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Archive for March, 2014

 

The Singularity

The Singularity

Terrance Rice shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his trousers. He was trying to stay calm and focused but his fingers would not stay still, fingering the items in his pockets one after another. There was a half dozen coins in one pocket, the change he had received back from the coffee he had bought in the U.N. Heliport. In the other pocket, there was the parking token for his car, deep in the basement of the U.N., along with the little jade turtle his daughter had given him that morning as a good luck charm. Ariel had sensed his growing anxiety leading up to this meeting even though her six year old brain could not quite understand its importance. Thinking about her made his heart beat harder. She was so very far away.

How far from Earth, exactly, was a question he still did not understand. The Federated liaison had tried to explain it using both his limited Earth-English and the ever present translating droid, but the answer was always confusing. Not far, only seconds, and 20,000 light years had been the answers he had received. Rice shook his head. Ever since the Federation of Central Planets had made themselves known to the people of Earth, the biggest stumbling block to their communication was understanding each other. Rice could not shake the suspicion that these alien beings were hiding something. It was not that they lied to him outright. No, the strange creatures were far to polite for that. But he was sure they never told him the whole truth. That was a wall he could not surmount. The wall would not come down until he, Terrance Rice, Ambassador of the High Security Council of the United Nations, understood the reason for their presence on Earth. It was a mystery he would never solve until he learned to ask the right questions.

The landing pad inside the Federation government complex was as anonymous as any airport on Earth. If it weren’t for the strange beings moving through this space, he might have thought himself back home. A long lithe alien the shape and color of a tulip approached him. As it drew near, it bowed its great scarlet head. “The Committee will see you now, Ambassador.”

“Thank you, Leesho.” Rice said with a short bow in return. The rules of polite society among the aliens of the inner core of planets had taken him years to learn. The droid they had sent him when he took the position of ambassador fifteen years ago had been patient in its teaching but even in this there were words that did not translate into any Earth dialect. All Rice could hope for was that he would not embarrass himself in the committee chambers.

Leesho led him through a corridor and up a small staircase. A small, fenced in dais waited for him at the top of the stairs. Leesho patted him on the shoulder and then retreated to sit next to the ubiquitous translator droid. There were no other chairs. Rice advance to the railing and looked out into the great room. The floor of the amphitheater was stonework polished to mirror brightness, the mosaic an ornate pattern that might have been a language or could just as easily have been random stone placement. Beyond, rows of seats rose up to the ceiling. Most were empty but for a small cadre of aliens who filled the lowest seats. A ripple of interest echoed through this group as Rice took his place. From what he knew of these proceedings, they were open to the public. According to Leesho, these aliens were his fans, here because they found him interesting.

Rice ignored them. It was what lay before him that held his interest. A group of alien creatures milled about his podium, some in deep conversation, others still and somber. He had seen these faces too often not to notice the alien equivalent of sorrow and embarrassment written on them. Fifteen times he had come here. Fifteen times, the answers had been the same.

“Terrance Rice, Ambassador of the High Security Council of the United Nations, Planet 75-158-24, Sol, Earth.” thundered a bodiless voice from high overhead.

A giant red gecko dressed in robes covered in large black and white squares advanced and bowed. Rice bowed back.

“Ambassador Rice. How very good it its to see you again. Might I inquire as to the nature of your petition?”

Rice tried to control the anger that wanted to color his emotions.

“I wonder that you have forgotten, Lord Shee,” Rice said calmly. “It is the same as last year and the year before. Earth wearies of being treated as a second class member of this Federation. We want to take back control of our planet. We want self governance. We petition that our status be changed from protectorate to member.”

A bipedal being covered in violet fur and not much else bowed to him.

“You are confused. There are no second class citizens in the Federation of Central Planets. You either are a citizen or you are not.”

“Then tell me how we can change that,” Rice begged. “We have done everything you have asked of us since you took over. What is the point of this occupation if you had no end game in mind for my species?”

“You were on the brink of extinction,” said a large purple lobster. “We have brought you peace and helped you heal your planet. Is it not enough that you thrive and prosper in your verdant bubble?”

“Said the zookeeper to the ape,” muttered Rice.

They heard him. The highly sensitive mics pointed in his direction picked up every breath, every heartbeat. Lord Shee exchanged a silent communication with someone somewhere and then looked at Leesho. “Explain this word: zookeeper.”

After consulting with the translation droid, Leesho’s petals drooped, darkening. “A zoo is a place where semi-sentient beings are kept in cages for the pleasure of public viewing. A zookeeper is the person who cares for these beings while making sure they cannot escape or be free,” Leesho said, his voice trembling.

The aliens around Rice flinched and looked away, embarrassed for him.

The gecko, Lord Shee, flushed a dozen shades of red before settling on pale pink. “Is this what you think of us? That we keep you caged?”

“Tell me that we are free, then,” Rice said, not caring anymore about protocol and injured feelings. He was weary of this charade. “Can we have our planet back, to do with as we please? Can we deal with each other without Federation interference? Can we build starships and leave our solar system behind? What would it take to get your boot off our throats?”

Lord Shee opened his mouth to respond but something stopped him. He flushed blood red and retreated, bowing so low his head nearly touched the stone floor. All around him, the other aliens did the same. Rice looked around in surprise as the room became deathly silent.

Something moved in the corner of his eye. He turned just as the air became solid in front of his dais, shimmering for a moment before disgorging a being unlike any he had seen before. His eyes seemed to being playing tricks on him. It was like looking into a shattered mirror whose spinning shards showed him a thousand faces in a thousand different places. Was this one being or many, he wondered. Was it here or not? Perhaps the being or beings in front of him were only partially here. He knew the Federation had some sort of trick when it came to pan-dimensional travel. Perhaps this is what pan-dimensional shift looked like when viewed from a single dimension; light and mirrors and planes that turned a corner and disappeared into infinite space.

A piece of the mirror separated itself from the whole and approached. Rice shuddered as his brain tried desperately to sort out the insanity bombarding his retinas. The mirror shifted and became a beautiful human male, perfect and in the prime of his life. Rice loved him instantly, the attraction so visceral he found himself panting in desire. Somewhere in the back of his mind he stood in awe at the intricacy of the technology that created this illusion. Real or not, he could not control his reaction to it.

The male scowled at him and fear replaced lust in Rice’s heart.

“I’m sorry,” Rice said, not sure what it was that he was apologizing for.

