Monthly Archives: June 2007

Touching Twilight and Eternity

     Embers glowed a feeble maroon, exuding a bitter taint amid the fir and pine twigs, tossed onto the dying campfire.  The needles crackled when the fire licked the green.  A man and a woman enjoyed the interplay of shadows and smoke.  The forest crowded around them, cocooned them.

     Jane lifted her eyes from her firegazing to watch her friend.  Rob was transfixed by the dying fire.

     He muttered, "Twilight lady."

     He spoke it so softly that Jane wasn’t sure she had heard it, that it wasn’t a tongue of flame crackling against the pine.  "Robert?"

     He stared into her brown eyes then, admired the shadow forged silhouette of her strong nose, soft chin, slender arms.  Robert moved his arm, touched her cheek with an outstretched index finger.  "Twilight lady."

     Jane smiled, somewhat nervously.  "You’re very romantic tonight, Rob.  I thought we’d agreed to be just friends, friends forever, until the end of time.  Wasn’t that what you said?"

     "Mmm." Rob nodded.  He softly laughed.  "Sorry.  Didn’t mean to confuse you.  I still mean it.  Alpha through omega, we’ve always been there for each other, haven’t we?  But I wasn’t calling you.  I was calling her."

     He was gazing over the fire, had been gazing over the fire all this time, Jane realized.  She tried to see what he saw, but nothing was there, save scrub and pines, the chirrup of crickets, and the occasional spark that jumped from the fire into Rob’s line of sight.  Jane frowned and said, "This mountain makes you imagine things.  I thought we finished the ghost stories hours ago.  Besides, who could be on my property?  It’s fenced in."

     Rob clutched her hand.  "Don’t worry about it.  She comes and goes where she pleases.  I can’t see her anymore."  Rob stood and scooped dirt onto the fire with the side of his boot, smothering the ash mottled red coals.  "It’s warm enough.  We don’t need a fire while we sleep.  C’mon, let’s turn in."

     Jane wanted to talk, but she knew Rob too well.  A constant daydreamer, it was hard for him to talk, to relate.  Jane gazed at her companion.  Rob was always off on another world, his world, a very solemn place.  In the weak light he seemed like a statue that moved, firm, assured with a quiet and unchanging solitude that her friendship could never wholly pierce.

     Rob had been right.  It was a warm night and Jane had difficulty sleeping.  She turned and saw Rob’s sleeping bag, empty.  He was probably relieving himself.  She waited.  Minute.  Five minutes.  Ten.  "Rob?  Rob?  Where are you?"

     Jane crawled from her sleeping bag, stood, and searched for her friend.  A gentle light gleamed in the darkness between the low branches of the pines.  She hesitated, not knowing why she was afraid, other than the loneliness, the darkness.  Rob might need her.  He could have fallen.  She crept toward the light as quietly as she could.

     "I’m here."

     Hearing his voice, Jane sighed with relief.

     But her sigh caught in her throat.  Rob was talking to a stranger.  A feminine voice, deep and smooth, answered him, "You were almost too late, Robert.  I had to wait for you and twilight has almost passed over the enemy’s demesne."

     "I couldn’t risk Jane.  She’s innocent; she doesn’t know magic.  I want her to stay that way.  I’ve had too many friends die over the centuries."

     "Was not the loss worth the gain, Robert?"

     Jane listened; curiosity compelled her to creep closer, to bend a pine branch quietly to the side until she could see the woman.  Tall she was, almost seven feet.  Her silk dress was white.  A tiara, silver with a single large diamond in its center, sparkled on her brow.  The lady shined, a soft, somber light that illumined only the air around her.

     Robert was tense.  Jane could see it in the way he shrugged his shoulders and turned his head to the side.  Robert replied, "Yes, yes.  But that doesn’t stop the pain.  I don’t want anything to happen to Jane.  I’d stop caring altogether then."

     "You cared for me once." The lady murmured.

     "That was before, when I was young.  We are not the same now.  You chose to be a creature of magic, while I am just a man."

     She frowned and the light around her brightened.  She stared hard at Robert, but he kept his head down and to the side.  Then, she said, "We must hurry.  Our latest adversary has begun his spell.  I feel it.  Jane must come with us."

     Patiently, Robert explained, "Haven’t you been listening to me?  I don’t want to involve her.  It’s too dangerous.  It always is.  Anyway, why would we need her?  She knows no magic; you’re the lady in twilight; I’m the magician.  How could she possibly help?"

     The lady sighed; her frown turned to sadness.  The crickets stopped their chirruping.  She said, "You speak, yet do not hear yourself.  Your new friend knows no magic.  Enough."  The twilight lady raised her arm; her silk dress had long cuffs that billowed in the breeze.  Her slender finger pointed behind Robert.  "It is too late, Robert.  I have allowed her to see me."

     Robert twirled.  Surprised, Jane stood.  Robert shouted, "Jane, run!  Run away!"

     Jane stepped beyond the pines and joined Robert in the small clearing.  "What happened to alpha through omega, Rob?  I want to help."

     The twilight lady smiled.  Her blue eyes watered as she looked on Jane.  In the soft light and slow turn of her head, the lady’s face shifted differently each moment: grey haired, cherubic, masculine, gaunt.  Jane stepped closer, not trusting her eyes.

     The lady said, "Robert chose well."  She raised her hand to Jane’s cheek and pulled a tear from her eye.

     Robert watched her begin the spell, resigned to Jane’s company, fearing–expecting the worst.  The tear glistened like a diamond, surrounded by the soft light of the lady’s radiance.  She held it pinched between her thumb and finger.  Putting the tear to her tongue, she tasted the salt of Jane’s flesh, remembered the metered rhythms at the end of the seasons, youth releasing its hold on childhood, the coming of the grey, and Venus, the first bright star on twilight’s horizon.

     Jane trembled.  Her eyes stung.  A hot breeze blew sand in her face.  It was no longer night, no longer the mountains.  The sun was setting beyond a flat horizon.  She heard Rob to her left: "You’ve got to be wrong.  It can’t be him.  He’d never try to rule nature.  I’ve known him for decades; we studied cabalas together."

     Jane said, "Rob, we’re in a desert."

     The lady spoke to Rob, "Have you known me to be wrong, throughout our time together?  And I feel the change, the nexus of the change, is here, stronger than I have ever felt any petty magician before this one.  He lusts after the change, hungers to bring in the night.  Robert, I am afraid."

     Jane said, "Rob, we’re in a desert.  Where are the mountains?  Where’s my house?"

     Rob said, "You’re afraid, Twilight?  I’m glad to hear it.  You’ve got good reason.  That’s Erich Cassavettes’ house."

     Jane raised her voice, "Wait one second.  This isn’t supposed to happen.  It can’t happen.  You can’t be in the mountains one moment and in a desert the next.  Rob, what’s going on?"

     Rob was staring at a mound, jutting up from the flat desert.  The walls were made of tires packed with adobe, and solar panels covered the roof.  A wooden cross, freshly painted white, had been pounded into the ground next to the house.  Its long shadow pointed toward Rob.

     Rob said, "If Erich–"

     Jane grabbed him by his shirt collar, pulled him to her, and gritted her teeth.  "Listen: What is going on?  How did we get here?"

     Rob’s eyes ballooned.  Jane had a fierce temper; he hated it when she was angry with him, never understood her quick temper.  Her breath was sour–She was queasy, Rob guessed.  Travelling with Twilight could do that, could upset your sense of balance.  He put his hands over hers where they clutched at his shirt.  He kept them there, patiently massaging, relaxing, comforting.

     Jane let go.

     Rob said, "I’m sorry, Jane.  There hasn’t been time to warn you."

     Twilight interrupted, "True.  Night is coming."

     Rob craned his neck upward to look at her.  "I know.  I know.  But Jane deserves some answers."

     Twilight did not stir or reply, but with her dark blue eyes she watched Jane as Robert spoke to his friend, "Jane, we’re here because of magic, her magic."  He pointed at the lady.  "She comes to me.  I have magic, too.  But it’s different.  I’ve learned how to use magic; she is magic, a part of Earth."

     In his mind Robert heard the twilight lady.  You lie about yourself too easily.

     Robert gritted his teeth.  She doesn’t understand.  It’s too much, too soon for her.  I can’t destroy her image of me.

     You underestimate her.

     Robert kept his eyes fixed on Jane as he spoke, "Jane, she comes for my help.  She senses great change, any great change.  There are certain magicians who don’t like the idea of natural selection, unthinking environment, survival of the fittest.  Some think they can do a better job of it if they controlled nature.  Certain rites, mystic rites, can give a magician control over an area of land: the more puissant the magician, the greater amount of land he can control.  If it’s large enough to attract the twilight lady’s attention, she comes to me for help.  Magic’s strange stuff.  It can unsettle the mind, so the lady and I think that things would be better if left to the natural way.  Do you understand, Jane?"

     Her eyes were glassy, but Rob could see the wheels turning.  She blinked and her will was again in her gaze.  She nodded.  "Ok, ok, ok . . . No, it’s not.  I’ll accept what you’re saying. I’ve got to.  I’ve just been part of it, but you’ve got to tell me what we’re supposed to do.  I can help."

     The lady said, "She speaks truth.  Her ignorance makes her invisible to the magician.  Can you not feel it, Robert?"

     Robert looked toward Cassavettes’ house again, but this time he opened his heart, loosed his magic to see what spell Erich was weaving.  His skin tingled; his heart thumped.  Pain, rage, grief warded the house, assailed his empathy.  "Uh," Roberts gasped.  "I see what you mean.  God, Erich must be eating himself alive in the middle of that."

     Twilight replied, "It is his home; he is comfortable with the wards he has forged from his thoughts.  Any other mortal magician’s heart would burst long before reaching the door.  Jane is not a magician; she will not feel what Erich projects to keep others at bay."

     Jane had been listening closely.  "A two pronged attack?  Magical and physical?"

     Roberts nodded.  He could not dismiss Erich’s pain wards.  A sweat broke out on his face.  He had trouble keeping the pain out of his voice, "Yes, yes, you’re both right.  I–I agree.  Come on.  I want this over with as fast as possible, one way or the other."

     The three began walking toward the house of Erich Cassavettes.  Tears streamed down Rob’s face; his breath caught in his throat; his nose ran.  He gulped air and concentrated upon putting one foot ahead of the other.  Erich’s madness and magic infused the air and grew thicker, heavier with each step Rob took toward the magician’s home.  The intimacy of Erich’s spell made it difficult for Rob: He couldn’t distinguish himself from these new, terribly bright feelings.  Erich’s wards hurt him, but at the same instant he savored this pain.  Next to Erich’s pain, Rob felt as if he had only been pretending to live over the last centuries.

     Jane saw him cry.  She hugged him.  Rob clutched at her tightly, hungrily to no avail and he sobbed, unable to continue.

     Jane looked up at the twilight lady.  "We can’t go on.  You said that a magician’s heart would burst.  I can feel Rob’s heart against my chest.  It’s racing.  We have to stop.  He’ll die."

     A silhouette appeared at the recessed doorway of Erich Cassavettes’ house.

     The lady said, "He will not die.  Robert cannot–"

     "No!" Rob screamed and pushed Jane roughly to the sand.  He clenched his teeth and whirled to face the twilight lady.  "Shut up!  I’m not like you; I’m human!"

     The silhouette left the doorway and entered the fading light as a man, garbed only in ripped jeans.  Bare feet jogged over the sands toward them.

     Twilight was riveted on Robert. "No.  You are immortal; you never know death, never know change.  I am herald to change; I know.  Erich’s passions rip at you, for you have not tasted such for millennia; shadows are never sweet enough.  The endless years have drained you of color long ago, jaded man."

     "Arrh!" Rob screamed and lunged toward Twilight.  He ripped her tiara from her brow.  The shining silver pained him, burned him.

     The glow of the twilight lady faded. 

     Night descended on the desert.  The moon appeared, changing everything to dim shadows.  Jane shivered, engulfed by a cold wind.

     Erich had joined them.  His hair was scraggly and long, grey with streaks of red.  Angry bloodshot eyes contrasted a calm, slow grin as he said, "Welcome to my desert, Twilight, Robert.  I am pleased to see how pleasantly the crisp desert air affects your dispositions."

     Rob moaned, howled, but would not let go of the burning tiara.

     The twilight lady said, "Erich, make him return what is mine.  I am stranded without the star."

     Erich laughed, quietly.  "Yes, you do have a problem.  It seems that Robert doesn’t like himself very much anymore."  He snorted.  "Perhaps he just doesn’t like me, eh?  Doesn’t like what I’ve been forced to endure, watching all this madness, birth and death and–and–and–all of it, spinning around and around and around."

     Robert howled, deep and powerful.

