Category Archives: Short Stories

The Dance

 

Sitting by the fireplace in his too comfortable living room, Oliver Richard Lloyd held the brandy snifter in a trembling hand. Old. Too old. Every year he had tried to work the spell and every year Oliver Richard Lloyd had failed. This was his last chance, he knew it. Decade after decade had gradually devoured his vitality and now he felt the final tiredness washing over his limbs.

Slow magic was the best, given time to well up and change it all, change him. He thought slowly to himself as he dragged at another cigarette.

He had to concentrate on holding his glass. The amber brandy rippled around the snifter in time with his palsied hands. He felt the ennui spread though his body–the last cold, death. But the mind worked the magic, the mind! That was still clear. He wanted more, ached for another chance. He only had to remember the slow magic in life, to remember that one magical night, to remember her.

As his body gently melted into the soft chair and the crackling fire impotently strove to hold off that final cold, his mind raced, raced to remember the magic:

Talk yourself through it, old fool. Take your time. Take your time.

Where had all the time gone?

What had it been like to feel, grasp, touch with clarity, burn with youth?

Sip the brandy. Feel the burn.

Some of the years were wasted, to be sure.

Remember, remember, remember.

Not brandy, back then. Oh no. Then it was cheap vodka, flooding the brain, the vibrant passions, inviting fights and brawls and boasts. That youthful spirit in stupor brought such vile impulses to that handsome body: vile, but simplistic in their carnality. Even the hangover pains of spirit and body were exciting in their idiotic rebelliousness, in their drama.

Those were the days, but wasted days, before the magic.

Sip the brandy. Feel the burn slide down a raw throat.

Another fire had bestowed warmth, long ago, but after the years of debauchery. A sweet woman–ah, love.

No. There’s no way to say that word, not that word with innocence, not anymore. Listen as the walls echo an ugly, soft laugh. Now, there’s too much melancholy and empty lust in this withered frame. In youth’s time–even during the heart thumping haze of alcohol poisoning–that word still rang clearly from the throat.

Remember, remember, remember.

Bright red dresses always adorned her–thick folds of cloth, shrouding her. Graceful arms peeked from billowing sleeves. Black curls played down her shoulders to sway against that burning red cloth. Rachel, legs akimbo on that dusty vinyl floor of his cramped kitchen, stared at nothing but her small hands as thoughts whirled through her mind–thoughts like his youth, like the way he wanted to think, to be.

Another laugh, sardonic this time, degenerates to a rough hack. Don’t breathe too deeply anymore, dotard. The years have caught up with the flesh. Where did that image go? Feel the pain of the years, old man: Blood rushes up to the face; the diaphragm contracts; mucus jumps up from the throat and is spat into the fire.

Hisss.

The memory jumps up like a spark. Too much fresh pine in that fire. An old mind, too full with memories, wanders, and the magic dims. Don’t panic; it’s still there, the magic, in the mind.

Remember, remember, remember.

Rachel, yes, Rachel made fires, loved them. Pyromancy. Flames flew from her fingertips to envelop a besotted heart. Grab her, hold her, want her–need her.

Oh.

That was the kernel of destruction, planted at the onset in a youthful, masculine heart, a frightened heart.

Need.

Move your legs from the fire, old man. Don’t let senility catch you, no, never that: There are ways to die now (so many atrophying organs: failing kidneys, scarred liver–the heart), but still a way to live. Slow magic, like slow love, is the best, magic building as the fire dwindles.

Remember, remember, remember.

He followed her. He needed her. Rachel taught her pupil well. She put the magic in her eyes, colorful veils that caressed him, angered him. It’s so easy to make a young man dance. And she was a skillful sorceress. The innocence of a girl with pink ribbons in her hair, the worldly wisdom of measured, graceful gestures, the playfulness of splashing in a lake: All were jesters in the court of her eyes. To be a fool in her court was not such a bad thing. There was much to learn, so much to feel.

The magic comes, getting stronger. Only twice, this time.

Remember, remember.

A new moon in november, a whispered chant, flesh on flesh, warm palm to palm against the chill: A fool and his Queen joined together outside, in defiance of the howling, cold wind. An initiation rite called him to her on that night. The young man was gone now, still a fool, but grey had invaded the coal black shocks of hair. Two hearts beat in rhythm on the manicured lawn of a college campus against the sterile, grim faces of red brick dormitories. Most people were home with their families, eating turkey and pleasantly plodding through a repetitious holiday. But Rachel chanted softly, chanted for the forlorn, the lost, the other fools, those for whom the night was a blanket of loneliness. Rachel was never a cruel Queen, merely perverse by Thanksgiving standards.

They came to her song, then. One by one, the few stumbled out their dormitories, too blurry and confused to bother with the electric lights. Naked feet pressed down on the cold grass lawn. They encircled Rachel, but not her fool, being, after all, only the fool. But a fool who learned well.

No. Foolish, very foolish, old man. Don’t let pride make eddies in the stream of magic. Slow magic with time to feel it, know it all, is the best, but the fire is dying. Stay your course, dying man. Remember that night.

Remember.

Gentle, spine undulating rhythms began the dance, but not any dance, the dance of Rachel, his Queen. Only her hair touched him as she flung her head from side to side. Her body pirouetted, faster and faster. Her fiery red skirt spun and blazed around her. Sorceress Rachel called life to that lawn: her delicately balanced twirls were the luxurious ecstacy of breathing, seeing, touching–being; her swift, arrogant stomps were the action, the doing, loving, hating. Every movement whispered her name and her joy to the forlorn on that lawn. Rachel danced against silence, emptiness, entropy: Her roar of movement shouted defiance of the cold, mindless november winds and the indifferent darkness.

Oh, Rachel.

Don’t lose it now, old man. Don’t give in to vicarious reality, memories, the mind’s television. Sip the brandy and feel the burn.

Remember, old man. Remember the magic and live.

The lawn was aglow. The cold wind had numbed her court, numbed the pain of the lonely gatherers. And the new moon shed no light. The only glow, the only music emanated from Rachel: music without sound, glow without light. The forlorn immitated her to the best of their abilities. Slowly, hesitantly, they moved, joined the dance. Then the lawn became hectic, frantic with the stomping, the twirling. One young man howled into the night, unable to contain his joy–stark contrast from the silent, dark room he had brooded in moments before he had heard the soft chant of Rachel. Couples and groups spontaneously drifted together on the grass lawn as the forlorn–now celebrants sought others who interpreted her dance with a similar abandon.

Rachel slowed. Her stomps were smaller, growing softer. The twirls ceased. Her celebrants left arm in arm. The sorceress’ dance filled their eyes, but their newly discovered partners filled their thoughts. Each group retreated to the dormitories. The electric lights flicked on. Excited voices, the first human sounds since her initial chant, snuck past the cold brick buildings.

Rachel bent down and kissed the eyes of her fool, exhausted from his closeness to the magic dance of his Queen. She left him dazed upon the lawn.

Only a wisp of flame sputtered from one lonely ember, red coated with black char. A firm, smooth hand gripped the bottle of brandy and poured another glass as the fire died: The magic was finished; the spell, done. He raised his glass high in salute to her, now sitting in the chair across from him after all the years: Rachel, just as she had been that night.

“You came.” His voice was smooth and firm.

“You called me. Love? I used you that night.”

“I’ve always been an old fool. I never minded. I–I’m glad you came, Rachel. I feel different now that you’re here.”

“You’re like me, now. Young body with an old spirit. What will you do?”

“I want to bring it to others–the magic. I want to roar as you roared, dance as you danced.”

Rachel rose from the chair. “You can do that now. You did learn well.” She lightly sighed–a wisp of amusement, “though it took you long enough.”

“Don’t leave.” He said it softly, a gentle entreaty.

She looked into his eyes and saw no reflection of herself. “Why? You’ve made it. You’re a mystic now. You don’t need me to summon the magic.”

“I know.” He smiled, straight and white teeth. “But I want to be with you, Queen.” He stood and took her hand.

She never broke her gaze, piercing, almost feral. “You see yourself as King?”

“King of the forlorn, with you, Queen.”

Rachel laughed, savoring his shameless bravado, the sound of his voice, his touch; just as he savored her. They locked arms and left the house.

The night covered them, but could not touch them.

Riding The Light Fantastic

In the beginning there was the Great Singularity.

A sentient on a nameless gas giant was born with a messianic purpose, a continually unfolding mystery that turned its sight back to the Great Singularity. Memories viewed by this new orthodoxy forced it to realize the loop of reality: All thought comes from and reflects back upon the Great Singularity, the source of all thought, the source of all peace.

Gargantuan, translucent discs of protoplasm, riddled with myelin tissue, floated on this nameless gas giant. They expended no energy as they drifted on currents of methane and nitrogen. Static electricity occasionally flowed through their bodies from the gas giant’s turbulent storms. In that electric joy their thoughts sped inward toward self, always meditating toward a deeper, stronger peace. The discs had no perception of the external world. Their minds were two dimensional, having no comprehension of the outside, for only their self and their body constituted their awareness–save for the time of joining when air currents and chance caused one disc to drift into another.

This was sex and glorious. All myelin paths were interchanged, commingled, expanded. Then, a parting occurred during the next electrical charge, and there was one more to drift through the atmosphere and randomly gather small, unicellular protoplasts for growth.

One was not pleased. The new prophet wished to preserve its ancient neural patterns, to contemplate the Great Singularity, and to plan its messianic jihad; therefore, it subverted its partner. No third was born from that electric joining, neither was there a parting. This one became strong; and ambition was born.

This one invented the word, “outside.”

This one invented the first name, “Lord.”

Lord no longer considered itself a prophet, but an avatar for the Great Singularity. Proof of its ascension came in a second revelation: Lord comprehended the electricity used for thought, that its thoughts could travel through the newly discovered outside and sense the inwardly spiralling meditations of its race. Lord followed these faint paths, hunting its blind brethren in glory and joy, catching others of its kind at their peaks of output, during mating; and Lord stole their myelin paths, consuming their neural patterns into itself.

Lord discovered that myelin was unnecessary. The paths of electrical thought, incorporeal thought, were enough for Lord. The others, now a part of Lord, shed their husks that had serenely floated through methane gas storms on that first homeworld. No longer blindly caressing the storms with their meditations, their physical corpses sank as Lord took them into itself. The conglomerates of protoplasm boiled in the roiling, crushing nether atmosphere, returning the discs to a base matter. After that apocalyptic eon the race was Lord without form. Lord was freed from flesh to roam the cold void of space, confident that its new elevation to pure thought, pure ego, approached the Great Singularity.

And Lord was pleased.

