Echo 8 (Sharon Lynn Fisher)
SFR Galaxy Award for Best Physics Lesson (Judge Anna McClain)
In Echo 8, Ms. Fisher took me beyond the year of college physics I studied and have mostly forgotten. She made it understandable and then applied it to parapsychology, making it plausible. The addition of scientific language and information made the story so much more than a romance and added even more substance to the tale.
The basic but singular premise of Echo 8 was fascinating. With each chapter, the complications kept piling on, constantly making me wonder where the story was headed. I found Echo 8 to be complex, emotionally intense, scientifically speculative and one of the most intriguing books I read in 2015.
But a stranger in a strange land, he is no one.
—Bram Stoker, Dracula
Seattle Psi Training Institute—August 10, 2018
The man on the floor was transparent.
He tracked Tess as she crossed the room, stopping a couple meters away from him. He studied her, and she knew he was trying to understand. Trying to remember.
Her heart ached for him. He was human, after all. At least he had been.
“How do you feel?” Tess asked, taking another step toward him.
“Close enough, Doctor.” The low, cautioning voice came not from the fading visitor, but from the FBI agent who’d moved to stand behind her. Tess did what she usually did when Ross McGinnis spoke to her in that tone. She ignored him.
“Where . . . am . . . I?” The visitor’s voice scraped like dry leaves blowing across pavement. “Who are you?”
“I can answer those questions for you, but . . .” Tess swallowed. “It’s going to come as a shock.”
He blinked at her, and his gaze slid around the lab. The equipment had been removed, leaving nothing to look at but the exposed brick walls, painted ductwork, and gleaming hardwood floors.
“Where am I?” he repeated.
There was no time to make him understand. He had maybe an hour to live. But he deserved what little explanation she could offer.
“You’ve come here from a different Earth.” His gaze snapped back to her face, and she could imagine what he was thinking. “There was a catastrophic impact event—an asteroid. The destruction knocked some of you loose from your own reality. Brought you to ours. We don’t know how or why.”
He stared at her, long and hard.
“Who are you?” His voice was stronger now, more insistent. But it still had a hollow, echoing quality.
“My name is Tess. I’m a parapsychologist.”
One corner of his mouth twisted. Tess started to ask if he was in pain—but then realized the half-dead transparent man was smirking at her.
“This is a joke, right?”
She frowned. “I’m sorry. No.”
Tess debated about how much to tell him. Compassion for the dying man warred with her sense of duty. She had a responsibility to glean as much information as she could from him. The lives of people on her own Earth depended on it.
“What’s your name?” she asked as he continued to study her.
“Jake, I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“How about you answer a few first. Like why do I feel like a pile of grated cheese?”
“That’s complicated.” She knelt on the floor so he wouldn’t have to look up at her. “Your dislocation left you unable to sustain life energy.”
“What does that mean exactly?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have a more scientific explanation for you. The impact somehow relaxed the laws of physics as we understand them. Weakened boundaries between our universes, which allowed some of you to pass through to our Earth.”
“I got a D in high school physics,” said Jake, “but I’m thinking that shouldn’t be possible.”
“Some scientists believe we might one day be able to communicate with parallel worlds, and communication is just an exchange of energy. But the short answer is since you’re here, it’s possible. And without the connection to your own world, well . . . you’re broken, for lack of a better word.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.” His eyes searched around the room. “There are others like me?”
“We know of as many as twenty. And more keep popping up.”
“Where are they?”
She studied his face, which was little more than a ghostly residue. “They died, Jake.”
“I’m dying too.”
“Without a transfusion of energy, yes.”
He gave her a tired smile. “I don’t think my insurance covers that.”
“I’d help you if I could. Unfortunately the effects of—”
“Doctor,” interrupted the agent, “I think you’ve told him enough.”
The Echo’s ticking clock, and her compassion for his situation, shaved a slice off her already thin tolerance for the Bureau’s interference. Glancing up she said, “Agent McGinnis, please do your job and allow me to do mine.”
The agent’s dark eyes registered no surprise. From their first handshake—months ago at the International Echo Summit in Washington D.C.—they’d generated neon sparks of animosity that had singed anyone within a three-meter radius.
As she glared at him, his gaze cut back to Jake. The agent frowned. “Doctor . . .”
She returned her attention to her subject—or to the spot on the floor where he had been.
