Sed Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?
(Who Watches the Watchmen?)
By Bill Wolfe
Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama
themselves face-to-face with a real life mind reader. But he's not
alone. He is the
representative of an entire
subculture of psychics who can trace their history back for millennia,
call themselves The Collective.
Needless to say, none of these folks ever answered the
phones for the
Psychic Friends Network®.
psychic has a
problem and needs the Nightwatch Lower Echelon's help.
Seems The Collective has lost their most
powerful psychic to come along in generations.
He's young, angry, confused.
oh yes. .
.he has kidnapped some of the world's best technical
experts and is
making them build a psychic amplifier which might just allow him to
minds of thousands.
working with The Collective, but they are never without a watcher. They will help their
watcher to track down his
lost psychic, but only with the promise that Stephanie Keel never finds
that there are people in the world who can read her innermost thoughts. She's not to be a part of
this assignment at
all. But they run
into problems that
only Stephanie can solve. Somebody
is also on the trail of the boy, and they are erasing the clues to his
seems, is not the all-powerful entity that they would have us believe. They are a mismatched
bunch of social
misfits that can barely function together, most of the time. Meanwhile, the boy finds
himself a captive
and his plans for the device are no longer under his control. He can fight them, but
only for so long.
stumbles upon a
way to turn the tables on The Collective and uses it to negotiate a new
with them. He demonstrates that a little guile can defeat even the best
Collective's efforts. Our intrepid Nightwatch heroes are not to be used
pawns. It's equal
partners, or nothing.
The Present #
Tom Weldon, psychologist and
part-time operative with the
supersecret organization which calls itself The Nightwatch Institute
Strategic and Economic Studies paused, waiting.
He was waiting for an answer from a psychic who was
miles away, but connected to him in his mind.
He and Simon Litchfield, his friend and only real
Nightwatch, had just emerged from the zone of psychic interference
an otherworldly artifact that everyone called The Egg.
In typical Litchfield fashion, Simon
had stumbled upon the
effect and then cleverly. . .no.
. .ingeniously capitalized on the limited
advantages that it
offered. That The
know about this effect spoke volumes.
It meant that while they might be able to read any mind
any time, they
lacked the manpower to do so constantly.
It also meant that Simon could devise a strategy for
agreement with The Collective. And
there was something else, something he'd needed from Tom. .
.but as soon as his mind started down this path he was
struck with an
odd thought: Simon! Endeavor to proceed with a modicum of
Tom shook his head to focus his
thoughts on the
present. His mind
had wandered—as it
often does—and he purposely cleared it of the extraneous
minutiae which so
often distracted him. He
Pasteel Agarwal had paused too long after Simon's transmitted query. In pure psychologist
fashion, he decided to
prompt the psychic. . .just a tad.
I think that Simon just asked you a question. Tom
subvocalizing his thoughts. He
as good as Simon when it came to speaking with just his mind. He didn't know how or why,
but he knew that
his way of communicating was different than Simon's.
It was slow, bulky, almost childlike, in comparison. It lacked the rich
emotional subtext that
Simon and Agarwal would send, seemingly without effort.
Nonetheless, he 'spoke' the words he felt
would break the stalemate. He
just asked you what you know about Prometheus.
This time there was a definite pause
in the link. Agarwal
was thinking about his answer, Tom
was sure of it.
Allow me to answer your question, Doctor
Litchfield, with another
question. I know
that this is a bit impolite,
but I beg your indulgence.
Go ahead, was Simon's reply.
And with it came a sense of absolute requirement. Simon was willing to allow
his adversary to
reply in his own way, but his question
would be answered.
Let us promulgate, for a moment, that the entity
to catch The Collective with it's collective—if you'll pardon
down as you and Doctor Weldon have done.
Agarwal paused again.
Perhaps to let this sink in.
was beginning to get the same sense of this man as he had from many of
patients. He was
beginning to figure
out how he ticked. What precisely, Doctor
Litchfield, would you have me tell them?
For a moment, Tom didn't think Simon
would answer. The
link was somehow different. He
was able to communicate his thoughts but
only if he made an effort to do so.
couldn't tell how he knew, but he was sure that his actual thoughts
being read. It was
almost like a
telephone conversation. He
interject his opinion, but only with a bit of effort.
I would hope, Mister Agarwal, that you would say
nothing that would in
any way compromise any of our people, or cost lives. Along
with the words, Simon was also projecting a sense of truth, honesty. .
Agarwal's only answer. I
have been your primary watcher for decades, Doctor Litchfield. I have—as a
matter of course—occasionally
looked in upon the inner workings of the entity which calls itself
and I quite assure you that I much prefer your way of doing business,
theirs. Does this
answer your question?
Can you tell me if all of The Collective shares
your views, Mister
changed, both mentally and. . .verbally. It was obvious
to Tom that the answer had
not been a total disappointment.
A fair question, sir.
fully appreciate your restraint. Do
forget that I have had ample access to your thoughts concerning your
with the Frost Consociation and the apparent reanimation of your first
That's not why I'm asking, Agarwal. Simon's
anger was real, but Tom found it
wasn't sure why,
perhaps it was simply a matter of experience.
Isn't it, Doctor Litchfield?
Isn't it? But
I sense in your
mental state that there might be another reason for you to be so
that particular thorn in your side.
Would you like to elaborate?
Don't play games with me, Agarwal. Simon answered. If
you're reading my mind you know that Stephanie has uncovered evidence
somebody who just happens to be Nightwatch's equal, seems to have been
case for a few days longer than we have.
I doubt very seriously that they could have done so
without help from
the same kind of source that we have.
Namely, I suspect that another individual—or
perhaps another faction of The
Collective—is helping them, as you are working with us.
Why Simon. . .I beg your pardon. .
.Doctor Litchfield. I
that surely you would be able to tell, by now, that I am simply
with you and that I am not, in fact, reading your mind.
Nor am I reading the mind of Doctor Weldon,
though I have included him in this link.
How do we know?
Asked. He had come
to this conclusion,
already but he wasn't completely confident in his ability to tell the
difference. I think I can tell when
my mind, but I'm too unfamiliar with the whole process to be sure that
perceptions are accurate.
Then you are exactly where you need to be, Doctor
words were accompanied by that
to be beyond the bounds of human prevarication.
It was entirely possible that there were no lies in the
link. I advise you to.
.how do you Americans put it?.
trust your gut. Yes.
That's it, Doctor Weldon.
you know our true secret. This
link that we now share obviates prevarication.
I don't buy it, Agarwal, Simon's
interruption surprised Tom. If what you say is true,
how could the boy
have hidden his plans from you for so long.? How could the Prometheus
have hidden his help to them?
Ah. . .Doctor Litchfield.
words sounded and
felt quite sincere to Tom. We—in
The Collective—rarely communicate as
you and I are, today. Since
nor Doctor Litchfield have the ability to project your thoughts, I have
a communication link between us. This
link allows both thoughts and. . .and the feelings behind
them to be
So you don't get what I've been calling an. . . an emotional subtext
during a normal communication with
others of your kind. Tom
finding all of this completely engrossing.
But he could tell that Simon was becoming annoyed with the
It is a very.
for us. Most of the
time we simply use a type of
mental communication that relies upon mere words when speaking with
as you, as a matter of
fact. It is only
when we speak with our
minds linked together that there can be no dissemination. It is our greatest boon,
and our most foul
You haven't answered my question, Mister Agarwal. Simon
tell the truth, Tom was almost grateful
that Simon had once again brought the subject around to where it
belonged. He hated
the fact that he found all of this
so fascinating, so distracting. Using
his mind, he tried to feel for an
itch at the back of his head to tell him that he was being manipulated
these tangents. But
none came. He was
forced to admit that he really needed
Simon in order to get to the bottom of this.
He rather suspected that The Collective needed him, too. They weren't much better
at cutting to the
heart of the problem than Tom was.
You are quite correct, Doctor Litchfield. And I apologize. In
answer to your
question, I fear I must
is my great fear that
some members of The Collective have struck some kind of deal with the
which calls itself Prometheus. And—to
be quite frank—since they had no need to operate under the
constraints I have
chosen to adopt, they are quite likely ahead of us in the game.
Aren't you in contact with them?
Surely if one
faction had found The Boy, already, they would have broadcast this
to the rest of their group. Wouldn't
Doctor Weldon, Agarwal seemed
almost vexed. Surely your experiences
with our members
have provided some insight into how we operate.
I refuse to believe that your years of close work with
whom early life was—shall we
say—difficult—have not provided you some kind of
inkling as to what you are dealing with? Along with the words came
feelings of wonder, curiosity, a bit of
angst and a load of simple inquiry.
felt almost ashamed that he hadn't yet come to whatever conclusion
reminded him of some of his
professors in grad school who would single out one student and then
to interrogate them about some aspect of whatever assignment had been
the day. In an
almost reflex action, he
I think I see what you mean,
It's almost like, among your own kind, you are the same as
us. You can't
anymore read another psychic's
mind than we can, each other. Or
it more simply, you can't do it without an actual assault on the other
memories. Sure, I
can make someone tell
me what is going on, but not without them knowing about it.
Precisely, Doctor Weldon.
Very well reasoned. And
exactly what I would expect from someone
so well-versed in the intricacies of the human mind.
So you do
to be human? Simon interjected.
In essence, yes, Doctor Litchfield, Agarwal
answered. And at that, you should
warned. We are as
capable of as much
humanity as any Nazi, or as much empathy as the average religious
walks into a crowded marketplace with a bomb strapped to his body. And feel free to throw in
the humility of
your sports heroes along with a liberal dose of the hubris demonstrated
of your elected officials. Does
answer your question, Doctor Weldon?
I'm afraid it does, Tom
I'm afraid it does. So
what can you tell us about
Quite simply this, Agarwal
said, with complete solemnity. Prometheus
and Nightwatch are two sides of the same coin.
Some of us—with myself being the most
vocal—admire and respect your
methods of achieving your goals. But
Prometheus tends to care less about the body count and more about the
resolution of the problem. Your
organization strikes a cord with me and mine, while Prometheus has its
supporters within our little group.
So Prometheus already has The Boy?
No, Doctor Litchfield, they do not.
And Tom's skin suddenly felt cold. Agarwal was sending an
empathic subtext which foretold only doom,
gloom and an overwhelming sense of worry.
who were watching the Prometheus
entity have decided not to share information with me. I'm afraid that we may
need your assistance
more than ever.
It is a consensus amongst The Collective, that the
own counterpart, if you will—is now operating independently. I have made
several attempts to contact
him, but to no avail.
What can we do to help? Simon
asked. It surprised
Tom to hear Simon so conciliatory.
He had the most vague of insights that
Prometheus was of utmost importance to him.
He felt—though he couldn't tell you
why—that Simon had some kind of
personal vendetta against this other shadow group.
In his own mind, it almost made him
feel a little better
that there was someone out there who was willing to counter the likes
Callow when it came to deciding the fate of the world.
And even though Agarwal's words hinted at a
very different kind of organizational philosophy, the body count that
Nightwatch had racked-up was very disturbing.
His experience with The Nightwatch
Institute had been very
limited, of course, but even then, some of what he had learned had
crap out of him. If
not for a few cases
of pure luck and Simon's unceasing morality, some Very Bad Things might
happened. This Prometheus organization might just be a
needed balance to Callow
and company's machinations. He
that when this was all over, he might retain enough curiosity into what
Prometheus organization might be about, to at least look into it.
Doctor Litchfield, well.
a start, could you tell me please where
Miss Keel thinks we need to go and what we are looking for?
I take it that you don't already know, Simon
I am sure that Doctor Weldon knows that I am not
currently reading his
mind. But I
honestly thought that you
shared his deduction, Doctor Litchfield, Agarwal
answered. Is this not so?
I guess the link is slightly different than regular
with this came a sense
of relief that Tom couldn't ignore.
a while there, he feared that Simon didn't fully share in his
the richness of the link.
Then it looks like the three of us are heading for
Agarwal, Simon said. Stephanie
has pinned-down the location to somewhere around the
area of Bagni di Lucca, at the foot of the Italian Alps. And since Prometheus is in
apparently ahead of us, too—I want you to know that you have
else we may
disagree, you should know that I really
don't want them to get there, first.
ahead and read my mind if you need to.
Agarwal paused for a moment. Tom couldn't tell if he
were reading Simon's mind, or not.
cover the arrangements, Doctor
Litchfield, Agarwal answered. And
before you found and managed to capitalize upon your advantage over us,
were collecting various pieces of equipment.
Have you quite finished?
I think I have everything we'll need.