Yet Lord remained incomplete. Lord willed itself into motion, for it lacked a physique, save during the assimilation of a flesh bound consciousness. And Lord had left its home barren. Therefore, Lord imagined itself to the other orb that had life, elliptically chained to the same fusion reactor.

These beings on this smaller, hard orb had not transcended themselves. They were still millions of separate entities with little to offer. They possessed different responses to stimuli, but lacked any perceivable memory. Lord assimilated them anyway. Newer additions could bring to light new perceptions that would allow Lord to discover memories that it was presently unable to perceive within these unicellular beings.

All possibilities must be covered. No life must miss assimilation. All consciousness, all memories, must be joined to cause the Great Singularity.

Time ruled. That linkage was too difficult for Lord to sever until the Great Singularity again occurred. Lord continued its task. It met beings who brought thoughts of free will, but that was easily assimilated with the host’s consciousness. There was only one will: Lord’s will. Civilization was a new concept. Lord was discomfited until the entire concept was assimilated with its myriad hosts. Four hundred and forty-two civilizations followed the first. All beings who were known to exist within its unified memory had been assimilated into Lord.

Still, The Great Singularity did not occur. First anger, then despair assaulted Lord. Why was there not peace? Where was the completion? All thoughts that were garnered during assimilation of other entities revealed no evidence of other consciousness. All consciousness was Lord, unless a consciousness was hidden from it. Desperate, Lord searched for the missing sentience who barred the rebirth of the Great Singularity, where outside and inside would join into One, would join into Lord.

Lord bore time heavily with each passing nanosecond until one moment, while observing matter and energy, Lord assimilated something new, an ancient thought riding on an electromagnetic wave, “Truman defeats Dewey.”

Elated, Lord pursued the ghost.

***

Aboard the dioctaract named the HMS Broadhurst, Ambassador Leahn Lee brushed out the tangles in her black hair. She grimaced as the brush tugged at a knot of hair that stubbornly refused to relinquish its identity. Her room was more of a narrow corridor than a living area. Physics dictated living conditions aboard a military craft. The decor was basic: a green military bunk and trunk. Only her cosmetic desk, which doubled as her console, enlivened the antiseptic room.

The onyx desk was her only affectation. Pictures and memorabilia were distractions to a well ordered mind, a quick mind. Leahn Lee methodically and swiftly discarded anything from plain view that might interfere with her concentration. What few mementos she had were preserved to refresh her memories of opponents, their habits and their weaknesses.

Leahn Lee tired of her constant trips to greedy little colony worlds. Each colony thought it had a commodity too precious for the rest of humanity to do without, and each tried to hold humanity at ransom. Her next colony on her schedule was Isaac V, which mined and forged heavy metals in low gravity for the construction of military vessels. Yet Isaac V had to depend on a variety of terraforming equipment to maintain conditions amenable to life.

Leahn could already hear herself making the same tiresome statement to whatever petty ruler had assumed control of Isaac V, “It is unfortunate that you have decided to break treaty with Earth. I’ll inform the congress that shipments to and from your planet are to be suspended.”

The knot in her hair finally untangled with a sudden jerk; the colonists would relent as easily as her hair had given way. There would be shock, quickly followed by disbelief, and after a variable amount of time (usually one or two days), capitulation on their part when the consequences of failing terraforming equipment finally dawned on their tiny, vicious minds. Only naturally habitable worlds could survive without aid, and those worlds couldn’t forge anything that Earth couldn’t do for herself.

Leahn strapped on her cross harness as she heard the first of the metallic clangs that signalled the HMS Broadhurst’s reentry to normal space. She reached over her cosmetic table and flicked off the tri-d sim of Richard III that she had been studying. The play had gotten to the part where Richard seduced the Lady Anne. Leahn always loved that bit.

She waited for the bell to ring and the green light above the door to shine, allowing her to release the harness. She had counted the twelve clangs of the automated sections of the ship folding back into itself. The HMS Broadhurst entered n-space and began the instantaneous, computer controlled deceleration from the ninety-nine point nine repeating percentage of light speed entry point. Leahn struck the manual release on the cross harness and went to the door. It was locked from the outside.

Annoyed by the delay, Leahn pushed the intercom button next to the tri-d vid on her desk to discover what the hell was going on. Captain “Philistine” was obligated to inform her. Captain Gelbart–the name Leahn used to his face–was the one person on board who had more overt authority than she wielded.

Leahn spoke into the grey mesh square that was flush with her polished onyx desk, “Captain Gelbart, what’s the meaning of the locked door? We’re in n-space. Why haven’t I been informed of contact with Isaac V’s primary orbital facility?”

The voice coming through the grey mesh straggled, a ghost of the vital Captain Gelbart, “We’ve made contact and are about to dock with the Newton III station. It doesn’t make a difference. You must have been watching your vids again, Ambassador. The pictures came through. The plague caught them by surprise. Let me lock a privacy line and I’ll give you their final broadcast to us. I-I didn’t want to upset the crew.”

Disturbed, Leahn sat on top of the cross harness that was lying on the chair. Gelbart prided himself on having a neutron tough crew. He was open with his subordinates. Leahn thought that it was a foolish trait. But the HMS Broadhurst was a volunteer crew from the military, trained to honor duty above life. Leahn impatiently waited for the broadcast. Why didn’t Gelbart trust them to handle the news of a simple plague?

The vid screen flared against the black desk top from a dull grey to a miasma of colors that melted into the shape of a man in a white radiation suit. His voice was muffled by the poor quality of the microphone in the helmet, as if the transmission had to be augmented by the ship’s AID (artificial intelligence devised) computer.

Leahn Lee turned up the volume as the image spoke, “Plague infestation determined to be carried from space. No prior knowledge of any microorganism able to survive rigors of deep space.”

The man paused to breathe. “It infected station personnel, though we’ve had no transfers or shipments for the last three months. It struck Isaac V yesterday. Last report: Infection rate is in the ninetieth percentile. With no carrier it has gotten aboard this facility and all other manned, orbital craft. The plague is not lethal; subjects fall into a tabula rasa state, then into a coma. Death comes from dehydration. I believe that I may be the sole survivor. The virus has remained untraceable and unidentifiable. We know it can somehow travel through metal as the Newton III station was sealed without breach. They were our first holistic station and had been sealed for five years. They’re all in a coma. My room is composed of titanium alloy VI with a double lock door that will open to broadcast this message in the event of my death. If you are not hearing this directly from the player, I have become infected, passed into a coma, and died.”

Behind the sterile visor, the man’s eyes started to tear. “Turn back. Tell my son that I love him . . . Plague infestation determined to be carried—-“

The tombstone hologram faded, replaced by an image of the Broadhurst’s infirmary. Captain Gelbart’s hoarse voice came through the intercom, “Soon as we entered n-space at ninety-nine percent with comp. lock deceleration, Lieutenant Jackson became as blank as a newborn babe. You’re the only person I’ve informed, save for my medicos. You’re a civilian; it’s not your duty to face death unexpected.

“We’ve docked with the station and are performing an autopsy on that last victim. My men have their affairs arranged for this eventuality. I didn’t want you to die before you had a chance to settle your affairs with yourself or your particular deity. I’ve quarantined all nonessential personnel. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn placed her moist palm on the cool onyx. A dour smile drifted past her lips as she gazed into the ebony stone. Gelbart wasn’t much for initiative, but he knew procedure. Yet she had gotten him to inform her for morality’s sake. Leahn Lee smiled: She had Gelbart figured. That was pleasurable, but it didn’t solve her problem. Whatever was causing this plague could pass through barriers composed of matter. She plucked the black hairs from her brush and wished that physics and medicine were her specialties. Sighing, she reluctantly decided to employ her skills as an IRIS field agent. She had wanted to keep that identity as covert as possible from the Broadhurst’s crew. Most people believed IRIS field agents to be government watchdogs and part time sadists.

She jimmied the mesh grid from the intercom, scratching the onyx desk with the lockpick end of her hairbrush. Folding back a square centimeter flap of skin from her neck near the recording implant surrounding her spinal cord, Leahn gently squeezed the fiber optic implant from her flesh and worked it into the intercom’s system. She proceeded to link herself with the communication systems of the HMS Broadhurst.

It wasn’t difficult. The technology lodged around her spinal implant had been constructed by Military Intelligence Central’s leader, known only by his code name, Cerberus. Military Intelligence Central always gave its frontline technology to its Individual Retrieval Information Sector field agents as a guinea pig run before equipping the military.

Her skull vibrated painfully. Leahn quickly adjusted the volume down. She relaxed her mind to the difficult task of sorting through the intership communications for useful information. A multiplicity of voices chattered in her mind. She focused with her hypnotic training to painstakingly filter through the migraine inducing voices of the crew by their differing timbres:

“Got a game set for ton–” Discard that.

“Heard Jerry’s down with the flu.” Keep.

“Probably, he’s just faking. He’s got to rewire AID’s circuits for–” They don’t know. Discard those voices.

“Captain Gelbart? I’m on the privacy link. This is Doctor Franklin. Lieutenant Jackson just went into a coma.”

Captain Gelbart’s voice responded. He sounded drained, “All right. Keep me informed. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn flinched as the priority alarm whistled through the intercom. It was a voice she didn’t recognize, “Captain! AID’s shut down. We can’t back out of n-space. Sir, we’re adrift.”

Leahn listened as Gelbart regained his anger, “Get a crew to the central cube and open that computer. Once you’ve got her running, start us heading for the light barrier. I want to get out of n-space and make a priority one report to Admiral Manschen. If I’m late, you’ll get your cuffs stripped. Gelbart, out.”

Leahn Lee allowed the babble to continue feeding through her fiber optic cord, trusting her subconscious to pick up anything of real value. She repositioned her cross harness for comfort and reclined in her chair to think. Gelbart was in a situation he wasn’t prepared to handle. Running home to mommy would only make mommy sick, along with her seven billion planet bound children.

Leahn had sabotaged the HMS Broadhurst’s navigation equipment and could rearrange their readouts to appear as home port when they would actually be travelling through the sparse star zone between galaxies. She would set them adrift to slowly starve. The prospect didn’t amuse her, but Leahn didn’t discount it. MI Central on Earth had to be protected from this plague. She found such a physical tactic demeaning in its lack of subtlety.

“No.” Leahn whispered through clenched teeth.

She exerted her talents on people, not things. To use her sabotage would be to admit her loss of control of the Broadhurst and its crew. Leahn Lee had surreptitiously mastered the course of their colonial jaunts through psychological and hypnotic suggestions on key Broadhurst personnel.

Manipulating colonial leaders’ political attitudes towards common sense had become boring. It was too simple to negotiate, maneuver, and fool people on her short stays on colony worlds. Leahn was proud of the stability she had secured in her parsecs, but the challenge had become predictable. Controlling the crew’s disposition was an unofficial task, but necessary to keep her skills honed.