“No,” she groaned. She stepped toward the empty corner, kneeling.
“Careful, Doctor,” warned the agent.
A dead bulb in the overhead light flickered on, and she jumped. Glancing down at the floor she noticed something that looked like chalk dust. She reached out and touched it with the tip of a finger.
“Tess!” the agent shouted. But it was too late.
White heat seared up her arm, and she screamed.
Sharp pains slashed down her body, a riptide of razors. Tess’s life gushed out of her and into Jake, who rematerialized before her eyes. He gave a long, low moan, and Tess felt him strengthening, pulsing with her energy.
He rose to his knees as she fell back onto the floor, head striking the hardwood. He crouched over her, hands sliding up the outsides of her thighs. She gave another cry of agony.
From far away she could hear Agent McGinnis shouting. But Jake’s arms coiled round her like serpents, and Tess knew she was beyond help.
Though they have proven malignant thus far, I’m convinced they are not malign. They are not murderous by nature. As with any predator, we’re dealing with a survival instinct.
—Echo Dossier, Prof. Alexi Goff, University of Edinburgh
One week earlier
Tess walked slowly to the conference room, dreading the impromptu meeting with her supervisor, Seattle Psi Training Institute Director Abigail Carmichael.
Tess knew Abby had just received notification about Tess’s appointment to the Echo Task Force. She would almost certainly try to talk Tess out of the post, despite the fact Tess had been nominated by a man they both respected—Tess’s mentor, Professor Alexi Goff.
The post was dangerous, and Tess was young—the youngest task force member by a decade. But the White House had approved the appointment, and Tess had accepted. Everything was official now.
Opening the door to the conference room, Tess was surprised to find two people waiting for her. The unexpected—and familiar—face scrambled the mental notecards she’d assembled for her anticipated argument with Abby.
Black hair and a suit to match, accented with a vividly blue tie. Handsome and clean-shaven, with eyes that might be blue or gray—the only thing indecisive about him, in her experience.
He took a few steps toward her, and she glimpsed a shoulder holster as he offered to shake her hand.
“Tess,” began Abby, “I believe you’ve met Special Agent Ross McGinnis.”
“Yes,” replied Tess, taking his hand.
She’d never understood why the Bureau had sent this man to the summit. He was clearly hostile to the sort of work she did. She was used to skeptics. To rigid, fear-based ideas about science that hardened even the highly educated in the face of compelling evidence. But someone like him didn’t belong at a summit created to address a very real international threat. Dozens had died at the hands of Echoes. Many more might if they couldn’t find a way to stop them. This was no pseudoscientific woo-woo.
She supposed he’d had similar reservations about her—a young post-doc rubbing shoulders with the world’s greatest minds. She questioned it herself daily. But Goff was in the thick of it, and her collaboration with him—albeit long-distance—had rendered her more qualified than even the Nobel laureates in attendance.
“What brings you to Seattle, Agent McGinnis?” She offered him a chilly smile.
He exchanged a glance with Abby, and the tiny gesture of uncertainty—of deference— caused her heart to jump into her throat.
Abby came a step closer, fingers brushing Tess’s arm. “Agent McGinnis has brought some news about Professor Goff.”
Tess backed away, bracing a hand against the conference room table. “He’s dead.”
She didn’t need confirmation; she felt the truth of it in her gut. Might have felt it before, had she not been preoccupied with the appointment.
She sank onto the edge of the table, and Abby moved to sit beside her. They both glanced at the agent.
Nodding, he said, “Six hours ago. The fade attacked him.”
Tess closed her eyes. Echo 7, the only one currently in confinement. “Are you sure about this?”
“I spoke to the SAS agent assigned to Goff. I’m sorry, Dr. Caufield.”
Goff was thorough and methodical. He had taken every precaution. Tess knew because she’d been video-conferencing with him since 7 was picked up by the SAS. Before that, in fact—after his interviews with 5 and 6. But 7 was almost gone when they got him—hadn’t fed in days. Had Goff seen the window of opportunity closing and started taking risks? Until someone could discover a nonlethal way of sustaining Echoes—of conducting energy transfers without killing the donor—the current shoot-on-sight policy would stand. That was an escalating tragedy neither she nor Goff could stomach. Because anyone who spent five minutes with one could see they weren’t monsters.
Yet Goff was dead.
