Back From California

Deepti, now Vanhi, started on a curriculum of improving her physical fitness by joining Dwayne in his morning jogs around the estate, and getting a better handle on her flying ability inside his airplane-hangar-sized gym. She also began working towards a Florida state emergency medical technician certification, with plans on getting "transferred" to one of the McDuckworthy subsidiaries that could give her the practical portion of the training.

She was also experiencing Florida Weather. At least, in Los Angeles, it was a "dry heat." She was beginning to learn that in Florida, one can swim through the air one breathes. And then there's "hurricane season."

Shortly after returning from Los Angeles, Dwayne, as Defender Protector, or DP, as he was referred to for short, needed to accompany Dr. Drake and one of the eggs to one of the hospital facilities for a more in-depth examination. There was something strange with it, but as there was nothing Vanhi could think of to help with it, she opted to continue her studies at the house.

It was after lunch, and Afton was working out in the gym, doing parkour exercises, while Van was in the library, doing her online studies, taking notes, cross-referencing situations, taking end-of-chapter quizzes on the computer.

As she was reading a discussion on intubation methods, the monitor flickered a little. Some strange symbols then flashed across the screen, as Vanhi was watching it. And then she blinked, and the next section came onto the screen. She continued taking her notes, on the paper pad next to the mousepad. She didn't notice that an hour had passed.

As she continued taking her notes and reading her online texts, Van could hear some manner of ruckus upstairs, followed shortly by the sound of... running water? As soon as she figured out "water," the building fire alarms sounded. She felt a moment of panic, wondering if she did something? But, no, she'd been in the library the whole time. She couldn't even remember getting up to use the downstairs powder room since immediately after lunch. No, her clothes were fully not-singed-at-all, so it definitely wasn't Vanhi.

She got up and hurried to where the ruckus and water were coming from. It turned out to originate from the hallway outside of Afton's room. There looked to have been a fire inside Afton's room, but the sprinklers didn't activate in there, but they did in the hall. A couple of Murpheys, holding fire extinguishers, were exiting the room. They looked concerned.

"What happened?" Vanhi asked, staring uncomprehendingly at the mess.

Afton spat out one syllable. "Tif." There was a lot of venom in that quiet statement.

Still staring at the soggy remains of Afton's bed, for that's where the worst of the damage was, Van said, "Uhm. We, uh, had better tell Dwayne."

Afton nodded, slowly, muttering to himself, promising a great deal of discomfort towards Tif for however she managed to do this.

"Is there anything I can do to help clean this up?" Van asked, trying to draw Afton back to what needed immediate attention.

Two of the burlier Murpheys stepped into the room. One of them said, "Ah, Miss Pradhan..."

Vanhi looked to the pair, then to the speaker, specifically, "Yeah, what's up?"

"Mr. Defender Protector would like a word with you," he replied, looking very serious. She realized that neither of the Murpheys was Connor.

Uncertainly, Vanhi offered a nod, "Oh-kaaay." She left Afton's room with them, and they took her to an area of the house she hadn't been to, before. She also noted that the room they took her to had another pair of Murpheys inside, each holding fire extinguishers. There was a large screen on the wall, with Defender Protector on it.

"Sir," the first Murphey said. "We have her."

"All right. Vanhi?" DP started, regarding her on his own screen, with all due gravity.

"Uh, yeah, Boss?" she replied, nervous as all get-out, and baffled as to why she'd be facing that manner of inquisition.

"Why did you burn down Afton's room?" he asked, in a straightforward manner.

Van shook her head, "I didn't burn down her room." She sounded confident in that answer, because she knew she'd been in the library the whole time since lunch.

DP regarded her with no little skepticism. "The videotape says you did," he informed her.

Vanhi shook her head, "Videotape? Let me see it then. I've been in the library the whole ti–" she gaped as a window-in-window showed the security feed of Vanhi sitting at the desk in the library, doing her classwork and taking notes, looking at her screen, taking some notes, looking back at the screen, and stopping for a moment. She then stood up, walked out of the library, up to Afton's room, put her hands on the bed for about forty-five seconds. "What the fuck?!" real-time Vanhi exclaimed. Video-Vanhi then exited the room, closing the door behind her, and returned to the library, to her desk, and just sat there for some minutes. The video feed then switched to Afton's room, showing the fire itself erupting, starting with where Van's hands rested, in the middle of the bed.

Vanhi shook her head with disbelief. "Okay," she stated. "I don't know what happened. I don't remember any of that." There was a note of panic in her voice. "I– I don't have that sort of control to cause a– a– delayed burn? like that."