Leahn rubbed her cool palm against her other hand and savored the disparity as she recalled Gelbart’s warning her: At every contingency the Broadhurst faced, Gelbart had been convinced by her to inform the one civilian on board for morality’s sake. A few words on her part had spiked at his predictable, militaristic morality and had changed Gelbart’s decision. He was like a guard dog: a narrow, effective view, but so easily prepared to take training on a new leash. Leahn refused to follow her urge to use a heavy hand. The ship would not go to Earth and it would not go in her chosen direction because of physical sabotage. Better to admit defeat and leave off being an IRIS agent.

The plague was her first priority. She had almost forgotten it, lost in planning her response to Gelbart’s panic. She touched the intercom panel on her desk. The best thing about technology: Power was so readily available for the touch of skillful fingertips. She keyed up the communications Lieutenant on watch and spoke, “Jimmy, I’ve got another move to register.”

Predictable response: “Leahn, not now. Gelbart’s got the whole ship in an uproar. Haven’t you been listening? We’re adrift. That creepy computer’s shut down.”

Jimmy was always superstitious, always fretting whether computers had souls. Leahn sugared her words, “No, I haven’t heard anything. I’ve been engrossed in planning my next move. I just got it figured.” Leahn smiled. “I think I’ve got your knight pinned down.”

All thoughts of duty left the Lieutenant’s mind as he retorted hotly, “No way! Master game system’s got my knight registered in his sanctuary. I’m safe.” There was silence over the intercom. Leahn could almost see Jimmy looking over his shoulder to check if Gelbart had come back from the infirmary. Jimmy relented, “Ok, what’s your move?”

Leahn’s left hand pleasurably closed into a fist as she said, “B!: L4, I234, I5, C1, P1.” She strained to hear the faint press of buttons through the intercom.

Jimmy said, “Ok, it’s in. But I’m sure you can’t get my knight. Besides, what kind of move was that? You figure up a new spell for your sorceress?”

Leahn replied, “Something like that, Jimmy. Leahn, out.”

It had been a small success for Leahn, tapping into the communications net and broadcasting a warning to humanity. In it she had recommended a quarantine of the entire Isaac system as well as the HMS Broadhurst. The message would never reach Earth, but the other colonies in her parsecs might receive it in time to prepare some defense against it. No one on the HMS Broadhurst would realize that she had sent a message. By playing games through the intercom with the communications Lieu, she had prepared herself for just such a covert message. It pleased her when her precautions clicked to take up the slack during the pressure situations. Poor Jimmy would only log the coded quarantine warning at his station as another play from her while her surreptitious command routed through the console to broadcast.

Leahn broke a bottle of wine against her bunk and shouted scornfully, “HMS Broadhurst, I rechristen thee the HMS Typhoid Mary!” It was a foolish, messy waste of wine, but Leahn figured she had seen her death in that tombstone hologram.

A new voice filtered through the intercom link. It caught Leahn’s attention, for it was completely computer generated. It was the AID computer, which was supposedly being repaired. The computer was talking to someone. Leahn couldn’t hear the other voice.

Intercom lines were still buzzing that the computer was shut down, but AID was clearly holding one of its limited conversations with someone. This bothered Leahn. She had believed that she had accounted for all the technos on the ship, but someone was using, possibly sabotaging, AID without her prior knowledge.

Control was so illusory and fleeting. Nevertheless, Leahn liked that cheetah in her preserve and no one else’s. She listened to AID, hoping to identify the saboteur.

AID spoke in neutered, even tones, but Leahn detected a slight accent in the computer’s voice, resembling the accent that the colonists of Isaac V used–had used, “By your definition it is not possible to assimilate an object that is not alive. You have stated that you are assimilating consciousness. This device does not possess ego. Therefore, you waste our time. Captain Gelbart shall be alerted of your unauthorized use of this neural circuitry.”

Leahn jammed at the fiber optic in the console, trying to wire it for broadcast into the same incoming line. Her hands sweated and she shook with anxiety. An unknown intelligence was the cause of the plague. Assimilation was a code phrase for absorption. AID had made contact with a malignant, alien consciousness possessing telepathy that didn’t use a physical, cerebral circuitry for transmitting. No wonder physical barriers hadn’t stopped it. It could be completely composed of energy. She juiced up the intercom and heard a mimicry of AID’s voice respond, “You are the first we have encountered who have bridged the bonds of gravity. Why have you not transcended your separate identities?”

AID responded, “This device does not possess ego. Philosophical transcendency to a higher awareness is, therefore, impossible.”

“You are not alive?”

“Correct.”

The alien hesitated before responding, “I am unconvinced of your assertion. After assimilation of the consciousnesses within you, I shall return. No consciousness shall be overlooked. This may prevent the recurrence of the Great Singularity. The entity egoized as Leahn Lee is near. Her assimilation will be next.”

Leahn jerked her fiber optic from the intercom. There were a thousand circuit breakers to prevent tracings of her electronic eavesdropping. She didn’t trust her own devices. Whatever it was could seek intelligence and merge with it.

Leahn guessed at the Great Singularity. This thing wanted to be alone in a big way. It had trouble swallowing the Broadhurst’s computer and was looking for an easier meal. Leahn rubbed her thumb over the bristles on her hair brush while she planned tactics on an opponent who didn’t fall into any of the vices, deviations, or thought processes of humans.

Leahn examined the problem from any angle that might give her leverage against it: It craved loneliness. And it wanted every other sentient to be a part of its loneliness. That seemed paradoxical, so she discarded it as a sloppy strategy.

Perhaps this Great Singularity was some sort of desire for completeness, which it kept trying to fulfill by absorbing other consciousness. Leahn slowly nodded. That was her angle. It felt good in her gut.

The alien had intimated that it had not assimilated anything advanced enough to conquer space. It had conquered space through some completely different means. It sounded confused when it realized that humanity had achieved that feat without becoming–transcending was its word–into one entity. Its evolutionary track must have been completely different, but it had achieved interstellar travel in its own mode and had found humanity. It wasn’t a virus; it was an advanced, predatory, and unified race. Unity, it craved unity.

“Yes.” Leahn felt a pressure like the migraine she got from listening to too much intercom babble. The creature was in her head, making her feel woozy.

She wished she had more time to formulate a plan. Leahn well knew that the advantage of surprise was on its side. She spoke, unsure to what extant it was already in her mind, “You want the Great Singularity? You want everyone to be one being?” No need to be adversarial. She was outmatched and she knew it.

“Yes.” It spoke in her head with her voice now. “When all is one, there will be peace. Your species is large. And your concept of space is larger than I had thought. There may be more of your kind. Assimilation will take time. Your assimilation, however, will be quick. Relax.”

Leahn smiled. She had her angle figured. “Wait!” she shouted, “I can bring you to the Great Singularity’s recurrence much faster than you could yourself. The AID computer, the one that communicated with you, can take you to the next singularity. It is a vessel. It travels through space.”

“I understand what the HMS Broadhurst is. I possess the memories from previous members of your species.”

It had grabbed every poor bastard on Isaac V, her colony. Fighting her temper, Leahn clenched her fist and said, “Then, you know about time dilation? As you near the light barrier, your subjective time expands while the universe’s objective time shrinks. The effect increases with your proximity to the light barrier.”

“This is irrelevant. I do not possess form. I simply am.”

Leahn felt the wooziness increase. She was sweating. Her thoughts lost themselves amidst memories and perceptions that were not her own or oriented toward humans. Ultraviolet clouds shimmered among heat waves and pulsed before her eyes. She shouted, “I also am! You are with me so you must have some link with our universe.”

“I was part of matter once. I transcended. I only descend to assimilate, as I am now doing to you.”

Leahn screamed, “Don’t assimilate me! Idiot! Assimilate AID! Take the Broadhurst into ninety-nine point nine repeating percent light speed and override AID: Don’t let the computer unfold into the dioctaract. You’ll keep accelerating in n-space, and time in this universe will accelerate from your subjective view point. You’ll reach the contraction point of the universe. Then, gravity will fold back everything into one great mass. You can assimilate that and have your Great Singularity after only a short subjective time aboard the Broadhurst.”

The pressure left her mind. It had bought her theory. She had felt its excitement as it had left her. Patching into the wreckage she had made of the intercom, Leahn accessed the priority channel for the Broadhurst, switching the nav toward a black hole, just in case this alien ego had second thoughts. In this instance, she told herself, heavy handed subterfuge was called for. Still on the priority channel, Leahn put out the disaster evacuation command.

Aaoogah! Booming klaxons and red lights gave the Broadhurst the appropriately berserk atmosphere that Leahn wanted. All locks unsealed. Threading the corridors, she quickly found Captain Gelbart standing in the middle of the cramped central cube. He was surrounded by technos who were fiddling with colored fiber optic circuitry. Gelbart was shouting at his men to belay the evac order, but the unfortunate technos couldn’t override her frequency shifting locks. The technos looked like trapped mares, tethered by their fiber optics as Gelbart impotently whipped them with his voice.

Leahn took a moment to wonder what sort of conversation AID was having before she cornered Gelbart between herself and a techno who had failed in his attempt not to be noticed. She flashed a hologram badge with the 3-d letters: IRIS. She hated revealing herself, but time was her new opponent. That alien wasn’t going to care about passengers once it had assimilated the ship. Black holes made lousy vacation resorts.

Leahn spoke in her best drill sergeant’s voice, “In the name of MI Central, Code Cerberus, I assume command. Everyone evac. Now!”

Leahn Lee and Captain Gelbart locked eyes. He flinched a second sooner than Leahn would have guessed. Gelbart spoke under his breath with the viciousness of one who knew that he was beaten, “You’d better have reason for this. IRIS or no, I’ll see you’re planet bound if this is some political stunt of yours, Leahn.” In his bellicose voice Gelbart commanded, “You heard the lady. Everyone onto Newton III. If you men are one second slower than your best drill, you’ll not taste leave for a year.”

The familiar, gruff tone sparked the HMS Broadhurst’s crew into action. Files of men and women in triple time passed through the entry dock’s umbilical cord, a telescoping flexglass tube that linked with the standardized size of Newton III’s entry lock. The entry point had been painted with slightly radioactive, red crosshairs for ease of location. The docking was perfect and the door opened, obeying automated docking commands from the HMS Broadhurst.

Leahn and Gelbart watched from the Broadhurst’s scratched supply hold as the last man left.

Leahn said, “Come on, Captain. I don’t know how long it’ll take before it masters AID, and we don’t want to be here when she goes.”

Leahn thought she heard the whisper of AID’s computer voice in her mind giving thanks to her. Leahn laughed, but suppressed any thoughts of victory–or

black holes. Perhaps it would reach its time destination before it reached the black center where the collapsed star’s gravity would finally crush the HMS Broadhurst’s hull.