     Erich half-smiled. "See?  I do think he agrees with me.  Yes, it’s time for a change, my change for the world, not the petty season turning you oversee."

     Jane pulled and tugged at the tiara, but Rob held it fast against his bosom as he gulped air to howl again.

     "Anything." The lady said.  Her shoulders sagged; her breathing labored.

     Erich smiled broadly, leaned closely toward the lady’s face.  Twilight collapsed upon the sands.  Erich whispered to her, "Do you understand?  No more winters, no more deaths, no more autumns, no more endings.  Forever springtime, bright and beautiful, fresh and young."  Erich put his hand to Twilight’s throat, softly leaving the threat of violence.

     Twilight looked into Erich’s eyes with suddenly hoarfrost eyes, reflecting his pale visage to him.  She said, "Then what of you Erich?  What of you?  You are old, like jaded Robert.  You have lived too long; there will be no place for you in your new world."

     Erich grinned and tightened his grip.  "I’ll make the sacrifice."

     Life bloomed in the desert: Grasses, rainbows of flowers, cypress trees pushed their way up through the sand, rustling and groaning in their haste.  Vines encircled the trees, wound through the grasses, covered the foliage.

     Erich dropped his hand from the lady’s throat; she was emaciated, eyes sunken.  She fell onto the new grass.  Erich stood and murmured, "Beautiful, beautiful.  New and tender.  Oh, I feel so much, so alive."  He wept.

     Robert whimpered and growled as he banged the tiara against his knee.

     Erich put his hand on Rob’s shoulder, "Yes, you feel it, don’t you?  My change is new; my anguish sings to your old soul, yes?"

     Vines wound around Jane’s ankles, crawled over her jeans.  She pulled at the vines, but they did not relent.  Erich noticed her for the first time and smiled at her struggles saying, "See, Twilight?  My world is stronger than the old.  Life courses through it.  We need only endure one last death, the death of the old changing world; then, all will be new."

     The vines wound about her neck.  Jane cried, "Ro–" as her air was choked from her throat.

     Robert rocked back and forth, sitting on the new grass, clutching the tiara that seared itself into his mind.  He mumbled, "Twilight change, ever new."

     Erich shouted, "Yes, yes, I knew you were with me, Robert!  I knew it!  We’ve both seen too much, you immortal and I so wise."

     Jane’s struggles grew feeble.  Rob stared dully at her as he rocked and mumbled; he could barely see her.  The vines had smothered her from sight.  Soon, she would be wholly gone, like the others throughout the centuries, the ones he had at first loved, then cared for, then merely acted as if he cared.  Jane was the last.  The quiet in the woods had been sweet; he had felt her.

     Rob screamed, "Take it back!  I can’t; it’s not mine.  I don’t need it.  I’m not stone, not yet; I care."  He flung the tiara toward Twilight.

     It rolled on the grass before a vine caught it, wound around it.  Twilight languidly reached for it.  The vine lifted into the air and carried the silvery tiara from her grasp, toward Erich.

     Rob ignored everything, save Jane.  He pulled at the coarse, prickly vines, tugged, but he was only slightly stronger than Jane and she had stopped struggling.  Rob fell to his knees and clawed at the constricting green.  "No, no, no, no."

     Erich clicked his tongue in pity, looking upon Robert’s foolhardiness.  Like a humble servant, the vine held the tiara in front of the desert’s new master.  Erich nodded, glancing to see if the lady was watching him.  The vine wound around his chest and behind his head to place the tiara snugly on his brow.

     The tiara shimmered, breaking the dull moonlight with a flickering silver, shifting shadows across Erich’s face.

     Twilight smiled.

     Erich sucked air, his mouth agape.  Then, he began to scream, "It burns; it burns!  So much light!  I’m blinded.  So much dark.  I’m cold.  Twilight!"  Erich collapsed upon the ground while still grasping the glowing tiara.

     The vines stopped their unnatural growth.  Rob pulled the now limp weeds from Jane’s face.  Bending to her, he touched his lips against hers and breathed into her mouth an immortal breath.

     Jane coughed, pushed herself off the ground, and tore the vines from her body.  She stood there, looked at Rob, who was smiling stupidly at her.  She had never seen him so excited, so open.  Ripping the last of the vines from her waist, Jane said, "Geez, Rob, farmers’d pay us a fortune for this."

     He laughed and looked a little better for it.

     Twilight moaned.

     "The tiara," Rob said, "You have to give it back to her.  I can’t touch it.  It doesn’t belong with immortality."

     Jane walked over to Erich.  The magician was unconscious.  She touched the tiara, pulled it from his brow.  Erich smiled and lolled his head onto the grass.  The silver was warm and cold to her touch, but not painful.  It flexed in her hands, as if the metal sloshed around her skin, changed its shape to her pulse.  Even the facets of the diamond glittered and danced in the weak moonlight.

     Jane shuddered when she saw Twilight, thin as if she were starving.  But her breathing, though shallow, was even.  Jane placed the tiara on Twilight’s brow.  Twilight smiled, though the shadows played with the curves of her lips as her somber glow returned to her.  She stood over Erich, who was sleeping on the ground.  The magician’s face was smooth, and he snored as he slept.

     Jane followed her.  "There oughta be a prison for guys like him."

     "No." Twilight and Robert said in unison. 

     "What’s to stop him from doing it again?" Jane demanded.

     Twilight reached out an index finger and lightly touched Jane’s eye, drawing out a tear as she said, "He has touched me and twilight always heralds a change."

     Robert smiled and clasped Jane’s hand.  "C’mon, let’s forget this ever happened; let’s pretend that nothing ever changes, that we’re still camping in the mountains, together."

     Jane patted his hand.  "Alpha through omega, right?"

     Twilight tasted the mortal tear, silvered in the glow of her tiara, and she thought of tall pines, ashes from a cold fire, and two empty sleeping bags, soon to be filled.

The Mirror

     The onyx skull glowed, and grey silhouettes played across the ebony shadows within the eye sockets.  The necromancer watched the start of an old and lurid play.  Smooth skinned, the arrogant knight dared the guardian of the gate like the thousand before him, who had mustered the resolve to cross the wasted lands of the necromancer’s realm.  Tarkel lifted the skull from its brass cradle to get a closer look, but, instead, he peered at his hands that clutched the skull.

     Blackened by some interior corruption, they had become the color of mottled ashes.  Wrinkled fingers projected from the knuckles.  The nails were long and sharpened with tinges of green and yellow where they bit into the black-grey skin.  They trembled a bit, but not from any weakness.  There was a hunger in Tarkel that he barely managed to restrain.  It was a hunger for life–not the wanderlust of the adventurous.  To possess, to devour vitality, these were the trembling hungers his hands ached to grasp.  Such vitality had been denied him for so long.

     Magic exacted its toll.  Power was naught without the forge to contain the burning fires: Tarkel’s body, wracked by the dark power he wielded and struggled to contain within his breast.

     The hero’s hands did not tremble.  They were smooth and firm.  Perhaps they had a blemish from some old wound, valiantly gained.

     Such a scar lined those withered talons, but Tarkel could no longer remember so far into the past, so deep into his old life, a life where power had been within his sinews.

     He wanted to laugh at the fear he perceived in the hero’s eyes, but his fetid breath caught in his throat.  His guardian was terrible to behold.  The jaundiced beast was tethered to the gate with links of cold iron, for its tusked visage and animal mania disturbed him, too.  It walked on two feet, though none could mistake it for a human.  Tarkel’s laughter failed him, but his eyes soaked in the coming confrontation.  This barren land gave him few distractions.

     The behemoth lifted his axe and struck the hero.  Tarkel winced at the sight.  His servant was instinctively puissant in matters of death.  The hero’s right arm was gashed.  Blood flowed to cover the hilt of his polished longsword.  The hero raised an iron edged shield, emblazoned with some mythical beast, a lion perhaps. 

     It would soon be over.  Tarkel set the onyx skull back into its cradle to watch from a more comfortable distance.  A lion?  He had a banner once, a banner with a painted lion.  Perhaps this hero was a cousin, some diluted great-grandchild from that ancient noble house.  He rested his hand on the arm of his iron throne.  Dust stained his finger and a smile creased his lips.  It didn’t matter.  Tarkel had no such house.  No cooking fires burned within this castle.  Only the liquid warmth of ebony necromancy occasionally burned his chest.

     The hero was lucky.  Most are, who come to the gate, or they would have already been killed by the zombies of the wasted lands.  The hero had lunged with his sword and skewered his guardian through the stomach.

     "Good." thought Tarkel.  He was sick of the guardian.  It drained too much of his strength to keep the thing filled with dark magic.  This time, Tarkel decided to let the blasted wight suffer and die.

     Now that he thought about it, he regretted making the zombies, too.  His servants were all so damn ugly.  The villagers had screamed that truth when he had completed the ritual in the cemetery.  His power had been fresh upon him, and the onyx skull had burned brilliantly.  Soon enough, his lands had become a realm of shadows, boring shadows, and shambling corpses, corpses who did no work well, who tilled no fields.  But they did know how to frighten people from his lands or simply murder them.  "A pox on them." Tarkel mumbled and then laughed bitterly at the absurdity of his curse.

     Soon, the heroes had started to arrive: a blessed relief.  Sometimes, stealing their vitality was all that kept him going.  This hero was quick to deliver a merciful death stroke.

     That was also good to see.  The necromancer foresaw a feast of vitality.  This one hadn’t become jaded during his heroic quests.  But the young man had far to go.  The onyx skull knew it all too well.  They had planned this castle’s defenses together.  It had been a tedious business.  Tarkel knew that he was hidden within the granite walls like a pauper on a winter’s day: layer upon layer upon layer of warm, old clothes to keep out the chill.  And, finally, there was a firesnorter, an old one.

     The oak gate was giving his victim some trouble.  Tarkel regretted using the trees at the grove of the unicorn to make that door.  It was ill luck for a necromancer to have anything to do with a unicorn, but that wood was more like steel.  The hero was starting to bleed heavily from that gash.  He had the intelligence to cleanse his wound with the water in the animal bladder he carried; then, he ripped a strip of cloth from his yellow tunic and bound his wound.

     Tarkel gently brushed his finger across the grinning teeth of the onyx skull.

     The gates opened.  Tarkel chuckled.  The hero immediately looked for a door ward and reverently made symbols over himself upon discovering that the doors had moved of their own accord.

     The willow in the courtyard was still alive, though the necromancer had no servant who would be suitable to tend the living.  A tear came to Tarkel’s eye.  The hero looked at the sad tree as if the leaves were haunted with sidhe.  It was such a thing of beauty: deep roots that sunk to the bowels of the earth, long branches, and leaves that wept at the grief in life.  Young heroes were so foolish.  It took the age of a man to appreciate that hidden vitality; Tarkel was proud that he had outgrown such simplistic fears.

     He looked at the skull and wiped the tear from his withered cheek.  Tarkel had outgrown much: the need for a sword, the need for the bright day, the companionship.  The onyx skull had replaced such needs.  Sometimes, he thought that the black grin mocked him.   And, sometimes, he believed that the skull was his own, a cold counterpart of his age and his necromancy.

     The silhouettes in the ghost eyes drew his attention.

     Cautiously, the hero opened the inner door and left the courtyard.  Tarkel grunted, disgusted as he watched the hero wade into his pathetic honor guard.  These were the first five zombies that he had ever brought to bloodless life.  Their swords were rusted and their eyes, cold.  They were slow, too.  The hero was reckless, smashing the skull of the lead zombie to dust with the flat of his blade as the four others ponderously advanced.

     Tarkel picked up the onyx skull from the cradle again.  A fascination at that youthful daring came over him.  Was he ever so fearless?  This hero had the fires of his youth.  Tarkel could not remember any such time that he would so callously gamble with his life.

     But there had been such a time, a time with Evelyn.  Suddenly, her long, sandy hair fluttered over the nape of his wrinkled neck.  The crystal skull faded from his eyes.  Yes, there had been a time, a dragon, albeit a young firesnorter.  And Tarkel remembered talking to the fell beast and drawing a sword, a polished longsword.  But the words were more sensible with the worm, who understood Tarkel well.  Still, the necromancer remembered the heft of a blade in his hands and watched the hero strike at his servants just as he would have, if he had retained the strength of his arm.

     Already, the hero had made quick work of Tarkel’s honor guard.  The last zombie tried to run away, but the hero’s legs were firm, not riddled with dry rot.  The hero swung that shield.  The decayed waist and chest exploded into a great grey cloud.

     Tarkel leaned forward on his iron throne.  His back ached.  He grumbled at the skull, "Why did I choose iron?  It’s not comfortable at all."  He remembered, then.  The onyx skull had begun to whisper to him: hardship brings strength, shows your enemies, who are legion, that you are strong.  The necromancer couldn’t remember enemies; he could feel the dull throb in his back, though.  He began to wonder at it all, all the dust, all the magic.

