A couple in their mid-thirties huddled anxiously together in the waiting room of a doctor's office, on a comfortable but firm loveseat just behind a coffee table strewn with magazines related to children's health. The December '11 issue of Grow Healthy, a medicinal news magazine for parents, lay atop Lifestream, a magical health publication. Nearby, a lush green plant basked, contented, under the full-spectrum lighting of the office. The ticking of the office's wall clock echoed in the ears of the couple, an off-beat rhythm from the jazz music gently playing in the background.

A nameplate on a nearby door read "Dr. Rowan Greaves, EthD, MD," and on the next line, "Pediatric Thaumatological Specialist".

Merrick's breath steams up the small patch of uncovered polyglass window as he tries to stare through it at the police blockade outside without being seen. Naturally it's tough to catch anything beyond the glittering blue lights of the police cruisers. He doesn't care. There's little else to see. His breath now comes in shallow gasps, fear gripping his heart like a claw. To reassure himself, he stalks by his men to the hostage, who currently lies sprawled on the store's dirty tile.

Merrick kneels by the man and grabs his hair, yanking the man's face up and revealing his eyes. They are filled with fear, a more intense and powerful one than Merrick feels. Merrick grins, feeling a little more in control.

"You better hope the police don't come in here, little man," Merrick growls to the frightened man, pointing a heavy pistol at his face. "I have interesting ways of making you die."

The sound of a godlike voice echoes through the store suddenly, a police resonator turning every free surface within the store into a speaker.

"Peter Merrick." The sound of the police officer's voice vibrates through Merrick's chest and inner ear. "We are aware of your involvement in the UZ #15 murders."

There was a muted click as the nameplated door opened. The man behind it was tall, with dark black hair and relatively fair skin for a Washingtonian. His lined face was set with a grim expression. He moved into the room and shut the door behind him with another click, sealing off the room from which he'd just come. He folded his hands behind his back and walked toward the couple.

The doctor's expression and demeanor were not lost on the couple, who looked up at him with frightened eyes. The doctor moved to the couple and took a chair, pulling it in front of the coffee table so he could sit while he faced them. He settled into the chair with the air of someone weary with life.

"Mr. Harrison? Mrs. Lewis? I've just finished my examination of your daughter," he said. "I have some good news and I have some bad news."

Merrick curses, his heart rate quickening. The omniscient voice continues.

"You are surrounded. If you give yourself up and volunteer information concerning the UZ-15 case, Morwen Corp. is willing to offer you a partial amnesty contract. This offer is forfeit if we must take you by force."

Merrick runs to the front of the store, dodging around the hastily-constructed barriers to keep himself within full cover. Once next to the door, he puts his back against the wall next to it. Cold wind blows in from outside where he shattered the door. He screams out at the police blockade through the fractured polyglass.

"Partial amnesty my ass! I have a fucking HOSTAGE! I want a vehicle NOW or my men will start taking pieces out of him!"

There is silence outside for several seconds.

"We are sending a representative," the voice reverberates.

"You'll get back a corpse!" Merrick shouts.

"The good news," the doctor said, lacing his fingers in front of him, "is that your daughter Penduli is a naturally talented Empath."

"Pen has always been very insightful concerning the feelings of others," the man agreed hesitantly.

"Regardless of her perception of social cues," the doctor clarified, "She possesses magical Empathy, both receptive and projective. She is capable of detecting and taking the emotions of others onto herself, to a very detailed degree. In addition, she can impose emotions and impulses upon others. It is a very difficult skill to learn, and those with powerful talent in it are very rare."

"That's ... good ..." the man said apprehensively.

"Yes," the doctor agreed. "Your daughter is extremely talented. Once she finished basic schooling, her Ethertech accreditation would be assured and absolutely free for your family. I assure you that a full scholarship would be guaranteed. Moreover, Penduli will immediately have many high-paying jobs open to her, some of them even relatively low-risk."

The couple was silent for a moment.

"But..." the woman said quietly, "There's bad news."

The doctor sighed. "Yes."

Merrick barrels back toward the rear of the store, checking behind him frantically to ensure that he maintains complete cover from the police outside of the store. As he reaches his men, he looks them over. Only four left. Three were caught in the car chase away from the police and one died, thrown from Merrick's car when it crashed into the lamppost outside of the store where they now hid.