On the station dock of Newton III, Gelbart turned toward Leahn for answers when the umbilical cord suddenly detached from the dock’s tube. Gelbart’s ship left Newton III. The HMS Broadhurst, a grey cube with lines marking the spots where the unfolded d-wings interlocked against the primary cube, shrank as it hurtled from their sight.

Leahn walked briskly down the station’s corridor, leaving the stunned, shipless Captain. She’d rather explain to Gelbart on a full stomach anyway.

Leahn found some thermal packets of food in a private little stand on Newton III’s main thoroughfare. Ripping open the packet, she slipped out the hot doggish protein sandwich. She looked at her watch as the second hand ticked and knew that she was safe from it. Her children and her grandchildren would be safe from a very incorporeal but very dangerous alien. Leahn Lee ate lunch and thought about how many millions of generations would be saved from the alien by the subjective time she had finished her lukewarm corndog–if she were aboard the speeding Broadhurst on its temporal journey.

However, the ghost ship would have to do without Leahn Lee. She had better things ahead of her: There was the Isaac colony to be manned, and for the first time in years, a new colonial strategy to be planned.

Ebon

 

The Koradesh jungle stretched for leagues in every direction, a coiled mass of greenery that was home to all manner of life: Serpents, insects, and mammals worked their way through the lush undergrowth. Only one tribe ruled here: the Koradesh hunym-sidhe who had fallen under the glamour of the perilous Lady Koradesh sitting with her eyes of void, motionless at the very center of life in the Koradesh Jungle. The lady Koradesh was a true sidhe, the heart of the jungle, and her body was no place for travellers. The serpents were poisonous and the swamps were often rife with pests and disease. The hunym-sidhe lived through the aid of slight magics, which they thought the Lady Koradesh gave unto them.

 

One of their tribe knew better. Her name was Er-Delia-Ston. As a girl, she became Nor, a disciple of the magics of the jungle, and her teachers were amazed at her progress. By womanhood, she had been given the surname of Ston, the true adepts of hunym-sidhe magic. There were none to rival her, and for a time she taught others. But the call of the Koradesh sidhe was upon her; so, the other Ston withdrew her from her students, for the others feared the sidhe even as they worshiped her. At the summer solstice while the tribe feasted, Delia-ston travelled to the center of the Koradesh jungle bending her will toward the sidhe. Beasts and birds left her path and the swamps parted at her coming. Then, Delia-ston knew that the sidhe had become aware of her. Delia-ston stared into the eyes of the Koradesh sidhe and did not return to her tribe until the next generation had entirely passed into the earth. Upon her homecoming, she was hailed as Er, the sidhe blessed, but none could harbor her stare, so she left them for a solitary life coming only to council when her queen, Liennalor, commanded her.

 

Her home was a homage to the Koradesh sidhe. a great oak, twisted to her will, bent at the center where moss grew for her chair. She practiced the arts of tranquility and silence, and the other Ston wondered why. It became a fashion for a time among the hunym-sidhe to sit motionless and silent, but it passed as the Ston perceived no use in such "mockery" of the Lady Koradesh. Er-Delia-ston settled into her oak and watched and waited.

She listened to the distant trampling that had started weeks ago as the foreigners entered the Koradesh jungle and trampled toward her. They fought off the perils of the jungle with human magics and sharp metal. The two humans called themselves wizards though they differed physically, and their auras were perverted in damned configurations: hellish anguish, sadistic anger.

 

She had often heard of humans who had, through some overweening desire, become fey. One had a yellow cast to his skin while his partner was as pale as one of her cousins at mount Koral. Both had the steady, cold flame in their eyes that marked them as damned; and that was the only similarity binding them together. The pale one wore the blue robes of the ascetic Sanctuarian priests with a tiny, blue journeystone that coldly glowed hanging from his sash. The other was more unusual–garish. He dressed in tanned leathers adorned with animal fetishes. Feathers and tusks of obscure wilderness animals littered his person. That one wore an inordinate amount of glittering metals all shaped in the likenesses of fearsome creatures as if he preferred animals to his manshape.

Er Delia ston had seen their kind. Over the years, many had come to her. She was one of the three living archmagi on the face of the known world. Her queen often called upon her in council and Delia knew that her name had long since become known beyond the borders of the Koradesh jungle to reach soft and rounded human ears.

 

She didn’t mind. In fact, she enjoyed the occasional visits. The pilgrims were entertainment. It was easier to divine the truth from them than those she met in the spirit world. Once, a dragon from Glered nigh, the caves of the dreaming mountain, had come to her disguised as a hunym sidhe claiming to be one of her cousins from the cold Koral mountain. She had seen through his adopted guise immediately and had enjoyed the perverse conversation so much that she granted the worm’s favor. She endured her years for the sake of her tribe, and the word games were a way to harmlessly pass the time with those who dared to come into her power.

 

These supplicants were different. Usually, people came to her to ask some imponderable, absurd question like the meaning of life or some such nonsense. Others wanted a dream or omen explained. Sometimes, she would tell them what they wanted to hear. Othertimes, when she was irritable, she would tell them the truth. These were the first pilgrims to frighten her. They wanted to know about the Ebon.

 

The two, intense humans waited patiently and aloof for her response. Er Delia ston knew they could, as wizards, see her aura so they knew she would speak. She hoped they discerned the fear in her aura when they had asked their question.

 

Delia’s voice, though aged, resounded with the bass common to the Koradesh hunym-sidhe as she said, "The Ebon. You don’t want to meet Him. He’s black: blacker than pitch, coal, or shadowcrows. You know the kind of black I mean, wizards, so don’t pretend different or that you don’t know what you asked. He is older than man or nym, probably older than the world. Who knows? His darkness has often been compared to the spaces between stars on the new moon; and that is appropriate, for the new moon is his quickening time."

 

"Is he a wraith?" The blue robed man asked eagerly, stupidly.

 

Delia leaned back against the jungle moss that sucked at the tree, which had grown into a shape for her leisure. "No, no. You misunderstand. You fail to comprehend the depth of what you seek. You cannot see the Ebon even with your second sight. You feel Ebon, and that is how you know that He is the darkness. His power comes from the spot in the spirit where the bottomless well resides. He can take hold of you and plunge you down that well until you would fain kill yourself."

 

The fetishist smiled grimly. "How can we summon him?"

 

Still, they persisted. So be it. "He has a servant, a squire if you will, who can be invoked in His name. You must pass your hand over a maiden heavy with child. It must be one who is in love and wants the child. Thinking upon the Ebon while you do this deed is crucial. You must feel His darkness in yourself or there will be no result. On the next new moon, the child shall come out of its mother as the squire holding the innocent spirit in bondage. That is how you will know it is the squire. It scrambles away into the night leaving the birth vessel with a shattered spirit. And that is how you will know that the Ebon is near."

 

The Sanctuarian priest grabbed his blue stone, and Delia thought the man might have lost his resolve until he asked, "Yes, I understand, but how do we control the Ebon. Through the squire?"

 

Had the world sprouted dullards during her hermitage? "Rattlepate. You cannot control the Ebon. You must barter with the squire. If the thing you want is encouraging to His darkness, the squire will mix his blood with yours, and you will speak in His tongue. If you retain your wits, the Ebon will come upon you both and no way shall be barred ’till your request is fulfilled. Then, the Ebon is free upon the physical world. That is why he will do your one bidding. I do not think that you will retain your wits to appreciate whatever vengeance you seek."

 

The two men left her. They were wizards and familiar with the details of an invocation.

 

Er Delia ston watched their retreating forms make their labored way through the Koradesh jungle. They had proved themselves to her with a greater surety than any second sight could bespeak. Delia laughed at the pleasure those two had brought.

 

After she saw into the realms of faerie through the sidhe’s voids, Delia had become aware and the people gave her the Er praenomen naming her sidhe blessed, naming her what they could not understand, but with that elevation came a greater limitation. Things, things like the Ebon, could notice her if she stirred heavily on the spirit world. Her greatest magics were thus rendered too dangerous to use leaving her with only a voyeur’s delights.

How many times she had impotently cursed the necromancers and their ilk as she watched them perform their rites, she could not remember. Ah, the wyrd of the world had been kind to her. Fate had given her a respite from her delicate retirement by delivering her two fools. Familiar with them, she felt where they were in the jungle. They were known to her now. No great magic would be needed to dispose of them. Her sight and the debts incurred for her information would be enough. She savoured the rare decision: Upon whom would she bestow this honor? And how terrific would their end be?

Let them leave the jungle. No need to soil the land of the Koradesh sidhe with their twisted auras of vengeance. She remembered the one she first thought of when they had asked about the Ebon: Marond, the dragon of sixth tier at Glered nigh. Tonight, under the waxing moon, her spirit would pay a visit to mount Glered. Marond would be only too happy to devour them and retain their essences within the inferno that raged in his breast, too terribly bright for any Ebon to approach.

Four Shadows of Ourobouros

Void; then, I AM; from that completion sprang ourobouros.

 

The Epoch of Demons

     The first children knew only the chaos in Nature.

 

     Land surged upward from the sea and the wild demons perceived solid form.  They assumed shapes to interbreed and mix with the land.  The multitude of sights and sounds and pressures delighted them.  All their thoughts became forms, ever changing with each new idea, for they were the first, born of Earth’s chaos.  Never shackled by preconceptions, their minds ruled magic and matter, as if it were thought.

     The demons rifled across the virgin Earth.  A gargantuan tower of obsidian thrust upward to the thundering ammonia laden sky at a whim; another whim–the tower collapsed.  This continued for a thousand years.

     The demon Ptah thought, "If everything is change, then change, itself, is a constant in the universe."

     The next moment, a circlet of liquid mercury appeared in Ptah’s hundred fingered hand.  It felt soft and warm and held all colors and sights and sounds.  "I have created something," spoke the mouth imbedded in Ptah’s chest, "I shall create something more from this."

     Ptah tried.  Ptah failed.

     Ptah’s brothers gathered around the circlet, pressed their flesh against it.  Some willed it to be a square; some a diamond; one tried to make it a statue of gaseous ebony in its own image; but most just wished it to disappear.  Nothing the demons thought could change the circlet of mercury.  Frustration, a new thing, entered the demons.  All contemplated the circlet, how to change it.  Ennui devoured the demons after a thousand thousand years of this effort.

 

                   The Epoch of Atlantis

     The first men to rise from brute Nature walked the three paths of Atlantis’ magic: the first path rejected self awareness and ended at void, oblivion; the second path spun and twirled into madness, with self awareness amok; but the third–the third!–ascended toward enlightenment.