     Straining to see the hero more clearly, Tarkel stared into the sockets.  He saw the youth leaping over the pit, the pit with the agonizing poisons on barbed and wooden shafts.  It had been so cunning, so original–the gold cup with the diamond studded base on the trap floor.  Tarkel remembered that he had loved gold as a youth.  He and the skull had been sure that it would tempt the boy to his doom.  But as Tarkel gazed at the burning eyes of the hero, he remembered purity of purpose.  When he had been young, his mind had fixated on goals: Greed was not considered polite–or was it proper?–in the young.

     Suddenly, the necromancer cried out, "Of course, Rumpelstiltskin!  No, no, no, Midas!  Yes, yes, those tales must have warned the youth, who probably believes in them with his open heart."  Tarkel laughed quietly on his iron throne as he recalled images from such appealing stories, spoken among friends when the night’s wood had burned low.  Tarkel muttered at the crystal skull, "This hero is obviously literate, just as I was schooled.  You should have thought of that.  But you didn’t, did you.  No, no, don’t cry.  There’s still the ‘snorter, and I always have my necromancy.  We’re safe.  We’re safe.  I still need you."  Tarkel chuckled and a droplet of phlegm flew from his mouth. "Ah, he-he-he, Rumpelstiltskin!  What a clever story that was."

     The black skull whispered a reply.  The hero was close.  Tarkel grabbed the skull and cupped his hands over the sides of the skull to mimic ears.  He wanted to hear the youth’s braggadocio.  Few had come so far to become a cold zombie.

     The skull showed him the room, the special room with the moving glass on the ceiling to let the light in for his foremost servant, the only one who needed such warmth, needed such a large room.  His name was Torada, a dragon who served more for his curiosity than any compulsion Tarkel could have laid upon him.  Tarkel had met this firesnorter when he had been a hero, when the skull was still new to his touch.  Torada had been impressed with Tarkel’s good sense, agreeing to a safe home in the castle.  The onyx skull had approved of this new guardian, urged Tarkel to heed the worm, to take sanctuary inside granite walls.

     The ‘snorter was asleep.  The hero was about to open the door.  Tarkel tapped on the top of the onyx skull.

     The dragon moved in his sleep.

     Tarkel tapped harder.

     The dragon yawned.  Tarkel cursed.  No smoke came from the dragon’s mouth.  The old snorter’s stomach must be cold from the sleep.  It was a lazy beast, ate more necromantic vitality than his guardian.  But it was sure death to young heroes, who disturbed the complacency of a necromancer.  That neck curved upward some five feet, popping stiff joints.  Torada gazed, knowing how Tarkel used the black skull to spy on him.  The dragon opened its long muzzle and said, "Why did you wake me, necromancer?"

     Tarkel placed his hand over the mouth of the skull and said, "Torada, a youth comes, who fancies himself a hero.  He wants to slay you.  Make preparations."

     The dragon wound his coils about himself, becoming smaller and smaller, shedding his glistening scales.  Soon, there was a beautiful young woman with sandy hair standing in the room.

     Tarkel shouted through the skull, "You’re mocking me!"

     The dragon replied, "I thought you had forgotten Evelyn.  Don’t worry.  I’ll—-"

     The door opened.

     "Save me from the terrible necromancer." the Evelyn doppelganger cried, but had some difficulty concealing a smirk.

     The hero entered the lair of the dragon.  He blushed and averted his eyes.  The dragon had not had the time to outfit his disguise.

     "Come over here and rescue me."  Torada was still sleepy.  Tarkel watched, knowing the dragon would quickly kill the hero to return to his lazy sleep.

     The hero replied, "Did the foul wizard take your fineries, milady?  Here, I have a cape."  It was a bright red, sown with a golden thread.

     "Good, good.  Hurry up and bring it here.  I’m–uh–hot."  That was what humans complained of, wasn’t it?  The dragon looked toward the necromancer’s door and shrugged.

     Tarkel thumped the top of the onyx skull soundly.

     "Oww." the Evelyn doppelganger cried.

     The hero handed the naked doppelganger his cape and asked, "Milady, what ails you?  Is it the wizard who tortures you with his black magics?"  Now that she was covered, he gazed freely at her.

     The Evelyn doppelganger said, "Grrrr.  Uhm, yes.  That’s it.  He’s torturing me."  The doppelganger looked to the necromancer’s door.  "And I’m gonna burn him and rend his flesh into tiny, black, shredded strips if he strikes me on the head again."

     The hero withdrew his sword from his polished scabbard and cried, "This is some foul wizardry."

     Tarkel groaned.  The dragon had failed.  He had wanted the hero unharmed.  But the dragon was not motivated, and so had been sloppy.  Dragons had such trouble restraining their base impulses.  Torada had used an old trick, that Evelyn shape.  When Tarkel had first met the disguised dragon, he had recognized such duplicity immediately, for Evelyn had already left him when he had first shown her the grinning skull.  It served Torada well if the hero pricked him with the polished sword.  Tarkel mumbled, "Alas, this vestige of my youth shall not be so lucky–a naked sword against old Torada.  It had been refreshing to see, though."  He almost wanted the hero to win, but that was absurd.  The onyx skull told him so.  Dragons were too fearsome for heroes.

     The necromancer shook the onyx skull violently and shouted at the cold stone, "You don’t like the hero, do you?  No.  You seek his death, to be sure.  Ah, stop grinning so.  You’re mocking me, too, aren’t you?  But I forgive you.  We are, after all, such old friends.  Look!  The hero.  And you thought he would have no chance."

     The hero swung his sword in a frenzy as Torada retreated, trying to melt off the soft flesh and assume his true, scaled form.  The hero skewered the doppelganger in the gut and withdrew his blade.  "Do you yield?"

     The sword was stained a shining black.

     The Evelyn doppelganger grinned.  She coughed, and dark blood trickled from the corner of her mouth as the doppelganger said, "Odd.  I was going to ask you that."

     The hero was pushed back by a monstrous explosion of flesh as the doppelganger’s form shifted to its true shape.  The stomach wound was now little more than a scratch across the scaled belly of the dragon.  The beast was fully twenty feet long from its head to the tip of its barbed tail.  A double row of jagged teeth smiled at the hero, who stepped backward with eyes wide.  Torada inhaled vast amounts of air as he prepared to expel the flaming vapours against this youth.

     Tarkel banged the top of the onyx skull with his fist.  It would do him no good if there was naught but ashes left of the hero.  The necromancer shouted into the skull and his words reverberated in the outer chamber, "Torada, you fool, don’t burn him!  I need the boy alive.  Ashes have no vitality.  My realm has enough corpses!"

     Torada’s head bobbed in the air, as if it were struck by an invisible hammer.  The dragon turned his neck toward the necromancer’s door and spoke with his forked tongue, slipping past the rows of his teeth, "I’ll do as I please.  And after him, I shall take you in my fires, necromancer.  There are safer places to sleep, where I do not have my head beat upon by your impatient wizardry, you doddering—-"

     Putting both hands on the hilt of his sword and swinging it in a wide arc, the hero hewed at the dragon’s neck.  The blade cut through the scales and sank into the flesh.

     "Ahrooo!"  The dragon cried, "Enough."  His left foreclaw swung out and slapped the hero, tossing the hero’s body against the far wall.  "I leave you pests to each other.  You are too much trouble to keep apart.  It is too fitting.  Face each other and be done with it.  What care I for the squabbling of tiny thinkers?  You all look alike, think alike to me."

     Torada reared on his hind legs.  The dragon’s massive haunches bunched; then, Torada sprang into the air, flexing monstrous wings of leathery flesh.  He crashed through the glass ceiling and flew into the night sky.

     Shards of glass plummeted to the stone floor.  The hero covered his face with his hands ’till the shattering and clashing stopped.  His breath was labored, but he stood and ran to the far door.  He tugged at the brass ring on the door.  But it was locked.

     Tarkel watched through the onyx skull.  He was safe from the sword.  The wood of that door had come from the same grove as his outer door and was also like steel.  He was safe, safe from all intruders, particularly that bothersome hero.  He could hear the pound, pound, pound of the hero’s fists against the solid door.  Then, the creaking of the brass ring as the hero pulled at it.  The skull whispered, telling Tarkel that he was safe.  He didn’t have to face the hero.  The hero’s struggling became feeble.

     Before the onyx skull could whisper to him again, Tarkel quickly brushed his fingers across the grinning teeth.  The last door opened.  Tarkel trembled all over, not knowing why he had done that.  The skull whispered curses in his ears, calling him a rattlepate.

     Tarkel said, "Enough.  I’ll not suffer you.  I don’t have to.  I hate you now."  Tarkel convulsed; a groan escaped his throat as the fires of necromancy raged against his breast.  "No.  I will reject you.  I remember now."  He leaned forward and dropped the skull onto the brass cradle.  He exhaled and coughed.  "Back, back to your home.  I will see him myself.  I will see myself.  It has been too long."

     The hero entered the throne room of the necromancer Tarkel.  It was a long hall with a long table, surrounded by lonely, empty chairs.  There were only two torches hung on each side of the wall, casting dual flickering images about the room.  Dust covered the wood, the stones, the throne.  At the far end of the hall on a raised dias of grey marble rested the necromancer on the dull throne.  A small round table was in front of the throne.  On top of the brass cradle, the onyx skull faced the hero.

     Tarkel had his back against the throne, as if trying to distance himself from the hero.  But he said, "Come forward, youth.  Come forward."

     The hero approached.  His hot, quick breaths echoed against the stone and clashed with the snapping fires from the torches.  Tarkel suppressed a shiver upon looking at this hero in the flesh.  He was young.  The pains and wounds of his quest to reach this room had only made his physique more noble, more poignant.  It was all so ancient in the necromancer’s mind, yet he was here, now, in front of him.  He stood proudly with his blood stained blade, only inches from the onyx skull.  Tarkel breathed, "Yes.  Yes.  You shall have me and I shall have you."  But his words were whispers.  The hero could not hear the necromancer, for his heart was pounding in his ears.

     The hero declared, "These lands have come to ruin because of your foul wizardry.  I have come as usurper with the blessing of my liege, the Duke of Lancaster, whose lands surround this blasted castle and your desolate lands.  He declares that you give up you rights and title to these lands in favor of me; thereupon, these lands shall be cleared of wights and fell spirits to grow green again.  If you do not acquiesce, then your neck shall be put to my blade.  What say you, wizard?"

     Their shadows greeted each other from a safe distance: four silhouettes preparing to begin a morris dance.  Tarkel leaned forward and watched his shadows bow to the straight shadows of the hero.  He spoke softly, but the decades spent in this dank room had coarsened his voice, "You are bold.  I admire that; I admire it greatly.  But how, my strong lord, how do you propose to divest these lands of their fell shades and zombies, eh?"

     The hero’s voice rang clearly throughout the empty long hall, "Your demise shall be a good beginning."

     "You misunderstand me, youth.  I have no desire to contest myself against you."

     The hero lowered his sword.  "You don’t?"

     "No, no.  You have pierced these gaol walls most admirably.  I cannot stand against your ambitions, hero.  I know them too well, your Duke’s father knew them as well.  You are not the first to gain entrance to this room.  Enough of that.  It is ancient and does not concern you.  On my word, I surrender.  But I merely and humbly enquire as to how you will rid these lands of the corruption.  It has deep roots in the soil, ancient roots.  Deposing me will not clear these lands of sorcery."

     The hero sheathed his sword and said, "I-I do not know."

     Tarkel rose from his throne.  The hero put his hand quickly to the hilt of his sword.  Tarkel spoke, "Ah, please do not trouble yourself with me.  I merely offer you the throne.  I have, after all, acceded to your usurpation.  It is now yours.  Take it.  It is a strong throne.  It will impress your future petitioners."

     Suspicious, the hero watched the necromancer carefully.  But there were no powders or mumbling coming from him, and his trembling hands did not stray from plain sight.  As the necromancer left the stone dais, his form seemed to shrink before the hero’s eyes.  Tarkel seemed more like a withered grandfather now and not so terrific to behold.

     The hero took his seat on the iron throne.  Tarkel made as if to leave.  The hero said, "Wait, wizard.  I have not spared your life, yet.  If you would walk free from here with no onus against you, you must tell me how to rid these lands of their evil."

     Tarkel stood before the throne, and now the shadows had done a round in their dance.  The torch fires burned brighter, darkening the shadows.  Tarkel looked up into the hero’s eyes and said, "My liege, before you on the table is the onyx skull; timeless unto the forgotten days it is.  Yet always has it belonged to the ruler of these lands.  It is mickle powerful, indeed.  It shall whisper to you during fearsome nights.  And you shall have power over all fell spirits that come to this castle.  Ah, but I forget myself.  Here, I still wear the ruling robe of this ancient and noble house when I have been deposed.  It is properly yours, now."