Very well then, the psychic
replied. But please include Miss Keel
in this phase of the mission. I
fear that her talents are going to be
needed before we finish.
Now wait a minute! Tom
wasn't sure if it were he or Simon who came through on that. What he was sure of was
that it was he who continued the
challenge. I thought you said that
Stephanie was to be
out of the loop on this mission!
Please calm down, both of you.
seemed more in control than he had since they had come out of the
zone projected by The Egg. Miss
Keel has proven her worth, yet again.
It will be up to both of you to make sure that she never
specifics of what we are dealing with.
Don't forget, either of you, that I know exactly what you
feel in your
hearts for her and that when the need arises, all of us are. .
It was a few moments before Simon
replied. But his
mental words were accompanied by a
veritable smorgasbord of unspoken certainties.
There was no room for doubt.
wasn't going to put Stephanie in harm's way.
Tom couldn't help but wonder if she wouldn't have felt the
either of them.
Agarwal, you better make sure that she never finds
out about you. And
I mean it.
At this moment, Doctor Litchfield, I really wish I were reading your mind.
Agarwal's words were distinct, well
chosen. For if I were, I wonder
would find as to how you had come to the same conclusion that The
.four years ago.
Once again, Agarwal, Simon
replied. You have managed to
highlight the one and only reason that I'm not
coming after you with everything I have.
The Boy shuddered under the effects
of the electric
shock. He had tried
once again to send
his mind out and contact someone.
Pasteel, perhaps, or maybe one of his friends in The
Collective. In any
case, he had failed. As
his muscles twitched under the current,
as his hands clenched and strained against the padded straps and his
curled, his last fleeting thought had been:
I've done my work too well. I cannot fool them.
He suspected that they may have
set-up some kind of
automatic response. He
believe that they would allow simple human reflexes to determine their
or failure with this project.
barely been awake—as the monitors surely must have
shown—when he had tried to
send a message. Apparently,
in brain activity was not a subtle one.
In the few fractions of a second it took to consciously
send a message,
the scanners that he had helped to develop, had warned them what he was
to do and the electricity had begun to flow.
Whatever else these electric jolts
were meant to do, they
interrupted his ability to take action.
It was very clever. Very
human. He had been
warned since his
first days with The Collective never to let them
know what those of his kind could do.
They tried to tell him that humans would initially bow to
only to later plot and scheme ways to overthrow his kind. It was almost humorous, in
a way, that he
was now paying the price for his dismissal of their fears. He had been dealing with
humans his whole
life and now that he knew that he was not alone, now that he had seen
of The Collective, he feared humans even less than he had, before.
But he should
feared them. Perhaps,
as Pasteel had
always said, he should have both feared and respected
the humans. They
became harder and
harder to control the more experience they had with his kind. Not only that, but as the
they had a tendency to develop certain tricks for thwarting his efforts. It had all been there in
the library that The
Collective maintained. If
only he had
understood the meaning of what he
read. Perhaps this
was why Pasteel had
so strongly encouraged him to read the diaries and accounts of
operatives in the human world over the ages.
But Pasteel wasn't here.
The Boy was on his own, and he knew it.
He must now start playing their
game. He had to
lull them into a sense
of false security. . .let them think they had
won. Sooner or
later they would slip up, give him
an opportunity to take action. He
been held down and forced to do things he didn't want to, many times
before. He knew
that he could endure
this. And to tell
the truth, compared
to the things that Papa Carlos had done, this was nothing. These who held him
now were mere amateurs compared to Papa Carlos.
In the moments before the connection
with that idiot girl
was reestablished, The Boy wondered if Papa Carlos still languished in
insane asylum. He
wondered if the
demons that he had caused to plague that manipulative, child molesting
had ever diminished over the years.
hadn't checked on the man for quite a while.
Back then, they had been forced to bind his hands in cloth
to keep him
from tearing out his own eyes in a vain effort to stop the visions. For The Boy knew revenge. He had visited it upon the
man who had so
abused him. Papa Carlos.
hands had been almost gentle when he
hung the treasure around his neck.
that treasure still hung there, he could feel it.
It was his name,
his strength to endure this latest indignity at the hands of the humans. And if he ever got the
opportunity, he would
make sure to settle all accounts.
was, and had always been for The
Boy. It was the way
of the streets.
"You're flying coach? Both of you?" Stephanie Keel's tone was
pure incredulity. "I
thought this whole job was being
funded by that huge grant everyone's talking about."
As she spoke, she was scuttling around her
cluttered office collecting various gadgets and electronic devices that
thought she might just need.
Tom could tell that Simon's smile was
genuine. "At least
you're getting to go in
Business Elite, Steph."
"But that's not the point," she
about Nightbird One? Where
I can at least carry a little extra
"It's part of the op," Simon answered. "We have to go in as low
radar as possible. Tom
and I aren't even
seated together, though we'll be on the same flight.
And don't worry about cargo.
I have it on good authority that there will be quite a lot
baggage space on this flight. And
client is going to take care of any customs questions.
"And speaking of our client. .
.is he going to meet us
in Italy?" Her
eyebrows arched in
a whimsical way. It
"He's going to be in coach along with
Simon and myself. You'll
meet him at Dulles." Tom
couldn't tell Stephanie that Agarwal had
to go with them. He
had to shield all four minds from the
possibility that The Boy would be scanning the passengers for all
flights to Pisa. It
was also the reason
they were taking such a late flight—departing at three in the
the plane wouldn't be expected to
Agarwal had explained how easy it was
for members of The
Collective to find an isolated island of conscious minds flying through
and to quickly scan them all for any hint of threat.
But a shielded mind was a blank space.
On a crowded flight, three or four
empty seats together were
a cause for suspicion and it was the simplest of tricks to for a
psychic to merely
cause a passenger sitting nearby to glance in the direction of the
while looking out through that person's eyes.
If the seats were actually unoccupied.
. .fine. But if the passenger sees
a person sitting
in a seat that the psychic 'sees' as empty.
So they were flying a commercial
flight which would have empty seats. .
.because Agarwal was buying-up a third of them. And on the off-chance that
The Boy was also
looking in on the flight controllers on the ground, an entire plane
arriving—such as Nightbird One—with everybody
shielded. . .would have been a dead
give-away. The only
way to hide from a psychic was in a crowd.
Tom was beginning to truly understand both
the capabilities and the limitations of The Collective.
That they were lying to Stephanie was
a given. More than
she could ever suspect, it was for
her own good. Simon
and Agarwal had
both explained it to him and though it went against the grain, Tom
was for the best. Stephanie
given only the bare bones of the operation.
group—apparently one she had run into in the
past—had taken several top technical people and were building
some kind of
device in the foothills of the Italian Alps.
She would set-up shop in the city of Lucca and try to hack
local net to support Simon and Tom as they went in to shut-down the
research. It was a
straightforward op—as far as she was concerned. It bothered her that she
was left behind, and she wasn't shy
about letting both of them know. But
she also knew that the clandestine organization had some pretty
in there—including some monstrous back-up
generators—and she could help them
best by finding a way to cut all power in the place.
Tom knew that she had managed to
retrieve an almost complete
inventory of what had been shipped to the complex.
Her palm computer was stuffed with diagrams, specs and
warranty information for a host of servers, generators, passive sensors
multiplexing processors. She
had a lot
of reading to do, but somehow, she would find a weakness and exploit it.
"Well, I think
I'm looking forward to meeting him," she said.
Stephanie motioned for Simon to scoot to the side so she
retrieve two battery packs from the crowded shelf he was blocking. "Anybody who can convince
Litchfield to fly coach, is a man
be reckoned with."
# The Very Recent Past
The Boy caught them on the
Autostrade, an empty van driving
along at over a hundred kilometers per hour.
With his augmented powers he had been able to scan all
Europe within minutes. His
had been sure that The Collective was going to recruit some human
organization and mount a rescue attempt.
They had even asked him what he knew about what
connections Collective might
have within the CIA, Interpol, MI6, and others.
Only recently, had they made him scan the roads. If the shielded team had
been a day or so
earlier, he would have missed them.
of course, as soon as he detected them he tried to hide it. It didn't work. The current flowed again,
as it hadn't done for days.
So far, he had only been told to
gather inside information
on global trade. It
was a trick that
The Collective had used to increase their coffers to the point where
virtually unlimited. His
were playing it smart. They
a slow approach to utilizing his increased powers.
If they were as smart at stock trading as they seemed,
slowly build a financial base that would make them all but unstoppable. Done correctly, it
wouldn't even raise an
eyebrow from the world trade regulators.
A few billion here or there was a tiny fraction of the
and gained on any given day.
And the device was everything The Boy
had dreamed it could
be. As badly as his
plans had gone
awry, he reveled in the sheer
of it. With this at
his command, he
could have mobilized an effort from the humans to move the moon into a different orbit.
Any unshielded mind anywhere in the world was within easy
controllers would find the exact
location of a target and the displays before him would guide him from
present location to a specific country, city, block and finally, a room. It was an ability he had
possessed, though it was the same that had found him for The Collective
They hadn't yet ordered him to break
through an active
mental shield, but he knew that when the time came, it would be as easy
tearing through tissue to see what was on the other side. The thought terrified him. For a psychic, having your
battered down by a superior force was exceedingly traumatizing. According to the archives
Collective maintained, many do not survive it, at all. If they ordered
do it, he would resist. He
They had given him no opportunity to
catch them unawares. Every
so often he would test them and take
the pain, just to keep them thinking that he was still fighting them
he had. If and when
he got the
opportunity, he even knew what he would do first. He
would burn a junction box beneath his seat.
He knew what it looked like from before he
was taken. It was
one of the things
that the technicians working with him on the device had thought strange. If only he'd listened.
The current stopped and The Boy's
relaxed. They knew
that he had
encountered a shielded mind and they wanted the details. He tried to hold back but
they had become
expert in making him cooperate. By
time the van made its way up the Lima river valley from Lucca, there
security forces watching it. And
because The Boy was shielding them, the psychic in the van had no hope
The Boy was awake for every painful
moment of it. The
drugs administered through the same
needles that fed him made sure of it.
He watched through the eyes of others as the team entered
cottage on the outskirts of town.
they left under the cover of darkness, bristling with weapons and
gear, it was apparent that they knew where they were going.
It was to be a straightforward
assault through the main
entrance of the complex. They
defeated the security of the pubic facility and made their way down
empty spas and mud baths to the terme—the
hot springs for which the town was named.
The Boy had fond memories of soaking in some of those
spas, letting the
natural heat soak in as the day's tensions eased.
The first few months in this place had been hectic, but
been purchased and the
employees given a holiday while it was 'renovated.'
The trucks came and went for a month
before it was
nobody counted the
trucks nor surveyed their contents was not surprising.
It had been bought by rich foreigners and
they were going to make it a haven for more of their kind. And the money was good. They paid for everything
The heavy steel doors were no match
for the explosives the
team had brought. With
barely a muffled
thump, they were open. The new generation
plastics cut through
metal like soft butter, only a flash and a wisp of smoke gave warning
alarms on the door had
been circumvented completely by one of the team who was obviously an
expert. There was no signal sent to
the security office. This
sobered many within, who had thought
themselves well protected on this front.
Of those now living in the complex.
Only two even knew that there was
boy strapped to a chair. All
rest. . .were just following
the highest pay any had
The intruders moved through the caves
using night vision
goggles so compact that they looked like little more than bulky
teams—shielded by The Boy—assembled before and
behind them. A
lone guard who had not been
briefed on what was about to happen, walked his regular
patrol. The Boy watched the poor fellow's mind—filled with
inane gripes and
worries—as his path took him closer to the intruders.
While he watched this, The Boy also
scanned the group as it
moved in darkness through the caves.
Feather-light, his consciousness skittered around the
edges of the
shield the psychic had erected. He
found the link that connected this psychic to a control pod and almost
instantaneously followed it back to its source:
was the Cairo
pod. It didn't
surprise him. Pasteel
had always had his suspicions about
that group. They
were not the most
powerful pod, but they had always seemed much more willing to do
the rest of The Collective.
The Boy remembered fuming at
Pasteel's reluctance to even
take a chance at injuring that
woman while they were trying to unite humanity against that ever
comet. . .and he felt shame. He
had considered enlisting the Cairo pod in his schemes to get this
device built, but had decided in the end that he was equal to the task. If he'd had a control pod
as back-up, he
would not have found himself taken, as he was.
One of the problems with reading minds is that you can
only know what
that person actually knows. If
fooled, then so are you.