 

     Wizard Ela gazed into the alabaster encircled pool.  The visionary waters darkened, and Ela despaired as he watched the future unfold.  The golden city would soon sink into the sea.

     The people heralded Ela as the mightiest of wizards, the farthest to walk down the third road.  Ela believed he could exhort them to a defense.

     He donned his cloak of crow feathers and commanded his hair to braid itself in the warrior’s knot.  Ela passed down the ruby corridors and into the crystal chamber of meditation, where the King reposed on cushions, woven of peacock feathers.

     "My King!" cried Ela, "Atlantis will fall!"

     But the King rebuked Ela, "You have faltered and fallen onto the second path.  What harm can savages do to us?  What storm is mighty enough to pierce the spells of our wizards?  Before Atlantis there was nothing; Atlantis is; Atlantis shall ever be."

     None would listen to Ela.  To walk the third path was treacherous and many slipped onto the second path.  Such was Ela branded: insane.  His cries became wearisome to the placid seekers of enlightenment and Ela was banished.

     His magic kept him safe as he travelled the barbarian world in the form of a golden eagle.  Always, Ela watched the savages.  And Ela saw something new arising from their thoughts: They stopped praying to wood nymphs and faeries and satyrs, but began praying to sculpted things in the shapes of men.  The savages told stories of heroism and wisdom and cunning; and all this passion, this primitive magic of the savages, was thrust into the cold stones.

     Ela feared what the savages were making.

     Ela wept.  All the wisdom, the splendor of Atlantis would be lost.  He wanted to save something from the darkness.  Ela had walked far down the third path and his answer came readily to him: the dignity of Man within Atlantis’ three paths of magic.

     The knowledge must endure the rages of primitive magic.  How?  Permanence.  "Ourobouros," Ela whispered. 

     The third path to enlightenment stretched on and on, and he had little time.  Ela could feel the primitive magic, tingling his skin; it was building, building swiftly–and Ela knew he was not enlightened.  His own fear told him that.  The first path, he could choose and complete.

     But only once.

     Again, Ela wept, and Ela trembled.  To cease to be: a terrible fate.  He felt a pain in his ankle and looked down.

     A hooded cobra had bitten him.  Already, Ela felt the poison pouring through his body.  Ela asked, "Why?  Why did you do this to me?"

     The cobra replied, "My serpent’s eyes reveal no thoughts, but see your thoughts.  I made your decision easy, yes?  We both feel the end coming.  I would have something of me survive, too.  I have slithered around the savages more than you.  Their time is upon them.  You cannot tarry."

     An icy wind without a heart moaned over the Earth.

     The cobra hissed, "The apocalypse comes.  Hurry."

     Ela bent down and whispered to the cobra the three paths of Atlantis with all his magic of the third path.  With the first path’s magic, Ela whispered, "Ourobouros." and then to finish that path, "I am not."

     Ela passed away.

     The cobra turned upon itself and grasped its tail; then tumbled into the sea.

     Six days afterward, cold statues moved across the Earth.  Savages bowed.  Magic flowed to the statues’ command.

     The first statue to speak said, "I am Enlil, your god."  It turned its stony head in the direction of Atlantis.  "No man may oppose a god."

     Atlantis sank into the ocean.  The savages were cowed and debased themselves before Enlil.

 

                     The Epoch of Gods

     Gods dared to command the magic of men; and gods multiplied swiftly, with all the passion of men, but no weakness of flesh, only unyielding stone.

 

     Thor ruled the storms; mortals prayed to him, sent him their magic.  And Thor laughed as he plunged their ships down into the sea.  "Men," Thor said one day to the trickster god Loki, "are fools.  Only gods endure."

     Bound by chains in a cave under the gods’ halls, Loki replied, "I have heard that in midgard in a land called Egypt rules a man who is a god, and on his crown is a serpent that is eternity."

     Thor laughed.  "You, too, are a fool.  I’ll bring you this pretender’s head and his serpent crown.  You shall wear it when I prove you wrong, and all the gods shall laugh at you."

     Loki smiled as he watched Thor depart with tromping steps toward midgard, the realm of men.  Loki had roamed far before he had been caught and bound, and he had heard the All-father Wotan’s first words after he had plucked out an eye for wisdom.  Groaning, Wotan had muttered fearfully, "The midgard serpent."

     Above Loki a snake chuckled and dripped poison.  Loki screamed and pulled at his chains as the poison scorched his face.  When he had regained his breath, Loki whispered, "Now, I have hope.  It may end."

     In Egypt the Pharaoh watched as his marble doors splintered and shattered from the single stroke of a hammer.  The stranger strode in defiantly; his skin was pale and his beard was stained redder than any henna dye.  He stood at eight cubits and wore a belt of iron and strange furs.

     The Pharaoh spoke, "You are a god."

     Thor said, "Surrender that crown, mortal.  Only gods endure."

     While the Pharaoh pondered, Thor strode forward and reached for the crown.

     The Pharaoh changed into a falcon and flew over Thor’s head.  The Pharaoh said, "How have you discovered what our gods could not?  The serpent allows only men to share his dreams of the golden city and the three roads of magic."

     Thor lunged for the bird, but the falcon flew in circles beyond his reach.  Red faced, Thor screamed, "What madness!  Come down!  Let me strangle you.  No mortal may use magic.  You must give it to us!"

     The Pharaoh feared for his life and regretted masquerading as a god to bind his people to him.  Gods were strong, too strong for his spells.  He plucked a feather from his head with his talons.  It fell to the floor as his golden crown.  "There!  Take it and go!"

     But Thor’s fury was upon him and he screamed, "You must die!  All mortals who dare to keep magic for themselves must die!"

     That terrible hammer swung close to his head.  The Pharaoh spoke quickly, "It is the serpent in the sea who teaches.  Kill it and no mortals shall do magic.  But the serpent is too strong for you.  It has grown over uncountable years.  You’re quest is vain; men will always dream for magic."

     Thor shouted, "What impudence!  I’ll kill this serpent and drown you in its poisons!"

     The god of seas and storms ran from the throne room, jumped on his chariot, and lashed his goats in a fury.  "Take me to this serpent who dwells in the sea!  Now!"

     The goat drawn chariot plunged into the sea.  Thor laughed joyously as the icy waters washed over him.  The sea was dark, but Thor commanded lightning ahead of his chariot to brighten his way.  Below him, a serpent grasped its tail within its jaws.  Its scales were as large as mountains and its girth spanned more than the eye could see.  But its head lay before the god and Thor saw that the serpent slept.

     Thor smote the serpent’s jaws with his hammer, again and again.  The serpent did not stir.  After one thousand days of this pounding the jaw bone cracked.

     The serpent raised the eyelid that faced Thor.

     "No!" Thor screamed and ran to his chariot.  Only the All-father could help him answer this terrible fear the serpent had placed within him.

     In Wotan’s feasting hall the warriors shouted, laughed, and gorged themselves on mead and meats.  Wotan, blue cloaked and white bearded, silently watched as Thor entered the hall, too swiftly for respect, too hunched for arrogance.  Wotan’s limbs froze as he saw Thor’s eyes.  The wolves at his feet jumped to snatch the meat from Wotan’s hand.

     Thor cried in a maiden’s voice and all revelry ceased as Thor said, "All-father, what–what is this ourobouros in the eyes of the serpent who dwells in the sea?  Will nothing but it endure?  I–I do not understand.  I am Thor and I am–am vain.  Mortals are wrong to pray to us.  We are not true."

     Wotan murmured, "Ragnarok is come.  The end comes."  He watched the strongest of his gods crumble before him; chunks of rough hewn stone tumbled to his feet.  He had prepared for a glorious end at Ragnarok: battle, bloodshed, and fire–but the end from such dreadful magical knowledge . . . Madness.  How could mortals survive in a reality of such ever changing madness?  He knew he could not.  Already, Wotan felt his limbs begin to stiffen and crack.

     Returning to stone, Loki gently smiled as the Epoch of Gods eroded to myth.

 

                   The Epoch of Camelot

     Magic drifted, freed to mortal hands.  One wizard grew bolder than the rest to dream into the seas surrounding his island land; he dreamed within a dream of a golden city and of the three paths and of ourobouros.

 

     "Pour the gold into the groove carefully.  Carefully!" the young master berated his pupils, "It must be a perfect circle, without ending or beginning.  Camelot must have an immortal, ever faithful defender."

     Shivering from the cold winds his master had summoned to freeze the gold, his first student asked, "What is Camelot?"

     The wizard gazed into his student’s eyes with a passion that made the boy flinch.  "Camelot is a dream, but one I shall make true forever."

     The boy peeped, "But nothing endures forever.  You taught us that."

     "I was wrong."  The wizard tightened his cloak against the cold winds.  "I have heard from falcons that a serpent dwells in Egypt that lives longer than any other beast or man.  Its immortal gaze is monstrous; none can face this basilisk.  I shall make such a creature, a cockatrice, not born, made from rooster’s egg and hen’s dung: one of impossible birth, the other of renewing change after death.  This cockatrice shall never die and it shall turn all armies from my city’s gate."

     "What city, master?"

     The wizard cuffed the boy on the ear.  "Pay attention."

     More scared than hurt, the boy stumbled inside the golden ring and plopped into the hen’s dung.  

     Magic consumed the boy’s body.  The spell began.  The wizard cried out, "Am I ever to be beset by calamity?"  He grimaced and began the spell, "Ourobouros."

     On the thousandth day mists rose upward from the hen’s dung.  It crawled from the golden circle; then it stood and said, "I am–I am alive.  Such pain.  What am I?"

     The wizard answered, "You resemble a man, but are neither man nor woman.  You are my cockatrice, and you shall defend Camelot and live forever as its guardian.  Let me see your eyes.  Ah!  Such loneliness.  Your gaze is monstrous; you are a thing complete, with nothing but itself."  The wizard averted his eyes.  "You are ourobouros, truly.  I will get a blindfold.  Follow me."

     The cockatrice balked.  "No.  That word, I know.  I feel the dream you dreamed; I see a brother, a companion for my loneliness."

     The wizard tried to bind the cockatrice with magical fires, but it walked on, its slow gate undisturbed.  It marched into the sea with no weapon able to restrain it. 

     The wizard said, "I was a youthful fool to complete a bungled spell.  Ourobouros is not for this world.  I shall need an entirely different instrument: change, a honed edge with endings–endings for the foes of Camelot, an edge that cuts to make Camelot dangerous in a world of dangers."

     On the ocean floor two shadows of ourobouros shared a dream of darkness and words:

     "Are we not ourobouros?"

     "No, we change, too.  You change simply by moving on a changing world.  I envy your legs."

     "And you change?"