     The necromancer took off his black robe and handed it to the hero.  The hero hesitated and said, "If this is some trickery—"

     "No, lord.  It is merely yours, to be worn by the proper ruler.  There is no magic in it.  It is merely of an exceptionally fine weave."

     The hero took the robe, turning it around in his hands and patting it.  "Yes, it is merely cloth.  Very soft."  The hero donned the robe and resumed his seat.  Tarkel watched, as the shadows did another round in their dance against the floor.  The robed silhouette was now back upon the throne shadow.

     Tarkel said, "Now, you have all that was mine.  I have done as you have bid me and must now leave to make my way.  I am bereft of the onyx skull.  It is yours.  Puissant lord, will you send me out into the wasted lands to be devoured by the fell beasts?"

     In the fire lights the young hero’s face took on a stern demeanor.  And the lines of care and effort he had taken in reaching this throne drew themselves over his visage.  The hero said, "It would be proper.  You have caused much misery."

     Tarkel cried and wrung his hands together.  "Mercy, stern lord.  Have mercy.  You have taken all that I am.  Do not be cruel."

     "Silence, wretch."  His voice was strong, but he coughed, for the grey dust on the throne bothered him.  "You have let this castle fall to disrepair.  I shall restore its glory.  Yet I would not have my first day as lord be stained by your blood."

     Tarkel quickly said, "A sword, my liege.  A sword so that I may at least defend myself.  There is an old one under the throne.  I have kept it oiled.  Please, milord.  It is but a common sword."

     The hero calmly reached under his throne and withdrew the naked sword.  It clattered against the stone dais with a slow groan.  The hero eyed it closely.  "Yes.  It is common and befits you now.  Take it."  He tossed the sword at Tarkel’s feet.

     Tarkel bent down smoothly.  He picked up the sword by its hilt, gripped it firmly.  He stood before the iron throne.

     The hero held the onyx skull in trembling hands while he gazed into the dark sockets.  Now, the shadows were as they had first appeared, save that the silhouette of the onyx skull was now allied with the robed shadow.

     Without shifting his gaze, the hero barked offhandedly at Tarkel, "Well, do not delay.  Leave before my mercy departs me.  I have much to do and learn."

     Tarkel slowly frowned.  He clenched his teeth as if he might cry, but he breathed deeply and spoke slowly, "Rulership does not agree with you, my lord.  I am sympathetic to your plight."

     Oblivious to Tarkel, The hero turned the skull gently in his hands.

     Tarkel looked at the rigid, proud figure on the iron throne.  Almost, he whispered a warning, but at the last moment he veiled it, saying only, "I did but pause to gaze at myself.  Farewell, my lord.  I speak that truly."

     The night winds were fierce and biting.  Tarkel crouched under a slender oak tree.  He had already reached the edge of his former realm.  The cold air tingled sweetly in his lungs, and the walk had firmed his legs, though they were somewhat sore.  The moon silvered the shadows; it was full tonight.  Tarkel looked at his clean sword and the hand that gripped it.  The fingers were firm; he had trimmed the long nails with the edge of his sword, practicing ancient skills that now came readily to his mind.  He had avoided the haunts of the zombies; Tarkel no longer craved violence.  There were a few white ancient scars on the hand that gripped the sword, but no other blemish to disturb Tarkel’s thoughts.  Tarkel smiled; so few had ever received a second chance, a chance to look backward and inward with such a piercing clarity, with such a perfect mirror.

Independent Citizen pt. 3

Jane Fields still had ten hours before Cerberus’ deadline would be breached.  Plenty of time for a flight to Nippon, enough time to call a conclave against Cerb’s vindictive network wars.  She always had the feeling that Cerberus was implacable, but that feeling would have to be put to the test.

     The low orbit plane, Fields One, was ready.  Large engines purred to life, a slight growl before the full belly roar that would push the plane into orbit.  It was longer than a jumbo jet with V shaped wings set well back on her fuselage, which was thick and flat on top.

     Everyone had always told Jane how beautiful the Earth was from orbit.  The pictures were testimony enough, the most eloquent case for the environmentalists.  However, Jane rarely glanced out her window.  Aesthetics didn’t amuse her now.  Maslow’s pyramid ruled and survival was her priority.  Even in orbit she was connected to her network, an invisible umbilical cord of radio waves.  She waited for the calls.  If they did not come, she had wasted two and a half hours on this flight, as well as publicity on a dangerous move.

     Forty-five minutes into the flight, the first call was routed to her:

     "Ms. Fields?"

     "Yes."

     "The mission was a bust.  An ambush was laid by another group.  Cyborgs and tranq guns took us out, found us in our safe house.  My fullest apologies.  Your money will be returned."

     "That’s not necessary.  Your loyalty is appreciated.  Thank you.  Good-bye."

     The cabin warmed, but not considerably.  Reentry was well managed, but the second call had not arrived.  She could see the crescent of the Nipponese islands below her.  It reminded her of a scythe.

     The cabin speaker blared, annoyed her, "We have clearance to land."

     Jane snapped, "Of course, we have clearance.  I wouldn’t have made the trip if the road hadn’t been paved."  It was possible that Cuchulain’s computer snarling had been ineffective, that Cerberus had sent his own agents to waylay Mariko.  She closed her eyes and tried to stop chasing paranoid ghosts.  Where was that second call? the call that her agents had rescued Mariko and put her in Jane’s debt.

     Fields One touched down smoothly.

     The cool breeze assaulted her, so different than Argentinean air.  The gangway was long and steep, but she had never been afraid of heights.  Two rows of policemen were awaiting her, a processional to a Mercedes limo.  These weren’t her men.  There was nothing she could do.  Ambition and desperation had forced Jane Fields over the last sixteen hours to break her cardinal rule: Never get involved personally.

     Mariko’s right hand man was waiting for her, seated comfortably on the black leather.  She climbed in, seeing no other option.  The air conditioning only added to her chill.

     Kentaro spoke, "We are honored by your presence in our network.  Please, do not speak."

     The ride was long and uncomfortable, at least two hours, under the stoic glare of Kentaro’s placid but handsome features.  The building at the end of a gravel driveway was not Mariko’s primary residence.  It crossed her mind that Kentaro may have made a move for Mariko’s network.  Jane certainly wasn’t about to ask him.  She had expected curved red roofs and ornamental guards, a shogun’s estate befitting the mistress of the Nipponese network.  But it was a lonely building, a low budget modular home, probably erected in under twenty-four hours.  She followed Kentaro inside.  There were few guards, though they passed through three gates, two of which required retinal scans on Kentaro’s part.  He was still insufferably quiet.

     They entered an elevator, an expected oddity in this rambler style house.  There were no interior buttons; it was controlled from the outside.  Jane admired that: a nice trick in its simplicity.  Better, it took her mind from her upcoming fate.

     Two guards with rifle weapons stood on either side of a sterile steel door.  It silently slid open as Kentaro and Jane approached.

     Mariko.  She sat on a large suede chair behind a glass table.  Four computer screens were set in the table with four keyboards inlaid on each edge.  Jane remembered that Mariko was in her thirties, but she looked younger, timeless with a fashion model’s frozen elegance.  Mariko nodded for her to take a seat to the left of her; Kentaro sat to Jane’s right.

     Mariko did not smile.  "I must thank you for rescuing me from Cerberus’ operatives."  Her eyes were iced over.  Jane could get no feelings from her.

     Jane bowed her head, a careful if noncommittal show of respect.

     "Oh, no need to be so formal, Jane.  We are equals here.  After all, if these were the old days, I would owe you my life for saving it.  Thankfully, however, we are no longer bound by such–moralities."  Her voice whispered that last word.

     Jane bit her tongue to cover her fear.  Mariko knew, she knew.  But Mariko was pretending that she didn’t know.  That was fine by Jane.  "Yes, well, the Six have different responsibilities, a different morality."

     Now, Mariko smiled: a small upturn of the left side of her lips.  "Has this something to do with independent citizenship, Jane?"

     Jane leaned forward, looked into Mariko’s eyes.  "Yes, yes, it does.  I believe–"

     Mariko laughed and cut her off with a tiny wave of her hand.  "The passion in one so experienced does you credit, Jane.  But you must excuse me.  We’re getting ahead of ourselves here.  When . . . Cerberus attempted to kidnap me, he as good as forced me to call a punitive conclave, which is why, of course, I escorted you here so that you could second the summoning."

     Mariko was playing into her hand.  Jane looked at her hands and admitted they were somewhat infirm, particularly here.  She was deprived of her network here.  And forced into a conclave, a punitive conclave, that could just as easily turn on her.  Yet she couldn’t refuse the summoning: That would be an admission of the kidnapping.

     Mariko tapped on her keyboard.  The four screens came to life:

     Punitive Conclave requested.  Please log on for identity verification.

     LOGON: Mariko,_

     Mariko looked at Jane expectantly.

     LOGON: Mariko, Jane,_

     In five minutes the conclave was complete: LOGON: Mariko, Jane, Demian, Cerberus, Pietr, Cuchulain.

     Mariko: I’ve summoned this conclave to consider punitive actions against Cerberus, who attempted to kidnap me.  Jane will verify.

     Demian: Wait one moment.  Your second man blamed me for that moronic operation; my Electech stock fell thirty points, because your man leaked out the Kelly insider trading agreement.  I’ve got five brokers indited.  I demand satisfaction or restructuring of this punitive conclave to include Mariko.

     Mariko: I offer Demian three secrets, two of which include projected Cerberus waves in the United Nations; the other is a run down of secondary rank I.R.I.S. personnel.

     Demian: Agreed!

     Cerberus: What?!  Mariko, I deny any activity in this alleged kidnapping.  Everyone on line knows that my methods are not so ill conceived.

     Cuchulain: As to methodology, bunky, you sent an assassin against me, a plainly reckless act, more suited to my nature.  This act testifies to Cerberus’ recent and violent methodology.

     Demian: I verify.  My New York operatives scanned a known I.R.I.S. android’s sudden deactivation and an explosion at one of Cuchulain’s tertiary residences.  I am satisfied that the three secrets given to me will lead to sufficient punitive action against Cerberus and move to close this punitive conclave.

     Pietr: I second.

     Mariko: Is there a majority?  I vote No.

     Jane: No.

     Cuchulain: No.  Why should Demian have all the fun?

     Cerberus: I maintain my innocence and suggest that Fields is suspect as our networks were preparing to war.

     Jane: A military action!

     Demian: That is within a network’s rights.  You know that, Jane.

     Pietr: I suggest that we examine the cause of the recent instability; therein will the guilt be.

     Cuchulain: What’s wrong with instability?

     Demian: I agree with Pietr.  Jane’s independent citizen move in the United Nations, the center of Cerberus’ network, was certainly the cause of the instability.  I would tolerate no such bold action by others within my network’s parameters.  Jane asked for network war.

     Jane: I claim the betterment of world society.

     Demian: What?

     Jane: Independent citizenship will free humanity from the bonds of nationalism and war.

     Cerberus: This is absurd.  Who here can make worldwide projections with such an unprecedented move, with so many variables?

     Cuchulain: Not everyone here is tied to their calculator, bean counter.

     Jane: Allowing the option of world citizenship is something we all acknowledge will happen if the light barrier is broken and space travel becomes feasible.  A number of articles have touched on independent citizenship in regard to the proposed Martian colony.

     Demian: While I admit the possibility of future independent citizenship, I deny that it will result in the betterment of mankind.  Human nature is immutable.

     Pietr: I agree.  The absence of nationalism will only create a power vacuum in humanity’s need for a group identity.  The successor to nationalism will most likely be organized religion, governing secular arenas.  Humanity will leave the age of reason for superstition.

     Jane: But we have the chance to make people independent!

     Mariko: What Pietr is saying is that the people do not want your independence.

     Cerberus: I request a motion for retraction of Jane Fields’ independent citizen operation.

     Mariko: That is not at issue.  Your kidnapping my person is at issue.

     Pietr: But the source of instability is Jane Fields.

     Deliberately moving her hands away from her keyboard, Mariko looked toward Jane.  Mariko spoke, "The three secrets to Demian will debilitate Cerberus enough for my satisfaction.  I believe you had a hand in this, Jane.  I know you did.  Did you think I would not guess at such a clumsy attempt by Cerberus?  He was in prelude to a trade war with you.  Joint responsibility, debilitating you both, will be highly profitable for the other four.  Even the toady, Pietr, will go along, since Cerberus knows he has already lost those secrets to Demian.  Demian shall do my dirty work against Cerberus; and you will pay for disrupting my person and my network with your absurd maneuvers.  This has been a very costly move for you, Jane."