Abby slipped an arm around Tess, and she realized she’d begun to tremble. “I want you to take a couple of weeks off. Fly to Scotland for the service. You can decide about the appointment later.”
Tess glanced again at Agent McGinnis, who stood waiting and watching. She didn’t want him here. She could feel the cracks in her composure forking and expanding, and she didn’t want him reporting back to his superiors how the new task force member had gone to pieces when she heard the news.
“Why did they send you?” she asked.
He was a cool customer. No hint of emotion.
“I’ve been assigned to you,” he replied.
Tess gripped the edge of the table, lips arcing down. “What do you mean ‘assigned to me’?”
“Assigned to protect you.”
“Protect me from . . . ?” But she knew where this was going.
“No one wants to see what happened to Goff happen to you. There’s growing evidence the Echoes are drawn to members of the task force. I thought you were aware.”
Tess was aware. Goff wasn’t the first to die. He’d hypothesized there was some kind of entanglement involved—in the quantum sense, where entangled particles were able to share information across distances without contact. “Spooky action at a distance,” Einstein had called it. It was like the Echoes knew where to go for help, at least on a subconscious level.
Though as of yet they hadn’t managed to help a single one.
Despite all this, she didn’t quite buy the agent’s explanation. It felt like interference. Like they weren’t sure whether they could trust her to do her job. Goff had openly disapproved of the FBI’s policy regarding Echoes, and Tess suspected the disapproval ran both ways.
“You don’t have to do this,” interrupted Abby. “Not for Goff, not for anyone. Tess . . .” Abby’s voice deepened. “I’m asking you not to do this.”
Abby had complete authority over Tess in her role at the institute, but she could do nothing to stop this appointment, and both of them knew it. She was the only maternal figure in Tess’s life, however, and Tess appreciated her protective impulses.
“Goff was the only one who understood,” Tess said simply. “Now it’s just me.”
She did have to do this. She had believed in Goff, and his efforts had cost him his life. She couldn’t let that be for nothing. And she still believed it was the right thing to do.
The director rose and turned from her, toward the window, resting her hands on her hips.
Tess slipped off the edge of the table and glanced at her new colleague. “Welcome to Seattle, Agent McGinnis. If you’ll excuse me . . .”
Tess was barely out the door when the first sob heaved out of her. She hurried down the corridor and up the central stairway toward her apartment.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs behind her.
“Doctor, wait . . . I need to talk to you about—”
She rounded on him, startled to find him close behind her. “Later, Agent McGinnis,” she snapped, her voice raw with grief.
He sank backward a step, and the controlled lines of his face loosened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”
She turned and ran up to her apartment, closing and locking the door behind her.
—the two of you were so close.
Ross felt like an ass. He turned and headed back down the stairs.
They’d gotten off on the wrong foot now. Though really that had happened at their first meeting in D.C. On orders from the Bureau’s director, Ross had been seated next to her at the summit’s opening dinner. She’d taken an immediate dislike to him.
I’m sure it had nothing to do with questioning the validity of her life’s work. Asking her how it was possible to train people in a skill that had never been scientifically validated had probably not been his smartest move ever. Her resentment had been palpable. And her accusation that he was criticizing a field he knew nothing about had been deserved. It was a mistake someone in his position should not make. But when she’d explained her line of work to him over the bouillabaisse, she’d unknowingly pricked a nerve.
He’d been ordered to stay close to her at the summit, and it soon became clear that assignment had been compromised. It was difficult to subtly shadow someone who was actively avoiding you.
He’d confessed his sins to Bureau Director Garcia, with far less fallout than he would have expected. He had not been reassigned. Garcia did not seem to care that Dr. Caufield hated him.
But it was going to make his job a hell of a lot harder.
She’d accepted an apology from him on the last day of the summit, but it hadn’t thawed her even minutely. Now he’d brought her news of the death of her colleague. He doubted he could recover with her, but he had his orders and he had to try.
Instead of going back down to the conference room, he stopped on the second floor, where they’d assigned him the studio apartment directly below Dr. Caufield’s. He tossed his bag on the bed and started transferring his clothes to the dresser and closet. The room was spare, with battered secondhand furniture, but he’d slept in far worse places.
His thoughts returned to Caufield and all he’d learned about her for this assignment. He’d scrolled through dozens of images of her on the ride to the summit location on the outskirts of the capital. As he’d studied her features, his gut had told him she was going to be difficult. His gut was hardly ever wrong.
