor button and felt the lift jerk into motion. Her knees were beginning to experience a mild shake from the exertion of her short journey.
The elevator stopped its climb and the doors parted. Catherine stepped out into a corridor nearly identical to the one she had exited moments before. She continued on her journey and located the familiar door in a corridor off of the main one. Catherine pressed her thumb to a small white square on the wall next to the door. It flashed for a moment as it scanned her DNA to confirm her identity. A beep of confirmation was heard from the small panel. She opened the wooden door and saw the heavy inner entry of reinforced steel slide out of the way to allow her entrance into the observation room.
The room was something like an air traffic control room in it size and makeup. A line of instrumentation for scanning and camera control sat under a row of square windows leaning over a large room a level below. Her customary chair sat in the middle of the observation room padded with leather upholstery. Catherine took the load off her feet and sank into its comfortable support.
The other three sides of the room were adorned with more of the dark wooden fittings. Two small groups of people stood at the windows conversing over the day’s itinerary. A robed figure left one of the babbling groups and walked to the aging lady in the comfortable chair.
“Prime Counsel Catherine,” the white-haired man said.
“Councilman Aristotle. How is our subject?” Catherine asked of the man who, like her, had taken the name of a major historical figure once he had become a councilor.
“There is a great deal to report,” he said with a smirk.
“What is it this time?” she asked and put an index finger to her forehead.
“This morning,” Aristotle began, barely able to contain himself.
“Yes?” Catherine waited.
“When we were playing chess,” he continued.
“Out with it, out with it,” Catherine prodded sure of another long and boring story about a new chess move, a new strategy, or a new bowel movement from the meticulous old man.
“He went to make move with his chess piece and his bishop moved!”
“They usually do in chess.”
“It moved by itself?” Catherine demanded in surprise. She hefted her old carcass out of her chair and hobbled to the observation windows looking down on a small boy of twelve playing in a large room filled with, among other things: toys, a bed, a desk of pine, and a chess table with one chair on either side. The boy played one of his many simulations on a gaming console. This one involved a Coalition fighter battling the fighters of their enemy, the Alliance. He was winning, as usual, having already dispatched ten of the enemy craft. Another grey metal bird disappeared in a hail of realistic fire even as the simulated enemy disgorged torpedoes from its undercarriage.
“Moved on its own, did it?” Catherine asked of Aristotle, who continued to watch the small dark haired boy with grey eyes completely engrossed in his game.
“Right to the spot I would’ve chosen,” Aristotle replied.
“Did he win?”
“Doesn’t he always?”
“I wondered if this game might have been different. Was he surprised when the chess piece moved by itself?” Catherine asked.
“For a moment he was and then he just seemed to accept it,” Aristotle said with a shrug.
“I’m going to see him,” Catherine stated and walked out the door before Aristotle could protest. She turned not in the direction of the elevator that she had exited from earlier but instead to a door to her right. Another pad scanned her DNA and allowed entrance to the small confines of a much more sophisticated elevator that had been installed a dozen years prior. Catherine entered and exited the elevator after a smooth descent to the child’s playroom.
“Seth?” she called from the open steel doors of the elevator.
“Gran!” he exclaimed recognizing the voice. A brief look over his shoulder saw his face change from concentration to affection. He jumped to his feet and bounded over toys scattered across the hardwood floor. He wrapped his arms around her waist, being careful of the older woman’s frail body by not squeezing her too emphatically. Catherine had accepted and even encouraged the matriarchal moniker in spite of the fact that she was not actually his grandmother.
“How is my grandson?” she asked and smiled down to the adolescent boy.
“Great, I’m so happy to see you! Why don’t you come visit me more often?” he asked.
“It’s this old body of mine, Seth. I come to see you when I can.”
“I know. I just want to see you more,” Seth said.
“Yes, well I’m here now. I heard something happened this morning.”
“Like what?” Seth asked looking up at her in confusion.