Merrick snarls at them, his visage contorted with barely suppressed panic. "You two! Kill whatever jackass negotiator gets sent in here. Don't hesitate!"

The two hesitate, certainty of their impending capture written on their faces. Merrick moves forward and cuffs one on the head, hard. "FUCKING GO!" he roars. The two scurry behind the blockades, making their way to the front.

Merrick turns wild eyes on the hostage, who shrinks back, whimpering a little bit behind his gag. Merrick lowers himself to his haunches and leans toward him. "Bad news for you," he growls, then lashes out with his free hand and seizes his captive's wrist.

"Involuntary Empathic ...?" the woman stammered, clinging to her partner.

"... Reception/Projection Syndrome," the doctor finished. "Penduli will never be able to deactivate her abilities."

"What does that mean?" The man asked.

"Penduli will forever act as an amplifier and redirector of emotions," the Doctor said grimly. "She will involuntarily absorb and internalize whatever feelings those around her might be experiencing. She has no choice but to feel what others nearby feel. She will then project those emotions, possibly amplified by her own feelings, into anyone nearby."

"So Pen's feelings..."

"Will be the direct product of those around her ... and vice versa."

"There's no way for her ever to turn it off?" The woman asked.

The Doctor shook his head. "No. Eventually she will learn to at least partially choose the targets of her Empathic projections and stop amplifying them by her own feelings. She'll also be able to react less to the surges of emotion, but ... there is a great deal of unavoidable suffering in her future."

An awkward silence hung in the still air.

The air is still, cold and quiet in the store behind the makeshift shelf barriers. The sound of the wind blowing by outside and Merrick's own labored breathing is all that reaches his ears; even the wail of the police sirens has ceased. Merrick shifts his grip on the hostage's wrist and on his pistol, the barrel of which is pressed into the hostage's palm. The police said they'd send a representative, but Merrick is getting antsy. This isn't turning out right at all.

Suddenly, there is a commotion at the front of the store. One of his men shouts, then is silent. Merrick hears an anguished moan, then a gunshot from the front of the store. Then quiet again.

Merrick adjusts his grip again, his hands slick with cold sweat.

From around the corner of one of the shelves steps the figure of a delicate young woman in a dark, knee-length dress whose abundant material cascades around her legs. She wears a pair of flat shoes that are silent on the tile floor of the convenience store, and the bare legs above them shine with a light sheen of perspiration. The girl's head is dipped, eyes on the ground. Her face is young, perhaps that of a girl in her mid-to-late teens. She has dark hair that is tied back into a ponytail that reaches the middle of her back. The only equipment she carries is a light Bulletshield, installed on a wide belt that is wrapped around her thin waist. She is not carrying a weapon.

"I'm sorry," the girl murmurs so quietly that Merrick can barely hear. "One of your men shot himself."

"You shouldn't have come here!" Merrick shouts, grinding the nose of the gun into his hostage's hand. The man whimpers in pain. "This is your fault, bitch!"

The girl turns her head slightly and Merrick pulls the trigger.

The hostage's hand explodes into a shower of gore as the powerful gun fires. He writhes on the ground in agony, emitting a gurgling, choked scream from behind the gag. Merrick's lips pull back in a mad parody of a smile as he retains his grip on the man's wrist, which now ends in a stump. As the man beneath him thrashes in pain, he points the pistol directly at the girl.

She looks down at the hostage, then meets Merrick's eyes.

The man crumpled a little bit, leaning into his partner. She pulled him close, her eyes sad. "But you said that Pen's very talented... so she will have a lot of opportunities?" She asked the Doctor, obviously trying to comfort her partner.

The Doctor nodded. "Empaths can sense nuance and detect lies with ease. There are a number of opportunities that will ensure that Penduli will live as comfortably as someone with her condition can. And if she is ambitious..." he trailed off.

The man looked up. "...what?"

"Sufferers of IERPS are capable of using their abilities to much greater effect than most Empaths," the Doctor said a bit grimly. "If Penduli were to learn to control her reactions and recovery from bouts of heavy emotion, she could feasibly create a 'feedback loop' that could be used to devastating effect in a hostile situation."

"What do you mean?"