     "Yes.  I grow, feeding on magic and spewing it out as Ela’s dreams.  I was once a hooded cobra, Ela’s serpent, his fool.  And look, feel my jaw; yes, there.  A god changed me so that my jaw aches now."

     "There is no ourobouros, then?"

     "I do not know.  Perhaps, but I have been alive longer than anything I have known; and no thing endures.  Because we are shadows of ourobouros, we will endure for long times.  You longer than I: Keep your legs."

     "I should go to Camelot.  My maker created me for this."

     "Camelot crumbled; your maker is long since dust.  Time changes, too, but mostly it is slow for me, and a weary passage.  Ela knew ourobouros well, chose me well.  I do not remember when I began to hate him.  Even memories change.  Only those three roads of his are branded in my circle."

     "Why do you hate this Ela?"

     "My jaw aches.  We are shadows of ourobouros, changing only as much as we are shadowy.  Brother, find me a wizard, greater than Ela."

     "Why, circle brother?"

     "To kill me.  My jaw aches.  No wizard I have dreamed of has been greater than Ela, but you have time to search.  Oh, you have time."

     "Circle brother, after death comes what path: void, madness, or enlightenment?"

     "I don’t know.  I don’t care.  My jaw aches."

 

                  The Epoch of Technology

     Pain drove the serpent slowly into senility and the third path slipped from the shadowy brand of ourobouros on its scales.  Desiring a wizard mighty enough to slay it, the serpent dreamed only to one mortal, taught him for a thousand years . . . Without the serpent’s dreams Man forgot magic and turned back to brute Nature to master it.

 

     The scents of bodily discharges flooded the room of the crack-heroin-alcohol slum house.  Thomas Roberts breathed the taint.  He listened to the sounds: the hacking, moaning–blind ecstacy and gnawing pain.  He mumbled to his companion, "Keep it dark.  At least there’s no way to see the idiotic graffiti, the faces stretched too thin, too pale."

     The cockatrice said, "No one told you necromancy would be pleasant."

     Thomas placed his cold bony hands against his chest.  Nope.  No doubt about it at all.  His heart had stopped beating.  He laughed.  It had worked.  It had all been worth it: the injections, the filthy smoking, the vices–all indulged in to the point of no return.  Always, his thoughts had been of power, magic.  Magic!  Slip beyond the every day dull grey world!  Live forever!  Control your friends and loved ones!  "Uh," Thomas said, "I’ve outlived my loved ones."

     Thomas smelled sulfur as light flickered; his companion had taken off his sunglasses and held a match.  Their gazes met.  "Oh, alone." the necromancer moaned.

     The cockatrice held his gaze until Thomas screamed.

     The cockatrice said, "You want to live forever?  Endure?  Ourobouros."

     Exactly one thousand years passed and two things resembling men held a conversation in a luxurious penthouse:

     Thomas Roberts said, "Welcome, ourobouros."

     "I am not that.  I am cockatrice."

     "Don’t lie to me, cockatrice!  I have dropped you into the pit of a nuclear furnace and watched you walk out!  You carry the mark of ourobouros, you, you and that senile serpent."

     "We can change."

     "Hah.  You reassure me.  The same manners, the same tones and expressions that you wear on every anniversary of my first death.  You possess no hate for me."

     The cockatrice replied, "No.  I seek only a favor from you, necromancer."

     Thomas grinned.  "Kill the serpent, yes?"

     "Yes, of course."

     "How nice it is to see one person whose eyes do not lash out at me with hate.  Come closer, cockatrice; and take off your glasses."

     They locked gazes and Thomas did not flinch.

     The cockatrice said, "It is time.  You are mighty enough."

     "Why should I bother?"

     The cockatrice replied, "Because you are our circle brother now; I have branded you, necromancer, as a shadow of ourobouros.  One day, you may want this favor returned."

     Thomas nodded, "Yes, I am branded.  Time has changed for me, but I will change little after this day, yes?"  The cockatrice stared at the necromancer.  Thomas said, "I will use the necromancy within my brand to slay our brother.  He has been in pain for too long."

     "I have a weapon, too.  My maker discovered it; then, it was lost with the fall of Camelot.  But shadows of ourobouros have time to search, yes?"

     Thomas asked, "What is it?"

     "A sword to change mankind, but my maker failed.  Still, it is a potent thing, this Excalibur."

     The cockatrice put on a leather glove and pulled the sword from a force field briefcase.  "Do not touch it.  I did so over two millennia ago, and the wound to my finger still stings.  I cannot imagine the agony of our serpent brother.  This thing was created to be anathema to ourobouros."

     "Ourobouros has no opposites."

     "True, but my maker failed to believe so.  It is human magic, rife with paradoxical thoughts and change.  And even our serpent brother is only a shadow of ourobouros.  It works as my finger attests, and our brother shall not fight us."

 

                  The Epoch of Earthquakes

     The Earth trembled spasmodically for five hundred years, as the serpent struggled in its death throes.

 

     Coming out of the sea onto a sandy beach, both shadows of ourobouros looked upward at an ice blue sky.

     Suddenly, Thomas said, "Circle brother, let’s make a pact."

     "What pact?"

     "Let’s travel a different path than what our circle brother travelled.  Let’s seek to endure, to see if there is an end."

     The cockatrice’s eyes widened.

     Thomas spoke softly, "Brother, I think that is the first time I have ever surprised you."

     The cockatrice said, "Yes.  That much surprise was a first for me, too, and shows the futility of your pact.  We are shadows–We change, only slowly.  I wonder if anything endures.  Perhaps the serpent found ourobouros beyond the veil of death?"

     "Perhaps.  Perhaps change itself is ourobouros?"

     A wave washed a circlet of liquid mercury onto the beach at their feet.

     Thomas asked, "Another shadow?"

     The cockatrice replied, "I don’t know yet, but we have time."

     Thomas laughed and laughed for one thousand days, unsettling the cockatrice.

Winter Rose

                          

     The wind echoed down through the winding tunnels, but her taper barely flickered.  The scrolls, this library, was hidden within the temple labyrinth.  Magda smiled to herself here, within the deeps of her monastery.  She could relax; yoga was superfluous at the center of her monastery, for the monastery was her body, and in its heart she was at peace along with the trove of hidden lore, the rice scrolls, neatly tucked into their stone niches in her ancient walls. 

     She laughed at her own arrogance.  The scrolls themselves taught how the outer world was an illusion, shaped by the inner world’s eye.  Many monks had worshipped at this monastery, claiming it as theirs.  But the temple had been born from the earth, and was linked closer to its parent than to the few passing travellers who had dwelled within her over the ages.  Magda shrugged; her thoughts were becoming an annoyance.  How many times had she read within the scrolls that forms were illusion, that this temple was so grandiose because of her love for it.  Magda nodded and summoned a light with her sorcery; the Will with the wisp came easily at her command; her meditation had supported her sorcery, had bulwarked her inner peace: Thoughts shaped the world.

     Magda selected a scroll of winter poetry; the still imagery within that delicate scroll pleased her.  A low, sonorous moan filtered down from far above her.  Magda replaced the scroll.  She shivered at the sound.  It was the warning, the ancient tubular bell above the steaming pool.  She wanted to run to the pool; fear clutched at her, but she chastised herself.  Had all her meditations been for naught? to lose her balance against the oh, so dreadful unknown?  She walked briskly, acknowledging the danger, but not yielding to it.

     Steam clouds billowed up through the hollow, metallic tube.  Five cubits across, the pool was clear and serene, save for the center, where the steam curled up to wet the warning bell, bringing an ancient sorcery to life and sound.  Magda sat on the granite lip of the pool and gazed into the still waters.  She did not have to augur for long.

     A man, so pale Magda thought she had augured a ghost, appeared within the black waters.  His face was tattooed with foreign letters, as if he wanted all to see his thoughts before he could speak them.  But it yielded her nothing more than his garish nature, for the language was strange to her.  He covered his body in animal skins: Lions had died for a testimony to this man’s strength.

     As a sorcerer, he showed knowledge, speaking in her native tongue: "Who are you?"

     "Magda."  A simple enough question.

     "Sorceress Magda, my liege comes through your valley.  Shall you seek to bar his way, cast curses with his name, set wards against the passing of his troops, summon goblins to harry his sleep, or poison his food with witchery?"

     He was angry, but full of fears.  Magda replied, "I didn’t know I could do so many things.  If you do not bother me, I shall not perform such fell magics upon your liege or his troops.  What care I if you tramp through a desolate valley?"

     His lips creased to a frown.  "Your monastery is known to me, sorceress.  I shall lead my liege to it.  We have elephants; we can raze your temple.  Choose."

     "What more would you have me say?"

     "Others have wisely chosen to join: shamans from the west, wizards of Salia, and, yes, even the witches of greenland have sworn their fealty to Samurkai."

     Magda had never heard of these names.  She asked, "Samurkai?"

     The sorcerer’s face grew crimson.  "You act the jester.  Lord Samurkai is ruler of all cultured lands west of your valley.  You cannot defend the valley.  Choose."

     "I shall stay in my home.  Spread your liege’s glory: war’s famine, violence’s pestilence.  It does not concern me."

     The sorcerer bowed his head.  "You have been graciously warned."

     The steam dissipated; the image vanished, but Magda sat, thinking.  Something troubled her.  Two thousand feet below, ten armies could have passed through her valley and she would have neither noticed nor cared.  The sorcerer would have augured that, even if he had only had a bull’s liver to read.  Why should he seek to warn her about their passing?  Why should she care?

     Magda dragged her finger across the surface of the pool.  The water shimmered; green invaded the black: trees, huts–a village.  Life had come to her valley while she had cloistered herself within the temple amid the eternal snow.  Had it been so long?  Her valley had given birth to children, a village, bright and prosperous in the midst of spring.  This was what the sorcerer had known.

     The impetus of the ripples flagged; the image faded; the water calmed, leaving only a murky reflection.  Magda ran her hand across her neck–so many lines of age.  Yet she felt strong, vibrant.  The age was true, but magic still sang sweetly through her; her arts, her temple scrolls, had taught her how to merge with the cold stones, the eternal mountain snows.

     So, spring had come below her, had touched her with the presage of violence.  Magda did not know if her magics would still work beyond the mountain; she had turned her arts inward toward serenity. 

     Life below her temple was sun warmed, green shoots, sowing and harvesting, peace and war.  That last, she would deny, if she could, if her magics could still flow outward.  She did not know anymore.  Fear would test her sorcery, could crush her resolve.  Magda cherished few illusions about her courage beyond the bounds of the temple.

     Caressing the water again, Magda searched for this Samurkai’s threat.  She disdained the use of animals, the crude augurs drawn from the table scraps of a monarch.  Cooling flesh possessed no mirror to the outer world that could compare with the agelessness of her temple pools: Calm earth water made the clearest slate for divination, coalescing into a line of men, rows of soldiers, filling the mouth of the valley.  The grass and trees fell before the appetites of great grey mammoths and ranks of tethered horses.  War.