“So,” the man hissed, his rage barely concealed, “You think yourself much abused, do you? The Singularity is offended that you have so little self awareness that you cannot be grateful for its compassion. The choice to save you and not fold your planet into the Void was not settled upon lightly.”

“Singularity? Is that the Singularity?” Rice asked, pointing at the mass of broken reality still roiling about on the edge of his awareness “I have not met this species before. Can I speak to it directly?”

Leesho moaned in fear and hid behind the droid. Rice was making a mess of it, obviously. “The Singularity is a state of being, Ambassador Rice,” Leesho whispered. “Not a species. Ask to speak to the Heart.”

“My ignorance is infinite, it seems,” Rice said to the male humanoid. “I would beg forgiveness of the Heart, please.”

“You are a fool,” the man snorted but he disappeared and the shard of reality that contained him rejoined its brethren. Something else shivered and turned a corner from somewhere far away. A young human girl now stood before him. She smiled at him gently and Rice felt his mind explode as light flooded into his consciousness. There was nothing he would not do for her, this precious being, this innocent, this divine light. Rice fell to his knees, afraid, more afraid of losing the love of this child than he had been of the anger of the perfect man.

“Poor Terrance,” the child said, drawing near to touch his hair. “Much abused but stoic, stubborn, and loyal to a fault. This is why I love your species. You want to belong. I understand that more than you know but you are only one side of the coin and you ignore your other half at your own peril.”

Rice reached a hand through the railing, wanting to touch the hem of her gown, just the hem, nothing more. Leesho hissed in outrage and in the next moment the droid had knocked Rice over, sending him sprawling.

Rice shook his head to clear the ringing and looked up. The child was gone. A woman stood over him, a stern look on her face. He knew that look. He had seen it a thousand times on his mother’s face while he was growing up in Oklahoma.

“So. You want to be part of us,” the woman said. “There is a test. A question. Answer it and all the Federation planets will open their doors to you.”

“What is the question?” Rice asked, rising to his feet to meet that piercing gaze as the equal he hoped to be.

“I, we, this,” she said gesturing to the crazy ball of light. “We are the Heart of All the Known Universe. Where is your Heart?”

“My what?”

“The Heart of your species. Where is it?”

“I do not understand,” he said, confused. “There is nothing like you on Earth.”

She smiled a sly smile as if she held a secret she was not willing to share.

“Is there not?” she said. “How would you know? You have never looked.”

Rice shook his head. They were playing games with his head and he was at a loss to know what to do about it.

“Help me, then. Explain how to find our Heart.”

“Tsk,” she said, shaking her head. “You are a body without a head, stumbling about, wreaking havoc wherever you go. Ask yourself this. Ten thousand years of human history and what is the one thing you fear the most? The quest to eradicate it from your communal soul consumes your every waking moment and yet the more you loathe it, the stronger it gets. She has forgiven you your transgressions time after time and yet still you crush her with your hate. Find the one thing that loves you that much and you will find your answer.”

“I do not do riddles,” Rice said, anger rising again. “Give me concrete advice.”

The aliens on the floor around him muttered angrily at his rudeness. Rice did not care. So the Federation had this god-ling and they feared to offend it. That was not his problem. The woman held up her hand, and the aliens in the amphitheater froze.

“You see. This is why you still live,” she said with a cold smile. “You amuse us greatly. You have such wonderful words. Justice. Truth. Equality. Balance. Symmetry. Harmony. Communion. Explore those thoughts. That is all I will say. Be warned. Do not return here until you can answer my question.”

“I do not know where to start!” Rice cried as her form shimmered. She was getting ready to leave.

“Really? Pick any seven year old human at random. They all know what you seem to have forgotten.”

The woman disappeared and the shard of reality that contained her bent and the whole ball of dissonance disappeared. Rice stared at the spot that once held it, bemused and confused. Leesho took his human hand into his green leafy one and tugged him into motion, leading him down the stairs.

“That went much better than expected, don’t you think?” the tulip alien said with great enthusiasm.

“Really?” Rice asked faintly. “Don’t you mean the exact opposite? It could not have gotten any worse.”

“Oh, you are still here. Your planet has not ceased to exist. You still have a chance.”

“How would you know? Maybe she folded it into the Void while we were speaking.” Rice said, sure that his attempt at humor would fall on deaf ears.

“You are still here. I still have memories of your planet in my mind,” Leesho said, patting his human hand with its cool foliage. “Your Heart must be very powerful indeed if it can influence the Singularity in such a manner.”

Rice stopped, pulling his hand away.

“How can the human’s Heart influence the Federation’s Heart from so far away?”

Leesho tipped his scarlet petals, confused. “A Heart is the Singularity. Do you not understand the nature of the Singularity?”

“I guess I don’t,” Rice said. “Can you explain it so that my simple mind can understand it?”

“Sentience is not a goal. It is a journey infinite in length and breadth. It is like being in a dream and waking up only to realize you are in a dream from which you need to wake. Repeat this over and over again and eventually reality begins to bend to your will. Space and time are just playthings for those who take the journey to the edge of the Void and leap off. They become infinite, these beings, joining, in harmony and communion, with all the others who have made the same choices. They are of one mind and yet each one is as unique as the stars in the sky.”

“That seems like chaos. How does one steer the ship with a thousand captains?” Rice asked, shaking his head in confusion.

Leesho leaned in and patted Rice on his cheek. “You are so human. You cannot ask a question directly but must forever spiral around its core as if you fear to look into the mirror. You are wondering how it is that your human Heart, part of a Singularity, can be so powerful that it can direct an infinite chorus of powerful beings? The answer is simple. Need.”

Leesho stopped in front of the transport gate.

“Need?” Rice asked blankly.

“I heard what the Singularity said about the human Heart. You despise her. This makes her a bleeding wound in the space/time continuum. The others will sustain her until she shifts your reality to better suit her needs.”

“What?” Rice asked, suddenly frightened. “How will she do that? What will she do to us?”

“Oh, I hardly know,” Leesho said with a wave of his green fronds as he began punching in the coordinates of Earth into the transport gate key pad. “The mind of the Singularity is inscrutable. You will change without knowing you are changing. It was her wish that the Federation stay away as long as we did. But she is also kind, your Heart. Why else has she tolerated the bad behavior of her children for so long? You will not be zoo animals for long. One day you will walk the limits of your cage only to discover that the bars have disappeared and you will think it is your own doing. The best changes are the ones you think are your own, after all. Every good mother knows this.”