     Mariko: I accept Cerberus’ accusation of Jane Fields’ culpability in the kidnapping of my person.  I suggest the dismantling of her Argentinean off coast complex as satisfaction: a complete and final ban on independent citizenship.

     Demian: No.

     Jane breathed a sigh of relief.

     Mariko: Why do you disagree, Demian?

     Demian: I calculate a thirty percent network expenditure on Jane’s part for this move.  Retraction now would create a vacuum that would not be in my interests as well as a reward to Cerberus, since that is what he wants.

     Mariko: A majority is still possible.  I vote yes.

     Cuchulain: You can forget the vote against independent citizenship, Mari.  It ain’t gonna happen.  I’ve just completed an agro-arms-gold deal with the Chinese and have purchased a ninety-nine year lease of Tibet.  I am now the second independent citizen and will be inviting the Dalai Lama back to his homeland.  The positive profile of the Lama in the Euro-American sectors should make independent citizenship feasible and, hopefully, profitable.  You’ve got a second, Janey!  Well, bean counter, what does your projected wave on independent citizenship say now?

     Cerberus: One moment.

     Jane shouted.  Kentaro leapt from his seat, jolted by the sudden noise.  Mariko drummed her fingernails on the glass table in rhythmic thought.

     Cerberus: I back independent citizenship and sue for treaty with the Fields network, providing Demian and Mariko agree not to war against independent citizenship.

     Jane: I accept treaty with you, Cerberus.

     Mariko: I am still due satisfaction from Jane Fields.

     Demian: Agreed.

     Jane: I offer Mariko a merger of our aero-space industries.

     Mariko: Agreed.

     Demian: I have no incentive to tolerate independent citizenship.

     Cuchulain: Brussels?

     Demian: Agreed.

     Jane laughed.  She was feeling too happy and knew she shouldn’t speak to Mariko, but, "Hah, just wait five years.  Tibet’ll be the new independent arms capital of the world–no paperwork, no officials, just Cuchulain’s metallurgists and engineers.  Those monks’ll never have to worry about losing their homeland again."

     Mariko replied softly, "An irony, considering the monks’ peaceful natures.  But, I think, independent citizens shall turn out to be the most ironic concept of all; we shall be burdened by a populace without loyalties or giri."

     Jane thought about Mariko’s parting words during her flight home aboard the newly christened Fields-Matsushita One.  All this trouble just for doubts.  Cuchulain had a good time at least.  Jane laughed softly and spoke to the empty cabin, "Well then, independent citizen, where do we go from here?"

Independent Citizen pt. 2

The red haired man replied, “Don’t frazz yourself, Lisa.  I have confidence in the foam.  It’s been tested before.”

     Lisa typed furiously on the keyboard.  “Here’s its target’s profile, Andy.  That foam does good work.  I think some of its base operation commands are still working.”

     Lisa’s computer screen shifted from inchoate computer language to english script:

     Birth name: Andrew Mathias Cambpell

     Code name: Cuchulain

     Primary Affiliation: Cuchulain Network

     Secondary Affiliation: M.I.T. Economics Department

     Tertiary Affiliations: Mossad, Xiao Third Circle,                                    N.E.C., I.R.A., Wu Combine,

                           Wagner Engineering Institute

     Threat Rating: A-4

     Personal Combat Threat Rating: G-6

     M.O. Personal: Long Range Gamma laser

     M.O. Industrial: Insider trading, Brussels based munitions,                   Colaco, TriCon Securities & Exchange, Hong                    Kong Express Shipping

     Base of Operations: Unknown

     Primary Residence: Mobile

     Present Location: 363 Tulip Lane, Teaneck, New Jersey

     Directive: Detain.

     END FILE

     Lisa ran a hard copy.  “That’s all of it.  It has more on you than I would have thought Cerb would give a brute operative.”

     Andrew said, “Brute?  More like a machine, a walking gun with a tidbit of knowledge about me.”

     Lisa turned her head from the console and looked up at Andrew.  Her glasses reflected the computer’s profile in the dim light.  “It’s more than that.  I’ve run through the higher directives.  They’re in a muddle, but I’m sure this thing had an artificial intelligence program, very sophisticated.  Strange, though.  The artificial intelligence was set to self destruct.”

     “It was programmed to commit suicide?”

     Lisa thought for a few moments.  “No.  More as if it were programmed for a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  It’s probably a security maneuver for Cerberus’ classified A.I. programs.  By the way, I think it’s still on line with another computer.”

     Andrew grabbed her shoulder.  “Can you trace it, send a virus through that line?”

     “Sure, which virus do you want?  Concordant?  Spiral?  Repeat–“

     “All of ’em!  Send all of ’em!”

     Lisa stared at him for a moment.  Then, she turned back to her computer.  “All right.  But I don’t know what it’ll do.”

     Andrew grinned and rubbed his hands together.  “We can but hope.”

     The computer whirred for a few seconds.  Then, Lisa flicked off the power.

     Andrew asked, “What?  Why’d you stop?”

     “The other hacker found me.”

     “Oh.”  Andrew clenched his fist.

     Lisa stood and stretched her legs.  “What’s wrong?”

     Andrew sighed, “Siccing those viruses on Cerberus’ datanet would have been sweet, would have made this operation worth the time and effort.  Lisa, I had to reveal my knowledge of one of his double agents in my network to let him know where I was without letting him know that I was the one giving him the inside track on my whereabouts.  Such opportunities are exceedingly rare.”

     Lisa replied, “Stop bellyaching, Andrew.  I got the viruses sent.  They were compacted.  It only took me point oh oh five of a second to punch ’em through.  They’ll expand after they’re in his datanet.  Makes ’em not only quick to send, but also harder to detect.”

     “Lisa, such a feat earns you a raise.”

     “Thank you, Cuchulain of the Red Branch.”  She giggled.

     “Hey!  Don’t laugh at my name.  C’mon, let me have your seat.  I need to make a few calls.  Go tell Erik to stop at a Ho Jo’s.  I’m starved for some fried clams.”

     “Bleugh.  You’re the boss.  Sometimes, I have to wonder, though.”

     Andrew picked up the receiver and hit key four.

     Ringg—-

     “Fields here.  Who is this?”

     “Hey, Jane.  It’s your partner in crime, Cuchulain.  Cerb exposed himself in a big way after I let him take a shot at me.”

     Jane’s breath caught in her throat.  Her partnership with Cuchulain had been a gamble, but he was the best networker at making his opponent take a misstep.  Only Cuchulain would risk his person in an operation.  Jane asked, “What happened?”

     “Cerberus sent some of his high tech to bury me, but I did the buryin’.  Seems his metal man was still on line.  My hacker slipped a few viruses into his computer’s datanet.  Should keep the bean counter occupied for a while at least.”

     “Which files did you hit?”

     “Uhm.  Gee, I don’t know diddly about ‘puters.  Hold a sec.  Let me ask my hacker.”  Andrew put his hand over the receiver.  “Lisa, what files did you hit?”

     “Wuhell, you didn’t tell me we were going to do computer sabotage.  But I made up some viruses a while back to go after things I thought you’d want taken out of a competitor’s computer.  One’s set to skrag anything about your Brussels operations.  That was for Demian’s computers.  Uhm . . . One’s a general search and destroy on any file with your name or–”  Lisa laughed.  “–or anyone named Andrew.  One’s a companion isolation breaker for the general logic scrambler.  Easy to take down, but it’s fast and multiplies by itself, eating memory as it goes.”

     Andrew talked into the receiver, “Jane?”

     “I’m still here.”

     “Well, my hacker tells me they were sorta search and destroy, advanced stuff by what she’s telling me.  It should hold even a hacker like Cerb for a few hours.  That enough of a window for you?”

     Jane said, “Thanks, Cuchulain.  How can I repay you?”

     “You already have.  Cerb’s a major thorn in my side.  Just keep hurting him.  Besides, independent citizen–what a move!–Hah, you’re a genius, Janey girl.”

     At seventy only someone as deranged as Cuchulain would consider her a girl.  Jane smiled.  There was some truth in it: independent citizen on a sea platform, faerie princess in an ivory tower.  “Listen, Cuchulain.  We’ve got to make use of this window of instability.  I’ve got a warehouse full of I.R.I.S. stylized tech gear: guns, prostheses, and such.”

     “A frame up?”

     “Yes.  But I need someone strong enough to take Cerb’s attention away from me.  I figure after a week the damage from my independent citizen move will be done, and Cerb’ll stop attacking on grounds of futility.  He is very logical.”

     “Uh-huh.  Why a week?”

     Jane paused.  She wasn’t sure if it was wise to tell Cuchulain that Cerb wanted independent citizens, that her interests were probably closer to Cerb’s than any other network’s interests.  Cuchulain had just proved how dangerous an enemy he could be.  She was on short term time, anyway.  Might as well deal with the future problems after–if she survived.  “Listen, Cuchulain.”  She pressed the voice analyzer on her phone console; then, flipped it off again.  Hell, he risked his neck for me.

     “Jane, you still there?”

     “Yeah.  Listen, the independent citizen idea, well, Cerberus had it, too.  He just wanted to institute it forty years from now.”

     “Whew, talk about a long range plan.”

     Jane sighed.  “Yes.  I think he wants independence from whatever country he calls home without impairing his access to the United Nation’s diplomatic ties and militia, or he may even be reaching for some sort of autononmy within the U.N. as an independent citizen.  Anyway, my upstaging his plans will make it harder for him if I don’t fail quickly so that the public just thinks I’m an eccentric, rich, old lady.  If I’m successful enough to actually make some power waves as an independent citizen and then fall, the resultant success for nationalism will make it harder for Cerb to institute his bid forty years from now.”

     “Geez, Janey, don’t be so negative.  What if you succeed and stay independent?”

     Jane laughed, bitter and coarse.  “I don’t think Cerb’s projected wave for me had that as a realistic percentage.  I’m sure he did a calculation on the success rate if he joined me.  It still must have been too low for him to risk.  Better to use his I.R.I.S. agents to take me out quickly and make himself an independent citizen in forty years, without me as a variable.”

     Cuchulain exhaled into the receiver and said, “Ok.  You need to frame Cerberus against somebody big and then come to the rescue of your mark.  Your mark has to be a big fish, big enough so that his rescue will cause a power wave.”

     “You’ve got the idea, Cuchulain.”

     “How about Demian?”

     Jane felt as if she could see Cuchulain’s predatory smile of anticipation.  Demian had the Euro arms market strangled in a vice of supply lines and manufacturing facilities.  A disorientation of Demian’s Euro-network, even for a few hours, would let Cuchulain mobilize his Brussels raiding teams to scare off Demian’s clientele.  But Jane said, “Sorry, Cuchulain.  Too dangerous.  Besides, even I don’t want that much weapons grade fissionable material on the open black market.  You know he’d dump as a retaliation to a kidnap.  Add to that his mercs with tact nukes, and he’s just too dangerous.”

     “Yeah, Demian is a cold fish.  He’d push the button and pop a valium to forget about it.  Ok, not Demian, then who?  Mariko?”

     Jane swallowed slowly, savoring the bitter coffee.  “Yes.”

     “Her ninjutsu are tough.”

     “That’s my choice, Cuchulain.  Are you with me?”

     “Sorry, but no.  I’ve got some bamboo to stir fry.  I just don’t have the operatives to spare in the Asian theatre.”

     “Thanks for the help you did give me.  I won’t forget it.”

     “Jane, I hope you live long enough to pay me back.  Goodbye, sweet thing.”

     Jane cupped her hands around her coffee mug.  They had gone cold.  There was every possibility that Cuchulain was placing a call to Mariko at this very moment.  She sipped.  “Ah, well, if a variable could be predicted it wouldn’t be a variable; it wouldn’t be Cuchulain.”

     Her network rested on one small military maneuver, sprinkled lightly with deception.  Plans of raids had already been set up on all the networks.  She only had to make the call.  That was the way it always worked for Jane: Place a distant, quiet call; then, wait and watch for the wave.

     She picked up the phone and slowly dialed, wanting to remember this moment.  It felt personally apocalyptic.  Jane steeled herself; she really did believe that personal independence was a fundamental right, tacitly stolen by the nations of the world.  Responsibility belongs within the ivory tower, not from heavenly or secular manifestos.  Jane sighed.  She set the ceramic mug on the oak and saw the coffee ripple over the grinds in the bottom of the mug.

     A soft voice answering the phone roused Jane from her thoughts: “Raiko speaking.”

     Staccato and firm, Jane said, “Fields.  M-four-k.  Immediately and with publicity.”

     “Thank you, ma’am.  Your order will be delivered as per your specific request after fiscal verification.”

     “Thank you.”  Jane replaced the phone and left the computer running.  No reason not to have a sip of Rhein wine before she placed the other call.