Defender Protector considered her a moment. "Hmm. Whoever's been playing fun-and-games in other people's heads has finally gotten into yours." He sighed, and turned his attention to Clark Grayson, the head of household security. "Get somebody who can figure out how we can check and make sure if she's okay, and isn't likely to do it again. I'm not sure how you do that, so, I will defer to somebody who actually does know."

DP looked back to Vanhi, and said, with an apologetic smile, "In the meantime, go for a swim."

Van was not too happy with how things had turned out, and at that last remark, she gave DP a disgusted look, replaying, "Well, that's one way to heat the pool." She then exited the briefing room, and went to her own room to change. She saw the logic in having her "go for a swim," and she could use the exercise to cool her temper, but still!

What she didn't expect was the pair of Murpheys outside her door when she came out in her swimsuit, equipped with fire extinguishers.

"Really?!" she exclaimed, glaring at Connor, directly.

He shrugged, apologetically, and held up a folded towel draped over the arm not holding the canister.

She went downstairs and out the patio door, to where the pool lay in sparkling glory, between the two back wings of the mansion. Ignoring her guards, she did some basic stretches, then jumped in and started immediately doing laps. The water's temperature did go up a few degrees, as she was using the activity to cry about the unfairness of the situation, that she would never have done what the cameras had shown on purpose, and whoever did that to her, made her do that, something would have to be done. Her anger and frustration were spent with a good thirty minutes of hard swimming. After burning off the worst of her aggression, Vanhi took herself to the side of the pool, to contemplate her situation a bit.

After a few moments, Connor approached her, with a cell phone. It was Defender Protector on the line. She hauled herself out of the water entirely, to take the call.

"Vanhi?" he said.

"Yeah, Boss," she answered, squeezing water out of her hair with her free hand.

"Okay," he started, "I don't know what happened with you–"

"I don't know, either," interjected Van, grumpily.

"–So, I'd like you to remain someplace, under watch, for the moment," he continued. Van scowled. "And, stay away from your computer."

"Okay," she replied, confused, now.

"Because we have a strange lapse." Dwayne went on to say, "Until we know this hypnotic state is cleared, we'd like you to remain under guard. If you want to be out on the patio or something, taking a swim may not be the worst idea."

Van thought about that for a moment, then remarked, "I could eat something. I'll go forage in the kitchen–"

"No, you won't," interrupted Dwayne. "Please stay on the patio; somebody can get you some food. I'd really prefer you not be near any screens."

Van growled in frustration, throwing herself onto a lounge chair by the pool, at the end farthest from the house. The two Murpheys with extinguishers stayed relatively nearby, and requested a Monte Cristo sandwich, some fruit salad, and iced tea.

A short while later, after she had finished her meal and was sipping on her tea, Vanhi slid back into the water, to relax in the semi-weightless environment and stare at the sky. She didn't see the patio doors open or the hooded figure which glided through. She did notice, however, that the Murpheys who had been guarding her just turn and headed back into the house.

"Deepti," said the figure. She was in casual attire, but the dark cloak hid her face. She was levitating, about two inches above the tiled patio.

Vanhi, treading water, regarded the floating woman with suspicion, "And, you are?"

The figure floated towards her, inches above the pool's surface. The water around Vanhi started bubbling, as she swam backwards, away from the figure.

The figure bent down, looking Vanhi straight in the eyes for a moment.

"The hell?!" Vanhi exclaimed, unable to look away from the floating woman.

The woman nodded, turned, and began drifting away.

The water around her started to boil vigorously, as she jumped up, igniting her fiery aura to hover mid-air, to watch the figure leave. The two Murpheys came back out, with their extinguishers. She called over to them, "Who the hell was that?!"

Alex Murphey spoke up, "Ah. That was Mistress. The Mistress. The Mistress."

Connor chimed in, "Not 'Mistress'. That's somebody else."

Alex nodded, "You don't want to get them confused."

Connor agreed, "They get very upset about that."

"Okay! Okay!" interjected Vanhi.

Alex looked to Vanhi, "Yeah, that was The Mistress. Don't get them conf–"

"Murphey!" exclaimed Van, angrily, her aura flaring noticeably. "Who was it?!"

Connor replied, "The Mistress. She's the psychic of the Key Men."

Van had heard of the Key Men, the (formal) superhero group in Florida, and their leader, The Sphinx, but she was a bit uninformed on who the other members were. Assured that the person was recognized by the household security team, she extinguished her flames, landing on the patio.

Alex looked to Connor, remarking, "Orders are orders." And before Van could ask what they meant, the Murpheys gave her a half-second-long spray from the fire extinguishers they were holding.

