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Victor’s mind whirred as he listened to Eli’s theory.

He flexed his fingers against his pant legs.

It made sense.

It made sense and it was simple and elegant and Victor hated that, especially because he should have seen it first, should have been able to hypothesize. Adrenaline was his research topic. The only difference was that he’d been studying temporary flux, and Eli had gone so far as to suggest a permanent shift. Anger flared through him, but anger was unproductive so he twisted it into pragmatism while he searched for a flaw.

“Say something, Vic.”

Victor frowned, and kept his voice carefully devoid of Eli’s enthusiasm.

“You’ve got two knowns, Eli, but no idea how many unknowns. Even if you can definitively say that an NDE and a strong will to survive are necessary components, think of how many other factors there could be. Hell, the subject might need a dozen other items on their ExtraOrdinary checklist. And the two components you do have are too vague. The term genetic predisposition alone comprises hundreds of traits, any or all of which could be crucial. Does the subject need naturally elevated chemical levels, or volatile glands? Does their present physical condition matter, or only their body’s innate reactions to change? As for the mental state, Eli, how could you possibly calculate the psychological factors? What constitutes a strong will? It’s a philosophical can of worms. And then there’s the entire element of chance.”

“I’m not discounting any of those,” said Eli, deflating a little as he guided the car into their parking lot. “This is an additive theory, not a deductive one. Can’t we celebrate the fact that I’ve potentially made a key discovery? EOs require NDEs. I’d say that’s pretty fucking cool.”

“But it’s not enough,” said Victor.

“Isn’t it?” snapped Eli. “It’s a start. That’s something. Every theory needs a place to start, Vic. The NDE hypothesis—this cocktail of mental and physical reactions to trauma—it holds water.”

Something small and dangerous was taking shape in Victor as Eli spoke. An idea. A way to twist Eli’s discovery into his, or at least, into theirs.

“And it’s a thesis,” Eli went on. “I’m trying to find a scientific explanation for the EO phenomena. It’s not like I’m actually trying to create one.”

Victor’s mouth twitched, and then it twisted into a smile.

“Why not?”

* * *

“BECAUSE it’s suicide,” said Eli in between mouthfuls of sandwich.

They were sitting in LIDS, which was still fairly empty before the start of the spring semester. Only the Italian eatery, the comfort food kitchen, and the café were open.

“Well, yes, necessarily,” Victor said, sipping a coffee. “But if it worked…”

“I can’t believe you’re actually suggesting this,” said Eli. But there was something in his voice, woven through the surprise. Curiosity. Energy. That fervor Victor had sensed before.

“Let’s say you’re right,” pressed Victor, “and it’s a simple equation: a near death experience, with an emphasis on the near, plus a certain level of physical stamina, and a strong will—”

“But you’re the one who said it’s not simple, that there have to be more factors.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are,” said Victor. But he had Eli’s attention. He liked having his attention. “Who knows how many factors? But I’m willing to admit that the body is capable of incredible things in life-threatening situations. That’s what my thesis has been about, remember? And maybe you’re right. Maybe the body is even capable of a fundamental chemical shift. Adrenaline has given people seemingly superhuman abilities in times of dire need. Glimpses of power. Perhaps there’s a way to make the change a lasting one.”

“This is mad—”

“You don’t believe that. Not entirely. It’s your thesis after all,” said Victor. His mouth quirked as he stared down into his coffee. “Incidentally, you’d get an A on that.”

Eli’s eyes narrowed. “My thesis was meant to be theoretical—”

“Oh really?” said Victor with a goading smile. “What happened to believing?”

Eli frowned. He opened his mouth to answer, but was cut off by a pair of slender arms around his neck.

“What has my boys looking so stern?” Victor looked up to see Angie’s rust-colored curls, her freckles, her smile. “Sad the holidays are over?”

“Hardly,” said Victor.

“Hey Angie,” said Eli, and Victor watched the light fold in behind his eyes even as he pulled her in for one of those movie-star kisses. Victor swore inwardly. He had worked so hard to bring it out, and Angie was undoing all of Eli’s focus with a kiss. He pushed up from the table, annoyed.

“Where you going?” asked Angie.

“Long day,” he said. “I just got back, still have to unpack…” His voice trailed off. Angie was no longer paying attention. She had her fingers tangled in Eli’s hair, her lips against his. Just like that, he’d lost them both.

Victor turned, and left.




VICTOR held the hotel door open while Mitch carried Sydney—wounded and soaking wet—inside. Mitch was massive, head shaved, almost every inch of exposed skin inked, and about as broad as the girl was tall. She could have walked, but Mitch had decided that carrying her would be easier than trying to get her arm up around his shoulders. He had also carried two suitcases, which he dropped by the door.

“This’ll do, I think,” he said, looking cheerfully around the luxurious suite.

Victor set down another, much smaller case, peeled his wet coat off, and hung it up, rolling his sleeves as he directed Mitch to put the girl in the bathroom. Sydney craned her head as she was carried through the room. The Esquire Hotel, located in downtown Merit, was bare in a way that made her wonder if they’d thrown pieces of furniture out, and she found herself looking down to see if there were indents where chair legs or couch feet had once been. But the floor throughout was wood, or something manufactured to look like it, and the bathroom was stone and tile. Mitch set her in the shower—a large, doorless marble space—and disappeared.

She shivered, feeling nothing but a dull, pervasive cold, and Victor appeared several minutes later, carrying an armful of miscellaneous clothing.

“One of these should fit you,” he said, dropping the pile on the counter beside the sink. He stood outside the bathroom door while she pulled her own wet clothes off and examined the pile, wondering where these new clothes had come from. It looked as though they’d raided the contents of a laundry room, but the things were dry and warm and so she didn’t complain.

“Sydney,” she called at last, her voice muffled by the shirt caught halfway over her head and the door between them. “That’s my name.”

“Pleasure,” said Victor from the hall.

“How did you do that?” she called out as she searched through the shirts.

“Do what?” he asked.

“Make the pain stop.”

“It’s a … gift.”