her sit in his shade and drink some water. "You're going to look like a broiled
lobster," he remarked.
feel like one," she said, lifting her face as the faintest of breezes swept her
face. "Damn it," she sighed. "Just a teaser." As she shifted, the rocky sand
crackled and crunched beneath her hiking boots. She closed her eyes to dream of
more breezes. "Tell me about -" she began. Her eyes popped open and she told
Josh, "There's someone...a man. It's
"Good," Josh sighed.
"Because I'm getting the
"Yeah. Stay here,
while I go about 100 metres that way." He headed down the slight incline, moving
nearly at a jog across the sandy soil. Ren listened to the crunching steps, and
watched the untouched surface marked with the pattern of his boots. When he
waved at her, she punched in his number. "What direction do you get?" she
"Northwest. What about
She focused on the
wavelength of that other individual - the one who was emitting all kinds of
distress and fear. "Just east of north," she said.
She could hear the smile in
Josh's voice. "See you there," he replied.
you think you're doing?" James had to scoot the chair to one side so Dustin
could finish climbing out of the bed. The plastic at the base of the chair legs
gave out an obnoxious rubbery squawk that grated on his nerves. "Damn, but
you're rude! Still visiting, you
"And I can't tell you
how much I'm enjoying it." Dustin turned his back, hopped over to the closet,
and pulled out the small suitcase Josh had brought over - when was it? two
"Duty call. If
I'd known it was going to make you crazed I would've waited." James lifted his
eyebrows when Dusty got impatient with the IV stand and yanked out the needle.
"Excuse me, but I don't think that's part of your
"I should've known
that my stunt with Josh would have some kind of backlash," Dustin said angrily,
as he tugged on a shirt. "Either that, or this is payback for Ren's healing
efforts. Moving her far away so she can't be contaminated by my 'fight for
insurgent," James said calmly. "Maybe they want to switch the mix to find out if
Josh is the trigger."
Doesn't that worry you a little?" He perched on the edge of the bed and gingerly
slid his sore leg into his pants.
"Hey, I work in geological
time. Old rock, new rock, what do I care? If you're going somewhere, you'd
better take along a prescription. Unless you prefer being
There must be some prescription written up somewhere, if they planned on having
me go off, filming
No gyrating lava or tapdancing pumice, please. Besides, that was a future event.
Say, two to three weeks in the future. Something to occupy your mind while you
"Or convince me to
run to Erik for help." Dustin was stuffing miscellanea out of the drawer into
his bag now. "More manipulation. Even when we think we're fucking them, they're
actually fucking us." He sounded tired, and he sat down on the edge of the
Dustin said grimly. He went to stand up again, but he just didn't have the
strength. "I'm not going to go running
obvious you're not running anywhere." James forced him back into bed and propped
his leg on a pillow.
"What are you on
about?" Dustin asked
Spanish. Don't worry about it. I'll do the talking for you," James said with
exaggerated kindness. "'Mi amigo es muy gordo.'
"'My friend is very
"Loses something in
more like it. You're coming to Mexico with
"I'm a volcanophile. I
can't deny my calling."
"We'll look for one in
Mexico. C'mon, Jamie. Maybe I'll find you a nice
James retorted sarcastically. He gave a dramatic sigh. "I should've known the
only pyroclastics I was going to get on this trip were your half-baked
asleep in his arms, her head on his shoulder, one hand on his chest. Lawrence
Valterzar was feeling raw - as new and exposed as an open wound. The only thing
was, it didn't hurt - yet.
But it would. He'd read too
much, seen too much. Talked to too many patients. Witnessed too many of life's
failures in the voices of those who'd suffered emotional turmoil. It was this -
this angst - that had kept him at a distance for so
Except, he could no
longer live vicariously. His avoidance had gone from being the pure gesture of
the objective observer, to the unhealthily vicarious role of the voyeur. If he'd
denied what he was feeling for this woman at his side, after she'd so willingly
exposed her spirit to him, he would have been wronging her - and himself. She
hadn't confided in him because she needed a friend, or because he was supposed
to be the one with solutions. She'd spoken because he was her "Zar", and she was
vulnerable. In too much pain and fear to continue the charade. She'd needed
- not the role he'd agreed to play.
He loved her. He'd loved her
and denied it for so long that he'd no longer known which was stronger - the
truth or the lie. Until, for the first time, she'd needed him, and it broke down
all the barriers. Her need had made it natural - easy, even - to surmount any
obstacles his logic laid in his path. Things like ethics, and the need to keep
his distance in order to perform his job; the problems of viewing all members of
his "Cluster" in an equal light, so that he could make judgment calls without
discrimination. His responsibility to make himself available to the others, when
all he could think of was being with
Now, his being with her
was about to be challenged. He could sense it coming, even as she lay innocently
asleep. From what she'd said, he guessed that there'd been little sleep for her
recently - that she'd fought off the advances of her admirer by giving him no
openings. It was only when exhaustion had trapped her that he'd sneaked in, to
catch her unaware.
moments, Zar was more naked that he'd ever been in his life. If he'd felt
vulnerable moments before, it was nothing to what he was feeling now.
It was filling the corners
of the room. A condensation of space that made the dimensions of the room so
much smaller. So dense, and chill.
Like the confines of his
coffin. Zar sensed it - the bitterness, the twisted anger that could only be
assuaged by tormenting the weak. Pseudo-strength bought by diminishing others.
Zar moved to wake her, to warn her, then paused. The bully would taunt, would
threaten if she were awake - but he wouldn't show himself. He needed to use a
weakness to bring himself forth. Then, he'd manipulate that weakness to belittle
With him, it would
always be women. Zar knew him then. Just another predator who preyed on a
woman's trust. Zar's eyes narrowed. Come in,
he pleaded. Come in.
Something savage was stirring inside Zar, as he lay there, deceptively silent,
and stared at the gathering darkness through narrowed lids. The churning inside
owed nothing to nerves - if anything, it was anticipation. Zar fought to
suppress a smile.
of his brain was trying to shout a warning, but he ignored it. "That" part of
his brain didn't know how to handle this, but there was some instinctive part
that did. Some part that was actually looking forward to it.
Merrie stirred now,
and stiffened, as she sensed the violence in the room. She reached for him but
he shook his head. "Best if you don't touch me," he warned. He stood up, naked,
but feeling far from vulnerable now. The darkness gathered around him.
It was trying to crowd him.
Waves of billowing black with odd glimmers of light that could mould a hand, or
an arm. Pseudo-humanity attempting to prove itself through an act of remembered
virulence. Zar wanted to laugh as it attempted to jostle him - to crowd him much
as a knife-wielder might in a dark alley. "Wanna rumble?" Zar said harshly. He
was actually smiling, as, palm-extended, he shoved his hand into the densest
mass of swirling black. "Die,
Fucker," he said
The black began to
whirl faster, and Merrie covered her ears against the wails that filled the
room. The black condensed still further, becoming swirling strings of black
matter - thick, gooey, with a viscousness that flowed back and forth between
Zar squinted and
slowly drew his fingers into a fist. As his fingers curved, they seemed to draw
the black with them. The gyrating vortex upped in intensity, but it now had an
irregular wobble that grew worse as the vortex narrowed. As his hand closed, the
blackness tore into his fist with a whine reminiscent of swift-singing wind.
It disappeared, with a
tremendous bang that shivered the walls of the
Zar dusted off his palm
distastefully, then turned to look at her. It would be a while before he could
calm down. His adrenaline was still pulsing, and some of that primitive sense of
domination was still with
She reached for him, but
he shook his head. "If I take you now, it won't be love," he warned her in a
growl. Lust, pure and simple. The need to dominate. To rape, if that's what it
took to make her his.
had to know.
She pulled back
the covers and spread her legs. As he mounted her in a frenzied,
passion-pounding release that bore no resemblance to their former lovemaking,
her insides swelled to meet him, and she came, again and again. Not love?
She whispered huskily, "It is for me."
could have warned us,
Ren thought worriedly as she hauled her sweaty body
across yet another empty-looking swathe of desert. Josh was emitting similar
patterns of worried impatience, and the beginnings of frustration. There was a
huge difference between liberating a few leaves from a plant, and liberating a
person from a downed plane.
I'm not that kind of
She hoped Josh was better versed in first aid than she was. The mini
kits they were carrying in their packs were hardly stocked to cope with a severe
injury. The most they could hope for was to keep the man alive while they broke
radio silence and called for help.
They should have asked
Erik along. Maybe they thought he wouldn't go - or maybe they thought the pilot
was already dead.
was of a different opinion. She punched in his number. "I don't think you should
be so negative, Josh. If they didn't care, they wouldn't have sent
us." "Will you cut that
he complained. "I let down my guard for an instant, and you're in
there, picking my brain!"
wasn't that way. I was thinking how hard this might be, and what may have
motivated them to send us instead of Erik. And your thoughts sort of 'sifted
in'." She sounded slightly
Josh was hot and
sweaty and frustrated. "Maybe. It's still
"What about those
times you described my underwear to Dustin?" she
"That was years ago
-" he began.
"Are you trying
to tell me you never do that kind of thing now? You never meet somebody and pry,
just a little, to see what they're made of?" There was silence on the other end.
Ren added, "Seems to me I recall, just last week, some jokes about Dr.
Arbuthott's inadequate lecture notes. Something about how lucky he was to
bullshit his way through it." She sniffed loudly, into the phone. "I thought we
were working together," Ren went on sadly. "I mean that, Josh - I never would've
pried. I-I didn't mean
"That's okay, Ren. I was
just giving you a hard time. Don't take it so hard -" He went quiet when the
sound of her laughter came buzzing through the phone. He grinned and shook his
head. "I'll get you for that one, Magnus." The tone of his voice changed. "Ren,
how close are you?"
if I know! Why?"
I've found it," he said
She took a nervous
breath. "Wait for me, Josh. I'll hurry." She tuned into him for a moment, sensed
he was deliberating going in without her, and added, "Promise me. Because if you
damn well hurt yourself, I'm probably going to have to heal you - and you'll
have to live with that!"
was circuitous, but he got it. "All right," he grouched. "But quit picking the
flowers and move your
Ren smirked, shoved
the last of the plant samples in her pack, and took off at a run.
ask the nurse for something? For pain?" Dustin leaned back against the
"No problem." At the
door James hesitated, looked at him obliquely, then said jokingly, "Don't go
door had swooshed closed, Dusty counted to five, then climbed back out of bed.
He snatched up the IV bag and its replacement, plus the antibiotic infusion that
was meant to feed into it. Enough to get him to Mexico, then he'd find a
pharmacy to refill the prescription. He wrapped the lot in a spare shirt and
then in a plastic bag.
was no way he could carry the suitcase. Instead, he popped it open, snatched up
his wallet and phone and headed for the window. After checking for foot traffic,
he tossed out the crutches, then eyed the distance to the ground. One floor.
would be pissed off, but he'd get over it. He'd also know why. He'd want to put
the trip off. Jamie was a bugger for caution. No wonder, given the nature of his
gift. He'd want to wait, until Dustin was stronger.
It didn't matter that Jamie
was right. Because he hadn't been there when a dinosaur had come charging out of
the past and into the present. Dustin doubted whether even the evidence of his
holey leg could get through to James or Merrie or Valterzar. It was like
happening on an accident, after the victims had been patched up. Erik might have
some idea, because he'd done some of the patching. But the others wouldn't. As
much as they might object to being experimented on, they wouldn't really know
what they were dealing with.
Any more than Symtech did.
Dustin was more scared than
he wanted to admit. He and Josh had spent lots of time together, but this kind
of thing had never happened before. Oh, Dusty had bouts of retro, but nothing
with the "graphic" intensity of those moments in the flatlands.
He had to know. He wouldn't
be able to sleep until he knew. Whether it was a fluke, weird timing, their
proximity, sunspots, or the way his life was going to be from now on. Whether
standing on a nonexistent road would send a chariot careening into his body, or
if landing in an empty field would end with a broadsword in the butt. Whether
something about him had changed, to bring his "retro" into the present.
If he was the catalyst for
this, then they shouldn't be pairing him - with anybody. And he certainly
shouldn't be considering pairing himself permanently with Ren.
Which made an impromptu trip
to Mexico foolish, irresponsible - perhaps, even, reprehensible. A disaster,
from the antibiotics he needed for his leg to the uncertainty about what he'd do
when he got there.
came down to it, though, none of that mattered. Because Ren was there, and Josh,
who was one of his closest friends. If he was worried about them, he had every
right to pay them a visit.
He swung down from the
window, gritted his teeth and let go.
He lay there, his world
momentarily eclipsed by pain. Then he grabbed his plastic bag and his crutches
and forced himself to his
Every right in the
Valterzar clicked "End" then sat there, tapping the phone against his chin. He
was trying to decide what to do. They'd alerted him, of course, as soon as
Dustin had left the hospital.
Lawrence stared a little
dubiously at the phone. Despite their threats, they apparently had no intention
of firing him.
person he'd phoned had been James Wickham. James had sounded surprised - so
surprised that Lawrence suspected he knew exactly where Dustin had gone.
It would be easy enough to
trace Dusty's movements through Symtech - to track his credit cards or ATM, but
that's not the way Lawrence wanted to do it. Not if he believed his own claims
that Dustin Mallory was both independent and self-determined.
This wasn't merely an
extension of Dustin's independence day - he was headed somewhere. After all,
he'd pulled off the self-save, without Erik's intervention. He had no need to
leave unless he had somewhere better to go. Lawrence could think of only one
place that would seem "better" to Dustin - and that was wherever Ren happened to
Once again, Lawrence felt
that repugnance at interfering with the man's life. He'd hate it if someone did
it to him. Why did they have to follow Mallory around as though he were a
Because he was acting
like one? Taking off, telling no one where he was going to
be? And if I wanted to do
Why shouldn't he?
was smart - maybe he had all the logistics worked out. If he wanted to visit his
girlfriend in Mexico, who had the right to stop
him? And if his
girlfriend's engaged in some government brouhaha that doesn't bear close
examination? Who draws the lines
Lawrence was in a
bind. If he sent people in to bring Dustin back, it could alienate him from the
man forever. That wasn't something Lawrence wanted to do. Not only did he
consider Dusty a friend - he had a lot of respect for him, too. A token of that
respect had been his own nonappearance at the hospital while Dustin was
recuperating. That way, there could be no misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
Lawrence had hoped he'd make it clear that noninterference was the new status
quo. That help would only be forthcoming if Mallory wanted
In its own way, it was a
fantasy, because Charles Smythe and Marc Jekkes were not about to allow Dustin
or any of the others to wander around unprotected. They had too much to lose
through a misstep - whether by
their charges or to
them. That was
what was getting them now: Dustin had managed to lose his "protectors",
Which made the question
of whether Lawrence Valterzar was going to Mexico merely an exercise in
rhetoric. For all intents and purposes, he was already on his way.
knew he had a major problem. He'd already run into two Olmecs and a couple of
Santa Anna's men. He'd nearly been hit by a bus, because a steer had charged him
somewhere in the centre of town. Now, he was in the middle of a square,
surrounded by women in long dresses. So far, nothing out of the past had tackled
him, but the present was a far greater threat. Usually, his episodes were
intermittent. Today - probably due to the medication he was taking - he'd had
three episodes in as many hours.
He'd never make it to
wherever Ren was at this point. That was the other thing: he had no way of
knowing exactly where she was. He'd somehow thought, given their natures, that
some kind of "psychic beacon" would flare up in the muddle of his mind. It was
obvious now that the painkillers had worn off - boy, had they worn off!
that he hadn't been thinking clearly. At the rate he was going, he'd be more
likely to see what happened to her yesterday, than
across his skin, and some of the weariness left his face. He'd never tried it,
but it might just work. He grinned, and flagged down a taxi. Time to go back to
you see?" Ren asked him.
are you whispering?" Josh asked. "Afraid a stray lizard might
"There's a man in
there," Ren explained, "so don't be
dubiously at the wreckage. The small cargo plane had slid along the desert
floor, then ploughed into one of the sandstone mini mounts. It was more than a
little crunched, and layered with sandy soil and rock. "He's not going to be too
healthy," Josh remarked
"How's your first
"Probably on a par with
"You realise that
doesn't say much. Can't you focus on a medical manual or something?"
He realised she was halfway
serious. "No real focal point. What about you?" he asked hopefully. "Any chance
of getting internet access on your phone, so we can get some
She shook her head.
"The best I could do is send out the emergency signal, and hope they hear
Josh nodded, and started
across the rubble. "They never leave us alone, and then the one time we'd really
like to see them, they play hard to
"Maybe they didn't
expect us to wander so far away from where they'd sent us."
The rocks crunched under
Josh's feet, making each step uncomfortably loud. "Wish I could tiptoe," he
hissed. He squatted down and began to paw at the soil that was blocking the
door. "Hotcha-la-lacha!" he complained. "And this is in the
"Why are you
whispering?" Ren asked him. Josh shrugged. "I'll try the other side." Her
crunch, though quieter, was still too conspicuous. Why am I worried about
answer filtered into her head the next second. She'd been interpreting the
victim's mindset as indicative of pain, panic, terror. She'd just realised
something else: this was not a "nice" man. He had murder on his
Ren came tearing back
around the fuselage, and ran smack into Josh, who'd been running back the other
way. The thud stunned them both, and they splayed on the ground.
"Didn't your 'telepathy'
tell you where I was?" Josh
Ren was panting in
the heat, and she jerked her hands away from the burning soil. "He's a bad guy,
you jerk!" she hissed to
He nodded, rubbing his
head where it had hit the metal. "And he has a gun," Josh replied. He looked
warily at the bent fuselage. "What the hell are we going to do now?"
tried "directing" it before. He'd never had a reason to. The closest he'd come
had been that time with Josh, when he'd tried hunting for his
Should that be a
warning? Was that what had gone wrong? Had he been concentrating so hard that
he'd not only brought part of the past into his head - he'd brought part of
himself into the past?
the happiest conclusion, but it might be one he could live with. As long as he
didn't willingly call events forth, they might remain what they were before: a
glimpse, a scene, a small enactment of the past.
Sooner or later, I'm
going to have to test it
It sounded like a
good excuse for doing exactly what he wanted to do. Common sense told him he'd
be a lot better off running his "tests" in a less public location, with a
suitable back-up. That plan had several marks against it, though: the only ones
who would really tolerate the "testing" were the very people who might interfere
with it. And, if his back-up included someone like Valterzar, any feedback would
soon be in a report on somebody else's
desk. If it's me, all by
my lonesome, who caused this
- his hand pressed the sore spot on his thigh -
then it was on a "need to know" basis only. In Dusty's mind, the only people who
needed to know were Josh and Ren. Josh, so he wouldn't have to worry about
himself any more, and Ren because she needed to make an informed decision. If
necessary, he'd inform her, tell her he'd try like hell not to do it again, and
see if she'd take him on, flaws and
It sounded good - almost
enough to excuse his present bout of stupidity. Besides, what was one more
botch? Dusty smirked. He'd created a climate for himself - an atmosphere of
freedom. Dependency be damned. I can do this.
If he could just focus,
on Ren or Josh...
it'd be easiest to pick up on Ren. All the rest of his body was focussed on her.
Why not that part of his brain,
They would have picked
up a rental car. Dustin headed for the rental
He was a little
surprised at his own enthusiasm.
Don't get cocky.
Remember what happened last
But it did little
to daunt him. His excitement was building. This was only the second time in his
entire life he'd actively summoned a "vision", and the last time it had been a
"roaring" success. He grinned. "Roaring" in all aspects of the word.
He realised this was also
one of the few times he'd actually felt free. The freedom he'd gained at the
hospital, or even by leaving it - was a farce. He'd spent his life working
around his retrocognition; trying to survive the episodes; trying to hide how
much he was haunted by the past from everyone around him in the present. He'd
played the bumbling fool who tripped and fell and was laughed at or pitied, for
a clumsiness he didn't possess. He'd been crippled by his loss of focus on this
world because he was grasping the next. Was it really possible he could control
it? If I can focus enough
to bring it in, logic suggests I can control an episode - make it on my
He knew better than to think he could stop them. When they came, it
was like something opening inside that burst into being.
But if I can control the
"when" and the "where", then I really will be free.
Gooseflesh rode his skin
once more, and his eyes glinted with
He sat down on a
bench, and watched the rental desk. The more he considered it, the less risky it
seemed. Hell, the world hadn't changed much in the last three days. He should be
able to manoeuvre all right, too, if he needed to follow
He rubbed his hands
together. History, and none of it
It was all a
matter of mindset. The feeling was easy to recognise. Most of the time when he
felt it, he was trying to avoid a "lapse". Right now, he'd welcome
one. Ren. His Kitten.
He wondered, if they
went their separate ways, if he'd just vegetate, using any newfound control to
replay the scenes with her, again and
again... Focus, Dustin.
It sometimes made him
sick - almost like motion sickness - at the sudden transition of time and place.
It was something he'd begun to emulate in his graphics work, but some customers
had complained. Too much vertigo,
they'd claimed. Throws the viewer
only knew the number of times he'd ended up on his
It was happening now
and Dustin clung to the bench; glad to see that it, at least, was remaining the
same. The people, the luggage, even some of the signs, did a fast-whirring
fade-out that made him giddy. Dustin was beginning to realise that a total
transition was easier on his equilibrium than this half-assed skipping he'd
somehow initiated. He closed his eyes and focussed on Ren. Any more jouncing and
bouncing and he'd toss his cookies - right here in the middle of the
He counted to three
and opened his eyes - and she was there.
just 'leave him to it'!" Ren complained. "He's a human being -
despite his warped
human being," Josh retorted. "Armed and alarmed do not a good
had Jamie here."
snorted. "What do you expect? Him to whip that gun right out of the creep's
Ren flared. "Or
something else, to distract him
"You're nuts!" Josh told
her. "You can't stop a bullet with good
"At least I
'good intentions'! 'So gather your fungus and let them
get him'," she mimicked. "What kind of compassion is
"I don't need to show
compassion for someone trying to kill
Their argument was
interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. It was muffled by the fuselage, but still
loud enough to make them both jump back.
A voice rose plaintively
from inside the plane. "Will you shut up?!"
it shouted. "Or the next
one's through my head - so this 'creep' can put his 'warped personality' out of
to remember that she wasn't seeing him the way he was seeing her. In some ways,
it made him feel like a sicko - as though he was some perverted voyeur watching
homespun movies. To rid himself of the less than virtuous thoughts that were
suddenly running through his head, he studiously ignored the curve of her
breasts, the way her butt looked in those jeans -
He switched his eyes
to Josh's face, and it brought a smile to his own. Apparently, Josh and Ren had
been arguing again. Now, it was over who was going to
"I've driven desert
roads before!" Josh was saying. "Do it all the
"'Deserted', I'd trust
you on. Curved, I won't," she
feel his grasp slipping slightly. He came in closer and tripped over something
he couldn't see. His slipped on his dark glasses. He'd learned a long time ago
people would forgive a blind man any degree of clumsiness. One on crutches
they'd do their best to
avoid. Where are you
wouldn't want to, because it was supposed to be
That didn't bother
Josh. "Where do you think Chihuahua is?" he asked angrily. "Why do you have to
be so damned difficult?"
being reasonable -"
couldn't resist. He leaned forward, and brushed a kiss across those agitated
"What?" Josh asked,
a little alarmed at her expression. "What is
"Dusty," she replied. In
that instant, she looked right at him. "Are you okay?" she
All Dustin had time
for was a smile. In the next moment, she and Josh and that brief glimpse of
history, were gone.***
from the dented fuselage to Ren and smirked. "Don't we feel stupid!" he
"Speak for yourself,
Joshua." She smiled at him
Kithren." He yelled to the guy inside, "Where's the best place to get
"Why did they send
stupid people?" the man complained in
"I think that means
he wants us to use the door," Ren said. She grabbed a piece of debris, wrapped
it with her shirttail and started digging.
It took them nearly an hour
to clear the door enough to open it. By that time, the sun was beating down on
their backs. They were both soaked in sweat with blistered hands. Ren didn't
know if the blisters were more from the work or the
"What's taking so
long?" the man asked. "It's like an oven in
"You're lucky there's
a door left to clear," Josh retorted. "And as to that 'stupid people' comment?
We weren't the ones flying the
"Good one, Josh," Ren
"I have my moments," he
spun back in another violent swirl of colour and noise. This kind of purposeful
retrocognition seemed to wobble his brain. Even after a glimpse of his
surroundings told him he was back where he'd started, the vertigo continued.
Dustin stood there, eyes closed, leaning on the crutches. He remained still,
trying to tune out the anxious inquires around him. He shook his head, which
only made it worse.
truth was, he was terrified to move. He'd never had vertigo like this
He was going to lose
it. He knew it right now and there was nothing he could do. His flesh had that
ice-cold feel and his stomach was churning. The next moment, there was a hand
under his arm, holding him up. "Take the crutches," someone said. Then, whoever
it was held a bag while Dustin heaved his guts out. It was mortifying, damn
weakening, and it seemed to take forever. At the end of it, he couldn't even
There were bodies on
either side of him now, hauling him out of the airport, and a familiar voice
said, "Way to be discreet, Dusty."
The next second Merrie's
despair cut through his distress. She sounded shocked - appalled, even.
she gasped. "Josh - Ren!"
They halted, and Dustin
realised it was Valterzar on his right. He could feel his muscles
"What about them?"
Valterzar asked worriedly. But this was Merrie talking, and they already knew.
Even Dustin knew - but until she said the words, there was still
hope. No hope.
started sobbing; rough, choking gasps that came from deep inside. "Josh and Ren
- they-they're dead."
words, Dustin opened his eyes. He tried to focus on her, and for a brief moment,
their eyes locked. Then, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he sagged into
gone. All of them. It took Erik only a few minutes to realise that what he was
feeling was panic.
stupid. Old friends, yeah, but he could live without 'em. He'd been practising
that very thing for the last four years. Practised it so well, in fact, that
he'd alienated Dusty and James. Josh thought his showmanship was amusing, but
Ren - the only one he really cared about impressing - was disgusted with him.
She thought he should be doing it for free. Merrie didn't make judgment calls,
but then, she had too much other shit to deal with to worry about minor matters
like ingratitude and greed.
Erik went to visit her a
lot. Despite his claims to the contrary, it gave him a good feeling to think he
could absolve a failure at her door. A friend to tell him it was okay - that
failures came in the life and death business both.
Even if you're getting
paid well for your successes...
Merrie's specialties were in
distractions for the living and the dead. She, like he, was caught somewhere
in-between. Between his guilt, his efforts for people that sometimes left him
feeling soiled, and his occasional losses, Erik needed all the distractions he
There'd been a
time two years ago when his ego had gotten out of line. He'd found he was
beginning to hate some of the people he was working on, and believed he could
pick and choose - selectively heal. For a kid who'd grown up with a staunch
religious upbringing - which had become even stauncher once his parents realised
what he could do - his healing had seemed like some kind of gift from God. He'd
healed scraped knees on the playground, bloody noses and papercuts. Only, he
couldn't heal his own. His efforts were frequently repaid with fists in the face
- with punches and pounding and kicks in the butt. Then there'd come the day
when one of the persecutors had scraped a knee. He'd looked at Erik expectantly:
Heal me, you little dickweed.
Erik couldn't refuse him - his religious
upbringing wouldn't allow it. "Turn the other cheek." But, something had gone
The scrape hadn't
crusted and healed over - it had begun to bleed and bleed, the ripped portion
spreading halfway down the bully's calf. Erik jerked his hands away, but by that
time, both he and the bully were
They'd moved him
to a special school after that. Very special, but he'd met the best friends he'd
ever had. People who were troubled by phenomena, just as he was. He could relax
and be himself.
It was only
when he'd tried to be more than himself that he'd run into trouble again. His
success had led him to think of his former allies as failures. Worse than that:
fools. He wanted to leave them behind to wallow in whatever subjugation Symtech
put on them, while he moved on to bigger things. He'd become so sure of himself
and his own abilities that he'd opted to up his prices and deselect the
He'd had two
incidents that he'd never forget. He'd made a woman's tumour grow by mistake,
and occluded a man's arteries. He'd tried to think of it as a bad week, when
cosmic forces were somehow aligned against him, but he knew the next time, as
his hands hovered over a diamond-studded beltbuckle, that it wasn't anything
It was him.
His hatred and self-disgust
were mutating his healing into something else. It was the bully in the
playground problem all over again. Only this time, he had a feeling the "bully"
was his own distorted self-image. He'd taken the role of judge on himself, and
he was meting out punishments to his clients.
He'd lowered his hands
quickly, before he could damage the diamond belt-owner's health further.
Symtech had bailed him out
of his failures - all without a word, of course - which had made him realise he
was nowhere near as "free" as he'd claimed. He hadn't killed anyone; merely made
their lives a whole lot more uncomfortable, and surgery a lot more imperative,
which had almost been enough to make him discount it. Almost - but not quite.
He'd no longer gone into a healing flippantly.
And he'd no longer been
selective about whom he was going to
Now, though, as he
knocked, again and again, on Josh's door, he realised how close he'd come to
losing more than his healing spirit. Where were they? Just like with Dustin,
Erik wanted to be there, to back them up.
As much as he'd once wanted
to leave them behind, he now regretted whatever decision they'd made, to leave
had buckled in the crash. "More goddamn complications!" Josh complained. "You
still alive in there?" he bellowed.
"You're taking so long I was
gonna ask you the same thing!"
Ren scowled. "It's so
irritating, to have an ungrateful
Josh just glared at
"Don't give me that
look! If we had the truck, we could have been out of here an hour ago! And we
wouldn't have to walk back across the goddamn
"They said 'sneak'.
How the hell can you sneak with a goddamn
She didn't say any
more - just looked around till she found a metal rod they could use as a
crowbar. With both of them heaving and tugging, the door finally gave, with an
enormously loud cracking boom. Josh and Ren gave, too, landing in a heap as the
door was sprung open.
got up into a crouch, then poked his head into the cabin. "Yoo hoo!" he yelled.
Frowning, he climbed in. Ren came in behind him. "Come out, come out, wherever
They called, they
threatened, they cajoled and in the end they gave up. The fungus was there, Ren
was certain, in the doctored rice that stood in bags along the fuselage. But
that was all.
The cabin was
twelve hours," James remarked. He watched Valterzar adjust the IV and take
Dustin's pulse. Zar checked his pupils again, took his temperature, then rolled
him on his side and checked the dressing on his leg for signs of suppuration.
James got the impression Zar
was busying himself to take his mind off his concerns - and his grief. Jamie
didn't have to be telepathic to realise Josh's and Ren's deaths had hit
"He should be
in a hospital, but that's not in the programme," Valterzar told him. "I'm doing
all I can, short of calling
"Erik'll be here,"
Merrie told him. "You don't have to call
James looked at her
doubtfully. He didn't say it, but she knew what he was
"He had a lot of
resentment to work through, but he misses you, Jamie. All of
James settled back in a
chair. "How can you tell?" he asked Merrie. There was more than a trace of
bitterness in his voice. Josh, Ren gone. Dusty could well be on his way out.
Somehow, he'd never thought his circle of friends would be narrowed down to
Merrie, Erik and "Zar". He wanted to cry, but he couldn't. Wanted to yell, but
that was out, too. I'd
settle for punching someone's face in
He was looking in the
mirror. All of a sudden, a vase full of artificial flowers flew across the room
and slammed into the glass, shattering it. Valterzar shot him an angry look.
James merely slumped further
in the chair. "Pardon," he said
"Better you than
someone else," Zar retorted, deliberately turning his back. Unwilling to turn
his frustration on someone else, James had shattered his own reflection.
Suddenly, James couldn't
stand it any more. "I need to know how it happened," he told Merrie.
"Merrie -" Valterzar
"It's all right,
Zar." She sat down on the chair, and took an unseeing look around the hotel
room. Zar knew she was trying to steady herself enough to speak without crying
again. She sighed deeply, then described that last, horrific scene, "A crashed
plane. In the desert. J-Josh had holes in-in his
"And Ren?" It was
Dusty's voice. He was lying there, one hand clasped over his eyes. His voice was
husky. "What happened to
"Her head," Merrie
cried, tears now pouring down her face. "The bastard shot her in the
"No - he -
Merrie in his arms. His voice was raspy with unshed tears. "I'm sorry, Dustin."
It was obvious he meant
Dusty lowered a trembling
hand. His eyes, moist and bloodshot, met Valterzar's determinedly. "He hasn't -
and he won't," he said firmly. "Because I'm going to stop
Valterzar opened his
mouth to argue, and then it just hung open. There was a glint in Dustin's eyes
that told Lawrence the man meant it. Merrie must have thought so, too. She took
a shuddery breath, her expression sad, but at the same time, hopeful.
It was Jamie who spoke up,
though. He'd seen the determination in Dusty's eyes, too, and it had reminded
him of his own, just before he'd slung the vase across the room. Stranger things
had happened... He told Zar, "You heard the man. Leave a note for Pretty Boy
Erik, and let's get going. We have a plane to find."
have a problem," Marcus Jekkes said. Smythe had told him to take a seat, because
his agitated pacing was getting on his nerves.
Jekkes wondered how nervous
Smythe would be, after he heard the report. It would be Smythe's fault, for
setting his people up, but Jekkes would bear some of the brunt. It was his job
to point out hazards. He'd missed a big
"We're running counter to a
drug control programme - for eliminating illegal
"We're helping to find the fucking plane. In other words, to clean up their
mistake. They're field-testing an unauthorised mycoherbicide: one that's
being labelled a 'terrorist' threat to
bother to mention any hazard - until
will pick up on that
Jekkes shook his head.
"They had a self-destruct order. If, for any reason, the plane went down, the
plane and its payload were to be destroyed."
"A suicide mission?" Smythe
sounded incredulous. "Over a
drastic. The pilot could bail out, but if the plane didn't blow up on impact,
the pilot was expected to eliminate any
thing with anyone attempting to interfere. The pilot is a commando, operating
under special orders. He'll do whatever it takes to insure his mission is
absolutely silent as they climbed into the trucks. Valterzar didn't even bother
trying to change his mind. If Dusty truly thought there was a chance for
altering the outcome, it was worth attempting.
"Humouring me?" Dustin asked
as he stretched out across the back seat. It was the first time he'd spoken
since he'd announced his intentions.
"Probably," Lawrence told
him. His smile, however, belied the coolness of his tone. "About now, I'd prefer
to grasp at straws than face the truth. Give me a healthy dose of unreality." He
put the truck in gear, then looked in the mirror. "You
Dustin gave him a
thumbs up. At this point, with his head pounding, it sure beat a nod.
Lawrence went on, "For the
moment, I'd like to think we're 'exploring our options'. So, get some sleep if
you can. When it's time, I want to make sure you're up to the
They'd driven for
a while when Dustin's voice sounded from the back. "I owe you," he admitted.
"That's my job,"
Lawrence replied, and Dusty was sure he picked up a tinge - just the tiniest
trace - of bitterness in the other man's voice. If James was right, and
Valterzar was "one of them", he was probably feeling pretty resentful right
Dusty realised how
amusing it would be if "Zar" was a fellow psi-guy, and didn't even know it. "You
know, a 'czar's' a kind of tyrant," he
Lawrence glanced at
him in the mirror, caught the glint in Dusty's eyes, and his lips creased in a
smile. "Suits me," he said.
determined to find them. If they were all gone at the same time, it made sense
that they were all in one place, sent at the behest of the "agency".
Erik had decided a long time
ago not to let Charles Smythe screw with his head. Smythe was merely the latest
in a long line of insensitive cretins who tried to wield other people's
abilities like some kind of sword. It had been "test" "test" "test" for years,
but the real "tests", Erik suspected, had been how well they'd handled
themselves with members of the public - how well they could function in
It hadn't started
out that way. Years ago, each of their mothers had been given an illicit drug at
twelve weeks to "sustain" a difficult pregnancy. Unfortunately, the compound was
found to greatly increase the risk of a crib death during the first six months.
Worried about their offspring, the parents had opted for supplemental treatment.
Erik wondered whether they would have taken their chances instead, had they
realised how much they'd have to worry about later.
It had been hell for kids
like Ren, who had normal siblings. Erik still didn't know which of the
treatments had set them up for what each of them had become, but he guessed the
prenatal treatment had been a primer, and the postnatal some kind of genetic
stimulant for proteins that would "switch on" specific areas of the brain. James
had spoken angrily about "gene therapy" and Erik knew he had good reason for his
anger. If Dusty and Ren had suffered for their "gifts", Jamie had had it worse.
Now, he could control his temper, but when he'd first come to their school, his
anger had been, quite literally, all over the place.
That school had saved their
lives. It had been a first opportunity to relax, to find peace, to be "at home".
They were encouraged to develop their abilities, and taught how to hide them.
A scam. Set up, all the way.
Given hell, taught to be hellions, then made to be grateful for the opportunity
to be among other, similarly hellacious personalities. All a
To some extent, it had
backfired. Erik knew they were supposed to be some kind of team, and the word
"Cluster" had been used within his hearing once or twice. Each of them had a
different skill that could be called upon to complement the others. In the
beginning it may have been something less profit-oriented and more humanitarian
- maybe even an honest attempt to correct a pharmacological mistake. But for a
long time now, there'd been a commercial aspect to it that had made Erik cynical
enough to want to take the profit-making for his healing into his own hands.
But Symtech would be making
its profits elsewhere. Even now, it might be trying to recoup some of its
investment in this particular Cluster. Erik knew they'd take advantage of
anything he'd offer: not only was he one of the "Cluster", but his interest
could only prove beneficial to the others - some security for the investment. As
he went in, unannounced, to visit Charles Smythe, his reception was much
different from the greeting six years ago when he'd declared his independence.
Smythe appeared not only pleased, but greatly relieved, to see him. Within
fifteen minutes he'd booked Erik on a flight, arranged his hotel and transport,
and given him a general idea of where to look.
As he sat on the plane an
hour later, Erik had to admit that Smythe's eagerness, and the degree of
cooperation, was enough to scare him nearly out of his wits.
the truck. It was easy enough, in the end. Zar, keeping a cautious eye on
Dustin's condition, decided it was no time for playing games. He asked Symtech
for help. The GPS led them right to it.
From there, Zar had expected
it to be hit and miss. If the plane had been easy to find on satellite
reconnaissance, they wouldn't have needed Josh and Ren. Symtech had even been
amenable to his suggestion that they check the satellite photos.
It was then they had
baulked. Not initially, when he'd put in his request - afterwards, when they'd
had time to see the photos. Zar could only conclude that something about the
scene had changed. Their hesitancy wasn't because they were still confused about
the plane's location. They were recalcitrant because they now knew exactly where
Maybe they could
even see the bodies. Zar thought fast. It was obvious they could see something.
He ended the call, and sat quietly, his hands on the steering wheel, to work it
"They know where it
is," he told Dusty. "Only they won't
"Bodies?" Dustin asked
in a hushed voice.
Could be a report from the
Zar heard the
slurring, and was out of the seat in a flash. He pulled open the back door and
told Dustin, "Let me see your eyes
"Don'!" Dustin tried to
push his hands away.
waved Merrie and James over from the other truck, and punched in a number on his
phone. "Most influential?" he repeated calmly to Dustin. "Right now, Erik is."
Zar left Merrie to cradle Dustin's head in her lap, and pulled James aside. Zar
told him firmly, "I don't know how you'll do it, but I want you to hold him in
"Bleeding in the
brain. The pressure's building. He's -" Erik's voice came on the line,
interrupting him. Zar spoke into the phone. "We're on the outskirts of Tres
Hermanos, Erik. How far away are you?" Zar listened, then said, "Get a
helicopter. Be here within the hour. While en route, make a call to Smythe and
get the coordinates for the crash site. Tell him if he doesn't, you won't be
able to meet us to heal the others."
was vomiting now, and Zar said quickly into the phone, "Hold it!" When Merrie
nodded to him, he put the phone up to his ear. "I'm back." He listened to Erik,
then retorted, "Of course it doesn't make sense! Lie, for crissake!"
ended the call and turned back to James. "My guess is the bleeding's here." He
tapped the left side of his head. "Can you do
"What if I cut off the
blood flow?" James asked worriedly. "What
"Then his brain will
die. And Josh and Ren won't be the only ones we lose this trip."***
"I don't get
it," Josh complained. "We came all this way, dug through sand and soil and
metal, all for that?!" His expression indicated what he thought of the bags of
contaminated rice stacked against the fuselage. "How thrilling," he said flatly.