Rice had so many more questions but Leesho pushed the green button and shoved him through the gate. Rice turned, wanting to go back and ask so much more, but the air was just air and he now stood back on the heliport on the roof of the U.N. He did not have to look at his watch to know that he had lost no time. It was the same time as when he had left. The techs measured it every time he traveled. The Federation technology was accurate down to thousandths of a second. More accurate than anything humans could measure.

The humans waiting for his return gathered around and tugged him into motion. They quickly relieved him of the recording devices secreted around his person, scuttling off with them to spend endless hours dissecting the meaning of the images they contained. His own debriefing would be just as tedious and interminable. They were forever looking for an angle, the powerful people who ran things; some Federation weakness that they might exploit to their own advantage.

Rice thought about lying about the Singularity and the Heart but what would be the point? Of one thing he was certain. The Singularity had revealed itself for a reason. Leesho, usually taciturn, had been far too gregarious this trip. The Federation was making some sort of power play.

Rice felt oddly detached from all this. Perhaps he was just exhausted. What he wanted more than anything in the world was to go home and hug his daughter and listen to the wisdom behind her endless chatter.

He would sit in on her elaborate tea party, midst the teddy bears and the dollies, and somewhere between the juice and cookies he would ask the question. Ariel would know how to find the Earth’s Heart. They had promised him that.

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Sin Eater

Watcher on the Wall

Watcher on the Wall

 

Heinrich looked down at the address on his smart phone and then looked back up at the apartment complex. If it weren’t for the thousand layers of paint the place would have fallen down long ago. Surely it was not the place where he was about to hand over five thousand dollars American for an afternoon consultation?

He very nearly told his driver to take him home.

“Don’t go far,” Heinrich said as he opened the door.

Antoine scowled up at the building. “You want me to come with you?”

“No. She was very specific about coming alone.”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”

“I think I can handle a sixty something grandmother. Just stick around. I smell a con in the wind.”

“Ye’sir,” Antoine said, flexing his shoulders under the chauffeur’s uniform until the cloth creaked in protest. Heinrich did not pay Antoine for his driving skills.

Heinrich walked up to the security gate. A rusty panel of buttons and an abused speaker adorned the wall next to it. He pushed button nine.

Nothing happened. He put his hand up to push the button again when a buzzer went off and the lock on the gate clicked open. Heinrich pulled it open quickly before the ancient electronics exhausted themselves and locked the gate again.

An old woman with a cap of snowy white curls hobbled towards him down the narrow passage beyond. Heinrich held the gate open and waited for her. Even with the cane as an assist, the woman’s progress was painfully slow.

She stopped to peer up at him, studying him curiously.

“Ms. Harper?” Heinrich ventured.

“You want Clara,” the old woman said. “Up the stairs and first door on your right. Don’t you hurt her, hear?” The woman poked him in the chest with a gnarled finger. “There will be hell to pay around here if you do.”

“Are you afraid of Ms. .. Clara?”

“Good Lord, no. I am afraid for her. She has less sense than my cat, always poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. She gets hurt and the darkness starts to bleed red around here, upsetting everyone. You just be careful,” the old woman admonished him as she tottered down the sidewalk towards the street.

“Yes ma’am,” Heinrich said, bemused.

Antoine gave him a look from behind the steering wheel of his black town car. Heinrich waved him away and turned to walk down the pass way. The gate swung shut behind him with a firm clang of metal against metal. Heinrich flinched at the finality of that sound. Something inside him warned him to turn around and go home. Heinrich kept walking towards the sunny courtyard at the end of the sidewalk. What was the worst that could happen? Besides, there was not much of anything on this planet that could scare him anymore.

He took the stairs. The first door on the right was wide open. He stopped on the threshold, waiting for his eyes to adjust gloom inside the apartment. It smelled of oranges and cinnamon and old wood and paper.

“Ms. Harper?”

A little woman in a floral dress stepped out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. The dress hid a plump figure and nearly brushed the top of her bare feet. “Call me Clara. Come in. Do you like tea? I have a nice white that tastes like green berries or a green that tastes like fresh mowed hay. That one reminds me of when I was a girl, not that that is a good thing, mind you.”

Heinrich stared at her bemused. There was hardly a wrinkle on those plump cheeks and the hair was still as blond as his son’s, who was only seven. Why had he expected gray hair and wrinkles? Was it his own age bias? A lot of races did not show their age until well into their later years. But she was obviously of Northern European descent.

She raised her eyebrows, waiting for something.

“Uh, the white, please,” Heinrich said, recovering quickly from his surprise.

She nodded and turned back into the kitchen.

“Sit anywhere,” she called.

Heinrich stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. A tiny table with two chairs stood outside the kitchen door. Overstuffed chairs formed a seating area in front of the great picture window. The crown of the tree in the courtyard blocked most of the city-scape beyond, leaving only cloudless sky to see. The light streamed through its leaves into the room.

Heinrich sat on the love seat with his back to the window so that he could see better. The walls of the tiny apartment were filled with photos of family, a collection of masks, and children’s artwork. Bookcases lined the walls that did not have chairs or benches or couches. What should have felt like a hoarder’s nightmare felt more like the well organized order of his yacht’s galley; everything in its place and a place for everything.

Heinrich stared at the masks on the wall opposite him. They stared back at him with silent eyes, accusing and suspicious. The hairs on the back of his neck wanted to dance. Not for the last time, Heinrich wished he had stayed away.

Clara breezed in from the kitchen, a tea tray in her hands, a smile on her face. “So. Tell me your story.” she said, setting the tea tray down on the tiny coffee table and sitting on the chair next to him. She poured him tea the color of pale sunlight, put a cookie on the saucer at its base, and handed it to him.

Heinrich held the tea cup awkwardly and hesitated.

A look he could not interpret flashed for moment on her kind face before she looked down to pour herself her own tea.

“Do you not want to get paid first?” he asked, unable to hide the anger that had been rising in the back of his mind.

Clara put her teacup down and sat back, folding her hands over her flower covered belly.

“This is going to stand between us, isn’t it?” she said. “What bothers you? That I charge too much money or that I charge at all?”

“Five thousand is a lot of money. I look around and I can hardly believe I will get my money’s worth in one short afternoon.”