Connor shook his head, with a guilty grin, "You were on fire."

"I wasn't, just now!" she yelled back.

Alex chimed in, "Mr. McDuckworthy left very firm orders that if you lit up, you had to be extinguished."

She dove back into the pool, to get the powdery residue off of her, swam to the opposite side from the Murpheys, and lit up enough to fly her out of the water and get dry. She put one hand up in a stay-right-there gesture, and her flames went out again. "I'm no longer on fire. Don't do that, again! I was just drying off!" she said, firmly, before stomping to her cell phone.

Vanhi stabbed at her phone's interface with one finger, and turned, regarding the approaching Murpheys. Her eyes narrowed, and they lowered the extinguishers, as she waited for her call to connect.

"Hello?" Dwayne answered.

"Yeah, hey, it's Van. Uhm, there was just somebody here?"

"Tall woman, dressed in robes?" asked Dwayne.

"Yeah," she replied.

"Sucked your brain out? Kinda?" he continued asking.

"Well," prevaricated Vanhi, "Sure."

"Okay, got it. Thanks. Already met with her," he replied. "It's great. Thanks."

She turned away from the Murpheys, frowning, "Oh, it's great. Whatever. A'ight."

"Well, she confirmed what we figured," he sighed. "She took a chunk of the memory from your brain, and stuck it in my brain, so I got to see it. You were definitely hypnotized. We don't know by what or by whom, but..."

"A'ight," said Van, a bit sarcastically, "Since you knew about it, well, uh, happy patrolling."

"Well, we're going to have to see about counteracting that trigger in your head, because there's no telling when that'll happen again," admonished Dwayne.

"Trigger in my head," repeated Vanhi, slowly, as if doubting that's what she heard him say.

"The thing that made you go all Firestarter on Afton's bed," Dwayne clarified.

Van sighed with resignation, "A'ight. Well. Happy patrolling. Don't get killed." She tossed the phone onto the unused towel, and massaged her forehead with her fingertips, before running them back through her long hair.

Vanhi decided something more to snack on would be a good idea, and headed for the patio doors, but Connor put his hand on her shoulder, "Ah, Miss Pradhan, you're, uh, still not permitted back inside, for now."

"Really? Really?!" she exclaimed. "Fine!" She turned around and headed towards the corner of the mansion, in order to walk around the building itself. She rolled her eyes as she heard Alex and Connor fall in several feet behind her. She imagined they were keeping the extinguishers at the ready. She turned the corner, trudging along the lawn, making a point of not crushing any flower beds underfoot, and headed towards the next corner, that would take her to the side of the mansion. She was grumbling about the unfairness of it all, for being blamed over something she had no control over, and realized she couldn't hear her Murpheys.

She turned around, to see what happened to them, only to exclaim in surprise at finding The Mistress inches from her face. "What?!" she demanded of the cloaked figure.

"I don't know why you're so nervous; I knew you would not immolate," replied The Mistress.

Vanhi gaped at her a moment, before repeating herself. "What!"

"I've been sent to try and undo what was put inside your head," The Mistress answered, calmly.

Van blinked at that, as it was not what she was expecting at all, and needed a moment to respond coherently. "It's still in there?" she asked, with more concern and definitely less anger.

"Oh, yes," replied The Mistress. "I know what it is."

Van shook her head, "What is it?"

"Well, ah, let me rephrase," correct The Mistress. "It is a series of electrical impulses that have triggered you, and left you open to certain triggers that will cause them to take over you, again."

Vanhi listed carefully to the explanation, and asked, "Is there a way to, uhm, remove these triggers? That won't leave me brain-dead?"

The Mistress replied, "Is there a way to remove these triggers? Yes! That won't leave you brain-dead?" She paused, "Shall we find out? With your permission, of course. I can do it without your permission, but it would be much simpler for me, and less painful for you, with your permission."

Van gaped, while nodding (implying permission given), then asked, "What did you do with the Murpheys?!" She stepped to one side, to look behind The Mistress, to see Alex and Connor about fifty feet away, standing slack-jawed and relaxed, oblivious to their surroundings.

"Nothing," The Mistress replied, almost playfully. After a few moments, she continued, "It is not psychic in nature. I cannot help you." She then turned from the mansion and started floating away, gaining altitude.

Vanhi had to take a few moments to comprehend what she was just told. She then gave her body a shake, and activated her fiery aura, leaping into the air, after The Mistress.

