"What? I didn't-" Victor shook his head, pulling his knees up into his chest. "I mean, I was just-" He wrapped his arms around his legs, curling into a ball.
With a pang of regret, Cade realized he'd terrified the other man. But he should be terrified, he reminded himself. Victor was more dangerous than the entirety of Animus' security force combined. And contrary to the assurances Wren had given him just a few minutes ago, the situation most definitely wasn't under control.
He forced his clenched fists open. Victor was dangerous, but he'd already been threatened into submission enough in his short life. Cade swallowed his anger over the near miss, tucking a kernel of it away for Wren. Just because the man possessed unique insight into Victor didn't mean he could predict his every move. It wasn't in Wren's nature to be forthcoming, but when he overestimated his own ability to read the telekinetic, it put them all in jeopardy.
Still frozen on the floor, Victor kept his eyes fixed on him like he was some sort of avenging angel. Cade sighed, fought the urge to get defensive, and struggled to come up with something reassuring to say.
He looked around the barren room. "I like what you've done with the place."
Victor loosened fractionally, but still looked like he expected retribution at any moment.
He is terrified of using it, Cade realized. Just for the wrong reasons.
"I didn't think I'd done anything."
"Yeah, well, you did." He didn't want to terrorize Victor, but he wasn't going to downplay the seriousness of what had almost happened.
Victor took a moment to digest that. "Did I, uh…hurt anyone?"
He exhaled, slumping with relief.
"But you could've," Cade added. "Easily." All that uncontrolled energy spiking through the server…. He reminded himself that anger wasn't constructive, pulled the chair out from Victor's simple little desk, and dragged it closer to the bed. "You mind if I sit?"
Victor shook his head. "Thanks for asking, though."
"It's your room."
He shrugged at that, then picked at the hem of his shirt for a few moments before speaking again. "So, if I, uh, didn't hurt anyone, what exactly did I do?"
"You disrupted power to the server we just settled in on. It could've crashed our environmental program, corrupted our avatars, destroyed data. And mysterious power spikes tend to attract attention that we really don't want. Understand?"
He nodded solemnly. "But…we're okay?"
"This time. We might not be so lucky the next." Someone monitoring might still catch on to the fluctuations in the logs, but there was no need to worry Victor with that when they could always jump servers again. Until the next time we're down to the dregs and I have to code up more poison for Milo to peddle, he thought bitterly.
"I wasn't…I mean…I didn't want to believe it. Believe him."
Wren had said Victor took the news about his telekinesis pretty well. "Pretty well" was obviously on a sliding scale when you talked to Wren, though.
Should the man have been thrilled to learn he's even more different than he already thought he was? a familiar voice questioned in the back of his mind.
Cade tried to ignore her. He didn't need thoughts of Sarah stirring him up right now. "You need to start believing it," he said. "And taking it very seriously. Until you learn what you're doing, you put us all at risk."
"I still don't even understand what I did," Victor said, pushing off the floor to sit on the edge of the bed. He hesitated for a moment. "I think, maybe, though, I sort of felt it."
Cade didn't know what to do with this. Wren was the one who actually knew something about how Victor's abilities worked. Had experience. Cade only knew what he wanted those abilities to do.
Just listen. Be here for him, Sarah's voice piped in. He's used to talking about these things after they happen.
If he couldn't keep her quiet, he might as well listen to her advice. She'd always been better with people than he was. "What did it feel like?"
"Like boiling over. An explosion, but…slower." Victor paused, considering. "It hurt, but it also felt…I don't know…satisfying? Really good, in a weird way."
Almost like you were made to do it? Cade thought but didn't ask.
"Then I felt sort of dim. Kind of sick, I guess."
"That was the server browning out." Christ, if he'd put even a little more force behind it…. Cade shook it off and focused on the practical. "Do you know how you made it happen? Could you do it again?"
"Yeah." No hesitation.
"And can you keep it from happening?"
He nodded. "I had to push pretty hard to do it in the first place."
Wondering just why the man had been sitting alone in his room, forcing out a destructive burst of telekinesis wouldn't do any good at this point. But he and Wren were definitely going to have a serious discussion later. At least now they knew Victor's ability survived the upload.
"Okay," Cade said. "Now you know. Wren wasn't lying—you can act on our hardware from the inside. But you need to work to get a handle on it. Until then, we'll all be safer if you don't push any more. Okay?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to-"
"I know." He didn't, not entirely, but he had to hope Victor would be more careful now that the danger was tangible. According to Edgar's now-deceased spies back at the V-Series facility, the man had a healthy sense of self-preservation.