She nodded. “Do you know what bothers me about five thousand dollars? That I need to make you pay for something that I would gladly give away for free.”

Heinrich studied her. She was telling the truth.

“So, why not make your fee more accessible? As a business model, it hardly seems sound. You will get very few clients at this price,” Heinrich pointed out.

“But I do not want clients. You are a friend of a Erma’s granddaughter. This is a favor. Nothing more.”

“Yet I must still pay for this favor?” Heinrich asked pointedly.

“What did Erma’s granddaughter say when she gave you my phone number?”

“That you could solve the unsolvable. I think the world magic popped up in the conversation. She said you are a witch.”

Clara snorted and picked up her teacup, taking a sip.

“What is the quote? Magic is just science that we don’t have an explanation for yet,” she said. “To call me a witch is to call Da Vinci a wizard. There are no words in the modern lexicon to describe what I do. My Irish great grandmothers would have called me a Sin Eater. Do you know what that means?”

“I am not religious,” Heinrich said.

“No, nor am I. In the old country, when someone died and you had the money to afford it, you would hire a Sin Eater to come to the bedside of the recently deceased and the Sin Eater would eat the feast laid out around the cooling body, thereby consuming the chaos of a human life and transitioning it into energy more amenable to the deities in heaven.”

Heinrich’s lip curled in disgust and horror. “I am not worried about my place in heaven.”

“No. I did not think you so simple minded. Think of me as a pan-dimensional liaison. Space/time is not a barrier for someone such as myself. Tell me you story and I shall dissect it, laying it out before you layer by layer, that you might better understand the forces that stand in your way. If you are not satisfied at the end, you can walk away and pay me nothing. Tell me your story.”

“It is very complicated,” Heinrich said doubtfully.

“Space/time, Heinrich. Space/time. Tell me as if I am inside your mind and know everything you know. If I need clarification, I will ask. Try not to lie or hide the truth. Dire things happen when people lie to me.”

“Is that a threat?” Heinrich asked suspiciously.

“My dear Heinrich. I am a Sin Eater. I turn chaos into order. Lies waste your time and only make my job harder.”

Heinrich sighed in resignation and began to talk. The plate of cookies emptied and Clara replace it with tea sandwiches. Those disappeared and she brought him berries and orange slices and when that was done, she brought him a damp, warm cloth to clean his fingers before she brought him a tumbler and a bottle of scotch. He splashed some into the glass, sipped it, and sighed, empty of words at last.

He looked at her expectantly. She had asked few questions and those had not been questions about the technical aspects of his business but about the people he worked with and his family. It was as if she were reading a book and the people were characters in his life story. Her memory was near perfect and he was starting to be glad that he had changed the names of everyone, including himself, in his life to keep them secret from her prying mind.

Clara nodded. “You understand, of course, that what you want and what the universe wishes to give you can be two different things, right?”

Heinrich frowned at her. “What does that mean?”

Clara tapped her fingernail against her front teeth, searching for the right words. “You are intelligent and intuitive. You would not have gotten as far as you have without those gifts. Think of yourself as an ant riding a bit of bark in a raging torrent that rushes headlong off an infinite mountain. Part of surviving this journey is being able to predict the tumble of the river’s chaos, knowing when to leap from bark to leaf to twig, always staying dry. They have words for this. Being in the right place at the right time. Luck. Flying by the seat of your pants. Listening to your gut. What all people such as you have in common is the unconscious ability to hear the universe above and beyond what your senses or your intelligence tells you. Logic can stand in the way of this gift. You have learned to listen to your gut. Your gut is never wrong. Your problem is that, over the years, you have acquired baggage. You carry too much of a burden and it hinders your agility, that ability to shift and change when the time is right. You have become tangled in the lives of others and their needs have clouded your mind. It is hard to listen to your heart when so many other hearts drown out the sound.”

Heinrich shook his head. “I care about the people in my life. I am not cold-hearted and ruthless as some. There is no cure for that.”

“Ah,” Clara nodded solemnly. “It is a very human failing, to think that it is your job to carry the burden of the people you love. But you do them no favors and you destroy yourself in the process. Love is a symbiosis, not parasitism. Do me a favor. Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a speck of light floating in weightless darkness.”

Heinrich shook his head. “I don’t think that …”

“Do not be such a baby,” she tisked. “It is just a little thought experiment. You are not alone in the darkness. Billions and billions of specks of light populate the darkness around you.”

Heinrich closed his eyes and tried to comply.

“You are a speck of light but you do not float fee. Threads of golden light connect you to all those around you. Love flows both ways up and down these threads, sustaining you, making the connections stronger. You and all these others move as one, like a mat of ants adrift in the flood waters, clinging to each other, holding each other out of the water, taking turns being the bottom ant. But if you and all you hold dear are to survive this flood, you must be the scout. You have always been the scout. It is you who looks down the timeline and knows where to place yourself in the flow. This is your gift. Cut the threads and walk clear for a while.”

“What?” Heinrich said, his eyes opening.

“Ach,” she tisked impatiently. “Do not worry. The threads will regrow. All you have to do is wish it so. Close your eyes.”

Heinrich closed his eyes.

“Good. You are still the ant. Now climb up as high as you can and look forward. That is the future. Now ask yourself. Have you been steering towards that or have you been trying to keep the mat of ants on the same old path, the path that now leads to chaos? That boredom you feel? That is your gut telling you that you are going in the wrong direction. Stagnation is death. Life should be giving you an adrenaline rush if you are doing it right. Now look down. This is your life. This is your burden. Who are all these people, you wonder. Some of them do not even look like ants. Have you mistaken a spider for an ant and spider’s silk for a golden thread? How tangled your life had become. Ssst. Let’s cut those ties.”

Clara’s voice had changed. It was almost as if someone else sat in her chair. Heinrich opened his eyes. She sat with her eyes closed and her hands up, the fingers pointed at the sky. Heinrich felt a faint wave of something wash over him.

Clara opened her eyes and smiled at him lovingly, her lips curled in a sensuous pout, her eyes were the color of sapphires. Why had he just noticed that?. “There,” she said. “Much better. Do you feel it? Does your mind feel clear? Does your heart beat to its own rhythm now? Do your lungs breath in without the weight of so many hangers on? Remember that feeling after you leave here. It will not last as you gather the burden of your life around you once more. Close your eyes. We are not done.”

Heinrich closed his eyes again.