"Excuse me!" Van called out, "What do you mean, 'it's not psychic in nature'?" She slowed down to hover alongside the cloaked woman, not near enough to singe the cloak, but definitely close enough to speak normally. "What is it?" she demanded. "Can you tell me anything at all about it?"

"If it's not psychic," The Mistress explained, calmly, "it's out of my realm of knowledge. It probably could be, oh, trained into you, or something that was forced upon you by visual images, or," and she went on to explain a half-dozen other possibilities to implant such triggers into a person's brain. None of which sounded pleasant, most of which sounded implausible for Vanhi's specific situation.

"Well, who knows what that stupid-ass 'doctor' did, in Cape Coral, with that biopsy-probe!" Vanhi remarked.

The Mistress stopped her forward momentum, and her cowl twitched, as if she turned her head towards Vanhi. "May I?" she asked.

"May you, what?" asked Van, guardedly. And Vanhi's eyes unfocused, as The Mistress examined her mind. At about a hundred and fifty feet up in the air, and Vanhi in full immolation, both just floating there.

"He... didn't do this," The Mistress finally said. "This is a far more recent event. It probably has to do with the images you saw on the screen. Now, if you'll pardon me, I have far more important things to deal with."

Vanhi remained hovering there for a few moments, trying to digest what she'd just been informed, before returning to the mansion. She flew over to the deep end of the pool, stopped, and, from about fifteen feet up, turned off her flames and tucked herself into a cannonball, to land with a mighty splash.

She started swimming on her back, towards the shallow end, and saw Afton approaching, holding his warped motherboard. The motherboard that got warped in the fire Vanhi had set while in that hypnotic state. He was absently fidgeting with it, as he waited for Vanhi to get out of the pool.

Van climbed up, and was standing on the top step, when Afton asked, "So, what did Dwayne want to talk to you about?"

Van gaped at him a moment, and turned, searching the area across the pool for a moment.

This is where Dee-Mentional Drift, Part 1 begins, and the first part of it ends. Dee-Mentional Drift is a separate set of stories, split from this one.

"Are you listening to me?" Afton asked, still standing behind her.

Vanhi turned around, confused. Water was dripping from her, as she gaped a moment at him. "Yeah," Dee said, blinking a little, and looking around, getting her bearings. "Yeah, uhm. No, I just, uh. Wait, what?"

"Dwayne wanted to talk to you?" he repeated.

"I'm sorry about your room," Van said quickly.

"Oh-kay," he replied slowly. "But, you didn't do it." He continued fidgeting with the motherboard, absently.

"I didn't consciously do it." Van explained, "Apparently, somebody put something in my head."

Afton considered that, and asked, "Were you on a computer?"

"Yeah," she replied. "I'd been studying."

"I bet you it was Tif," Afton stated. "I've heard of people who can mess around with codes to make people do things for them."

"Well, apparently it's still in there," Van remarked, her tone a bit petulant.

"Do you know what the symbols were?" Afton wondered.

Van shook her head, "I have no idea. Literally, I have no recollection of, of what happened. All I know is, I was studying, and there was a ruckus upstairs, and your room was, uhm." She looked away, embarrassed, "The way it was."

"Maybe Dwayne knows more of a, uh," contemplated Afton, "A techno-magicky type, that might–"

Vanhi interrupted, "We just had a psychic come through!" She threw up her hands at Afton's blank look, "Oh, did you miss the flying psychic?"

He held up the motherboard, exclaiming, "I was in mourning!"

"And, they won't let me back in the house," complained Van.

Nodding, Afton said, "Well, yeah." As if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I can see why."

A moment later, he repeated himself, "They wouldn't let you inside. I can see why not." His tone was flat, and his expression was annoyed. He was angry, and angry at Vanhi.

"So, I'm not going anywhere," Van continued, before seeing Afton's expression. Her eyes widened, "What happened?!"

"Tif," was his flat reply. "Oh, and Tif was trying to murder babies, too."

Van's jaw dropped, "What?!" She didn't shout, it was more a statement of disbelief. "The eggs?"

Afton nodded, "Mm-hmm."

She looked away, trying to pull her own thoughts in order. "Oh boy," she muttered.

Agreeably, he replied, "Yeah." Absently tapping the motherboard against his other hand, and staring off into the distance, Afton remarked, "I have a list of other people I could have pissed off, over the last five years, that it might be, but I'm just guessing."

"I, uhm, don't," Van replied, wryly.

"You don't kill computers!" Afton laughed, "I'm guessing this is all about me." He shrugged, "Seems to target me, most."

Vanhi shook her head, "I don't know. You weren't near the eggs, right?"

"Tif knew," Afton remarked.