But it was hard not to wonder whether he’d created his own reality in that hour before their first meeting. And then fulfilled his own prophecy with that barbed comment at dinner. That was his problem with psi abilities in general. How much of it was simply self-deterministic, even if on a subconscious level?
There was more to it than her being difficult, or a psi expert, though. When she’d taken her seat beside him—smiling warmly, her auburn hair wafting jasmine with every turn of her head—parts other than his gut had responded in unexpected ways. That was a recipe for disaster, and he had to consider the part it might have played in his antagonistic behavior.
But Ross had been a field agent for ten years. Far from his rookie days, loyal to the Bureau and unfailingly professional. He could deal with one moody, sexy scientist.
For two days Tess holed up in her apartment on the third floor of the Seattle Psi building, a renovated, circa-1900 elementary school. The abandoned Colman School had been slated for demolition ten years ago when the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Psi Foundation stepped in and converted it to a research and training facility, as well as onsite housing for scientists. Tess and Abby had offices on the second floor and apartments on the third. The first was reserved for meeting areas, break room, and research space and equipment.
Agent McGinnis had been given one of the apartments used by visiting researchers, and he was far too close. Tess knew when he was showering or shaving. Video conferencing or talking on the phone. Entering or leaving the apartment. She knew he didn’t play loud music or watch TV. She heard him moving around at all hours and knew that like her he didn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time.
She resented that she’d been forced to become so aware of him. But for now it was better than having to deal with him face-to-face. The loss of Professor Goff was a suffocating weight. Tess needed space to work through it, and she needed time to find her footing on her new assignment—without the interference of an outsider with an unknown agenda.
Thankfully she had a lot of catching up to do. The first item on the agenda: acquiring the details of Goff’s death. Unfortunately that one proved easy to tick off, because the investigation ended at a file that had been sealed by SAS Special Projects, Britain’s counter-terrorism unit.
We’ll let Agent McGinnis earn his keep on this one. She fired off an email asking him to throw his weight—and if possible, the Bureau’s—behind her request to unseal the file.
After that she dove into a lifetime’s worth of reading on the Echo threat. McGinnis had gotten her access to the Bureau’s case files, and the University of Edinburgh, where Goff had worked as director of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, had sent her his Echo Dossier, an electronic packet of research notes and video files. She was also playing catch-up on in-progress task force discussions. Grave as the situation that had led to this appointment was, it was impossible not to feel a little heady about working directly with world-renowned physicists, biologists, and psychologists.
Tess had a long-enough task list to justify holing up for a week, even considering the fact Abby had temporarily reassigned her Seattle Psi projects to other staff members. But on the morning of the third day, having exhausted her food stores and—more critically—her coffee supply, she was forced to head down to the center’s café for breakfast.
She arrived at 7 a.m., hoping to avoid chitchat with her colleagues, and intending to grab coffee and a bagel before heading back upstairs. But as she scanned her meal card for the sleepy barista, Agent McGinnis appeared before her.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
He crossed to the dispenser for brewed coffee and picked up a mug. Tess seized the opportunity to escape.
“Could I talk to you for a minute?”
Damn. She froze in the doorway, taking a deep breath before turning. “Of course.”
“Why don’t we sit outside so we won’t be interrupted?”
So much for hopes of being rescued by a colleague.
Tess followed him to the double doors that led out to a small patio with a cluster of tables and umbrellas. It was the first week of August, and so far this summer they’d had nothing but rain. But the sky was finally cloudless this morning, with the sun just peeking above the hill to the east.
“Will you be warm enough?” he asked, holding the door for her. If nothing else he was considerate.
She held the edges of her cardigan together with her free hand. “I’ll be fine.”
The patio faced the grounds that had once been a playfield for the school, now a rhododendron garden with benches and graveled walks. She sipped her latte and breathed the fresh morning air. It felt good to be outside while the rest of the world was just waking up. Almost the rest of the world. She glanced at her companion.
“I didn’t know you and Goff were so close, Doctor. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Tess managed a polite smile. “Thank you.” No one but Abby would know. Goff had been more of a father to her than her real father, despite the long-distance working relationship. “What did you want to talk about, Agent McGinnis?”
