Heroes Fail

Empathy and its Vagaries

Friday, 14 Oct 2022
Maddy’s Cubby
Refuge Point

Natalie waits until things have calmed for a couple of days before seeking out Maddie. She knocks lightly and tells her friend quietly, “We need to talk. And … I’m not sure you can help me. But both Ang and Jared think you may be the only person who might be able to.”

Maddy looked up from the task at hand, a simple repair job, and put her tools aside. Wiping her hands on a rag, she rose from her bench. “Sure. But …,” she said, a small frown of puzzlement knitting her brow."What sort of help do you need? I may be good fixing machines, but you know I’m fairly incompetent when it comes to fixing people. So-ooo … "

Incompetent? Like now, right? Idiot.

Taking her cue from her inner critic, Maddy swept a chair clear of pieces and parts and turned it toward Natalie. She smiled at her friend with sincerity and apology in equal measure.

“I’m forgetting my manners. Have a seat, Nat. Of course, I’ll help you. What do you need?”

“A couple of things,” Natalie acknowledged as she settled on the edge of the chair Maddy cleared for her. She had already had a day and a half to figure out how to talk about what she wanted to say, but it still hadn’t helped. She was going to have to play it by ear. “Since my power reawakened, I’ve been having problems with it. You know that. Control is obviously the first and foremost problem—healing people in uncontrolled fashion, even turning on their powers. I’ll get back to that one in a minute. The other problem is that my power is not what it used to be. At best guess, I’m a fully receiving empath now… and I’m wide open, Maddy. All the friction that I was creating? It was because I was reacting to emotions that are not mine. Even now, I’m still reacting to them. The mental defenses that I used to have for blocking out people’s pain are not enough—that was a trickle. This is like a firehose turned on full force with other people’s emotions. And Ang and Jared both figure that you’ve spent most of your Powered life blocking out the mental chatter of machinery, so you may be the only person who teach me how to block out the constant ebb and flow of emotions around me.”

“Whoa. Fire hose? That’s … That’s a lot of water.” Maddy sank slowly onto her cot, shocked at the extent of Natalie’s sensitivity. “I don’t know how you do it. I think I’d go nuts if I had the equivalent force turned on me. Although,” she said, remembering something from a nightmare she’d suffered. “I think … I might have once. But it might have been a dream, something from my imagination.” She shook her head. “That’s not important right now. The important thing is the machines, the tech, the metal … they were the background music to my mind, Natalie. It was always on, always singing to me like a choir or an orchestra. I didn’t so much block it out as I just sort of … surfed it, the way you’d have the radio on in the room while you worked. There were times it would get loud and I would have to concentrate to rise above it. Sometimes I’d have to focus through the music to find a single note or instrument but mostly, though, I didn’t try blocking it out.”

Even as she said it, she couldn’t help wondering at something Natalie had said: I’ll get back to that one in a minute. Did Natalie think she’d turned on Maddy’s powers? Wouldn’t that imply that Natalie had already felt Maddy’s exercise of powers before? If so, how long has been aware of it? How much does she know about Sandra? Can she feel her? Never mind that now. Stay focused.

“Well, to be fair, fire hose is an exaggeration,” Natalie admitted. “Anyway … my main problem is that I don’t have the skills to determine which emotions are mine and which are external to me. So although I’m definitely understanding the concept of what you’re saying about surfing the external, I need help learning to identify what’s external. Do you think you can help with that?”

“I can’t say for sure, but I’ll try. It’s the least I can do.” One thing Maddy was certain of, it was the shadow of anxiety, fear, and fatigue that seemed to haunt her friend. How could anyone turn their back on that?

“I need to understand how you do it. Do machines sound so very different from humans that it’s easy to keep them separate? Do machines actually have emotions — or at least something that you perceive as emotion?” Natalie was curious about that, though she didn’t quite believe that it was the same thing at all. Still, both of the people who have training experience seem to think that it should be similar.

“They do and they don’t. I mean …,” Maddy paused, trying to explain it. “I can tell the difference because there is a feeling that comes with them that isn’t human. And while I know there is some anthropomorphism at my end when I say that this or that machine is happy or sad, there is also a base level of existence to them that is uniquely theirs that feels … it’s flat but at the same time it’s layered and dimensional, it has a tone but it’s silent, it’s solid but ethereal. I know it’s not making any sense on the surface of it but those contradictions taken as a group create a distinctive feel and sound to them that I don’t think any human has. And, there’s something else.”