"I want to know where the
man went. You heard his voice, too
"Did I?" Josh asked. "I
don't seem to recall
"Bastard. I suppose
that gunshot was a product of my
glanced around. "I do kind of wonder where the pilot
"'Pile it here, pile
it there'," she quoted. "I suppose, if these were bags of dinosaur bones,
instead of rice grains -"
at least they'd be interesting," Josh finished. "Amazing!"
Ren glanced quickly around.
"The way you glow in
the dark. That shade of puce is really very
"Josh, let's go,"
Ren told him impatiently. "I have the weirdest feeling about that
source, I can't say I'm too
Ren shoved him
out the door.
the helicopter circle around till he spotted Valterzar's arms waving wildly.
"Should I ask it to wait?" he yelled, as he disembarked.
"No!" Zar told
Merrie was practically
in tears. She had Dustin's head in her lap, and he lay there, limp and
unresponsive. James was squatting next to him, eyes squinted closed in
concentration, as he fought to sustain the blood flow evenly, without putting
undue pressure on Dustin's bruised brain. He was shaking with the effort, and
Erik didn't interrupt him. He suspected that the cessation of Jamie's services,
and the sudden influx of leaking blood could kill Dusty outright. It was only
through James' efforts that the man was still alive at all.
Erik remembered the last
time he'd seen Dusty, and the way he'd commended him on going it alone. Maybe
he'd been too quick to offer praise, and Dustin may have been too quick to act
on his body's returning strength. Whatever had messed him up now had done some
damned if I'll waste three days watching you, Dusty - only to have you pull a
stunt like this!" Erik rested the heel of his hand on Dusty's forehead, and
another on his chest. Then, he tuned out everything - the roar of the
helicopter, Merrie's tears, Jamie's shaky fingers, and Valterzar's anxious
expression. This one wasn't going to be easy, and unless he wanted to leave some
scar tissue, he had to concentrate.
Valterzar guessed as much,
and made sure he stayed close. No one had told Erik about Josh or Ren, and
that's the way Valterzar intended it to stay, until he was finished with Dusty.
he's dead," Josh said seriously. He was appalled by the blood coating the man's
shirt. The shocked look on the man's face didn't help either. He tried to lower
the man's lids, but the dead man seemed just as determined to have his eyes
open. Afterwards, Josh grimaced, gave a shiver, and discreetly tried to wipe his
fingers on the man's
"He's dead," Ren
agreed. She couldn't pick up any reading from him at all - no sensations of any
kind - and she'd dreaded even trying. "It-It's horrible," she murmured. The
blood and the horrific violence sickened her.
Josh took a wary look around
that attempted to appear as though it wasn't a look at all. "He hasn't been dead
that long," he hissed. "Pick up any
"You think the
killer -" Ren's eyes widened in
"- is still here.
Never mind the ESP." Josh didn't waste any more time. He focussed his eyes on
the horizon, latched onto Ren's arm, and took off at a run. Ren didn't argue,
but she interjected a dodging motion to their escape: violently weaving side to
side as they hot-footed it out of
"I think we did it!"
Josh exclaimed, after a while, and he started to slow, panting under the hot
Ren nodded, but didn't
slacken her speed. She yanked Josh forward with a jerk that seemed to twang his
arm. "They'll never catch us now!" she said.
Dustin felt as though he
were hearing the voice from a long way off. He was in a deep cavern, but he was
floating now; gradually drifting toward light and warmth and voices. He wondered
if this was the white light he'd heard so much
The voices were
familiar, and there was a hint of impatience as they called his name, over and
over. Dustin's lips twitched and he muttered, "Use it, don't abuse
"You're awake, then."
Erik sounded pleased with himself. "Had me worried for a minute. Thought I'd
Dustin opened one
eye, expecting a return of that crushing headache that was the last thing he
head?" Erik's voice held a trace of anxiety. He really had
he'd blown it.
grinned. "Great!" He prodded his leg. Barely a twinge. "You do damn good work
when you want, Dainler." He reached out a hand and gripped Erik's hand.
Erik nodded at
Jamie. "He'd prefer to be self-effacing and humble, but you can thank the
Wickham Widget here for holding your brains together till I arrived. He was
shaking with the
Jamie snorted. "Only
because they were so scattered. I had to find 'em first. That was the hardest
Dustin grinned at him,
then sobered, memory returning, when he looked at Zar. His face whitened, and he
slumped against the seat. "Do we have the coordinates?" he asked
Zar knew he was
wondering how he could have forgotten Ren and Josh, for even a moment. "Lucky to
have any memory left at all, Dusty," Zar told him. "Don't beat yourself up over
Dusty's smile had no
humour in it. "Maybe I didn't want to remember," he said
For the first time,
Erik realised Merrie's tears might not be solely related to Dustin's near-miss.
"What happened?" he asked
climbed out of the car. "I can't..." He averted his head and walked away, still
it. He'd have to hit him again later, when it wasn't such a rush job. "Someone
Valterzar put a
hand on his shoulder. "Josh and Ren are dead," he said
Erik went ashen. His
breath caught in his throat. He wobbled a little and Zar gripped his shoulder
more tightly. Merrie came over and took his hand. Her eyes were wet. "It's going
to be all right, Erik," she
"How can it ever
be 'all right'?" he asked, distressed. In a sudden flash of insight, he realised
how spoiled his gift had made him. The last time he'd had to face death this
personally had been with his mom. In the years since then, he'd convinced
himself that it wouldn't happen again - no more pain because he wouldn't let the
"death" happen. He'd stop it, the same way he'd stopped it with
He'd always been able
to fix things - to halt the Grim Reaper. In all his adult years, he'd never had
to face the inevitable - that someone he loved was gone forever.
He couldn't accept it now.
He just didn't know what the alternative was. He looked a little blankly at
Dustin's retreat. Dustin doesn't know what to do, either,
He realised the next
moment he was wrong. Valterzar was speaking now, and Erik forced himself to
focus. "...thinks he can change
"What?" Erik asked
convinced he can get there first - and find a way to stop it."
with me," Valterzar told them. He took Merrie's hand, and tossed James the keys
to the crew cab.
surmised," Jamie retorted, looking from one to the
"Why can't we take the
helicopter?" Erik asked. "It'd be
Valterzar told them. "Send it
"The czar has spoken."
There was a trace of anger in Dustin's
"At this point, secrecy
matters more than
"Does he still think
he's your boss?" Erik sounded surprised, but there was a trace of derision
"I know," James
said, seeing Valterzar's frown. "Weight of the world on your shoulders.
Impossible to get good help in these out-of-the-way
"They may come back
in and strip the site, if they think there's a
"But that's not what
you're worried about," Dustin said
Valterzar's eyes met
his. "Right. I'm more concerned that if their payload was so important to
protect the first time through, they may consider it even more vital the
drove out of town, then set off across the desert. Merrie was silent in her
corner, and he beckoned her over. "I miss you," he said.
She gave him a sad smile and
scooted over, so he could put an arm around her. She rested his head against his
Zar didn't say
anything more. He knew there were no words he could give her to counter what
she'd seen. What they were all trying to avoid thinking about, Merrie had shared
with the victims. As the last of the life had been sucked out of them, Merrie
had been there, to have all the anguish pass through her shadow on that other
It was as he bent his
head, to brush his lips across the top of her head, that he saw it. A glint of
glass, off a pair of binoculars. He punched in James' number on his phone.
"Didn't I tell you not to
call me here?" James said. "Oh, it's you, Zar," he added with mock surprise.
"Binoculars. Could mean
trouble." Zar was watching the other truck in his rearview mirror. At that
moment, it swerved, dipped, then did a spectacular roll down a nearly
Valterzar slammed on the brakes, and went tearing out his door, Merrie right on
his heels. They were running toward the steaming truck when Merrie caught a
flash, much as Zar had. She knew what it was, though, because she'd seen it
before - when Ren had toppled, in a spattering of blood and bone, onto the
sunbaked sand. It was the reflective glint off a rifle scope.
and threw herself against Zar, tripping him onto the
Valterzar lay there,
momentarily stunned, the weight of her sprawled across him. Some terrible
knowledge was seeping into his brain - into his gut. He felt a darkness,
chilling and incontrovertible, slicing his insides. A forbidding bleakness that
took away his inner light.
small rivulet dripped across his shoulder and down his chest. Then, it just kept
running. Too wet for the
desert. Makes no sense...
He wouldn't look at it, couldn't look at it. It
was a warm river, and she was heavy against his back. His Merrie Girl. Gone and
taking all the joy with
He rolled over, careful
not to dislodge her - careful not to shift the hand that, even in death, draped
him so lovingly. For a moment, she lay atop him as she had a few nights since.
So little time. So much left undone. There'd barely been time for that - for
that one lovers' night. He kissed her fingers, wanting to hang on to the warmth
- of body, of personality - that was
Zar began to weep, in
great, shuddery gasps. Merrie. My Merrie.
He got up on his knees - then,
wobbling, sobbing in those terrible shudders, he pushed himself to his feet,
Merrie still in his arms. He buried his face in her
It reminded him of that
night, when he'd saturated himself in her scent. He'd inhaled all of her, and it
was forever imprinted on his brain.
I love you, Merrie.
He wished he'd said the words. Then. When there was time.
He jerked, when the first of
the bullets hit him, but he just kept walking. It took a second shot - and a
third - before he was brought once more to his knees. His sobbing dissipated in
a long drawn-out sigh that became a groan. When he toppled face-first onto the
harsh sand, his arms remained around her, his face still buried in her hair.
It was the
third time Erik had said it. He didn't sound capable of saying anything else
right now. Dusty realised he'd fared better in the back than Erik or Jamie.
Closer to the rollbar...
undid his belt and lowered himself onto the roof. Then he crawled forward and
peered at Erik. "You okay?" he asked.
"I don't know," Erik said.
"Don't feel anything."
words gave Dusty a lurch of fear in his gut. "I'll see you clear, Erik," he
promised. He rolled over and booted out the side window. He managed to shimmy
out, but he wished halfway through that they hadn't piled up so much behind the
cab. It would have been a heck of a lot easier to climb out the
Dustin knocked on
Jamie's window, but he was out cold. He had a knot on his head that made Dusty
flinch. So, Dusty ran around to Erik's window instead.
There was a hole in the
glass. A relatively small hole, with shimmering glass spiderwebbing that showed
Erik's face in an oddly disjointed distortion. Dustin slid his pinkie in the
hole and tugged. The glass, barely intact, fell in shattered fragments.
"How you doing, Erik?"
Dustin asked, but he already knew. The bullet hadn't stopped at the
"Can't move!" Erik
told him, panic making his voice
"Shock," Dusty told him
confidently. Nothing to lose by lying.
Nothing left, after
Erik must have
been leaning forward when it hit. Dusty guessed it had hit his spinal column at
an angle, done its damage, then headed out, through his chest.
"Gotta get you out of here,
so you can heal Jamie. He'd got a lump on his head you wouldn't believe," Dusty
Erik couldn't heal
himself. All his life he'd healed everyone else. Hell - he'd fly a thousand
miles to heal a friend, if that's what it took.
But he couldn't heal
Erik was having
trouble breathing now, and Dusty guessed his lung was filling with blood. He
could read the panic in Erik's eyes, and he took his hand in a tight grasp.
Then, he realised Erik couldn't feel it, so he pushed his head in, and rested
his forehead against the other man's ear. "I'll see you clear, Erik," he
promised again. He held him close and talked to him about when they were kids -
about the time Jamie had tossed a chair at him in a fit of temper - and the day
Erik had layered the foxy teacher's chair with multiple tacks, claimed it was
someone else, then insisted on "healing" her. "Remember that one, Erik?" Dusty
asked, smiling through the lump in his throat. "How you told her it had to be
'hands on', and she believed
He guessed it was
sometime during that last story that Erik died. When Dusty pulled back a little,
Erik was staring blankly at the dashboard, a slight smile on his
"You saw him clear,
Dusty." Jamie sounded like he was choking. There were tears running down his
face. He reached over and gripped Erik's shoulder. "Wish I could tell him..." He
couldn't finish. He shook his head. "Better your way." His breath caught. "He
out and gripped his arm. "I'm getting you out of here,
"Do you really think
you can change it, Dusty?" For a moment, he sounded like the kid Dusty had once
"I don't know," Dusty
told him honestly, as he yanked Jamie out through the broken windscreen. James
was wobbly, so Dustin took one of his arms over his shoulder and moved toward
the other vehicle. Zar and Merrie were lying there, in the dirt -
turned away, to be
Dusty closed his eyes
and hauled James rapidly past them. The sniper. Get clear of the sniper.
He started up
Valterzar's truck and took off, across the sand. He couldn't get the pictures
out of his head: Erik, Merrie, Zar. Josh and Ren. Ren - his
"One thing's sure,
Jamie," he said, through gritted teeth. "We're going to give this a damn good
try. God knows, we've got nothing left to lose."*
anything about coordinates?" Dusty asked him, a short time later.
"Yeah," Jamie said. He
seemed to be coming out of his shock a little now. Dustin was tempted to ask him
about his head, then realised it wouldn't do any good - only remind him he was
hurting. There wasn't much either of them could do about it out here. "Helps me
find my volcanoes."
smirked. "Doesn't say much for your powers of observation."
"Hey, when I run into the
lava dome, then I know I'm in the right place."
It was conversation, to fill
the gaps and shorten an uncomfortable silence.
Silence that'd give us
too much time to
"James, if I take
a detour, do whatever it takes to bring me
"Sure thing." Jamie
glanced at him. "Something coming on? Want me to drive?" He added, "It might be
better if you were practising a little 'conservation' here - of
"I'd rather be
practising a little 'concentration' on my driving."
Dusty glanced at him.
"I've had enough
driving for the day
"It must have been a
bullet in the tyre -"
know," James told him. "Not for the first time do I wish my abilities leaned a
little less toward the punch and push, and a little more toward the
"- precognitive," Dusty
finished with a sigh. "You're not the only one."
wasn't much left. Part of the hillside had collapsed, in what could have been an
avalanche of erosion, if it hadn't been for the scar tissue in a reddish gash
across the face. "This has to be it," Dusty said
"If not, we're
going to waste a lot of time digging for nothing." The sun was halfway to the
horizon now, which made it cooler, but when the darkness came, it'd be complete.
"We have gear," Dustin told
"Yeah, but we don't know
what. Half was on the other truck." James looked at his expression and said
hastily, "I'm not saying we don't have to do something. Valterzar talked about
secrecy, and what could happen. As it is, we're probably being followed by that
sniper guy. If not, he may asked for some reinforcements to head our
Dusty nodded curtly,
and headed for the back of the truck.
"What did you think?" Jamie
asked in exasperation. "That I was going to put this off? Preach about 'since
it's all in the past
back to look at him. "Weren't
"Shit, no!" Jamie
complained. "The more that happens, the harder it's going to be to fix. All I
was going to suggest was that we look around, for some metal or something - some
clue to tell us this is the right place. So we don't waste the little time we
Dusty put the
suggestion into action. He'd only gone a few metres when he squatted, and gently
wrested a shiny piece of metal from the ground.
"What is it?" Jamie
Dustin couldn't speak.
He lifted it, so James could see the "K", twisted and melted from the
James took a deep
breath, then nodded. He went over to the truck and untied two spades, a pick,
and a couple of shovels. Dustin's expression was as desolate as the dried sands,
but Jamie ignored it.
to call him back to the
James gave a sharp
whistle, to get his attention, then tossed him a spade. "We have to dig down to
cabin level, right?" Dustin nodded. "Well, my Boy, you're about to find out what
a geologist's life is like."
opened the door for Merrie, but when she seemed inclined to hover in the corner
he sighed dramatically, and concentrated briefly. Merrie, taken by surprise, was
flung against Valterzar. "Much better." James winked at Zar, slammed the door
firmly, and went over to the other
"Cute couple," Erik
"I'm beginning to
think all the people I know think like me -" James
a grin from the back. "How's
"In geological time.
Takes them aeons to sort everything out. It's a wonder some of those feelings
don't metamorphose with the amount of time they
"That's what I'm
counting on," Erik said, with a smooth smile. He looked deliberately at Dustin,
and offered him an irreverent salute.
"Snowballs in hell,
Dainler," Dustin said, grinning.
They drove out of town and
several kilometres across the desert. It was bouncy and jolting, and Erik was
glad when Valterzar finally called a halt. "To think I could have taken a
helicopter," he complained.
"It's a test," Jamie told
him. "Just to see how well we function with our brains bounced
"With them screwed on
half-assed backwards," Dustin corrected. "That way Dainler won't feel so
Valterzar got out of
the truck and came back, to knock on the window. Jamie rolled it down. "How can
you stand it with the window up?" Zar
"Dust or heat. Dust or
heat. Hmm-m, big decision. Heat," Jamie retorted. "Makes me think magma." Zar
looked past him at Erik, who had one of those battery-operated mini fans, and
was plying it around his face. Zar
Dustin raised his
hands. "Don't look at me. Mis ventanas estan gordas." He grinned, his eyes and
teeth appearing exceptionally white in his dirty face.
"Just call him 'Dusty',"
Erik put in.
"If you need
any translating done, I taught him everything he knows," James
Valterzar rolled his
eyes. "I'll keep that in mind. According to the coordinates, it shouldn't be
far." He looked at Dusty assessingly. "How're you holding
"Fine. Despite all
claims to the contrary," Dustin said mockingly, "Erik is
"Symtech says we
may get interference."
seem a little overly enthusiastic to get me down here," Erik
"Sounds like they
acted first, then thought about it later," Dustin remarked.
"Sounds like somebody else
we know," Erik said sarcastically. "You should be damn glad they did. Otherwise,
I might not have been playing touristo at Tres
"What happened to
the back-up details we usually can't get rid of?" James
"This time, we're it.
There were complications of some sort," Zar admitted.
"D'you think Ren
and Josh are in danger?" Dustin asked seriously. He'd been worried their danger
would be internal, rather than
"I think there's a
chance someone could shoot first, ask questions
"Which is why
Symtech's so hyper," Erik
"Are they still on
radio silence?" Dustin asked
hesitated. "Hard to tell," he said. "I'm no expert on these things, but either
we're out of range, or someone's jamming the signal. Other than telling the
agency the coordinates, there's been no word." He sounded worried. "We know
they're on foot, and the desert can be pretty unforgiving. Keep your eyes open -
tremendous amount of mini mountain had collapsed onto the downed aircraft.
Dustin wondered whether he shouldn't be too fussed about where he did his
retrovision - for now. Technically, he supposed he could sit up here above the
crash site and watch it all from a bird's eye view. If he was on the far side of
the plane, though, he might not see much - and he wouldn't have much of a chance
to stop it. "This 'trip', I have to see what happens. I may have to go back a
second time to stop it." He gulped, dreading what was going to
"Whatever it takes,"
Jamie said solemnly, and re-applied himself to slinging
soil. Only, there may be
no second time. I may only get one shot,
Dustin realised. Last time, he'd
practically blown out his brain doing this. Was that going to happen again?
There was no Erik to bail him out.
This time, I'm the one
trying to bail Erik out.
Dustin shovelled harder. One shot, to try to help
them all. Make it a good
Merrie stared across the distant sands, trying to see past the orangy glow
reflecting off the sand. "There's a dead
Zar looked at her
"No," she told him
thankfully. "It's not
She pointed toward the
line of the setting sun. Zar's arm around her shoulder tightened briefly, then
he released her to put both hands on the wheel. This way it was even bumpier
He wondered who
- or what - they were going to find.
shadows of the saguaro were getting quite long across the desert when they heard
the first metallic clang. Jamie tapped along the heat-warped metal with the
shovel, until he found the place where the wing tapered down. Around here
somewhere, there would have been a
He and Dustin went at
it with a will. There was a sense of urgency in both of them now - some need to
be done with it before dark. One day had already fallen on Josh's and Ren's
bodies; he couldn't bear the finality of having it close once again - on them
and the others - without a
resolution. I have to
he thought dismally. How far the darkness
that more sand was flying that either of their shovels could account for. He
glanced at Jamie, and saw how he was concentrating. "Josh could use you out in
the field," he said.
grinned, pleased to see Dusty was still thinking positively. As long as Josh
is alive in his brain...
"I'll keep that in mind," he replied. "Sure beats a
hurried across the sand, looking for some sign of trespass. It was Erik who
spotted the traces first: two pairs of footsteps, that seemed to weave all over
the place. "Think it's them?" he
"Looks like they were
Valterzar eyed the
prints and nodded. "Let's hope they didn't get
grabbed his arm. She was watching Dustin.
At first, Zar thought he was
tracing the prints back to their source, but then he realised Dustin wasn't
looking at the ground. He was limping determinedly up the crusted slope, eyes
straight ahead, face set. Zar paralleled him; watching his expression. He was
pale - dreading what he was going to
Erik saw the way Zar was
watching Dustin. He came up swiftly behind him and asked, almost defensively,
Dustin stopped and
forced himself to look down. He was shaking as he stood there, staring at the
body. The blood. Dribbling out the man's mouth. It was dried now, and fat
blowflies had already been at work. Dusty's eyes moved downward, to the chest,
and it was as though a hot poker stabbed through his right side. He gasped, and
went to his knees. For a moment he was blinded by the searing pain that exploded
behind his eyes.
It was Erik, and Dusty
turned to look at him - at them. Zar's face was impassive, and Dustin knew he
was trying to make sense of this - to categorise it. Merrie merely looked
distressed, and Jamie anxious. James wanted to move things along; to find Ren
and Josh before
Dustin's eyes were
bloodshot; dark circles rimming them. For a moment, Erik wondered if he was
having another haemorrhage. Valterzar obviously wondered the same thing. "Retro,
Dusty?" he asked
"Deja vu," Dusty
replied. He looked past him, past them all, to where the metallic glint of the
downed plane showed through its coating of debris. "If we want to see Ren and
Josh alive again," he muttered hoarsely, "we'll have to go there."
was a mangled wreck. What Jamie had taken for a wing was actually part of the
fuselage. It took some imaginative reconstruction before they could figure out
where they were.
said a thing, but Dustin knew James was as worried as he was about the sniper.
If he'd sent word to his bosses, they could be getting company. Dustin had the
terrible impression that they were running out of time - that all the
retro-effort in the world wouldn't change a thing unless it happened
Half an hour later
Jamie looked at him, and gave a nod. "Lucky you don't need any special equipment
for this." His smile was
In that instant,
Dusty wavered. James had lost so much today. Should he tell him? How much this
type of transition rattled his brain? That it was his bout of retro, rather than
the infection, which had triggered his collapse at the
thought. What's the point?
Dusty wasn't about to let it stop him, and it
would just give James one more thing to worry about.
He'll be watching me
instead of watching our backs.
At the same time, it
wasn't fair. James was in on the gamble because the outcome would be worth it,
and God knows, things couldn't get any worse. Only, they could, and Dustin knew
it. There was a chance James might be stuck here with another dead man on his
But if he knew, he'd
probably call a halt to this insanity. That's how he'd see it - as unacceptable
risk. After all, he had only Dusty's determination to go on. No proof. And if he
decided to stop things, there was no doubt Jamie could do it, if he put his mind
Dustin had already
reconciled himself to the thought that there might be one victim of the plane
crash, no matter what. Maybe it was the price to be paid for dabbling with the
Fates. Even if he were able to reverse or realign some of the things that had
happened, there was a good chance Dustin Mallory wouldn't survive
One thing was certain: if
he had to go in a second time, he'd probably need Jamie's PK to hold his brains
together for the
Dustin decided he'd
rather not think about it. As Jamie had said, "Whatever it takes..."
think we should go after them," Erik argued. "Fuck the plane!"
angry that they were all being so obtuse. It was obvious Ren and Josh could be
in danger, and that's what they'd come for - to save them. Visiting the wreck
would only delay the rescue - and Dusty had already delayed it enough. After his
collapse at the airport, Valterzar's group had been forced to hole up in a motel
until Dusty could travel. The fool had somehow convinced Valterzar he was fit,
and it had nearly gotten him killed. More delays.
At this point, Erik didn't
care who did the rescuing - he just wanted Ren and Josh safe. If Dusty hadn't
delayed the group, the rescue may well have been a fait accompli
now. He shouldn't even be
Erik thought. Dusty should be back at the hospital. Not in
"Mallory's not precognitive. In all the testing, he's never
been precognitive," he told Valterzar firmly.
"I agree with Erik," Jamie
said. "We're here to find Josh and Ren - not to get mixed up in whatever got
that guy killed!" It was the most persuasive argument of them all. Stay here,
and they might all go the same
him," Erik told Valterzar disgustedly, as though Dustin wasn't there. "If this
is one of those psychiatrist things, you can count me out. Give me a few minutes
with him, and I'll put him right." He turned to Dustin. "Sorry, Dusty, but this
is crazy. The only thing I can figure is that you don't know what you're saying.
I'll try it again -"
Dustin took the first tentative step toward the downed plane, well aware that
not one of them was in agreement with him. Why should they be?
what Erik believed, Dusty did
know how insane this appeared. "At least
James," he said. He looked over at him. "Leave James here." He wiped sand from
his face with a shaking hand.
"Why?" Valterzar studied
him. His inclination was to turn Dusty over to Erik. There was obviously some
physical basis for his behaviour, given the way he was looking. Zar couldn't
deny his instincts, though, which were telling him Dustin might be basing this
on something else as well. Something he'd seen.
It was Merrie, though, who
reached out and laid a gentle hand against Dustin's face. "Horrible to be amidst
disbelievers," she joked
He smiled at her,
realising that what he'd seen was just a fraction of what this woman must have
to endure. Merrie's gift tended to capture those last moments; that uncertain
time when the soul is leaving the body - and neither body nor soul is quite
certain of the separation. He looked at her seriously
- easier than facing
he thought -
and said, "I have to be in the plane."
"Why the plane?" James asked
impatiently. Geological time wasn't working for him today. He was as keen as any
of the others to find Josh and Ren and get out of here. The idea of a bunch of
murderers coming to kill him didn't exactly
"Because -" Dustin
said. He looked at the plane, and staggered slightly.
Erik reached out to him,
concerned, but Valterzar shook his head and put a hand under Dustin's elbow, to
steady him. "Tell us
staring at the plane now, his eyes distant. "I have to stop him
turned to look at the dead man. "Him," he whispered, his eyes dark with horror.
There was only one explanation that would satisfy the anguished visions in his
head. He looked at Merrie, and her sudden shocked expression held echoes of his
"You have to
kill him," she said.
He knew it
was going to be bad. Merrie had warned them - told them about the bullet wounds
in Josh's back, and the bullet hole in Ren's head. What he'd seen since, with
Erik and Lawrence and Merrie, had told him the rest. If there was any way he
could have avoided this, he would have.
I should be used to
In his own way, he
was as close to death as Merrie. She saw them as shades, spirits, metaphysical
wanderers - he saw them as they'd once stood, and walked, and talked - before
they were hidden in dust and ash. This latent ability, this chance to interact -
was it real? Or was he really as much of a metaphysical wanderer as Merrie's
It didn't matter -
because in Dustin's mind, there were no choices. Any selective process had
vanished when the killer had raised the gun, pelted Josh, then blasted half
Ren's head away. Whether this was a cosmic no-no, or karma to be revisited on
him ten times over, he had to do something - even if it was as simple as a
warning. Maybe it should
have been before,
he suddenly thought with despair. Waiting till the last
minute - trying to arrest the moment of death - what kind of fool's game was
that? Especially when dealing with something as unknown, as untried, as his
have thought with logic, rather than desperation. But when he'd begun this, he'd
been no more certain of his ability to deal with this than he was now. He'd been
thinking defensively (get in there and stop the bullet!
) rather than
reasonably. How much more sensible to stop a snowball than an
He couldn't go
back, again and again, to put it right. After one trek, maybe two, he didn't
think there'd be enough left of his brain to recall why and where.
He took a shuddery breath,
and James rested a hand on his shoulder. Most of the time he and James had been
digging Dustin had been unconsciously fearing the worst - fearing that he'd find
some recognisable part. Even though the plane had been incinerated, he was
afraid some charred remnant, like the necklace, may have survived the blast.
So far, though, the necklace
had been the only find. The only clue. To what? Time to find out; to see it
happen. Because if I don't, I won't have a clue how to stop
Dustin sat on the
scorched sand, and his eyes met Jamie's. They were both sombre, and Dusty
wondered whether Jamie did, in fact, have some idea what this could do to him.
James gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. "Don't worry, Dusty," he said. "I won't
stray too far."
nodded, and focused on the plane's chronological ghost. With the jerky
disjointedness of a broken film reel, the world began to spin around him.
to the cabin had been forced open. Valterzar, in his role as leader, went in
first, probed around a little, then shrugged. There were a few guns and some
explosives, but they weren't the payload. The bulk of the shipment consisted of
sack after sack of grain. "Nothing but rice. Must have to do with the
to try to grow rice," Erik complained. "Hot as Hades out here." He had his mini
fan going again, and was alternating between fanning himself, and fanning
"I doubt this was
their final destination," Valterzar told him
"Just a 'drop-in' spot
on the route," James
"Wonder where Ren
and Josh are," Erik hinted loudly, kicking at some of the footprints gouged in
the sand. "Seems a shame to waste such an obvious track," he told
"It'll be dark
soon," Dustin said. "Maybe you'd better find
"First, Dusty," Erik
said firmly, "you and I are heading in the cabin for a little quiet time. You
look like shit."
Dustin told him, a little desperately. "When you get back. James'll stay with
James didn't look too
happy at the suggestion. "Thanks so much for your offer," he said sarcastically,
"but this place looks like a hangout for thugs. James Wickham has no desire to
become a victim. He prefers to put any holes in his shirts
"He needs you,
Jamie," Merrie told him. "Don't be so
stay. I'm not the one talking about killing people. I have some standards, and
one of them is: you don't murder
"Only people you
know?" Erik suggested.
tempting with some people than others," James told him. "Put yourself on the
Valterzar was frowning
at Dustin. "You're certainly anxious for us to go.
"You mean, 'can't I
kill my victim as well with you here as without you?' Shit!"
exclaimed. "I don't know!"
Dustin was frustrated by his own uncertainty,
and angry that Valterzar was doing that psychiatry thing of picking apart
everything he said. "You don't fit in! That's all I can tell you." He sat down
on the sand, and rested his arms on his drawn-up knees. He felt as if he'd
already had a bad "trip" - like he'd already taken one of his retrograde jaunts,
and come off the worse for it. "Can't you just go?" he said
looked at him.
stay," he said resignedly. "Just don't be gone too long, all
"I'd feel better if
the phones worked."
we all?" said Erik. "I'd better stay, too
"No, Erik." It was Merrie,
and she was looking off across the desert. "We'd better go," she urged, as
though she'd suddenly realised haste was important.
They drove off in the crew
cab, leaving the other truck for James and Dusty. James stood there and watched
dismally until the reflected light off the truck body blended into the reddish
refraction of the late day sun. "She sure seemed amenable to your 'plan'. Almost
eager for you to hop right to it," he commented
Jamie," Dusty admitted. "Just a
James said flatly. "Suspicion of
Dustin sighed. "That
if I blow this, none of them will be coming back."
little blood goes a long way..."
Something he'd heard once,
but never really thought about. By the time the blood filled his vision, Dustin
was concentrating hard - trying not to go too far too fast. It was a backwards
avalanche of dirt and grit followed by flashes and flickers of black smoke - and
then it was blood. Soaked up by the soil, splayed across his hands. Josh dead,
then dying, then all the pieces of him rushing back together in some sick
parody; Ren, shattered and bloody, being elevated up, onto her feet, as bits of
brain and bone flew back into her head. Dustin felt like he was dying himself
now, choking on vomit and gasping for breath, as he fought to keep from passing
out - fought to find his moment - that all-important instant when he could stop
it from happening. Then, for an instant, he thought he had it: through watering
eyes he saw a not-so-distant glint. What was it? Binoculars? A
Dustin didn't realise he
wasn't alone - that Jamie's hand on the shoulder, combined with the intensity of
Dusty's reaction, had flashed some of Dustin's gut-gagging visions into Jamie's
head. Jesus Christ!
Jamie wondered, in that split second of sunglint on glass, whether he could
somehow effect a change - to influence the scene, if Dusty couldn't. He even
tried it, concentrating fiercely on the would-be murderer. But the effort was
too much for Dustin, and Jamie saw it in the widening of his eyes, the sweat
running down his face. There was no way he could maintain them both. Jamie
lifted his hand off Dusty's shoulder, then sat there helplessly, wondering what
the hell to do next.
Whatever Dusty was going to
try, there wouldn't be much time. His strength was failing fast. There might
only be one shot at this, and Jamie found himself mumbling prayers. Wherever
Dusty's backwards motion movie stopped, he'd have to put it on play.
The thought made Jamie feel
more nauseous than he did already. No one should have to live through this
He was on
the slope. Long before Ren and Josh had left their aeroplane, the man had left
his. He'd returned to his plane by parachute, floating serenely down onto the
No - not serenely.
Limply. He'd had some trouble during bailout. Dustin could see it now: the torn
chute, the uneven flight. He'd landed hard, atop the hill. The pilot had watched
and waited, until he could manoeuvre enough to make his way down, to destroy his
plane and its questionable cargo. Only, Ren and Josh had gotten there
Dustin's replay was
running in "Forward" now, and he saw the distant specks on the horizon. He
doubted that the pilot, even then, could have been any more tense than Dusty was
now. Maybe if I can warn
them, about the
They'd want to
help him. Ren would blame any of the man's harsher emanations on pain and angst,
and go to render first aid. She and Josh would be just as dead as if they'd
stayed by the plane.
pilot had been anywhere else but on the hill - some place away from the plane,
where he wouldn't have to be in defensive mode. Where they could have rendered
him first aid without dying for their
was one of the reasons she'd be valuable in this kind of setting: someone to
locate a lost pilot, when all technology had failed. They must have suspected
he'd still be alive - otherwise, they would have sent in Merrie
Once focussed, Ren
would have followed her internal compass. She'd have the heading down, but the
sight of the plane would fool her. Direction yes, altitude, no. As a kid, she'd
always been killer at hide 'n seek - until they'd discovered she could be
fooled. Elevation, whether high in a closet, or at the top of a hill, fooled her
every time. Because Ren just wasn't sly enough. Despite any insights she might
have into the human soul, she'd always remained selective. She preferred not to
acknowledge the devious or dark, and largely tuned it out. She refused to
relinquish her naive conviction that whatever bad she sensed could be offset by
the good. The last thing she'd expect would be someone lying in wait, atop a
hill, to take her life.
Josh wasn't much better. Easy-going, he frequently took his clairvoyance for
granted. To Josh, there wasn't anything better in the world than a
well-preserved dinosaur bone - especially if he'd been able to find it first.
No, the last thing Josh would expect was death to be lurking at his
Only, it wasn't at his
back - yet. Death was finding his way down, off the
Ren would assume any
errors in her "reading" were induced by the metal sheathing on the fuselage.
Something to upset the signals. Despite the "esoteric" nature of their gifts,
all of them realised there was some basis in physics; in electrochemical signals
and biological receptors. Something that could be confused by an overdose of
static or an electrical conductor. That's what Ren was thinking now. It was
obvious, from the way she and Josh were acting, that they thought the victim was
trapped inside the
Could that be
why the pilot was staying so close?
Dustin had to know. In his
rapid replay he recalled a flash of the doorway as a gaping black hole. Ren and
Josh had opened the door and died. But Dustin wasn't certain, even now, where
the gunfire had come from. He'd been too focused on the bloodied bodies of his
friends, to get more than a glimpse of gleaming metal. He had to know whether
the gunshots had come from without, or within.
I have to get inside the
followed the spatial limitations of his retro visions. This duality was
confusing enough, without trying to remember where lay a door, or a curb, or a
wall in the future. Now, he sat there, clinging to these fragments of the past,
while trying to recall the way it looked in his present.
In his own time, there was
no door to the cabin. It had been demolished; forcibly mangled in the blast.
There's nothing to stop me going in.
It was one thing rationalising it,
though, and another doing it. Part of him was working so hard at clinging to
this vision that his eyes throbbed and his nose bled. Now, he had to force
himself to acknowledge that the door wasn't really here. It wasn't solid enough
to bar his entry.
his eyes so they wouldn't sabotage his intent, and crawled forward, into the
it. Was this it? Was this what the murderer was trying so hard to protect? An
illicit cargo of rotten rice? Dustin's head throbbed at the pointlessness of it
all. How am I going to
He was gripped with despair. Someone willing to kill over something
so meaningless bordered on the psychopathic. He wouldn't be swayed by pleas or
arguments. I'll take away
It was the
answer for almost thirty seconds, until Dustin saw the weapons cached in the
back. Guns, explosives. Materialising enough to take away his gun might work
once, but it wouldn't stop him. It'd only make the man more eager to defend
He'd just dig out
another gun, and finish what he
The pressure in
Dustin's head was building; an ache so intense he couldn't think. I should
have stopped them, way back when. Stopped them before they reached the plane;
convinced them before they were in range.
Too late - too stupid.
Now that he was here, he could see a dozen ways he could have intercepted them
at a distance - gone back and ended this before it had even
He crawled to the back
of the plane, to look at the weapons. There were explosives. It didn't take much
to recognise "plastique". It had been the explosive of choice for years on TV.
There were also several handguns, plus a rifle with some kind of magnifying
scope. Was this the one he'd seen the man holding? Or did he have
Outside, he could
hear Ren and Josh arguing.
him to it'!" Ren was saying. "He's a human being - despite his warped
Dusty's took a
shuddery breath. Was this the last time he'd hear her
"He's an armed
human being," Josh retorted. "Armed and alarmed do not a good combination
Josh had picked up on
the weapons cache. He
knows the man's armed - no, he thinks I am.
Dusty put his head
in his hands and tried to think.
He'd never fired a gun
before. There was one way to learn - he could follow this through, move to the
other slope, and watch the killer fire his. But the idea of it filled Dusty with
revulsion - and fear. What if I can't go back again? To stop it?
Physically, he knew he
couldn't tolerate much more. The pressure was building in his head, and he
didn't know whether the nausea was more from the migraine, or from the horrific
things he'd had to witness.
The argument was still going
on in the background. All Dusty could think was that he might have only one shot
at this - and he might have to take
"You're nuts!" Josh told
her. "You can't stop a bullet with good
"At least I
'good intentions'! 'So gather your fungus and let them
get him'," she mimicked. "What kind of compassion is
Dusty reached for the
rifle - the one with the sniper's site. He concentrated on grabbing it - on
solidifying his fingers enough to pick it up...
In his determination,
Dustin's fingers gripped and
"I don't need to
show compassion for someone trying to kill
The words pounded in
Dustin's brain, and for a moment, he felt as guilty as the man on prowl without.
It was followed by a blast of anger that these two should be so damned naive,
and too blind to spot a killer at their backs.
His anger squeezed the
trigger - literally. The stupid gun jerked in his hands. Dustin jolted at the
boom, jarring his aching
He took his anger out
on the two outside the plane - the two who were being so damned difficult to
save. "Will you shut
he shouted. "Or the next one's through my head - so this 'creep' can
put his 'warped personality' out of its
He never expected
them to hear him.
bickering had halted at the shot, but then it picked up again. Josh was yelling
now, "Where's the best place to get
Dusty froze, and his
eyes widened. Josh was talking to him. Yelling at him, as though he expected a
response. He heard me.
That means I can warn them, about the
sniper's already on his way down. It might be more of a challenge, but he'll
just shoot them sooner, rather than
What would a warped
easy, Dusty. What would you say to Josh at this
"Why did they send stupid
"I think that means
he wants us to use the door," he heard his Kitten
It was a lifetime
waiting. Dusty hung on, afraid to let go - afraid to fast forward for fear of
missing his chance. Get them in the plane and keep them in. Keep them
It was hot as Hades
in the plane, and Dustin didn't know whether it was his time, or their time, or
both. He felt like he was dying, but he couldn't die yet. Lure them in and
warn them. Slam the door and lock the killer out.