“I wanted to brief you on the measures we’ve taken to ensure your safety.” His long fingers pressed the sides of his mug, fingernails lining up in neat, clean rows. She curled her own fingers, with picked-ragged cuticles, into her palms.
“Your building has minimal security,” he continued, “so I’ve called in agents from the Seattle Field Office to help me keep an eye on things. At least two of us will be on duty at all times. And you have my cell number—I’m here for you twenty-four-seven, Doctor. Call me about anything, anytime.”
Tess lifted her eyes to his face and studied him more closely. He was as neat as his fingernails—clean-shaven, with short-cropped dark hair. The black suit deepened the overcast gray of his eyes. She’d never seen him in anything else, and she wondered if he wore it every day.
“Do you have questions for me?” he asked.
“I’ve been wondering what I’m supposed to do with you, Agent McGinnis.”
He squinted a little and picked up his cup. “I’m not sure how to answer that.”
“You said you’re here to protect me. Are you going to follow me around?”
He smiled. “You’re direct, aren’t you?”
“It saves time. I’m busy. I work better with people who are direct with me.”
“Noted,” he said with a nod. “I’m afraid the answer is yes. We will be monitoring you, as unobtrusively as possible. In fact we have been already—I have an agent walking the upper floors day and night.”
Tess raised her eyebrows. She really had been buried in her work. How had she failed to notice strangers pacing the creaky hallways?
“I’d also ask that you pay more attention than you normally do to your surroundings,” he continued. “The fade that killed—”
“I’d prefer not to refer to them that way, if you don’t mind. They’re people. What’s happened to them is not their fault.”
McGinnis considered this, tapping the side of his cup. “As I understand, we don’t really know why it’s happening, do we, Doctor?”
“That’s true,” she conceded. “But I think it’s dangerous to dehumanize them.”
“That wasn’t my intention. If you’re more comfortable with the term ‘Echo,’ I’ll use that.” He sipped his coffee. “I’m sure you’re aware the Echo that killed that French biophysicist two weeks ago appeared not five feet in front of him. The man never had a chance. I can’t save you from that, so I need you to stay sharp. If anything odd or unexpected happens, even if it’s just a funny feeling, like someone watching you, drop what you’re doing and find me.”
Tess suppressed a smile. One of her ongoing projects at the institute involved helping research subjects sharpen their precognitive skills. She’d become an expert on “funny feelings”which McGinnis had made it clear during their first meeting he didn’t believe in.
But she let it pass. “I understand.”
“Do you have any experience with firearms?”
Her stomach clenched as she anticipated what was coming next. “I don’t like guns.”
“It’s something we might want to consider.”
“I don’t see the point. When they’re hungry, bullets are useless. Energy depletion affects their mass, so—”
“I’m aware, Dr. Caufield.” There was a bite in his reply. She watched his features smooth, and his tone evened out as he continued. “But we’ve observed that some are more aggressive than others. Some will feed even when they don’t need to. At those times they’re vulnerable, and a gun could save you.”
Tess shook her head. “I have no training. I’ve never even held a gun.”
“That’s easily remedied.”
“Agent McGinnis, I don’t want to shoot anyone. You’re aware I was assisting Goff. He nominated me for the task force so we could collaborate more directly. I have every intention of going on with the work he was doing. I can’t do that until I have a subject to study. If one lands in my lap, the last thing I want is to shoot him.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be your call to make, Doctor. I have orders to keep you alive.”
Tess clenched her teeth. Arguing with him was the least productive thing she could do. But she couldn’t get past resenting the fact they hadn’t consulted her about sending him.
“I understand you have your orders,” she conceded. “But I assume you have no authority to force me to carry a gun.”
Relaxing at this confirmation, she continued, “I hear what you’re saying, and you’re right that there is some evidence Echoes are drawn to task force members. Do you suppose we could compromise? Some nonlethal device?”
His frown deepened as he considered. “We haven’t tested electroshock devices against Echoes. But it’s better than nothing.”
Tess nodded and rose from the table. “All right. If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”
“There’s one more thing, Doctor. Please.” He gestured to the chair, and all the blood rushed to her face as she sat back down. Professional courtesy was important to her, but she didn’t want him getting the idea he could order her around.
“You should know that the Bureau wasn’t entirely onboard with the research Goff was doing.” Ah, here it comes. “Don’t misunderstand. Everyone had tremendous respect for what he accomplished. For what he was able to learn about them before he died. But the Bureau is most concerned with mitigating the threat.”