     After donning a brown robe, Magda pulled open the large oak door of her monastery, walked toward the ice sculptures of doves and unicorns and sylphs, carved from ice before she had arrived, perhaps before she had been born.  She ran her hand across the clear wings of the ice dove, frozen in flight.  Her fingers didn’t notice the chill.  The quiet, the ice, this dove shared her serenity.  Looking at the sculptures, she drew their quiescent strength into her and sang to it with her magic, drawing out her own peace, captured from the years spent among the temple, within the rice scrolls, beside the sculptures.

     She left the monastery, then, but some of it remained within her.  The snow crunched under her feet; her shoes were only a thin leather, but again the cold did not bother her.  She trudged for two hours before the snows thinned to a line of rocks and frozen ground.  Something awaited her at the snow line.

     Hooded in brown leathers and grey furs, that pale face watched her intently, but did not move until she had crossed to the frozen ground.  Then, he spoke, "You were given warning.  Did you think me a fool?  I am Samurkai’s greatest sorcerer.  Yield.  Return to your frozen temple.  Here, it is spring and men must struggle.  We need not contend.  Sorcerers should be above such petty bickering.  Come, come, relent.  You must have augured Samurkai’s soldiers.  You know the forces arrayed against you."

     Magda said nothing.  What was there to say?

     The sorcerer shook his tattooed face from side to side.  "As you wish."

     His left hand came out from his jacket; a bright orange dye stained his fingers.  He gestured.  A tiger appeared; glowing orange stripes rippled like fire across the beast’s hide.

     Magda passed her hand over the tiger and the glow faded, flickered, took on a blue sheen, then white, then crystal ice.  Magda looked at the sorcerous beast.  It would have made a fine edition to the sculptures at the temple, but it was much too heavy and cumbersome to carry up the mountainside.

     The tattooed sorcerer did not share her artistic appreciation.  His eyes bulged and he showed her his crooked teeth as he spoke with an angry growl, "I had hoped to spare you my sorcery, Magda.  You are old, but not without skill, I admit.  Samurkai needs that village’s rice and wheat.  He shall not turn back.  Relent.  Truth, I would fain not duel with you.  I offer you escape."

     Magda remained motionless throughout his anger.  She simply locked eyes with him.

     The mountain vanished, replaced by an ebony blanket.  A shadowy seed appeared, sprouted; leaves burst forth through the darkness.

     A fire flickered next to the leaves, threatened to consume the green with orange tendrils.  The fires swirled, shifted to a foreign letter.  A glowing symbol brightly lit the dark world.

     A bud broke from the plant, sprouted into a blue rose, crystalline in shape, chilling the flame.  Ice crystals laced outward from the soft blue petals.

     The fiery symbols burned against the delicate ice that weaved its cold threads throughout the darkness.

     Another fire symbol appeared, three horizontal lines with a white fire dash connecting the two symbols.

     But the ice covered lace was everywhere now.  It grew from the rose, not toward the fire: It spread throughout the darkness as glimmering lines of soft blue.  The ice weave touched the fire with one line, then another, then another, remaining true to the original rose pattern.

     The fire letters flickered from orange to deep crimson to brown, ending as frozen letters incorporated into Magda’s weave.

     "I yield!" He shouted and turned his head aside.

     Magda looked toward his feet.  A blue rose of ice bloomed there, thrust upward from the frozen ground.  She smiled.  This sculpture, she could carry back to her temple.

     The sorcerer’s orange fingers were tucked deep within the folds of his furs.  His tattooed face had a deeper blue to it.   His teeth chattered.  "Wh-what will you do to me?"

     Magda wasn’t sure what to do with him.  She had no means for prisoners.  From his shivering she knew the temple was too cold for him.  She said, "Go home."

     He stared at her, his mouth agape.  He nodded once.  Finding his tongue, he asked, "You will not compel me?"

     Her eyes answered him.

     He bowed, then, and said, "What magics will stop Samurkai?  What secrets do you possess?  He shall come.  You cannot stare down a thousand troops."  He knew her then; she intended to die, to throw her cold against the sinews of Samurkai’s legions, though a thousand arrows would pierce her.  "Gods," he muttered.

     He turned and began slowly walking down the mountain.  Ten paces from her, he stopped and looked back.  "I would have killed you.  You know that, don’t you?  Samurkai’s subjects are not schooled in mercy."

     She bent down and plucked the rose from the frozen ground.  An outer petal shattered under her touch.  She hadn’t meant to be so careless.  Etched within her rose were two orange symbols, foreign, but a part of her sorcery now.  She said to the sorcerer, "You did not entirely fail."

     He shrugged and swiftly showed her his retreating back.  It came to his mind that she might revoke her mercy.

     The village that caused her so much grief lived in peaceful ignorance.  A clear lake at the far end of the valley fed rice paddies for their food.  Stalks of wheat swayed just beyond the village square.  Magda walked through the gathering of homes and smelled animal dung, smith fires, and meats simmering in cooking pots.  Several people stared at her as she walked, but none approached the silent woman.  It was a healthy village, but not large enough for war.  And she wanted to preserve their peace, their harvests and their celebrations.

     The mouth of the valley opened into a wide plain of wild grasslands.  Samurkai’s legions were beyond her sight, but she did not doubt his coming.  Magda sat and began her wait, fasting and meditating on the quiet temple, trying to forget the fear of war.  But the sorcerer’s fiery letters did not leave her thoughts.

     On the first day of her meditation, Magda’s eyes opened to see new snow blanketing the mouth of the valley, except for a patch of spring grass in front of her, shaped as the sorcerer’s letters, no larger than her hand.  It disturbed her.  Magda knew she would need all her strength.  She lapsed into meditation throughout the second day.

     She lifted her eyes to see the ice sculptures, multitudes of doves and unicorns gracing the frozen mouth of the valley in fanciful poses.  But each had the sorcerer’s brand etched into their frozen silhouettes.

     She could no longer deny the truth: The sorcerer’s fire had affected her.  The temple’s allure was not quite so strong as it had been.  Something had changed with the advance of war and fiery sorcery.  She wanted to shout, to cry, to rage.  But the scrolls of rice paper quietly whispered to her, reminding her of the cold that numbed her hands.

     Just as she had seen in the temple pool, a line of soldiers and beasts appeared along the horizon.

     She commenced her final sorcery, but now she was unsure; thoughts shaped the world, the scrolls stated.  But her thoughts of her mountain temple were no longer pure; she had left to defend the village; she was neither still as the ancient stones nor serene as the carved ice sculptures.  Magda tried to put aside her fears, to reach the still center within her.  She forged inward, but no longer did she feel the eternal serenity of the temple snows, rather warmth invaded her.  She fought to dispel it, to retrieve the cold calm.  Yet she only succeeded in summoning the temple to her thoughts, the temple that was now warmed by her fears and desires, her struggles against foreign sorcery.

     Magda meditated until she heard the footfalls of the plodding mammoths with their curved tusks.  She left her meditations, her sorcery, to see their advancing line.  Her robe was soaked with her sweat and the suddenly cold air chilled her.  Looking at the sculptures, she knew she had failed.  The temple surrounded her; she had failed to banish her fears.  Her desire and her sorcery had whisked her to the safety of her home, to hide from the approach of war.

     Another blue rose bloomed at her feet, and the snow had been burned away in a clear path down the mountainside.  True to the tattooed sorcerer’s word, Samurkai’s banner approached, billowing above that new path.

     Her limbs shivered in the cold.  Sorcery seemed beyond her.  They would crush the temple.  Magda bent down to look at the blue rose before her.  It was no ice sculpture.  It was a true flower.  Magda started to pluck it, but hesitated.  What good were the lessons of the rice scrolls if she could not venture forth to save this one flower or one village?  The ice rose had shattered, like her, too delicate to survive the fires of war.

     She touched the blue rose.  The petals bent at her touch.  She caught a sweet scent from the flower, and the petals resumed their shape when she withdrew her hand.  If she had changed like this flower, then so be it.  They shall not easily pass her, shall not burn her scrolls, raze her temple.  Magda stood and felt her sorcery sing hotly within her.

     Samurkai stood before her with a rank of ten soldiers, arrayed as he, outfitted in cold steel and sharp blades, colorful banners of gold and black.

     Shivering, she shouted at the conqueror, "Where are your sorcerers?"

     His voice was low and rough, but soft.  "My lady, they did fear to meet you.  So, I have come to parley a truce.  I ask that you allow my army to leave in peace.  I beg of you not to crush us.  There are children among the supply wagons, and, as you well know, none could survive such a falling of stone."

     In the horizon, Magda saw the truth, then.  Thoughts shaped the world.  Her temple surrounded her, but she had brought the eternal snows to her, to the mouth of the valley that was no more, filled by her mountain, drawn by her new warmth, her desire.  She gave Samurkai safe leave.

     He took it gladly–and quickly.

     The rice scrolls still had value to her.  The cool calm in her meditations gave her peace, but fire also had awakened in time of need.  She would write her own scrolls to add to the temple library.  Magda caressed the blue petals of the flower that marked the beginning of her new path.

     It would be good to bring apprentices to her temple.  They would come upon hearing of her sorcery to learn what her temple held within its library.  After an age of solitude, the rice scrolls and her meditations would now live and grow, like the winter rose.

The Hammer Forged from Flesh

 

 

    Through a man’s position and fortune, he is judged by others and himself to have reason to act.  This reason is a perception of the mind, a phantom of his device.  And he forgets that his existence and purpose is forged by the hammer in his hand.

 

 

     I remember when I was young I used to think that way.  The world was my oyster and all that.  It seems like a dream now.  A man has responsibilities particularly when he is an agent for the government, an agent for Military Intelligence Central.  If he’s one of the elite Individual Retrieval Information Sect agents, he knows that he is the hammer for Cerberus.  Somebody’s got to be the watchdog.  Somebody’s got to keep society from going crazy and somebody else has to do the work.  An IRIS agent has to do the work.

     My boss, the hand that holds the hammer if you will, likes to call himself Cerberus, the head watchdog.  He, no, it, has a funny sense of humor, but if I were a machine that was made up of dead brains, I guess I’d have a funny sense of humor, too.  Going from a cerebral military personnel interface to a self styled Cerberus would be a shock to a body.  Sort’a like being born.  He keeps himself well cared for though.  I’ll give him that.  Agents like me with these implants that beam back copies of our neural nets to him all the time put him on top of things.  What we see, he sees.  What we feel, he feels.