What about Jamie? He'll get
No. Jamie isn't
The pain, the
heat, the confusion were tearing him
And then Jamie was
there, and Dustin panicked, thinking he'd blown it. But no - he was still in the
plane. It was only Jamie's hand on his shoulder again. No mistakes. Jamie didn't
want any mistakes, because then he'd be alone. Nobody left.
Because the killer would
leave here, and head back along Ren's and Josh's trail. Until he happened on the
two trucks, that had no business heading toward his cremated plane. So, he'd
take them out, too. Just in case. No witnesses. No
Only, he and James had made
a big one. They'd left the bodies and the gear back at the truck. The phones,
the radios. The lone killer might not be alone for
long... Get out.
had to get out. That way, if this failed, Jamie wouldn't die, too.
He didn't realise he was
muttering it aloud until Jamie's voice repeated it. Dustin also realised he was
no longer sitting; but lying on his back. For a flicker of time Jamie was there,
and he looked - there was no other way to describe it - bereft.
wanted to ask him was if there was a chance - if there was any way things might
somehow be put "right". But when he saw the bleak look in Dustin's eyes, he
didn't have the nerve. Dusty's eyes were bloodshot, and there were dark circles
beneath. The man looked white, sick as a dog, and absolutely gutted.
"I saw it," James told him.
"And I'm staying."
enough. Jamie was smart. He would have figured it out. Dusty's eyes met his in
There were no
more words to say.
one of those times when "I'm sorry" would never be
Then, Jamie was gone.
And Dusty was, once again, alone in the plane.
He had to
know. Did I drift? Am I still "on time"?
Experimentally, he griped, in
his best bad-guy voice, "What's taking so long? It's like an oven in
"You're lucky there's
a door left to clear," Josh retorted. "And as for that 'stupid people' comment?
We weren't the ones flying the
"Good one, Josh," Ren
"I have my moments,"
Dusty gave a
sigh of relief. Still
alive in there?" Josh
. Josh was yelling at
Dustin groaned. "You're
taking so long I was gonna ask you the same thing!"
"Don't give me that look! If
we had the truck, we could have been out of here an hour ago! And we wouldn't
have to walk back across the goddamn
At first, Dusty
thought Ren was yelling at him, too. But, no - it must be at Josh. She's
Because Josh was
bellowing back. "They said 'sneak'. How the hell can you sneak with a goddamn
Now, there was
another sound besides the repetitious clanging Dusty associated with their
digging efforts. This was a metallic scrape and screech. They'd cleared the
door. Now they were prying it
open. Get them
Something was trying to break through the pounding in his head. Abstractedly, he
pinched his nose to stop a spurt of bleeding. He was vaguely aware that in that
other time, Jamie's hand was on his
head. Holding me
Jamie did, helped Dusty's mind clear. In a gag-wrenching flash of memory, he
suddenly recalled the sequence.
There won't be time.
Because, as soon as the door opens, Josh will get a bullet in the
Dusty shook off
Jamie's hand, reached over, and picked up the gun.***
shot shattered the windscreen. Valterzar swerved the truck, then did a quick one
eighty and headed back the way he'd come. "Anybody hit?" he asked
He looked at his Merrie
Girl in surprise and saw her pointing to the blood that was pouring down his
arm. He hadn't even felt it. Stunned, he started to slam on the brakes, but Erik
yelled at him, "Don't stop here!"
"I'll drive," Merrie said.
She grabbed the wheel, leaned forward against the dashboard, and plunged her
foot down on the
"It doesn't even
hurt," Zar argued.
sensitivity," Merrie told him. It lost something in the jarring up and
down of her high-speed driving. "I'm worried, and I don't want to be
worried about you."
kidding!" Erik interrupted. "Enough trouble worrying about the killers on our
They went up on two
wheels, then slammed back onto the ground, the wheels digging in again with a
splaying of sand.
"- and the
killer behind the wheel," he hissed close to Valterzar's ear. Aloud, he said,
"She wants her studmuffin
"Especially the stud
part," she said, with a smile in Zar's
"Watch the road!"
Merrie yelled back.
Valterzar frowned. "Let
me drive -" he began, but he lost it, because just then they hit another
big rut. They jarred and bounced and wobbled, as Merrie rammed her foot back
down on the gas.
jounce had done it. Zar whitened as his upper arm gave a toothache-type pang.
Once it started hurting, it didn't seem inclined to
"First time on this end
of things, eh?" Erik asked, watching his face. He'd reached over the seat and
was trying to control the bleeding with
conversation with him, Rik," Merrie ordered. "Just fix
"Drive like a sane
person and I might be able to -" Erik retorted. He wrapped his bandanna around
Valterzar's upper arm. "How's that feel,
Merrie glanced quickly
at Erik's bandaging job and then back to the wheel. "Erik! Aren't you going to
Another bullet shattered the
glass in the back. Erik did a rapid clamber over the seat, so all three of them
were in the front. "It's a little hard to concentrate!" he complained. To
Valterzar, he muttered, "She doesn't want me to be taken out until I fix you
first. What part do you want me to start with, Mer?" he
"Only the parts that
are broken," she said.
know, they probably wouldn't have spotted us if it hadn't been for that shirt -"
Erik told her.
know," Zar said, looking at the bright peachy bit of fluff Merrie was wearing.
He couldn't help but envision what she had underneath it. "If she'd gone without
it, they might have spotted us even faster."
thought the sound of the other truck returning would be a welcome relief. In the
distance, though, over the roar, pop and whine of the straining engine, there
were a number of distant "cracks", that sounded remarkably like gunshots. "What
the hell?" he mumbled.
wanted to shake Dusty - to bring him back from wherever he'd gone. But,
something held him back.
Maybe it was the way Dustin
looked. Jamie had the impression the man was falling apart, right before his
eyes. His nose was bleeding heavily, and there was a trickle of blood just
starting to drip out his ear. Jamie laid a hand on his head, much as he had
before Erik had arrived the last time. Jamie was afraid to move; afraid Dusty
would die if he didn't get back soon from wherever his mind had gone. He was
tempted to interrupt, but Dusty had issued that warning. There was no way Dusty
could be unaware of the bleeding; he must be in pain. He'd nearly died after the
airport - he must know what he was risking. Obviously, whatever this was, he
considered it worth the risk.
The truck came tearing in,
balanced on two wheels again, then settled to the ground, the motor still
racing. Erik flung open the door and bellowed, "Time to go!"
squatted there still, his hand on Dustin's head, Erik jumped out and did a
crouched run toward the plane. "Move it!"
he yelled. "They're
two trucks coming up fast, and one of the gunmen hanging out the window had a
sniper's scope, much like the dead man's on the slope. The first of the bullets
plunged through the wing. "What's the holdup?"
Erik asked desperately.
he said, seeing Dusty's face, and the blood pouring out his
"If I let go -" James
When Dusty suddenly
stood up, it took James by surprise. Dusty was standing there foolishly now, his
hands clinging to a gun.
Valterzar's voice rang out.
gripped the gun with shaking hands, and narrowed his concentration to this. This
moment. This one chance to see things through.
I'm a murderer. It's not
self-defence till after the fact. I'm taking him out because of what he's going
choices? Chances for him to change, like the chance I'm taking?
be that the sniper would change his mind, at the last
Dustin would have
grasped at it, if he'd thought there was a chance. Anything other than levelling
the gun and taking him out.
The door popped open, and
the moment for thinking, for choices, was gone. There was only the glint of that
gun in the distance, and Josh's feet, just visible where he'd fallen. For an
instant, Dustin thought the deed had been done, and that he'd missed it. Then he
heard Josh mutter a complaint.
Josh would lift his head
now, for the last
No more thinking.
Dustin squeezed the trigger.
never occurred to him that the man would see him, in that same instant. That his
aim would shift from Josh to himself.
Erik was shouting, lunging to yank him out of the doorway.
sudden gunburst that sent blood splashing across the sacks of rice, Dustin was
blasted back, out of
Valterzar yelled. James was staring blankly at the spot where Dusty had been, a
bemused look on his face. In that last moment, as he'd grasped Dusty's leg, he'd
experienced a loss of equilibrium that he couldn't explain - as though he'd
suddenly seen some altered vision of events past - and present. He still didn't
know quite where he was, and after that momentary glimpse of bloodshed and loss,
he wasn't sure he wanted to
know. "Jamie! Wake
It was Erik, shaking him; pushing him aside so he could get to Dusty.
James looked up, and saw Merrie and Valterzar dive out of the truck and head his
"Up to you, James!"
Valterzar was saying. James focused on him. "Stop
penetrated. James' vision was still overlain with that horrific vision of Josh
and Ren lying in bits and pieces - the victims of a gun, much like the one that
was aiming now, at Meredith's back. In that moment, it was all one. James
Wickham focussed on the not-so-distant truck, and lifted his
He was the truck.
Melded metal and synthetic rubber; plastic and glass. A metal frame, garbed and
decked out - rolling forward in hot cycles of pump and grind.
Only now, he was rolling
backwards. Crunching back, into what was now a squashed Persian visage of his
metallic counterpart. As the second truck ground to a jarring halt, Jamie
concentrated on getting
Dustin's rifle, and hovered next to James as the first truck shuddered to a
halt, then began, literally, to come apart at the seams. Bits and pieces when
flying: nuts and bolts, bedliner and tyres, glass and gauges. It was smashing,
cascading, pelting the truck to the rear.
And, everywhere, panic. The
would-be assault team disbanded in a scurrying run, chased by the pieces of
their own vehicle. Tyres mowed them down; windshield wipers came at them like
lances. The worst of it was the engine, that flung itself off its motor mounts
and did a churningly loud slide - cylinders pumping and exhaust streaming -
across the sand.
his guard now and dove into the cabin, where Merrie and Erik hovered over
Dustin. "I need Jamie!" Erik said
Zar climbed back out
and touched James' arm. The next instant, he was tossed back, against the
Erik heard the
thunk from inside the cabin. "Forgot to warn him," he grunted, flinching.
"That's gotta hurt."
ran outside. Zar was rubbing the back of his head, but he nodded to her. She
stooped down, next to James. "Jamie!"
she whispered in his ear.
James blinked, then
blinked again. Abruptly, the rolling tyres exhausted their spin, did a final
spiral, then dropped onto the sand. There was a distant clank and bang as the
dissected pickup lost its momentum. Jamie's eyes
"It's Dusty, James,"
Merrie told him. "Erik needs you." Then she reached out a hand, to help Zar to
his feet. "I'm losing
Erik yelled a warning.
James wiped sweat off his
brow. He alone knew what Dustin had gone through to salvage this little group -
and he suspected there was a lot more he didn't, but that he'd eventually coerce
Dusty into telling him. He'd be damned if he'd let Dusty sacrifice himself,
after doing so much else to help everyone else. He joined Erik, and now Zar, at
damned if you're going anywhere, Dusty," James told his limp form firmly. "Not
if I have anything to say about
Erik was looking
frustrated. "Something's wrong. He's not coming
Jamie touched Dustin's
arm. "He's still there," he mumbled. "On the plane." He looked at Valterzar.
"He's supposed to be gone. Or it could change things again."
"Do something, Zar!" Merrie
urged. "Stop it - before it kills
Erik looked at
Valterzar curiously, as Zar reached out a hand, and rested it on Dusty's head.
"He's one of us?" he
startled by Erik's words. He'd suspected it, of course, even used it, but never
openly acknowledged it.
with it!" James urged. Valterzar noticed he didn't seem in the least
surprised by Erik's
"Hurry it up!" Erik
Valterzar laid his hand
against Dustin's head and felt that churning of power in his gut. Only, this
time, it was going to be a struggle. Because he wasn't battling James'
rockshower or Merrie's rapacious ghost - things they wanted to stop but couldn't
- he was battling Dusty's determination to hang on, and see his job through.
"He's fighting me!" Zar told them. In that moment, he knew Dusty was afraid to
let go. Zar forced some part of himself in, deeper - trying to break Dustin's
mindset before he inadvertently ended his life. He'd gripped the past so firmly,
and held on so hard, that he didn't know how to let it go.
In an array of
blood-spattered visions, Zar saw what Dusty had. He nearly lost it when he
witnessed Merrie sprawled, across the sand, entangled with his own lifeless
body. A frisson of gooseflesh rode his skin as he viewed Erik entombed in the
truck, and Ren and Josh splaying their brains and hearts across the plane's
fuselage. No wonder he doesn't want to come back!
Zar realised. He
doesn't know what he'll find. The bullet in his side wasn't something he'd
anticipated. He doesn't know what's next - and as long as he stays there, in
the past, he can still have
Dustin had been
through too much. Battle fatigued. Weary, but unwilling to surrender. It was as
though an artery had been severed, somewhere in Dustin's soul. No - more like a
transfusion gone bad. Dusty refused to stop the bleeding, even though it was
leaching his own life away. "Enough,
Dusty!" Zar grunted, concentrating
harder - but this time, he wasn't following the events that were running through
Dusty's head: he was applying pressure; constricting the blood flow - slowing
it, slowing it...stopped.
gasped, and there was sweat on his brow. As he lifted his hand off Dustin's
head, Merrie threw her arms around him. "You did
Zar nodded, but didn't
voice his worry: that if Dusty hadn't been in such bad shape, he might not have
stood a chance. Almost automatically, he reached out to monitor Dusty's pulse.
It felt stronger now, but his own head felt oddly
Erik glanced at him.
"You okay?" he asked. At his nod, Erik added, "You're
Zar gave a shuddery
sigh and sat back, a little weakly, against the nearest sack of rice. "It can
wait," he said. "Till you've revamped yourself."
"Uh-uh," Erik told him.
"Have you looked at
Zar became aware
that Merrie was doing something to his arm, and he suddenly realised his shirt
and pants were soaked with blood. He looked
James explained it
to him. "When you were getting Dusty to shut down? You were spurting blood all
over the place. We were beginning to wonder which of you would die first."*
should have worn a long-sleeved shirt," Josh said. "I warned you
Ren was fried. Her skin
was magenta, and her face puffy; her eyes swollen. "I never want to see the sun
again," she groaned. There were already blisters on her shoulders and the top of
her nose was so burnt it was starting to scab. "I feel sick," she
Here, have some water."
"Josh!" she warned. They
were slowly passing the spot where Josh's overly friendly pig had paid him
multiple visits a couple of days before.
"Don't tell me," Josh
complained. "It's that damned pig again, isn't it?"
"It's a pig, all right, but
But it was too late. Josh
heard a snort at his rear. He brought back his heel, and gave the pig a sharp
tap in the teeth.
squealed angrily - and loudly. Josh stiffened. That wasn't the alarmed squeal of
an annoying little porker; that was the deep, husky, full-throated squeal of a
massive, adult, full-sized
Josh chanced a glance
over his shoulder. Two big, partially-trimmed tusks, beady little angry eyes,
and a body that must have weighed as much as his car. The fucker was two metres
long and nearly a metre high. Josh guessed he hadn't gone over the fence - he'd
gone through it.
that big and heavy could make good time. Josh backed slowly away, but he could
see it in his opponent's eyes: he was the enemy. Mr. Boar was about to charge.
Josh yelped, and took off at a
Ren had no
precognitive powers, but she could picture it all now: death by boar. He was
going to chomp Josh in half like a Great White Shark. The bloody thing was as
big as a rhino, and probably just as heavy. Mass in motion.
Josh leaped a short wall,
and nearly wet himself when massive Mr. Boar leaped it after him. In the
background he could hear Ren screaming and yelling, and then he saw her: she had
Mr. Boar by the tail and was trying to hold him back.
It was about as effective as
a bunny trying to stymie a race horse. When the pig leapt the fence, Ren went
flying over it, too - and onto her
Josh, meanwhile, knew
he was losing it in his panic. Pigs can't jump! Pigs can't jump!
beating a refrain in his brain. What a way to go - savaged by a pig.
While his brain dwelt on the
probable outcome, his body was working on remote. Without even knowing what he
was doing, he dodged one way, then another. His brain came out of hibernation
long enough to note the smart way Mr. Boar was trying to corner
Josh grabbed the spiked
top of the rough wood fence, and hoisted his feet off the ground. It didn't
discourage Mr. Boar. He went for the nearest
Ren was back on her
feet. There was a loose fence post - a thick chunk of wood that came away heavy
in her hands. Ren slammed it across the pig's rear end.
The Big Guy froze, grunted,
then turned to face her. Ren wielded her wood like a broadsword, slamming it
down onto Mr. Boar's snout.
That's gotta hurt. No one
can get hit in the nose and not
Her thoughts froze
right there. Right as Mr. Boar looked at her with evil little eyes, opened his
mouth, and bit off the end of her wooden
Ren knew she was
screaming then. She couldn't recall opening her mouth, but she could hear the
screeches in her ears. She stood there, frozen in horror. Josh was yelling
something, but she couldn't hear it, over the sound of her own
For, Mr. Boar was
checking her out. Her telepathy was working overtime, and telling her something
she didn't want to know. She was reading him, and it was obvious the pig had
already made up his mind.
enormous snout lifted in the air and he sniffed excitedly. She could swear his
nipped-off tusks rose in a smile as he trotted toward her.
no mistaking the amorous gleam in his eyes. He'd forgotten that Josh even
existed. No, he was strutting his stuff for her now - all four hundred kilos of
it - and he was determined to share it with her. Ren's eyes widened in
Just when she thought
she was doomed, Mr. Boar suddenly squealed, and he spun in anger. But by that
time, Josh was already halfway over the fence. "Got him in the huevos!" Josh
Ren dove over the
wall and raced for the truck. Josh, running a parallel path, was soon right at
her heels. He looked back only once, to see the would-be stud come ploughing
right through the rough fence, like so much balsa wood.
Josh and Ren ran flat out.
He was almost on them now.
No time for opening doors. "Up on the roof!" Josh panted, and he sensed, rather
than saw, Ren's nod. He took her arm, and the two of them did a nearly
synchronised bumper, trunk, roof manoeuvre that got them just barely out of
But, Mr. Boar wasn't
through. He prowled in circles around the truck, grunting and prodding at the
metal. His girlfriend and his rival had somehow managed to make a getaway, and
his adrenaline was still pumping thoughts of malice through his
"He's still mad," Ren
mind?" Josh hissed, then gripped her arm to keep his balance. Mr. Boar was
trying a new tactic now: putting his snout under the bumper, he was lifting the
truck off the ground then dropping it, as he tried to dislodge them from the
"A lot like reading
Thud, jar. Thud,
"What're we going to
"He'll give up," Josh
told her confidently.
minutes later, Ren remarked, "He's not giving
"Your fault for being
such a 'dish'." Josh
"Oh, shit!" Ren
"Company," she said
dismally. "We'll never live this down." The next moment, two trucks came tearing
up the road in a cloud of dust. To Ren's dismay, Dustin hopped out just as James
slammed on the brakes. He went down on one knee, then pushed himself up and did
a kind of weaving run in their
direction. "Get the hell
Josh started shouting. "You can't take him on!"
At the same
time Josh was trying to hang on to Ren. She was all for tossing herself off on
the far side - sacrificing herself to Mr. Boar's sexual proclivities in order to
Jamie had climbed
out and was standing in front of his vehicle, desperately trying to focus his
energies on the pig in hopes of tripping it, or slamming its eyelids closed, or
- or something
. Merrie was jumping and shouting to attract the pig's
attention, and was all for going after Dustin - who, in turn, was still
determinedly heading toward Ren. A bloodied Valterzar had pulled out a rifle,
and was looking slightly crazed. He was trying to place himself between the pig
and any would-be pig victims - especially Merrie - but none of the victims would
hold still. He finally gave up and just took aim at the
A little girl of about
six came skipping down the road, looking at them curiously. The strangers were
all yelling and flapping at her now, "Get back! Vaya! Peligro! Run for your
The little girl
glared at the giant boar through narrowed eyes. She put her hands on her hips
and shouted, her voice lost in the clamour of the others. "Pepito! Puerco
Pepito heard her. He
lowered the bumper with a solid thud, and his tail lost its curl. His head went
down and he cowered - four hundred kilos of blubbering baby.
"Puerco malo!! Vaya!" As
Pepito went trotting past her, still cowering, the little girl waved at them and
smiled, "Hasta luego!"
all stared as, humming, she went skipping back down the road.***
enough, it was Erik who arranged the flight home. He chartered a plane and made
sure it came with a well-stocked bar. "Just to replenish fluids," he said
cheerfully, "after our sojourn in the
preferred to take a train," James told him ungratefully. "Or a
"You should have
ordered him a kayak," Josh said. "More of a challenge. Dug up any good rocks
lately, Jimmy Boy?"
been too busy avoiding all these nasty little dino artefacts that get in the
way. All the good stuff seems to be underneath 'em." James sighed dramatically.
"Been chucking 'em right and
"Dusty verified a
suspicion I had, about a possible Drepanosaurus relative. Might be some
interesting geological specimens out there, too," Josh
"If he's calling them
'geological specimens', it means he wants your department to come up with -" Ren
"I know," Jamie told
her disgustedly, "and I don't even read minds. Try 'half the funding' for his
Besides, who says it's going to be lousy?" Josh asked. "I haven't even organised
"Like hell," Jamie
snorted. "I'm gonna be too busy to waste time on dead stuff - excuse the
grinned, and said quietly, "I'd rather waste my time on the living, too." She
looked with loving eyes at Zar, whose head was resting on her shoulder. He'd
fallen sound asleep as soon as they were in the air - head against hers, and
hand possessively on her lap.
"Besides," Jamie continued,
"Dusty and I are being sent to some island, to check out
interrupted. He punctuated it with a big
"'No' what? No
volcanoes?" James sounded disappointed. "You're
"No island. No
"Why not?" Merrie
asked him, annoyed. "Don't be so imperious!" she whispered.
In answer, he leaned over
and kissed her on the
"Okay, be imperious,"
she said. "But not dogmatic!"
"Writers!" Ren complained,
but she was smiling.
"Shut it, Josh," Ren
you have stayed asleep?" James asked Valterzar. "If you think I'm foregoing a
chance to go volcano filming, you're crazy. Dustin's doing the graphics. He
promised me some porno of Pele, dancing along a rim of
Jamie grinned. "He's
gonna model it on someone called
"And you plan on
being there to observe the
All the way."
Erik told him,
"The last time you went 'all the way' - oh, pardon me. I'll put it in terms you
can understand: 'got your rocks off' was in the Cenozoic era
interrupted. "Let's not give him too much credit. But, hey, if a volcano does it
"That's not the
"Maybe it is the
point," Merrie argued. "Relax, Zar. Maybe everyone here is as tired as you
"I'm not tired," Josh
said. "Sunburned as hell, but I've got nothing on Ren. She's
"Shut up, Josh.
That's the last time I cross the desert with
"Bet it's not the last
time you cross me, though." Josh
"Zar's only tired
from blood loss," Erik commented, to whoever was listening. He gestured toward
him with a glass of champagne. "Want a steak sandwich?" he asked. "To build up
was trying to ask Valterzar, "Do you think Dusty's in for trouble?" She glanced
worriedly to the back of the cabin, where Dusty lay stretched across several
seats, sleeping soundly through it
"Can't we have just a
few minutes without worrying about something?" Josh complained. "Leave it to
you, Kithren. For Dusty, this was nothing more than a bad bender," he said
confidently. "Let him sleep it off, and get past
"It's the 'getting past
it' I'm concerned about," Valterzar began, attempting to sound like the voice of
"Dusty can handle
himself all right. Didn't he just prove it?" Erik told him. "Hell, he and Jamie
saved all our asses - yours included." He added, "This may have actually been
good for him. Taught him some
them?" Valterzar asked Jamie
"Of course I did!
Dusty should get the credit he deserves. What?" he asked, seeing Zar's
expression. "You want to hide it now? Pretend your little psi episode was some
anomalous psychic fart?"
more people who know, the greater the chance Dustin'll have
retorted. "Besides, who's going to narc on him?" He looked pointedly at
Valterzar. "Only one person I can think of, and he already knows."
he'd left for Mexico, Lawrence Valterzar had considered himself an independent
agent. He'd had his own practice, and a lucrative consultancy, working for
Symtech. Some time, over the last six years, his "consultations" had become much
more personal to him. His clients had become more like friends, and he'd found
himself alternating between trying to analyse their actions, bail them out of
difficulties, and be there if and when they needed to talk. Lately, he'd also
attempted to justify their actions to Smythe - to defend some things that the
man was apt to question.
many ways, he'd thought of it as a "halfway house" type of arrangement.
Intellectually, his clients were all above average, and appeared to be
emotionally stable, considering their circumstances. Well-adjusted, actively
contributing members of society - but each with a major flaw. Each incapable, at
some point, of separating the real from the abstract. Each, in some way, a
hazard to either himself or
Merrie had trouble
distinguishing the living from the dead. She instilled the dead with so much
solidity that they could walk through her house, and rape her in her bed. Ren
could be prey to others' thoughts so strongly that they could exclude her own.
Josh was sometimes so lost in his clairvoyance that he'd reach for objects or
walk into doorways that weren't there. James? He had an intermittent problem
with rockfalls, thrown objects, and other moving matter. His most serious
problem of recent years had been a regrettable tendency to live out his dreams -
a cause of constant disturbance and little sleep. Dustin? So lost at times in
the past, that there were major omissions in his present, so that he was a
danger to himself. Not unheard of for him to be following a retro vision, and
walk out in front of a bus.
Perhaps Erik was the most
"normal" of them all - or perhaps not. He'd had a few problems with his healing,
largely resulting from attitude and a poor self-image. When Erik's healing
ability was suffering, he also began to suffer - from severe depression. For,
unlike the others, Erik had no other occupation to feed his self-esteem. He
his healing, when he could have been so much more. If his "gift" ever
failed him entirely, someone would need to be there to bolster him up. As it
was, Erik's insecurity was showing. Dustin was having migraines, which Zar
thought might owe something to scar tissue. The fact that Dustin was still
somewhat incapacitated, after two healing sessions with him, was driving Erik
But, until recently,
Zar had never thought of himself as one of them. It had crossed his mind, of
course, but even after the episode at Merrie's, where he'd eliminated her evil
challenger, he'd considered his success at least partially due to his love for
her: love triumphing over evil. It was much easier to accept that, than James'
assurances he was one of them.
There were so many
differences. Zar was able to function without an overseer. He might answer on
the pay side to Smythe, but, as far as he could recall, there'd never been a
reason for Symtech to come to his rescue - to bail him out of a difficulty he'd
I'm not a "parabnormal", as Dustin frequently called it. As much as
it would make him part of this group, it was also too scary to contemplate - and
Zar was still too close to losing his life from an event that should never have
happened. He could understand why Erik and Merrie and the others might prefer
him to be one of them, too - because it would make him less of a overseer, and
more of a cohort, but he couldn't do it - not even for Merrie. He could accept
her and love her for what she was, but she'd have to do the same for him.
Because he wasn't like them,
and never would be.
got home, there was letter waiting for him. It was formal and direct. "...in
changes to our departmental budget, and a requisite reduction in staff numbers.
It is with great reluctance that we terminate your contract, effective
remembered how he'd thrown it back in Smythe's face when he'd made the threat.
"Tell it to someone who cares."
He suddenly saw
something he'd been blind to before. He'd liked to consider his practise as his
mainstay, while he dabbled on the side. It was safer that way - less of an
involvement with his "Cluster".
But it wasn't true. As the
years had gone by, he'd invested more and more time in those six "clients". It
had been a personal choice, that went beyond contract
something to him, though. Jamie was wrong. He wasn't one of the Cluster, or
Symtech wouldn't have terminated him. He'd been just what he'd claimed: an
overseer. A professional they could turn to in times of stress or hazard.
Someone to safeguard health and safety, monitor new developments, suggest
practical methods for coping.
He wasn't the member of the
group sent to stopguard their actions; not the one with the power to lay a halt
to paranormal phenomena spiralling out of control. The abilities he'd displayed?
Simply a reflection of those other, far more gifted, individuals. Sense injected
into nonsense, allowing them to forego the next step.
And Dustin? With his runaway
retro and its near-lethal impact on his
life? I'm a doctor. I
helped stop the bleeding. That's all there is, all there was, and all there's
ever going to be.
been planning on arranging for Dustin to see a neurologist - to see if, with
some laser treatment and Erik's help, they might be able to eliminate the cause
of his headaches. Now, Lawrence didn't know whether he'd have any say, positive
or negative. Whether his word would have any influence with any of
He'd gotten the ax, for
Why had they canned
him? Because he'd been "difficult"? Disagreed with his supervisor? Refused them
information about their investment? Or because he'd slept with one of the
clients? If that was the case, he should feel relieved. He could carry on his
relationship with Merrie with impunity now. No guilt, no
If she'd still have
him. He was no longer, in any respect, one of "them". No excuses for turning up,
unannounced, at her house. He had no more claim to her than any of her other
guests. He wasn't stupid enough to think that a few nights of lovemaking would
seal the deal.
Dusty's comment about a "czar". Well, this "czar" had toppled off his throne.
And, despite his own feelings of connection, of friendship, he also wasn't
foolish enough to think they'd consider him anything other than a domineering
son-of-a-bitch with a dictator complex. He had no doubt they'd be celebrating,
now that he was gone. Merrie, after shedding a few tears, would host the party,
and Erik would supply the champagne.*
rang up Ren. "Zar was supposed to come here last night, and he never turned up.
He's not answering his
"Hold on -" Ren
covered the mouthpiece and spoke to someone in the room.
Merrie smiled. It would be
Dustin. Considering the early hour, he must have spent the night. Good,
she thought. Now, if I can just find
"Dusty says he'll
phone Josh and Jamie in a few minutes, but first he wants you to phone
"It's early for Erik."
"That's what Dusty said."
Merrie could hear the smile in Ren's voice. "He wants you to do the calling, but
he thinks it only fair we disturb Erik while the roosters are still
An hour later,
Dusty rang Merrie back. "Bad night, huh?" he asked her.
"I was alone." She'd stayed
at home and waited for Zar. Hopeful, at any moment, that he'd come.
As a statement, it wasn't
much, but Dusty knew it covered a lot of unspoken angst. "Nothing from Josh or
Jamie," he said, "and I've tried Zar's pager. Nothing. Do you know where he
"No." It sounded so
pathetic. He'd never told any of them. In some ways, it made Merrie feel like a
fool. Her Zar had tried so hard to keep his distance. His objectivity had been
crumbling around him, and he hadn't even realised it. Any more than he probably
realised how much they considered him a part of their Cluster.
"Hang on -" Dusty said. She
could hear his cellphone ringing in the
Dusty came back
on. His tone was angry. "Erik just had a go at
Valterzar's contract was up. In other words, because Zar came down to Mexico
against orders to bail us out, Smythe has canned his
"We would have died if
what Smythe wanted." Dusty let her think about that for a moment, then said,
"Josh is going to find his address on the files. He says it might take a while,
because he has to sift through the
It brought a
smile to Merrie's
"Merrie, if he contacts
you, let one of us know, okay? Ren has to work, and so does Jamie, but Erik and
I are free agents."
headache?" Josh told Dustin. "You
didn't have to sort through thousands
of records, searching out one name. I'll be having nightmares about it for
"You have a headache
Erik sounded exasperated. "I can't believe you're not fixed. As
soon as we liberate Valterzar from his self-imposed prison, I'll put him to
"I'd like to see
that," Jamie muttered.
I'm happy the way things are. Did you ever think I might want to handle this
Ren told him.
"'Do it myself,
do it myself'," Jamie mimicked. "Where have I heard that before?"
"Not from me," said
"Will you all just
Merrie said. "How am I going to hear if he's in
"You're not going to
hear it anyway," Erik said practically. "Not with that dog
"Besides, you don't
need to hear it. Ren can tell us," Josh said with exaggerated patience. "Ren
loves telling people where to go and what to
"Shut up, Josh," Dusty
said angrily. "Don't talk like that to
"He's here," Ren
"I could have
told you that," Josh said. "Could have pictured him right there, if my brain
wasn't so burnt out from looking for the damn fool!"
He bellowed the last at
"Go for it, James,"
going to knock first?" Ren
"Listen to Ren,
Everybody," Josh said. "Now that Valterzar's gone, she's in
Ren had had enough.
All through the desert, and now this. She did something she never would have
considered under normal circumstances. If they hadn't been through hell over the
last few days. If she hadn't been short on sleep for nearly a week. If Josh
hadn't been such a pain in the ass in the desert. She launched herself at him
and started pummelling him with her fists, much as she had when they were kids,
and he'd pushed her too far. Jamie was laughing so hard he could barely stand
up, Dustin looked as though his headache had gotten worse, Merrie was annoyed
that they were distracting everybody when they should have been helping Zar, the
dog inside was going crazy, and now making some weird squealing noise, and Erik
was pounding on the door. "Save me!" he yelled. "Save me!"
found him. He was obscurely pleased, yet at the same time, he wanted to pretend
he wasn't here. I'm
better out of it,
he thought. He could expand his practice; go back to
investing his time in people who wanted a "shrink" as a status symbol. Every
once in a while he'd encounter someone who was really needy. It would make all
the rest of the tedium worthwhile.
The truth was, it had taken
him only a short time to become weary of his profession. There was a sameness to
the complaints of many of those spoiled strangers. So much depression with so
little cause. So little appreciation for life - for normalcy. So little
gratitude for what they had in a world where the had-nots outnumbered them.
Valterzar personally felt - especially now, when he'd had too much to drink -
that a lot of the depression could have been cured by taking up a worthwhile
pursuit. By giving back a little of what his clients were so inclined to take.
Despite the claims of the ad-men, designer labels, personal digital assistants,
and "therapy" were no guarantees of happiness. A few more real problems, like
finding a next meal, or getting up in the wee hours to hold down a job, and
there wouldn't be time to indulge in
He had to face
it: most of his regular clients bored the hell out of him. He was going to miss
this group. One of them
he thought, picturing Merrie's face.
Time to let them
He wouldn't win any points for being gutless, and Jamie would probably
let them in anyway. Better to face them, so he could move on.
opened abruptly and Lawrence Valterzar stood there. He looked much as he had on
the way home on the plane, and Merrie suspected he hadn't changed his clothes.
He needed a shave, his eyes were bloodshot from fatigue and - she sniffed -
booze, and he stunk of cigarette smoke. She flung herself into his
He wrapped his arms
around her, closed his eyes, and buried his face against her
"Oh, is this one of
those tender moments?" James
Josh, under Ren's
assault, had dropped to his knees, then knelt there, laughing, as she beat on
him with her purse. Suddenly, he jerked back in horror as a black, bristly snout
sniffed his face. "A-A-Ahh!" he yelped. His eyes wide with horror, he paled.
"Whoa, Josh!" Erik said.
"Got any smelling salts, Zar?" he
"Sit down, Josh, and
put your head between your knees," Valterzar
"I would, if someone
would move the pig," Josh
"Josh, I'm sorry,"
said Ren. "If I'd known about the pig
Jamie was laughing again,
but at Merrie's scowl, he tried to control it.
"You just don't know what it
was like," Ren told Dusty, as he stood between her and the pig. "Did you know
they can bite off shovel handles?" She looked warily at the black pig as though
it had designs on her
"Aren't you going to
invite us in?" Erik asked, poking his nose in the door. "Hear you medical types
live pretty well."
Jamie sniffed. "Smells
a little gamey in there," he remarked. He bent over, sniffed the pig, then
asked, "Or is that
"We'll go somewhere
else," Valterzar said
"So that's the way
it is," Dustin said quietly. With his head this sore, he didn't have much
patience for subtlety. "Let's go," he told the others. "He's
Dusty suddenly realised
Valterzar was still half-drunk. He was not totally steady on his feet, and even
his "not yet" had sounded slightly slurred.
"What is it?" Merrie
asked him. Her eyes were dark and
"I noticed," retorted
"I'm - I'm
Jamie peered in through
the door. "You're a slob!" he said
Zar gave up.
Distressed, he flung out his hands in drunken drama, and tripped his way into
his house. The pig trotted happily at his
"Where does she
sleep?" Erik asked, looking a little distastefully at the
"Who?" Zar asked, with a
lascivious look at
Erik repeated slowly.
room." Zar wove his way through to the closet in his bedroom. There were some
thick pink blankets on the floor, a bowl labelled "Angel", and some stuffed
"I don't believe
it," Josh said.
"I think it's
great," Ren remarked. Here was a pig she could tolerate. "Angel!" she called.
"Is she friendly?"
nodded, with drunken enthusiasm. "Smart, too. Watch this. Angel! Can you get a
drink? A drink, Angel?"
grunted, then trotted over to the fridge. She pushed it open with her snout,
grabbed a drink bottle off the shelf, tipped her head and loudly slurped it
"Sometimes she forgets
to shut the door," Zar said fondly. "I keep her bottle filled with juice. She
just loves the stuff."
don't share, do you?" Josh asked him
Dusty was sitting
on Zar's lumpy sofa. He felt a lot more comfortable getting to know this side of
There was a
scratching at the door of the other room.
James asked, "That your
"Yeah. Let him out if
He opened the
door and a Corgi came running out of the bedroom, barking
"Charmed, I'm sure,"
said Erik, as the dog came over to sniff his
A fat grey cat came
through the window, thudded onto the floor, and batted the dog on the nose while
the pig sniffed its rear.
"Just one big, happy
family," Ren remarked. She sat down next to Dusty and flashed him a smile. Dusty
leaned back, comfortable, and held out his arm. Ren rested her head against his
shoulder. A moment later, Dusty was snoring softly, while Slimeball the cat came
over and curled up in his
"How many creatures do
you have?" Josh asked him. He was still having trouble absorbing this clash with
Zar's public persona.
Scooter, Foxy, Slimeball, Cherry, and Beelzebub. Oh, and the two axylotyls.
Haven't named them."
not," Jamie said with a
"What I want to know
is how come I never noticed any dog hair on you." Erik still couldn't believe
their stiff-necked team leader had this hidden
"I'm a professional,"
Zar told him.
Josh was asking warily, as he looked around the
"The ferret," Zar
"I'll never take
you seriously again," Jamie
"Reason I let you in.
You never have to," Zar said. He sat down in a chair, and Angelina jumped into
his lap. He grunted a little under her weight. "She's not usually this
grinning happily. She plopped on the side of Zar's chair, and wrapped her arms
around him. Angel gave a jealous
"Sorry, Angel," she
said, kissing Zar's temple. "But he's mine."***
having lunch with Erik the next day. Or, rather, Erik had decided he was having
lunch with Dustin. He'd walked into the office, bypassed the receptionist, and
announced, "I've ordered up some D'Angelo's. Should be here in ten minutes."
It wasn't the first time
Erik had done this - just the first time in several
"Hey, Erik!" Doug
Bigelow, one of the graphics team, greeted him. "Haven't seen you in a while.
How's the healing
"Good. By the way, I
ordered enough cannelloni for everyone. I know how you computer guys eat." He
poked at a pile of M & M wrappers on Dusty's desk, then peered distastefully
into a half-full can of Coke. "I think this was here on my last visit."
"Same brand, different
issue." Dusty's smile was strained. "Can't we do this later? I have a client
waiting for me to finish these
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Erik dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "I've been thinking. If we tell
Smythe how Valterzar came through for us, he'll reinstate him. The way I see it,
Smythe just doesn't know how valuable the man
Dusty diminished the
screen, and turned to look at him. "Why the sudden interest in
"You were there
last night, too -"
gesture of support," Dusty lowered his voice. "He went out of his way to save my
butt." He sighed. "Probably knew it wouldn't win him any points with
"What? Saving your
butt?" Erik grinned. "A la contraire. Smythe was so eager to save the
team that he would have requisitioned the Concorde, if he'd thought it would
have gotten me there any
"There are better
places to talk about this," Dusty told him warningly. He leaned back in the
chair and said quietly, "I don't need a bloody overseer. None of us do." He
regarded Erik curiously. "I thought you were the first one to realise
"'Overseer', no -
'support network', yes. Besides, I didn't realise until this trip that Valterzar
was -" He looked at Doug, but he had the headphones on, and the receptionist had
turned up the radio to give them some privacy. "- one of
"Which is why Smythe
probably canned him. Because we know now. So does
confused. "I don't get it. What sense does that make? We'd be more willing to
work with him now."
the point. Valterzar was the safety, in case one of us blew a
Erik raised an
eyebrow, grinned at him, then casually inspected his fingernails.