“Look down. So many spiders. The one you call Siegel. What would happen to him if you cut him loose and let the river take him? He does not love you and the energy that he feeds you down the thread that connects you gives you nothing but darkness. Siegel hates you. What he feeds you is your own death.”

“What?” Heinrich said, opening his eyes to stare at her. Did she expect him to believe this clap-trap?

Clara shrugged. “Do or don’t. It does not matter. I have Siegel, here,” she pointed at her chest. “Siegel will be dealt with. And the one you call Balindar. This is a small thing. I shall not take anymore from you at this time. Five thousand was a paltry sum. I should have charged you more.”

Clara leaned back in her chair, looking exhausted all of a sudden.

“What do you mean? What have you done to Siegel and Balindar?”

“For now?” Clara shook her head and closed her eyes. “Nothing. The retribution of the universe does not work in human time. Be warned. Distance yourself from them and their inevitable fate. Even chaos has its own order.” The last was said faintly. Clara began to snore.

Heinrich stared at her, his mind in turmoil. Nothing she had said made sense. It had all been a bunch of new age gibberish. If this was a con it was not a very good one. He had two choices. Believe what she told him or not. Believing in her threw his life into chaos. He chose.

Something moved in the corner of his eye. The shadows shifted on the wall of masks. Perhaps it was a trick of the dimming light. Some of them looked at him with pity. The skull masks cast the cold, empty stare of death in his direction. A Balinese goddess glared at him, knowing his mind. The masks were not happy with him.

The man who was not named Heinrich stood up quickly, no longer comfortable in this place of dire warnings and gypsy magic.

Walking softly, he left the tiny apartment, closing the door quietly behind him.

He texted Antoine.

“Come and get me. NOW!”

“Five minutes. Stay inside the gate until I pull up,” Antoine instructed.

Heinrich remembered suddenly that he had not paid her. He at least owed her for the tea and scotch. He put a reminder in his phone to tell his secretary to send a small fee for the afternoon of entertainment. Entertainment was what he would call it to save himself from being angry at a crazy old woman with delusions of power.

****

Clara opened her mailbox. Among the ads and fliers, she found an envelope. It was an expensive envelope, the ivory paper heavy in her hand. She did not recognize the name of the law firm on the return address. She slid her finger under the flap and pulled out the sheath of papers. The first was a notice of payment “for services rendered”.

The second sheet was a terse note. She stared at the signature. It had been three months since a man calling himself Heinrich had paid her a call. The visit had not gone well. It had taken her a month to purge his energy from her house.

She re-read the note.

“Siegel in jail. Balindar dying of cancer. I caught my wife in bed with her tennis instructor. You were right. About everything. Call off your dogs. Heinrich”

Ethel from #5 tottered up to retrieve her own mail

“Something good, dear?” she asked shoving her key into her box.

Clara looked at the third piece of paper. It was a check for far more than five thousand dollars. She smiled.

“Oh, yes, very good indeed,” laughed Clara, stuffing the check back into the envelope.

 

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The Good Soldier

The Good Soldier

The locals barely noticed of the Cygnus Oiche as she took up a low-earth orbit above the site that, by all the sensor readings, promised the most profit for this venture. The pod, launched for a quick descent and the least exposure to any who might want to shoot it out of the sky, thundered through the atmosphere, a ball of fire that broke the sound barrier just above the small hill topped with the ancient stone ruins.

Autopilot put them in an empty field at the edge of the village. They touched down hard. Jack spat out his mouth guard and prayed that they had not incinerated a cow or induced a goat into heart seizure, screwing their mission from the start. Quinn uncovered the port latch housing and slammed his fist into the button. The pod shuddered at the locks released explosively and the hatch popped open. The ripe planet air flooded into the cabin. It stank of open sewage and animal dung. Henry coughed and swore softly. The Cygnus Oiche was a giant space faring tin can but at least the scrubbers made sure you didn’t have to smell the five hundred plus people sharing the air with you.

“Can the chatter and gear up,” Jack snapped. “In. Out. Home in time for dinner. Oo-ya.”

“Oo-ya,” grunted his men, all except Quinn. Quinn was Science and not a soldier like the rest of them. Jack had little tolerance for the brainiac squad, but at least Quinn knew not to pretend comradery by mimicking their ways. Scott would very likely gut him if he tried.

The team gathered at the edge of the black scorched crater around the landing pod, flexing their knees in the 1.3 gravity and eyeing the odd pink blush of the grasses beyond. The wide open spaces and blue sky overhead made them all nervous.

“Scott, you take lead,” Jack ordered, bringing their attention back to business. “Cyril, you bring up the rear. Double time. Keep your eyes open, hear”

“Oo-ya.” If was a half-hearted response but it got them moving, all the same. None of them liked this mission but they would get it done and be professional about it.

Scott, a veteran of many a planetfall, jogged them across the empty field, through the organic sprawl of farm sheds and cottages and into the central square, choosing a route that exposed them the least to possible sniper fire. The pace pleased Jack. It worked the kinks out, got the adrenaline pumping, and left little time for any resistance to organize itself. Just at the edge of the plaza, Scott paused. Jack eased up beside him and studied the lay of the land. A flock of old women stood near the central fountain, chatting. They seemed like a good place to start. He shifted his rifle until it hung out of sight behind his right shoulder and sauntered over to the women, watching their eyes as he approached.

They seemed amused by something, these old, dried up prunes. Jack pasted a benevolent smile on his face to hide his true feelings. There was something emasculating about an old woman’s amusement. It made Jack feel ten years old again, pouring out his heart to his grandmother, only to have his words reduce her to gales of laughter, tears running down her cheeks. It had infuriated him then. It was not until he had come back from his first war that he understood her amusement. He sought her out and they had talked of nothing but the weather and the family and the price of corn down at the market. She had nodded, patted his knee, and assured him of his growing wisdom. His grandmother had not been there when he came back from his second war.

These women saw through his ruse, just as his grandmother had. Tossing politeness onto the dung heap he cut right to the meat of the matter.

“Where are your men and your cattle, old mother?” Jack asked.

“The goddess sent them up into the hills for the day to keep them safe,” one said.

“Safe from what?”

The old women looked at him and laughed. The answer was obvious and they were too polite to say anything that would make him feel stupid.

“You have a thing of great power, here. Can we see it?” Jack asked.

One of the women pulled an amulet out of her robes and dangled by its string.