On the screens before him and in his
mind, he watched as the
lone security guard's low grumbling came to the attention of the
froze in place as he
casually strolled the cave, flashlight playing along the walls and
jingling and Italian leather shoes scuffing on the unnaturally smooth
He turned a corner and came
face-to-face with the team. The
Boy barely managed to withdraw his
presence from the guard before the man froze—his muscles
locked by the Cairo
Pod. The shield
intruders expanded instantly to envelop him.
In The Boy's mind, it was as if the fellow had disappeared.
"He knows nothing of the boy and
nothing of any
intrusion alerts having been triggered."
The precise enunciation and diction that The Boy could
hear through the
speakers indicated that the man was young.
in his thirties and he
was of Asian descent. If
The Boy had to
guess, he thought it might be one of the men that Pasteel used to argue
The Boy had only the screens, now. But the tiny cameras
implanted in the living rock needed very
little light to function. The
guard's forgotten flashlight provided more than sufficient illumination
what happened next. One
of the group, a
darker shade amidst the shadows, glided forward and placed the muzzle
silenced, small caliber pistol to the paralyzed man's head.
"No!" A whispered command picked-up
microphones embedded with the cameras.
"No killing unless. . ."
The Boy was sure it was the psychic
speaking out loud,
trying to warn them what would happen.
That they hadn't foreseen this possibility spoke volumes
for the degree
of trust between this member of The Collective and the rest of his team. The sound over the
speakers by the chair was
almost insignificant. It
was the sound
of a very well-maintained pistol chambering a new round. Fast!
The sound of the shot, itself, was
lost completely to the
several small microphones scattered throughout this section of cave. But the psychic trauma of
reverberated through the ether. Only
very few psychics can shield a death.
The Boy was one of them—even without
for the Cairo Pod, there was no
protection at all. They
were in the
man's mind at the time the bullet tore through his brain, fragmented on
of his skull with each ragged piece of it tumbling through a new path
carnage until it stopped.
designed to do just this. No
and all energy expended within the brain pan.
The Boy knew that the Cairo Pod was
out of action. Whether
they would be able to recover in
time to help was largely a matter of luck.
At least one of them would probably never quite recover
they were intensely shielding
themselves at the time, it wasn't surprising that their trauma let out
faintest psychic peep. The
detect it, but only because he had found their pod and was scanning it
time. The connection with the pod was broken.
As each member withdrew into his or her own shielded
each sent out a clear cry of agony, loss, death.
The Boy knew that no matter what
happened from this point
forward, The Collective had been warned.
It was only a matter of time before the pod member least
affected by the
death of the guard would have no choice but to tell the rest of The
what had been going on. One
another, the cat was out of the bag.
the sense of loss, there was also elation.
Here he was, trying so hard to let The Collective know
where he was and
with one careless action, a trigger-happy human had done it for him. Almost absently, he heard
voice speaking to the security teams surrounding the intruders.
"Take them!" The voice was calm,
accustomed to command. "Go
take them all, now." The
indicator that the controller was in any way rattled was the fact that
not excluded The Boy from this verbal command.
The Boy tried to send a message to the psychic on the team
to give up,
to lay down and play dead until the shooting was over but once again
machines which watched his brain patterns saw the change from shielding
sending and the current flowed before he could begin to transmit.
What the machines did not see, was
that The Boy wanted to be punished. He was in the throes of
the current when the
psychic—along with his Prometheus team—was gunned
down in the narrow confines
of the passageway.
When a psychic dies by violence, all
psychics everywhere know
it. The Collective
energized by the agonized cry from some of the Cairo
Pod—paused, or bolted
upright in bed, when his dying mind called out.
It was too fast for anything but a glimpse of darkness and
flashes as the bullets tore into his flesh.
But there is a signature with any transmission, a mental
voice, if you
will, and they all knew that it was a man named Young Soo Kwon who had
died. He was one of
their more socially
able operatives, and had often held long and emotional debates with
Agarwal over the best approaches to dealing with humanity.
It was the man that Pasteel had been
trying to locate and
contact for weeks. He
had pestered just
about everyone in The Collective for any help or information any of
them had. He had
tried to tell them all that Kwon was
in danger. And as
almost the entire
Collective scrambled to find out what they could as to what he was
he was killed, several noted that they couldn't contact the Cairo Pod,
all. On an airplane
over the Atlantic,
in a cramped coach seat, the man sitting four rows ahead of Tom groaned
in extreme pain.
Without hesitation, Tom untangled his
large frame from the
narrow confines of the three empty seats he had appropriated, and made
forward. The plane
was dark, most of
the passengers asleep or reading.
noise in the cabin was a steady drone that he had almost become
over the last two hours since leaving Washington.
It had been a long time since Tom had flown regular coach. His legs were stiff from
having to try and
curl them sideways so he could catch a little sleep.
He could still taste the canned flavor of chicken
something-or-another that had been the evening meal and even though he
three seats alone to himself, he could even detect the harsh acetone
the nail polish that some nitwit teenager had started to apply an hour
earlier—until the flight attendant put a stop to it, of
He shook his head to clear the
cobwebs as he hunched down in
the isle to whisper into Agarwal's ear.
The stocky Hindu was sitting on the isle seat next to a
overweight man who had—because there were so many empty seats
flight—rolled over onto his side into the seat to his right. His huge behind was like a
stretching up to the shorter man's shoulder.
Tom mused that if the fellow suffered from flatulence, the
be blown right across the plane.
It was only partly a question.
"Something has happened, hasn't it?"
. .shot. .
think." Agarwal was
whispering too low for Tom to hear.
"No, thank the gods," even in the
Tom could see that there were tears glistening on his dark skin. "One of us!" The tone left no
doubt as to of whom he was speaking.
was one of The Collective. "Of
of us, he is the one I most suspected of trying to take a different
path. I have been
attempting to contact him for
some time but he refused my efforts.
suspect it was he who was leading
others to The Boy."
Tom looked around to see if anyone
was taking too much
interest in the conversation.
Fortunately, since the plane was so sparsely populated,
was either asleep or trying desperately to get that way. They were only two hours
into the nine-hour
direct flight to Pisa. Tom
were somewhere over Nova Scotia.
"I was hoping.
Agarwal started to say
something and then stopped himself.
Tom, however, was more than experienced enough with this
situation to let it stop at that.
"You were hoping that they would
fail, but without harm
to your. . .friend?"
"When one of us dies, Doctor Weldon,
it is a loss to
all of us."
"Would you like to talk about it.?" Tom couldn't help himself. It was just part of his
"No thank you, Doctor Weldon,"
but his voice was distant, detached.
"But this matter is something that
has now become a
concern of the entire Collective and there will be much for us to
before this aircraft lands in Pisa."
The little man then closed his eyes and seemed to be
sleep. Tom felt a
crouching there in the aisle, talking to someone who was apparently
As he rose to make his way back to
his seat, however,
Agarwal spoke again. "But
tell you this, Doctor Weldon. We
have the full and unfailing support of the entire Collective backing us
endeavor. Try to be
prepared for things
to go much more quickly than they have.
And now I must bid you, goodnight, Doctor Weldon. Do try to get some sleep."
Tom settled into his seat and
reclined it as far as it would
go. Sleep? Hardly.
He had way too
much to think about. He
leaned back for
some serious pondering and the next thing he knew the flight attendant
asking him to please sit up and buckle in.
They were half an hour out of Pisa.
Tom couldn't believe it.
He looked over the seat and behind
him to where Simon was
sitting and saw that he too had just awakened.
He hadn't felt this refreshed after a flight since. .
.well. . .since ever. He had to go to the
bathroom badly and was
absolutely famished. He'd
at least one meal and he could detect the lingering odor of plastic
soggy bacon. It
smelled like ambrosia.
He suspected that Agarwal had knocked
him out like he had
done to Simon back at the Canon Moon.
And though he tried to be angry about it, he just felt too
.too rested to make
much of a
fuss. If they did
it, he was sure they
saved him from hours of pointless pondering over what had happened. As it was, he felt like he
was ready to take
on the world. . .just as soon as he
emptied his bladder.
"You shouldn't have killed him." The Boy was speaking as if
though his mouth wasn't moving. He
becoming much more fluent in English than he was, before. He was also developing a
sense of how his
connection with the girl worked. She
was very simply hardwired to his mind.
She could verbalize his thoughts out loud and describe
what he was
seeing. The Boy,
himself, had proposed
this to the technicians as an avenue for direct mind-to-mind
he was also sure
that none of the scientists or technicians he
had been working with had yet had the time to develop this technology
time that he had been taken. The
in their human-designed security must have been very early on. Perhaps the slaver had
been incautious and
had attracted the attention of some other powerful men.
One thing The Boy had learned on the streets
was that no matter how big the fish, there was always a bigger fish out
just waiting to pounce.
"They came with violence in their
hearts, and we met
them with violence. For
all we know,
they meant to kill you." The
controller's voice seemed distracted.
The Boy would occasionally hear the shuffling of papers
speakers. But he
didn't need to be able
to read the fellow's mind to tell that his words were nothing but air. This man, and those he
brook no interference with their new toy.
Oh yes, The Boy had seen this kind of man, before.
"When one of our kind dies by
violence, all The
Collective will know about it."
The Boy had heard this, many times before and had
experienced it himself
on too many occasions. Fifteen
best had died on the ships sent out to fight the comet.
Eleven of them had been violent deaths due
to accidents and malfunctions. Woe
the psychic who is trying to drive a car when this happens. The shock is immense,
anyone who has not experienced it.
cuts through most routine shielding and all but drug-induced slumber. The Boy had one more facet
to add to The
Collective's library. It
penetrate the effects of intense electric shock.
He doubted he would ever have the opportunity to add this
factotum to their records.
He wondered, however, if someday the
electric shocks did not
cease, if they just kept ramping up the amperage until he was dead. .
his mind would be able to send out that last call.
Somehow, he doubted it.
"You have hidden yourselves, so far," he caused the girl
say. "But you must know that eventually you will be
tracked down and dealt
"It is of no importance. This base of operations
has become untenable, anyway. We
will be moving to more secure quarters
This surprised The Boy, though he
realized that it shouldn't
have. Once they
were discovered, even
the humans must realize that there would be others to follow.
"But enough of that, now. I require that you scan
all incoming flights and while you're at
it, do another sweep of the main roads.
Also, as of this point, I want you to erect your strongest
this entire complex. Keep
it within the
bounds of the caves, however. I
want any civilians wandering in and out of contact with any of your
freaks who just happen to be browsing the locals for information."
The Boy was stunned.
How could they know so much?
they simply deduced the capabilities and the tactics of The Collective
they had some inside help? He realized that his thoughts were being
to his controller but he couldn't help himself.
He was sure that he hadn't given so much away in all of
he'd had with humanity.
what had happened with the death of Kwon and the injury to the Cairo
was exactly the right precaution to
"What happens when you have to move
me and the shield
goes down?" The Boy
himself. He was
simply curious. "You
must know that The Collective is
going to be crawling all over this valley within a matter of a day, or
By our estimates, it should take them
until tomorrow morning
to get any operatives into town without our knowledge.
we say. .
.things will be resolved.
are mechanisms in place to deal with any contingencies.
But enough of that. I
can tell by my readout that you just now
erected the shield. However,
haven't yet begun your scans, as I directed.
You should be proud to know that your efforts have managed
to delay your
routine scans by exactly three minutes.
The Boy considered fighting and then
thought better of it. It
was no use. He
performed the sweeps as ordered and though he noticed that there
was one Atlantic flight that was somewhat underpopulated, it was
nothing he hadn't
seen before. The
screens before him showed
no deception when he made his report, so whatever slight doubt there
been, was insufficient to trigger the current.
That was all The Boy could ask for.
But in his silence, he waited.
# The Present #
"This will do just fine," Stephanie
said, as she
scanned the cluttered counters and shelves in the rear of the shop. "This guy has everything
Simon and Agarwal put their heavy
cases in the one free
corner they could find. Tom
carrying the remaining two—much heavier—cases that
Stephanie had packed and had
somehow managed to get on the plane.
seemed that the normal baggage weight restrictions just didn't apply
Collective was involved. The
of pounds of cargo they had brought hadn't so much as raised an eyebrow
the airline employees working the counters when they checked in. Tom
extensively on regular airlines, and had never seen anything like it.