"It worked. I blew,
but Valterzar stopped it. So now, we all know he can 'stop'
Erik frowned. "So
now they don't want him
think they want to use
"Mexico was probably a
test run - just to see how we'd react. I bet they never expected us all to
"We showed them we
really are a Cluster." Erik looked dismayed. "A cluster of
probably interpret our joint effort as a need to stick together. Incapable of
Erik shook his
head and opened his mouth, but Dusty interrupted
"Even you. Look where
you turned up, when we all went walkabout." He turned back to the computer.
"Maybe they're right. Maybe we do have dependency
supposed to be so grateful to Symtech for watching over us all these years,"
Erik muttered, "that we should be eager to give something
Dusty sighed. "The
last person they'd want involved is someone who could counter what we're doing.
Especially since we know about him, and might ask him to interfere." He added
firmly, "Zar's better out of it. At least he'll have some
Erik snorted. "Are
you kidding? He's with Merrie. Not even 'Rest in Peace' works with her."
knew exactly when the idea came into her head - only that once there, it
wouldn't go. She kept thinking about something Dusty had said, about their
"Cluster". About the way they'd all come together when there was trouble.
It was easy to tell that in
some respect, it was bothering him. No sooner had he made a bid for independence
than all hell had broken loose for some of the team.
What he wasn't saying, was
that the two people involved in trouble were the team members he'd been closest
to in recent years. And that he wasn't at all sure it was a
coincidence. Neither am
Ren couldn't help but wonder how they'd all come to be there, together,
at the end. How they'd all happened to meet up in a remote town in the backside
of nowhere. Dusty might be thinking in terms of overblown loyalties; possibly
even some kind of conditioning to make them all react - "brainwashing", of a
sort. But now Ren was thinking of something else. She worked with biochemical
signals in the lab: with plants that released ethylene after wounding, to warn
other plants that an insect or fungal attack was on the way. The ethylene
triggered defence mechanisms in those other plants, so they wouldn't be as
vulnerable to predation. Was there some kind of biochemical mechanism at work
here? Biochemical, or bioelectrical? Some signal between them all that told them
Her mind kept
coming back to Myxomycetes. Slime moulds. They'd been a subject of study by
botanists, cell biologists, and mycologists for a number of years, way back
when, because of their singular behaviour, which was unlike that of any other
creature. Some slime moulds could travel in a sheet, as a mass of protoplasm.
This "plasmodium" could move from place to place, much like an amoeba. It could
change characteristics, becoming more fungus-like, with fruiting bodies to
Dictyostelids, or cellular slime moulds, lived most of their lives as
individual, amoeba-like cells. For all intents and purposes, each cell was an
independent agent, functioning to gather its own food, and to survive in its own
way. At certain times, however, the swarm of "amoeba" would suddenly come
together, in response to a chemical cue. Then, they'd not only group - they'd
coalesce into a fruiting body, which acted as a single unit. It was incredible -
as if a leg which had functioned as an independent mass of cells suddenly came
together on a signal, which then permitted it to take someone for a stroll.
Slime moulds were unique,
and arguments had abounded about whether to place them in Fungi, for their
fruiting bodies, or Protista, for their flagellate forms. Their behaviour was
something that had fascinated mycologists, zoologists, and cell biologists for
Ren didn't know why
she kept thinking of this now, or why it was bothering her so much. She'd
already been thinking in terms of triggers, and the way Erik's and Dusty's
responses had changed. They'd all been through some episodes where their
reactions had been overblown, or the outcome unexpected. It had occurred to her
there might be an age-related variable, similar to some genetic diseases that
only became truly active when triggered by age, or protein production, or
removal of masking support systems. Now, her mind kept going back to the gene
therapy they'd supposedly had as infants. What kinds of genes had been
to Josh that maybe they were triggers for each other, somehow responsible for
catalysing a response that might not otherwise have happened. Well, that didn't
seem to be the case with Dusty - he claimed he'd been able to turn up, in that
flash at the airport, with no external influence at all. Maybe, if they were
triggers for each other, it was in the way of slime moulds - some stimulus that
drew them together. If that was true, she might be able to live with it, but
only if it was internal, and not external: i.e.,
a friend needed her -
she somehow sensed it - she reacted. If it was Symtech, using an ethylene-like
response to stimulate a reaction, she wanted no part of it, and would do
whatever it took to fight
It was one thing
reacting to a biochemical stimulus, and quite another being trained to respond
in a predictable way.
No matter how artfully they'd guised themselves in education, responsibilities,
and relationships, there would always be ways they didn't "fit in". Ways in
which they related so much better to each other, than anyone else.
Maybe because they had
something more than the standard gene
The thought was
terrifying - so terrifying that she didn't want to share it with anyone, even
Dusty. She didn't want any of the others to feel the way she did
Didn't want them to
start wondering, the way she was, exactly what they were.
Jekkes had never seen Charles Smythe look so pleased with the results of an
As they sat in
his office, Marcus looked out at their park-like surroundings and thought,
All a facade.
Just beyond the fences, the hustle-bustle of humanity raced
by. The complex was far enough away from the city centre to avoid heavy foot
traffic, but the freeway ran along one side, and the main thoroughfare through
town did business down the other.
This was the site, many
years ago, where some of the Clusters had been schooled. Many of the buildings
had been replaced after Symbio was bought out, and the old dormitories were now
offices. The only thing that had remained somewhat the same was the "medical
wing". Now, it was a lab.
hadn't been so very different then.
"Why'd you let Valterzar
go?" Marcus asked. He hadn't intended to be so blunt, but it had been bothering
him since he'd drafted the letter. It made no sense to liberate the only member
of a Cluster who could hold the others in any kind of
was different from what he'd expected. Apparently, the Cluster Project had gone
from being a piece of ancient history to something much more relevant.
For the last ten years,
Charles Smythe had been stuck with it. It was a dinosaur, as far as today's gene
technology was concerned: old methods, uncertain results. Smythe had been
unlucky enough to inherit it when he'd taken this desk. At the time, the Cluster
Project had been simply a series of files in a folder, with an unusually early
commencement date, and an uncomfortably large chunk of his budget allotment. It
was, perhaps, good that in those early days, Charles had been as uncertain of
his job status as he was of the wisdom in sustaining an experiment that no
longer seemed to have any relevance. He'd left everything in place; letting
attrition and inflation balance the budget as the years went
There'd been moments of
relevance, of course - when he'd had to approve "hiring" Valterzar, or tolerate
visits from Cluster members. They tended to walk right in, as though these was
still school grounds and they were alumni paying a visit. Erik Dainler had been
the most arrogant, and Lawrence Valterzar the most frequent. Charles suspected
that neither man had any idea how inconsequential the Cluster Project had
had assumed a moral responsibility for the experiment, even though their
decision had no basis in morals. It was a clear case of human experimentation,
and could easily have been a matter of public record by now. The only reason it
wasn't, owed largely to an agreement made many years before, in which Symbio had
made financial commitments to train, oversee, and establish the "victims" in a
near-normal lifestyle. Considering the unknown outcomes of the research, this
was a far more acceptable resolution to a questionable procedure than a one-time
payout, which would have brought both Symbio and its government affiliations
into the limelight.
victims' families had been fairly circumspect. No headlines, no accusations.
They, too, had been compensated, but not to the extent that guilt would play a
part in their decisions. Part of that compensation had been the removal of
offspring whose symptoms were not only bizarre, but frightening. Special
schooling, interspersed with frequent familial visits, had largely eliminated
any of their concerns. Besides, in the days before molecules were regularly
segmented, or protein patterns run on gels, dotted onto ELISA plates, and tagged
in RAPD analyses, the individual families would have had trouble denying that
the problem wasn't theirs to start with - some misconstruction of genetic
chance. Many of them had been happy enough to have help with their problem - to
find someone who would take their concerns seriously. Hard to explain how your
child can read people's minds, see into locked rooms, or raise the dead. A
dilemma for any parent. Symbio made no admissions of culpability, but offered
what may have seemed like the only solution.
institutionalised. Aberrant ESP needed to be rechannelled.
There were a few exceptions,
whose problems went largely unnoticed, because the outcomes were internalised.
Lawrence Valterzar was one of these, and he'd grown up in a normal family, but
had gone on to specialise in the abnormal. It suggested to Symtech that he
wasn't totally unaware of his "gift" - just of its possibilities.
"Valterzar? Besides the
obvious reluctance to follow orders, he's discovered what he can do. They all
know it now, which means they'd turn to him if they felt things were getting out
interrupt. He just stood there
"Don't give me that
look, Marcus. I've already told you we're here to push limits. With Valterzar
involved, we wouldn't be pushing
wrong. Maybe having him there would make them feel they had a cushion - for some
After all these years, things are finally beginning to get interesting. Only
now, the Board's talking about pulling the
Marcus frowned. "Did
you tell them about Mexico? About how successful one of the Clusters was in
finding that plane?"
nodded. "Oh, the Board's happy enough to have some use for them, even if it's
only as St. Bernards in search and rescue. But the agency's complained - wants
to know why, in the guise of 'helping' them, we went counter to their
"Why their pilot
ended up dead? What did they expect our Cluster to do? Stand there and take
"It's more like why -"
Charles started chuckling, "- some of their equipment attacked
"Maybe they'll take
the Project off our
"Except if they pick
up a 'dead' Project, we're not going to get any compensation for it." Charles
sounded frustrated. "We've invested money in this for years - more than matched
what they put in. If we write it off, they'll just take it over. Nothing for
the Board needs to rethink
interest. Most of them feel we've done our bit to compensate the families. We've
'served our sentence'. Drew Garris was our last physical link to the project,
and he passed away last
"The company doesn't
even have the same name," Marcus added. "There's no way the public's going to
hold us responsible for what our predecessors
"Right." Smythe's eyes
glinted with suppressed excitement. "And the agency is anxious to take over,
because they're beginning to see the possibilities. They'd rather be in control
than adhere to any agreements for a
"Doesn't the Board
know about the clause in the maintenance
"I think that's why
the Board's so eager to dump it. The agency wants it, and the Board wants to
dump the responsibility. They're afraid the backlash for 'activity' will be
"Jail time for
Stupid, really. The ISO's in the position to eliminate any incriminating
information. I was hoping a demo - paid work in answer to a challenge - might
get the Board members to change their
"That's why you sent
Wingot and Magnus to
"And now we're
supposed to get paid for it. Helping out another branch of the agency. Only, it
backfired. Our damned partners may not even have to pay to take the Clusters off
our hands. Not if the Board has its
"So, if we want to keep
the 'Project' going...?" Marcus
"We're going to
have to generate some money to cover expenses. Make the Project pay for itself.
Convince the Board that it can, without collateral damage. I've already reminded
them that after years spent covering for the Clusters, it's only recently that
some unusual side-effects have begun to manifest
"You've been talking to
smirked. "Very enthusiastic, is Hanover. The only one on the Board who is. He
can't wait to see what they do next. So, the brief has changed. Time to get them
still at his desk at eleven-thirty that night, when the security monitor came
on. They had set it up so the screen would catch their attention, even with the
headphones on. Most of the staff worked with headphones, including Dusty. Either
you were synchronising sounds and music to an animation, inspiring yourself in
order to sling something creative onto the screen, or trying to forget you were
sitting on your butt in front of a monitor while the rest of the world went by
So far today, he'd
fielded calls from Ren and Josh, Jamie had emailed him twice, and Erik had hung
around far longer than was necessary. It seemed they were determined to look out
for him, no matter what he did. Between the pounding headache, a work deadline
in his face, and the constant feeling of exhaustion, they were driving him
crazy. At this point, he didn't want to see anyone - not even Ren. He just
wanted to be left alone.
monitor wouldn't have flashed unless somebody was outside the building, wanting
in. Unless it was Ren, or maybe Josh, out there, they couldn't be certain he was
here. Let them think I'm out, prowling the streets. Leave me to it, so I can
meet my deadline.
of being independent,
he thought. Making choices. I'm choosing to
be left alone.
got mail" popped up in his face. Damn Jamie!
If he went to the email
programme, James would have one of those Reply to Sender things.
I can always answer
He picked up the
phone, punched in his code, and changed the message on his answering machine. "I
am not taking messages, answering the door, or opening my email. Will you kindly
fuck off, so I can get my work
done?" I'll have to
remember to change that, before the office opens...
couldn't sleep. She'd smiled when she'd listened to Dusty's answering machine,
and even now, she didn't feel hurt. He was going through a lot right now, and he
wasn't the only one longing to disappear for a while to sort things out. Ever
since these ideas about genetic influences had entered her brain, she couldn't
seem to get rid of them. There was no one she could talk to, who wasn't directly
In a way, she was
really glad everyone was focussed on Dusty. Having Valterzar out of the picture
helped, too. She knew she was being insensitive, even cruel, but she didn't
think she could hold up under his probing gaze right now. He'd know something
Zar with Merrie,
Dusty with her. It was the other thing that was getting to her. Was their
attraction real, or just a response to some chemical cue? Was there a
correlation between the changes in Dustin's retro, and his attraction to her?
Like the Myxomycetes which came together to spawn? Ren began to
Once she'd started, she
couldn't stop. It seemed like she'd loved him forever, but did she love him any
more than Josh or Jamie did? Than Merrie or Erik? Than Valterzar? Was she being
a victim to some influence beyond her control, that had nothing to do with
It had been
brought back to her forcibly today - the way they all clung together. They were
all worried about Dustin, just as they'd all been worried about Zar. Was this
the way normal people acted? Would I do this for any of my other friends? The
work friends, on the
"outside"? I'd visit them
if they were sick...
of them was in the hospital, maybe, or rang me up to ask for help.
But this is different. We've
known each other since we were
Not Valterzar. Yet we
stormed his house,
For the first time,
Ren was glad Dusty wasn't here. As she paced restlessly, she planned what she
was going to say. It was time to pay Charles Smythe a visit.***
a right to know. It was probably the hundredth time she'd thought it, and it
got her through the door and into his office. She was concentrating so hard on
her own nervousness, that it took her a moment to recognise his.
He was petrified. Of her.
She looked up, all her own fears forgotten, and met his eyes. He knows I'll
be able to read him, and he doesn't want me to. "I'd like to see the
original files on the Project," she
He'd never expected
this. It had been easy for him to think of Valterzar as an employee, and Erik as
a glorified clown, but neither one had ever wanted background information. Erik,
because he knew he didn't have the technical training to understand, and
Valterzar, because he'd probably guessed his own genome was suspect, and didn't
want to know more. But Smythe had controlled the others, Kithren Magnus
included, for ten years now. What had triggered this sudden
"Why?" It was
obvious why, but he was stalling. She knew it,
"Because I want to know
what kind of 'gene therapy' we were
"It saved your life,"
"I want to know if
it was human." The moment she'd said it, she regretted her choice of words. It
was as though some bell had gone off in his brain. He wanted to know why she
wondered about the "human" part - what manifestations had brought her to this
And he was going to do
his damnedest to find
She stared at him,
suddenly aware of something else, that sent gooseflesh dancing across her skin.
He was going to tell somebody - a partner - an agency. Somebody who was much
better than he was at finding things
I've been so
blind. Most of her life she'd been watched. It was another thing that she'd
taken for granted. In its own way it had been comforting, to know there was
someone there, to catch her if she fell from a podium, as she had that day at
the conference. It had been all one with the special schooling, the isolation
for exams, and the acknowledgment that none of them were quite "normal".
"That's an odd statement."
She realised he was talking
to her, and she tried to pretend she was still in control. Tried to make it seem
as though some part of her wasn't cringing, and trying to run away. She
swallowed hard. "Dr. Drewsome
Shit! What's wrong with
me? She'd reverted to the nickname they'd used for him as kids. It was as
though all her confidence had deserted her, after tuning in on Smythe's
She cleared her
throat. "Dr. Garris said something once -" she thought quickly, "- about how
experiments could sometimes be dehumanising," she lied. "It just got me
got to cover.
Somehow, she had to re-establish the mood he'd had when she'd entered the room.
When he'd been afraid of her.
Ren stood up. "I have a
right to know more about what was done to me. I'd like to see my
Smythe told her. "I'll requisition it, but it'll take a
He could access it on his computer. All he needed was the
muttered. She looked up, to find him staring at her aghast. That was the
password. "Nothing," she mumbled, frightened at the way he was looking at her -
the thoughts that were running through his head. "I-I didn't say anything." She
didn't know what to do.
ran. His thoughts were racing now, and he was thinking about detaining her. He
was scared, all right, but he was also thinking about the ways he could use her,
after this little demo. The ways those others - the ones he was going to call -
could use her, too. She'd never fight them, because she had too much to lose.
Because they'd threaten the other members of her
She slammed the door
to his office, and then kept on running. Around her, voices and thoughts and
words came pounding into her head. At one point, as she neared the front door,
she found her feet slowing; reacting to some of the confusion in her brain.
I should never have
They'll be following
Go home. If you don't,
they'll pick you up now. Go home.
She stopped only once,
at a pay phone. All around, she could sense eyes on her. They were watching now.
They'd wonder who she was calling.
Valterzar picked up the
phone. Ren didn't wait for him to say hello. "Is Merrie there?" she asked
worried. "What's wrong,
She was fighting back
tears. "Let me talk to Merrie.
Merrie was on the
line the next moment. "Are you
"I need you to do
something for me," she hissed. "Talk to Dr.
"What about?" she asked, through stiff
"Find out if he had any
backups, that aren't on Symtech's
Ren glanced around. "I
talked to Smythe."
realised something else. Merrie wouldn't want to know if it wasn't human DNA.
None of them would. It was too horrifying to contemplate.
Look how I'm reacting,
and I'm a scientist.
have to go..."
out. While you
Merrie sounded scared.
were going to get her if she didn't
"Forget what I said!"
Ren told her quickly. "It-It's nothing!" She slammed down the phone, then picked
it up again to throw them off. She punched in the first number that entered her
head, then let it
Trying to appear calm,
she got back in the car and headed for
Behind her, at the
phone booth, a man picked up the receiver and listened - stunned when he heard a
familiar voice. "Dana?" he asked,
to the phone, Max?" Dana asked
"Nothing - just a
misdial. Must have been thinking about you," he
"Who was that?" the
other man asked, after Max had hung
"Believe it or not, that
was my wife," he replied. Max didn't sound too happy about it. Having a client
punch in his home phone came across like a threat. His voice was angry as he
told the other man, "Magnus punched in my number."
down the phone slowly. She trusted Zar with her life - with all their lives -
but this wasn't his job any more. Very deliberately, she turned to him and gave
him a lingering kiss.
eyes glinted. "Distraction, Merrie?" he growled against her ear. He kissed her
deeply, then asked, "What's up with
It was so tempting.
Whatever the official status, Zar was still their team
leader. And my lover. My
She wanted to blurt out her worries, but her sense of fair play
wouldn't let her. Zar no longer had Symtech's support to back him up. Over the
past six years they'd embroiled him in so many things that had cost him in
headaches, time, and - during this last episode - injuries.
She knew, even better than
the others, how hard Symtech's decision had hit him. He was gratified by the way
the group of them had reacted, but that didn't mean he needed to resolve their
problems any longer. Ren's difficulty, whatever it was, remained just one more
in a long line of chaotic events. Merrie felt confident they could resolve it on
their own. It's just that
if Zar were handling it, whatever it is would be resolved a lot
couldn't do that to him. It would be like torture, involving him in this latest
escapade when he had neither the means nor the support to act. Running counter
to Symtech at this point might only involve him in some sticky legalities - or
illegalities - that his psychiatric practice didn't need.
Merrie rubbed against him,
then gave him a big smile. If it didn't quite reach her eyes, he didn't say
anything. "She wants me to do something for
Zar tilted his
Merrie's smile faded a little, and she looked around for her purse. "She's
really worried about Dusty." At his expression, she admitted, with some
asperity, "It's just one more glitch, Zar. No more or less than a dozen other
glitches over the years." She wrapped her arms around him. "Just one more little
"And you think I'm
better out of it."
his gaze seriously. "Yes. Sometimes I wish I -" She froze, and her eyes
brightened. Why the hell not?
Why did she let Symtech dictate her life?
Why did Ren let them frighten her? The only reason they were involved at all was
because, years before, Symtech, or Symbio, or somebody who worked for them, had
goofed. They'd used some form of human experimentation, and they were still
paying the price. No
I don't need them. I
have Zar as my helpmate, and he has me. Dusty was right. We don't need
They'd hurt her nearest and dearest, and dammit if she'd have
anything more to do with
Excited now, she gave
him another big kiss, her expression enthusiastic. "I love you," she told him,
then ran out the door.
the way home, she rang Dusty. He was answering the phone again, but he sounded
grouchy as hell.
right," she blurted.
"Symtech. Ren had some
kind of a run-in with Smythe this morning, and she's all
"Is she okay?" he
"I think so. Maybe you should ring her, though," she pushed. "Find out what it's
"Thank you, Merrie,"
Dustin told her drily.
writing them a
"Who?" Sometimes he
found it a little difficult to follow her
letter made me think of it. They're supposed to be doing us a favour, not
running our lives."
said slowly, "You're going to 'terminate their contract'." She could tell from
the sound of his voice that he was smiling. "Dammit, Mer - that's
Technically, they can't do anything unless we want them to."
He hesitated. "Are you going to tell the
"Only the revolting
ones," she chuckled. "Like
"In revolt, Woman. Get
it right." Dustin sounded cheerful. "I may even beat you to it. I think I'll
send ol' Charlie an email. Follow it up with a formal
"Talk to Zar,
"About the letter?
Better a fait accompli.
It'll mean more
"No, you fool - your
head. You're driving everyone crazy." She added, "It's all about taking
smiled. "- for my own
"No point in
having Symtech denounce your letter as the product of a deranged mind," she said
"Ever so positive,
aren't we?" Dusty said sarcastically. He lowered his voice. "Look, I already
called the neurosurgeon Zar suggested. I've got an
"Good. When is
it? One of us'll drive
Dusty dug around on his
desk, and found the slip of paper. September twenty-fourth. Eight weeks from
He could guess how she'd react. "I have it here somewhere," he lied.
"I'll get back to you." He hesitated. "I missed Ren last night. There's a
possibility she's a little bit peeved. Put in a few points with her for me,
Smythe read Dusty's email, then leaned back in his chair. He punched in a number
and spoke to Marc Jekkes. "I've just received a note from Dustin Mallory,
'resigning' from our programme. He extends his thanks, but says that since he's
now entirely self-sufficient, he'd prefer to be self-governing as well."
Charles' voice was amused. "Arrange to have Mr. Mallory sent somewhere he can
test his self-sufficiency. Somewhere with an overdose of history, and some
strong vibes. Like a battleground."
Merrie didn't like to do this - not willingly, anyway. That must mean it was
important to her - maybe important to them all. Drew Garris was a name from
He'd run the
Project, for a long time, anyway. He'd earned the name from their visits to the
lab, and for the way he'd made them manifest their "gifts". "Show me," he'd say.
Merrie had hated him. For
the most part, she remembered her childhood fondly. She and Jamie had always
been close, and Erik had become the friend of her teen years. The patterns
formed, broke apart, and reformed, endlessly. On again, off again, in the way of
kids. "I'm not gonna be your friend", but then the next day, you were.
Erik had been Dr. Drewsome's
favourite. It was probably the only "gift" he could see a use for, and Merrie
had sometimes wondered whether Erik's decision, to go for the money, wasn't in
some way influenced by Garris. He'd certainly made Erik feel he was worth any
two of the rest of them.
Or maybe he just made the
rest of us feel we were worth only half of
despised Jamie, which may have been part of the reason Merrie had disliked the
man so much. Now she could see how his actions may have been based in fear. He
also had trouble with Ren, because she could read him too well. He could control
her, though, simply by overloading her nervous system with input - punishing her
by taking her on a "field trip", usually to some place like the subway station,
or the airport. Places where people were tense and focussed, especially toward
anyone who was in the way. Ren always found herself in the way in places like
Ren must have a good
reason for this. None of them had spilled tears over Garris' death, and Merrie
recalled Ren remarking how his death coincided nicely with her desire never to
see him again. A smile flickered in Merrie's eyes as she also remembered Ren's
guilt, after making that comment. Poor Ren!
She lived so much in other
people's thoughts, that she couldn't help but see the reflection of her comments
in their eyes.
Ren's reasons for wanting to see Garris' backup files, she must have felt he
owed them enough to oblige. Perhaps he'd had enough fire and brimstone now to do
them a favour.
knew it wasn't going to be easy. Much harder to summon someone she really had no
desire to see.
ways to beat her own resistance. The first thing she did at home was to head for
the closet. She pulled down box after box from the top, until she found her
"souvenirs". Not souvenirs, really, but memorabilia from years past, when
"Symtech" had been "Symbio", and life had been a lot simpler. Before she'd
realised how bizarre it was to raise the dead, or have friends who could toss
things across the room with their
minds. We should have
Way back when, during the days when they'd driven their
parents to rash action - to abandoning their children to the system. If Dr.
Drewsome had succeeded in anything, though, it had been in that: despite the
furore surrounding each arrival, it had somehow became unimportant once in
. Brainwashing? Maybe.
Merrie preferred to think it owed more to
relief - and peace.
year, when Drew Garris had died, Merrie had performed this same ritual. Dug out
the box, and laid the newspaper clipping - the obituary - on top. It had been
closure, of a sort. Whatever hold Charles Smythe might have over them, it was
nothing to Drewsome's. He was the authority figure of their youth, but it wasn't
respect he motivated.
Smythe, despite his skills
at manipulation, couldn't even come close. There was only one way to hold a
Cluster of aberrant teenagers in
Dr. Drewsome did it
"Something wrong, Dusty?"
Gene Davies asked. Ever since Dusty had come back from Mexico, he'd been looking
lousy. First, he'd had that infection in his leg, and now, he was having
headaches. Bad headaches. Gene wondered whether his immune system was so down
that he'd picked up some other bug.
Doug had told him that Erik
had come by to see him. Erik had a really amazing ability to heal. Why the hell
hadn't he used it on
"The client wants me
to deliver the designs personally," Dusty was saying. "Give a presentation."
"Nothing unusual in that.
Gene and I do it all the time," Doug said pointedly, swivelling his chair.
"Methinks you should let one of us take it this time, too. You take sick leave.
Screw the client, screw everything. You're gonna end up back in the hospital if
you don't watch out."
you," Dusty said congenially. "They want me
don't. So spare me the 'fuck yous'." Doug grinned. "I'm heterosexual, even if
Miranda Blair said.
me being homosexual? I know that," Gene
"No, Fool. That Dusty
shouldn't be here."
surprised Erik didn't notice how you were. Maybe you should call him up," Doug
told him. "See if he can help with the
why he came," Gene remarked.
Dusty was running out of
patience. "I - have - a - doctor's - appointment," he said through gritted
"When?" Gene asked
practically. "Did you tell him how bad you were feeling? I think you should see
answer. He gathered his designs, and printed off a copy of the email. They'd
made a reservation for him through a travel agent.
Real world stuff. Not to be
delayed, defrayed, or interfered with by any damn corporation. One good thing
that had come out of the "Mexican expedition": he felt newly confident he could
control his retro. There'd been no flashes, flickers, or bouts since his return.
Nothing to take him by surprise.
This would be his second
trip alone. The first one hadn't turned out too well, but this was different.
Completely unrelated to Symtech. He'd turned in his "resignation", so there
wouldn't be anybody tailing him.
No one to pick up the
that way. There won't be any pieces.
This was a normal business trip; the
kind that Gene and Doug took.
"Going home?" Doug asked
"Yeah," Dusty said. "But
first I'm going to Dachau."
the pictures were a little yellowed now. Merrie curled up against the headboard,
her feet tucked under her. There weren't all that many photos, but she'd found
one of Drew Garris. From an adult perspective, it wasn't hard to spot the
arrogance in his expression. It was as she looked at his face, that gooseflesh
danced down her arms. She'd never been able to look at him from such a distance
before. Her vision had always been overlain with memories of his cruelty,
delivered in the name of science. She'd grown up thinking "science" made
everything right. Which is
why I got as far away from it as I
I must be wrong.
She deliberately put the photos aside, and went through some of the other
things: schoolwork, and drawings. At the moment, looking at these things she'd
drawn at ages what? seven? nine? her eyes filled. No child of mine will ever
suffer this way.
never alone, but most of the pictures weren't of Ren or Josh, Jamie, Erik or
Dusty. They were pictures of other people who'd shared her childhood: old men,
prostitutes, pregnant women, teenagers, children, infants. Perhaps the most
poignant of all was the image of her, looking in a mirror. She stood alone, yet
the reflection in the glass was full - like a crowd at a party.
Party animal, even
Hellish nights, even
She sniffed, and
wiped her eyes on her sleeve. No childhood's
She picked up
the photo again; the one which had caught her eye, that first time. Then she
picked up another, and
Erik had been his
favourite, but there may have been another reason, besides the nature of his
"gift". The implication was appalling. It made Dr. Drewsome more of a monster
than any of them had suspected.
Yet, it was so obvious it
was a wonder none of them had made the connection
Drew Garris was
hard, and tears filled her eyes and ran, unchecked down her face. The man - the
monster - had experimented on his own unborn son.
I want to know?
Worse - why
this compulsion - this need to know? I'd be better off if I'd never thought of
it at all...
panicked and run from Smythe's office. Since then - since she'd come home and
bolted her doors - all her anger had been directed at herself, for acting the
fool and the coward.
distant enough now from Smythe - from Symtech - from her panic - to take a step
back. There was nothing foolish in wanting to know her origins. Foolhardy,
maybe, when a company like Symtech was involved. But she had a right - they all
had a right - to know. Whether the others availed themselves of the information
was their business.
to do with freedom, and Ren knew that Dusty's anger had triggered some of her
concerns. It was Symtech's decision, however, to send her and Josh to Mexico,
that had done the rest. Why had their status - their involvement with Symtech -
never changed? Why did they, as adults, have to answer to Symtech, and rely on
the company for support? Why were they Symtech's responsibility? Why had they
allowed a corporation to retain so much control over their
Was it because they
were truly "disabled", or because it had always been that way? Too easy to go
along with it, and too difficult to
fight? Erik fought it.
It was the example she'd always used when an itch for rebellion made her
dissatisfied. But was Erik's freedom all an illusion? Because it suited Symtech
to have the positive feedback, and "healing" was an acceptable gift? Because any
connection drawn between his abilities and his former benefactor, would only add
to Symtech's prestige?
when there'd been trouble in Mexico, Erik had been jetted down - by
That meant he wasn't
as free as he liked to think. He was still close enough to walk into Smythe's
office and make demands. Still close enough to permit demands on his
Not the kind of
independence Dusty was talking about.
There'd been plans in
Smythe's head - ideas for "teaching her a lesson". She'd known then it was the
part of his overseer duty he really enjoyed - the chance to develop intricate
plots to curb his wayward charges. The kind of effort that would use his
knowledge of them to humiliate, and
There was something
else, too: Smythe would never give her Garris' research. She'd see parts of it,
but only after it had been modified.
Because that was one of the
things that had frightened him - Garris' notes would be enough to take Symtech
down. To take them all down.
At the same time, Smythe was
confident - because he had a "partner" to deal with things like this. A partner
who'd been in on the original research and who'd helped to fund it. The same
partner who'd wanted help to cover illegal shipments into Mexico airspace.
Smythe had been confident
this "partner" would now find a use for her. It would distract her, keep her
from making any more ludicrous requests, and help balance the books. She'd be
"on loan". The responsibility had been
If she baulked?
She'd met his "partners" in Mexico. They weren't nearly as forgiving as he
looked up in surprise when someone tapped him on the back. He pulled off the
headphones. "Hi, Erik," he said. "Doug said you were here
wrinkled. "Where's the 'Animation King'?" he
"Damn fool's giving a
presentation to a
Erik looked around.
"Another part of the
"No. Another part of
the world." Gene nodded towards his desk. "Probably shouldn't do this, but go
check his Inbox. It came in a couple of hours
Erik read through the
message. "Fuck it!"
"He said that same thing.
Told him he shouldn't go, but he
Erik was about to
turn away when he saw the message above - a "Reply to Sender" from C. Smythe.
Erik clicked on it, and read the message. He looked at the time. It had arrived
half an hour before Dusty's travel arrangements. Plenty of time for Symtech to
drum something up. Something to convince Dusty he wasn't as self-sufficient as
didn't know what had happened to him in Mexico. Valterzar hadn't told them. None
of them had. They might know Dusty was under the weather, but they wouldn't know
how close he'd come to being under the
Gene was still
talking, "...instead of waiting for them to schedule him
should've asked you to fix him yesterday, instead of waiting for some damned
With a doctor?"
there, on the desk. 'Twenty-fourth of September'.
agreed. "I'm gonna see if I can catch up with him,
"And this time, do
something about him, okay? The damn fool is so set on doing it all himself, he
doesn't know when to
"Or when not to," Erik
muttered. He waved to Gene and Miranda, then went tearing out the door.
was Merrie, and she was sobbing. Jamie excused himself, and took the phone into
another room. "What's
"I need you
"Sounds like a job for
Zar," he said
"Not this time.
He wasn't there when we were." He guessed she was trying to reassure him when
she added, "I'll go see him
Jamie sighed. "I'm
sort of in a faculty meeting right now. Will anything - you included - die if
you have to wait an
"No," she said
miserably, but he sensed a smile behind her tears. "I'll wait to die until you
"Thanks," he said
sarcastically. He hesitated. "I'm not gonna be doing anything that'll make Zar
He heard her chuckle. Good,
he thought. "See you soon, Merrie. Just hold
that chuckle till I get there."
was in his office with a client when the receptionist rang through.
"Sorry, Dr. Valterzar, but
it's Erik Dainler. He says it's an
Erik was yelling
into the phone, and Zar guessed he was in heavy traffic somewhere. "Mallory
told Symtech to fuck off!"
he bellowed. "That he was quitting!
he's on some business trip, but I think they set it up - just to show
Little town called
repeated. The name was familiar, but he couldn't think
"Concentration camp. The
Holocaust," Erik said. "Bad news for someone like
Zar didn't have to
think twice. He could have argued that this was no longer any of his business,
but he would have been lying. Dusty had made it his business to save them, no
matter the cost - and he wouldn't have been this bad if he hadn't nearly killed
himself with the effort. Dusty wanted to go alone, to be self-sufficient, but
this wasn't the time. His weakness, the continued headaches, the dependency
would undermine his efforts, and another bout of retro could kill him. He was
crazy if he expected his friends to stand by and let it
"When did he
"Almost three hours
glanced at his watch. "I'll meet you at the airport," he said.***
It was the
combination of things that finally got to her. Her suspicions, the way Smythe
was paid for callously dictating their lives, even the guards whom she always
sensed in the background.
Guards who were also paid
for keeping track of her foolish mistakes; for breaking her free of her
paralysis and dragging her off to recover. Guards who were nameless and faceless
- who didn't want to know her.
been so angry in her
The realisation that
she'd been at least partly right, about Symbio's experiments, had initially
horrified her - now, it merely added to her anger. For Erik's pseudo-freedom,
she could feel only pity, because she had no doubt that he was watched every bit
as zealously as she was. That made his "freedom" a farce. Dusty was struggling
with it now, but if he achieved any independence, it would probably be a farce,
too. It hurt her in a way she couldn't describe to see his pride diminished that
Her anger seldom went
beyond annoyance. Even in Mexico, when Josh had driven her to distraction, she
hadn't been truly furious.
Not like now. Not with a
coldly dispassionate ire that cleared her head and eliminated her
At the moment, she
didn't fear Symtech, or its "partner".
And she wondered if that
wasn't just a little foolish.
Something in her had
changed, and the anger had triggered it. Ren had to admit it shocked her a
little, but whatever it was, it kept her from thinking too deeply about the
consequences. She had to act before Smythe's "friends" could get here, to take
her in charge.
into running shoes, and filled her rucksack with a few of the items she
treasured most: some photos, a figurine Dusty had given her, some of her
research notes. The photos almost took her down, but she fought it; grasping
that chilling dispassion and hanging
She didn't let herself
think as she went into the kitchen and poured oil into a frying pan. Nor did she
consider any consequences but one when she turned the burner up to "high".
Instead, she went back to the bedroom and waited, poised, at the
When the smoke alarm
screamed, and kept on screaming, there was a giant crash as someone kicked in
her barricaded front door. Another explosion of glass as someone else came in
through a window.
down. Any burglar alarms would have already been triggered. Ren hesitated only a
second, to place them all. Someone was yelling, "Is it
She touched her
foot to the damp grass outside, then slid the rest of the way out the window.
the fire out? No?
meeting took half an hour longer than he'd thought, but his driving helped make
up for it. When he got to her house, Merrie brought him a beer, but then
wouldn't let him drink
"Merrie," he complained.
"I'm not gonna get drunk on one
"I need your mind
clear." She stood there
"Is it clear?" she
Sometimes you can be so thick! Is your mind
He shut his eyes,
gritted his teeth, then said darkly,
"Look at this picture,
and tell me who it reminds you
"It's -" Jamie stared at
it, and his eyes widened. Merrie saw gooseflesh lift on his arms. Good,
she thought. He's getting it.
"- Erik," he whispered. "Does he
Merrie stood up, and
crossed her arms across her front. Her eyes had filled again, and James didn't
even try to coax her out of it. Truth was, he felt like crying himself.
"It would kill him. All the
time he was growing up, there was only his mom. He used to talk about her,
Jamie's eyes were
wet. "Damn the bastard! How could he do it, to his own
"Maybe she was going to
lose him. Maybe he thought he was doing the right thing
"He couldn't have been
certain she'd miscarry! None of our parents were. Somebody talked them into it!
Told them it was the only way to
"And one course of
action determined the other." She looked at Jamie. "But she must
known, Jamie! Garris wasn't a physician! She must have known what he was into -
and she went along with it." She looked furious. "Erik's mom - his precious
mother - did
"Or let it be done to
him." He tossed the photo back in the box. "Bury the bastard again. Erik never
has to know."
She shook her
head. "Ren wants me to talk to
James looked confused.
"No - Garris. She
talked to Smythe this
"She went to see
him?" James was surprised.
"I'm not sure. She sounded
she want?" James asked worriedly.
"For me to contact Dr.
Drewsome. She wants me to ask him if he had any backups, that aren't on
gave a low whistle. "Holy shit," he whispered. "Is she
"I don't know," Merrie
told him seriously. "She's not
"At work?" he asked
"Never came in
today." At his expression, she shook her head. "Zar and Erik went after Dusty.
Smythe sent him to Dachau. Zar called me just before you got
here." Dusty. Dachau. Bad
"Did you tell him about
"Not yet. I was too
telling him about Erik, an-and Dr. Drewsome." She hesitated.
"James, it's a lot to ask, but can you come with me to the cemetery? I-I need to
do what Ren wanted, but I don't -" She looked around her cheery house and
"You don't want
James was thinking hard. "I'll ring Josh on my cellphone, and
you keep trying Ren. When Josh gets here, we'll swing by Ren's." He smiled, but
there was no amusement in his eyes. "Seems to me it'll be better if we stick
together right now."
smiled, relieved. "Tell Josh to hurry, James." She shivered. "I hate visiting
cemeteries at night."
minutes later she'd emptied her bank account. While they were fighting to put
out the fire in her house, poking and prodding the ruins to find her body, she
walked in and bought a cheap cellphone. Deftly, she transferred the numbers from
her old one and tossed it in the trash.
She spent another two hours
in a hairdresser's, and considered it well worth the effort. The woman who
walked out and into a clothing store wasn't the same one who'd walked in.
