It was on the rooftop, under a small tree, and a bird chirped in the background as Bernard stared at his fingers. This was nothing new as he routinely sat outside, surrounded by his garden, and grew out and absorbed his fingernails as an exercise in concentration.

What was new was that his fingers were fused together into something akin to a fin or flipper. That hadn’t happened in years, from back when his powers had first manifested and he’d…

…lost control. Bernard thought suddenly, remembering the first time. He’d been pushed underwater by a bigger kid and desperately needed to reach the surface and breathe and suddenly he’d been able to swim better. It took hours for his parents to calm him down, during which a representative from the IoT (Institute of Tomorrow) arrived and helped explain what had happened. And separate his fingers.

Now it seemed he’d lost control of his powers again. He sighed in resignation as the solution—hours upon hours of meditation, self-control and discipline exercises—loomed. Then the bottom dropped from his stomach as he realized he’d changed his fingers back to normal in seconds.

Without thinking about it.

Now he stared at his hand with unease. This wasn’t a loss of control. This was control inadequate to the power available. The IOTA classes had made the difference clear, as well as pointing out that “significant life experiences were often the catalyst to the development of esper manifestations.” The hair on Bernard’s forearms tingled as he realized that spending three months in close contact with an Entity might qualify. Did qualify, apparently.

He grunted disgustedly. “Close contact” was about as sterile a term that could be applied. “Surrounded by” was better and “immersed within” was more accurate. The docs had said “residual psychic impressions may remain for an extended period” which was fancy for the psychic stench was going to linger. He was tainted. Infected, perhaps, or polluted. Changed. Unlocked.

He’d have to talk to the people at IoT soon—they’d want to know he’d had extended contact with an Entity, and a corresponding improvement in his abilities. They still told stories of when Karuk had been possessed by an Entity, and the myths and tales of what it’d done to him were rampant, if only whispered, throughout the student body at the academy. Worse than horror stories, Bernard thought. True stories.

Bernard believed them now. He remembered seeing the door, down in the sewer, and the moment of understanding. He didn’t remember what he’d understood, but he remembered understanding. It was almost maddening. He knew that Entities changed you. They twisted your soul, and made you see things that could not be unseen. They could be forgotten, of course, but the knowledge remained inside you. And apparently, it kept trying to get out. It kept telling you things in different ways until you managed to listen, and his esper powers were apparently his link to the corruption inspired by the Entity.

His hand morphed into a soft paw, fuzzy and white. Then into a clawed talon, large and strong and evil-looking. Now a hoof. Now a delicate woman’s hand, and he traced the abrupt change from a muscular forearm to a thin, pale hand.

He stared off into the distance, gaze wandering over the city. His eyes settled on a chubby youth on a grav-bike, and he began to idly plan how he could remove the excess fat cells, shear off the unnecessary skin, toughen the musculoskeletal system, increase the adrenal gland capacity, add a third lung for breathing poisonous or toxic atmospheres, change-

Bernard chopped his thoughts harshly as he realized he was planning to completely overhaul the teen’s physiology. He was not God to remake man in an idealized image, damn it! He’d caught himself having these thoughts more and more frequently, lately. Now that he’d had firsthand experience with the corruption Entities could wreak by their mere existence, he was seeing more and more possibilities to change people. Heal them. Improve them.

Bernard cursed. He’d been fine in forensics. Two weeks from retiring with honors into the life of a high-class, well-paid corporate plastic surgeon. Now this and it was another year or more with XSWAT and many of his clients had melted away with the realization that yes, he was an XSWAT officer and yes, the Entities weren’t gone and yes, that meant they had to trust their bodies to someone who regularly dealt with strange and dangerous things. More than a few had promised to remain in contact, but word would get around. It always did.

Tomorrow he’d contact his therapist and the STRC people to try and identify how he’d changed, how his moment of “understanding” had changed his abilities. But that was tomorrow. Today he’d sit here and relax, looking down at all the pedestrians on the street, thinking of all the possibilities available. Thinking of all the doors that had become available to him to open.