And in Italy, the Customs check at
the airport had been just
plain weird. They
had landed in Pisa
normally and it seemed from that point on everything had gone just
passports were scanned
by unusually bored-looking officials and their bags were waiting for
the turnstile. There
were no lines for
them anywhere, though there were
crowds all around. Everyone
to be doing something else at the time the Nightwatch team and their
needed to get through. Tom
people visibly pausing, as if deep in thought, at just the moment their
might intersect the foursome as they made their way to the
conveniently-waiting, and half empty, regular passenger bus from the
He was sure it was The Collective at
its best. Somehow
they were nudging large numbers of
people into deciding to take the next bus, choose another line or just
look at maps at just the right time to let this little group through. Twice he had looked behind
to see the normal
bustle and crowd seemingly surge to fill the void left by their passage. As he thought about the
blackmail that he
and Simon had used in order to try and secure a more equal footing with
Collective, he was sobered. If
could do this just to shave an hour or so off the team's arrival time,
was no telling what they could do if they felt really
But the uneasy truce was holding. Tom searched his mind for
any trace that he was being actively watched,
as he was before he entered the
zone created by The Egg, and felt nothing.
There was the link to Agarwal, alone.
He could use this link to speak, but only with some effort. Agarwal, however, had
cautioned both he and
Simon not to use it unless it was absolutely necessary.
The psychic had no idea what The Boy's
capabilities might now have become.
The small computer shop on the
outskirts of Lucca had been
vacated so recently that the freshly-cooked pasta set to drain in the
still moist. Stephanie
was told only
that the owner had been paid handsomely to take a three day holiday to
his mother, in Florence.
"What's this?" she asked. She was reading a post-it
note she had
snatched from the largest screen, the one in the center, of the
multi-screen workstation that the shop owner had maintained in the back.
." she was almost speaking to herself as she rapidly typed
strings of code onto one of the keypads strategically placed at the
passwords? He left
me some of his passwords?"
Agarwal was momentarily taken aback
reaction. As she
settled into the very
expensive, ergonomically-adjustable seat and expertly set it to the
of her compact frame, she looked at the little man.
"Nobody with this kind of set-up. And I mean NOBODY
leaves a list of passwords to five different banking
systems, two military databases, the keycodes to every cell system in
and the freaking electric company
just sitting on his screen on a sticky note.
"We thought it would help you to make
sense of this
station. Miss Keel,
I assure you that Signore Piujolie was quite willing to cooperate
with us, fully. Our
compensation to him was. .
"I have four
of these passcodes, Mister Agarwal."
Stephanie interrupted the man and turned her back on him,
as she continued to explore and test the capabilities of the system. "I know what it
takes to get them and
every one of these others are worth millions.
. .billions in the hacker world."
Stephanie typed furiously.
Screen after screen sprung into life with web sites,
streams of data and
text as she spoke. "Do
who's little shop this is? Do
you?" she asked, finally.
"I am told that he is quite adept. .
." Agarwal started.
I'm sure of it. Mamissmo!"
way she said the name, it was as if she expected everybody in the world
recognize it. To
her, it was apparent
that she'd mentioned a name like Leonardo, or Madonna, or Elvis.
Tom couldn't help himself.
asked. "Who's that?"
Stephanie looked at Tom &
Simon as if they were from
another planet. "Mamissmo," she repeated.
"Only one of the top
three hackers in the world. He's
Tom almost laughed until he saw that
Simon had tweaked to
something else. His
changed, instantly. He
was taking all
of this very seriously, all of a sudden.
Agarwal, for his part, still seemed completely clueless.
just a hacker, Tom. He's
a hacker god.
He is the sword of justice and the bane of evil in the
universe. He's the
hacker who plastered
the Piano-Wire Killer's face all over the internet when the Paris
weren't moving fast enough to suit his taste.
He is the one who exposed the blood diamond trade through
Miami. And Simon, I
know you've heard of this one. He
is also the hacker who redirected the
Pentagon's webpage to that pentagram occult site three years ago."
"Sounds like he's made a lot of
Stephanie's voice was starting to waver, she was that upset.
"He is the
most sought-after hacker in history!" He's the one who published
the British Prime
Minister's Instant Messages to his gay lover, last year. And Mamissmo
is the hacker who emptied the Imelco-Gomez Cocaine Cartel's Swiss
after they blew up that Mexican Judge's house!
That's who Mamissmo is,
paused in her
tirade as she called-up yet another screen.
"The price on his head from at least
criminal organizations totals over a billion dollars.
I know of at least two people who have been murdered
somebody thought they might be Mamissmo!
As she spoke, she was reading the contents of the screen.
"And I'm sitting at his station
reading his freaking email!
So what did you people do to him,
"Once again, Miss Keel, I assure you
compensation. . ."
Stephanie spat. She
had sprung from her
seat and taken a loose fighting stance as if she was expecting Agarwal
her at any moment. "With the information he left on that note. .
know his name, where his family is and where some of his money is
already found over five hundred million
euros he has stashed in accounts
Moscow to Grand Cayman. What
compensation did you offer a man
She looked at Simon, eyes begging for
if the information on that one
stupid note were made public, he'd be dead in a matter of days. His entire family
would be dead soon after.
Governments would fall, banks would collapse and
indictments would fly
for decades! Don't
you understand what
your clients must have done? Can you imagine what they
must have done to him, to make him
leave this kind of
information behind. . .in the open?"
Tom got it.
taken a while, but he finally understood the problem.
He could see what The
Collective had done. By
fellow's mind, they had done much the same to him as they had to Callow. In all truth, he was
without a doubt
completely unharmed and was probably basking away in the sun on the
coast, somewhere. When
they no longer
needed his hacker's station, he would return to his life with none the
Stephanie couldn't be told any of
this. His mind
whirled furiously, imagining and discarding scenario
after scenario, lie after lie that he could tell Stephanie that would
answer her concerns and preserve the delicate status
quo that had kept her in the game but out of the loop for
mission, so far. He
could think of no
way to make this better. Nothing
could do or say could possibly just make it go away.
"Stephanie," Simon's tone was
honest. "Do you
It was Stephanie's turn to be taken
aback. She glanced
at the triple-damning
information on the screens, she gave Agarwal a searching, scathing
likes of which Tom had never seen before.
She was sizing the man up, looking into his soul with
every sense she
had. And the effect
wasn't lost on the
little Hindu. His
posture changed, he
seemed to stand straighter, taller.
face assumed a look of dead sincerity.
But in his eyes, he was pleading
to be believed. He
had nothing to offer
but his word. And
he knew it wasn't
going to be enough. His
only goal had
been to give Stephanie the best equipment available.
And he simply hadn't understood the enormity of what The
Collective had done, until this moment.
Finally, Stephanie turned from him
and directed her
attention to Simon. But
changed immediately. Gone,
intensity. But what
replaced it almost
broke Tom's heart. Every
nuance of her
look, her posture, her entire being cried-out.
Tom recognized this look.
And to see it from tough-as-nails Stephanie Keel rattled
him more than
he would have imagined. It
was a look
he had seen from certain children who had been terribly, terribly hurt
adult they should have been able to trust.
It was a look that he had strived for, hoped for. .
.and occasionally even prayed for.
It was the look that said:
Can I? Dare I trust you? Tom had worked with some
for months without
ever seeing this look. It
rare. . .precious.
"Yes Simon, I do. I
Tom could tell that she meant it. He could also sense that
this was the first time she had truly
admitted it to herself. As
a psychologist, he was fascinated.
As a friend who would kill or die for either
of them, he was scared to death. Careful, Simon, he said to himself. This
is important. Don't
screw this up.
Simon smiled with a look of pure
relief. Yet he
looked older now to Tom than he had
ever looked. The
lines in his face were
somehow highlighted and his silvery white hair—still
impeccably groomed, of
course—seemed less vibrant than usual.
It was as if he were putting all of himself into the words
subtracting—in some unnamable way—from whatever
aura he produced, in the
process. Tom had
never seen anything
like this in his life. It
like looking at a corpse. Not
this moment had he realized how much of his perception of Simon
a synthesis of both the physical reality of the man as
well as the projection of wisdom and vitality incarnate in
look, every gesture, in the very way he carried himself. He realized that he may
never look at Simon
quite the same way, again. And
understood a little of the price the man must be constantly paying in
maintain that persona. When
at Simon, now. . .he saw the real man. He was looking at Simon at
his most honest,
most real moment.
It was fascinating. It
"Stephanie," he said with his old man
voice. "I promise
you that this man was in no
way harmed. You
know me, girl. You
know how I think and you know how I feel
about violence. . .even if you don't always
me. Don't you?"
"Yes Simon, I do."
Her answer was simple, pure.
"You know that I will do violence
when I think it is
necessary, but I swear to you now that I know how this was done and
this Piujolie fellow is just fine."
"Do you understand, Simon, what would
continued to look
deeply into the older man's eyes.
Wanting to trust. Wanting
believe. "He has
pissed-off a lot
of very powerful people. They
just throw him in jail, they would torture him, torture his family to death in front of him if this
got out. If I
thought for a moment that
I was responsible for anything. . ."
"Do you think I
be party to anything like that just to give you access to this
Tom glanced at Agarwal.
The man was transfixed in his corner of the cluttered room. His eyes darted between
Simon and Stephanie
in utter awe, completely engrossed in the rare moment of truth, between
them. Even Tom was
amazed that he
hadn't fully appreciated Stephanie's true concerns.
He was supposed to be the professional.
.and yet Simon had cut right to the heart of the matter. Somehow it surprised and
even hurt his
feelings, a little, that when it came right down to it, Simon was even
psychologist than Tom. But he smiled an inward
knew professional pique
when he felt it. Tom
Weldon was well
aware that he wasn't above such pettiness.
It was one of his strengths that he could tease this
feeling out, face
.deal with it. . .and
lay it to rest.
"So you know
how they made this happen?" Stephanie now looking at Simon with merely
concentration, but she had visibly relaxed a little.
"I do," he answered.
No room for doubt.
"And you can't tell me?" She looked a little
she might finally be
let-in on The Big Secret.
"No I can't, Stephanie. I've made a promise and no
matter what, even if you walk out on
this operation and out of my life, forever.
really can't tell you how I
know or how they did it. But
absolutely sure that he is going to be just fine.
You have my solemn word."
And that was it.
Stephanie took a deep breath of the over-conditioned air,
and slowly nodded
once again to Simon. It
was enough. So
Tom released the breath that he
hadn't even realized he was
him, he heard Agarwal
do the same. But
gentleman wasn't completely off the hook.
"You, Mister Agarwal," Stephanie
attention to their client. But
all business, now. Her
serious, perhaps even a bit threatening, but nothing like it had been,
before. "I will
know if anything
happens to this man. . .everyone in my world will know it if he were to
suddenly disappear. .
"I quite understand, Miss Keel." Agarwal was at least as
serious. His body
language and tone were completely
genuine. Tom was
what he knew—that The Collective would be watching out for
this particular hacker
for some time to come. No
At that, Stephanie looked once more
at Simon. "Thank
you, Simon. I
really needed that from you."
"I know you did, Steph. And I can't tell you how
much your trust and respect mean to
me. I won't let you
down." Tom realized
that Simon was. . .himself
face, his stance.
his hair was somehow
different. Vital. Wise.
Simon was Simon, and
all was right with the world.
you get out of here and let me work."
Stephanie's tone and demeanor were brisk, businesslike. "I've got some ideas how
the trunk line this illicit research complex must be using. Even
couldn't hide the power requirements for some of the
equipment that I know has been
delivered in the last
three months. And
since I now have an
inside track to everything I'll need, I think I can set up an encrypted
link to your cell phones that even Mamissmo
She paused to rummage deep into one
of the voluminous side
pockets of her loose-fitting 'travel' pants.
She pulled out a small leather packet and tossed it to Tom.
"Here," she said.
"Take these and stick them in your pocket.
They're earbugs with a frequency I can slave
to any phone I want." Tom
compliantly slipped the packet into the inside pocket of his black
"Well?" she asked, looking at the men
as if they
were customers who had walked up to her counter at the five-and-dime
just staring at her. "What
waiting for? Scoot!"
The three men exchanged glances and
silently made their way
to the front of the shop. As
stepped out into the fading Tuscan sun, they were assaulted by the
the bustle of regular people, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding
their midst. Car
horns were honking,
voices were raised and laughter echoed through the narrow, busy streets
Lucca. The day's
work done and the
evening just beginning. Though
city itself was a walled enclave, with no private vehicles at all, here
outskirts it was a thriving sprawl of tiny neighborhoods; each with its
microcosm of vibrant humanity going about the business of life.
It was unbelievably
refreshing for Tom, who simply stood with the others, silently drinking
sights and sounds of the moment. After
the intensity of the exchange between Simon and Stephanie, it was
soothing medicine. He
wondered if the
others felt the same.
"The bus will pick us up in a moment." Agarwal's words seemed
disconnected to reality.
"Bus?" Simon asked.