She pulled out the ripped
page from last year's phone book, that she'd found at the beauty salon. Drew
Garris had still been a name on the registers then, instead of a name on a
later, her taxi stopped in front of his house.
have been easier with Jamie, but Ren didn't let it sway her. Dr. Drewsome had a
bad habit. It had been lodged in his brain, and she'd recalled it from the
unwanted forays she'd taken through his mind. He liked to keep a key in the
garden. It should still be there, under a garden
The gnome was an
incongruity in itself. Ugly, and so personal. Unlike Dr. Drewsome who'd been
good-looking and impersonal. Only his personality had qualified as
The face on the gnome
had been diminished over the past year; worn by the elements as Drew Garris must
have been by his sojourn in the ground. That implacable coldness was with her
still, and spurred on by her hatred for the man who'd walked these grounds. Even
now, she was a little surprised she had it in her to feel such hatred. Maybe
that was all that was left once regret had had its way. She'd just walked away
from everyone she knew and everyone she valued. Now she was planning on taking
down the support system they'd relied on for their entire lives.
Do I have the
she'd read something else in Smythe's mind: a sense of ownership. Like a patent
on a product. Mexico had been just the beginning. The first step in a marketing
venture. Not if I have
anything to say about it.
Ren inserted the key in
the lock, turned it, and pushed open the door.
there outside Ren's house. He couldn't take it in; couldn't focus. Ren.
Where was Ren?
bickered and battled and given each other a hard time, but she was his sister in
all ways but blood. Maybe, if she was right about the genetic engineering, they
had links in that, too.
house was gutted, and so was Josh. Smoke drifted in his eyes and a few stray
sparks stung his skin. He wanted to force himself to concentrate, to see if she
was in the wreckage, but he couldn't. He was too afraid.
He wanted to howl. Ren,
tramping across the desert and frying her nose off; Ren, giving her all so Dusty
could stay alive.
scientist mode, who was nearly as excited about her damned fungus as he was
about a pile of Drepanosaurus
I don't want to see
If she was lying in the wreckage, he didn't want to be the one to find
"Is she in there?" The
voice brought him back to reality. His head jerked up, and he realised, in
shock, that Charles Smythe was here. Apparently, it had been enough of a tragedy
to drag him out of his office. "Is she in there?" he asked again,
Josh wanted to
believe it was concern for Ren that gave Smythe's voice that harsh sound. But
didn't Smythe know what it would do to him if he had to find her? To see her
body crisp and burnt in the
"I-I don't know,"
Josh gasped. He was white, even to his lips.
"Use it and tell me," Smythe
demanded. "So I can locate
Josh closed his eyes,
but he wasn't searching for Ren. He was searching Smythe's pockets. Reading the
words on his Palm Pilot, that had gone out as an order: "Find Magnus and
his eyes. He wasn't searching the wreckage for one of his best friends - for
anything or anyone. Besides, Merrie would know, and he could take it a lot
better if Merrie told him - and reassured him Ren was at
Instead of finding her
in pieces. He nearly gagged at the thought.
Smythe saw it and
interpreted it as confirmation. "She's here, then," he muttered. "Fuck it!"
No sorrow - just
frustration. Despite his profane reaction, Mr. Charles Smythe really didn't give
a fuck. After all these
In that moment,
Josh hated him. He looked at him with a gaze that was every bit as smouldering
as the building at his back. "Yeah," he said harshly. "She's here."
out of his car and walked into Merrie's house without knocking. He went straight
to Merrie and grabbed her arms. "I need to know," he said.
"What?" she asked him
Josh released her,
rolled his eyes heavenward in silent thanks, and sank into a chair. Jamie was at
his side a second later, a can of Coke in his hand. "Have a drink, Josh," he
Josh nodded, sipped,
then sank back and worked on regaining his equilibrium. Eyes closed, he told
them, "Ren's house is gutted. A
Jamie shot a glance at
Merrie. She shook her
"Smythe was there. He
wanted me to check -" His voice tapered off, and he had to swallow hard. He
looked at Merrie. "I mean, I know you do it, Mer, but
"She's got more guts than
the rest of us put together," James said. "I can't believe Smythe would ask you.
Didn't he know how it would hit you? Hit any of
"He didn't care. He'd
sent out an order to pick her up and restrain
"Ren rang this morning.
She'd talked to him," Merrie said, her voice hushed. "It has to do with Dr.
Drewsome's research. I think she wants to see it." Her eyes were frightened as
she added, "She sounded really scared
"Does Dusty know?" Josh
"Dusty's out of the
country. Sick as a dog, but determined. Zar and Erik have gone after him," Jamie
"Where 'out of the
fuckin' concentration camp?!"
Josh exclaimed. "It's gotta be Smythe, playing
games again," he said angrily. "Makes me glad I lied to the
"What did you do,
Josh?" Jamie asked.
Ren was in her house." At Jamie's look, Josh added flippantly, "He wasn't being
sensitive to my needs."
"What's he gonna do
to you when he finds
Josh shrugged. "Even we
finely-tuned specimens can make an occasional mistake. I'll blame it on
emotional trauma. I was pretty traumatised, I'll tell ya. I'll kill Ren, as soon
as I find her alive."
have brought a flashlight," Josh complained, looking around the
"I should have
brought some earplugs," James retorted. "Between you and Merrie, a sane man
can't even think."
"Find me a
sane man, and I'll ask him," Josh told him. There was still an orangy glow in
the sky, but many of the trees were in silhouette. It was the time of dusk where
vision was diminished anyway - everything fading to shades of grey. He found
himself watching warily for signs of movement, then trying not to watch anything
at all for fear he'd see it. Being here with Merrie didn't exactly inspire
confidence. "Could have picked a better spot for a party," he remarked, with an
attempt at lightness. "Couldn't you have done this some place more
"I know this is
hard on you, with your 'third eye' and all," James told him mockingly. "How's
the view 'down under'? Any classic coffins we should know
Wickham! At least I don't knock things over every time I fart
"That hasn't happened in
years!" James argued.
"Sh-h!" Merrie hushed them.
She looked as though she were listening to something under the
"Do you hear
something?" Josh asked her fearfully. He was doing his damnedest to keep his
focus - all of it - above the
She took the
flashlight and shone it upwards, under her chin, in the best camper's
storytelling style. She waited a moment, then said, amused, "No. I just wanted
you to stop arguing. Are you sure we lost all those guards? I don't like
uninvited company when I'm at work," she
"I'm not Ren!" James
retorted. "How the heck do I know about the guards?
"Only car here is
ours. Why are
we here?" Josh asked, bluntly this time. "Why didn't we do
this at your house?"
little reluctant to contact him
," she admitted. She added, a little
sheepishly, "This kind of setting can get me in the
"In the mood for
what?" Josh asked her. "Is this some proclivity I should tell Zar
Jamie burst out
"Pipe down, Jamie!
You're loud enough to wake the dead."
Merrie was joking, but James
looked thoughtful. "That's something I've always wondered about," he told her.
"Does noise matter?"
me," she replied. "Tell you what - as soon as Dr. Drewsome arrives, you can ask
him." She turned to Josh with a chuckle. "If you'd feel more comfy, Josh, we can
do this at your house."
Jamie smirked. "'Like
, huh? Can't be your place, then. Wouldn't want old Dr. Drewsome to
feel too much at home."*
started in the bedroom, and worked her way along the walls, knocking and
prodding. The best place would be the fireplace, with its brick, but she was
saving that till last. Word was, Drewsome had died in the bedroom. She gave a
shiver. Better to get that part of it over with before dark.
She knew she was losing her
edge. She'd never been able to hold onto anger. The kind of anger she'd
experienced this afternoon had been powerful, cold, and implacable. She'd felt
rather proud of herself that she could manifest something like that.
The best thing about
it had been the numbness it generated. Her biggest problem had always been an
inability to tune out other people's thoughts in moments of intensity, beit hers
or theirs. It was the same with any convictions and decisions. She was crippled
by her ability to see both sides - her anger undermined by extenuating
circumstances. Today, that hadn't been a problem.
Of course, you didn't
give it much of a test.
The conversations carrying on around her in the
beauty parlour hadn't exactly been riveting or intense. Still, she'd been able
to let it all wash over her with no
The closet was
mirrored and she caught a glimpse of herself. Damn, I look good!
thought, surprised anew. She wished she could show
Then, she wished she
could show Dusty. Her thoughts leapt from there to wondering how Dusty was. She
plunked down on the carpet, momentarily defeated. I cut all the ties. It
won't be safe for any of them to hang out with me now. Not until I resolve this,
whether it was safe to talk with Merrie. She needed to find out whether
Drewsome's ghoul had given her any hints. Were their phones bugged? It sounded
so paranoid, but once Smythe realised she'd cleaned out her bank, he'd know she
was on the run. He'll want
to know if I'm in contact with them.
It didn't take a whole lot of reasoning
to figure out the rest. The threat had been there, in his mind.
She moved downstairs, and
found a white-painted, thickly-carpeted closet. As far as habitats went, it
wasn't bad. The closeness of it made her feel more secure, and she could have
her flashlight on without anyone seeing.
Dr. Drewsome owed her - owed
them all. It suited her to play squatter in his luxury house.
Ren pulled out her laptop
and plugged in the adaptor, running the cord through to her closet. Taking a
lesson from Merrie, she deftly changed the desktop from businesslike to gaudy
and cheerful, so the reflection in her closet was a warm yellowy-orange. Then,
she leaned back and pulled out a chocolate bar and a bottle of Diet Pepsi.
Some time in the night,
there were noises in the house - sudden thunks and footsteps; doors closing; the
sound of a nonexistent TV; water running. Ren shivered, closed her eyes tightly,
and tried to tune out those brief flickers of awareness, that told her who it
was - and gave her some idea why they hadn't successfully sold the
afterlife wasn't all that peaceful - and he was having as hard a time settling
down tonight as she was.
sure we've got the right place?" Josh yelled to Merrie. During the last hour,
he'd overcome most of his wariness, and now was just plain bored.
"Of course, I'm sure. What
do you expect? Some beacon to rise up out of the ground, pointing the way to his
grave?" Merrie snapped at him. Cemeteries were neither peaceful nor restful to
her. "Darned if this place isn't crowded tonight!" she said with some
Jamie looked over
at her. "I don't even want to
"It's not like any
of us attended his funeral," Josh went on.
"We were too busy having a
party," James remarked.
don't think this is the appropriate place," Josh hinted to him, then promptly
fell over a chunky
James helped him up,
but something about the gravestone caught his eye. Something familiar. He
reached in his pocket and pulled out a lighter. In the flare of the flame he
read, "'Andrew Garris, Physiologist, Molecular Biologist, Geneticist.' Doesn't
like to brag, does he?"
is that thing?"
I'm trying to figure out. I'll bet he designed the stone himself," James
sniggered. "Something for the
"Small and potent,
like his product," Josh
introspective, Josh?" James asked him, more seriously.
Josh sighed. "Well, he can't
exactly expect us to mourn him now, can
Merrie joined them.
Jamie could tell she was nervous. "Well, this is it!" she said, with attempted
"Just hurry it
up, Mer. I want to get out of here." Josh was back to being
Even Jamie was a little
surprised when Merrie sat down on the gravestone. She shot him a smile. "It's
just a rock, Jamie."
Mr. Geology," Josh
Merrie stared at the
horizon. Her gaze loosened, became unfocussed. Josh felt the gooseflesh begin to
dance across his skin, and the hairs on his neck prickled. It was as though an
icy wind had swept past them, stealing some of their body temperature
To gather substance.
>From their own dispelled vaporous breaths, a form began to coalesce in
translucent swirls and eddies. Josh was okay until the eyes took shape. Then, he
took a quick step back, behind
Jamie was shuddering,
his fists clenched tight. Temper. He'd despised Drewsome. Josh hoped he was mad
enough to defend the both of
"I always hoped you'd
summon me, Meredith," the hollow voice said.
His words filled Josh with
disgust, and dampened a lot of his fear. Who did the guy think he was? It was as
though he'd had the whole thing planned, so he wouldn't have to die.
Wouldn't have to suffer for
Drewsome," Josh told
Jamie actually jumped.
He'd been so immersed in his anger that he hadn't given any thought to Josh's.
At Josh's words, a small gravemarker to their right cracked in a quick
fracturing of stone, and then Jamie started laughing. He'd been so tense about
this damned thing.
eyeing the fractured stone. "Fart, Wickham?" he asked. "You're gonna have to pay
There was anger
sizzling in the air now. Drewsome wasn't happy with their disrespect. He'd
taught them to fear him back then - he expected them to fear him more now.
Merrie was anxious to end
this. Despite Josh's and Jamie's reactions, she still feared Drew Garris. She
had a horrible feeling that having given him this much substance, he'd find a
way to come back and plague her. She couldn't help but wonder if this was what
he'd had planned all along. "Where're your back-up files?" she asked, her voice
the sounds of nervousness and preyed on it, the way he always had. "'Back-up
files'?" He smiled at her.
Merrie shivered. His smile
was so dark, despite the fact it was made out of pale wisps of
"The ones where you
made us," Josh said impatiently. "The ones you used to screw
His smile was for
Josh now. Josh added, "I'm glad I didn't expect wings or a harp. You're the same
bastard you've always
started as a hiss, but ended as a full-blown belly laugh. "Damn it, Josh!" he
said, wiping his eyes. "I'll have to visit cemeteries with you more
"He's getting away!"
Merrie warned. Drewsome was fading slightly, but he was also in motion. Now that
Merrie had given him this much substance, he intended to use it - to get away
from her before she could undo
"Naw, he's not," James
said, still grinning. He concentrated, and Drewsome appeared to shrink slightly;
his near-transparent perimeter coalescing into thick, gobby
"Looks like mucous,"
Josh said distastefully. Drew Garris had always hated mucous. It was almost a
phobia with him. It was also the reason Josh, Dusty and James used to flick
bogies at him, when he wasn't
Drewsome shivered slightly. "The files," Merrie
"Way to sound
tough, Mer," Josh told
James grinned, then
concentrated some more. Definitely mucous-like now. Drewsome had shrunk still
more, and there were glistening globs running down his translucent
Drewsome said haltingly.
wouldn't have hidden back-ups where they could find them so easily," James
scoffed. "Get real." He did a doubletake. "Ooh, that's right - you
"They're at your
house, aren't they?" Merrie asked. "Somewhere neat and tidy and fastidious
"No, little Merrie,"
Drewsome whispered, and Merrie leaned back, her eyes frightened in the pallid
glow from his figure. It made James mad and he compressed him further, but this
time, it didn't have much effect. All Garris needed was Merrie, and he knew it.
"Don't take it from him,
James told her.
can't boss you around any more. Remember who's in
The last words
did it. Merrie stood up and faced him; unwilling to draw back, even when he
attempted to shove his face in hers. If it sickened her that she was breathing
some of his vapour, she didn't show it. "The files,"
He was angry, but
he'd never been able to accept a failure. "If I tell you, will you release me?"
he asked coaxingly.
course," she said
and James said "Don't be a
reactions were enough to convince him that Merrie was, indeed, as malleable as
ever. "In my garden," he said, his voice gravelly. "The gazebo." He smiled at
her expectantly - that pseudo-smile he'd always given when things had gone his
way. Anything would be better than the hellish afterlife he'd been sequestered
to - even the frustration of the insubstantial had to beat an eternity of
punishing hellfire and regret. "Release me,"
he commanded, in an
imperious tone they all
He must have seen
something in her eyes. "Release me!"
he roared in rage. He towered over
her, seething and
Jamie and Josh
drew close to her - flanking her on either side.
Drewsome howled, his voice a bellowing echo that seemed to go on
Merrie glared at
him. The next second, he'd exploded, as though in a giant sneeze. Bits of mucous
everywhere. The glistening blobs were spattered across the gravestones. In
seconds, they'd dried up and
the grave marker, where she'd been sitting a few moments earlier. "Dr.
Drewsome?" she said loudly. Merrie smiled. "I
As they walked back
across the marker-stubbled ground, only Merrie could hear the cheers and
applause that echoed at her back.***
looked out the window at the fluffy cloud layer, then back at Valterzar. "First
class would have much
anyway." Zar said drily. "Why don't you head up there? Maybe you can perform
some 'miraculous cure' and they'll boost you out of
"Never has it been said that Erik Dainler didn't have pity for paupers
"Are you Erik
Dainler?" the man behind them
"Oh, God," Valterzar
groaned, scooting down in the
"Can I have your
autograph?" the stranger grinned.
"How about a 'healthy'
handshake?" Erik asked him, with a
Valterzar got up and
headed for the bathroom. "Excuse me," he hissed to Erik as he left, "but I have
to be sick."
came back, Erik was pretending to be asleep. "That's the problem with flying
economy," he complained, out one side of his
"Tell me about
Mallory's schedule," Valterzar
"It was all on the
email. Plane into Munich, then twenty minutes on the S-Bahn -" Erik looked at
into Dachau. A car will pick him up there, for the meeting." Erik frowned. "That
doesn't sound very reasonable. My clients always give me a chance to rest up
after a flight."
know the difference. This is the first time he's gone out on a client
presentation." Zar added angrily, "Smythe knows fatigue will make him more
"I did a little
research at an cybercafe while I was waiting for
"Shocked you had time -
what with your public and all. Must say I'm impressed." It didn't sound
'surprised'." Erik grinned. "'Dachau is a Bavarian town with a population of
approximately thirty-eight thousand,'" he quoted. "Apparently, it made the jump
from cattle market to art colony about a hundred and fifty years
"Quite a jump. Sounds
like inspiration was 'in the air'." Valterzar said
"This, from a man who
keeps pigs in his house," Erik tutted.
"I'm sure paintings like
'Heifer Angst' and 'Bossy Does Bavaria' were really big in those days. Let me
see that -" Zar took the printout and scanned it. He quoted, "'For many years,
Dachau was an artists' colony, with a reputation throughout Germany for its
charm and scenic
"Renowned for such
great works as the 'Moona Lisa' and 'The Dairy of Nan Franks'." Erik grinned.
"Read on. It says it was Himmler who saw the 'potential' in an abandoned
munitions factory, and turned it into a concentration camp - the sick
thousand deaths in twelve years'." It was in such contrast to the other
printout, which talked about Dachau as a "lovely village" with a "picturesque
castle". "Some people are so blind," Valterzar
"Part of the
problem with being more 'insightful'," Erik told him. "It's sometimes hard to
believe the rest of the world can't see what's going
Erik tutted again.
"'Some people are so blind'," he
glinted. "Definitely not a good place for
"On his first trip to
Europe, too," Erik lamented. "Anything older than yesterday is bad news for The
Dustin, anyway, but this place has an overdose of history." He leaned back,
donned his dark glasses, and yawned discreetly. "He's smart, though," he said
confidently, preparing to close his eyes for the duration of the flight. "He'll
watch his step."
why we're following him halfway around the world," Valterzar retorted drily. "If
he stays away from the camp, the museum, parts of the railroad station, the city
hall, and any streets where death marches moved, who knows? He might even have a
"I say we
hit his house tonight," Merrie told them determinedly, as she took the lead
across the monument-studded lawn.
"And get arrested for
breaking and entering, as soon as we turn on a
"There won't be any
lights," Josh argued, tripping over a gravestone to sprawl on the grass.
James gave him a
hand up. "Of course there will. We have flashlights, remember."
He flicked it on and Josh
complained, "Get it out of my
Jamie grinned. "Funny
you, tripping over that monument. I would've thought you'd have seen it coming -
one way or the
"Don't do it,
Jamie!" Josh gave him a shove. "I'm warning
Merrie shook her
head at him, but her smile was a flash of white in the dark. "That's rotten,
James. You know Josh has trouble breaking his
"Fuck you, Wickham."
Josh laid an arm across Merrie's shoulders. "Speaking of focus, Mer - you
should've saved yourself for me." He sighed dramatically. "You're wasted on
Valterzar. Think of it: you could have had
She grinned. "And
be dumped for the first Drepanosaurus
that..." Josh admitted. "Our ideas of a 'party' do sort of
"Don't be hard on
him, Merrie," James said. "He's done his best to picture you with scales and
fangs." He shrugged. "Who knows? If he got 'lucky', he might even buy you some
crocodile shoes - or a snakeskin
"We can't do it
tonight!" Merrie said suddenly, her expression one of
'lucky'?" James sounded confused. He hated it when Merrie did this. The next
thing, she'd be getting impatient because he didn't know what she was talking
"No!" Merrie told him
"Why the hell
not?" James asked.
we should be looking for Ren." Josh stopped next to the car, his expression
serious. "How often are we going to be free agents like this? If we're out of
sight too long, Smythe's going to think we've done a
"Do you think that's
what Ren's done?" James
"She won't have gone
too far," Merrie assured him. "Josh is right, though. We got the information for
Ren - now let's find her. Do you think you could pick anything up off an object,
"Maybe. Not how I
usually operate, but I'll see what I can do. We'll have to go back to her
James considered it.
"That may be a problem. If they've figured out Ren's not in there, they'll have
someone watching." He looked at Josh. "I may have to get a little
'light-fingered'," he said, with a sly grin. "If you two keep an eye on the
snoops, I'll manhandle some of Ren's
Josh was remembering
the inferno that had gutted Ren's house. "Don't be surprised," Josh told him
soberly, "if all you have left to grab is ash."
could have stayed on the plane forever. No trauma in-flight; no need to go
anywhere or answer to anyone. In those hours he really came to believe things
had changed. He'd taken the airport shuttle all the way across town, without so
much as a flicker.
the only "flickers" he was seeing now had nothing to do with his retro. They
were annoying dots of light and dark - and they belonged to the pounding in his
head. A migraine. Nothing
I can't handle.
airsick, but even that he could ignore, as long as he stayed in the present.
That's what he was focussing on: retaining control. Staying in the here and
now. Normalcy. A life.
Somehow, in Mexico, he'd been able to direct where
and when. Now he just needed to figure out how he'd done it. Do it once, do it
Then, there'd only be
flashbacks if he wanted them.
Did he want them?
truth was, he'd been terrified of visiting Europe. There was so much ancient
history here, that he didn't see how he could avoid dropping into it, for a
visit. The way he saw it, if he were to concentrate on the powerful look of a
monument, or the beauty of a statue, he might end up some place a lot different
from where he'd started.
Even one lapse would have
defeated him - robbed him of any confidence - made it impossible to face his
client with any degree of
self-assurance. So far, so
On the way to the train station, he was actually able to look around -
to enjoy the sights. It was something he'd never really been able to do. By the
time he was on the train, headed for Dachau, he'd already planned half a dozen
3D projects based on some of the incredible architecture - everything from
Gothic churches to amazingly ornate
buildings. This is why
travel is good for you. Expands the
clickety-clack of the wheels formed a rhythm beneath him, he let himself relax,
much as he had on the plane. What he didn't realise was that his retrocognition
responded almost as much to intensity of emotion, as it did to longterm
habitation by the participants. And he was only beginning to enter an area with
an overwhelming surfeit of emotion. Emotion that was so strong - so intense -
that it would have killed Merrie.
Dusty sat there, relaxed,
soothed by the background rumbling vibration - and totally unprepared to
house had been like any of a dozen others on the street: a modest, inconspicuous
dwelling with none of Kithren Magnus' uniqueness to distinguish it.
Josh wasn't given to poetry,
but there was a certain ambiguity here he was trying to sort out. Ren, who was
constantly prey to other people's thoughts and impressions, had avoided leaving
any impressions of her own on her dwelling. She'd wanted so much to blend that
she'd subjugated her individuality to all the homes surrounding
her. Of so little value to
her that she burnt it down.
Josh was certain of it now, but he didn't know
why. It was as though all that sequestered living had denigrated any value Ren
might place on her home and her few possessions. If she'd truly allowed her ego
rein, then her house would have worn the marks of her ownership, and its
disposition - its destruction - would have mattered to her.
Now, her home stood out, as
the most distinctive on the block. On several blocks. A ruin of smoke and char
with bones of masonry jutting through the rubble. What had been inconspicuous
for so many years now drew everyone's eyes. The heretofore hidden watchers -
Ren's vanguard - were suddenly overt; exposed to all the curious stares. The
guards, who hoped to catch a glimpse of Ren or the rest of them, had no place to
hide, because they couldn't afford the distance.
At least it confirmed
Merrie's assumption - that Ren was alive. Symtech wouldn't waste this much
people-power on a
corpse. Tomorrow, they'll
be seeking clues. Looking for a way to track her.
They'll probably come to me.
Give me a second chance to get it
"I'm in trouble,"
asked. "It doesn't even show." He stared at him pointedly for a moment, then
grinned. "Well, maybe a
"Once they know
Ren's not here - and I'm pretty sure they've figured it out already - they'll
want to know why I lied." His flippant remarks earlier in the evening, about
"even finely-tuned specimens can make a mistake", suddenly didn't seem as
that worry me?" Josh
"Nope," James replied.
This time when he looked at Josh, his eyes were serious. "No one's gonna touch
you or Merrie or Ren, Josh. Not if I have anything to say about it."
only a twenty-minute train ride from Munich to Dachau. Dusty relaxed into the
seat back, and closed his eyes against the light. It took some of the edge off
his headache. Better
shape to meet the client,
he thought. Despite his fatigue, and the ache
between his ears, he was actually getting excited. Doug and Gene had always been
the ones to present to clients. He'd never been able to take the risk. It was
the first time he'd get to see the client's reaction first-hand. He had a
stirring of gooseflesh across his skin at the thought of the
It happened so
suddenly, with such horrifying intensity, that he couldn't breathe. Maybe, if
his eyes had been opened, he would have seen it coming. Been forewarned of
disaster. But he'd been half-dozing - when the air around him suddenly changed.
He opened his eyes, but it
didn't help, and for a moment was terrified that he was blind. His head was
screaming, and he didn't know if he was yelling it out loud.
Only he couldn't yell,
because there wasn't any air. His arms, his chest, his ribs were wedged, so he
could only pant in shallow breaths. Panting because it was so close, so hot, so
compacted. His breath was everyone's and he inhaled every noxious human gas,
every exhaled human breath. Fetid breaths, new sweat on old filth, bad teeth,
faeces, decay. The sickening gag stink of vomit and running sores, pus-draining
abscesses and unwashed feet.
No words - only moans.
Somewhere, in those elbow-slinging, jostling confines, a child was wailing; its
cries weak and
frail. Surprised that it
has the breath...
wails became fainter and fainter, and finally ceased. Dustin heard it with a
vicelike tightening in his
They were still on the
rails, but he was only half on his feet. Someone was climbing up him now -
stomping on him - using his body to lift a head just that much closer to the
ceiling - to air.
wasn't only one, but many. He was so hot, and his headache so abominable, that
he didn't care. Beyond thought.
But he wasn't alone. All
around him lay cold slabs of humanity, and he was squished against an hours'
Slabs of meat -
that felt cold against his overheated flesh. As the others - like him - had
died, they'd become a carpet.
No, not a carpet - a
he realised, as some long-nailed toes clawed their way up his
back. One more step to
Merrie asked him. It was probably the fourth time in as many minutes, but at
least the other two times, it had been directed at James. They were crouched in
some shrubbery, a full house away from Ren's ruin. The distance had made it
difficult for Jamie to coax something up out of the wreckage, and get it to them
unseen. He'd finally settled for a wind-disturbance kind of effect, where a
charred bit of something or other would be blown onto the singed grass or
blackened concrete, then roll haphazardly in erratic bumps and jiggles, toward
their hiding place.
of a master," Josh had muttered,
But there'd been
no "reading" on the first piece of rubbish - or the second. "Too impersonal,"
Josh told them.
fourth time, Jamie had whispered derogatorily, "At least one
of us is a
"It has to do with
the strength of personality
in an object," Josh explained. "If it were
you, I'd probably have to go through half your
Merrie chuckled, and
they both shushed her.
teeth were clenched. "Try this one," he ordered. At the last, the semi-melted
pen clunked onto Josh's
"Got it!" Josh
"Knock in some
sense and see what you
Josh frowned, then
squinted, concentrated for a moment, then frowned again. "She's in a closet," he
"Is she okay?" Merrie
said. "Just asleep. Very weird." He closed his eyes. "56 La Reina Drive. Sounds
been kidnapped?" Jamie
"Sh-h." Josh closed
his eyes and mentally toured the grounds. "For Sale," he muttered. When he
reached the worn gnome, suddenly he knew. "It's Dunky!" he
James looked at
Merrie, who shrugged. "Dunky?" he
Josh's eyes were still
closed, but he nodded. "I used to get flashes of him at the lab. Red shirt,
green pointy hat, white beard. It's Dunky, all right." He opened his eyes to
look at them. "Dr. Drewsome's house," he explained. "Dunky's one of the gnomes
in his garden. His house is for sale and it's empty - or it was, until Ren
decided to live in the closet."
came to, he was lying on the floor of the passenger coach. He'd slid off his
seat, and people were babbling at him in languages he couldn't understand;
waving newspapers at his face to fan him off. "The heat," he mumbled, by way of
explanation. What was harder to explain was the filth and ordure matting his
clothing, and the stench of death clinging to his skin.
His nose was bleeding again,
too, and his headache, blinding. Someone tried to mop his nose, but withdrew,
startled, as Dusty jumped back in terror. Every eyeblink brought a flashback,
and in his confused vision, those helpful hands held batons to prod and poke.
In a moment of awareness, he
glimpsed again the shocked confusion of his would-be rescuers. He saw something
else, too: in their minds, his appearance and stench had already identified him.
Drugs, alcohol, insanity. Some had already decided he must have made it aboard
by deceit - theft or slyness. A few were checking unobtrusively for wallets and
Someone would think
soon, to call the police. To report a transient who was clearly out of his mind.
Refusing offers of help, in unsanitary condition, and possibly carrying some
kind of disease.
hunched in a corner of the seat, and tried to make himself inconspicuous. He
pinched his nose, but kept his eyes open. He was shaking, and he couldn't rid
himself of the underlying imagery of cattle cars and misery. He had to fight to
keep his breathing deep, and his focus on the signs, the view, the modern
trappings. He was terrified of slipping
back. That's all it was: a
slip. I let myself relax too much. Got too cocky and sure of
He knew he
should be digging around in his rucksack for a change of clothes, but as they
slowed, he couldn't take his eyes from the door. He was watching, waiting; ready
to spring out and into the light. Out of the fetid air, and away from the
If he delayed, even a
moment, it might trap him. Don't want to go back, don't want to go
He watched, as tensely as any of the others, for that door to
When the train stopped
at the station, and the doors slid open, Dusty ran. He pushed past the people,
in their orderly exit, and dropped out onto the platform. All around him, he
could hear grunts, mumbles, and shouts of
away. He looked back only once - and saw the floor of the cattle car, where he'd
been lying such a short time before. Emaciated bodies, tangled and torn,
littered the straw. They'd been trampled so much, that the guards were having
trouble yanking them apart. As he watched, a girl's body was tossed out, into
the sunlight. What she
wouldn't have given for that a few hours ago,
Dustin thought, his chest
throat tight with sorrow. Just a few moments of fresh
His eyes were wet
as he took a ragged breath, and hurriedly stumbled away.
Drewsome's carpet may have been thick, but it didn't qualify as mattress
material. Ren sat up and stretched; experiencing a sudden longing to go to work.
Somewhere she could submerge all her thoughts in disciplined effort. It was what
she'd done for years.
given meaning to her life. During those times when she'd isolated proteins and
played with molecular weights and ID'd plant viruses, wayward thoughts couldn't
interfere with her productivity. She could function dispassionately, without
feeling the effects of someone else's
Because even if
the thoughts had filtered in, they had no bearing on the technical demands of
her job. It was her most peaceful time, she'd long ago realised. Hours where she
could let down her guard, and not let the foreign thoughts worry her. Even with
her friends, she had to erect barriers. Otherwise, she sometimes violated their
privacy - intruded on their space. If she'd gone with her natural proclivities,
she would long since have alienated herself from everyone who mattered to her.
Fortunately, an innate sense of right and wrong helped her set limits.
But it meant she could never
yesterday. It was the first time Ren could ever recall being free like that. For
hours, she'd actually had no opinions other than her own. No fences. No
barricades. Just that cold feeling of anger that had masqueraded as
Or was it a
masquerade? If it was a barrier of some kind, it was certainly the most
effective one she'd ever had. It was also why she was a little desperate to go
to work. After those hours of internal silence, the "noise" factor this morning
was nearly overwhelming. She longed for the bliss of independent activity, and
sensed it was there, but just beyond her
reach. I just need to
was time to find Merrie - to sort out her cheery pathos from the rest. Merrie,
her dear friend with the decisively cheerful framework of happiness-layered
thought. Wherever Merrie might be, it wasn't so far away...
your feet. Don't let them see. Don't let them know.
Dustin trudged, one foot
in front of the other. I
can do this.
He'd only been at it for a few hours. These others? They'd been
at it for days, maybe weeks.
Water. I want water.
Never in his life had he been this thirsty, without having access to some kind
The lessons were
clear: keep moving if you want to stay alive. There was a dead man behind them,
along the route, who could testify.
At other times, in other
places, Dusty had been embarrassed - even mortified - by his prat falls and
stumbling mistakes because he was out of sync. Now, he had no time to worry
about it. He was trudging down a road and people were undoubtedly staring - or
averting their eyes, like those surrounding him now. Anything to avoid becoming
a part of this. To acknowledge the horror and have to live - or die - with
Only, Dusty was
part of it. He didn't fit in, with his different clothes and well-fed frame.
He'd always been lanky, but he was positively fat compared with his scarecrow
companions. With their spare bodies, just barely fleshed. With their missing
teeth and bleeding gums.
Yet, they carried on. The
tenacity of the human spirit. He took another step. Then
A lesson. If they
can do it I can.
was real. No matter what happened to his wayward body in his own time, some part
of his spirit was tenaciously lodged here - and it had taken enough of his
physical body with it -
looked at the machine gun nestled in the guard's
- to have him
daylight," Josh said. He sat up in the backseat, then proceeded to wipe the
moisture off the glass. "Are we outlaws
"Let me sleep," James
demanded. "You couldn't keep your mouth shut all night. Snore, snore, snore. At
least keep it shut now
"Good thing it kept you
awake. Every time you went to sleep the emergency flashers came
"When the rearview
mirror wasn't gyrating," Merrie confirmed. "I don't even want to know what you
were dreaming about."
Josh grinned. "The mirror would wiggle slowly at first, then faster, faster,
faster - then all of a sudden it would pop up, with a big
actually blushing. "You can see why I sleep alone," he
Merrie grabbed his
arm and smiled. "Jamie, if you had someone to enjoy it with - in the flesh - it
probably wouldn't be the focus of your
James. You could be God's gift to women. A Casanova, who could satisfy them in a
way no one else could." Josh sighed. "It's obvious I got the wrong 'gift'. If I
had your talent, I'd be running around, making myself
visit Ren," Merrie suggested. "We can check out the gazebo,
"I'm tired," James
complained. He yawned widely. "Exhausted, actually. All that bouncing stuff
across the grass last
"No problem, Jimmy
Boy," Josh assured him. "As soon as we sneak our way in there, we'll ask Ren if
you can borrow her closet. If you're going to be watching my back, I want to be
sure you're in top form."
slammed back, onto the roadway. He lay there, momentarily stunned, and there was
shock in the guard's eyes.
That should have done it. A
bad tumble had always done it before - had always broken the lock of his
concentration, and tumbled him back to his own time.
So he could face the
laughter and humiliation in the
present. What's wrong?
Dusty knew he'd been hit by something. A car?
This wasn't just a tumble;
he'd been slammed and tossed.
The guard was signalling him
now - using his gun to fill in any gaps their conversation might lack. His
meaning was clear, and so were his thoughts. He didn't want to acknowledge what
he'd seen, because then he'd be afraid. It didn't suit him to be afraid.
Whatever had happened, had obviously been the prisoner's
The man's eyes
twitched, and Dusty rolled onto his side. He winced, but made light of it for
his glaring guard. It wasn't easy. His gut was on fire nearly as much as his
There was an awkward
moment, when he tried to get up and couldn't. Dustin guessed that in his own
time, there were helpful hands trying to hold him down, and he started to panic.
"Thank you," he muttered, to anyone within range, "but I need to go!" He shook
the last of them off, mopped some of the blood off with his sleeve, and pushed
himself to his feet.
guard nodded at him impatiently, and said something in German. Dusty had no idea
what it was, but it must have been something like "move out!". As their tattered
group trudged forward, several of the other prisoners surrounded him. The guards
said nothing when the men held his arms, and offered him
Dustin looked at
them and felt shame. Compared to them he was like a pampered poodle. He couldn't
believe that the worst-off among them should be offering the most pampered
have dozed after that. She didn't remember falling back to sleep, but tuning in
on Merrie had reassured her. She was curled up, slumbering peacefully, when she
awoke to nightmare. Feet stomping on her. Climbing on her and knocking her down.
Crushing her until she was drowning, in a sea of other
Bodies for which hope
had expired several days
She fought it, but she
was packed in too tightly. She couldn't see, couldn't
Not a nightmare -
and not her reality - but Dusty's. She knew it as certainly as she knew that
ragged breathing was as much his as
hers. Get him
there was a sheen of sweat on her skin and the scent of death in her
nostrils. If she couldn't rouse him - get him out of that reality and back to
his own - he'd die.
both die - because she wasn't about to leave him. Ren concentrated, willing some
of her strength into his aching head.
The next moment
the train tempo had changed, and there was a nattering of confused voices. She
barely had time for relief when a loud sound jarred her into awareness. She
jumped back, slamming her head against the wall as another loud knock sounded on
the closet door.
opened, spilling light into her dark hiding
Josh, Merrie and James
were looking at her curiously. "Did we miss something?" Josh asked.***
dawdled over donuts and coffee in the breakfast nook. It had a built-in booth,
which made it the only place in the house to sit, other than the floor. Ren
sipped the hot coffee gratefully, lifting her face to the warm sun that was
streaming through the window. She'd just told them about Dusty, and it had left
her feeling chilled.
took another bite of beef jerky. "That's why Valterzar and Erik went after him,"
he said knowledgeably. "They were worried something like this might happen." He
waved a piece of jerky in the air. "Anybody want
Ren was distraught.
"He's in so much trouble," she said. "He's having a hard time coming out of
"That's because it's
real," James said solemnly. "I only remember bits and pieces from Mexico, but
he's living it. Dusty's there, in
Merrie's eyes were
sad. "So much death there. Such intensity of feeling. He can't help but tune
"Sort of 'in his
face'," Josh commented, chewing loudly. "You watch yourself, Birdbrain," he told
Ren, recalling how she'd almost killed herself at the hospital. "Don't want you
pulling any stunts. Erik's gonna be where Dusty is - not
"Besides," James said,
"we've gone to great personal risk to bring you
"Bullshit. You enjoyed kicking Dr. Drewsome's
"Drewsome was knocking
around here last night, Mer," Ren
"Probably mad because
he'd been trounced," Josh chewed. "What about this information,
She shook her head. "I
can't, Josh. Not till I know Dusty's safe. I wouldn't be able to think."
"Since when has that ever
stopped you?" Josh asked.
"Besides, it's technical.
Might take me a while to decipher
Jamie's eyes met Josh's.
"She never could lie convincingly," he said.
"She wouldn't have to if you
two weren't such buffoons," Merrie told them.
"Yes, I would," Ren replied
seriously. "It's just that I never figured on having an audience. There are some
things you might not want to
"Are these 'things'
why Smythe scared you?" Jamie
"Yep. I blurted." She
sighed. "OD'd on the 'atmosphere' in his office, and started to panic." She
smiled. "You wouldn't believe it, but he was actually scared of me when I walked
"Things to hide," Josh
"Probably. By the time
I left, I'd guessed his password to his files, told him as much - and he'd
decided to turn me over to someone
"Boy," Josh commented,
"when you botch up, you don't fool
Merrie was looking
at her. She knew her well enough to guess that Ren was still hiding something.
"The password thing wasn't the worst of it, was it?"