Maddy raised her hands, curling her fingers as if holding a large ball. As she spoke, she moved as if to twist the ball in two.

“Ultimately, they and everything else in the universe is made of energy. We’re all just a bunch of atoms with particles spinning in their orbits and we all want to spin in a certain way. The spins have harmonies unique to their elements. No two elements sound exactly alike. Taken as a whole, each has minute differences from chance impurities that gives each harmonic a slightly different blend.” She stopped a beat to let that sink in. “Leave them alone, they all spin and hum right along, but force them where they don’t want to go, they grow dissonant the farther you force them out of tune. The closer to true you push them, the purer and uncluttered the tone. That’s what I hear when I work with them, it’s what I listen for, it’s a vibe I can feel. It tells me what I need to know. I don’t know if people have that same capacity for a unique signature. In theory, they should, because we’re all atoms, man and machine, so we’re all humming. But for some reason, the harmonic by living things isn’t something I can hear. Or if I do, I’m not able to recognize it as such. God, I hope this is making sense to you. It’s really hard to remember what it was like from Before.”

Natalie listened intently, and she was quiet as she thought about those words. Tilting her head slightly, she said, “Well, how has it changed from before to now?” she asked. Perhaps getting back around to that earlier thought.

“Other than being gone?” Maddy couldn’t keep the bitterness from showing a little. “Except for time when I woke up with every car alarm going off, and then it might have been a dream I was dreaming and not them talking to me at all.”

Natalie tilted her head. “We both know your powers have been on. I just don’t know for how long. Did I activate you that last time I healed you, Maddy?” Her eyes were steady on Maddy’s and when she asked the question was watching very closely.

“Is that really a bad thing?” She’s …. Is she … fishing? Oh, God. Does she know? “Have you ever wanted something so much that you could feel it and taste it?” Maddy asked soberly. “Have you ever woken up from dreams so real you can’t decide if you’re awake or still dreaming? Or have a memory so strong that it takes a minute to realize it’s not actually happening?” Maddy’s chin crumpled a second as she hitched a shaky breath. It wasn’t easy to say it, the thought that perhaps her grasp on reality wasn’t quite solid. “When you turned my powers back on, I almost didn’t dare believe it, because I’d spent the past two years begging the Universe to get them back. And sometimes … Natalie, there were times when I thought the Universe answered only to find out it was wishful thinking. Can you imagine how much that hurts?”

Natalie could feel her back teeth grinding at the confirmation (or so she believes) that she reactivated Maddy’s powers. Shit.

“Yes, I think I can,” Nat replied quietly. She looked away from her friend for a long moment, struggling with anguish. How could she risk healing anyone again? Unless Langston could figure out why her healing was activating powers, how could she justify using her abilities except in life and death situations? Heh … for so long I was glad to have them gone. And now, when I get them back, I can’t even use them. Jesus, my karma must suck.

Turning her attention back to Maddy, Natalie said, “So what you’re saying about your empathy is that you can relatively easily discern which emotions are yours and which are machine-based?” It was what she had been expecting to hear, and not helpful to her at all, but she wanted to be certain she was understanding correctly.

“Yeah,” Maddy said slowly, nodding as she developed the idea in her head. “Because in a real way, for me it’s less emotion and more like I can vibrate along with the harmonic. I’m more like a tuning fork and you’re more like a radio. To carry the analogy further, your receiver has become more sensitive and you’ve a lot more channels coming in. Your bandwidth is getting crowded and you’re having trouble with the tuning knob and volume control. So if we look at it that way, maybe I can help, even though I don’t work the same way. Does that make sense?”

Natalie nodded slowly. “That makes some sense, yes.” She was still not entirely sure what she expected Maddy to do — but then again, she wasn’t sure exactly what Ang and Jared expected her to do either. “So… can you give me an idea of how to do this?”

“Well ….” Maddy puffed her cheeks and let out a slow breath. “So, you’re a receiver, yeah? Let’s test the pick-up.” Maddy stood and turned her back to Natalie to avoid giving her any cues. Instead, she spoke to the walls. "What can you pick up from me right now?

Natalie sat, trying to work through the morass of emotions that she was already coping with—both her own and the ones that don’t belong to her. And although Maddy couldn’t see it, she flinched visibly. Scrambling to her feet, Natalie scrambled out of her chair and quickly backed toward the door, her hand out as if to fend off Maddy’s advance. “Nothing,” she blurted hurriedly. “I don’t pick up anything.” Because she wasn’t about to tell her friend that all she could feel in this moment was the terrified certainty that Maddy was about to turn on her. She could feel a rising tide of panic that she wasn’t able to quell. “You’re busy! We’ll do it later!”

