“That’s all you’ve got to say?” I ask Brian, closing my hand over the paperclip. “Just ‘huh’?”
“Well, it’s kind of a lot to absorb, you know?” he says. “And plus, I think maybe I kind of expected it.”
I raise an eyebrow at him, and he continues, “Man, you didn’t see yourself at the crash cart. Doc Simmons shocked you with the paddles, and it — it missed you. Grounded down through the gurney and crackled out into the ground somewhere. I’ve never seen the paddles behave like that. Never seen electricity behave like that. No one had, you know? And then you just sat up, like everything was all right. That’s really just not how it works.”
I force a laugh. “And here I thought I was hiding it well.”
There’s an awkward pause, and then I say, “Where can we talk? I don’t know a lot of what’s going on, but I’ll tell you what I know, and what I think I’ve figured out.”
Even trying to condense it to the bare details, telling the story ends up taking the better part of half an hour. Brian spends most of this time staring with a semi-glazed look in his eyes, but he interrupts to ask questions often enough that I know he’s listening and taking it in. It’s clearly just sort of hard for him to believe, which is fair. Still, he was there at the museum the first night, and he’s seen my magnetism trick and whatever I did with the defibrillator, so that helps my credibility a lot.
“You gotta give me a minute to take all this in,” he says at the end. After a beat, he adds, “So what were you doing back here tonight?”
“Well, I wanted to know how much electricity I was producing, and I figured the hospital would have some kind of machine for that.”
Brian snorts. “Ha! For the amount you’re putting out? You’re on the wrong scale, man. You’ll blitz out any machine we’ve got. They’re for picking up tiny amounts, and you’re pouring it out like a power station.”
I think about the doctor’s diagnosis of residual electromagnetic interference and sigh, but Brian grins.
“Just ’cause the medical machines can’t test you doesn’t mean that there’s nothing here that can. Come down to the ambulance garage.”
As we stand up to leave, he adds, “And for the love of God, stay away from all of the electronics around here. People’s lives are attached to some of those, you know?”
Brian lopes off, and I walk gingerly down the middle of the hall after him, looking anxiously from side to side. After a few dozen feet of this, he looks back, sees me and relents.
“Just come walk with me, man. I’ll steer you around anything you need to be careful of.”
Even so, it’s a nerve-wracking walk down the corridor. I think I’ve got a decent handle on my current power, but I’m not sure enough of that to put people’s lives at risk, and I breathe a sigh of relief when I get to the garage without hearing alarms go off behind me.
Brian motions me to wait against the wall while he digs through a collection of confusing wires on a metal shelf, then emerges with a triumphant grin on his face. “Multimeter!” he says, advancing towards me.
I eye the small plastic box with suspicion. “What’s this supposed to do?”
Brian presses what looks like a red chopstick into my right hand and a black one into my left, wires trailing back to the multimeter. “We’re gonna measure your voltage. Do — whatever you do.”
I grip the two probes and concentrate. Brian turns the dial a couple of times and says, “Cool, almost twenty volts. Can you do more?”
I think about Edgar and his stupid drug tests and ratting me out to the police, and Brian whistles and cranks the dial another notch. “Looking good! Is that it?”
I frown, and picture finding the person doing this to me, and zapping them with their own stupid electricity. Brian grins again and shows me the digital readout, which just says “1.”
“What does that mean?” I say, disappointed. “I’m not generating electricity?”
“No, man,” he tells me. “It means you maxed out the meter. It can’t measure higher than 600 volts, and you’re still going.”
“And what’s normal?”
“I don’t know, like a tenth of a volt? Man, this is so cool!”
Brian puts his hand up for a high-five, and I slap him one without thinking about it. The obvious spark results, leaving both of us sucking our fingers. “Okay, maybe we should just stick to thumbs up, yeah?” he laughs.
Outside, thunder rolls, sobering both of us. “Yeah. So. This isn’t all good, huh?” Brian asks.
I shake my head. “The powers are cool, but they’ve always come with an enemy. And I’m thinking that this one is worse than a souped-up hairy guy.”
Lightning flashes outside of the windows as I say that, which is awesome for a dramatic background, but not really great for my state of mind.
“Yeeeaaaah,” says Brian, drawing it out. “So, how do we get you back to your car without another dose of Zeus juice?”
The answer, it turns out, is to practice inside. Brian wheels a defibrillator into a spare room and, ushering me in, closes the door behind us. He hands me the paddles, and I hesitantly move them toward my chest.
“Do I need to take my shirt off or anything for this?”
“Nah, man, we’re not trying to restart your heart. We’re just seeing if you can conduct the energy. Shock yourself in the calf or thigh or something. Take off your pants.”
I look to see if Brian’s serious, but he’s fiddling with the machine like he hasn’t even said anything weird. I guess maybe working on an ambulance crew screws with your sense of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior around other people. If he’s not going to be bothered by it, though, then I’m game for it. I put the paddles down, unbutton my jeans and work them down over my cast, and hold the paddles on either side of my knee, just below my boxers. “Fire when ready, captain!”
“Charging to 200,” Brian says, stepping back. “Whenever you’re ready!”
I clamp the paddles on my knee. Judging by the leg spasm and the intense pain, I wasn’t ready.
Still, though, I think I’ve got the basic idea, and as Brian recharges the paddles, I work on finding my inner calm. I think about letting the electricity pass through me, using me only as a conduit, and this time when I blast myself, I barely feel it. Compared to the last time, anyway. My leg’s still a tingly, semi-numb mess for a solid minute afterward, but there’s no pain, and that’s a big step forward. I look up to find Brian watching me questioningly, and I nod. “Again.”
The paddles whine as they charge up, and there’s a zap as they discharge. The current courses through my other leg. “Again.”
Whine, zap! That one I honestly don’t even feel. “Again. Increase the charge.”
Whine, zap! Nothing! I’m getting the hang of this. I move the paddles up to my chest, pushing the hospital shirt they gave me out of the way. “Again!”
When the paddles trigger this time, I can almost understand the electricity as it flows into me. My catching and redirecting is still intuitive, but I understand what I’m doing now, if not quite how. And it gives me an idea. “Again, but stand clear, in case I’m wrong about this.”
The paddles whine their way up to a full charge, but when I press them to my chest, nothing happens. I tap them lightly, then press hard, but they still act like they’re not in contact with anything.
“How are you doing that?” Brian asks.
It sounds dumb when I say it out loud, but: “I’m thinking of rubber,” I tell him. “I think I can make myself nonconductive.”
Brian whoops. “All right! Lightning’s got nothing on you now! Time to get out there and mock that storm!”
“Almost right,” I say. “Time to get out there and find out who’s behind the storm.”