     ***

     Tossing off her black silk bedsheets, Mariko Matsushita woke bolt upright at two in the morning to the sound of loud and rapid gunfire on her property.  This close, it could not be a fluke from some Yakuza lord.  Too much of her security had been bypassed.  Faces, names, and profiles flipped through her mind.  The satellite laser umbrella plans, she thought.

     “Demian,” Mariko whispered.

     There were screams, shouts that died swiftly; guards clutched bullet wounds; intruders grasped laser burns and moaned.  Her waterbed jiggled as an explosion erupted downstairs.  The door had been blown–so much for anti-personnel locks.

     Heavy footsteps pounded on her stairs, raced to her bedroom.  Weapons clashed again, quiet weapons.  The footsteps were coming down the hall, marring, no doubt, her teak floor.

     She leapt from the bed and grabbed an ornamental knife, an antique, used for ritual sepuku.

     That thought never crossed her mind.  She grabbed a black pebble from the hanging ivy.  There were ten such pebbles, each a different color, nestled at the base of the little ivy plant.  She dropped the pebble into the sheath and replaced the knife.  Ken would know, would begin punitive actions until Demian found the cost of such a move too exorbitant, too painful.

     Large silhouettes loomed behind the rice paper wall.  Mariko chastised herself: Moving into armaments, even defensive ones, had been too risky, caught too many waves that others of the Six struggled to master.  Still, Kentaro would lay all of Demian’s dark secrets out in the daylight, one by one, slowly.

     The sliding door was pulled–ripped out from its hinges.  Three bulky figures stood in the doorway, casting dust into her room, waving electronic instruments.  They entered.  One had a metallic arm.  Their weapons were stock issue, I.R.I.S. issue.

     It made no sense in Mariko’s mind.  It wasn’t the fear of psychological abuse, torture, or death.  Those, she kept away from her analytical thoughts, though her heart still raced.  Of all who had the force to do this, Cerberus was the last she would have guessed.  Their exchanges had been fruitful without conflicting interests.  Cerberus was methodical, squeezed out every drop of usefulness before killing his adversary.  He must have changed or expanded—-

     The three had finished their preliminary checks.  One rushed forward; a needle poked from his metallic finger and stabbed her precisely, with a computer’s accuracy, on the neck.

     She heard sirens as her senses swirled to darkness.

     ***

     It came over the Nipponese media, a kidnapping of an electronics industrialist.  Jane Fields made her second call: “Fields.  K-Mariko-JF&I!  No lethal force whatsoever.”

     The response, a computer voice: “None?”

     “None.”

     “Moving.”

    

Independent Citizen pt. 1

     "To repeat: Noted billionaire and financier, Jane Fields, rejected her United States citizenship in a personal address to the United Nations, where she called for an end to what she referred to as petty nationalism, blocking the equitable economic progress of the world."

                             –Tom Skerrit, World Network News

 

     Jane Fields looked down through the window of her plane and her heart fluttered.  She had broken the unspoken rule of secrecy by daring to build this off shore complex.  The Six had always ruled their vast corporate networks anonymously.  Technology had been shrinking the world with an almost geometric acceleration.  The nations held to their outmoded ideals of patriotism and land boundaries while each of the Six used corporations, tied together in an invisible network of money and international law, that moved silently and fluidly to wherever profit and power existed.

     But none of the Six had ever spoken openly of their world spanning power–until now.

     As her plane descended, Jane Fields watched her employees scuttle across her brazen complex.  Her engineers had finished the project on schedule.  No longer were the outlines of twenty off coast oil derricks visible; it was more of an island, a slim rectangular island with domes and fields and, most importantly, superguns that were much more credible than the earlier prototypes used by eccentric dictators.  Sticking out like porcupine quills across the perimeter of her complex, the huge gun barrels served as a show of obvious force to aggressive third world powers.  Her primary munitions company, SouthAm Dynamics, had manufactured these superguns; everyone knew they were flawless, accurate, precise.

     Of course, the superguns were not a deterrent against the United States or the European Defense Confederation.  But her complex was situated far off the coast of Argentina, distant from the touchy Europeans, who had never really forgiven her for stealing their trade in inexpensive unmanned rocket launchings; and against the American threat, she had a more effective defense: minds, front line bio-techs as well as practical theorists in all the profit bearing defense industries, whom the hawks in America wanted on a safe and isolated place, away from the Chinese hardliners and the unofficial Russian-Ukrainian-Georgian triumvirate.  It was a passive, invisible defense, the leverage Jane Fields needed to preserve her independence.

     Her plane put down smoothly on the strip; the precautionary net flipped up, but it was not necessary.  She had chosen the pilot from Air Britain’s Concord elite; he had the light touch, an artist’s touch, applied to a craftsmen’s trade.  She always looked for that in potential independent citizens.

     The ground tremored.  The rose bushes in front of her offices swayed, throwing their scent to the tempo of the deafening roar.  Her Casio wristwatch beeped.  Jane nodded and touched the stem of a flower, fondled a sharp thorn, and smiled.  Her rocket was launching on time with her spy satellite and telecommunication satellite; their auto defense mechanisms were well ahead of her patriotic competition.  Everything was moving along pleasantly.

     But that, she knew, was only because her competitors were still planning their response.

     Said response was waiting for her on the complex’s one outline computer.  The Europeans and the Americans had frozen her assets.  She had maneuvered for that loss, leaving two point three billion to allow her competitors to believe they had succeeded in a punitive action.  At this point she had no desire to see them lose face.  Angering Jackson too much might prompt an American air strike.  This complex could never withstand such a confrontation.

     Her oak desk was covered under a pile of scientific proposals, think tank strategies, and tertiary construction plans, all of which needed her attention, all had to be tabled.

     The modem pinged its S.O.S., mindlessly crying for her attention.  One of the Six was calling her.  Of course, some of the red lines dedicated to heads of states were busy.  This was different–an immediate predator, the Cerberus of Military Intelligence Central.

     M.I. Central was the illegitimate granddaughter of the K.G.B., the C.I.A., and M.I. 5, rolled into one monstrous arm of the United Nations.  The ghoulish title of their leader was still unknown to most, but it was probably apt.  Whether Cerberus was a human genius gifted in computer technology or a cyborg linked to a massive computer or a rogue artificial intelligence, Jane did not know.  These and other myths surrounded Cerberus, impenetrable, outlandish myths that even her informational network could not pierce.  His operatives, Individual Retrieving Information Sector agents, were supposedly linked to him through some sort of neural surgery.  One thing was certain from her field reports: Cerberus had surreptitious control over all telecommunications.  Jane hoped her new satellite would fix that.

     She flipped on the computer screen:

     C: Hello Jane.

     J: Hello Cerberus.

     C: This was unlike you, Jane.  Very showy, very sloppy.  But I must congratulate you on the launch of your leading edge tc satellite.  Good luck with its deployment.

     Damn.  One of his operatives is in my complex.

     J: Your network, as ever, is efficient.

     C: Thank you, Jane.  But you must know that your unprecedented action cannot be tolerated.

     J: I thought you’d like a trend that went toward global unification in which the U.N. would be the only governmental adjudication agency for a world where nationalism is dying.

     There’s a sop for your ambition, you bastard.

     C: An alliance?  I’m afraid not.  You are just a tad ahead of your time, Jane.  My current predictions make your move unfeasible for at least forty years.  You are only creating a backlash that will reinforce the nationalism you oppose so vehemently.  If you could wait . . .

     J: For forty years!  I’ve already crossed my Rubicon, Cerberus.  You’ll just have to hasten your plans.  Toss a new current into pop culture?

     C: You ARE becoming showy.  Such wave making requires meticulous research, and high risk is the poisonous companion of high profile.  You know me better than that.  I suggest that you retract today’s statement.  Claim temporary insanity.  Blame it on that svengali you have running around the American campuses.

     J: So you can grab my organization?  Declare me unfit through some sham U.N. court?  I’d prefer an econ war.

     C: Jane, I don’t have the time to isolate you from your off complex network.  Construction was always your forte.  Your brash move forces me into an odious military position.

     J: The Pentagon?

     C: Good.  You understand my serious intent.  I’m sure your politicos can come up with a face saving retraction.  Pay some penalty.  Donate your frozen assets to some American charity.  It would only be a small setback for you.  An immediate statement on your part is necessary, for if your retraction does not come within twenty-four hours, you will force me to sanction you in order to prevent a nationalistic backlash.  Your venture must appear to be a fluke, NOT an incident.  It grieves me that our interests, so nearly mutual, have crossed paths.  If it’s any consolation, forty years from now you will be remembered as a pioneer.

     J:

     Jane turned off her computer.

     She could feel an anxiety attack coming on.  Of all the damnable, bad luck–stumbling right onto the power wave of another network, only forty years too soon.  Forty years.  Her hair was already grey and brittle.  It would almost be worth losing the complex if she could take down Cerberus.  His network’s ties with governments were too dangerous, too closely resembled a shadow fascist.  She only had twenty-four hours before he moved.  That leeway had been a foolish gift.  It would have to be quick and quiet–an assassination?

     She needed a powerful ally, allies preferably.  Too much of her network had been sunk into this complex.  She began to make calls to the remaining Six:

     Demian laughed and hung up upon hearing her voice.

     Pietr claimed ignorance of any current Cerberus manuevers, which signalled he had already clashed with M.I. Central and had lost.  Jane cursed under her breath.  Pietr’s ninjutsu were supposed to be the best; they were probably a wing of Cerberus’ I.R.I.S. agents now.  Jane nodded slowly.  When networks warred, mercy and treaty had no meaning.  Only the appearance of power was left.  That prevented interference from other networks while the victor assimilated his opponent’s network.

     Mariko didn’t even take her call: the implication being she considered Jane already dead.  Jane slapped the phone on the cradle.

     She fingered the roto-dial, an antique from simpler days.  She had expected those dismal responses.  Each knew that Cerberus was tracking their transmissions and deciphering the encrypted communiques.  In five days those conversations would be a part of Cerb’s datanet.  In five days it wouldn’t matter to her.

     One other she could call.  She hesitated.  Like Cerberus he used a mythological pseudonym: Cuchulain.  Unlike Cerberus he played the low percentages, risking chunks of his network in surprise maneuvers.  The Chilean uprising and the Hong Kong rebellion were just two of his fiascos.  Still, he had economically empowered the Manchurian province when no other of the Six had dreamed of crossing the eternal bamboo curtain.  Jane reached out a finger and pushed the dial.

     The computer screen automatically turned on and pulsed with life.  Cuchulain had accepted her call:

     Cu: Congratulations!  Been watching you and Cerb closely after that independent move.  Wonderful!  Go get that overblown hacker.  He took Pietr without warning after a treaty.  Cerb’s utterly a rogue network.  It’s high time someone with your expertise put him in his place.  My god, Jane, I do believe that you are my sister in all but flesh.  What a feat!

     J: High praise from you, Cuchulain.  You are as over exuberant as ever.

     Cu: Oh, damn it all, Jane.  Don’t try to remake my words.  I meant everything I typed.  Your independent citizen move set you against him; Cerbereus is too closely tied with the Americans.  It’s a piece of good luck for me that you are–were an American.  I’ve been waiting for this for two years.  Pietr capitulated for his life and some shadow power in I.R.I.S., but I know you, Jane.  You’re too proud.  You’ll give Cerberus the good fight.

     J: Cuchulain, there won’t be an econ war in this one.  He wants me to retract or face military action.

     Cu: That rat bastard!  I knew his ties were good in that area, but–Well, we’ll just have to take the little Mengele out.

     J: Little Mengele?

     Cu: Didn’t you know?  He pinched several files from the Chinese five years ago.  All their data on eugenics is his data as well.  I warned them to isolate their computers.  Cerberus wants to manufacture agents from the fetus up.  Cyborgs and open ended androids have proved too obvious or unreliable.  He makes my skin crawl, Jane.  And that’s no easy feat!

     J: Then, you’re with me?

     Cu: I’ll take a personal hand.  I’ve been in the New York area for some time.

     J: You didn’t have to say that.

     Cu: There’s a time for caution, Jane.  This isn’t it.  It’s war, network war.

     J: We’ll have to pool our New York operatives.

     Cu: How many levels do you want to mobilize?

     J: All of them.  Right down to gang war.

     Cu: That’s the spirit, Jane.

     ***

     Turn precisely through traffic.  Shielded windows prevent humans from recognizing you for what you are: substandard, untrustworthy, emotionless, synthetic!  Filthy, little Omega series 364.  Pathetic: A greek letter is your name.  Turn up the juice–getting closer to the mark.  Hate, hate, hate.  They wouldn’t trust you with the nukes; tactical nukes aren’t for androids–synthetic man!