"What happened to the van with all our equipment. .
"Your equipment will be waiting for
you in. .
.at our destination."
Agarwal had changed his tone as a group of German tourists
their way up the narrow sidewalk.
three had to crowd dangerously close to the busy road in order to let
plump masses—even in single file—squeeze by.
Tom could smell sour vino on their breath as they passed.
It was almost eight in the evening,
locally, and Tom
realized that neither he nor Simon had eaten since that first meal on
plane. The shuttle
from Pisa had made
it in record time, but it had still taken over an hour to reach the
Stephanie was to set-up her ad hoc
control center. He
had no idea if
Agarwal had eaten any of the meals offered after Simon and he had
asleep, but the growling in his stomach now rivaled the noises it had
the trip from the airport as Stephanie complained at how stuffed she
all the tasty offerings up there in Business Elite, class.
So while he was sure she
was fine, Tom's body demanded fuel.
. .now! And here he was in one of
the food capitals
of the world. From
where he stood he
could see two signs proclaiming Ristorante,
three trattoria and of all
things, a Burger King.
"Be that as it may, Mister Agarwal,"
the fellow's remark regarding their equipment and baggage. "But Simon and I haven't
quite some time, do you think it may be possible.
"By the gods, Doctor Weldon, Doctor
Litchfield, I do apologize." The
look of horror
on the man's face was unmistakable.
was truly chagrined. Without
continued out loud. "Sujata,
the driver circle the block again, no. .
.make it two blocks.
what you can have delivered to us sometime in the next two minutes,
please? Yes, yes
that will work just
fine, make sure that everyone is.
that will do
nicely. No. No, I think that the beef
would be better, in this case. Seafood
doesn't travel as well. Thank
you, Tanda, well done."
It was so fast, so sure, that Tom was
dumbstruck at the
sheer scope of it. Somehow,
that had been going on, Agarwal was still in contact with a control pod
somewhere in the world. He
forgotten that he too had once been connected to such an entity.
Within half a minute, Tom noticed an
old man in white apron
and full moustache scurrying from one of the Ristoranti
he had noticed, earlier. The man carried a large plastic
bag in each hand.
Agarwal fumbled in his pocket and
pulled-out a huge wad of
bills. As the man
hastily handed one to Simon.
"Here, Simon," he almost whispered it. "He's been given your
image as the man
who forgot his da porta via—carry-out—dinner."
as he approached. "Il suo pasti.
dispiache, Signore, ma non ha vistato.
"You can speak English, to him,
Doctor Litchfield. We'll
translate for him," Agarwal said,
still in sotto voice. Tom's Italian was rusty, but he knew the man was
something along the lines of: "Please, sir, your food.
I'm sorry I didn't see you leave."
Simon assured him that all was well
as he gave the man the
money Agarwal had passed him. Tom was impressed when he noticed it was
hundred-Euro bill. No
matter what was
in the bag, it was a gross overpayment.
That seemed to be one of the hallmarks of The Collective. If they had to use you,
they tried to make
up for it. He was
when Agarwal peeled another just like it off and handed it to Tom to
fellow from the wine shop who came hobbling up from another direction
sturdy bag containing two bottles of good Tuscan red table wine, four,
liter bottles of San Pelligrino
water. . .and a travel-sized
noticed, almost absently, that one of the bottles of wine was
in a clear, two liter glass bottle, three-quarters full. Most likely, it was a wine
from the home
vintages were almost
never sold to tourists and were reserved for family and close friends. He had been welcome enough
in the homes of a
few Italian friends to have tasted it, before.
And he'd never even heard of one that was less than
By the time the very modern, luxury
coach bus pulled up to
the corner where the three stood.
were loaded with enough food and drink to last them the rest of the day. The fruit vendor who had
arrived last, even
brought a roll of paper towels and a paring knife that though sharp,
definitely seen better times. It
obviously one that she used every day, and had somehow 'accidentally'
the order. Working
with The Collective
at their best was nothing short of amazing.
That the bus was crowded with
tourists from every part of
the globe wasn't surprising. These
Tuscan tours were quite popular. That
none of them seemed to notice the three food-laden men climb aboard at
must have been an unscheduled stop, was just becoming part of the norm,
Tom. That the last
three rows of the
bus were empty—including the wide bench seat at the very back
was just another
little perk and he gave it hardly a thought.
They settled into their little zone
of privacy as the bus
lumbered through the relatively modern streets of Lucca. The smells from the
various bags were almost
they sprawled on the
roomy, comfortable seats, they each began setting out a spread that
far surpassed any Italian restaurant anywhere in the States. There was pasta and salad
and fruit and
bread, there was chicken and steak and cold, sweet water to wash it
.and though the wine had to be sipped from plastic cups,
it was pure
nectar of the ancient gods who once ruled this land.
Tom intentionally opened the labeled bottle, first. He knew that you always
saved the best for
The trip from Lucca, up through the
valley of the Lima
river, is one of the most beautiful, fascinating drives anywhere. The tourists on the bus
were napping-off their
jet lag, some looking at maps, and a few tried to look out the windows
authentic Tuscan sights might be glimpsed in the fading twilight. As for the three men at
the very back, none
of them so much as spared them a glance.
The delicious smells must have permeated all the way to
the driver, but
no one seemed to notice at all.
By the time Tom paused long enough to
look around, it was
dark outside. He
was so full he could
barely move. Once
again, he was glad
that he had slept for so much of the flight.
And such restful sleep
been, suspiciously so. He
was about to
say something about it when Agarwal jumped as if he had been hit with a
"We've found it!" he exclaimed in an
whisper. "We know
where he's being
Simon started to say something but
Agarwal held up his index
finger in the universal hand signal for:
Hold-on, I'll be with you in a
was obviously receiving
a message from The Collective.
"Excellent work, Mrs. Ablequist," he
whispering, it was obvious to Tom that he wanted to share his end of
indeed. Get some
rest, now. And tell
Doctor Byrl that I said you could
have a short cognac, tonight. Yes,
Ablequist, I'll make sure they all know how much you helped." He gave Tom an interesting
wink, as if they shared an inside joke.
"Good Night, Mrs. Ablequist."
"Good news, I presume," Simon
ventured, once the
man was obviously finished with his conversation.
"Very good news, Doctor Litchfield." Agarwal was obviously
proud of what his
people had accomplished. "We
haven't had much time to ourselves since we landed, please allow me
you Americans say it?—ah, yes.
me to bring you up to speed."
"I'm sure Doctor Weldon will forgive
me if I repeat a
little of what he already knows." He waited for Tom's quick nod of
assurance before he continued. "In
the early hours of this morning, a team from, shall we
organization—located and attempted an assault on the cave
complex where the boy
is being held."
"Caves?" Tom embarrassed himself by
so soon into the tale, and doubly so for the slight quaver he heard in
voice. He shrugged
a silent apology and
motioned for the man to continue.
"I know it's a problem for you,
Doctor Weldon, and I
apologize." Tom had
forgotten how much this fellow knew about him.
"But to continue, during the flight
over, that team—which
included one of our own who will be sorely missed—met with
violence." His tone
had turned suddenly cold when he
mentioned his lost comrade. He
for a moment to collect his thoughts before forging ahead with his tale.
"Our fellow was supported by a pod
from Cairo, one of
whom has recovered from the experience to the point where she could
where to look. The
surrounding Bagni di Lucca are
riddled with caves which often lead to the hot springs from which the
its modern name. The
main entrance to
this complex is a public spa which has been only recently reopened
significant renovations—read this as major
investment—and which was bought by
morning's disaster was
an attempt to gain access through this spa.
This is the place—as you might
imagine—that Miss Keel would have found
if her counterparts in the other organization hadn't been quite so
about erasing their trail."
"To the point, however, some of our
members decided to randomly
scan the locals and several found that many of the townspeople were
where one of their compatriots had gained his newfound wealth. The fellow had paid all
debts and had been buying new clothes, a new Vespa and had even had his
"I'm beginning to understand how you
operate," Simon interjected.
"I don't know whether to be fascinated, or terrified."
"Most of the townsfolk thought he was
drugs," Agarwal continued, unfazed.
"And to tell the truth, the man in question believed that
probably was. But
Mrs. Ablequist isn't
the type to take surface thoughts for Gospel.
She located the man and.
.him to reflect upon his good fortune."
"Scarier and scarier," Simon
whispered to Tom.
"It turns out that this man owned
some land that had
been passed down to him through his family.
It isn't very good land, it's too rocky and much of it is
quite steep. He
never used it for much except to keep a
few goats and sheep, but on the edge of his land there was a cave. And it seems that a
foreign gentleman had
paid him well—in cash—for the right to use the cave
and to build a narrow road
across his property." The
significance of this was not lost on either of the two listeners.
"Also, when he was a boy, he and some
explored this cave and he knew that it connected to several of the same
that had been developed into Caldi,
or hot baths."
"Could still be drug running," Simon
"Indeed, Doctor Litchfield," Agarwal
the road was being built, he got curious as to what was going on and
sneak back into 'his' cave. But
caught by men with guns and was warned never to return, or to speak
about what was going on. He
would kill him but they didn't. He
knew they were drug lords, probably
working for the Sicilian Mafia, and that he was certainly going to go
for his stupidity. He
even saw the
drugs, bag after bag of white powder stacked neatly along the rock
walls of his
"You think the boy is being held by
Tom asked. "The
"No indeed, Doctor Weldon," Agarwal
with pride. "The
memories of the
stacks of white powder and the men with guns was too.
can I put
this?. . .too Hollywood. Real drug
runners would have killed him if
he had seen such things. The
he had were false memories. They
been implanted by a psychic of great ability, but they were sloppy,
didn't fool our intrepid
Mrs. Abelquist. She
looked for the—the patch—and
then looked beneath it. The
men and the guns were real enough, but
what he had actually seen was machinery of a type he had never
and banks of panels with
lights and computer screens and many other things he didn't recognize."
"That's what Stephanie said we should
Simon was deep in thought.
"Even having been warned, this fellow
occasions—meant to tell some of his closest friends what was
going on, but every
time he tried, he seemed to forget all about it."
"Sounds familiar," Tom said.
"Oh no, Doctor Weldon, this would be
completely different than what we did with you."
Agarwal was serious.
"Only a very few of us can insert a mental block which
.I do beg your pardon. .
person from mentioning something
we don't want them to. It's
difficult and it rarely lasts more than a few months.
There are only a handful of us who can manage it, at all." Agarwal was properly
embarrassed at his near
is not a description that Tom particularly cared for,
regardless of the word's genesis.
"Is the boy one of them?" Tom asked. In light of Agarwal's
obvious contrition, he
let it go.
"Indeed so, Doctor Weldon. As a matter of fact, he's
the best we've ever seen." Agarwal
paused a few moments to refocus his
thoughts. "In any
intrepid Mrs. Ablequist once again.
man to be curious enough to try to
sneak up on his cave, but this time she was with him."
sounds familiar," Tom whispered, this time, to Simon.
"There is more, Doctor Weldon. The cave entrance is now
sealed and locked
with a heavy steel door that is just out of sight from the entrance. But as I said, the owner
had explored this
cave as a youth and knew of another entrance, a small and hidden
little east and uphill from that which was sealed.
In his memory, this will join with the lower cave
least a hundred meters past the barrier."
"Wouldn't they have sealed this,
asked, still thinking.
"Mrs. Ablequist says she thinks,
not," was his
simple reply. "The
that this secondary entrance joins in at an odd angle, and from above. He remembered that his
friend hurt his ankle
dropping to the uneven floor all those years ago.
And he also remembers that from the main passage, they
even see where his fellow had dropped from because it is shielded by
upthrusting rock. It
merely appears to
be a simple irregularity in the passageway ceiling."
"Do we know how to get to this
asked. He felt he
needed to be helping Simon
develop a strategy for their upcoming mission.
Anything to get his mind off of the fact they were going
to be crawling
through a tight passage, surrounded by rock on all sides, pressing in
with the weight of a whole mountain behind it.
He shook his head and refocused his thoughts. There would be enough time
later, for that kind of worry.
"She once again caused him to be
curious, perhaps I
should say very curious as to
that second entrance had also been sealed.
She stayed with him as he picked his way through the rocks
hillside and found the spot that he and his friends had explored. He was so
curious that he actually crawled
in the first few meters." Agarwal
to take a long pull from his water bottle.
The bus rounded a steep curve with a little too much speed
and all three
were jostled around in the seat.
