The empath was dead.
The woman stood, staring curiously at the dried husk lying crumpled in the bottom of the glass box. The box was hexagonal and looked like a very large, empty, ornamental terrarium. It was about ten feet across and just high enough that she could not reach the ceiling when standing on tip-toe. She knew that without trying. She remembered.
The husk inside was papery in appearance. It resembled the shed skin of a spider or snake, but it had her shape and her face. It was complete in every detail, with fingernails and hair and the ghosts of eyes beneath the translucent, membranous lids.
It was a shell, empty and ephemeral. The woman walked slowly around the box, fingers trailing over the glass, her gaze fixed on the husk inside, wondering if it would crumble should she touch it. As she did so she remembered what it had been to stand inside that box, hurting inside so badly that no quantity of tears could ever be enough, watching a creature not dissimilar to what she was now make this same, curious, dispassionate perambulation. She remembered but she did not relive. That had been another life.
Now the empath was dead; no more than a thin, empty shell remained. The creature that had tormented her was also gone. Nothing had been disturbed, nothing had been touched since then. She was vaguely disappointed at the lack of dust, but then what was there in this place to make dust?
“How long has it been?”
The Jackal watched her through two walls of glass. She did not respond until she had completed her circumnavigation and was standing beside him. She flashed him a quick glance, fingertips still resting on the box, and while her fathomless black eyes remained unreadable, the corner of her mouth twitched into a slight smile.
“I can’t remember,” she replied. “Years. I could check the records…” She smiled at him again, amused. “But I’m not going to. It doesn’t matter.”
“You never came to visit me, when I was in there.” She stared at the papery ghost inside the box.
“No.” He offered agreement but no explanation. That did not matter either. She knew as much as she needed to, could sense the edges of his memories of that time and understood that it was a case of ‘could not’ rather than ‘did not’.
“It’s strange,” she said in response to his unspoken question. “The Weapon I can still feel, still sort of touch inside me. Like a scar. You know? A scar isn’t an injury any more. It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t bleed, doesn’t do any of the things that make a wound a wound. But the shape of it is still there.”
She crouched, her face separated from that of the dry facsimile by a glass pane and a hand’s breadth of empty space. There was something eerie in the way the husk was an obvious exact copy of her, as though she were examining her own ghost, or had met her doppelganger and one of them had sucked the life from the other.
The Jackal was reminded that he had not been there to see which one it was. Yet that did not matter more or less than the other things.
“I can’t feel her any more,” the woman continued, fingers spread out against the glass. “Not properly. But she’s the deep wound that becomes an occasional ache — something not there and forgotten, too far down for the scar to be visible, out of sight and out of mind until I twist the wrong way and a twinge reminds me.” She paused, leaning forwards until her forehead was resting on the glass, breath misting. “She’s dead, and the Weapon’s gone. But the Weapon healed and she hasn’t. Not yet.”
The Jackal let her talk, not really knowing why she had come or what she had come to do. Another thing that did not matter. He was there: that was all she needed of him. That was all she had ever needed of him, when she needed anything at all.
Desires were different, but then this gig had never given much room for desires.
“You know why she’s just a shell, don’t you?” She was still looking at the husk; observing every detail, taking in every desiccated pore and arid fold of spent skin. Underneath the lids the eyes had once been greyish-green, although now the colour was no more than a memory.
The Jackal remained silent.
“She was the prison. This…” She patted the glass. “This meant nothing.”
To demonstrate, the black shell of her skin rippled over her right arm and then she pushed her hand through the glass as if it were not there. She waved, careful not to touch the husk.
“I had to leave her behind. She couldn’t pass through. It was her prison, not the Weapon’s. Without the Weapon I would have had nowhere to go. So I integrated with my smarter, sexier, less human side. I stepped outside the box and I had to step outside her to do it. And this is what is left: a straitjacket in the form of a skin. A form I couldn’t just drop but had to shed.”
Someone else was about to be taught the lesson of the box. Someone else was going to be trapped inside the glass cage in the empty white room and left there to work out how to get free. Left there for however long it took for the aspect of his personality that had been imprisoned to become something he was willing and able — even desperate — to shed. No matter how important it seemed. Someone else would be confined by the glass hexagon while the thing about himself that they wanted and he feared, that they desired and he dreaded becoming, taunted him from outside with its freedom. Even though it was just as trapped as he, for it could not exist without him.
To escape the box he too would have to embrace the only part of himself still free and leave behind the part too rigid and fixed to pass through the glass. Then there would be another empty shell lying crumpled in the bottom of the box, waiting for its one-time occupant to come back and remind himself of what he had left behind.
Both the woman and the Jackal knew this, and their thoughts simultaneously slid to idle wondering about which two aspects would be made to wrestle, and how long it would take for the inevitable to occur. The woman could not remember how long it had taken her. It seemed both as if she had only just stepped free and as if she had not been to this place in more years than she cared to consider.
But it had taken her a long time. And the empath, dead or not, was a wound she was still healing.
“Poor bastard,” she murmured, and she might have been talking about herself. Perhaps that was why she had come.
“Maybe he won’t be as stubborn and contrary as you, eh?” the Jackal offered.
“Maybe.” Or maybe he’d be one of the new breed: smarter, faster, more adaptable.
“Hey.” The Jackal took a step towards her, tucking an untidy skein of hair behind his left ear, grey eyes crinkled in affectionate disapproval. “You’re not exactly obsolete yet. Gods, girl. You’ve only just started understanding what you’re capable of.”
“You’re sweet,” she said. “Don’t mollycoddle.”
“Mollycoddle you? You think I want to get my ass kicked, eh?”
Here then was the old ache that was the unfinished healing. The empath had expected to die and the empath had died. But the woman had not. She had grown up. She had always been meant to be the best; but then she had not been supposed to last so long that the new generation grew up and learned enough to surpass her. And the old, deep wound left by the empath sometimes made her cry in regret for what she had lost in payment for such a small reward, and sometimes for no reason at all.
The empath had been human weakness and, being human, human weakness remained despite what had come later. That old wound would always ache at times, but that did not mean it could not heal some more.
“See?” she said softly.
She reached through the glass and picked up the husk, holding it delicately. She withdrew her arm. When the desiccated skin met the glass it crumbled. Not one scrap emerged. Pieces scattered in a random pile on the floor inside, becoming unrecognisable.
“Come on, Ben,” she sighed. There was not even any dust caught on her fingertips. Every particle had remained within. “There’s nothing here I need any more.”