Jack glanced back at Quinn who was ready with his sensor unit. The science officer stepped forward and ran the machine over the pendant’s surface without actually touching it.

“The same, but too small,” Quinn said, studying the readings. “It is not what the ship picked up.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Where did you get that?” Jack asked.

She pointed up at the temple ruins at the top of the hill.

“They’re grave robbers, these people,” Scott growled softly.

The old woman snorted and put her pendant away. She was in no way offended by the remark but seemed to be trying hard not to laugh. Jack turned a scowl in Scott’s direction, a stare that promised hell to pay later. Scott grimaced and pressed his lips together.

Turning back to the women, Jack tried another question.

“Are there more artifacts up there, in the ruins?”

The women laughed. “Go see for yourself,” one said.

“What you seek is there,” said another.

“The Goddess will give you your heart’s desire,” said another which sent the old biddy’s into gales of laughter. They would answer no more questions after that, merely shooing them off like a swarm of pesky flies.

Jack lifted his eyes to the temple on the hill. The hairs on his neck told him this was a bad idea. He signaled for his men to follow and led them out of the square and up a stone paved avenue that pointed to the heart of the hill.

A ragtag troop of little boys appeared at the edge of the square and followed them out of the village and up the road that led to the ruins. Cyril tried to shoo them off but they laughed at him and took his attempts as a game, dodging his waving hands and hiding behind bushes and rocks until he turned away, only to follow them again.

The stone road led to a plaza lined with great columns, most of which had tumbled to the ground and now lay broken, sun bleached, and ruined, under the white sun. Jack sent Cyril and Henry off to scout out a clear route to the inner temple.

“You cannot go that way,” called one of the boys.

Jack turned back, curious to find out what they knew. Quinn trailed behind him.

“Why? Is this a sacred place? Does your goddess guard the way in?” Quinn asked.

The boys laughed. The littlest one fell over backwards from his perch on a low wall. But he did not stop laughing.

“No,” laughed the largest boy. “This part of the temple collapsed long ago. The way in is around to the side.”

“Will you show us the way?” Quinn asked.

“That is why we are here. The mothers say the sooner you are in, the sooner you will find what you need, the sooner you are gone. But we will require payment.”

“Here it comes,” Scott snorted. “Don’t trust the little beggars, sir. Street kids are the same all over the universe.”

“It is very hard work, coming all the way up the hill. The little ones get hungry,” the boy said, giving Scott a look that all little boys gave adults when they were being stupid.

Quinn turned towards Scott and held out his hand. “Give me your rations.”

“Why should I?” Scott growled.

“Because if you don’t, I am going to use you as my sparring dummy for the next week,” Jack said, pulling his own rations out of the pocket on his thigh. Quinn gathered them up and handed them all to the leader, who very carefully passed them out according to some sort of system of rank and privilege. The little one seemed happy with his nutrition bar. He shoved it deep into the pocket of his shorts and beamed up at Quinn, immensely pleased.

Jack put two fingers in his mouth and sent out a single, piercing whistle. Two minutes later Cyril came around a column base and Henry popped up over the top of a supine monolith.

“Fine. Show us the way,” Jack said, turning back to the boys.

They led them around the side of the plaza of fallen columns to a dirt trail wide enough for only one person. It hugged the foundation stones of the temple, the drop off into the valley only inches away.

At the far end of the temple wall they found a stone stairway that disappeared into the deep shadows of the temple.

“There,” said the biggest boy, pointing.

“You aren’t going to come with us?” Jack asked.

“It is not allowed. Do not be afraid. Go straight in. Keep your thoughts pure. The Goddess sees into your hearts and can tell if you are lying.” Their duty done, their vague instructions delivered, the boys scampered back the way they had come, laughing.

Jack did not trust this. Little boys were universally untrustworthy. Their eyes always had a brittle, blood thirsty gleam and these boys had been no different. The laughter had not been kind. The hairs on the back of Jack’s neck were standing on end again. He wanted nothing more than to double time it back to the pod and get off this rock. Jack shrugged. This had to be done. He put a foot on the first stone step. Was it his imagination or did something large and powerful look this way? Jack pressed his lips together and began climbing, his team at his heels. This was how desperate they had become, that he would lead his men into what might be certain death.

Inside the temple, the soldiers dodged from room to room, guns ready, their hearts pounding with each new space. Finally, in the last room, in the center of the stone temple, they found what they were looking for.

A figure sat in silence in front of an altar obscured by lengths of gauze that hung from somewhere high overhead. It might have been female, this creature, its features so fine and delicate. It might have been human but for its skin which was the color of burnished carnelian and its long mane of fine hair that was the color of fresh blood.

“What species is it?” Jack asked Quinn softly.

“Not known,” Quinn said, eyes tracking the data steam on his field computer.

Jack grimaced and took a firmer grip on his assault rifle before stepping into the vaulted room.

The still form sighed and rose slowly to her feet. It was a fluid motion, the silk of her robes hissing as they settled into a new arrangement around the lithe figure. Jack could not shake the chilling thought that those robes hid something far more alien than legs that ended in feet. She bowed to the hidden altar and turned to gaze at the intruders to her domain. The gauze fluttered and something heavy shifted against the stones of the floor.

Jack met those eyes and his heart thumped in his chest. There was something not right about those eyes.

Cyril was nervous. The rigging on his gun rattled against the barrel. Jack put his hand out to silence that tiny noise. It echoed inside the room, magnified and intensified like the brush of a finger on the head of a well tuned drum.

Perhaps she took offense to so many guns pointed in her direction. Perhaps the noise disturbed what occupied the altar. The alien cocked her head in their direction and raised an eyebrow. All the guns disappeared.

Scott swore softly and then pressed his lips together when he caught Jack glaring at him.

“I am going to want those back when I leave,” Jack drawled.

She said nothing. A smile flashed briefly on those perfect lips, so quick Jack doubted his eyes. Those eyes, the shape of their iris was strange, almost bird like. Jack met her stare and refused to break eye contract first, fearing it would be a sign of weakness.

Quinn glanced between the two, waiting. Jack’s eyes began to water. Quinn looked away, pretending not to see. It was a petty kind of vengeance. Jack made note of it for a later discussion. Finally, Quinn took pity on his commanding officer and cleared his throat.

“I suppose you are wondering why we are here,” Quinn said, filling the uncomfortable silence.

That gaze shifted to the team’s designated alien diplomat. Again, those awful eyes grew still, waiting.