“When you were playing chess,” Catherine suggested. “The bishop moved by itself.”
“Oh that! That’s not a big deal.”
“It is to me,” Catherine said.
“Why?” Seth asked.
“It shows me just how smart you are,” Catherine replied and smiled having planted the compliment for his benefit. He looked up to her, beaming with pride. Aristotle entered in from a separate door having taken the stairs. He seemed to have an urgent look on his face that Catherine ignored.
“I was thinking Seth,” Catherine said in a contemplative manner. “How would you like to live with me for a while?”
She ignored Aristotle’s raised eyebrows and tense features as Seth replied.
“Of course you can. You wanted to see me more often, didn’t you?” she asked.
“Well yes but-”
“But, what about Mom and Dad?” Seth asked, voicing his hesitation.
“Well, they can come with us.”
“How do you know Gran?” he asked with a pout.
“Let’s ask them then. Aristotle, tell Shannon and Edward we need to see them.”
Aristotle nodded and thumbed a small grey device attached to his earlobe. He whispered a quick command into it and then turned it off.
“How big is it where you live?” Seth asked.
“You know that big stone building you see when you’re out playing?”
“You live there?” Seth asked in awe.
“Are you rich Gran?” he inquired.
“No Seth, no,” Catherine corrected with a laugh, “I just have a government job.”
The heavy door of the room slid aside and two people in their mid-thirties entered. Shannon was elegant, beautiful, and seductive. She had performed her duty for MERA admirably. While undercover among the enemy, she had managed to lure Edward into a trap. His superiors had listed him as missing twelve years ago and presumed him dead ten years ago.
The only way to ensure his cooperation was to drug him into a state of delusion where he believed himself to be with a wife and son from his own nation.
The tall and lanky Edward had the same absent-minded smile as always and Shannon had to support some of his weight while she guided him to one of two couches in one corner of the large bright room. Catherine took Seth by the hand, guided him to the makeshift living room and sat with him on the other couch.
“Shannon, Edward: Seth and I would like to know if you’d like to live with us in the main building,” Catherine said.
“It’s huge!” Seth exclaimed with a wide grin.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Shannon replied deferring to the authority of the head of MERA. “Edward?”
Edward looked at her with a drugged smile on his face. “Yes dear, that’s great.”
“I’ll have you moved in by the end of the day,” Catherine stated. “I’ll see all of you tonight.”
The moment she left the room, Aristotle confronted her with an angry stare. “Move in with you?”
“He’s gone beyond a child playing with toys, Aris. He requires my direct tutelage and protection,” Catherine replied.
“It’s gone further than you think,” Aristotle stated.
“We can handle anything that might crop up.”
“How about dealing with an adolescent mind?”
“Don’t tell me,” Catherine said, with dread in her voice.
“He’s twelve, Catherine. What did you expect?”
“When did this start?” she demanded.
“It began a week ago. He told me himself.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Catherine accused.
“I didn’t have the time. There’s a whole report that you haven’t read yet. I was going to give it to you before your unscheduled meeting with him, but you didn’t give me the chance.”
Catherine let out a long sigh of exasperation at the idea of having a birds and bees conversation with Seth.
“You’re the real paternal figure in his life. You’ll have to join us. It’s a good choice regardless since you’re also head of this project,” Catherine said.
“Reluctant head of this project,” Aristotle corrected. “I’m worried about taking him out of these controlled conditions. He has never known anything more than that room and the confines of the courtyard.”
“It had to end at some point, Aris. Now is the best time,” Catherine said.
“I don’t know about that.”
“When then? Seth’s fourteenth birthday? His seventeenth? Thirtieth?” she inquired.
“Fine, fine. I know there’s no point in arguing with you.”
“There’s always a point,” she said and placed a hand on his shoulder, “but not this time.”
“I’ll go and pack,” Aristotle said in resignation. He left the conversation and headed for his apartment.