"Yeah, but," she started.

"I wasn't playing their game," he pointed out.

Van asked, gently, "Collateral damage, huh?"

"Yeah," nodded Afton. "Babies as collateral damage."

She frowned absently, "Gonna hafta burn."

"Yeah," repeated Afton.

They both sighed, wearily.

"I'm sorry about your room," said Vanhi, after a moment.

"It's... things," commented Afton. He tapped the side of his head with his forefinger, "All the codes are in here, so..." He shrugged, and offered a bit of a smile, then frowned, absently. "You said, 'they wouldn't let me in,' but who are 'they'?"

She gestured behind her, with her thumb over her shoulder, at Connor and Alex Murphey finally catching up from the jaunt to the side of the mansion.

Afton rolled his eyes, and nodded sagely, "Eeyeah, you need to find a technomancer or something, to take care of that. They're rumored to exist."

They both sighed, regarding each other. Vanhi smiled lopsided, "A'ight. Wanna join me for lunch?"

Afton huffed a laugh, "Sure."

"Good. Go bring something." Vanhi grinned impishly, "I'm not allowed in the house."

They both had a good laugh at that, and Afton retrieved some sandwiches and bags of chips from the kitchen. They sat on the patio, comparing favorite movies while they ate. Eventually, Afton looked to Van, and asked, "So. Have you told Dwayne about...?" He tapped the side of his head.

Vanhi sighed, shaking her head, "Not yet. I was gonna, after lunch." She finished her bag of chips, tipping the crumbs from the bag into her mouth, and then carefully flattened and folded the bag. "Y'know, instead of calling him," she remarked, fidgeting with the chips bag, "Maybe I'll send him a text."

Afton's eyebrow lifted, and he replied, "Oh, 'cos that works so well."

"That's right," Van sighed. "Never mind." She thought about it for a moment, then grinned to Afton, asking, "Can you text him for me?"

"Mmm, no."

"Right. Screens are just a bad idea." Vanhi then muttered a quiet, "Fuck!" She fidgeted with the chip bag a little more, "A'ight, I'll call him."

Afton stood up, and nodded. "I'll get the land line." He went inside, and returned shortly with an old-fashioned desk phone, trailing a long cable. It was rotary-dial. He put it on the patio table, in front of Van.

Vanhi stared at it a moment, and asked, "Oh my god, do these actually work?"

"Yeah," Afton replied, a bit condescendingly.

Van lifted the handset, and poked her fingers into the holes on the rotary. "How do you use this?" she asked, honestly baffled. "I still have dial tone... oh, wait! That's what 'dial tone' means! That's what dialing means!" She then proceeded to dial Dwayne's cell phone number, from the rotary dial phone. At least she held the handset correctly, against her ear.

After a couple of rings, Dwayne answered, "Hello?"

"Hey, Boss, it's me," said Vanhi. Then, in a rush, she continued, "Uhm, so, whatever this is that happened, it's still in there, and it's not psychic in nature."

There was a moment before Dwayne answered, "All right, ah–"

Van continued, cutting him off, "The Mistress doesn't know what it is, but it, it ain't psychic."

At his end, Dwayne sighed, "All right, well–"

At the same time, Afton remarked loudly, "It's probably the computer!"

Van shot Afton a look, as she said into the phone, "And, we all kind of agree that it's probably computer-based."

"Well then," replied Dwayne, with a note of finality in his tone, "You'll need to stay away from anything 'computer'."

There was a moment of silence, before Vanhi remarked, "This rotary phone is cool. I didn't know old stuff like this still worked!"

Afton spoke up again, "Ah, there's a problem."

Still holding the handset to her ear, Van turned to face Afton. "Yeah, it's in my head!"

"You don't need to be near a screen for it to be activated again," he pointed out, irritated.

"I don't?" Van asked, her jaw dropping.

"You might need to go to a remote location, with no electronics around, anywhere," Afton answered, nodding.

Vanhi shook her head with disbelief, "Eff emm ell."

After a moment, Dwayne's voice on the handset called out, "All right. I got a fix." Van forgot she was still on the phone with him.

Afton pointed to the handset, and chimed up, "Ask him if he knows a, uh, techno-wizard-y, person."

"Oh, I know something better," he replied. "I know a Jiadh. And I know where she's living. With her little sister, who may be able to just... turn you off. So, yup! Definitely benched." And then he hung up the phone.

Author's Note: This is a world similar to the one in Vox Veritatus. Both were built using the Mighty Protectors RPG system published by Monkey House Games. The images were created in Titan Icon, from the City of Heroes MMO.