"Are you telepathic now,
too?" James asked. "I wouldn't try to be, if I were you. You have enough
problems keeping track of your own
"You don't want to
know, so don't ask. Just let it
exciting. Give," Josh said. "Reward for digging you out of your
Ren nodded. Josh
would nag her, James would skulk, and Merrie would tease her if she didn't. "The
way we come together on things," Ren whispered, avoiding their eyes. "The way
we've always been called a 'Cluster'. There are some types of fungi - actually
slime moulds - that can act independently, but at a chemical signal come
together, to function as a unit. It started me thinking. I asked Smythe whether
the gene therapy we'd been given..." Her voice tapered
"Whether it was human?"
Merrie asked, her eyes
Josh shrugged. "That's
okay for James," he said. "The slime mould part, anyway. What about the rest of
us?" he asked.
Ren relaxed a
little, and took Merrie's hand, to give it a squeeze. She glanced at Jamie, to
see how he was taking it. "You okay, Jamie?" she
"Just thinking," he
said. "Remember that time Dusty and I found that fungicide in the
Ren nodded. "The
"All we did was
open it up and look at the stuff, but
"- you both nearly died!"
have to sound so excited about it," James told
Merrie sighed. "Sounds
like Dr. Drewsome was the
from fungi, and they've been using it for years to help people," Ren offered
between ingesting a fungus, and being a fungus, Ren," James
"Yeah," Josh agreed.
"Gives the term 'relative' a whole new meaning."
clicked "End" and looked at Erik. He was frowning. "We've got trouble," he said.
"You're telling me. They
don't have any Perrier left." They were making a quick lunch stop before
boarding the train.
he was joking, but he wasn't in the mood. "Merrie's not answering her cellphone.
Neither are the others."
shrugged. "Try Ren's
"I did. She didn't
show up for work today."
the first time, Erik looked concerned. "Josh?
"Both absent without
"Go back," Erik said.
"I'll catch up with
"What if it's like
last time? And you can't stop it?"
"Smythe's watchdogs must
still be on duty." He looked over at a nearby table and waved. The two men
squirmed and tried to ignore him. "See? I told you. They must have someone on
growled. "It's 'lesson-teaching' time, remember? Maybe Smythe figures he's gotta
learn, even if it kills
"Smythe doesn't know
how close it came last time. Probably figures Mallory's in for some
embarrassment, but that's all. Besides, he knows we're on the
Dainler?" Zar asked.
get all shitty with me, just because you're worried about
Zar's phone chimed,
and he answered it eagerly. "Merrie!" he whispered, relieved. "Hold on -" With a
wary eye on the "watchdogs", he left the table to talk
He was gone for what
seemed like a long time. Long enough for one of the men to place a call of his
own. The two men watched Valterzar dubiously through the
When Valterzar came
back in, he looked as dumbfounded as Erik had ever seen him. He was obviously
trying to organise his thoughts, but they seemed to be all over the place. He
opened his mouth twice, as though going to say something, then snapped it shut
again, and shook his
looked at him and sighed loudly. "Merrie called me on Ren's phone - her new
phone, because she tossed her other one
Erik opened his mouth,
but Zar held up a hand to stop him. "Ren formed some idea about Drew Garris'
research, so she went to see Smythe," he whispered. "While she was in his
office, she guessed the password to his private files, and accidentally told him
Erik's eyes widened.
"It gets better." Valterzar
smiled. "Ren read him. He was scared she'd found out something and so he decided
to turn her over to someone else. So," he said, disbelief in his voice, "Ren
burned down her house, had a makeover, and did a
"On the way,
she called Merrie and asked her - in a panic - to contact 'Dr. Drewsome'. Seems
his research is the crux to what's bothering her. Merrie also thinks it might be
something to hold over Symbio's - and, by extension, Symtech's - head.
Meanwhile," Zar was actually chuckling now, but there was a hysterical note to
it that Erik couldn't miss, "Ren broke into Garris' house and spent the night in
"In a closet,"
Erik repeated, a little blankly. "What's the thing about the research that's so
Valterzar's eyes met
his and he sobered. "Fungus. Ren thinks they used non-human DNA for the 'gene
therapy'." "I'm part
he started to yell, but Valterzar shushed him.
Erik gulped. "Not exactly
what I expected," he
"Not what any of
us expected," Zar told him. "Josh and Jamie went with Merrie to the cemetery,
and 'raised' Drew
Erik closed his
eyes. "Tell me that's it -"
flicker of amusement was back in Valterzar's eyes. "Then James PK'd some of
Ren's 'burnt belongings' -" Merrie's words, he explained, "- and gave 'em to
Josh, who -"
"- did his
clairvoyance thing to track her
"Right. The three of
them spent the night in the car, because they'd eluded their watchers
pre-cemetery, and now they figure they're wanted. They turned up at Garris'
house this morning and walked in on Ren, who was having an interlude with
his thoughts. Merrie says it's bad. He's being dragged in and can't get out.
Ren's not about to let him die, so she says
- Merrie. She says we have to hurry and save Dusty, so Ren won't feel she has
to. Otherwise, they may be wishing you were there, instead of
"She's afraid Ren's
going to kill herself trying to save
Zar nodded. His phone
blipped again. He listened, then said, "We're on our
Erik looked at him
"Dusty just got
hit by a car, Ren thinks. Neither one of them saw it coming. He's on his feet,
but just barely."
back and have Ren make him stay
"She can't," Zar told
him. "He's in some kind of prisoner march - maybe even a Death March. If he
slows them down, or falls out of line, he's going to get shot."
rubbed his hands together. "Buried treasure," he said. "I love this
"Maybe if you're
lucky," James whispered, "his dog will've buried something for you in the yard."
He turned to Ren. "Can you sense any unwanted company?" he
"Nope. All clear." Her
eyes were red-rimmed from weeping. The sooner they got this done the better. She
knew they were trying to divert her focus from Dusty, but that wasn't going to
save his life.
watch, okay?" James
Merrie whispered. She gave Ren's hand a squeeze. "Josh, can you see anything?"
standing there with his eyes closed. "Wood, wood, dirt, dead bird, wood,
"Where?" James asked
"Under the middle
bench. In the slot between the boards, directly under the seat." Josh shook his
head. "You're close, but your fingers won't
"No problem," James
retorted. He emerged triumphantly with the key. "Now
Merrie looked pensive.
"We try to figure out how to trick Gruesome Drewsome into showing us the
minutes on the train," Erik said. "Only twenty minutes." He was edgy. It was as
though his whole world had fallen apart in the space of minutes. At least, the
people in it - the ones who mattered most to him - were still
But for how long? He
couldn't sit still. He wandered back and forth between the rail cars, driving
his watchdogs crazy. Nor were they the only guards. The ones Erik had waved to
remained in the car.
It was time for
some honest reflection.
had an out, yet when trouble had hit he'd reacted every bit as worriedly as Erik
was acting now. He'd wanted to blame it on the affection - no, the love - he
felt for Merrie, but there was more to it than that. What? A connection? Some
Merrie hadn't even
hesitated to tell him about the fungal DNA. Why? Because he was her "Zar"? Or
because she'd thought all of them should know? "Them" being the operative word.
But I lived with my
parents! A normal
But then he
remembered the time, when some kid, the school bully, had threatened him.
Usually, Lawrence could handle it with his words
- always a good
he thought derisively
- but this time, the bully
wouldn't listen. It still wouldn't have mattered too much, except bully boy,
Dirk Scully by name, had rounded up some of his buddies. They'd caught Lawrence
on the way home from junior high, and started in on him, seemingly determined to
beat the shit out of
Something had happened
inside, and Lawrence had felt that burning - the same strong reaction he'd had
when the rapist had threatened Merrie, and when Dusty had lain there, bleeding.
He'd known he could stop these idiots with little more than a
But he'd never had
the chance. Because two men had suddenly yanked the kids off him, and tossed
them back, onto the ground.
After that, Lawrence had
seen the men again - and again. Not always the same two, either. The pairings
would change, and the methods would change, but they were always there. Two men,
and later, sometimes, women as well. Two guards, plus Lawrence Valterzar,
against the world. He'd accepted it, as much as the others
Because they'd always
No more denials.
Time to face it, accept it, then decide what to do with it. Decide why Smythe
had ousted him from a position of control to alienate him from the
Maybe because he
knew that, once met, Valterzar would never truly be "alienated". But Smythe
would no longer be in control.
The moment I argued, and
withheld information, I threatened Smythe's
to be sure he reserved control for himself.*
sitting around on Dr. Drewsome's thickly carpeted floor, eating some Chinese
food Josh had sneaked out for. "This is where he died, isn't it?" Merrie said,
gesturing around the bedroom with her chopsticks. "It'll have to be a seance."
She sighed. "I hate those things."
"I should have known," Josh
grumbled. "Count me
"Ren?" Merrie looked at
grimaced. "I guess, since it's my fault." She thought fast. "What if I'm in the
middle of it, and Dusty needs
"What I want to know is
how you're going to control Drewsome this time," James said. "I sure wish Zar
"So do I," Merrie
said wistfully. "I miss
James snorted. "I just
want him to be able to stop things, if they get out of
"I can handle Drew
Garris," Merrie told him.
wish Erik was here."
don't think he'll get that nasty, Josh," Merrie said reassuringly.
"It's not that. We could
always use Erik as a shield. Family feeling, and all
Ren dropped her
chopsticks back in the box. "What're you talking
"Photos. We were
looking at some old pictures of Garris, from when we were kids. They look almost
exactly like Erik."
looked slightly stunned. "I guess that explains a few
"Like why Erik's mom
hated Garris so much. Remember how she hardly ever came around? Except that time
when Erik was sick? I got this strong feeling, like she absolutely despised
Garris. Emotions like that really stand out. I could never understand why she
was so angry. Does Erik
"Not unless Zar's told
him," Merrie said. "She must have had some idea what Garris was into. I can't
believe she'd let him do it to her son."
"Maybe he did it without her
permission," Ren suggested. "She hated Garris, but she adored Erik. I think it
killed her to have to leave him with his father." She looked at Merrie. "Didn't
Garris have a kid already? With someone
Merrie frowned. "I
don't remember hearing
"Must have been on
one of your traipses through the poor man's brain. And people think it's bad to
Josh added sarcastically, looking pointedly at
"But that would give
Erik family!" Ren
"Raised by Garris?"
James said derisively. "He's better without." He frowned, looking pensive. "When
did Erik's mom die?"
Erik was eleven or twelve," Josh said. "I can still remember the way he cried,
the first birthday he had without
"How did she die? Was
Ren was looking at
him strangely. "An accident, maybe? What are you thinking,
"You tell me." It
wasn't very often any of them encouraged Ren to probe their thoughts, but this
was one time James didn't feel comfortable voicing them aloud.
"You think Garris had
something to do with it." She sounded
"Erik told me he was
leaving the school - that his mom was taking him back, to live with her." James
sighed. "I remember how excited he was. I mean, he was friends with us, but
"But like the rest of us,
he wanted to be 'normal'. I remember that, too," Josh said. "So you think Garris
"Or had her
killed. I just wonder how much of it's in Drewsome's private notes."
was slowing for Dachau station when Erik saw Zar put away his phone once more.
He sat down next to him. "Merrie again?" he
"No - Smythe. He
apologised for Jekkes' mistake, in sending out that letter. It was supposed to
go to someone else."
snorted. "Way to cover. Does he really expect you to buy
Erik looked a little
stunned. He might use his abilities for money, but he'd somehow never expected
Valterzar to. "What did you tell
changed." "What does that
In spite of his efforts, he knew he sounded slightly outraged. He
tried to temper it with, "I think you've been hanging around with Merrie too
Zar had an amused
glint in his eye. "It means nothing. But maybe it'll buy me enough backup to
"What it means
is we could have flown first class after all," Erik added, but there was still
doubt in his eyes.
Zar saw it
and grinned at him. "Think I'm going to throw in my cards with Smythe again?
Stake my reputation on a losing team? If Ren says there's a problem, I believe
her." He added, in a voice so low that Erik could barely hear him, "We're
dealing with a giant here, Erik - capable of crushing us with an order. I want
us all out of the way before Symtech takes a fall."
having trouble taking it in. They'd come to some kind of gate house, a
two-storey whitewashed building with a bright red roof. Cheerful, almost. They
walked under an archway and through a heavy iron gate. The gate itself had the
words "Arbeit Macht Frei"
inscribed at the top.
There was a massive open
area, and long rows of barracks. Walls, gun towers, wire fences, moats. In
Dusty's mind, everything had turned a shade of grey. Shock was hitting him hard.
He'd dropped from a well-fed twenty-first century existence into a world of
striped prison garb, hopeless faces, and exhausted, emaciated, stumbling bodies.
And he didn't look likely to
be leaving it any time
With a nod, and a
quick word of thanks, Dusty shrugged off his helpers' hands, disgusted with his
own weakness. So many of the people around him were debilitated, undernourished,
and with nutritional maladies brought on by deficiencies. Their clothing was
filthy, and ragged; stinking of human flesh and faeces. Their hair was scruffy
and lice-ridden, their teeth yellow and rotting. Yet, they were helping
One of the men fell, and
the guard booted him, to urge him back onto his feet. Dustin had never felt a
true animal urge before, to tear out a throat, but he did then. He helped the
man to his feet, much as the man had helped him an hour
Someone must have
been watching - noticing how his fitness, despite some kind of injury, was in
such contrast to the rest of the shipment. He would have been a perfect
candidate for the labour
But he was also a
candidate for something else. He'd barely glimpsed the barracks - the tiered,
rough-hewn bunks - when a guard came for him. He said something in German Dusty
couldn't understand, then motioned him outside. The other prisoners - the ones
who'd marched with him - looked at him with a resignation that knotted his
already aching middle.
marched, the guard prodding his back, across the open area, to a building on the
other side. Some kind of hospital.
Some tingling of prescience
made him baulk - or maybe it was some half-remembered mention of foul
experiments, using camp inmates. The guard shoved him into the
There was an old man
who was obviously in charge. The guard said something to him obsequiously, which
Dusty assumed was "Here he is." The only word he could really pick out at this
point was "Schilling", which he assumed was the man's
Dusty didn't have a
chance to think much more. The guard forced him into a chair, then stood stiffly
before the door. Dusty was suddenly terrified. What the hell was the old man
going to do?
Nothing. He was
yelling to someone in the next room; giving orders. His assistant came in
hurriedly, excitement in his eyes. It made Dusty
Until the young man
looked up, and Dusty breathed a sigh of relief. Through the agony in his head,
and the greyness of his vision, he thought for a moment it was Erik. He thought
it all the time the man filled the syringe, and until he came close enough to
inject it. Dusty, confused, saw then the assistant was probably ten years Erik's
junior, with blond hair, rather than brown.
After that he became
focussed on the syringe, and realised he'd caused them too much
They were going to stop his heart, then use his body in some
really got much further than the "stop my heart" part. He jumped out of the
chair, totally ignoring the machine gun-mad guard. The bullet would have to go
through the Erik lookalike before it hit him. That made that risk a whole lot
lower than his present
His assailant was
angry - Dusty could see it in his eyes. He was even angrier when Dusty twisted
the needle, and jabbed him in the forearm.
The guard was preparing to
pound Dusty over the head with his gun butt when the other man stopped him. He
yanked the syringe out of his arm with a disdainful gesture, his expression icy.
Dusty froze, a sense of deja vu hitting him. It was so
familiar... I should've
pushed the plunger...
syringe was still loaded. Bad luck, Dusty.
The medical man was directing
the guard to pin him against the wall. Guard did, then held him there, like a
fly on a stickpin, with the barrel of his gun shoved into Dusty's aching gut.
Dusty thought he was going
to die then, the pain was so bad, but Mr. Medico had the right of it: with that
kind of pain Dusty couldn't move. Hell, he could barely breathe. Another second
And, then, it was
over. Whatever had been in the syringe was now in his bloodstream. How could
I have ever thought he looked like Erik?
Dusty thought, staring anew at
those cold eyes.
smiled at him, and it was one of those times when a smile is so much worse than
a frown. The gun was pulled out of Dustin's stomach, and he slid down, to sit
against the wall.
was now chiding the guard, and he held out his hand for the weapon. Then he
looked at Dusty, made sure he was watching, and smiled
The "doctor" turned
the gun on the guard, and shot off the toes on his right foot. Then he turned to
No bullets this time.
There was, after all, the experiment to consider. He came at Dusty with the gun,
but he swung it like a club.
led the way down the brick steps of the railway station. It astounded him, how
warm and friendly everything looked. He'd almost expected there to be some kind
of pall over the community - some sombre underlying symbol of the thousands
who'd lost their lives here.
I've hung out too long
he chided himself. Nevertheless, he could feel something - an
unresolved tension in the air.
Erik was a wreck, and Zar
wondered if he was as sensitive to the scarring of human nature as he was to
physical disease and injury. Possibly. Zar knew the menace he was sensing made
his own insides burn with a need to end it, but there was no ending a past
grievance, that had already been addressed. The suffering would remain, and
there was little he could do to stop it. The grief process must continue, with
pain as a remembered
This kind of pain
would kill his Merrie, even as it was now, he was certain, killing Dusty.
Charles Smythe was a
There were taxis
waiting outside the train station, and Zar hopped in. "75 Alter-Römerstrasse,"
he told the driver, reading off Erik's
Camp," the driver verified sadly, in heavily-accented English.
It was so false to Erik's
ears that he snorted rudely. He wondered how much the driver modified his tone
Zar glared at
him. He wanted the driver to get there in a hurry - not take the most circuitous
way to the biggest fare. "Gesundheit!"
he said pointedly to
The literature had
advised that a "proper tour" of the museum and grounds would require an entire
day. Zar knew they didn't have that kind of time. He'd pulled out his phone when
it began to chime. Ren didn't even say hello. Instead, she blurted out a
panicked, "He's in some kind of hospital - there, at the camp. They injected him
with something, Zar!" Her voice trailed off and he knew she was desperately
trying to hold back
"Put Josh on!" Zar
"Can you focus on my
Josh was silent for a
moment, then said, "Uh-uh. Too much interference," he tried to explain. "I need
something of yours to hold onto. Then I can see
"Do this: put one hand
on Merrie, and one on
Josh was momentarily
"Josh!" Zar urged.
"Something of mine,
and something of
"I get it!"
Josh exclaimed. Zar could tell Josh was grinning. Erik, overhearing the
conversation, rolled his
"Dusty's in a bad way,"
Josh said solemnly. "Head straight across the compound. First door on your left.
Keep going, in through a smaller door. He's curled up in a
Zar and Erik took
off at a run.
Erik gasped. Dusty was writhing, burning up with fever. He'd been
vomiting, and there was blood down one side of his head, leaking out his nose,
and glazing his eyes. "Shit, shit,
Zar gripped Erik's
wrist. "Hold it!"
he ordered. "Calm down
He did a quick
examination. "Wish Ren knew what they gave him. Anything come up in your
"Quit trying to
distract me!" Erik yelled. "If I heal him like this, what'll he have? Brain
damage?" He turned away, unable to watch, as Dusty went into a
gripped the front of his shirt. "Look at me!"
Erik focussed, but his
hands were shaking. "I'm going to stop this, but I'll need you to maintain
"Exactly. Then, we'll get
him to a hospital." Zar put a hand on Dustin's shoulder. He was so hot he must
be 105, 106 degrees.
the time to do the research," Erik said
"That's the idea. You
Erik sighed. "As
ready as I'm gonna
"Then let's do
on the way with Dusty in the ambulance when Erik suddenly said, "Call Smythe!
do the research. He can tell us what experiments they were
Zar gave him a
slight smile. "He owes Dusty
"And us. Make him work for
that big paycheque." Erik was feeling a lot better now that Dusty seemed
Valterzar did as
Erik had suggested. He didn't know what made him follow through with a call to
Josh. "Can you get me a rundown of what experiments they ran in the Camp, circa
"Have it for you in
fifteen," Josh told him.
Erik looked puzzled. "Why'd
you do that? Afraid Smythe won't work fast
Zar shook his head.
"I don't know. Let's just say I trust Josh a whole lot more than Charlie
on the phone to Valterzar by the time they'd wheeled Dusty into the ER. "They
were testing rare strains of influenza," he said, but Zar picked up the
nervousness in his voice. "Have Erik give him a treatment. If he's still ill,
the literature says tetracycline might
Zar had barely clicked
"End" before Josh rang him up.
"Malaria," he said tensely.
"Some doctor named Schilling was testing different strains of malaria, either by
direct injection or allowing the 'subjects' to be bitten. The only other
experiments I can find are cold and pressure tests. This is the only one that
fits. Hold on -"
came on. "Don't know how much you know about malaria
"Not enough," Zar
misdiagnosed, so you'll have to run blood tests. It's a -" Zar guessed he was
trying to read the name, "- Plasmodium
, and you can see it under the
"Does it say
anything about types and
eight to twelve days to incubate." James sounded puzzled. "Onset was a lot
faster for Dusty."
three days. If it's falciparum malaria it's serious, as in medical emergency.
Quinine and tetracycline for seven days, but if it's really bad, they say IV,
RBC transfusion -?"
blood cells," Zar
"- maybe even
dialysis. He might have to go on a
Josh must have
grabbed the phone from Jamie, because Zar could hear James' protest in the
background. Josh added, "Some strains are resistant to the drugs. That shouldn't
be an issue with Erik around, but give us a call if you run into any problems."
He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Any 'thoughts' on how to relieve somebody's
distress? I mean, that is
supposed to be your area of expertise." The way
he said it made it sound as though he'd asked, and Valterzar had turned him
Valterzar grinned. In
other words, Ren was crying and it was driving Josh crazy. "Let me talk to her."
When Ren came on the phone he told her, "He won't get any worse, Ren. Erik and I
are going to be with him
"I know, Zar,"
she said. "It's just the
"I understand," he
said, a smile in his voice. "There's something you can find out for me, Ren.
Smythe's decided he made a mistake
"One of many," she
"- but he just
lied to me about Dusty. Unless Josh and James uncovered some obscure research
material, the malaria experiments should be a matter of
"Maybe he thinks
Dusty succumbed so quickly because of his fungal
"I remember reading
once that malaria's often misdiagnosed as influenza. Smythe said they were
working on flu viruses, but he recommended an antibiotic that's used in
conjunction with quinine to help treat malaria. You're probably right about the
DNA, but I'd sure like to know why he
"We'll check on it
tonight - with Dr.
Garris." A seance.
Valterzar grinned. "Please spare me the details. I really don't want to
opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sadist. The one who'd shot him
full of shit, then tried to bash his head in with a machine gun. The only reason
the bastard would be standing here was to gloat - or to finish the job he'd
started. No way,
Dusty decided in a flash of fury. He'd be damned if he'd
let him get away with it.
The man reached for him, and
Dusty took action. He ignored the IV in his hand and drew back his arm. With a
resounding smack, he socked the fucker right in the nose.***
couldn't believe it. One moment, Erik was standing there, going into his healing
mode, and the next, Dusty had knocked him flat out on the floor. Zar stood there
a second, stunned, then lunged for Dusty's arms to pin him down. A glance at
Erik showed their healer squirming on the floor, and groaning loudly while
trying to pinch closed his streaming
Zar couldn't help it.
As he tried to keep Dusty from diving out of the bed, to go after Erik again, he
started chuckling. He didn't mean to, but Dusty was just so damned determined,
and Erik, seeing where Dusty was heading, was yelping now and crawling for the
door. Zar gave a gigantic snort, then plunked down in a chair and laughed till
his eyes were streaming. Dusty, snarling at Erik now as he dove off the bed,
landed in a tangle of sheets and blankets. He and Erik rolled around on the
floor, with Erik doing that yelping thing still and Dusty emitting doing
something that sounded remarkably like a growl. It lasted until Dusty shoved his
face right in Erik's - then froze, shocked. "Oh," Dusty said lamely, "it's
Zar was laughing so
hard - great snorting blasts out his mouth and nose - that he couldn't even
okay?" Dusty asked, concerned about Valterzar's lapse. He knew he should be
asking Erik that, but he was too embarrassed. He couldn't believe he'd ploughed
into him that way.
temper was still huffy, so he said a little stiffly, "Some kind of hysteria.
Probably the shock of seeing me
At that, Valterzar
bent over double, then stumbled into the attached bathroom. He had to get away
from these clowns before they killed
They could hear him in
there, as he gradually got the snorts and wheezes and hisses of his amusement
get back in bed," Erik told Dusty. "I still have some work to do
A moment later, Valterzar
re-entered, eyes wet, and with only an occasional shudder of swiftly-choked
laughter. He saw Erik about to put his hand on Dusty's chest, and said loudly,
turned his way, his expression sour. "Can't we just get this over
now, shook his head. "Not like
"Why the hell
"Because I hit you,
Erik," Dusty explained, "and you'd only be human if you wanted to hit me
At his words Erik
froze. "Only 'human', huh?" He looked over and caught Valterzar's eye, and his
lips began to twitch. The next moment, he was laughing, too.
It set Valterzar off again,
and he disappeared back in the bathroom, to mop his streaming
Dusty listened to the
snorts issuing from the bathroom, and the howls of hilarity now coming from
Erik, in-between frequent groans and pinching of his nose. Finally, he shrugged,
rolled over on his side, and went to sleep.
These two might
be acting like a horse's hind end, but it was awfully good to know they were
not look happy. They were back in Dr. Drewsome's bedroom, where Merrie had so
helpfully reminded them the old fart had died. It was dusk, and not even Merrie
looked very happy about summoning Garris again. It was one thing sitting around
in here during the daylight, eating Chinese food, and another running a damned
seance. "Why do we have to do it here?" Josh asked. "I'm for waiting till
"Why, Josh? Why is
it so much more frightening at
"Because that's when
the bogey men come out to play?" James
Merrie, however, was
serious. "There's a theory that white light can destroy ectoplasm," she said.
"Make it withdraw into the
nodded, then gave a shiver. "It burns. One medium died when some reporters
turned on a flashlight." She looked around the dingy room. "I hate
Josh looked at her
in astonishment. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that you in the graveyard?
The one who was joking around and carrying on as though dead guys were
"Nothing to sneeze
at," James remarked.
didn't have to call him in. I just opened myself to any 'vibes' he might be
sending my way," Merrie explained, in a hushed voice. "It was more like a walk,
you're referring to James and me," Josh told
Merrie smiled. "Going
there put me 'in the mood', but it also let me pick up on any stray
vibes..." James hummed. "I could swear the sadist thanked you for summoning
"No matter what he
said, it-it's different," Merrie told him. "We went there because Drewsome's
been dead only a year. I figured he might still be hanging close to things he
"Like his house, and
"For some reason, though, I feel his presence a lot more strongly here." She
say," Josh muttered.
mean, visiting a cemetery's a way of stirring things up, but I would have
thought..." She shrugged. "Never
"Does that mean we can
go now?" James asked.
grinned. "Of course not. You're always so impatient,
Jamie raised his eyes
to the heavens, in a bid for the patience she seemed to think he
Ren remembered the
noises from the night before and gooseflesh rose on her arms. "Drewsome was
here, last night," she whispered. "I could read him enough to recognise
James looked at her
curiously. "Think you could tell us if he's
"There's a world of
difference between tuning into him, and actively summoning him," Merrie told
them. "I hate this
"Why?" James asked, a
little worriedly. "Why should it be any different than
"Because I'm as out
of control as everyone else in this 'Cluster'," Merrie admitted testily. Her
eyes were scared.
widened. "You're afraid you're going to bring him in
Merrie nodded. "- and not
be able to send him back."
terrible when he saw Erik's face. His nose was swollen and red, and both his
eyes were turning black. "Shame you can't heal yourself," he blurted, then
realised it wasn't the best way to apologise. "Thought you were someone else,"
"I hope so.
Hate to think you'd aimed for me deliberately." Erik
"Don't think there
haven't been times..." Dustin told him. He looked around the hospital room.
"Amazing I didn't spot the
"Who'd you think
Dusty twisted to
look at Zar.
who injected me. He gave me a shot, then took out his frustrations on my
"Fists?" Erik asked,
touching his own nose
looked a lot like you," Dusty said, looking at Erik. "From a distance, anyway.
"As long as no
scoffed. "They wouldn't even recognise you." It made him think about the
scarecrows he'd walked with, on the road to the Camp. How many of their families
would have recognised them? He sighed, seeing once again the hopelessness and
exhaustion in those faces.
You can't change
Yes, you can.
Some of it, anyway. He was feeling, once again, the guilt of belonging to the
privileged minority - recalling how his lack of belonging to that ragged group
had stemmed more from his pampered origins, than from a difference in
chronology. Yet most of the men he'd marched with hadn't blamed him. They'd been
through too much suffering for that. They'd helped him, instead. Dusty's eyes
were moist with remembered
"What's wrong?" It was
Dusty shook his
head. He didn't want to share this - with
disturbed by the haunted look in his eyes. "Are you in
pain?" Not the kind you
can fix. Not the kind anyone can
Dusty shook his
head. "I'm fine." But he wasn't, and he knew he wouldn't be until he could take
some action. How could he live with this kind of futility? It wasn't history for
him - it was real. And it was like he'd told Erik: the guy had hit him, and it
was only human to want to hit him
It wasn't enough, and
if he was honest, it wasn't the reason
The man was a
sadist. I wasn't his first victim.
That's what was
getting to him now - the thing that was bothering him the most. What if his next
victim was one of those who'd staggered with him into Camp? Or one of those
exhausted faces who'd lost hope?
"Do you know what he gave
me?" Dusty was solemn, his eyes still
said. "A real nasty kind. We've given you the works, though," he boasted. "Had
the neurosurgeon in to fix your head, and an internist to mend your middle. I
took care of the
"Thanks. I really
appreciate it. Guess I'm not as much in control as I
Zar took a deep
breath. That's what was bothering him. He'd come here thinking he'd taken that
one extra step to independence, and he'd ended up in hell. "That's why you were
sent here," Zar told
Dusty was startled. His
eyes met Valterzar's. "What?" he asked
arranged it when you 'resigned'. Something to prove to you that you couldn't
"Apparently, he was
"There's a lot you
don't know, Dusty. Erik and I'll explain it all on the way
it. I'm flying first class, no matter what you
Zar's lips creased in a
smile. "We'll leave
Dusty looked past
him, out the window. The orange tint of late day was in the sky.
He didn't have the
power or control to do anything about Heinrich Himmler or Adolf Hitler, but he
might be able to stop the sadist from infecting anyone
else. How? The same way
you took out the man at the
Shit! What am I
okay?" Erik asked him worriedly. Had he blown it
"Fine. It's just that
-" he hesitated. What if they wanted to stop him? Could he live with himself,
knowing he had the chance to change something and
It was a chance he
had to take. They'd dropped everything to track him down and save his butt. They
needed to know that said "butt" might be going back on the
Besides, Dusty thought
with something resembling relief, Zar might be able to help him work this
through. To figure out whether he had the reason, or the right, to kill a dead
Dusty sighed. Here
"If we're leaving
tomorrow, there's some business I've got to take care of
Valterzar lifted an
eyebrow, but Erik's groaned "Shit!" said it all.
about a candle? I've seen it on TV. They always use candles in
James shook his
head, and said slowly, "That's so they can blow them out, Joshua. So the
audience can tell when the ghostie's there." He sighed dramatically. "Sometimes
it seems I have to tell you
directly beneath them, there was a gigantic thud and bump that rattled the
James sang in a
"He's in some kind
of hell," Ren said quietly, sensing Garris' disjointed thoughts.
"Of his own making,"
doesn't expect visitors there," Josh said. He sat, waiting for Merrie to do
something. The noises, the dark, and the damned nonchalance of the others was
getting on his nerves. He, who used to be so easygoing, to take everything in
his stride, was turning into a nervous wreck.
James started to hum again.
Josh guessed it was his way of handling his nervousness - better than breaking
windows - but hell, he couldn't take it any more. He bellowed, "Show
words, the door to the bedroom slammed back, ramming the wall. A chill wind
blasted the room, and somewhere downstairs, a window broke in a shattering of
"Is that him?" Josh
asked, wondering what he'd
"The door and the glass
were me," James said, embarrassment and anger in his voice. "Dammit,
The wind swept
past once more, seeming to gather in the centre of their circle.
"The wind?" Josh
A voice he
recognised hissed in his ear, "That, my Dear Boy, was me."*
nervous. When Erik and Valterzar left to have dinner, he changed into a shirt
and pants, then paced the hospital room restlessly. They'd already decided
Smythe would know nothing about tonight's effort. That meant no guards. The only
way to lose them later would be to make them complacent - make them think that
everything was under control, and everyone accounted for.
Something was really
bothering Dusty, though, and Zar guessed he wanted to talk. He left Erik to
dessert, after warning him to make sure his energy levels were replenished, then
went back to Dusty's
Dusty froze when he
entered, then relaxed and resumed pacing when he saw who it was. Valterzar
didn't say anything; just sat down in a chair and
'self-defence' turn into 'murder'?" Dusty finally threw out.
"Past or present?" Zar asked
him, with a glint of
"It all depends on
who's involved," Dusty responded, his lips creasing in a smile. "You know I
killed the pilot, from the
Valterzar told him, without hesitation. "You did it to protect Ren and Josh. And
the rest of us, come to think of it." He smiled. "You won't find any of us
arguing ethics over that
"The Camp - it-it's
horrible," Dusty whispered, his smile fading. "Some of them were - are
"Are," Valterzar said,
understanding Dustin's confusion.
I've never seen anything like it. Most of them are starving, exhausted - without
"No idea whether
they'll be alive
Dusty nodded. "I'd
kill Hitler - or-or Himmler, if I
I don't have that kind of control. Sometimes, it's all I can do to get in and
out. With someone like Hitler, and all those guards
"You'd be dead before you
could get close." Zar studied him. "So what do you want to
"Schilling, or the
one you punched?"
smiled at that. "The one I punched. Whatever Schilling was doing, I didn't see
him in action."
"I think you
have to ask yourself if it's personal,
Dusty sat down on the
edge of the bed. "It's personal," he admitted, "but not because of me." His
voice was choked as he described the march, the man who'd stumbled by the
wayside and died as a result, the men who'd helped him. "It could be one of them
"But you don't know
Dusty's eyes were
tortured. "But I can't leave it, either. I can't just walk away assuming he
won't do it to anyone else." He looked at Zar. "If I could stop him
"Whatever it takes. I
had a few hours of sickness, Zar - how long for other
Dusty shook his head
in distress and resumed pacing. "Days of that! If I could save just one person
from that, it'd be worth
Zar sat quietly as he
thought it over. In a war situation, actions were often excusable that weren't
conceivable in peacetime. Dusty was caught in a terrible dichotomy between now
and then; between self-defence and murder. It was apparent he was still feeling
guilt over the pilot, and that had actually come down to self-defence, at the
end. What had been eating at Dusty was the moral issue, because he'd decided to
kill the pilot after seeing the outcome of the man's actions. The "killing" was
to have taken place before the man had even finished aiming his gun.
How much worse would he feel
in this instance, where he had no proof of the man's guilt, other than the
attack on himself? Whether or not it was justified wasn't the issue here - it
was whether or not Dusty felt
it was justified, so he could live with any
self-recrimination and doubt later.
Maybe they could go it one
better. All it would take was a little research, into the man's activities.
"What was his name?"
tried to recall what the white-haired man had yelled, but he'd been too dazed.
He shook his head. "I don't know," he
"Then that's what
we've got to find out first," Zar said.
been afraid of Drew Garris when he was alive, Ren was three times as afraid now.
Besides her own fear, she was intensely aware of each of the others'.
And Dr. Drewsome was doing
his best to make it worse.
He was flitting from one to
the other, hissing in their ears and prodding and poking with non-existent
fingers. He kept flinging her hair in her eyes, then laughing when she flinched
and peeled it back. She had a terrible feeling that in this state, he could read
It was then she
realised how deliberate his actions were, and why they now seemed to be centring
on her. He was trying to stop her from reading
It gave her confidence,
and she said coldly, "Now I understand why Sylvie Dainler hated
He coalesced. There was
no other way to describe it. He came into being, out of swirls of misty light,
to hover in her face. He slapped her, with hands that shouldn't have been there.
Ren, shocked, cowered. "Merrie!"
yelped. Trying to give the
Jamie thought. Garris would realise he had the upper hand. Jamie
did what he could to halt him, but all he got was a slimy Garris, who laughed in
his face, then spat a wad of ectoplasmic mucous at
"I think we've got a
problem," Josh said, covering his face with one
"Tell me where the files
are!" Merrie demanded.
you can see why I encouraged your gift, Meredith," Garris told her. "So you
could bring me back..."
from the consequences of your actions?" Merrie said. She was standing now,
defying him. "Not a chance,
Ren sensed it
coming, but she didn't have time to warn her. With a gigantic blast, much like
the one that had echoed from the floor below, the room exploded. Merrie was
flung back, against the window. The glass splintered around her, and screaming,
she started to drift through.
Jamie was fighting it now -
straining to keep her inside while Josh dove for her legs. "Help me!"
Ren didn't stop
to think. She reached a hand into the writhing mass of seething ectoplasm - and
let it come. The misty light faded, and the room was once again plunged into
There was a sudden
cessation of activity. James wasn't prepared for it. As the counterpressure on
Merrie ceased, she went sailing forward, just as Josh grabbed her legs. She did
a forward flip over Josh's head, to land face up on the floor. All the wind was
knocked out of her, and she could only lie there as Jamie came stumbling over,
and tripped over her leg, to end up sprawling
himself. "Ren! Where's
were footsteps on the stairs now. Someone whistled all the way down, and on out
the front door. The slam echoed in their
ears. "That must be
Merrie sighed. She
sounded near tears. "Unfortunately, she's taken Dr. Drewsome with her."
attempted to stroll into Dusty's room, but his walk held the jerky movements of
someone trying to control his panic. "D'you have your phone off?!" he asked
"Yes. Dusty and I were
talking -" Zar began.
I figured," Erik went on, as if Zar hadn't spoken, "if you weren't answering,
that one or both of you was in trouble. Never know when trouble's going to
strike this group, do we?" he said. There was a note of hysteria in his
"Did you know they
were having a seance?" Erik asked Zar accusingly.
He nodded. "Ren said
something about that,
"Well, she won't be
talking about it now," Erik retorted, his voice
Dusty grabbed his arm.
seance. It backfired. They managed to summon up Drew Garris, all right, but then
things got a little 'out of hand'. Drewsome took over Ren's body, and they don't
know where the hell she is."
was the one pacing now. Dusty was grabbing his stuff together, preparing to
exit. Erik was sitting in a chair, aimlessly babbling. It was all along the
lines of "we should have known", "what are we going to do now?", and "what if
they catch her?". Since Valterzar couldn't answer any of his questions at the
moment, he just left him to
Zar was having problems
directing his own thoughts past Merrie. Erik had said she'd nearly been tossed
out a second-storey window. If they found Ren - and Merrie wouldn't give up
until they'd managed it - Merrie would try to fix it, by herself. She could get
Dustin was in a similar state. He'd been absolutely silent since Erik's
announcement. Silent and tense. Erik wasn't much better, but at least Zar could
determine his state of mind. For all of them, the plane trip back was going to
seem interminably long.
we head for the airport, at least one of us might be able to get back early."
They were the first words Dusty had spoken. His eyes met Valterzar's.
"One" meant just that: no
entourage. There'd be some kind of fight at the airport if any of them left
gasped, unable to believe what he was
"We're scheduled for
the morning flight. If anyone gets on tonight, there'll be
Erik asked, a little
Dusty told him quietly. "The watchdogs." He sank down on the edge of the bed and
put his head in his hands.
"We're going back to the
Camp," Valterzar decided. "We still need to find out why Smythe lied, about the
malaria." At this point, he couldn't care less, but they needed something to do.
Otherwise, they'd be at each others' throats. "Ren thought it might have to do
with the DNA, but I'm not so
"What DNA?" Dusty
"Ren thinks we
have some foreign DNA in our systems - maybe even fungal. Unfortunately, she
admitted her suspicions to Smythe, before she could run any tests in her lab.
She was hoping to separate the proteins, maybe define some of the molecular
weights. Something that would help her figure it out. Garris' research would
have told her a lot more."
could charter a plane!" Erik said excitedly. "Big enough for 'everyone'. You
know Smythe's gonna be gunning for
Dusty looked at
Valterzar for enlightenment.