“Are you here to tell me how to conduct my research, Agent McGinnis?”
“Doctor, try to—”
“Yes or no?”
The agent’s lips pressed into a hard line. His gaze shifted to the playfield. She could see the artery in his throat pulsing.
“I’m not a scientist. The White House has tapped your expertise, not mine. But the Bureau is taking the lead in managing this crisis, and they do expect us to work together. As for Goff’s research, obviously we have no authority over how other countries choose to oversee the efforts of their task force members.”
If nothing else, she had to admire his ability to evade a direct question. But the answer was clear enough.
Over the next few days Tess found it easy to return to the policy she’d adopted in D.C.—focus on the task at hand; avoid her new shadow. She didn’t have cycles to spare on him.
As long as he stuck to his job and stayed out of her way, they’d get along fine. But the last words he’d said to her never completely left her thoughts: “they do expect us to work together.” It was only a matter of time before their interests collided again.
But for the moment she was still playing catch-up. The other task force members from the life sciences had been happy to help her get up to speed. She was not all that surprised to find that, in true academic fashion—and in spite of the task force’s stated purpose of cross-discipline collaboration—cliques had formed. Her life sciences colleagues, like herself, had been focusing on understanding the Echoes, and she got the sense their work was considered low priority—unlikely to bear fruit that would help resolve the crisis.
The physicists and cosmologists were focused on discovering the cause of the dimensional dislocations in hopes of shutting it off, and their work seemed to be most in the spotlight. They spent a lot of time debating which of the various theories regarding multiverses had been validated by the appearance of the alternate-Earth visitors.
The investigative experts had thrown all their resources at finding better ways to track Echoes. No one had any clear idea of how many were at large. The reports of mysterious deaths were edging up, but thanks to next year’s US presidential election and the water riots in the developing world, big media hadn’t taken notice yet.
Tess wasn’t political—that was Abby’s job as director—but she knew the upcoming election was likely a major factor in the Bureau feeling pressured to get a handle on the Echo crisis as quickly and quietly as possible.
As the only parapsychologist on the task force, Tess struggled to find her place, especially after the loss of Goff. Welcoming as her new colleagues had been, she knew that many of them were politely masking the same prejudices McGinnis had revealed at the summit. For some people it didn’t matter how many dramatic results you dumped in their laps—they simply felt too threatened to see it.
The end of the week rolled around without Tess even noticing. On Friday after the close of business, desperate for something with sugar in it, she headed down to pilfer from the kitchen. The café was run by a contractor, and the residents were supposed to stay out after it closed. Occasionally someone broke the rules and a memo would circulate, reminding the staff that the contents of the kitchen were not institute property. Tess had been one of the more persistent offenders.
She’d just poured a glass of orange juice when she heard dress shoes tapping on the hardwood floor.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to report that.”
Her heart jumped, and she turned to find Agent McGinnis frowning at her from the other side of the counter. “Unless you’re prepared to share.”
Tess suppressed a smiled and got down another glass, carrying both over to the counter. “I should warn you that our deviant behavior is sure to be the subject of a sternly worded memo.”
“Well, if they try to prosecute, you can blame me. I’ll take the rap.”
She held up her glass. “Honor among thieves?”
He clinked his against it. “Hardly. I’m trying to make you like me.”
Tess chuckled, sipping her juice to cover the blush that had taken her by surprise. “I didn’t realize it was—”
She broke off as she heard a rattling noise in the lobby, just on the other side of the wall from the kitchen.
McGinnis glanced at the café entrance, and the sound came again. “Someone’s trying to open the front door.”
Tess slipped from behind the counter, but he caught hold of her arm. “Wait, Doctor.”
“Don’t!” she protested, tugging her arm back. The sudden contact had jolted her, but the extremity of her reaction surprised her.
He let go and held up his hand. “Wait here until I see who it is.”
“It’s just the delivery guy,” she said. “They forget to use the buzzer after hours.”
She slipped away from him, trying to shake off both the man and the way he made her feel.
She grasped the bolt and slid it free—and gave a surprised cry as whoever was on the other side shoved the door open, hard. McGinnis grabbed Tess around the waist and dragged her away.