“Yes, well,” Quinn said. “We heard there was someone in the temple who could help us with our problem.”

She let the silence between them build. When it seemed that she was not going to speak at all, Quinn opened his mouth to speak again but she forestalled him with her own words.

“I perceive all your problems. Which one, specifically, did you need help with?” she said, her voice a dark purr.

“All?” Quinn asked, confused. “All?” he repeated, his curiosity piqued.

Jack nudged him in the ribs with his elbow.

“Stay focused,” the team leader hissed out of the side of his mouth.

She looked from Quinn to Jack and back again.

“I know what the military wants. They want weapons with which to vanquish their enemies. An honorable quest. But what does the science officer want?”

“The same thing.” Quinn said, trying not to show his surprise at her intimate knowledge of them.

“No,” she said, “that is not true. You want technology that will solve all the problems simultaneously. You do not want to vanquish your enemies. You want an ultimate solution. You have neither the temperament nor the patience for the ritual of war. I could give you what you want. Reach into time and make it so the race of sentient bugs that seek to destroy you never existed. Erase them from time and the memory of man.”

Quinn smiled, hope warring with relief. “That would be…”

“No!” Jack said sharply.

Quinn glanced over at him, angry and confused.

She nodded at Jack. “You see? This one knows. One cannot erase that which is intrinsically entwined with your own time-line without doing damage to yourself. Do you really want to lose all the wisdom so hard won?”

“Well, I guess not,” Quinn agreed, not a 100% convinced but unwilling to argue with Jack’s forbidding stare. If it meant forgetting the death of his family in the last bug war, then some things might be worth forgetting.

“No,” Jack said unequivocally. “Give us the other. The weapon.”

“Ssso,” she said, shifting the weight of her stare to Jack. “What shall it be? How committed are you to this future victory?”

“I guess I don’t understand the question,” Jack said hesitantly.

“Which weapon do you want? What if I give you the thing that is easy to use and gives you a slight edge? It would shave years off your war. Or perhaps you would prefer the thing that makes your enemies afraid but makes you afraid of yourselves? Who would soon pick a fight with a species that could turn most of habitable space into dust and ash?”

“What alternative is there?” Jack asked, not liking either choice.

“There is a thing that will assure an honorable victory but will alter you beyond recognition and change who you think you are and where your place is in the grander universe lies but it takes a special kind of being to wield it. Do you think you are worthy?”

Jack chewed on his lower lip.

“I don’t trust her,” Scott hissed. “Since when do people like her give this shit away for free. There is a catch. There is always a catch.”

The carnelian lips bent into an awful smile.

“Listen well to your friend. He is wise for his years.” she purred. “Turn around. Walk away. No one will count you lesser men for it.”

Jack snarled at her. “I can’t. Not if there is a chance. Not if there is hope. You don’t understand.”

She nodded gently. “Oh. I do. Your desperation has preceded you up the hill. Even now, Henry’s family lies dying on an outpost colony, the bugs without mercy …”

Henry cried out as he turned to leave. Scott and Quinn had to restrain him and it was only after Jack caught him roughly around the neck and whispered something harsh into his ears that he quieted.

She flinched, as if Henry’s pain was contagious.

Jack glared at her. She shrugged as if to say it was not going to be the worst thing that happened in this room before the day was done.

“Give me what I want.” Jack snarled.

The alien pulled her hands out of her sleeves. One hand contained a small glowing sphere. She held it out to him.

Jack stared at it.

“What happens when I touch it?”

“At first? Nothing. It will get to know you. You will get to know it. When the time is right it will open a door.”

“Then what?”

“Then you will know what to do.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Jack said doubtfully.

“The door will be in your mind. Once open, you will not be able to close it again. There is no turning back from this.”

“What does it do?”

“Why, it will destroy your enemies, of course. Is that not why you are here?” she said gently.

Still Jack hesitated. Quinn looked from the sphere to Jack and back again.

“I’ll do it,” Quinn said, stepping around his team leader. Jack allowed it but his eyes lingered on the weapon, the stare of a starving man for a loaf of bread.

The alien flipped her hand away from Quinn, hiding the stone behind her.

“It will not work for you.”

“Why not?” Quinn said, almost petulantly.

“Because you cannot give this thing what it wants. Very few can. You could not do what was needed when the time came because you bear the burden of guilt and shame. Of you all, only Jack can wield it.” She looked back at Jack, a sadness in those crazy eyes. “There will be others, eventually. You will meet them and then you will be able to pass the burden of this thing on to someone else.”

“Guilt?” Jack asked. “What will I regret?”

“Nothing. You are a warrior. If a man tries to kill you but you kill him first, you are not burdened with the weight of his death because you know when death is needful.”

“Needful.” Jack said faintly as he watched her pull the stone out of her robes again and hold it out towards him. “You make it sound as if I am a sociopath.”

“Ssst,” she hissed, shaking her head. “Labels. What are labels but words invented to put people like you into a box that they might contain your power. You are a warrior, a weapon. Does the sword ponder the path of each swing? No. It trusts the wielder. Do you question your orders or do you endeavor to carry them out to the best of your abilities? This thing will take away all doubt. Your path will be pure and obvious.”

“You will make me into a mindless killing machine?” Jack asked. Horror wanted to wriggle its way out of his gut but the light in those eyes kept it at bay.

“Mindless?” The alien laughed. “Oh, hardly. Just much, much more deadly. Deadly and accurate. There will be no doubt when you choose to kill. What are your words? Collateral damage. This thing will eliminate the danger of collateral damage.”

Jack grimaced and reached for the stone. Quinn stopped him.

“Did you not hear what she said?” Quinn hissed in his ear. “This thing will destroy you.”

Jack shouldered Quinn out of the way. “What choice do we have. I’ll do it.” and he grabbed the ball.

Everyone in the room froze. It was as if the universe held its breath. Jack forced air into his lungs and laughed.

“Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“Be patient,” she said. “When the pathway opens, follow it to its source and destroy what you find there.”

“What? That is the only instructions? Does it come with a user manual?” Jack asked, shoving it into the empty pocket on his thigh.

The alien smiled a small smile and turned back towards the altar. Light flared there, behind that gauze wall. Jack put a hand up against the glare and then realized he was standing at the bottom of the stone stairway where the boys had left them, the sun too bright after so long in the gloom.