"Should there be someone with terrible fear or pain in the vicinity of a hostile person, Penduli would take that pain and fear upon herself and feed it into her attacker, then draw upon and continuously amplify that person's new, alien feelings. She could effectively incapacitate anyone who lacked remarkable mental shielding and willpower by doing so. Penduli, who would be far more used to such things, would still be able to function, albeit through a veil of horrifying emotion."

The two were silent for a moment, then the woman spoke. "That's ... terrifying."

"Yes," the Doctor said gravely. "But someone who could wield a weapon so powerful would be worth a very high price."

Merrick's stomach suddenly lurches as the girl's eyes meet his. A distracting noise begins at the edge of his consciousness, one that reminds him of thousands of violins, each one striking a discordant note to most inappropriately contrast the last. The girl's eyes are deep and dark, and seem to reach forward to swallow Merrick into a dismal pit.

Realizing that something has gone terribly wrong, Merrick tries to pull the trigger of the gun, only to realize that the muscle has failed him. His arm is already hanging limply at his side.

Without warning, Merrick's consciousness erupts into a nightmarish symphony of pain and terror.

The girl's face explodes into a pit of streaks and swirls that reach forward to grasp Merrick. The store walls around him pulse and close in, crushing him. The stump where his hand used to be-- no, it was the hostage-- but why can he FEEL it? The pain and fear is excruciating; Merrick cannot work up enough strength to scream.

He can feel his body falling; it hits the floor and a fresh bloom of pain erupts as his jaw breaks against the tile. Merrick's eyes feel wired open, stuck by the unreasoning terror coursing through his body. He can feel sweat streaming down his face, all over his body, and he is so terribly, terribly cold. So very cold.

In front of his vision, a cockroach slowly ambles toward him, its chitinous legs scratching audibly against the tile floor of the convenience store. Over the course of thirty seconds, Merrick counts its steps as it approaches. When the cockroach reaches Merrick's face, he finally finds his voice and lets out a horrified scream.

There was a soft click as the doctor opened the door to his examination room. "Penduli, you may come out now."

A little girl in a wine-colored dress emerged from the examination room. Her black hair was tied into a ponytail that hung just above her shoulders and she walked quietly on flat black shoes. Her face was somber.

Her father forced a smile. "Penny," he said. "I told you it wouldn't hurt."

"You were right," Pen responded. She walked into the waiting room and looked up at her parents. "It's bad, isn't it."

"No honey, it's not --" his father began, then trailed off, letting his forced smile drop. He looked up at the Doctor, then back down at his daughter. Penduli's mother continued. "It's not all bad, honey. We should talk about it once we've gotten some ice cream. We'll all feel better then."

The little girl said nothing for a moment, then looked up and nodded to her mother. "Okay," she said.

"There's a good girl," her mother said, standing up and leading Pen to the door and out of it.

Outside of the convenience store, the police wait. Following the horrible scream from the building, utter silence has reigned. The force as a whole seems to hold its collective breath as they wait for the hired contractor to do her work.

Suddenly, one points. "There!"

The mercenary's feminine figure, seeming tiny from this distance, steps out of the convenience store. Her dress and ponytail flutter in the wind, but the rest of her seems impossibly weighed down. She walks toward the blockade with slow, soft steps.

The policemen in her way sidle uncomfortably away, keeping as wide a berth from the unassuming figure as they can manage. Once she is clear of the store's entrance by a full fifty feet, a policy entry team files into the building to apprehend Merrick and usher the hostage to receive medical attention.

Standing in the street now, twenty-two-year-old Penduli Harrison-Lewis is alone. The policemen do not approach her; none seem to be willing to come within twenty feet of the young woman. She stands with her back to the store that she just left, her shoulders still shuddering uncontrollably. After nearly a minute, she raises her head and takes a deep breath.

Penduli exhales slowly and her eyes blink open fully.

She raises one hand to her right ear, where a phoneshell is clipped. She taps the button once and speaks: "Alex Greaves."

She waits, then speaks. "Hi... sweetie?"

A pause. "Yeah."

Her voice wavers. "It was hard." A tear rolls down her cheek and she bites her lip to keep from sobbing. She finally asks in a small voice, "Can you take me to go get some ice cream?"

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This vignette by Dog.