Maddy’s ear had been fine tuned to perceive nuances in pitch and yet it didn’t take anything near her level of skill to hear the rising tone in Natalie’s voice. She’s … scared. Why? Maddy pivoted and held her palms up in a clearly non-threatening gesture. “Natalie? It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

Pinned her back to the door frame, her hand still outward. “Don’t come near me. Don’t… just don’t move, please?” It was a visible struggle to not react for Natalie—her eyes on Maddy were dilated and her color was high. The hand she had protectively out in front of her was trembling. Even without an empathic sense, it was easy to tell that she was nearing a full-blown panic attack and that she was fighting it back with everything in her.

“Okay. It’s going to be okay.” Maddy kept her voice low and movements slow, edging to her cot and squeezing herself into the farthest corner of it from her door. She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around them and made herself as small as possible. Looking at Natalie from under her lashes, she said softly, “You’ve got the floor and a clear way out. I won’t do anything.”

Grateful that even if she didn’t understand why Maddy was giving her room helped Natalie rein it in. For a long moment, she closed her eyes as she rested against the wall by the door, until finally her shaking slowed to a bare minimum. When she opened her eyes, she looked weary. “Well…. that was a little shorter than before, at least,” she observed. “Christ…. I have a new, even deeper respect for Ang and her ability to contain emotions. I’m a friggin’ train wreck right now and I have ZERO idea how to heal what I took from her.”

“Maybe there is no quick fix for it,” Maddy suggested from her corner. “I realize this might not be something you want to hear but maybe we just have to get you through the healing process as if you really are an abuse survivor.” She had almost said victim but changed the word at the last second to reinforce the positive. “As a FEMA agent, you’ve had training to help people in this situation, right?”

“Not this,” Natalie said quietly. “FEMA is about triage, not long-term care. Vector…. damaged Ang in a lot of ways I will never understand, no matter what I’ve healed in her mind. I hope that what I did for her is a positive thing…” She trailed off. “I’m not certain that it is, Maddy. I’m not certain that I haven’t taken something very vital from her even as I healed the damage.”

“So you think by healing her emotional damage, you’ve taken away her … edge? Her ability to disconnect from her feelings and make those hard command-style decisions?” Maddy fell silent and thought about it for a moment. “If you did, then where did those qualities go? To you, maybe? I don’t believe they just disappeared or were destroyed. Maybe they’re still with Ang, but not as a handicap. Perhaps by doing whatever it was you did, you’ve freed her to be the way she would have been had she not been damaged in the first place, but still retaining the memories and the skills she’d formed after she’d escaped Vector.” Maddy uncurled a little, stretching her legs on her cot. She remained in her corner, though, reluctant to disturb Natalie more than she already had. “I don’t know, Nat. I think it’s too early to tell. All we have at the moment is a solid maybe. I think we need more time to figure out.”

Natalie shrugged, calming slowly. “I have no way of knowing…. although, given the way she faded back out of the group and started sniping from behind us the other day, I don’t think so?” She grinned a little at Maddy. “A solid ‘maybe’ seems to be the way my whole life goes right now. But you’ve at least given me a direction to think about working with. So… maybe we can pick up tomorrow? I’m… not sure how I’m going to react if we try again now.”

“Absolutely. Whenever you need me.” Maddy didn’t hesitate in the slightest. As pushy as Sandra had become of late, Maddy wouldn’t let the AI keep her from helping her friend. Natalie was one of the team, a real friend from Before, and one whom Sandra, for all her promises and potential, couldn’t outrank. Maddy was glad to see her friend grow calmer but refrained from making any sudden moves. She could see Natalie was still skittish. “Just ask.”

Although she was hiding it reasonably well — or at least, she thought she was — Natalie was grateful that Maddy’s intuition kept her from moving around. She wasn’t sure what it would take to set her off again, but she had a feeling it wouldn’t be much. Maybe she could sleep tonight… that would help. “Okay… I’ll see you at breakfast, then, and we’ll get started. If that’s okay.”

“Totally okay,” Maddy promised. She kept her hands steady in her lap but smiled warmly, trying to strike just the right amount of reassurance without the strangling weight of obligation. From what little she herself understood about anxiety, Maddy had no wish to add to the pressure she was certain that Natalie already felt. “I’ll see you then.”

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Malificent taimdala

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