     Not like Andrew Mathias Cambpell.  He has three names.  Three!  And he still wasn’t satisfied!  Cuchulain, what a stupid name.  He took a fourth and didn’t even give one to someone who needed one.  Oh, yes, it’ll be good to sanction thisthisthis man.

     No, no, that would be an improper mission priority.  That would be a directive violation.

     ShutupshutupSHUTUP!  It’s a stupid synthetic voice.  Turn up the juice.  That’s a mission priority, all right.  Hate, hate, hate.  Tulip Lane: Even streets get names.  This is his street.  Children on bikes.  No.  He’s a man, this man.  He lives in this house.  So, no nukes.  Maybe, ram this van through his pristine, manicured, pompous house.

     No, no, that is not within mission parameters.  That would be a methodology violation.

     Good.  That decides it.  More juice.  Hate, hate, hate.  Ram the van.  Push the pedal.

     This body’s been damaged.  What to do?  What to do?  Searchsearchsearch.  Check the damage, you stupid Omega series.  The left optical sensor’s shutdown.  Right leg’s immobilized.  There’s a high temperature variance.  What to do?

     Find an open ended directive.  Ah, found one: Check for fire.  Good idea!

     Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Of course, there’s fire.  Van’s skragged.  High impact explosive shot through engine and detonated.  Rip out the door.  No more juice.  Men?  Foam!  Humans!  Hate—-

     ***

     The Mack tractor trailer roared down Tulip Lane.  Inside the trailer was a plush computer installation, complete with jacuzzi.  A blonde lady quietly typed into a computer with an open mainframe.  Fiber optics spilled out the mainframe like cobwebs clinging to the torn metal body on the floor.

     The red haired man asked, "Can you get anything, Lisa?"

     "I’m trying.  You were right, Andy.  Cerberus is gunning for you.  This android’s definitely I.R.I.S. make.  Are you sure that thing is shut down?  I don’t want my ‘frame wrecked, or my body for that matter."

The Think Tank pt. 3

 John whispered urgently to Ken under his breath.  "Send a worm with trust to him.  Tell him we care."  John ran toward the Ripper and embraced his emaciated meld companion.  "It wasn’t your fault.  Do you understand?  You have a place with us, a place in IRIS."

     John felt the walls in Jack’s mind solidify.  Only the present terror of a death was unwalled as John wanted it to be.

     "Let’s go home." Jack the Ripper whispered.

     Adjacent to the kitchen at IRIS was the living room.  Small and comfortable plush chairs surrounded a TV/stereo system.  The TV was droning on as the four men talked.  Kentaro distracted himself from an episode of The Flying Nun and said, "It’s a wonder they don’t have a bulletin on the death."

     Alex said, "It’ll be on the five o’clock news.  The murder rate in the capitol is apalling, but the manner of the death is new to Washington: Spontaneous combustion is a rarity."

     John said, "Alex, are you starting to use your gift?  I was just going to say that."

     "Yeah.  I figure we’d better not suppress our gifts and come to grips with this new, emotional synthesis.  You were a real bastard for not coming out with the truth sooner.  It’s better to have it out in the open."

     Jack leaned back in a red easy chair.  Alex had bandaged his arm after telekinetically removing the bullet.  Alex had explained their growing emotional and mental dependency on each other.  To John’s surprise, the truth comforted Jack.

     Jack laughed.  There was more of Jack Thurmond and less of Jack the Ripper in his eyes.  He said, "Damn, Alex.  Don’t you know another swear word than bastard?"

     Kentaro smirked, "Don’t ask him to change.  He’s probably been familiar with that word since childhood."  John noticed Alex laughing at the joke.  Everyone knew just how far to push each other: communality.

     A little, manic grin slipped back onto Jack’s face, "I still think there’s some good we could do for the poor.  Get equal rights for the economically disadvantaged, real rights.  A little telepathic enhancement in the courtroom maybe?"

     Kentaro crowed with delight.  "You want me to worm a judge?"

     Everybody started at that notion.  John shook his head and covered his eyes.  "I know there is a moral problem with that somewhere, but right now, I think it’s too hilarious an idea not to try."

     The laughing halted and everybody followed Jack’s eyes to the opening fire door to the living room.  A tall, young woman with sandy brown hair that had been cut short for easy nursing care stood at the doorway in a blue hospital gown.  It was Eileen.  Everyone was grinning stupidly back at her.  Tears were falling from every face.  It wasn’t until now that John remembered Eileen’s gift.  She was the projecting and sending empath in the group.  Her accepting presence eased the floodgates on the walls that John had been forced to erect.  She was part of the glue that held them together just as he was the stopgap manager for her.  The men got out of the chairs, and each hugged Eileen once in succession.

     They sat in the living room silently enjoying each other’s presence until the door bell rang.  Everyone swore at the interruption.  Eileen asked, "Did one of you bastards order a pizza?  If so, good.  I’m starving."

     Alex said, "Hah.  Another erudite person.  I’ll get it."

     Alex opened the door.  It was a clean shaven, young delivery boy hefting a large box.  Alex called back, "Sorry, Eileen.  It’s too big to be a pizza."

     The boy studied him.  "This is for a Dr. Peters."       "That’s me.  I’ll take it."  Alex took the box.  The cardboard box was heavy, so he gave it a little telekinetic lift while keeping his hands on it so that the boy would not wonder.

     The boy slid a clip board on top of the box.  "I need you to sign this, sir."  It wasn’t a form, only a blank piece of paper.

     Alex heard Eileen scream, "No!"

     The boy withdrew a snub nosed .38 and aimed it at Alex.  The cock went back on the gun and the chamber rotated.

     Lowering his gun, the boy smiled a Kentaro smile and Alex sighed with relief.  The boy spoke in a lower register.  "This was almost the last person you would have had a chance to bastardize.  What do you want me to do with him, Alex?  It’s your decision.  He tried to kill you."  A look of surprise crossed the boy’s face as he said, "He’s NSC.  Cassavettes is dead and this kid is twenty‑five years old.  Wo, that’s one lean, mean organization."

     Alex said, "Have him give me the gun and put him on a plane going outside the continental US."

     The boy grinned maliciously and said in Kentaro’s voice, "Sure."  He handed the gun to Alex.

     Alex handed him the box and said, "Have him take this with him."

     The agent walked to the end of the street and put the box in the back of a green pick up truck.  Then, the box exploded.

     Worm screamed in shock and feinted.

     Kentaro awoke to a cool sensation on his forehead.  He murmured, "It always fazes me when they die when I’m in them."

     Eileen was comforting him with a wet towel, massaged across his forehead.  She wore a bright red collared shirt and white slacks.  Kentaro liked her look with make up.  She had a nice, light touch.  An easy smile appeared on Kentaro’s face.  Eileen said, "It must faze you.  You’ve been out for six days."

     Kentaro realized he was moving.  "Where are we?"

     "John bought an Air streamer."

     "Huh?"

     Eileen smiled.  Kentaro leaned back in her lap.  Eileen said, "Think of it as a big, silver, rolling think tank."

     Kentaro heard a door shut.  He saw Alex with his head bent under the low, metallic roof as he walked the thin corridor toward him.  "At last, you’re awake," Alex smiled ruefully, "I need someone I can beat in cribbage.  Eileen’s been pounding me since we got to Ireland."

     Kentaro tried to sit up and grabbed an aching head.  "Ireland?"

     Eileen helped him to a sitting position as Alex brought down a table panel and a short pole.  Alex put the pole in an indention at the center of the floor and fitted the table on top of the pole.  Kentaro moved a curtain and saw the trees moving by them.  He heard the flip of cards shuffling and looked back at Eileen.  She smiled and Kentaro knew she was calming him to accept the new situation.  He sent a telepathic worm to let her know he didn’t mind her empathic ministrations.

     Eileen smiled and said, "We’re in Northern Ireland.  John and Jack seem to think that we can be of some help here."  Dealing three hands of cards, she said, "Alex, it’s just as easy for three to play cribbage."

     "Ok, but off with the cheaters."  Alex shouted to the front cabin, where John and Jack were singing off key to disco music on the radio, "John!"  Picking up the cards, each felt the privacy of their hands secure as they pokerfaced each other.

 

The Think Tank pt. 2

     Cassavettes had his hand on the final fire door that led outside the compound.  He opened the door, and with one leg already outside, he turned to look at Moessner.  "You know, even after I felt that whispery mental voice of yours in my head, I still really didn’t believe.  I thought you did it with computers, some sort of computer gestalt.  That was how I thought you got the information on Liberia, but that’s not how it was, was it?"

     Lying would get him nowhere.  Moessner said, "You’re right, Mike.  You should know a cover up when you see one.  There was never any remote control computer projecting from Liberia.  I wanted to break you into this as gently as possible."

     "Yeah, I guess I did know.  Those animals weren’t for brain samples.  They were test subjects."

     Moessner nodded.  "They all had to be destroyed.  There’s just no way we could have restrained a pyrokinetic chimpanzee."  Moessner tried a weak laugh.

     "Jesus," Mike Cassavettes breathed and shut the door.

     John Moessner retreated to his private quarters.  Numerous books of philosophy and psychology filled the shelves on his walls.  He had never owned a personal computer.  Moessner wondered when Cassavettes would figure out the discrepancy in his background and his invention of the shields.  The others would never guess, he had made sure of that.  But, Mike Cassavettes didn’t visit that often.  He heard his toilet flush.

     Betsie shambled out of the privy with a screech of delight at seeing John.  The chimp had been terribly lonely after being the only animal left that had not suicided or had to be destroyed.  Betsie jumped into his arms, and John suffered it and projected love.  He knew that the chimp’s arms were powerful enough to cave in his face if she wanted to hurt him, but the chimp only sent a whispery wave of contentment into his mind.

     Moessner grimaced and Betsy immediately shielded her emotions.  John laughed and sent her the image of an apple.  Betsy scrambled into the kitchen and brought him an apple.

     Moessner smiled.  "No, it’s not for me.  It’s for you."  Betsy bit into the red delicious and snaked one arm around John’s leg.  He playfully dragged her to the bathroom.  "Well, girl, let’s see if I need a shave today."

     He leaned his hands onto the edge of the basin.  They slid slightly in soap scum before he caught a grip.  He rubbed his chin feeling no evidence of bristle and whispered, "Third day without a shave.  Socrates and Freud were such bastards."  His fist lunged out and slammed into the mirror.  Betsy ran off, squealing.  John cursed the broken image in the mirror, "Damn shields all to hell."  He leaned over the basin breathing heavily.  Blood ran from his right hand.  Nausea swept over him.  He tapped into his gift and regained his composure.

     Pulling at the frame of the broken mirror, the door swung to his right revealing the medicine chest.  Removing some hydrogen peroxide and gauze, he set to bandaging himself and swallowed two aspirin without water.  It was the only drug he would allow himself, although he had access to the resources of a pharmacy.

     He stretched once, slipped his head phones over his ears, and fell into bed.  Two hours later, he would fall asleep.

     The tape droned on repeating itself:  "Walls–obdurate–intractable–adamant–control–possession–walls  . . ."

     John Moessner tossed the linen sheet he had pulled over himself during his sleep.  He awoke refreshed.  Setting his headphones on top of his nightstand, he walked over to the bathroom stretching his legs.  After splashing water on his smooth face, John eased himself into the warm bath that Betsy had prepared for him.  The chimp was nowhere in sight.  John thought that she was still put off from his earlier tantrum.

Steamy shards of mirrors decorated the bathroom’s basin.  John soaped himself and meditated on his hindic third eye.  He examined his thoughts.  Well ordered, he examined his fears and the causes for them and then walled off the fears with his gift.  Calmer still, he was mildly surprised to find himself out of the bath and half dressed.  He walled off that slight anxiety immediately and went down to breakfast.  He had overslept.

     The breakfast was the one communal part of the day.  Dr. Peters had observed that everyone was least active just after waking.  Pushing open the last fire door to the breakfast nook, Moessner heard Jack arguing politics with Alex.  John entered shaking his head and smiling.  "Still working that old saw?  Good morning, gentleman."

     Kentaro handed him a white, ceramic cup scrawled with a mindless witticism and a small fracture line running down the side.  John took a sip and grimaced, "A bit strong."

     "You can’t simplify every human deviant act down to economics."  Dr. Peters shoveled another forkload of runny eggs into his mouth.

     Jack snarled and the doctor’s eggs firmed on their plate.  "Look around yourself.  This country is dying. Violent acts are directly correlated to inner city poverty."

     John laid his hands on Jack’s shoulders.  "I think the good Doctor Alex is trying to say that deviant acts are not necessarily violent, such as our lifestyle."

     Kentaro chuckled and poured whiskey into his coffee.  "That, at least, is certain."

     Jack slammed his slender fist into the table.  "You argue technicalities."  He left the table and shrugged off John’s hands.  "We can make the difference."  Jack shoved himself past John and stormed out the kitchen.