Agarwal dribbled some water on his—admittedly
white suit and started rummaging through their supplies for the paper
that had accompanied the fruit. Tom
thought that before this little interlude, the man had seemed to be
He suspected that the land owner had
been more than a little
reluctant to actually enter this tiny crawlspace without so much as a
considered that the fellow fully believed that there were armed drug
with guns somewhere inside of it.
assumed that The Collective had been forced to persuade
the man to do so.
He was insightful enough, however, to wonder if perhaps he
assuming that the man would be reluctant to crawl into the darkness. He wondered if he were
simply projecting his
own fears into this unnamed man and then translating that into a belief
The Collective had been willing to coerce
Perhaps the man had no fear at all of
solid, pressing earth
on his back, squeezing him like a boa constrictor as he wriggled
he didn't feel that
the air in the cave was so black and thick it choked you as it oozed
greasy pool into your lungs. 'Geeze',
he thought to himself, 'I really need to stop
thinking like this
or I'm not going to be of any use to Simon, at all.'
Somehow, his fear of letting Simon
down simply washed away
his growing anxiety. At
perhaps, Agarwal had
finished dabbing at his chin and suit and continued with his story.
"Mrs. Ablequist stayed with him and
as soon as he could
see that the passage looked clear—which was only this
afternoon, about the time
we were discussing hackers with Miss Keel—she.
should I put this? She
released him. Of
course, he immediately lost all interest in what was happening
on his property and scurried off.
our Mrs. Ablequist now had a visual image of both cave entrances and
road. She also
knows a roundabout way
to access this area and more importantly, she knows that the boy must
"I thought you people couldn't scan
someone who was
shielded." Tom was
thought he was getting a handle on what The Collective could and
"Oh, we can't, Doctor Weldon, but
there are certain of
us who can scan any area for which
they have a visual reference. And
so, from the entrance to this cave, our members have encountered a
shield of absolutely astonishing size and power."
"Didn't this alert the boy that this
entrance has been
tactics, at last. Tom
could tell that
he hated not having an actual plan.
"Not at all, Doctor Litchfield. Unless we actually try to
breach the shield,
none of us can tell that there is another of us.
"Interesting," Simon was deep in
we'll need is a diversion. If
we had a second team we could. .
was interrupted by
the ringing of his cell phone.
"Looks like a job for.
he uttered in the falsely serious voice of a radio announcer long gone
this world. "Supergirl!"
answered the call and finished his line with the same word. His caller ID had informed
him that it was
Stephanie, calling. "So how are the toys?" he asked her.
could tell that
Stephanie was in charge of this
"She says to tell Tom to get the
earbugs out of his coat
pocket and to give one to each of us."
Tom jumped to comply.
He had completely forgotten about them.
He snapped open the pack and handed one to Agarwal, then
to Simon. He took
one for himself, leaving one in the
pack, and started feeling around for the 'on' button.
Agarwal was already—with a rather distasteful
look on his
face—putting his into his ear.
"She also says that there is no on
switch. She has the
only controls," Simon
volunteered as he expertly switched hands with his cell phone and put
his left—his 'bad' ear.
.including volume." Stephanie's voice boomed in
Tom's ear the
second he placed the tiny flesh-colored device into his ear canal. He rather shared Agarwal's
anything so hard and plastic so deep inside his body.
But he'd worn them many times, before, and knew that they
"Too loud," Simon said, in a
though it reverberated in Tom's skull like he'd used a bullhorn at
"Better?" she asked, loud but not
nearly to the
pain threshold, like before.
"Down a little more, if you please,
Agarwal's cultured voice sounded strange and mechanical through the
still-to-loud connection. For
wished the fellow would be just a little more succinct.
"How about now," Stephanie's voice
was now merely
was impossible to
ignore because it was right in his ear but at least it was not
"Perfect," Tom volunteered.
Good." Tom could hear keys clicking in the background. "Now, all of you, I'm
bus's GPS in realtime and you should be arriving at the depot in. .
.just over ten minutes."
There was more clicking in the background.
we get back I have
simply got to get some funds
allocated to really upgrade my
system. This guy is
a freaking genius!"
"Have you found out anything, Steph?"
"Found out anything?" Her voice was
like to you?"
There was a click on the line and a
male voice came on: "Control
to unit five, you're two minutes overdue for check
in, answer on alt two."
Another voice, higher pitched but not
squeaky: "This is unit five on alt two to
distracted by the geeks taking down the
needed some help with
there to help out, you're there to make sure we don't get no more
visitors. You do
your job and let them
pack that shit up best they can. Roger?" The voice was
stern, but not
control. No way
they come in again the
next night. We'll
have us another good,
old fashioned turkey shoot, all right.
not tonight. . .tomorrow, maybe. Roger?"
five. Orders are to expect it anytime. They was right about that first
no guarantee we get the same heads-up next time.
"Roger that, Control. Switching back to main.
main. Stay sharp,
There was another click and Stephanie
was back in the
"That sound interesting to anyone but
me?" There was a
definite smirk in her tone. Tom
thought about how silly that sounded,
but it was true.
"Stephanie, how?" Tom was amazed. They had obviously
switched channels but the
recording sounded live, unbroken.
was a sure sign that a com system had been well and truly compromised.
Stephanie's sounded like a little girl with her first
account. "You should see what this thing can do. I couldn't figure out why
it was do damn
fast so I pried the lid off a box I thought was nothing but server and
this Mamissmo has built himself a
And I'm talking petaflops
raw number crunching power here. Oh,
it's aftermarket 90's tech he must have bought when Cray went belly-up
juiced it to the point where he can do
fast as lightning
and everybody looking for him is outgunned.
Haaaw! I have got to
get me one of these!"
"How'd you break into their system,
asked. The bus was
entering the town
and the other passengers were starting to collect their bags from the
racks. Tom and
Agarwal had begun to
tidy up the remains of their sumptuous repast, segregating the trash
food and bottles that they hadn't been able to touch.
Tom made sure that the unmarked glass bottle of wine was
insulated by bread and clean cups in its plastic bag.
He was saving this one
He only understood part of what
Stephanie was crowing
about. But it was
obvious that once
again The Collective had found the very best resources available. He'd never heard her so
excited. If she was
feeling left-out of the field op
when she started, she was pretty obviously over it, now.
"Break in?" her pretty voice was an
in Tom's ear. "Simon,
hack their system. . .I ate
this baby and Mamissmo's passcodes,
I own every cell tower in
Switzerland and Southern Germany.
I own every Angstrom
of bandwidth, there
is. Every tower,
every repeater and
every stinking K-Mart walkie talkie
out there belongs to me, right
now." Tom thought
that maybe he'd
felt something like what she was saying, but only once before. The first time he'd flown
as gunner in an
attack helicopter against ground troops.
He had to suppress a shudder as he
cut the memories off in
mid thought. He hadn't been bothered by
those times in quite a while and
tonight wasn't the time to revisit them.
But as he thought about it, perhaps the analogy was sound. Perhaps he did know what
feeling. She didn't
feel like a god,
she felt like God.
Only in her case, without the lightning
"And I have to tell you that their
encryption is first
rate—at least as good as the Secret Service, back
home—and this thing just
waltzed right in and swallowed
whole network. I'm
seeing their control
screen in realtime. Boys. .
.realtime! Hey? Anybody want a
billion dollars?" Tom
heard Agarwal gasp, but for some reason
it didn't come through over his earbug.
"Enough, Stephanie," Simon was using
voice. Tom had
heard it, before but
never directed where it was, now.
"We get it. The
working fine. Listen,
we may need to
cut the power. . ."
"Cut the power. Cut the phones. Usurp
their radios and
play false messages to their field units.
Heck, if they are using the pumps they ordered for what I
are, I can hit them with a brown-out/surge, one-two combo that will
flow so hard it would lift you off the toilet seat!
Maybe not Tom, though. He's a lot heavier." Tom couldn't help it, he
had to grin at the
Simon's efforts, she was
reveling in her newfound power.
"Stephanie?" Simon's voice reminded
Tom of his
second-grade teacher, Mrs. Dawbs.
hairspray outweighed the rest of her head and she swaggered around the
with a yardstick in her hand, glasses perpetually about to fall right
end of her short, wide nose. Now
that was an image he hadn't
I'm sorry, really." She
sounded contrite. . .somewhat.
"Listen, I've got you covered on that.
The specs on those diesel generators they have to be using
back-up indicate that I can knock them out with a simple power cut,
a surge and a cut and a monster surge. It will burn them out like
a drum full of
flash powder. And
that I could do in my sleep on my old system.
say, Simon, the lights go off and they stay off till you want them back
"What about their com?" Simon asked. "After your little
think I have an idea how we can redirect their troops to avoid. .
"Their com system has a battery
back-up that should last
a couple hours, at least. But
burn that, too, anytime you say. No
lights, but working radios till you say otherwise.
Whoever designed this place spent a little too
much on the hardware.
All the breakers and surge protectors are solid state. If they had used so much
as an old-style
fuse box in that place I'd be royally screwed.
But this thing can speak solid state like it was babytalk. I can pump as much power
as I want through any
part of their overgunned system, any time I want.
I'll divert so much through their trunk line that it will
melting cables before it trips any
safety I don't want tripped." Her
tone was more subdued, finally, but she was still managing to crow. "Did I mention that I also own the entire power grid? Anybody want me to turn
off the lights at
Tom had a thought. "How
secure is this line we're using?"
If she could hack their com
system. . .
"Are you kidding
me?" She was almost laughing in Tom's ear.
"Listen, even if I had
the frequencies, the encryption codes and
the randomizer sequences back at my station back at the
Institute—which I used to
think was a pretty hot ride—I
couldn't break this cryp.
supercomputer tie-in will keep
me four, maybe five seconds ahead
anyone trying to hack us."
"Five seconds?" Agarwal's normally
composure sounded like it was about to crack.
"Miss Keel, that doesn't sound like very.
was on the mild side of outrage.
"That's a freaking eternity
in this business. Do
you know how many
times this signal is being scrambled and reintegrated in Five. Freaking. Seconds?"
Tom was glad he was only on the
periphery of what happened
next. Stephanie was
treating this unimaginably
powerful man to a dressing-down like he probably had never experienced
adult life, if ever. He
may be one of
the shining stars of an organization that could very likely control the
but he was learning the hard way that you never ever
dis a geek and her toys.
Not unless you really know what you're talking about. And he truly admired the
self-control and humility. He
a fair amount of time over the last several days thinking about how
abilities from such an early age would effect the normal human psyche,
the back of his mind a glimmer of an idea began to form.
muttering apologies as
he walked, Agarwal was directing them towards a medium-sized limousine,
in the parking lot. There
was a driver,
but he stared straight ahead even when the rear doors opened and the
clambered into the wide, comfortable seating compartment. The rich leather seats
were more like lounge
chairs with seatbelts. There
three of them, two facing forward and another—set in the
place where the front
passenger would usually sit, faced to the rear.
The driver was enclosed completely in darkened glass and
even be seen from inside the car.
thought it was some kind of Mercedes, but he'd never seen anything
it, before. Though
it had ashtrays,
they were so clean that they looked unused.
The compartment had no smell at all, completely neutral.
definitely. Even with his bulk and Agarwal's stout width, they all had
of room. The thing wasn't much bigger than an SUV but it was all luxury
roadways that dominated most of Europe, it made perfect sense.
"Pasteel," Simon said as the limo
negotiated its way out of the parking lot.
"This whole valley runs east-west, is our entrance on the
the South side of the main cave complex?"
As Simon and Stephanie and Agarwal
scenarios for false communications for the security teams, Tom had a
time to ponder. Anything
him from the idea of crawling through that secondary cave entrance. He looked out the window
and saw a business
district that was exactly one building deep.
There was mountain behind every shop on one side of the
road and a river
behind every business on the other.
didn't know where they were going and just assumed they would be taken
someplace where they could collect their gear and that was close to
insertion point. It
was funny how when
you were working with The Collective, you just assumed that somebody
to the details. He
wondered what would
happen if a psychic were to scan this limo, now.
No doubt they had taken care of that, too.
For all he knew, the driver might not even consciously
know he had passengers back here.
He also mused that although The
Collective was blind to the
inner workings of the cave complex, because one of their own was
Stephanie, using mundane technology,
had managed to tap in—not to their thoughts,
perhaps—but to their words and was
reading their system as well as any number of control pods might. From the conversations he
was only half following,
she had also retrieved a security schematic of the parts of the cave
where there were active patrols. It
apparently quite large, with whole sections sealed using everything
plywood to heavy steel to bulky banks of machinery.
Thanks to her, they wouldn't be going
in blind. But
Agarwal was also saying that if the
impenetrable mental shield ever dropped, The Collective would be ready
in and put every unshielded mind to sleep, almost instantly. All they had to do was to
find the boy and
unhook him from that infernal contraption.
