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."