"Smythe's lost track of the
rest of the cluster. He probably suspects they're in touch with us, but he
doesn't know for sure."
if we start acting panicky, he'll probably take us into custody," Dusty
Zar nodded. "So he
doesn't 'lose' us, too. He may even figure holding us would bring the others
"So no flight, Erik,"
Dusty said. "I'm sorry - you don't know how sorry."
He leaned back on the
bed, his hands behind his head. "If it helps, Rik, Ren must know about the Camp,
if she was transmitting all that information to you. I have a feeling that no
matter what else has happened, she'll expect -" his lips quirked in a grim
smile, "- maybe even demand - that I see this through."***
things first," Josh said. "I don't care what James
"Shut up, Josh. This
isn't the time." They were in the car, but everyone wanted to head a different
direction. James asked Merrie, "Being dead doesn't make him 'omniscient', does
it? I mean, will he know about Ren's house? That it's burned
"No. Not unless he can
read Ren's mind."
there any rules regarding this shit?" Josh asked in frustration. "If he can read
Ren's mind, we're all in trouble, because she can read everyone else's. She'll
be able to sense us coming a mile off. How are we going to save her
"I don't know. We'll
have to do some research on possession," Merrie said.
"But not till after we have
those cuts looked at," Josh said firmly. "I don't know how much blood you lost
up there in the dark."
drop me at a cybercafe," James said. "You take the car. I'll do some research,
while you take Merrie into the ER. Make sure to use a fake
"Nothing like stating
the obvious," Josh said. "Speaking of which, why don't you just use Ren's
computer? We've got a pretty sweet deal going at Drewsome's house. Ren may even
convince the old goat to bring her back
"I want to make sure
the neighbours didn't hear anything first. Breaking glass and screams do tend to
suppose..." Josh said
"We already did some
research with Ren's computer and my cellphone, and I don't know whether it can
be traced. What if they somehow figure out where we were working from? Can they
do things like that?"
don't know," said Merrie, "but from what Ren told me about this 'agency', I
holding up, Mer?" Jamie asked. She was cradling her arm, which was wrapped with
Josh's hankie. It wasn't her only cut, but it was the
"Sore - and tired,"
she admitted with a
"Blood loss," Josh said
Josh," Jamie said again. "She doesn't need to hear that right
"I'm the one taking her
to the ER. I want her to know who's in
"Thank you, Josh,"
said Merrie, smiling sweetly, but pointedly, in his direction. "I was wondering
when you'd notice."
shook his head. "Makes me damn glad I chose the dinosaurs," he said.
It was an
altogether different matter going to Dachau at night. There'd been the security
people to deal with first, but that had been more a matter of doing exactly what
was expected (Valterzar and Erik to a hotel, Dusty spending a last night in the
hospital), then avoidance. No problem.
Two hours later, Zar and
Erik were back in the hospital parking lot. Neither of them was willing to meet
Dusty anywhere else. If he was going anywhere near Dachau, it was in company.
They took the train toward
Petershausen, and disembarked at Dachau station, twenty minutes later. There'd
been one bad time, aboard the train, when Dusty's breathing had become erratic
and his gestures panicked, but Valterzar had been watching him. He'd been quick
to grasp Dusty's shoulder, and a moment later Dusty, somewhat paler but
obviously alert, nodded to
He didn't know how
relieved Valterzar was that he could avert another incident. Erik knew, though.
His eyes met Zar's and he formed a silent
That instant on the
train had given Zar something to think about. He'd experienced a little of
Dusty's trauma while trying to combat it: been momentarily crammed in a mass of
hypoxic humanity, heard the moans of the dying, caught a scent of deteriorating
flesh. It had horrified him, and he hoped he could keep his distance, in order
to help Dusty maintain his.
And the flicker of doubt
nearly made Zar call a
But he couldn't. The
same flash of history that had scared him with its intensity, had given him a
better understanding for why Dusty felt he needed to do this. No one had a right
to make other human beings suffer like that. No
They took a bus along
the Sudetenland Strasse, disembarking several blocks from the Camp. It was so
different this time that Dusty had trouble taking it in. He didn't even know
whether this was the road he'd travelled, but he had no trouble identifying the
iron gate under the archway.
hell... "'Arbeit Macht
Free'," Erik translated. Zar looked at him in
All Dusty said was,
"Only if freedom means
The gate was locked,
but there were no guards with machine guns watching the walls now; no
electricity strong enough to kill flowing through the fences. Valterzar was
concerned at one point they may have tripped a security system, so he touched
one of the wires and willed it to "stop", just in
Amazing how easy it was
to use his "gift", he thought, now that he'd admitted he had
Dusty was in a daze.
Despite the contact with Valterzar, the impressions were too intense - and his
compulsion to save some of his fellow inmates too strong. "I'm losing him," Zar
whispered to Erik. "Stay close." He realised it was swiftly coming down to his
stopping power versus Dustin's willpower. Zar wasn't all that sure he could win
this one. We shouldn't
have come -
you find me?" Dusty was asking. He was staring at the building when it broke
through again - in the form of a scream. It was a man's cry of agony, a
high-pitched warble of pitched
"In there -" Erik
looked scared. Zar's words had done nothing to reassure him. If Dusty went down
on this he didn't know what they'd do. It wasn't like before, when they could
get an ambulance in. "Yes, we broke into your Memorial Site, to visit some of
the former inmates. Seems like we've had a bit of an accident..."
concerns Dusty and Zar had had about being locked up might well be verified
after this. "I don't think -" he
He never got the
chance to finish. Dusty couldn't take it any more. He broke from Valterzar's
grasp and out of the night
- into the harsh light of
eyes narrowed. He dove in through the doorway, and saw the room he'd been in
only moments before - no, the day before. The screams he'd heard? It was the
guard: the one whose toes were now a smattering of flesh and bone littering the
inside of his boot.
"doctor" heard his step, and twisted to look at him, the sneer still on his
face. In that moment, as they locked eyes, the man recognised him. His eyes
flicked to the floor, where Dusty should have been lying in a puddle of vomit
and blood. The blond bastard with the chilling eyes raised his gun, and Dusty
glimpsed reddish glints along the muzzle.
A sharp pain
gouged through his head and he gasped,
Zar was, he couldn't help him. Dusty looked up at the doctor through squinted
eyes, and in that moment, the shock nearly killed him. The wavery man in his
eyesight wasn't Erik - not Erik at all
But, nevertheless, Dusty
knew him. "Goeritz!"
came sharply from the next room. Goeritz' eyes flicked impatiently, then he
smiled. It fuelled Dusty's temper, and he remembered why he'd come. When Dusty
took a determined step in his direction, the man didn't hesitate - he levelled
the gun, and shot Dusty right in the
whispered, and he knew Zar and Erik were there, but he couldn't see him. His
eyes were still focussed on Goeritz, who was swiftly taking samples of his
blood. Before the pump
thing Dusty remembered was a scalpel, slicing into his arm.
we doing this?" Erik was saying, in high-pitched complaint. The note of
near-hysteria was back in his voice. "Sado-masochism? Is this some test, to see
whether I pass?" He interrupted himself to ask, "Did you get the
"Here it is. A rifle
"Machine gun," Dusty
whispered. "Goeritz -" he started to say, but his throat was so dry. "A drink,"
"Blood loss. I
swear to God this is the last time I'm going to do this!" Erik said angrily. He
was really upset. "What the hell does Garris have to do with this, anyway? He's
back where he shouldn't be, running around in Ren's body, while we're here
Valterzar asked Dusty. "That's his name?" He frowned. "And he looked like
"At first. And
then..." His voice tapered off as his eyes flicked from Valterzar to Erik, and
settled there. Gooseflesh danced across his skin. "I know why Smythe lied." He
swallowed hard, his eyes worried as he stared at
something, stopped complaining and asked, "What's
up?" No comparison. The
eyes are so different.
Dusty knew what he was about say would crush Erik.
I should have talked to Valterzar alone
Erik said incredulously. "Are you
"Yes," Dusty admitted.
His mouth opened, but he couldn't say any more. No matter what it cost, he
couldn't do that to
Erik was thinking about
Ren, and the way Garris was tormenting her. "Then you were right," he admitted
seriously. "You've got to take the bastard
shook his head.
about Ren?" Erik said angrily. "Everyone wants to take down Symtech. Without
Garris, we wouldn't be in this
"We might not even be
alive," Zar reminded him.
Dusty looked at him sharply.
Zar may have been referring to the "treatment" they'd each received, but he
wondered if Zar knew more about Erik's origins than he was
If Zar was covering,
so could he. "Here's the clincher," Dusty told them. "If I hadn't turned up like
this, then we wouldn't be in this mess,
Zar stared at him
"Call it a vicious
cycle, or a twist of fate, but the first thing Goeritz did after he shot me, was
to take some samples of my blood and
"In other words -"
Erik began, still looking slightly
"If Dusty hadn't
come here tonight," Zar told him, "Goeritz may never have experimented with
'gene therapy' at all."
silent as he and Zar helped Dusty to his feet. Then he told Dusty, "I still say
you should take the bastard out. The so-called treatment he gave us may not have
been necessary. We're better off taking our chances." His eyes met Dustin's. "I
mean, think about it. If he could shoot you like that, then he must have
tortured the inmates, too. What he did to us wrecked our families. If you
eliminate him, it might do some damage, but it could also put a lot of things
"If you wanted to put
things right for us," Dusty told him, "you could always shove me back on the
train and shoot me. No contact with Goeritz, no
"Wouldn't think of it - but don't tempt me. This is one of those things that
must fit some kind of 'Eternal Plan', but actually comes across as an 'Infernal
"That's why I
wouldn't consider taking out Goeritz, either." Dusty looked at Valterzar, who
nodded. Erik had to know some time. "Because no matter what the risk is to the
rest of us, I know what it would do to a friend of
"No." Dusty sighed,
then gripped Erik's shoulder. "You." Dusty saw Erik blanche, and he had a
feeling he'd figured it out. He whispered, "Remember when I punched you in the
"How could I forget?"
Erik said, but it sounded
"It was because I
thought you were
whispered, his eyes dark with horror. "Son of Frankenstein." He turned away with
a hurried "Excuse me," and promptly lost his dinner all over the former
knows?" Erik asked, but he didn't give them a chance to answer. "I can't believe
my mother would sleep with a bastard like that! He must have been an old
bastard by that time,
"Had a face that would
give a roach nightmares, too," Dusty commented, with a twitch of his lips. "No
"Probably a handsome
devil in his time," Erik tried to play on it, but he was still too upset. "How
could she leave me with him, knowing what he'd done?" He knew he was a grown
man, and didn't need either parent, but it still made him feel like an orphan.
It was bad enough to have had his mom die at an early age, but to know that
she'd lied to him for years beforehand was almost more than he could take.
"Maybe she didn't know, any
more than the rest of
"She must have known
what he was into. His 'specialty'. Christ, do I feel useless." He looked first
at Dusty, and then at Zar. "Guilty by blood. As though I'm somehow responsible
Dusty put an arm
across his shoulders. "If anyone should feel guilty now, it's me." He looked
back at the Infirmary. "I'm still halfway thinking I should go back, to just
before he shot me. Maybe I can clear out, before he takes the
"You couldn't even
clear out after
you'd been shot," Zar said drily. "I only agreed to come
here because I thought I could control things. It's pretty obvious I blew my end
of it nearly as much as you blew yours. I think we've messed up enough this
trip, don't you?"
surprised them both by chuckling. "I can just see their faces as they try to
explain how things went wrong at their end
"Yeah," Dusty admitted
sheepishly. "They've got nothing on us."
holding the same piece of melted plastic pen he'd used to locate Ren the first
time. "Nothing," he admitted, worried. "I already tried that lipstick, too." He
looked at lavender-pink tones dubiously. "You sure she uses that?" he asked
Merrie. "I think I would've remembered." His tone suggested he would have
remembered anyone looking that
"It's part of her new
look, and she used it yesterday," Merrie told him impatiently. "Nice, fresh
clues even you should be able to follow," she added, annoyed by his expression.
"Stop reading my
mind," he grumbled. "That's Ren's job. I prefer to yell at
They were back at
Garris' house now, and Jamie plugged in a
"Don't you think that's
a bad idea?" Merrie
"Who's going to see
it? It was noise I was worried about. All the neighbours built post-Drewsome,
and they aimed their houses the other
"Who could blame 'em?"
Josh said sourly.
it can't be any worse than some of the other ideas we've come up with lately."
James lifted the lamp closer to Merrie and looked at the bandages on her arms.
Josh announced. "Spread around, though. I warned the guy to make them small and
delicate, 'cause I didn't want one of my girls looking
"You let him think you
were her pimp?" James thought it was
myself. It was that frothy pink underwear she was wearing
"Josh!" She sounded
know what you have on! I don't do that any more - or, if I do, I'm smart enough
not to tell you." He rolled the melted pen around in his fingers then said,
"Maybe I can't read it because Garris is
enthusiastic. "I think we're about to have a breakthrough. Try this, Josh -" The
key sailed across the room and landed in Josh's palm.
Josh concentrated for a
moment. "Almost." This time, he put the key and the lipstick
"Well?" James and
Merrie asked together.
smiled. "We have a match," he said.*
hours after the fact, she was caught by the odd disparity between the way she
usually looked out her eyes, and the sensation she was experiencing now, of
looking out from some point far behind. It narrowed her vision, and reminded her
who was in charge. For the moment at least, she knew it wasn't her.
At first, she'd been
terrified over what she'd done, until her practical side had reasserted itself.
You could only spend so many hours in angst without wearing yourself out. That
was one thing she couldn't afford. She needed her energy to maintain the
barriers. She and Drewsome might be sharing eyesight and hearing, but she'd be
damned before she'd share any of her thoughts. The rotten bastard had jumped at
the opportunity she'd offered, which should have warned her, but she'd failed to
think it through. At the time it had been all action and reaction, with her fear
for Merrie prevailing over her common sense. Gruesome Drewsome had been running
amok and things had been totally out of
Not much better now.
Drewsome was in control, but it was her body that was doing the
She wondered if
Drewsome would have the sense to stay away from Symtech. It would have been more
like him to force a confrontation, to see whether he could get some power back.
With this much proximity, it would have been easy to determine his intentions,
but Ren couldn't afford the risk. Reading him would give him the chance to read
She told herself when
the time was right she would let her guard down long enough to take control. It
sounded good, but she sure as heck wasn't going to try it until she had some
help close at hand. Someone who cared enough to stop her from doing herself
damage. If last night was any example, it was going to be a struggle.
For the moment, though, she
had no say in anything. He was taking her body for a walk and he hadn't even
brushed her hair or teeth. She was in the wrinkled clothing she'd slept in, and
scuzzy socks. She would have been willing to bet there was make-up under her
eyes from the way people were staring. It was the only thing that made her glad
she didn't have any peripheral
vision. Oh, God!
was taking her through a supermarket, and he'd just farted loudly. No shame. Ren
was mortified. No wonder people were
staring. I never could eat
The stupid man had stuffed himself-herself full of it last
night. At the time she'd almost felt a vague sense of pity. After all, you
couldn't get much of that kind of thing if you were dead.
Ren wished she
have accidentally let down some of the barriers then, because a voice echoed
inside her head, "It can be
meant to scare her, but Ren was too mad. "Shut up!"
she tossed back with
daggers of feeling. She sensed, rather than heard, his "ow!",
and it gave
her no end of pleasure.
Merrie had made a mistake. A
soul was a powerful but lightweight commodity, in physics terms. Merrie had
given old Drewsome a little more "weight" than was customary. He outweighed Ren
within her own body, damn him. It wasn't that he was any more powerful than she;
he was just a heavyweight. If she could maintain the barriers until Dusty, Zar,
and Erik got back, all seven of them could get together, to figure out how to
oust him. Merrie, Josh, and Jamie would be working on it already, and would no
doubt be taking action soon. Then, Drewsome would be back where he belonged.
It was just a matter of
been daylight for nearly two hours. They were trailing Ren at a distance, but it
was time for action.
what do we need to buy? In order to do this exorcism or whatever you call it?"
Josh asked. "Holy water, a Bible - what? I need a grocery
"That's a little
difficult," James stalled. He pulled over and
"You did the
research," Josh complained. "How long do you think I can hold onto this?" He was
still clinging to the lipstick and key, and was trying to keep track of Ren's
movements for them.
doesn't know what kind of ghost it was," Merrie explained. "I mean, we know
it was, but he isn't a
"The possession thing
happened - obviously,"
Merrie commented, "but it seems a little
'strange' to me, Mer - please.
It worries me," James said. He cleared his
throat. Five minutes on
the Internet and here comes the university lecture,
Josh thought. Almost
automatically, he glanced around for Ren. She would have caught that, then tried
to pretend she hadn't, but she would have been smiling, nevertheless. His
clairvoyance had always made him more susceptible to her telepathy, and he'd
learned to play upon it. He and Ren were always at each others' throats, in the
way of siblings. No blood tie, but some links that were in many ways closer.
Like the ability to catch a
joke that no one else would hear. Josh squeezed the tube of lipstick a little
harder. I miss
He tuned in to what
James was saying.
however, bring up some possibilities. If this were a simple case of demon versus
human, we'd perform a straightforward exorcism, using the -" he glanced down at
his printout, "- twenty-seven-part plan practised by the Roman Catholics, the
four-step plan of a 'classic' exorcism, or one of the Protestant or Shaman
rituals. There's also a group overseas that runs out on paranormal cases
"It's a wonder they
haven't run into us," Josh
"- and do exorcisms
with a combination of staunchness, some hypnosis or magic if needed, a little
bit of ritual, a lot of talking, and some joint telepathy to drive the bugger
out. The article made it sound as though joint telepathy was really the crux of
the thing. That might be our best approach, since Ren's telepathy is probably
what allowed him
"That might work -
all of us focussing on him. If not, Zar might know some hypnosis," Merrie
"I think you
should zero in on the 'lots of talking' bit. We know how you love to talk," Josh
"If we leave Drewsome
alone with Merrie long enough," James agreed, "he'll willingly revisit his
grave." He flashed her a smile. "Seriously, if we're doing staunch, it's gotta
be Zar - or Dusty. Dusty's been so staunch lately he's lucky he's alive. If
Ren's in trouble, just get out of his way. Can't stand between the Kitten and
disgusting, James," Merrie told
didn't mean it
that way. Shows where your
mind is." James grinned. He glanced at his
notes again. "Now, it could be Ren pulled a Shaman trick, and doesn't even know
"I don't think she was
playing any 'trick'," Merrie
"No," James said
impatiently. "It's more like leaving yourself open to have a spirit work through
you. Saints do that kind of thing all the
Josh scoffed, "We know
you're not speaking from
him. "The thing is, the time of exorcism is a really dangerous one for a medium.
That's you, Mer. You'd stand in real danger of
"- having Dr. Drewsome
jump you, and bounce your bones," Josh interrupted. "What?"
he said to
James, with mock innocence. "Just putting it in terms she can
"It means you
can't be there, Merrie. He might move into your
body instead." James
sighed. "Damned dead guy gets more action than I do."
been nearly fourteen hours, and Ren knew that if it kept up much longer, she'd
go out of her mind.
He'd be in it.
All of her
life she'd been stuck with other people's thoughts. They'd intruded on her own
so much that she'd always made blunders, either by excessive familiarity to
strangers she'd sensed she already knew, accidental blurting of words or
phrases, or anticipating what someone was going to say before they'd said it.
She remembered, as a kid, laughing at jokes before they were uttered. Not
exactly the thing to guarantee close
And then she'd
met her Dusty and the others, her closest friends, and it hadn't mattered any
more. They were every bit as strange as she was, and she'd sensed each of their
heartaches as soon as they'd met. She'd belonged.
Now, she didn't even feel as
though she belonged to her own
She was fighting to
keep the barriers up, so Garris couldn't intrude on her thoughts. The only thing
forcing Garris and her telepathy apart was her own willpower. But, willpower
alone had never done it for her. The only time she'd truly been able to block
anything could be counted on one finger: a couple of days ago, when she'd gotten
mad. Now, anger might help, but it was, at best, a temporary solution. And the
energy expenditure to block Garris was robbing her of any reserve, in order to
block out anyone else. Her brain was beginning to feel like a circuit board in
danger of being dangerously overloaded with current. If she burned out, Garris
would waltz right in.
only thing that gave her optimism was her recognition of Drewsome's uncertainty,
which meant he had some doubts about retaining control. He was rushing now, as
though he knew how much time he'd wasted in tasting, and smelling, and eating
again; as though he needed to act upon some plan before it was too
They were going
somewhere uptown, and she had no idea where. She questioned whether Garris knew
himself, or if he was merely on the run. If so, he was running into an area
filled with office buildings, small warehouses, and mini business complexes.
Stupid, really. So few people on foot. And no people at all dressed in
yesterday's clothes with unbrushed
She also wondered
whether he recognised as clearly from the physical cues (as she did from the
metaphysical ones), that he-she-they were being followed.
think Ren did a 'Shaman'-type trick, then we should use Shaman rites to undo
it," Josh stated.
Merrie said. "We'll need pork, or maybe an entire pig, and some wine and fruit.
Since I can't be there, I'll supply cymbal and drum music in the background, and
the two of you can chant and trance-dance. Shouldn't take more than a few
Josh stared at her.
He'd forgotten Merrie's degrees in philosophy and comparative religions.
"Sarcasm does not become you. However, I know where we can find a
"You'd better learn
to like Angel, Josh," Merrie warned. "She's Zar's." She grinned. "That makes her
my child by
"By gilt. Get
it?" Josh asked.
looked at him blankly.
gilt's a young virgin sow," he
"I don't even
wanta know how you know that, Josh. Obviously, you're more fond of pigs than any
of us thought," James said. "If you're so smart, Mer, why'd you let me waffle on
like that? And why didn't you
do the research?"
"I was too busy bleeding for
the latter," Merrie reminded him. "My theses dealt more with protection and
prevention, Jamie. Exorcism's not one of the 'safe' topics." She shook her head.
"I can't go there."
you'd have to learn both sides - the 'ins' and the
She nodded, and gave
a small shiver. "The 'ins' I know far too much about
Josh was frowning.
"But what do you do with all the dead guys you bring in? Can't we just handle
this the same way, only
"I don't do it on
purpose, Josh," she said, almost defensively. "It happens, and sometimes even
have trouble telling the
difference." She's doing
"Difference between what?" James asked,
"Between the living
and the dead," she said, in a tone that suggested it should have been obvious.
"Most of the time they fade out eventually, or wander away, and it may not even
be my fault they're there, if you know what I
James wasn't sure he
did, but he nodded.
continued. "They may just be stopping by for a visit. I don't get to be
selective, either. It's not like I get to pick and choose who
Josh shuddered, but
didn't say anything.
there are the times when I give them more 'substance', like this one." She
sighed. "Probably because I did
pick him, I may have overdone
"Ya think?" James
muttered. He caught Josh's
"Last time I had a
problem, Zar helped. I wish he were here." Her eyes were
troubled. She's really
afraid we can't handle this,
James realised. The thought frightened him - a
But, Josh was watching
her face. "What'd you do before Zar, Mer?" He remembered times, years before,
when she'd be crying, for no apparent reason. It didn't go with her ebullient
personality, but he'd put it down to moods. Now, he
"Lived with it,"
she admitted. Her eyes were haunted, and there was no trace of the effervescent
scatterbrain in them now. "It's not that bad or that different from the others -
except when they're sadists. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, my other 'visitors' will
help chase them away. But when they can't..." She shrugged, swallowed hard, then
whispered, "The last one, that Zar vanquished?" There was a catch in her voice,
and she wiped her eyes. "H-He was a rapist."***
walked up a driveway, and halted before a big, chain-link gate. The gate, like
the rest of the fenced area, was covered with whiteclad galvanised sheets, and
topped with barbed wire. There were piles of old leaves, papers, plastic bags,
and dirt caught under the edge of the gate, and built up against the wheels.
It hasn't been opened for
a while, Ren realised. Maybe a
Whatever this place
was, it certainly gave Dr. Drewsome a thrill. She could hear him panting
slightly, and the fingers that punched the keypad lock were shaking.
5631. Ren memorised
screeched, and Garris had to struggle to roll it back past the dirt and the
trash. He forced it back only enough to slip through; tugging it closed behind
him. Then he turned, and moved decisively toward the guard shack. Ren's eyes
followed Garris' movement of her fingers along the wooden frame, just over the
guard shack door.
Searching for a
Inside the guard's
room, Garris wiped dust distastefully off the keyboard and monitor, then
proceeded to boot up the machine.
Imagine, a man who farts
in public, Ren thought in disgust, yet is fastidious about dust and
her a little that the power was still on. His familiarity with the place
suggested a long association with the contents, but it was also obvious the gate
had been locked nearly as long as Garris had been dead.
Garris was pulling up some
kind of access code now. Ren suddenly realised it was a "key" of another kind -
like someone beeping his car's security system. Garris had just unlocked the
security grid in one of the buildings.
Ren saw her lips smiling in
the reflection from the monitor. Garris appeared so pleased at the way things
were going, that it gave her a terrible feeling of disquiet. It didn't get any
better when he walked across the concrete to a door leading into a big,
two-storey building. Here, he pulled a door key out from behind a drain pipe and
fitted it into the lock.
had a sudden urge to stop him. For all her previous interest in his research,
there was something here that terrified
I don't want to
It must have
transmitted itself through Garris' defences, because the hand with the key
suddenly jerked and dodged the keyhole. Garris narrowed his eyes in anger, then
used his other hand to force the key into place.
The door opened with a
groan, and an efflux of musty air.
kill the guy who did that to her," Josh whispered to James later. His face was
set and angry.
The car was
getting hot, and it was a long time since breakfast. Hell,
glancing at his watch, it was even a long time since
James nodded. "If
he wasn't already dead. Same here. He would have been in ectoplasmic pieces if
I'd been there."
over the seat at Merrie, to make sure she was still asleep. The painkillers had
kicked in with a vengeance, for which James was glad. He had a feeling Merrie
would have a hard time staying out of the action when it
"Are we still close?"
he asked Josh. It had been stop-start, stop-start for hours. They didn't want to
overrun their quarry, nor did they want Garris to suspect how close they were.
Of course, if he's using
Ren's telepathy, he'll know anyway.
for hours, James," Josh said grumpily. "I'll probably have permanent key dents
on my palm."
"To make a
lavender-rose tattoo. Yeah, yeah, yeah."
Josh had wanted to pick up
Ren this morning, but James had vetoed the idea. As tempting as it was to tear
in there like a hit squad, bag Ren-Drewsome up and haul them away, it wouldn't
have been very discreet. And after their discussion with Merrie, James
wanted to wait for Valterzar. If their exorcism got out of hand,
Zar might be able to stop it before anybody got
What bothered James
most was Drewsome's apparent lack of concern. If anyone knew their capabilities
- and flaws - it was Drew Garris. Oh, he'd picked up speed, all right, but he
wasn't trying to hide. That meant he didn't think he needed too. Cocky
thinking along those same lines. "I wonder where he's going," he mused. "He's
not exactly being evasive, is he?" He considered it for a moment. "It must mean
Ren's been able to block him, like we thought. Ol' Drewsome doesn't even know
we're here," he said confidently. "When do yo-" He stopped
Jamie glanced at
him. "Do I sense an 'uh-oh' coming
James didn't question it. He
pulled over and parked.
"That car," Josh hissed,
"and that one." One was a dark blue sedan, and the other an ugly green station
"Very attractive, I'm
sure. Is there a point to
"They have guns - two
types. I think one's a dart
James was frowning.
"Thieves? A gang?"
had his eyes closed. When they popped open again, he looked slightly shocked.
"Two people in the blue car have Symtech business cards. The other one belongs
to Investigative Security and Operations - the ISO. Then there's a guy with
James had whitened.
"The Anomalous Cognition
"Yeah. Same with the
green car. Different ratio, same type of ID." His eyes were frightened. "Ren's
"Or we have."
James checked the rearview mirror.
"If we haven't, it's only a
matter of time. I think one of the ACS guys may be a
James didn't ask
him how he knew. He just nodded. "We need more
Josh looked at him,
then slowly smiled. "They're about to have engine
"Oh, yeah," James
said. "Maybe even an engine fire, if I can swing it." He was getting
enthusiastic. "A couple of engine
"Damned if you're not
dangerous when we let you out of your box," Josh remarked. "Jimmy Boy," he added
thoughtfully, "do you think, in all the confusion, a couple of 'em could
accidentally lose their
James' eyes glinted.
"Stranger things have happened," he said.
flicked the light switches with a practised hand - even though it wasn't his
own. The first impression Ren had was of glare - the bright reflection off glass
and metal. The entry was delineated from the other rooms by a wall of glass
block. They passed through a decorative door, then a heavy fire door, and
finally into the rooms beyond.
More lights. More glass and
metal. And the kind of lab that she could only dream of
When Ren had talked
"backup research" she'd been thinking a few hard copies, slotted into someone's
file cabinet; maybe the odd CD or ten. Nothing like this. Garris had been
running backup research all right, but it was on a scale Ren had never
suspected. She doubted whether Symtech had, either.
Everything was still on, and
humming - from refrigerators to ultra high-speed refrigerated centrifuges. From
what Ren could glimpse, his lab had everything: RAPD, chromatography, confocal
microscope, ELISA...everything. Most scientists didn't have their own scanning
He was passing the
incubators and refrigerators now - about to check his collection. She heard
herself sigh as he glanced at the incubators. Whatever had been growing in there
was long gone. She could see the tension in her own hands as he pulled open the
fridges. She tried to catch the names on Petri dishes, slants, and stoppered
test tubes, on trays of Eppendorf tubes and jars.
Dictydium cancellatum, Physarum polycephalum, Diachea leucopodia.
only been a bit of lateral thinking. Some similarity based on what? Some thought
patterns, that she wasn't supposed to understand? Something she was expected to
discount, deny or ignore?
brain was still tallying the other names: Escherichia coli,
bacteria found in human digestive systems, but which could sometimes cause
illness and death; Brucella
sp., the infective agent for Brucellosis;
the fungal cause of Chytridiomycos - a
skin disease that was killing amphibians around the world; Pleospora
a biowarfare answer to opium addiction; Fusarium
the fungus being used to take out coca and cannabis crops - and
some South Americans with it; and Crinipellis perniciosa
, a blight
destroying the world's cacao plants. There was also a liquid nitrogen cold
storage area, with a tidy list of labels: variants of Plasmodium vivax
. Malaria. It was like visiting a mixed-up communicable
disease lab, except you couldn't figure out who, or what, the victim was
supposed to be.
the lab been dismantled, the cultures disposed of, the place sold? They'd
attempted to sell his house - why not this lab? The refrigeration costs alone
would have amounted to a tidy sum, over the last year. Ren knew how substandard
her lab looked compared to this one; how equipment-poor. It was criminal to have
all this stuff sitting around unused. What had been state-of-the-art could
rapidly become passe.
had Garris known it would all still be here, waiting for
Maybe he'd set up a
trust, or some kind of business, to maintain it. It looked as though a lot of
his contracts must have been government research, which should have dealt with
this stuff immediately after Garris' death. Leaving these kinds of cultures, and
whatever documentation there was to back up his research, was both incriminating
and stupid. Did Dr. Drewsome think he was above recrimination?
Maybe. Death put you out
of the reach of most inquiries. Unless you had friends like
It was that
last thought which frightened Ren the most - more than the cultures sitting
within their refrigerated test tubes, more than the fact that her body was still
acting independent of her mind. It was the horrible suspicion that this was all
planned somehow. That Drew Garris, who had tested the limits of the "Cluster's"
abilities many times in his Symtech lab, had other plans for those abilities in
finished with his tour - yet. They went into another room, where Ren's eyes did
a hasty search for labels on a shocking array of refrigerators and cryogenic
containers. There was a reminder next to the thermostat: "Maintain tissues at
-4 C". Plant tissue?
question was answered in the next moment, as Garris opened up the largest
freezer. A billowing of frosty air swirled into the room as Ren peered down at
the bagged specimens. She read the label in disbelief: "Ovaries - S.
Ren panicked. She didn't want to look, but she didn't have a choice.
Her vision, like everything else, it seemed, was still under his control. She
was forced to watch, as he went from freezers to liquid nitrogen tanks.
There were ovaries, from
each of their mothers. Women who, at one time or another, had been convinced
they needed an ovariectomy. Not only ovaries - eggs, and samples of sperm in
that wasn't all. There were fertilised eggs, too - embryos. Ren remembered
reading that even though human egg suspension was relatively recent (the last
quarter century or so), livestock egg and embryo preservation had been going on
for years beforehand.
were going toward the last of the containment vessels now, and these were much
larger. Of a frightening size - almost like coffins.
Garris was nervous again.
The fingers fumbled at the heavy latches; the digits that wiped the cloud from
the gauge were fumbling, uncertain.
If the small vessels had
spun vapour into the air, it was as nothing compared to this. A swirl of fog,
like bellowed smoke belched forth, into the room's recycled
It was a moment before
Ren's vision cleared, and she could see what lay there. Now, in sudden clarity,
some vibes she'd picked up, about Drew Garris' death, came back to haunt her.
The unspoken version had said he'd committed suicide, but that didn't seem
likely now. Not likely at
Most suicides had a hard
time stabbing themselves multiple times in the back, then flopping sideways,
still bleeding, into a cryogenic coffin. Ren's brain felt nearly as frozen as
Drew Garris' corpse.
lifted to the other "coffins" - the eight coffin-sized cryogenic storage units.
Systematically, Garris checked every one.
Who were they for? Ren
was suddenly terrified, and she wondered whether she'd let down the barriers
enough to read Drewsome's mind.
He was supposed to come to
his freezing intact - to be resurrected in a time when age didn't matter. When
his mind or his essence could be given some kind of renewal.
But he'd planned on being
"buried" with his creations: his children by contrivance, if not by blood. Only
one of them was truly able to lay claim to kinship - poor Erik, who would rather
have been anything but.
Garris had had his way, none of them would have survived this long. They would
have disappeared when he had - only someone had disappeared Drewsome
terrified. This operation was being maintained by someone, and the "coffins"
were still waiting.
the corpse of Drew Garris. Waiting - for company.
Ren didn't know what
bothered her the most: the man's violent death, the fact that her coffin stood
there in frozen glory, or the fact that there were
There were seven of
them in the Cluster: retrocognition, PK, bio-PK, clairvoyance, mediumship,
telepathy, and Valterzar, the "control".
The only thing lacking was
precognition. They'd joked about it sometimes: "if I'd known that was gonna
happen, I wouldn't have opened my
have put an end to a lot of experimentation. Would have ended some of their more
hazardous escapades before they'd ever begun. Because if there was one thing
they'd always done, it was stick up for each other. So, someone had kept
Precognition, much as they had the Control, away from the Cluster.
time I saw you this excited was when you painted Derovan's car." Derovan had
been Smythe's predecessor.
James looked at Josh and
grinned. "I don't know what you're talking about. That car was outside the
agreed. "Must have been some rotten
asked. He didn't get opportunities like this very often. He was always watching
himself, holding "It" in check. The problem was, his psychokinesis was as much a
part of his emotional responses as laughter or tears. He'd never told any of
them, but sometimes, when the frustration would build to the point where he
needed release, he'd go out to the desert and toss rocks. He'd fling 'em as far
as he could - often two or three at a time. He wondered if that was why his
out-of-control episodes tended to take the form of rockfalls. Pent-up
He shot it like one
of those rocks now. He was a little shocked himself when the engine on the dark
blue sedan exploded in a blast of flame. The people in the car bailed out, and
Jamie squinted, then held up a hand. In a moment, keys, business cards,
identification, handkerchiefs, and money were sailing through the
Only, things didn't stop
there. James, himself, was aghast when the ACS man's jacket was ripped off his
back. His pants went next, but they caught, snagged inside-out on his shoes. It
didn't stop the pants from travelling, though. In horror, James watched the ACS
man get dragged across the street - his bare rear end bumping and scraping on
At the same time,
Jamie's own vehicle had become an object magnet. It was being pelted by all the
purloined pocketry, socks, shoes, ties, combs, and any other rubbish that
happened to be lying around on the road.
"The station wagon!"
Josh yelled, trying to divert James' attention. It seemed the more the
bare-butted man howled, the more attention Jamie sent that way.
We're in the shit
awoke in the middle of it all, when Josh's yell broke in on her sleep. She
thought at first it was a nightmare, and it took her a moment to realise it was
James, for his
part, didn't know what to do. The more tense he became, the worse things got. He
tried to focus on the other car - the hood sprung itself, then so did the doors.
But before he could stop it, the scene was turning into Mexico all over again.
The station wagon was dismantling itself before his eyes: paint peeling, seats
popping out and tumbling onto the ground, the glass exploding window by
Merrie was yelping
now and ducking as the disassembled parts joined all the other bits that were
being flung their way. Both cars' occupants were almost totally nude now - as
stripped as the cars they'd
In the midst of it all,
the phone rang in the front seat. Josh grabbed it.
"We've got exploding cars and naked people!"
The three of them ducked as
a driveline shot through the front window.
"And broken glass!"
In response to Zar's
question, Josh shot up his head and sought an address. "22 Monk Street!"
He dove onto the floor, and told Jamie, "Zar says to pop some of Merrie's
it, and shook out three. As Josh ducked a low-flying hubcap that came through
the broken windscreen, she shoved the pills into James'
James, for his part,
was so desperate he didn't ask questions. He chewed like a madman while Merrie
shouted encouraging words to him, rather like a mixed-up cheerleader. Josh,
meanwhile, reached between the seats, and grabbed the pill bottle Merrie had
dropped. Hands shaking, he shook out two, then, on second thought, when a
particularly loud bucket seat hit the top, one more. Jamie tried to argue when
Josh stuffed them in his mouth with an ordered "Open up!"
, but just then,
a car door slammed the side of their car, and James gulped the bitter stuff
It was a full seven
minutes before the deluge slowed, and another three before it stopped
altogether. By this time, James was laughing every time something else panged
against the metal. "'s great!" he said happily.
"Doesn't take much to get
him 'happy', does it?" Josh remarked. "James, don't do
Jamie was starting up
the car - revving the engine with giddy enthusiasm.
Josh and Merrie
said "Go!" it couldn't have been more effective. James jammed on the
accelerator, as the wheels spun with a squealing of rubber. He wove back and
forth, up and down off the curb, for nearly two blocks, before driving directly
into a wall.
"Is this it?" he
asked Josh giddily. Then, still smiling foolishly, he flopped facedown onto the
all going according to
clicked into place. She'd already guessed that this glass and metal enclosure,
in its cold concrete edifice, was their mausoleum. Now, she'd figured out the
rest of it: this was a trap, and Garris had lured them in, by using her as bait.
He'd been buried here, but
he was taking no chances. They'd drawn him away from whatever hell had housed
his spirit in the afterlife; recycled his existence into a duality that would
once again deposit him close to his own mangled corpse. Did he really believe
this "second chance" would save him? That a momentary respite would save him
from his fitting end? From
The answer came to
Ren in a chill that made her feel as though her thoughts were already
Not a mausoleum. A cave,
Death wouldn't suit Garris at all. He wanted to remain
encased in her body, until his own could be resurrected. So he could find his
original plan - whether to hold them hostage, subject to his own reanimation, or
maintain their corpses in cryogenic bondage - it had been altered by his own
unexpected demise. So he'd found a way to beat even that. After his brief
sojourn in the afterlife, he was probably quite desperate to beat
But he must have made his
decision about this storage facility years before. Perhaps, when he'd discovered
how overblown their reactions were, and how Symtech regarded their care as an
obligatory duty for a failed experiment. Garris had never been able to accept
failure, and would have seen it as Symtech's blindness, rather than his own. He
would have wanted to preserve his experiment, until a time when it could be
appreciated - or improved upon. Hence, the eggs and sperm, the embryos and
ovaries. At the current rate of technological advancement, and the
characterisation of the human genome, it wouldn't have been long. Garris would
have been able to select those traits he considered most successful in his
originals, and moved on to greater things.