But first, he had to crawl through that narrow, tight opening.
thoughts were interrupted by a click/hum beneath his seat that made him
jump. He looked
between his feet and saw a page of
white paper slowly glide out and settle.
Stephanie was sending them cave maps with various
locations highlighted on
a printer that he hadn't even known was there.
Yeah, this ride had just about everything. The sturdy,
heavy frame and
reinforced roof wasn't pressing in on him, at all.
# The Present #
The Boy didn't have to strain at all
to maintain the shield,
and this worried him. He
feel tired, though he knew that this was so only because of the drugs
pumping into him with that slow, steady drip.
He was beginning to understand that he wasn't straining to
shield because he wasn't doing it consciously.
His masters had a new trick, it seemed.
The wires in his brain were stimulating the proper centers
using a very
low electric current to erect and maintain the shield completely on
own. Of course, he
had shown them how
to do it on so many occasions. This particular little function had not been in the original design. Once again he marveled at
the logic and
inventiveness of the humans. They
longer needed the electric shocks to control him, and he wondered how
many he had
endured since this had been so.
Surely The Collective knew where he
was, by now. Somebody
on the Cairo pod must have survived
the deaths of both the guard and of one of their own kind. Though in
retrospect, the strongest of them had probably been linked to Kwon at
moment of his death, too. And that made things much
more unsure. He
could only hope that one of the weaker
members had blacked out when the guard was killed and had managed to
psychic firestorm that had followed.
Maybe then, The Collective would be able to sort through
the mess. Perhaps
none of them had yet regained consciousness.
It had been less than a day, after all.
But with their new trick, it was difficult to predict
whether they could
move him before Pasteel and his beloved Nightwatch team could arrive. Surely Pasteel would
after Kwon's death. But
even if he
mustered all the resources at their considerable disposal, it would
two or three full days for them to reach this place.
And he wondered if, perhaps, Pasteel
wouldn't come at
all. What if he had
simply written The
Boy off as a bad seed come to a bad end?
These humans would be dealt with, eventually. The Collective would never
let them actually use power such
as they now had at their fingertips.
So far, it had only been used for the
accumulation of wealth, but soon they would be able to influence world
with a force nearly equal to that of the whole Collective, combined. And that,
they would never stand for. Maybe
Pasteel was simply sitting alone in his study, probably in that
leather chair and his threadbare smoking jacket, convening counsels of
Collective to discuss the best way to proceed to isolate and then
new threat that The Boy had brought to them.
Yes, yes, it was a shame that they
would have to kill The
Boy to destroy the device. Perhaps
would wait until the shielded convoy was on the road and then merely cause some poor American jet pilot on a
routine training mission to accidentally drop a load of bombs on them
made their meandering way down some nameless, narrow Italian roadway.
A terrible tragedy, but not
Collective had sacrificed their own, for
the greater good, before. And
he had read
of lethal accidents in the Italian Alps where an American military jet
civilians had crossed paths. It
be unexplainable, horrible. . .and very very clean. Knowing The Collective as
he did. He would
even be willing to wager that no true innocent
civilians would be
somehow, they would even
compensate the American pilot whose career would surely be ruined.
Once again, he tried to contact
.Pasteel. . .anyone. .
.and he felt the tiny tickle in his head that meant that
had detected his effort and merely quashed it using microamps instead
of volts. He wasn't
even hooked to the girl,
anymore. There was
emptiness on the other side of the link.
He wasn't a person in this tableau, he was just a thing. He was now simply an
organic generator that
erected a psychic shield around the complex.
Input in. . .product out. Very human. If you manage
to overpower someone, they are nothing but meat
to be put to your uses. It
different here than on the Streets.
doubt, once they moved him to their new location, he would be made to
how to mimic more of his abilities using their inputs and
signals. He doubted
it would even be eventually
necessary for him to be conscious, at all.
And of course, they probably knew the location of others
Collective should something happen to him.
It struck him that if they weren't
stopped, others of his kind might suffer the same fate as he. But there was a
difference, he had earned this fate. He brought it on, himself
with his own
arrogance, his pride, his false confidence in himself and his incredible underestimation of the
He tried to be angry with them at
what they had done. He
tried to summon his rage to fight and
override their control, but the drugs kept him calm, almost serene. His body wanted to relax
and give up control
to the machines, to just rest, a while.
knew what happened to meat! He
meat before, and he had sworn mighty oaths that he would never be meat again.
He considered struggling but decided instead
to play another game. It
was a game he
knew well and had never lost. And
had done in a stinking orange crate so many years ago, he hunkered down
waited. He waited
for an opportunity,
any slip in their control, any moment where their computers and eyes
thoughts were otherwise occupied was all he needed.
They would have to move him, there would be time on the
he was transported. Perhaps
encounter a traffic accident, or a rock slide. He must be ready to act
thought, without decision. He
mouse in a box, whiskers twitching, waiting for his prey to blink.
# The Present #
They were at the 'secret' entrance to
the cave. Dressed
head-to-toe in black, lightweight,
tough, neosilk body suits, they were tar-coated wraiths flitting
over the rough terrain. Their
were shrouded in a synthetic ebony sheath so feather-light, it felt
nothing but air. Their
eyes would have
shown—in that small patch where the itchy adhesive had been
applied to hold
their diaphanous cowls in place so they didn't slip—blocking
their vision at a
critical moment—were it not for the night vision glasses they
all wore. You
couldn't call them goggles, they were an
even newer generation than those worn by the previous team, more like
wrap-around sunglasses than anything else.
Seems The Collective looked into the top-secret labs where
were developed and managed to persuade one of the researchers to borrow the only three prototypes in
Squibb would have
given his left. . .eye. .
.for a chance to take one of these things apart. To Tom it was like walking
in shadowless green
wouldn't have been better. With
every surface was sharp, clear and easy to judge.
Tom started his breathing exercises
as he checked his
gear. He tried to
calm his fluttering
heart as the prospect of the crawl ahead became more and more clear.
"Gentlemen," Agarwal's voice
whispered into Tom's
earbug. "It's time."
This was the code they had agreed
upon in the little cottage
where their supplies had been staged.
Apparently the little old lady who lived there had decided to visit her daughter, in the
village. She had,
somehow, forgotten to lock her door
and had even prepared a tray of fresh-made pastries and tea before she
left. Simon had
given Tom a look and
mouthed the phrase: Scarier and scarier, to him when he'd
noticed. They had all removed their earbugs and told Stephanie that
just working out hand signals. But
they had done was to decide whether they would be
linked—mentally—for the operation.
Simon was reluctant, but he agreed.
Agarwal would be linked to both of them for
the duration and to one of several control pods dedicated to nothing
mission. The pods
would see what
Agarwal saw, but wouldn't have direct access to either Simon or Tom. .
.or so he told them.
It was the
only way for them to communicate without Stephanie hearing every word. And this was something
they all knew was one
of Simon's absolute priorities.
Agarwal had been shielding them since
the flight, but they
hadn't felt that tickle which meant that one of them was in their
since they had agreed to come out of the zone of interference generated
Egg. Sitting on the
ground outside the
low, flat opening beneath an overhanging basalt boulder, Tom was glad
heart was pounding so
hard he feared Stephanie would ask which moron thought it was a good
bring a drum set with them on this mission.
He felt the familiar tickle
even as he was watching Simon expertly check the heavy pistol he wore
low on his right leg.
Because there were other options, and
the armed security
details were supposed to be
occupied, Tom had opted for something less lethal for this one. He was carrying something
that looked like
nothing so much as an old World War II German Schmeisser MP40 Maschinenpistole submachine gun.
But instead of a deadly stream of 9mm lead,
it fired only taser/sleep darts. It
ingenious, really. The
contained the super-compressed gas that propelled it like a tiny
there was no need for a bulky cartridge or tank.
And the velocity was constant since each dart had an
projectile had drop-down
fins for stabilizing it during flight and a dual-action payload. As soon as the titanium
needle penetrated a
substance with the same conductive properties as flesh, a tiny
the target with a short taser shock, just enough to stun while the
injection of a powerful sedative had time to work.
Tom had never seen anything quite so
quick and effective
short of a silenced, long-range sniper bullet to the brain. The video had been
'volunteer' had been wearing full body
armor but the dart had hit him in the joint at the back of the knee. The needle had easily
double-thick Kevlar® and the poor fellow tensed-up in taser
collapsed. Only the
faintest of gasps
had escaped him and the only noise he had made was the clatter of his
it hit the floor. According
video, the sonic signature of the projectile had been adjusted to mimic
frequency of the average mosquito.
even if you missed, to your target it sounded like a tiny bug just flew
The barrel was a little long for
Tom's taste, but it was
needed in order to give the dart time to expel all its gas into the
leaving the muzzle. By
the time it was
free, it was pure subsonic and ballistic grace.
It made almost no sound at all.
The only way to really injure your opponent was a shot to
the eye or
maybe to the throat. And
wearing a pacemaker, probably shouldn't be doing something that would
in front of one of these things, anyway.
When he had first test-fired one back in the Nightwatch
he'd fallen in love with it. He
couldn't wait for the technology to trickle down to line-of-duty cops
the world. When it
did, the police
might never again be forced to shoot to kill.
A shot to the pinky toe would drop most people within
Agarwal had refused any weapon. The Collective had its own
way of defending itself. He
had argued with Simon about the pistol
but Simon had insisted. Neither
Agarwal needed to be able to read his mind to understand that Simon was
to do whatever was necessary to make sure that this boy was no longer a
"When you need a gun," Simon had
simply. "When you
really need a
gun in your hand, nothing else will do.
Because when you really need
gun, it is time to kill somebody."
And to that, Agarwal had no argument.
Can you hear me? Agarwal's
mental voice sounded in his
head—along with a range of emotions that Tom could have made
a series out of if he were to write
for Psychology Today. The man was worried,
hopeful, fearful, outraged, determined and more than a little bit
pissed-off. All at
the same time and in
a blend that constantly shifted, ebbed and flowed like the rainbow
colors of an
oil slick in rough surf, lapping against a tide wall.
The incredible richness
of the experience was amazing. And
again, he realized that he had missed
this. He wondered
how he would ever
again be satisfied by merely hearing words and interpreting body
Loud and clear, was Simon's
response. Tom could
tell that he was controlling his emotions, though quite
a few seemed to sneak through, anyway.
He was worried, mainly, with just a hint of determination
overriding sense of just being tired
of doing this. Tom
got the impression
that Simon had quite simply done this—armed and ready to leap
into harm's way
for some very important purpose—just too many times. He was
tired of the
anticipation, the adrenalin and the willingness to do what had to be
Tom could also sense the man's
reluctant acceptance of his place in all of this.
If not him, who? If
now, when? And all
of these things came
through crystal clear in the blink of an eye.
Link feels fine, he sent.
He wasn't sure what the other men felt from his
transmission, but both
paused in what they were doing and Agarwal spared a moment to look at
then at the dark, low opening into which they must all soon crawl. Simon stepped-up and
patted him on the
shoulder, allowing his hand to pause for just a moment, with just the
hint of a squeeze before he turned to face the cave entrance. He didn't need to use his
mental link to his
friend to understand what Simon meant.
He knew about Tom's claustrophobia, and he had an inkling
of what Tom
was feeling. Tom's
of Simon's body language said it all.
Screw the link, and screw The Collective.
Simon's simple gesture was more
rich, more emotionally satisfying than any psychic overlay.
"Okay Moe, Larry and Curly,"
voice—sans any other input—was welcome in its
switched you over to their system.
I'm hiding you're signal in their bandwidth
so you should have at least the same coverage and clarity that their
will. Radio checks."
"Simon on, sound's good Stephanie."
"Tom receiving, four by four." When
nervous, sometimes he reverted to old habits learned long ago.
"The quality of your transmission
signal is superior,
Miss Keel, as are all of your efforts."
If Tom was sure of anything, Agarwal was never
a part of any military organization, anywhere in the world.
Stephanie's indulgent chuckle at
their Client's turn of phrase was
catching. All three
men smiled in the darkness and in a moment of rare male
unity, when each of them realized that he too was grinning, they each
and pretended to be doing something else.
Tom had seen this before but he still caught himself
checking to make
sure that his boot knife was fastened.
he smiled again. It
eased the tension that was starting to
build. That opening
looked half the
size it did when he got here.
I can help you with that, Doctor Weldon. Agarwal was using the
'private channel' he
had experienced with his control pod back at the Cannon Moon. Tom could just tell that
Simon wasn't in
this part of the link.