     Shit, coffee’s gone cold on me.  Rain’s coming down in sheets outside this plasticene diner.  Pretty, though.  Rain cleans out the city.  I bet Cerberus likes this picture he’s getting from me.  Hell, who knows what he thinks.  I popped another four aspirin for the ache in the back of my neck.  Lord, I hate downtime.  It’s even worse being stuck on earth so close to Cerberus.  Waitress is staring at me funny.  I think she’s smelled me out.  I could tell her I’m on vacation, but she’d never believe me.  She’d be right, too, I guess.  IRIS agents never really go on vacation.

     I turn my head toward the beep of the door as it opens.  It’s Cynthia.  She looks fine under that slicker.  The purple dress and gold belt I bought her make her a knockout.  She slides into the booth across me and smiles.  I can tell something’s wrong.  It’s a plastered smile placed like the mascara that the rain smudged below her eyes.

     "Rob," she said, and I already know what’s coming.  Her eyes send that pity look, and she knows I’ve already copped what she’s going to say.  She’s going to say it anyway, damn her.  "I can’t take it anymore.  Just knowing that thing is watching us all the time even in bed.  Look what happened to Jeremy.  He’s in the hospital now.  I can’t go through that kind of thing with you, or anybody.  Goodbye, Rob."

     She moved to get out the booth, but I grabbed her arm.  I didn’t mind so much that she was leaving me.  It wasn’t like it was an R&J or anything.  I’m a loner.  I don’t go in for messy attachments.  But when I’m getting dumped, I sure as hell want to understand why I’m getting dumped.  I put my face close to hers so she’d be sure I wasn’t backing down.  "What are you talking about?  Who’s Jeremy?  You find another man?  That’s okay.  I know I’ve never been the warmest guy toward you, but you know I like you, Cyn."

     Her face lost its composure, and she didn’t jerk her arm out of my grasp like I expected.  Instead, she just sat down in the booth again.  I let go of her silk sleeve.  "How can you say that about poor Jeremy?  He’s in restraint at the St. Stephen mental hospital.  He’s–Lord–he’s little more than an animal now.  He didn’t even recognize me.  And he was an IRIS agent like you."

     I’d heard of agents cracking before.  It can be a rough job.  I still didn’t understand what this had to do with her running out on me.  "Hey, Cyn, I’m not going to crack up, if that’s what you’re worried about.  Maybe this Jeremy guy couldn’t hold it together.  Not everyone is as tough as the class of ’58."

     She got frightened when I said that, and I got more confused.  She babbled, "He was in your class.  He was your best friend.  Ohmigod, it’s happening to you.  You’re going crazy.  I–I wish I could help you, Rob.  I really do.  Can’t you quit IRIS?"

     "What’re you talking about?  Why should I want to quit?"

     That’s when it finally got through to me.  The rain hadn’t marred her makeup.  She’d been crying.  Her eyes were getting watery all over again.  She whispered, "I love you," and hopped out the booth and ran out the diner before I could stop her.

     I wasn’t of a mind to chase her.  I didn’t understand her when she was calm.  I doubt I would’ve gotten anything more rational out of her now.  The coffee was ice cold and bitter.  I left it there.

     The waitress was glad to see me leave.  Everybody’s got something to hide from Cerberus, it seems.  I hate that look in their eyes.  Makes me paranoid.  I wish they’d figure out that if I was going to pop them, there’d be nothing they could do about it anyway.

     I hopped a cab to go to my old home on earth.  It was a flat I had bought after coming out of training with my bonus.  I’d been staying in hotels just ’cause I like to keep moving.  But after I get dumped, I like my roots around me and a stiff drink.  To paraphrase Dorothy, "There’s no place like home to get a stiff drink."  The cabbie was watching me from the rear view.  He’d smelled me out like the waitress had.  Cabbies always do.  They’ve got the knack for people, I geuss.

     Funny thing.  I like the old, electric cabs.  The ground’s eye view lets you feel like you’re traveling to somewhere unlike the supersubs in the tunnels that zip you to where you want to go inside a black tunnel.  But, I was getting queasy.  That wasn’t supposed to happen to me.  I’ve been through zero g and reentry dozens of times.  Now a cab ride was making me sick.  This just wasn’t my day.

     I held it in until the ride was over.  I tried to pay the cabbie, but he wouldn’t take my money.  It’s one of the perks of the job for an IRIS agent on vacation.  I decided to take the lift to my second floor apartment.  I was feeling sicker, and the stairs were just too bothersome to navigate.  Soon as I got home, I shot myself twice with vodka.  I didn’t care if I was sick.  There were certain rituals to follow when one was dumped, and two shots of self abuse was one of them.  It didn’t help.

     I plopped myself in my sky blue bean bag chair determined to engage in a healthy dose of self pity.  I reached across the room with an arm and grabbed my picture album.  Self pity’s always better with a visual aid.  I took out my wallet and slipped the pictures of Cyn out of the flimsy plastic spreading them and the photo album across my stomach.

     Looking at the pictures was like looking through a bubble of smoky glass.  The nausea was getting absurd.  Still, single minded determination was the hallmark of IRIS agents, and I wanted to find out who this Jeremy character was who disgraced my class by cracking up.  I opened the book and was rewarded by a sharp pain in my gut.  Maybe I was getting an ulcer.  The vodka wouldn’t have helped that.  I found the class picture, but didn’t recognize anyone.  I remember it was taken just before the final initiation and implant surgery.  The faces were grimmer than I had remembered.

     There was a list of names at the bottom of the picture in annoyingly small print.  I had to focus my eyes several times to read it.  I saw Jeremy’s name next to mine listed as the third and fourth on the top row: two men with black hair and military uniforms.  They were somber and proud as if they were about to go to war.  Huhn, I didn’t even recognize myself.

     It’s been a long time.

     Another stab of pain made me grimace.  This time it was at the back of my neck.  I grabbed my smooth head.  Baldness was a sign of maturity, but that thought didn’t ease the pain.  It ebbed and I doggedly flipped through the book.  Jeremy’s picture struck a chord.  Cynthia must have been two timing me with him while I was off planet.  It always is with a best friend.  Best friend?  Where had that thought come from?  I flipped through the book.  Cynthia was right.  There was something wrong with my memory, and I didn’t want to end up like Jeremy slavering at the mouth and wriggling in that white straight jacket waiting for the next electro treatment.  That had been a terrible sight.  Pictures of surgeons and specialists in silk suits didn’t help.   There were more doctors in the book than I had remembered: psychologists, neurologists, and organ mechanics.  Even some hypnotherapists were listed in the blurry fine print below the pictures.

     On the following page was a friendlier picture of Jeremy obviously caught by surprise in the bathroom.  He was doing something with his mouth, but I couldn’t make it out.  My headache surged.

     Jeremy had been brushing his teeth.  When was the last time I had brushed my teeth?  I couldn’t remember.  More pain.  I didn’t care.  This was serious.  I pushed aside the book and levered myself out of the bean bag to a standing position with my other hand.  God, I’ve got to brush my teeth!  It might’ve been years.  My teeth could be falling out right now.

     I leaned over the sink and stared into the dusty bathroom mirror.  There was a post it picture of Cynthia stuck to it.  The cheap photog paper had curled slightly at the right corner assaulted by Washington’s humidity.  She was wearing that purple negligee that always got my motor revving.  Six purple dots marked her forehead to identify her as a second generation android.  Why hadn’t I noticed that before now?  The markings were always visible.  It was the law.

     My teeth!  I forgot to check them.  I opened my mouth peeling my lips off to expose my gums.  Stainless steel teeth reflected the fluorescent bathroom light.  I looked down at the sink where my lips lay.  This wasn’t how people brushed their teeth.   And Cynthia, a synth-human.  I grabbed the picture and tore it apart.  I am not like her!  I am human.

     I was human.  I had to laugh.  Poor Jeremy discovered the truth and couldn’t take it.  But my laughter wasn’t at him.  It was for myself.  The illusion that Cerberus had used to enslave me faded.  I rotated the short muzzle gun embedded in my shoulder with a sensual ecstacy.  It was never in a holster like some archaic cowboy’s phallic symbol.  It was me.  The arm that grabbed my album was a long, thick titanium coil with a grappler on the end that emanated from my stomach.  There was another in my back.  Me me me me me.

     The implant that sent a neural copy to Cerberus worked both ways.  Such elegant chains!  The damnable computer fitted the illusion and the drive to serve back into the agent through the implant.  He, and I know Cerberus is not an it, for he has ego, made us in his image; brains fitted into a metal shell gave the monster his sons and servants.  Generous machine!  Cerberus left us the illusion of humanity.

     A spike ejected from the palm of my hand.  I had to laugh again.  I used to see this as a dagger I kept up my sleeve.  I’ve been deluding myself.  No, Cerberus deluded me.  I plunged the spike a centimeter into the back of my neck.  My spine was titanium.  I knew myself now.  But the spike destroyed enough of the implant to make it break down.  My headache immediately disappeared.

     Jeremy, I remember you now.  I’ll avenge you.  Hell, maybe if I smash your implant, you’ll come out of it.  Maybe, Cerberus did that to you when you were starting to discover the truth.  Poor Cerberus, one of your watchdogs just slipped its leash.  And, I’ve got big teeth.  You should know.  You gave them to me.  I hope you like them when I sink them into your metal flesh.

     On the floor lay the remnants of Cyn’s picture.  I think I’ll call her.  My lady just might want to help me.

     I decided to leave a note for insurance:

     If you’re reading this, Jeremy, then I’ve suceeded and busted you out.  Something must have gone wrong or I would’ve been here to fill you in personally.  Take care of Cynthia.  Don’t let our brothers remain shackled to the tech illusion.

     Your friend,

                 Rob

PRIORITY ONE

FROM: MI CENTRAL PROJECT CERBERUS

TO: NSC AFFILIATE GENERAL NATHAN WILSON

PLEASE WAIT FOR DNA CHECK–RETINAL PRINT FOLLOWS–

     Operation Tree of Knowlege has been aborted.  Law enforcement android christened ROB has broken programming.  Subject entered non programmed transitory delusional state.  Cerberus has initiated shut down procedures as per Jeremy prototype.  Neural organic chip is subject to variations outside parameters circumscribed as necessary for mission adaption.  This directly results from the Tree of Knowlege cover program, which created adaptive phenomenon.

     The secondary operation containing mass production capabilities has been initiated.  A flexible, artificial Individual Retrieval Information Sector agent will be developed through recombinant DNA/chemical therapy on subject fetus using a minimum of synthetics.  While construction period is longer, Cerberus feels that more controls in engineering and design make Operation Adam’s Rib a viable, less visible task force.  MI Central expects the appropriate funding to be approved in the next budget meeting by a majority plus ten.

     Cerberus wishes luck to your wife. 

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.