Scott swore and grabbed for his rifle. It was hanging off his should where is always was. Henry began to cry. Cyril wrapped his arms around his friend and glared at the rest of them. Jack looked at Quinn.

“The Science Corps want to offer any kind of explanation to what just happened?” Jack asked him.

“Uh, mass hallucination?” ventured Quinn.

Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a lumpy chunk of quartz. There was nothing extraordinary about the rock. Quinn grunted.

“I think we have just been had. Lets get back to the ship and pound this place into dust from orbit.” Scott growled.

Jack pulled the com unit off his belt and called the landing pod. Out upon the flat plane, something exploded into the air and arced towards them. Jack was hungry and he was regretting giving his rations away to the beggar children. With any luck, they would be back on the ship in time for lunch.

****

A week later Quinn found the team in the training room. Jack threw Scott over his hip and pinned him to the mat with his knee, his eyes never leaving Quinn. Quinn pulled a sample container out of one of his many pockets and tossed it to Jack.

“A souvenir,” Quinn said.

Jack unscrewed the lid and dumped the lump of quartz out onto his palm. Just for a moment he was almost certain it had returned to the golden spherical shape. He blinked and the illusion was gone. Looking up, he cocked an eyebrow at Quinn, the question hanging in the air between them.

“Nothing,” Quinn said. “They found nothing. It is just a rock. There is nothing extraordinary about it. We were duped. I want to think it is some monstrous practical joke the villagers play on the tourists.”

Jack tossed the empty container back to Quinn and shoved the rock into recesses of his gi.

“You going to keep that, sir?” Cyril asked.

“Why not,” Jack shrugged. “It will be a reminder not to believe everything your brain wants to tell you.”

****

Jack lay on his bunk, the stone cupped in his palm. It was third watch. Most of the ship slept around him. It was an old habit, this; to break the passing of time down into small increments based on the orbit of a long dead planet around a small golden sun.

Jack rubbed the stone gently with his thumb. It had started out small; the feelings that were not his own. The first time had been when Scott had looked at him oddly after a particularly brilliant evasive maneuver while they were practicing in the virtual reality well of Battle Room. Jack had felt the admiration and the longing to be something better than what he was. The feelings had washed over him, filling him to bursting until suddenly everyone in the room began to glow with a strange golden light. He looked down at himself and saw that he too was encased in a golden shell. Jack froze, transfixed by that visual hallucination as it expanded and grew tentacles that reached out and connected to the other members of his team. Love, admiration, respect, jealousy, hunger to succeed, lusting to be number one, contentment with belonging, all of it flowed up those threads. He knew these men intimately, having spent almost every moment of the day with them for the past year or more and although there were no surprises in those feelings, telling him nothing he did not already know, shame at eavesdropping on their hearts flared red across his mind and the threads, along with the emotions, vanished.

Was this the door the scarlet alien had talked of? He was not comfortable listening in on the inner most emotions of those around him so he began to wish the door closed but the more he pushed against the new found ability, the more they flooded in. Soon, he realized, there were subtle connections between everyone on the ship. If he focused he could follow the golden threads to anyone, even those he did not know or who he had never had dealings with.

In the long flight back to occupied space, he played with these new abilities, grew familiar with their workings, until the ship became a living, breathing animal as familiar as his own skin. Soon, he found he had forgotten about it. It was not that he could close the door in his mind, but the presence of so much information settled into a kind of white noise in the back of his brain.

Tonight was going to be the test of what the stone could do.

Jack let the ship settle around him like armor. He would need it. Something out there hated them with a xenophobic fear that bordered on the irrational. Jack could feel them. Their thoughts were like needles poking into his brain. The pain had been building, intensifying as they flew closer to bug space.

Jack slowed his breathing and began to sort through the threads of all that hate. When he thought he had one that felt the strongest, he focused on it, trying to follow it to its source.

Sweat soaked his sheets as the pain sucked the breath out of his lungs. Somewhere out in front of him he found the bug’s ship and followed the threat to the command deck where a giant, many legged creature sat in its webbing. Jack circled it. If he were truly there, in the physical reality, this thing would not hesitate to kill him. He knew this with absolute certainty.

Jack was thanking all the powers that be that he was invisible when the pilot looked up and hissed in fury at him.

A thousand leagues away, Jack screamed as his head tried to explode.

Without thinking, he held up the stone between him and the bug, meaning to use it as a shield. Instead of absorbing the pain, the stone, now a giant orb of golden light, took it into itself, bounced it across the million planes of its crystalline matrix and then poured the pain, amplified a million times over, back out along the thread of connection that Jack had built between them.

The bug in the pilot webbing exploded and turned to dust.

Jack should have severed the contact the moment he fired upon the bug. The death of the alien echoed back along the thread of contact and hit his brain like a giant fist. He would do it better next time, he thought vaguely as he passed out.

****

Jack woke in the infirmary, the heart monitor beeping softly above his head.

“You scared the hell out of everyone,” Quinn said.

Jack turned his head and groaned. He had the mother of all headaches. Quinn sat in the only chair in the room, watching him intently.

“How long have I been out,” Jack asked hoarsely.

“Not long. About a day.” Quinn said.

“A day? Shit! What did you tell them?”

Quinn shrugged. “You were the only one that got close to the alien in the temple. I told them it was probably a residual side effect. That they should wait until you woke up on your own instead of opening up your skull to see what was inside.”

Jack swore.

Quinn flinched. “Yeah. Well I wasn’t about to tell them the truth.”

Jack considered his science officer. “What truth might that be?”

“That an alien reached into your brain with her finger and gave it a brisk stir and now you are a weapon of unspeakable power.” Quinn studied his commander’s face. “I am not wrong, am I? How close is that statement to the real truth?”

Jack closed his eyes. “I can feel them all. The bugs. Every one. I can feel their disgust and abhorrence at our very existence. I could turn them all into dust but I won’t.”

“Because you have discovered you have a conscience and genocide does not sit well even in the heart of a soldier such as yourself?” Quinn asked hopefully.

Jack felt himself drifting back into sleep.

“No,” Jack said from behind his eyelids. “I shall walk out upon the battle field and open my stance to invite them in. They will launch the first blow and that blow, redirected, will kill them.”

Quinn stared down at Jack as the monitors above his head settled back into the alpha rhythms of sleep. The man was mad. Surely he was mad. But Quinn could not risk being wrong about that. He settled down to wait. Somebody needed to watch Jack’s back.

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