Victor picked at his shirt some more, obviously working up the nerve to ask about something else. "Wren…wants me to use it here."
Treacherous ground. And no matter how much he knew it would be best to block Sarah out right now, he couldn't do it. Nearly there, sweetheart, he thought. Cade struggled to keep his expression neutral. "Yes."
"He brought me here so I could help 'set free' his friends." Victor's mouth turned down at the corners.
Cade nodded. He could hear Sarah's laugh, the way she'd shout his name to get his attention instead of climbing the stairs to find him, that sexy little sigh she'd give after they made love. He could see her in the pool of light from the desk lamp, chestnut hair falling out of a sloppy ponytail, bent over a stack of notes next to her Bible and absently humming "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
Stay cool. Let Wren sell the plan.
"You were in on it too, weren't you? Rees and Irsla, I'm pretty sure I believe they had nothing to do with it, but you…you helped bring me here, didn't you?"
He saw no point in lying. "I did."
Victor shook his head, narrowing his eyes. "So you want the same thing as Wren? It was worth my life, everything I had, to get me here to let your friends go?"
He reminded himself that Victor couldn't remember his life in V-Series, or that he'd had virtually nothing—nothing real, at least. It was a weak defense for Cade's actions, anyway. But that clear, lovely alto echoed in his memory—Go on, honey. You set up the environmental program for the next stop while I make sure everybody's got the right passcodes. I'll be right behind you. Even the synthetic version of her voice had been beautiful.
"Yes, " he said, tightening his fists. The raid came sooner than any of them could have anticipated, but he never should have left her there in the sanctuary. What kind of man left people behind?
"So just because I have something you want, it's okay to take it?" Victor spat. "Who are you to make that call?"
Who was he? A faithless, broken missionary. God had tested him, and Cade failed in every way that ever mattered.
The swallowed anger wouldn't stay down. "Who are they to play God?" he exploded. Victor flinched back, but Cade couldn't bring himself to care. "What gave Animus the right to turn our souls into a commodity? Take the concept of Heaven and pervert it into this?" He drew in a trembing breath. "I'm a husband. And they took my wife, Victor."
She'd hated what Animus was doing to the world, but instead of hiding in their church and watching the pews slowly empty week after week, she'd wanted to do something about it. All those trapped souls, Cade. We have to bring them The Word.
"She sacrificed her humanity to help people inside the network, teach them, make a difference."
Victor stared. He'd never understand. He'd been drafted, but Cade…Cade volunteered. He'd thought his gift to turn bodies into data came from God. Cade's effortless understanding of neuroinformatics had been their ticket into the network. Sarah said it was part of His plan.
"She was…God, so beautiful. We uploaded. Created a sanctuary. Started preaching. They raided us. I…I escaped." He swallowed. He'd waited in that cramped little waypoint, sure Sarah would lead the rest of the congregation there any minute. Then he'd convinced himself they must've skipped onto another server somehow. And instead of going back and standing up with the people he loved, he'd spent pointless time running traces, searching, hoping, keeping faith. "But Helmholtz' people found her and stripped away that last little bit of humanity she was able to hold onto here."
Cade stopped, remembering Sarah's avatar. Some of the finest work he'd ever created. He'd been so careful to preserve every detail—the freckles on her chest, the texture of her thick hair, the rings of blue in her irises, that gorgeous voice. She'd teased him about refusing to trim an inch or two from her thighs, but every curve on that woman had been perfect the way God made it.
"Animus couldn't make Heaven on Earth, but they did a fine job with their man-made Hell. And my Sarah's trapped there. So yes, Victor. After more than a lifetime of waiting, I saw there was a chance to finally save my wife—and all the people like her—and I took it. I'm the man who helped bring you here, and no matter how sorry I am for the way it happened, I'll never be sorry for wanting to save her soul."
Victor blinked. He probably only understood about half of what Cade was talking about, unless Edgar's people in V-Series had managed to covertly preach under the eyes of security. Still, beneath the confusion, anger, and fear, Cade thought he saw pity in the other man's eyes.
The human capacity for compassion is limitless, she'd told him, her head pillowed on his chest.
They're not human anymore, he'd said.
Their souls are, sweetheart. That's all they know how to be.
It was more than he could tolerate.
"It's your choice to make," he said, standing up. "Talk to Wren if you want to learn how to use what God gave you, but don't fuck around and put the rest of these people I love at risk again."
And with that, he turned and left Victor to his privacy.
AN: Many thanks to Romina for the beta!