     As John turned toward the door, he was cut off by Kentaro’s red silk sleeve.  "No.  Let him go.  You’re only making him more childish than he already is."

     Alex scoffed, "It isn’t his childishness that worries me."

     John took Jack’s still warm chair.  He rubbed his fingers through his damp hair and resigned himself to Jack’s ways while studying his coffee.

     Alex pushed away his plate and wiped his hands on a paper towel.  He straightened his tie.  Dr. Alexander Peters always came to breakfast in suit and tie, although none of them had anywhere else to go.  Alex said, "He’s becoming more and more unreasonable.  I think his psychoactive talent is still destabilizing his personality."

     Leaning on the hard formica counter, Kentaro replied, "That’s happening to all of us."

     Alex replied, "Not me.  I shield myself.  I don’t rely on John’s neural circuitry."

     Kentaro laughed.  "You’re not fooling me.  You can lie to yourself, but I’m as telepathic as you, in my way.  Those aren’t shields.  That’s fear in your gut that’s blocking your telepathy: stark terror of devolving into someone like Jack."  Kentaro paused for breath, and his mouth gaped slack from a sudden insight.  "You’re not afraid of becoming like Jack.  You’re afraid of becoming like Eileen.  You think we’re all going to disintegrate into catatonia."

     "So?  You want to end as a mule?"

     Kentaro crowed in triumph.  "You admit you don’t have shields.  You’re just plain afraid."

     John grabbed Alex’s wrists painfully hard.  "Don’t call Eileen that.  Ever again."

     "Let go."  Alex hissed, "I don’t like to be touched."

     Startled, John immediately released his arm and sat back.  Twice within twelve hours, he had lost his temper.  "Sorry.  I’m sorry."

     "Wait a minute," Kentaro urged, "Alex, get a fix on Jack."

     "You do it.  You know I don’t—-"

     Kentaro said, "You don’t understand.  I can’t get a fix on him.  Even with shields up, I should be able to fix him.  Do it."  Kentaro didn’t bother to ask John.  Everyone considered him to be a very limited telepath.

     "Alright," Alex said nervously.  He breathed deeply and closed his eyes.

     Kentaro sipped his coffee.  "You gonna start to chant or something?  Just get a fix on him.  Stop dramatizing everything."

     "Ease off, Ken." John ordered.  "This is an Individual Retrieving Information Sect.  Let Alex get a fix his way."

     "Oh, no."  Alex breathed.  "He’s left the compound.  He’s in a car heading for Washington,  He’s–Uhn.  Bastard sent me a headache."

     "Here, let me."  John touched Alex and the psychiatrist’s tense demeanor fled.

     Ken gulped down the rest of his coffee and added some straight whiskey into his mug.  "What are we going to do?  We can’t leave the shielding of the compound or we’ll start to burn up like him."

     Alex mourned, "We’re only delaying the inevitable."

     Ken swallowed hard.  "Maybe you and I could worm him back."

     John dismissed the idea.  "Not Jack.  Ken, he’d catch you infiltrating his psyche, and then you’d be fighting on his turf.  We’re not talking about a gift blind target.  Who knows what would happen if he won?"

     Ken shuddered and raised the mug to his lips.  Goose bumps appeared on his flesh.  "I could be trapped.  No way am I going into that mess.  I’m staying in my body as far as Jack the Ripper’s concerned."

     John nodded.  "There is something that I must tell you.  The neural circuitry has never really worked."

     "What?"  Both exclaimed in unison.

     The phone rang.  John got up to take it.  He wanted to give Ken and Alex time to assimilate the truth that he had kept from them.

     White noise clouded the phone line.  Moessner pressed the grimy phone against his ear and listened: "It’s Cassavettes.  I’ve considered what you said, and I think I can get NSC to back you.  I’ll be sending a file on someone we want X’d.  You succeed and I can guarantee your protection."  Click.

     X’d?  What was that supposed to mean?  John hung up the phone and saw Alex staring into him.  "It means that the bastard wants us to kill someone."

     John replied, "Mmm, we’ll have to worry about that later.  Jack’s our priority."

     "The shields are our priority, John."  Alex stood and grabbed John by the shoulders.  He felt Alex’s telepathic presence as a pressure on his forehead.

     "Stop." John ordered.

 Alex shouted, "No!  You’ve been lying, lying all the time.  You’re supposed to be the weakest of us, but I’ve never gotten anything from your mind that you didn’t send me."  Sweat glistened on the psychiatrist’s face.  Kentaro backed to the edge of the countertop and sipped at his mug.  Alex shouted, "You liar!  You don’t know a thing about computers.  You’ve been manipulating us."

     John pushed Alex back against the table.  Alex held his head and panted.

     Kentaro drained his mug and dashed it against the far wall.  He was laughing.  "All this time, I’d never even guessed.  I never even asked why you were the leader of this think tank.  Your gift made us assume you were the leader.  It’s amazing, John, how your telepathy works on such an unconscious level.  And these shields—-"  Compelled by Kentaro’s gift, the screws from the panel of the indicator lights in the kitchen unwound themselves from their socket and fell to the floor.  The panel slipped out and floated to his hands.  "Two D batteries and a Popeye nightlight.  Some shields."

     Kentaro dropped the panel.  It fell to the floor.  The indicator light cracked.  Ken said, "So, what’s keeping our gifts in check?  We were becoming mules until you showed up with these ‘shields.’"

     "I am."  John rubbed his chin.  "That’s my gift.  I work not as a telepath, but as a barrier, a systems failsafe.  Our neurological computer experiments brought out a hidden evolutionary capability of the brain that mankind has shut out, refused to accept.  There was never anything from the neural circuitry or the computers.  The gift has always resided in us."

     Alex said, "John, if this is some natural part of humanity, why is it driving us insane?"

     "Because its not a natural part of our humanity as it is today.  This was some ability that man discarded to begin the great technological civilizations. Some sort of jungian unconscious based ability, brought accidently to the fore by our neurological and psychological R&D."

     Ken and Alex watched as their leader became more and more excited.  They had never seen John so intense.  Moessner lowered his voice, subdued by his excitement, as he said, "Before man used tools, but after he came down from the trees was man’s greatest time of mysticism.  He knew no scientific world and lacked the tools to defend himself.  For God’s sake, he didn’t, that primitive man, even have fire!  How did he defend himself?  By banding in a tight social and psychological grouping that caused something like our gestalt.  He remained this way until he began to manipulate his outer environment.  Then, individual egocentricity emerged to break the gestalt.  We’ve thrust ourselves into that hivemind and retained our individuality.  The two forces are grating inside each of us.  Eileen could not stop herself from facing the opposing forces.  When she could not resolve the situation, she retreated into catatonia."

     Alex smirked and said, "You haven’t deluded yourself that you’re still in front of that Senate committee, have you?  You can’t have a shred of evidence to back that outlandish theory."

     Kentaro said, "Wait a sec, Alex.  I don’t know about John’s background theory, but there is some kind of communality evolving within this think tank.  Why should any of us have cared what happens to Jack?  If he were anyone else as obnoxious, I would’ve quit or had him quit this project.  Yet, now that he’s left, we’re all anxious to run out and bring him back.  If there is some sort of communal unconsciousness, the loss of one of its parts could cripple the whole, could cripple us."

     John left the kitchen and said, "We’ll take my car.  I think Ken’s right.  Jack will be splintering faster than any of us.  It’s obvious that in this hive persona he retains most of the id.  Separated from us, he’ll start to splinter faster than we will.  The walls I’ve erected in his mind should take less than a day to be overwhelmed, and there’ll be psyche holes riddled in the walls that are growing even as we speak."

     They climbed into John’s old, black Ford Taurus, and John levered the transmission into reverse.  After he was out of the drive way, he finally remembered to release the emergency break.  The tires squealed as he rushed into mainstream traffic.  In the passenger seat, Kentaro quickly locked his seat belt.  "Slow down, John.  We won’t help Jack if you kill us in a wreck before we even get to him."

     John bobbed his head in agreement and eased off  the accelerator.  He glanced at Kentaro.  "Do you realize that you’re still wearing pajamas?"

     Kentaro looked at himself as if for the first time in his life.  He laughed nervously.

     In the backseat, Alex said, "It’s not funny.  Kentaro’s lack of dress shows our increasing separation from society.  None of us noticed Kentaro’s pajamas till after we were in traffic and surrounded by other people."

     Kentaro tightened his silk robe.  "End the psychiatrics, will you?  They’re getting on my nerves."

     Alex whispered from the backseat, "Now, who’s afraid of becoming wholly destabilized?"

     John came to a stop sign with a jarring halt.  "I agree with Ken.  End the diagnoses.  It’s only adding to our mutual anxiety.  I don’t want to get in an increasing circle of anxiety with you guys.  I’ve already had to wall you from your fears of leaving the compound."

     "What’s to fear?  We know it’s you and not the compound that shields us."  Kentaro turned on the radio and busied himself looking for a local news station.

     John replied as he was maneuvering his car onto the beltway, "You’re thinking rationally.  Your brain doesn’t work that way.  You know I’m the one who shields, but you’re used to the compound being the source of security.  Jack’s leaving the compound was a bad sign.  He’s trying, as Eileen had tried, to reject the gestalt and reassert his complete autonomy.  He’ll fail, and we’ll be that much more divided.  I can’t partition him off from your minds as I do with Eileen.  There’s too much strain as it is."

     Alex leaned forward from the back seat and poked his head between Kentaro and John, "Just how much, Doppler, have you been passing through our minds, leaving behind these psychic walls?"

     John gripped the steering wheel.  His knuckles whitened.  "Too much.  I didn’t want to burden you with what we were becoming too soon for fear the knowledge would shock you into trying what Jack’s doing now."

     Kentaro tuned in a news station and turned the volume knob down to a whisper in the car.  "Great.  Just what I needed: a second family that’s bound to become closer than my first.  I’m going to try and get a fix on Jack.  Let’s put baby brother back in his crib."  Kentaro began looking around with glassy eyes from whiskey and exertion.  "He’s hiding from me.  Alex, help me with him."

     "There he is."  Alex squeezed his eyes shut as he allowed his mind to roam for Jack’s angry persona.  Alex said, "Predictable.  He’s heading toward the crack house that burned down in Anacostia."

     "I’ll send out a worm."

     Changing lanes to position himself for the exit ramp, John said, "Careful."

     Kentaro gave him the thumb’s up.  "Already done."  His voice took on a hollow sound with Jack’s intonation.  "He’s in a violent mood.  Wants to change the world.  Pretty megalomaniacal stuff boiling in that cauldron of his.  I think he’s going to burn another house.  Thinking of us.  He hates us.  Identifies us with his paralysis."  Kentaro’s voice became his again.  "Uh-oh.  He’s found me.  I’m pulling out."

     John looked across at Kentaro.  His face was twisted, and his eyes burned with anger.  John reached out and clasped Ken’s shoulder while keeping an eye on the road.  Sweat ran down John’s face.

     Kentaro relaxed and took a flask out of his robe.  He sipped.  "Sorry.  Caught a lot a rage when he found me.  We’re in for a fight to get him back to the compound."

     John double parked the car.  "No.  You’re still thinking the old way.  We don’t need to get him to the compound.  We just need to get together.  He needs to accept us as a part of him.  He’ll accept shielding then."

     Alex disagreed, "Not if Ripper’s thinking the old way.  He doesn’t know the truth about your phony shields, and the longer he’s separated from us, the more his id will rage.  Soon, his gifts will consume him."

     Ken cursed, "Before that, the bastard’ll probably take out half the city."

     Getting out of the car, John slammed the door with a vengeance.  Three times, he had lost his temper.  Jack’s obstinacy was affecting his walls.  John said, "You’re both right.  I think the unnatural opposition of our egos against the group mentality is temporarily increasing our gifts.  The flight or fight syndrome isn’t going to help us."

     John, Ken, and Alex grabbed their left shoulders as a burning sensation assaulted them, and they gasped in pain.  Heat waves blurred their vision.  John ordered, "Alex, you’ve got the longest legs.  Run to a phone and call 911.  Get a rescue squad and a fire truck.  Then, catch up with us."

     Ken ran alongside John.  "Jack’s been shot.  We felt it, so he hasn’t separated from us entirely."

     John replied, "He won’t be entirely separated until he or we die."

     They turned a corner onto a new street and saw Jack standing over a burning lump.  The acrid smoke from the lump went into the nostrils and settled onto the tongue.  It left no doubt what the Ripper had done.  John walled himself from his stomach’s nausea.  Jack was holding a bloody hand over his left shoulder and trembling.  The street was deserted.  Jack turned and faced them.  He was crying.  "I killed him.  I had to.  I killed him.  I had to."