And, with the way he'd
already manipulated their gene pools, he would have considered his own demise
the greatest failure of all. So he was using his ace in the death game - Merrie
- to overcome this final failure.
Once, he may have planned to
bring them here, to place them in stasis, but someone had interfered, and killed
him first. Who?
it matter? Dusty had killed someone, in order to save them. She was able to
accept that. Why was this any
different? Because Dusty
admitted it. Felt remorse about it.
Whoever had killed
Garris had hacked and slashed at him. Repeatedly. Jabbed and gashed and stabbed
him in the back. Then tossed him into a coffin, and let him leak the remainder
of his life away. A
break-in? Someone wanting to steal his equipment, or his
They would have
stabbed him once, or twice. Not over and over
Was it one of the
Cluster? Could one of them do such a thing, and then go on as normal? She
supposed Zar could tell her about conditions like that, where multiple
personalities took over. At one time she may have scoffed, but given her present
circumstances, multiple personalities seemed a whole lot more rational than they
It hurt too much
to think it could be one of them. She loved them - they were
Could it be one of
their family members? Someone who'd discovered how she'd been betrayed by
Symtech? By dear Dr.
The one she kept
avoiding, but that bothered her the most, was Coffin Number Eight. The one she
was assuming was an eighth member of the Cluster. The one who'd remained
unidentified all these years.
Someone who might recognise
Drew Garris' plans better than most, and strive to put a stop to them. After
all, Dusty had interfered with a past event - why wouldn't Precognition be able
to alter a future
Precognition might have
as much, or more, reason to hate Drew Garris. To hate him for the past, the
present - and the future.
shivered, and her body gave a reluctant twitch. She wished she could control her
She was feeling an
almost desperate urge right now to watch her back.
Jekkes was frowning as he entered Smythe's office. "Wingot, Wickham, and
Feiderman have been located. Magnus is still
"So they're nearly
all accounted for." Smythe sounded relieved. There was more at stake here than
Jekkes knew. The "agency" Symbio - and by extension, Symtech - had formed an
alliance with was the ISO - Investigative Security and Operations. They, in
turn, were now roughly affiliated with the Anomalous Cognition Sector (ACS).
ACS was another government
agency, that had been exploring psi theory and the use of psychic phenomena in
intelligence work for nearly twenty years. Some of their research was a matter
of public record, and deliberately dull reading. They'd had some small successes
in clairvoyant and telepathic surveillance techniques, and formed some
interesting mathematical proofs of psi-machine interactions, but nothing
remotely like the display Symtech's proteges had put on in the desert. ACS was
now pressuring the ISO to assume "guardianship" of the Cluster Project. Smythe
hadn't told Jekkes yet, but as a sign of good faith, and without the blessing of
the Board, he'd given the ISO the names and addresses of two other Clusters.
Neither showed much promise, but then, none of the other Clusters had the
"talent" exhibited by Valterzar's
Smythe considered his
action good business. The only way he'd retain any kind of control, and his
department retain adequate funding, was if the Project remained on Symtech's
books. By sharing information, he'd managed to forge a tighter alliance with the
ISO and, by extension, the ACS.
Coercion would have only
gone so far, before Valterzar and his people revolted. Part of the problem lay
in their naivete regarding their arrangement with Symtech. All but Valterzar had
been "nurtured" by Symtech, both at school, and later, with protection, from a
young age. They had seen Symtech in the role of avuncular guardian until
recently. It was part of their lives; had always been part of their lives. Only
in the last few months had any doubts arisen about the legitimacy of Symtech's
claim on their time, on their movements. Because now, suddenly, Symtech was
beginning to demand some favours
The Cluster would have
had to perform like a bunch of trained seals in order to prove their value to
the Board, and this would have posed some unacceptable risks. Not only was there
a degree of hazard in linking Symtech into activity of questionable legality,
but Smythe was finally beginning to see what all the other Board members save
for Hanover were pointing out: the lack of control, the overblown reactions, the
extent of psychic activity could easily overwhelm any safeguards. Public
reaction would not be positive. There was too much impropriety in reading
someone's thoughts, or viewing someone's possessions through locked doors. Too
much fear in raising people from the dead or raining rocks down on their heads.
Too much guilt in having someone see your past, or possess insight into, and
control over, the activities of the others. Only Erik possessed an "acceptable"
talent, and even that had its down side. A healer who could "unheal" or magnify
an injury was questionable material to rely on. One error brought to the public
eye and the prima donna
would be in as bad a fix as any of the
It was actually Ren
who had made him realise the inevitability of relinquishing at least partial
control. When she'd confronted him in his office, and picked his password out of
the air, he'd felt threatened. She hadn't intended it that way, and in the end,
he'd been the one who had frightened her into hiding, but he'd finally seen past
his long familiarity with the Cluster into viewing them as others might.
But he still wasn't willing
to relinquish total control. There would have to be a certain give-and-take of
information, and he'd known at once that Ren Magnus would be a perfect tool for
the ISO in terms of information-gathering. Her quick perception and subsequent
confusion had shown how vulnerable she remained, despite her scientific training
and logical mind. Smythe knew he was just fortunate that the ISO had come into
the foreground by the time Ren had disappeared completely from sight. They'd
been part of the surveillance teams when the other three - Josh, James, and
Meredith - had vanished, too. It suddenly made Charles Smythe more valuable.
After all, he'd been in charge of these people for ten years, and the only time
they'd dropped out of sight before had been for a brief time in Mexico, when
they were right under the noses of the ISO.
Never on their home
Drew Garris had
monitored the development of this Cluster personally. The psi activity was so
superior to any of the other Clusters, that Smythe had often wondered if there
wasn't something more to this "experimental model" than Garris had let on.
Something in the genetic mix, perhaps, that extended this group far beyond what
had become a Cluster "norm". The norm for the other groups was such that Smythe
felt no qualms about sharing information. If anything, the psychics in the other
group would probably be glad to have some validation. Their "gifts" were
inadequate enough to require
Valterzar's group, on the
other hand, sometimes needed validation that they were still human.***
seemed to take forever for Zar, Dusty, and Erik to get
Josh hadn't said
anything to Merrie, but he was getting a little worried about James. Hell, he
wasn't even doing any of that annoying dreaming. Josh began to wonder whether
he'd clunked himself a shade too hard on the steering wheel when they'd
clobbered the wall.
found us!" Merrie said enthusiastically, a few minutes later.
Josh gave a big "Whew!" of
relief, then shimmied out the passenger window.
Valterzar was gazing,
somewhat pointedly, at the trail of wreckage behind them on the street. "Let's
just say, it wasn't hard," he said drily. He gave Merrie a big smile, then
reached through the window and took James' pulse. It was really sluggish. "How
many did you give him?" he asked
"Three," both Josh
and Merrie replied.
looked at Merrie, his shock reflected in her eyes. "Caught up in the excitement
of the moment," he admitted, a little embarrassedly. "It looks like it was three
Erik snorted in
disbelief, and Dusty turned away to hide his
Zar shook his head,
but his eyes were amused. "I suggested a way to cure him - not kill him. Erik,
it's either you or a stomach
Erik nudged Josh
aside. "I'm everybody's tool," he sighed dramatically, but he was grinning.
"Nice to be classed with such an attractive piece of
"Next time, we'll
know better -" Josh
interrupted. "We'll wait until someone needs an enema."
Jekkes hadn't come into Charles Smythe's office to make his day. He'd come in to
explain that they'd traded missing persons: three for three. "Wingot, Wickham
and Feiderman may be accounted for, but now Valterzar, Mallory, and Dainler are
"We'll find them,"
Smythe said. He was feeling more confident now that the original lost trio had
been located. All of them
sighted except Ren Magnus. But, keep tabs on the Cluster and they'll locate her,
rang and Jekkes picked it up. "This is Jekkes." He listened for a moment, then
said, "I'll put him on." He pushed the Hold button, and told Smythe, "They've
lost them all. Wickham attacked their surveillance teams - stripped them." His
Smythe saw it.
"Cars and people.
Left them for -" Jekkes burst out
Smythe asked, appalled.
for nude. Dragged one of the ACS men butt first across the
"Oh, yeah. One of the
ISO people kept tabs on Wickham's group until James drove his car into a wall.
Then, figuring they were momentarily grounded, she took off, to 'better her
disguise'. During the time she was gone, they
thoughtful. "Valterzar's party had already
them up. His loyalty to them may be greater than to us right now, but he's still
not about to let them toss away everything on a whim. If they're out of sight,
it's because they want to track Ren Magnus undisturbed." His eyes met Jekkes'.
"Any ideas, Marc? On where Magnus may be
Marc shook his
head, his expression serious. "None. The ACS people were following her when
Wickham interfered. They actually had no idea Wickham or his group were
"So it wasn't
"It may have
been - from Wickham's perspective. He may have thought they were after
"Or Ren. They do tend
to protect their own."
we trust Valterzar to bring them in?" Jekkes
"Ren and Dustin may
insist on autonomy. It's what he's been bucking for. Now, he'll want it for her,
"Pretty soon they'll
all want it." Jekkes' voice was flat.
"That's the problem, isn't
"Yes." Jekkes stared out
the window, obviously lost in thought. "It looks like things are finally coming
to a head." He looked at Smythe. "What you tend to forget is that they're
people, Charles. Valterzar was right. They're entitled to certain personal
"Left to handle
their own messes?"
necessary. Might not be such mess if they helped each other. Look at
Smythe looked at him
strangely. "What about it? It was a screw-up by anyone's
Jekkes' eyes were amused. "I guess we all have different definitions of
success." His smile faded as he turned and left the room.
It was a
little crowded in the car, but nobody complained. Dusty was so tense he was
grinding his teeth; James was still yawning repeatedly, with little squeaks and
crackles that made Josh want to grind his teeth, too; Merrie was enjoying being
squished against Zar, who was whispering stuff to her that Erik, on the other
side of her, was trying to ignore. Erik, for his part, alternated between relief
that everyone seemed okay with his heritage, and concern that he wasn't picking
up the negative vibes from them because he wasn't sensitive
"Josh?" Zar asked
Josh was still
clinging to the lipstick-coated key. "She's inside now, so I'm just getting some
kind of cold room."
"Yeah. It has these
capsules or pods. I think they must be cryogenic
Mer. It's not funny." Josh went back to focussing on the room. "There're a bunch
of freezers, too. Ren looks really
"What's she doing?"
one of the capsule things. There's all this vapour swirling in the air."
"Any other people around?"
Zar asked him.
"Not that I
can see -" Josh froze, mouth
"What is it?!" Dusty
gripped his arm.
Even James was awake
now, and he found Josh's shocked silence irritating. "Other times you can't shut
up! What is it?"
f-frozen body. In the capsule. It-t's bloody, a-and dead." Josh sounded
"Just don't ask me
for help with that one," Erik muttered.
Zar's lips twitched. "Are we
close, Josh?" "There!"
Josh pointed, and Zar did a quick, squealing-tyred turn.
James flopped over onto
Josh's lap. "Sorry, Darling," he
Dusty was out of the
car first. He went to the lock, and closed his eyes. He tried to focus, to
visualise Ren punching in the numbers, but he was too panicked.
Then, James was at his side
- a little wobbly, but there. "I've got it, Dusty." He held up a hand to the
lock, and it clicked. "Had to force it a
"At least you didn't
make the gate go sailing off its hinges," Josh said. "Let's be thankful for
small favours." He pointed to the biggest building. "She's in
"If I were you,
Dusty, I'd hold off on the hello kiss with Dr. Drewsome," Josh said lightly, to
remind him what they were up against.
"Yeah," said James. "These
May-December relationships never really work out." He took the key out of his
pocket and handed it to Zar, who inserted it in the
"Ready?" Zar asked.
"Josh, if Merrie gets anywhere near that gate, I want you to physically restrain
her, if necessary."
sighed dramatically, but his lips quirked in a smile. "Restrain her first, if I
"Erik?" Erik was
looking pretty pasty, and Valterzar recalled it was his first encounter with
Garris since he'd discovered who he was. "You up for
"Have to be," Erik
James put a hand on
his shoulder. "At least your father was good-looking. Josh's looks a lot like
the dinosaurs he digs up, and Dusty's? Let's just say fungus is an improvement."
He whispered, "No matter what they say, all things are not
Erik flashed him a
humourless smile. "Let's hope so. I'd rather be related to fungus." He nodded to
Zar, then followed them slowly into the building.
coming, and Ren fought to control her panic. If Garris were to guess, from a
nervous twitch, or uncontrolled movements of feet that were itching to run, he
might take action.
Some type of chemical inducement? To rob them of willpower? Of the ability to
argue? So each of them would trot over blithely to a metal coffin and climb
Unlikely. They were
more than ordinarily astute, and even Garris, with his enormous ego, must
realise how little they actually trusted him. More than likely, when he'd first
planned this, it had been in the guise of something as routine as a medical
check, or the premise of running some other cognition tests. Unless he'd
personally planned on lugging limp bodies around the premises, he'd have some
means of threat or coercion at
Ren suddenly knew she was
right. It was what he'd arranged, nearly a year ago. Only his "help" had
foreseen the element of risk, and eliminated it.
Now, Garris must have
decided he could do it on his own, using her muscles. Because he intended to
carry out his plan. He went to a drawer and pulled out a gun, then made sure it
was loaded. No interference this time. Dr. Drewsome was not in a forgiving mood.
If "Help" showed his face this time, he'd get a bullet for his
But did Garris
really think he could coerce them with a gun? Josh would spot it from the next
room, and Jamie could banish it with a
It wasn't until
Garris entered a small storage closet that Ren realised the gun was mostly for
show. Her mistake had been in considering only the humane options: chemical
inducement, idle threats. Even the gun seemed more bluff than serious force.
It turned out Dr. Drewsome
had something entirely different in mind.
The storage closet contained
a canister, and he was checking the tubing now - making certain that during his
sojourn in his makeshift grave, no one had disturbed it. Ren strained her vision
to read the label: hydrogen
cyanide. Oh, my
The tubing vented
gas through a wall, into another room. Josh would never see it, and Jamie would
never be able to act on it quickly enough, to forestall the damage. Garris was
going to gas them, leaving them no choice: freeze or
The time for
passivity was over. She couldn't afford to wait for help, because it would never
come. It would die on the way to release
Ren began to fight his
control, no longer concerned whether she kept the barricades up. He had to know
she was going to stop him, any way she
He was forced to walk
in fidgety, jerking twitches and spasms, but he didn't let it deter him. His
awkward, jiggly gait took him into the next room, where he checked on the two
discreet vents that were set high in the wall.
There was a smaller room
attached to this one, which appeared to be an office. The glass partition was
part of the trap - the suggestion of peril, performed in full view, to draw in
the remainder of her Cluster. It was once he'd moved inside it that she realised
it had a dual purpose. After all, this was Drew Garris.
He wanted to
He had a gas mask
stored in the desk drawer, which he took out and tried on, just to be certain it
worked. The last test he did was to push a button, and stare as the metal door
to the exterior room slid closed in
making it a gas chamber. "At approximately one hundred eighty milligrams per
cubic metre," she heard her own voice intone, "there will be eighteen minutes
from exposure to death." Long enough to reach the cryogenic chambers before
losing consciousness. Because, without Erik, there wouldn't be any hope for a
Erik had never been
able to heal himself. And after exposure to the gas he'd be much too ill to heal
the last of the barriers, and let Drew Garris have it. He'd never had to endure
the almost intolerable sensory barrage of other people's thoughts - their
voices, penetrating his skull, interrupting his concentration - yelling,
screaming, laughing, crying. Babies' wails, that were almost impossible for the
human brain to tune out; the harsh bellows of complaint and swearing voices that
had sometimes made Ren jump, even in an empty
Garris may have thought
he was disciplined, but his self-control had nothing on hers - nor had his
endurance. He couldn't think, couldn't move. He'd never been assaulted like
this, and he didn't know how to block any of it
Ren, on the other hand,
was very much in control. Enough so that when she concentrated, her own eyes
narrowed with the effort. And the hand, that reached to support the drooping
gun, wavered only a little. There was another way to handle this - one which Dr.
Drewsome had never anticipated, but that would eliminate his influence once and
for all. Ren gripped the gun, and turned it toward herself.
Ren was in
trouble, and it was enough for him. He tore through the rooms in a desperate
search. We should have
left James with Merrie,
he thought. Josh could have shown us the way.
He didn't know whether Ren
would be sensitive enough at this point, with Garris in control, to know he was
close, but if she did, she might give it away. No good at subterfuge, was his
Kitten. It would be much better if they could take Garris by
impatiently at the sound of Josh's voice. "A gun!" Josh panted. "She's got a
gun!" Dusty didn't wait for any more.
"Glad he doesn't let a
little thing like that deter him," James grumbled, as he and Zar raced along in
back to Mer," Erik reminded Josh. He'd already started after Dusty and the
others when he heard Josh
Erik ran back.
He glanced around but couldn't see
Josh grimaced. "They've got her!
Probably used their damned
"Maybe she's safer
that way," Erik told him quickly. "We can get her back later -" It was Ren he
wanted to get to right
"Ren's only danger is to
herself!" Josh dismissed it. "These are those ACS people. If they get Mer inside
some place, we'll never get her
Erik wanted to argue,
but he knew Josh was right. He ran with Josh to the door and halted, just
inside. "Josh, what's the date?" His voice sounded oddly
"Who the hell
"We do." There was a
note beneath the light switch, with big bold letters and smudged fingerprints,
all in the same ink. "'Dear Erik,
If you and Josh are
reading this, then it is September the twenty-first, and it is very nearly too
late. This building will self-destruct in eighteen minutes. Retrieve Merrie from
the ACS, but leave the means up to her.
Then find the rest of the
Cluster and get them out, but leave the fallen behind. It is for the best.
Tell Ren the information she
needs is all here, in these files, and on the disks. I'm sorry I can't bequeath
her the lab, but I just can't take the chance that Symtech would claim it for
Thank you for
saving Dusty, and thank you all for Mexico. After that, I knew it could work,
and that I could finally have some
The letter on the top
of the folder is for Zar. He's had more experience with autonomy than any of you
- even you, Erik. Don't hesitate to go to him or one of the others for help. The
Cluster was designed to interact. Believe me when I say, being on the outside is
enough to drive a man
"Do you think it's
serious?" Josh asked, stunned. He looked at the stack of folders and CDs beneath
There was no
signature. Erik was staring now, at the ink. After the "mad", there was a
slightly bigger blotch, and the scattered fingerprints were a dead giveaway.
"Dead" being the operative
He recognised the
writing material, if not the writer. He'd healed too many people, and seen too
much of it. He had no doubt that Zar would have the same reaction.
"Oh, I'm inclined to take it
seriously, all right," Erik replied. "It's written in
"More than likely by
whoever put that body in the
Josh gulped, then
looked at his watch. "Then,
They pushed open
the door, and raced across the enclosure, towards the gate.
shot a glance at Dusty. If Ren had a gun, there was no hazard - but since it was
Garris who appeared to be in charge, of both Ren and the gun, there was a very
real hazard indeed. "Dusty -" he began.
It was too late. Dusty had
seen her, through a glass partition. He'd have her back - somehow. He'd force
Garris out - make Erik heal the bastard out - go back before it happened.
Whatever it takes.
She was in some struggle, to
wrest control from her inner demon. Dusty saw her turn the gun inward, toward
She glanced at him then, and
he saw the torment in her eyes.
her. This was no imposter staring back at him -
But as her eyes fixed on
him, in a kind of mute appeal, her left hand went walking across the desktop,
finding its way by feel. Ren wasn't sure what made her turn - maybe it was Zar's
and James' arrival in the gas chamber that broke through her focus. She twisted,
and slammed down the butt of the gun on her own hand, with a groan of agony.
He'd kill her now, if he
could. She was wrecking it
He screamed shrill
invective to the air that echoed through the room and reverberated in her head.
The crushed hand was
still fighting - moving to the
switch. No! You can't...
James was grasping for
the gun now. Ren could feel his invisible touch grappling with her right
hand. No - it's the other
Ren forced herself back, away from the switch - fighting with Jamie
for the gun, and with Garris for control.
Dusty wasn't willing to
wait. He charged, shoulder first, against the locked door. It was metal, though,
and wouldn't give. Zar was at his back, but his attention was distracted by the
look of this room. Metal walls. Sealed metal doors.
Isolation chamber, to trap
spotted the vents on the wall. Not isolation chamber.
A gas chamber.
didn't know how he'd made the connection, but this was Goeritz, who'd worked in
Dachau. At Dachau, they'd sent their victims out for disposal, rather like
another person might send his laundry. But the gas chambers had been built at
the camp; installed for future
use... Like here...like
Dusty's arm, and gave James a shove. "Get out!" The words were barely out before
the metal door slid into
The gun went off in
the other room. Ren clenched her side and sat back abruptly on the edge of the
desk. Blood was gushing from her, but it wasn't her eyes looking at Dusty now.
It was a look Dusty
remembered well. Hate, bitterness, loathing. Garris had hated him for what he
was, and then hated him because what he was would never be enough. Garris was a
man who'd liked control and order in his life. He'd detested the lack of control
in his creations.
that moment, he knew Garris recognised him. It was as though it wasn't until now
that he'd realised the source of his inspiration stood before him, in the flesh.
It was Dusty, looking as he did now, whom he'd stolen blood from so many years
before. "Arbeit Macht Frei,"
the lips quoted, but there was blood leaking
between them now. Garris nodded his head in mock salute, then pointed the gun at
Zar yanked him
it!" he said harshly, "Before Garris blows it
"We've got to get
Erik!" Dusty told him. "She's going to
Zar gripped his arm.
going to die! Get on the floor and cover your face!"
He was listening for a hiss
- some signal that deadly gas was issuing from the vents. The experiment was
over, and Garris was taking them with him. If he'd wanted to put them to sleep,
there were a lot of easier ways. "Break down the door, James!" Zar told him. "Or
jam those ven -"
He never got
to finish. He'd caught a glimpse of Garris' face, and it was suddenly Ren's once
more. She was looking in horror at the corner of her own tiny room, where a wisp
of vapour was spilling. As Zar watched, Ren splayed her bloody fingers on the
glass in panic. They could see her lips screaming at them to get her
out. Where's the gun?
Where did it go?
Zar thought. Her hands were empty.
It was too much for Dusty.
He slammed against the glass, again and again.
Zar thought, his eyes misting. But he also knew he would have done
the same if it had been Merrie.
At first James thought he'd
made a mistake. With Ren bleeding like that, and gas pouring into her room, it
was all he could do to concentrate. When the door hissed open at their backs,
while he was trying so hard to focus on the office door, he was sure it was just
one more overblown
Until the figure
came tearing in, through the gap. James jumped backwards, and ended up falling
over, onto his butt. Zar, taken by surprise, got a swift kick toward the wall.
It was Dusty, though, who got the greatest surprise of
He was looking through
the glass into Ren's eyes, when they suddenly changed. One hand whipped behind
her back and snatched the gun off the desk. Dusty had barely acknowledged the
change when he was ploughed into, and knocked to one side. The gun went off,
once, twice, three times - its resonance growing louder with each hole in the
The figure in front
was shaking, but still standing. And at the last shot, the man didn't hesitate.
He punched his fists through the bulletholes in the glass, and latched onto
Ren's shirt. Then, in one swift movement, he yanked her forwards, through the
moment, in a shattering of glass, he was flat on the floor, with Ren lying
splayed across him.*
Erik mouthed it.
his eyes, then pointed toward a section of fence. The damned ACS people had
pulled her back away from the gate. He whispered, "What do you think he meant,
'leave the means up to
"Probably wants her to use her little talent to scare the shit out of
"How do you propose we
give her the hint?" Josh asked, frustrated.
"Think. You visited a
graveyard with her. Any way to remind
said excitedly. His eyes lit up.
Erik looked at him
as though he was as mad as the letter writer.
"Yeah!" Josh gave a
loudly fake sneeze, that bought instant silence on the other side of the fence.
"Told you," he hissed. There was a rattle, as someone tried to scale the fence
from the other side. Josh took a step back, but began to sneeze more
Erik shook his
head, then joined in. He gave some loudly fake sneezes,
Merrie gave a squeal of
something that sounded almost like delight.
"Took her long enough,"
moment, the squeals were anything but delighted - and they weren't from Merrie.
All around there were shouts and shots, car door slamming and running feet.
Someone bellowed "Retreat!"
and several cars roared away with skidding
Josh and Erik looked
at each other, then sprinted for the gate. They opened it just widely enough for
Merrie to stroll in.
won't have gone far," Erik
"How come they didn't
take you with them?" Josh asked, wanting to know what she'd
"Don't sound so
disappointed!" Merrie retorted. She looked around impatiently. "Haven't you
dallying. Ten minutes, Josh." Erik put an arm around Merrie's shoulders and gave
her a quick squeeze. "They should have known better than to grapple with you."
Josh glanced at her
dubiously, then shook his head. "It's that innocent face. Gets 'em every time."
He sighed, then added incredulously, "Nearly made me trade in my
. Now, how 'mad' is that?" He grabbed Merrie's hand, and led
the way in through the door.
still pouring into the small office, and now, with the broken glass, into their
chamber as well. "Get
them out of here!"
Zar ordered. "The
Dusty started to
lift Ren out of the stranger's arms, when the man's eyes opened. He tightened
his grip. "Get Merrie!" he whispered. He coughed, and his face scrunched almost
convulsively. "Didn't think it'd hurt this
Dusty!" Zar said. "Let's do as he asks." He could see the anger and pain in
Dusty's eyes. "I know him," Zar said. And trust him - now.
Dusty knew he had no choice
but to trust him, too. But, dammit!
This was Ren's life. He nodded, and
got on one side while James got on the
"Try to stop the
bleeding, James." Zar took off, to find Merrie.
"Don't forget to find Erik,
while you're going," James yelled. He didn't like the way Ren or the other man
sooner hauled Ren and the man out into the hall, when running feet sounded in
bomb!" Josh's voice preceded them. "Eight
Ren's hand and gripped it, almost fiercely. Stay with me, Kitten.
you," he told the stranger. It came out more stiffly than he'd
"Who are you?"
James asked bluntly. "And why are you knocking me on my butt sometimes, and
saving it at others?" James closed his eyes again and concentrated on stopping
the blood from leaving their
"Marc Jekkes -" the
man whispered. He had bubbles of blood on his lips now.
James opened his eyes, saw
the bubbles, and concentrated
office?" Dusty asked warily. He'd spoken to him on the phone a few
"The same." Jekkes
gave a wisp of a smile. "Also known as 'number
Dusty returned his
look thoughtfully. Perhaps he was more perceptive, because he also had a talent
that tampered with time. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense to him that hadn't
before. "Of course. You're Precognition," he said.
on Zar's heels. "How's
Zar waved him past.
"See for yourself."
went on his knees next to Dusty. "Oh, shit," he said. He couldn't tell where one
person's blood left off, and the other's began. "What are you
here?" he asked Jekkes. He'd seen him frequently in Smythe's
"Always a pleasure,"
Jekkes said sarcastically, then coughed again and groaned in agony. "Y're
nothing like Garris."
froze. "What did you
"Y'r nothing like him.
He raised me." Jekkes rested a hand on Erik's arm, and looked at him intently.
"Y're better without."
did you -?" Erik looked at him through moist eyes. "Who
Jekkes grinned. It looked
ghastly, with the blood running in the junctions of teeth and gums, but Erik
didn't notice. "Precognition. Li'l
All this time he'd had a brother, and he hadn't even
realised. "No - don't!
Would have hated me. Better off. Hate me enough for us
Erik reached out a
hand, to touch Jekkes' chest.
Jekkes recoiled. "Y' can't.
Let me go,"
he said. He lifted his eyes to Zar. "Ren'll tell you," he
gasped. "I'm not
It killed Josh
to see how all this was affecting Erik. The poor guy was practically sobbing in
his soup. "None of us are
Marc didn't argue -
he just shook his head. "Get
Merrie's eyes were
dark with sympathy. She dropped on her knees beside him. "I'm so sorry," she
said, as tears ran out of her
He smiled. "I
knew...'bout this. Give him to
"Who?" Merrie looked
His smile widened,
as though he'd always known her. "Garris. Channel him - from Ren. Hold h'r
hand." He coughed, and nearly choked. "Hurry! Th'
Zar knew what
he was worried about. It was the same reason he'd insisted Merrie stay out of
reach. But if it happens,
we'll do for her what we were planning to do for Ren.
It wasn't terribly
reassuring. They hadn't been all that sure they could effect a cure. Zar had to
admit it: when it came to Merrie, he had far more concern for her safety than he
did for his own.
want to lose you," he whispered in her ear. But, at the same time, he could see
Dusty's expression. The man was halfway convinced he'd already lost Ren - if not
by death, then by Drew Garris' design.
Zar's eyes met Merrie's, and
she nodded. "I have to," she
She wanted to trust
Jekkes. Jekkes, who wasn't, by his own admission, "safe". Zar wondered whether
he was making a mistake. "Do it," he murmured.
"Four minutes," James said
Marc spoke to Erik.
"When Merrie -" He curled up against the pain, but when Erik reached for him
again, he shook his head. "Af-After she touches us, strength'n Ren - so she can
chase him." He flinched. He looked at Merrie and saw the doubt in her eyes. Once
again, he smiled. "You c'n do this, Merrie," he whispered. "I've seen
"Three minutes," James
"Marc -" Erik began,
in a last effort to convince him. "We could go now. All of us -" It came out
like a plea. "No."
was firm, and it came from Valterzar. He squatted down next to Marc. "Prophecy's
the preserve of saints," he said quietly. It was as close as he could get at
this point to a
Marc grinned again
- that gruesome, death's-head smile that held no real joy. "That's wrong," he
gasped, but there was understanding in his eyes. "Jus' gives the devils time to
Zar ordered. It was what Erik needed, and Zar knew it was his purpose in this -
to give Erik an opportunity to act, without having to live with the
"Le' me take the Dev'l
wi' me..." Marc chuckled, then his face contorted.
remained at Merrie's side, next to her and Ren. God,
he prayed, let
he wasn't the only one praying at the
Erik was weeping
silently as he laid his fingers against the hole in Ren's side. He closed his
eyes, and tried to tune it all out. In the end, though, there was just pain and
trying to end it - his own, Ren's, his
came alive. Refrigerators and freezers unclasped and slammed open, spilling
their contents out onto the floor. The cryogenic containers popped their lids,
exploding out their reproductive payload like the semen that was part of their
contents. A particularly nasty autoclave seemed to focus in on Josh, and he
ducked below the bench. "Do something,
James did, and
things got worse. Stools began to fly around the lab, breaking glass showered
down on them like rain. In the background, there was a creak and then a hiss,
and fog swirled in around
The stiff, frozen body
of Drew Goeritz drifted their way, his eyes white and fixed, and the blood still
flash-frozen to his form. Even Zar nearly lost it at that one, until a chuckle
from Jekkes told him their plan was working. In the next moment, the corpse
toppled over in a meat-brick type thunk against the ground. Zar couldn't imagine
the head surviving a fall like that with all the facial features intact.
Marc Jekkes began to curse
in furious gasps and moans that brought Merrie out of her absorption. As he
called her a cunt and a whore, Zar reached over and grasped his throat. Merrie
flung herself against him. "Don't
"But I could
him," Zar told her coldly. Garris had done it to them all. Again and
again and again. The anger inside Zar was coiling, almost as though Garris'
presence was a trigger. "I could stop his heart
- or stop his
..." His face was livid with
Dusty didn't hesitate.
He reached across Ren, and punched Zar in the nose. "Get some control!" he
Zar shook his head
like a dog coming out of water. He caught Dusty's eye, a trace of shame in his
own. "Thanks," he
When Erik opened
his eyes again, Ren was looking at him. "I'm so sorry, Erik," she whispered.
Erik took her in his arms,
burying his face in her hair. "So am I," he whispered.
"Time to go," James warned.
He looked at Zar who nodded, still with that trace of embarrassment in his
expression. "Don't sweat it, Zar," he said. "But try to have more control next
The rumble started
when they were barely outside the door, and spread with the speed of an express
Zar yelled. He gave Josh a shove forward, grabbed Merrie's
hand and took off, toward the
Dusty swung Ren over
his shoulder and booted Erik in the butt. "Get him moving, Jamie!"
Unwillingly, Erik began to do a kind of floaty-half-run, while Ren yelled at
Dusty to put her down.
the end, Dusty and Ren ended up being tossed over the gate, and Erik and James
were rammed right into it. The first thing Erik could hear, when his hearing
came back, was Jamie saying over and over, "Sorry, Erik. You
Valterzar limped over,
and checked Erik for broken bones. "You gonna live?" he asked, amused. "If
you're not, just tell me
"Yeah - Merrie's already
warmed up," Josh said.
it helps, Erik," James told him, "right now, you look more like Zar than you
ever did to the rest of your goddamn family." It took Erik only a moment of
focussing on Zar's swollen nose and darkening eyes to
Erik mumbled. "For a few minutes there, I thought maybe I'd lost it
Dusty told him
seriously, "Not a chance. I could still go back," he whispered, "and see what I
could do -"
Erik shook his
head, and told him, just as seriously, "Not this time, Dusty. Marc could have
played it other ways. This was the way he wanted it." Erik looked at the group
of them: Zar with his blackening eyes, Ren in ripped and bloody clothes, Merrie
rumpled and stitched, Josh with his hair singed and standing on end, and Jamie
still wearing the remnants of Garris' lab bench. "Besides," he admitted, and a
slow smile broke out across his face, "you guys are about all the 'family' I can
The sound of fire
engines wailed in the distance. Zar and James helped Erik to his feet, but it
was Dusty who insisted on hauling him out the gate. "I owe him one," he said
with a grin.
scoffed. "Try a dozen." He gave Erik an irreverent grin, then rolled his eyes as
Ren and Merrie each gave Erik a kiss on the
Erik sagged a little,
and Zar came up on his other side.
"You want I should help you
the way I did before?" James
"No, thanks," Erik
said quickly, with a trace of alarm. "Some other
The seven of them
limped back through the gate, and out to the waiting car.
Behind them, the fire
crackled and roared, interspersed with hissing, sizzling, thuds, booms,
spatters, and clangs. At one point, a sound like a firecracker's whine rose
shrilly, before being cut off abruptly, in another plastic-smoke-belching blast.
Not one of them looked
Smythe looked at the letter, then, pessimistically, switched on his computer. It
was dead. A blank screen. All the computers at Symtech had been similarly
affected. The official explanation was a surge had come through, but Smythe knew
better. The letter in his hand had been explicit
It was from Marc
Jekkes. It seemed he was Drew Garris' son. None of their background checks had
picked it up - probably because Garris had arranged it that way.
It made Smythe wonder what
else had been arranged by Garris. Jekkes, by his own admission, had been a
member of Valterzar's Cluster. Smythe wondered how many others had infiltrated
Symtech, with Garris' recommendation.
Gooseflesh danced across his
skin as Smythe considered Jekkes' power, and how likely it was that he and his
department had been manipulated. He held Jekkes' letter at a distance, as though
afraid to bring it too
Project is dead, and so am I. Symtech will be dead shortly, too. So, my Friend,
will you - unless you vacate these premises by 3:38 pm."
Smythe looked at his
watch, then packed his briefcase swiftly with essentials from his desk. On his
way down the hall, he pulled the fire alarm.
His car was nearly out of
the lot when he saw it in the rearview mirror. The building seemed to shiver,
then exploded in a mass of flame. Bits of metal, wood, and glass rained down on
his car. Once again, the gooseflesh travelled across his skin. There, but for
the grace of
No. God had
nothing to do with this.
He exited the lot,
without a backwards
Many thanks to Barbara Small, Mary E. Gray (a.k.a. Meg McKenna, author
of Seaswept, a WIP), Theresa King (Theresa's work has been published in
an anthology, Out of the Shadows, at www.shadowpoetry.com), and Jocelyn
Guerette (romance novelist) for their helpful feedback.
Other books by N. D.
Vision, Grave Images, Light Play and Static are SF/paranormal
suspense novels (series). They're available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble,
Books-a-Million, and Borders on-line, or by special order through your local
bookstore!The Grave Images Series
1. Grave Images
07433 00610 (book
Nothing in Jarron
Marshall's past could have prepared him for the terror of his present.
For visions, living eyes
were never meant to see.
voices, better left
As he becomes
trapped in a power play between science and technology, Jarron finds it's not
the only battle he's caught in - and that power plays aren't limited to the
2. Graven Image
isbn 07433 0361X (book
Jarron would be the
first to admit his perspective is twisted, and his outlook skewed. He's suffered
some brain damage, but it hasn't affected his intellect, or his motor skills.
Instead, it has opened the doors to a world he's never known - a world he
doesn't want to know. One where the dead walk with the living, and the
difficulty lies in keeping them
He's doing his best to
deal with it. To keep his questionable abilities sequestered, and his ghostly
visitors from getting out of hand. It's all just a matter of
Control he still
3. Grave Imagery
(to be released shortly) (book
The Light Play Trilogy
1. Light Play
00637 (book one)
that survival isn't enough when a virus is bio-engineered - when it's the
accidental by-product of experiments blending plant and animal genes. Survival
is only the beginning. He has yet to salvage a life from the terrifying
side-effects of the infection. Then he must decide how far he's willing to go to
stop the spread of the disease, and whether he's still human enough to make
sacrifices for his race.
2. Light Plays
isbn 07433 00645 (book
Rick Lockmann's problems
are far from over. He is no longer fully human. Not
only are his physical needs different, but he has to come to terms with his
mutant status - and the knowledge that he harbours the world's most valuable DNA
within his cells. DNA that some people will
do anything to possess.
3. Lightning Play 07433 00653 (book
Lightning Play, Rick realises that, whatever his genetic potential for
feeding the world, it won't matter if there's no one left to feed. The virus
(WTV) is aggressive, and may well be unstoppable. Rick knows he needs to act
soon to avoid becoming - quite literally - the last man on Earth.
The Trees Series
1. Trees isbn
07433 00866 (book
Trees is a story
of accidental mutation, ancient traditions, and love that endures on the brink
of disaster. It is designed to celebrate the unexpected, in a world where
everything that can go awry, will. Confusion and frustration reign
as good and evil, science and myth, battle to triumph.
In Trees, heroes are
found in the most unexpected places.
2. Crystals isbn 07433 00564
the battle was between science and myth. Now, in Crystals, the conflict
goes on, with rules drawn from another dimension. This time, the outcome is a
matter of life or death, and victory may hinge on something as insignificant as
the shimmering facet of a
3. Mud isbn 07433 00696 (book
Mud, Book III of
the Trees Series: Peter's friends are violently ejected from his world, only to
find themselves in a land of pink-tinged fog and flaming trees, triple
moonscapes and eye-burningly bright skies - a land as unbelievably deadly as it
What begins as
an unnatural mistake, soon becomes a race for survival: a race against injury,
starvation, and death. The story continues.
4. Shades isbn 07433 00769
Peter Trevick and
his friends have only recently returned from a world dominated by pink fog,
flaming trees, voracious mud, and hellish cherubs. A land where threats lie
hidden in the murk, and danger beckons with a child's visage. Now, they are at
home, where everything should be as it
Little does Peter
suspect that - if it comes to "hellish" - his adventures are far from over. They
are, unfortunately, just beginning…
5. Fire isbn 07433 00599 (book
In Fire, book
five of the Trees series, Peter has more than his future preying on his mind.
There is something outside the door, that would like to prey on his body,
Peter is about to learn
that fire burns insatiably - but the result is not always flame…
isbn 07433 03601 (book
In Light, book VI
of the Trees series, hope lies nearly crushed in the darkness - trapped beneath
rock debris, and sliced by cadaverous claws. There are creatures of the dark,
who might not be nearly as threatening - given a little light…
1. Static (current WIP - now in editing
If you enjoyed
Vision, please tell someone else. Pass it on, give it away, forward it to
a friend. And, please, the next time you visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble,
check out N. D.'s other
Visit N. D.'s
website at: https://www.angelfire.com/art/ndhhbooks for more information, and samples of Light Play,
Grave Images, and Static.