A shadow stumbled through the door. Not a shadow—an Echo stood gawking in the low-lit lobby, shoulders hunched, eyes raking slowly over the stairway and sparse furnishings.
“Head for the stairs,” McGinnis hissed, drawing his sidearm. “Go up and get behind a door that locks.”
Tess’s heart pounded as he edged her toward the stairway. “We need to get him to the lab.”
She was scared—every bit as scared as the agent clearly thought she should be. But she had not joined the task force to run away at the first opportunity to make a real contribution.
“If we lose him he’ll just end up hurting people,” she reminded him. “You know you can’t shoot him while he’s half faded. Let me try.”
McGinnis hesitated, gaze riveted to the visitor, who stood quiet and bemused in the entryway. Finally he let go of her, saying, “Stay close to me.”
Tess took a couple steps toward the Echo, and McGinnis followed.
“Hey, you okay?” she asked.
The bearded man seemed to notice her for the first time. She watched his confusion and distress evolve into something else. He took a step, reaching for her, but she staggered backward.
“You can’t touch me, okay?” she warned. “It’s dangerous.”
The agent’s arm shot around her waist again, and he pulled her against him as he moved toward the corridor behind them.
“We want to help you,” Tess called. “Follow me, okay?”
Tess and the agent backed across the floor, the Echo following, and together they slow-danced toward the lab where the scientists ran their experiments.
“What’s wrong with me?” the visitor asked. His voice had a subterranean quality, like it was rising up out of a well.
“I can explain, but we need to get you someplace safe first.”
“Am I . . . are you . . . real?”
“Yes, I’m real. So are you.”
“I’m so tired. I’ve got this strange, sort of aching . . . itch. I need . . .”
He took a couple quick steps, reaching for her again, and McGinnis forced her to the floor. “Stop!” the agent ordered. “You can’t touch her.” He shoved open the lab door on his left. “You can rest in here.”
One of the other agents—Perez—had appeared in the corridor and stood with her pistol at the ready. But she was as helpless as they were. All of them were at the Echo’s mercy. It was up to him whether this worked or not.
The bearded man stared into the lab.
“It’s okay,” urged Tess, rising to her feet. He blinked at her, bewildered. “You’re going to be okay.”
He walked into the lab, and McGinnis closed the door behind him, locking it with a click. Through the window in the door she saw the Echo turn, startled.
Tess punched the intercom button beside the door. “The lock’s just a precaution. Don’t be afraid.”
He glanced slowly around behind him and then moved farther into the room.
Tess turned off the intercom and sank against the door.
McGinnis blew out a long breath. “Jesus, Doctor.”
He reached for her arm, but his hand hovered a moment and he gestured with his fingers instead. “Come away from the door.”
Tess righted herself and turned to peer into the lab. The Echo had sunk down in a corner of the room, head resting on his folded arms. As she watched him, his form sank lower until he lay flat on his back staring at the ceiling.
“He doesn’t have long,” she murmured. Tess had watched Echo 6 die. One minute he’d been hungry and dangerous, pacing tiger-like in a lab much like this one, and then some kind of switch had flipped. Over the course of the next several hours he’d faded away until fatigue and paralysis set in, and then finally he just wasn’t there.
This one wouldn’t make it until morning.
“We can’t afford to take any risks,” said McGinnis. “Perez, notify Dr. Carmichael. We need to get any staff out of the building ASAP. Everyone but Carmichael and Caufield.”
Tess pressed the intercom button again. “You okay in there?”
No reply. No sign of movement.
She turned to McGinnis. “We don’t have much time. I’ll watch him for an hour to be sure, but I don’t think he’s getting up again. If he doesn’t, I want to go in.”
McGinnis was shaking his head before she finished. “No. It’s too risky.”
“Have you been paying attention? He was more dangerous five minutes ago than he is now, and he didn’t touch me.”
Still he shook his head. “He tried. If you want to talk to him, do it through the door.”
Tess braced a hand against the wall. “Talking to them—asking them questions about what they remember—it’s all we’ve got right now. You understand that, right? This is my job now. I need to talk to him before he’s gone, and it’s useless to keep shouting at him through the goddamn intercom.”
McGinnis raised his hand to his head, rubbing his temples.
“This is important, Agent McGinnis. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
He dropped his hand and met her gaze, his expression flat. “You win, Doctor. We’ll watch him for two hours. Then I go in with you.”