Help me with what? Tom knew
what he meant, he just needed the
time to think about it.
It is a simple process to temporarily dull the
worst of your fears
concerning tight places. The
subtext was simple. It
was almost as if
he were offering to tie his shoe for him.
Tom was tempted. Very tempted.
Tell you what, Pasteel.
really need it, I'll let you know.
appreciate your offer but first of all it's still mind control and
.well, it's just something I have to learn to face and
As you wish, Doctor Weldon.
Through the link, Tom could feel the man's respect as if
it were a
palpable thing. If everybody communicated like this.
"Okay Simon, I'm set to turn off the
you say and I'm pretty sure I've got enough recordings to keep them
circles on the other side of the complex for at least an hour before
hearing the same stuff a second time.
I'm going to just let you guys in on the highlights, if
okay. There's going
to be an awful lot
of chatter once this thing gets rolling."
Stephanie's earlier (over)exuberance had been replaced by
professional competence. Tom
much of her reluctance to even see
violence done. She
was in the right
place, with the right tools. . .and no matter what, she
wasn't going to
have to hurt anyone. As
a matter of
fact, she was working very hard to
make sure that nobody at all got hurt.
For several reasons, he sincerely hoped that her efforts
were not going
to be in vain.
They had already decided on the order. Simon went first because
he was, by far, the
went next. Despite
the psychic's girth, Tom was still
much broader in the shoulders and Agarwal's mass was considerably more. .
.pliable. If this crawlway was too
tight for any it would be Tom. He
practiced his breathing technique as
Simon's feet disappeared beneath the low overhang.
"Ten feet in," Simon's low whisper
was clear in
Tom's earbug. "Stay to the right when you feel smooth stone, Tom. It's a little tight on the
left." Tom's heart
rate didn't exactly increase, but
it sounded a little louder in his ears.
Agarwal was on his belly, his head
had already been
swallowed by the opening. He
seem to be encountering any difficulties as he slithered forward. All too soon, his feet
"No alarms, no signals." Stephanie's voice was calm.
Simon's movements hadn't yet tripped any sensors. This might just be a real back door, after all.
Doctor Litchfield, you are on the edge of the
shield that has been
erected around this complex, please pause while I examine it. .
.there is something quite odd about it. Tom was on his belly but
hadn't entered the
gaping maw, before him. The
flat rock at the top and the curved lower surface reminded him of the
unexpectedly came face-to-face with a nurse shark while scuba diving
coast of Fiji. At
least this time there weren't any
Pasteel? Tom sent, as he
entered the maw. He
was half curious but also using one of
his stress-relief tricks. . .distraction.
Won't he be able to tell that your shield is
intersecting his? So
far, so good. The
night vision glasses
threw the crawlway before him into stark relief.
Usually, with a helmet-mounted light in a narrow passage,
were shadows and a less-lit periphery outside the more intense center
beam. This was much
more like a tight
space in daylight, and it helped.
Not at all, Doctor Weldon.
is difficult to explain but a mental shield isn't so much like a soap
it is a droplet of oil, floating in a less viscous fluid. Physical penetration is
would have to try to punch through it with
psychic energy for any disturbance to be felt.
This is not physics,
Weldon, it is something. . .different.
Tom felt smooth stone beneath him. Simon had warned him that
the crawlway narrowed at ten feet
in. Had it only
been ten feet? It
felt he'd been creeping along for at
least ten meters.
He concentrated hard on forcing his arms and
legs into the motions necessary to move him forward.
Anything to distract him from the pressure that was
his back and stomach. It
was as if a
large stone vice was gradually being cranked down, bringing the ceiling
floor together in an inexorably—unstoppably slow pinch that
continue to squeeze and squeeze until he wouldn't be able to expand his
for more than a light pant. Then
bones would start to snap, of course, which should give him one or two
gasps before that space too, was taken by the rock.
Then if you can adjust the.
physical boundaries of
your shield, why not just send a.
.of shielding out to your opponent's head and. .
.maybe surround it?
Tom was scrunched as far to the right as he
could get. Simon
had been right, there
was much more room for his right shoulder than his left. And it was deeper on the
right, too. With
his right arm outstretched over his
head and his left arm tucked as close to his body as he could manage,
his way past the narrows. The
cave dust, dung and moist rock filled his nostrils as his face and chin
in the moist clay that was the floor of this section.
His entire visual world consisted of a very close-up view
irregular green—but that was just the goggles, he knew it was
brownish-red—clay inching by.
pressing into his left side felt paralyzed, though he could still
fingers. If his
life depended on it,
couldn't have flexed it a millimeter.
We're not amoebas, Doctor Weldon.
Tom was too busy concentrating on
steady shallow breaths and
forward movement to notice if there was a humorous subtext to the man's
right foot found a
solid toe hold on the top of the crawlway and he pushed hard. .
.he was through, he could move his left arm, again. The physical proximity is almost
immaterial. Were I
to do what you
describe, I would still have to cross that last micrometer of his
this would be no different than trying to penetrate it from its
Agarwal, Simon's mental voice
was icy, he was in full assault
mode. Is this. .
us at any risk of detection?
Tom could feel that Simon understood that he
was trying to distract himself from his other worries, but the man was
and also knew that compromising themselves with the boy was the last
wanted, at this juncture.
To be frank, Doctor Litchfield, not with my shield in place, it isn't.
It was neither pride nor hubris.
Tom felt a simple confidence through the link that
was—in its way—as
thoroughly convincing as Stephanie's dismissive assurance that nobody
to hack her com.
He paused in his crawling, this part of the shark's
alimentary tube was downright roomy compared to what he had just
besides, he was looking at
the bottoms of Agarwal's shoes, about six inches in front of his face. He noticed a single
cricket leg stuck in the
compacted mud at the toe. He
be sure, but it looked like it twitched.
Doctor Litchfield, you may proceed.
But you should both know that there is something very
strange about the
mental shield into which we will be entering.
I have never seen anything so.
. .constant. .
.so perfectly stable in all of my years of experience. Mental shields are always
shifting as the
intensity of concentration of the person generating it waxes and wanes. This one does not. And I quite assure you
that I don't know what this may
I can tell that it is, indeed, generated by the
boy, but it. .
.resonates. . .in a manner which reminds
me of nothing so
much as a. . .machine.
Perhaps this is
just an artifact of his efforts at technological augmentation, but
something about it which lacks. . .life.
Neither Tom nor Simon answered. They had nothing to add.
"Hey, you boys taking a nap?"
was lower than before, in Tom's ear.
She had probably adjusted the volume again.
"I can see light, ahead Stephanie. Are you ready to pull the
Simon's whispered answer surprised Tom.
Agarwal had only started to move so Simon couldn't be too
ahead. If he could
see light, and
hadn't warned him of any more tight spaces.
perhaps the crawling
phase was almost over. He
physically stifle an audible groan of pure relief.
"If you're looking at the light with
your goggles, look
away, Simon. They're
going to get real
bright, here in a second. Put
tables and seat backs up, boys, we're in for a bumpy ride from here on
Tom couldn't see any light, but he
could hear Simon's
shuffling as he moved forward. There
was a click in his earbug as Stephanie patched them in to the security
"Hey!. . . "
"Merde!. . ."
lost all lights on the South Corridor.
Looked like some kind of power surge just before they
was bright! This is
six to Control,
we've just had some kind of. . ."
All of these
followed by a truly evil, though quite feminine chuckle in their
Control to all
units. Cut the
should be. .
.SHIT! We've got heat and
smoke detector alarms in the generator room.
Response three, check it out.
Emergency lights showing operational on all levels. All security units take
Tom thought that whoever this guy
was, he was good. He
didn't rattle easily.
Control. North passages
are negative—repeat negative—for emergency lights. Going to night vision."
I'm showing green on emergency lighting on all corridors."
Control, we're in the dark, here.
vision functioning. . . Damn!
Roger Control, we got our lights back.
Proceeding to alpha.
Stephanie's voice betrayed the fun
she was having. "Simon,
I show one blip heading toward
your pos. Standby."
"I can hear him," Simon's voiceless
crystal clear in Tom's ear. "He's
in the main passage and I'm right above him.
"Let him pass, Simon." Stephanie' concern was
"I think he's just going to guard the back door entrance
bypassing, anyway. He
should move out
"Okay Steph," Simon obviously
well. "If we play
this right, we
might not have to hurt anybody."
I show him as past your position, now.
I'm pretty sure that I can track all the armed units, but
I can tell
from the chatter that there are maintenance teams and other workers
around who don't show up on my screens.
They all have radios, so if they see you.
"We understand, Stephanie. We'll be careful."
Simon's tone and concern were perfect.
And once again Tom wondered if—in his own
way—Simon might not be a
better psychologist than he was.
I'm about to drop to the floor guys. Simon's mental voice was
calm, but the subtext feelings were
anything but. For
the first time ever,
Tom got a glimpse behind Simon's calm, professional façade
when he was about to
go into a situation where violence might be required.
The trepidation was no surprise; he felt the same kind of
himself. What was
unexpected was the
Tom realized that Simon was angry, and he wasn't making any apparent
attempt to disguise
it. With the
richness of the link, Tom
was sure that Simon's anger was with himself.
He was just plain pissed-off that here he was, again, with
a gun in his
hand, and about to go looking for somewhere or someplace to use it. It was a fascinating
glimpse into the inner
workings of a man who Tom thought he knew very well.
I have extended my shield to fill most of the
Litchfield. Agarwal was less nervous than Tom
would have thought. But
then again, he had never actually done
anything like this, before. What
sensed was more like excitement, and worry.
But it was worry about the boy, more than anything else.
I do not sense the presence of anyone who should be
in direct line of
sight, so you should be safe.
You ready Tom?
concern was real. He
his friend was suffering in the enclosed space.
Upon feeling Simon's subtext, he actually felt the air get
little thicker, the solid weight of the mountain pressing on his ribs
with just a bit more force, as if it had constricted at the moment his
returned to where he was.
Just try not to break your leg when you jump, Simon. I don't want to have to
carry your skinny
ass through the rest of this cave.
Tom's words had just the right mixture of courage, levity
he could tell. But
he also knew that
the subtext would tell both his companions everything he could never
loud. It was
comforting to know that
you were saying how you felt without actually having to articulate it. He began to wonder how
some of his patients
managed to do it, at all.
Over the earbug, Tom heard a quiet
followed by Simon's voice. "I'm
down, the coast is clear.
heading this way?"
But don't forget about the unarmed personnel."
Simon sounded more businesslike than before when
the floor is smooth
but I suggest you try and hang from the lip before you drop. Don't try to do it like I
"I concur, Doctor Litchfield." Tom could hear the grunts
and gasps, as well
has the shuffling and sliding noises from just ahead of him in the
Agarwal maneuvered himself to exit the passage feet first. He didn't complain, but
Tom could tell it
was pretty tight. In
any case, he was
able to move forward again as the stocky man's feet disappeared from
He got just a glimpse of the top of the man's black-clad head as he
"I can see your feet, just a little
further and you'll
find a good handhold, your drop should only be about four feet once you
go." Simon was
through it. Carrying him through the cave would have been
much more difficult.
Tom moved forward just in time to see
release the rock lip that represented release from this nightmare of a
through some great rock beast's alimentary canal.
His earbug very clearly relayed Agarwal's loud grunt, gasp
and whooof! as he landed. It didn't sound like a
Stephanie had apparently heard it, too.
"I quite assure you, Miss Keel, that
nothing is injured
but my pride. Fortunately,
the area of
my anatomy where the bulk of the impact was absorbed is quite well
"Yep," there was humor in Simon's
voice. "He took
most of the shock with his
butt, but he looks like he'll be okay.
Give us a second before you drop, Tom.
He's still right under the opening."
Tom had taken a moment to adjust his
dart gun, anyway, but
he was more than anxious to get out into a passage where he could stand
up. He realized
that if he were to
always enter a cave through a crawl like this, he would have much less
with the wider. . .walking. .
.passages than he normally did.
He didn't even pause to turn around. He slithered forward with
his upper body
hanging over the precipice. As
his head was out, he felt better. The
passage, below, was roomy, wide. It
felt like he was in a tunnel with four lanes for cars rather than a
cave. He exhaled a
breath he hadn't even realized
he was holding. Below
him, he could see
that Simon and Agarwal were out of the way.
Agarwal was looking up at him, but Simon had moved
slightly up the
passage, pistol in his hand, watching.
"Here I come," he whispered. And then he was out and
over. His handholds
were good and he simply tucked
under and flipped his legs over his head until he too was hanging from
though he was facing the opposite direction than Agarwal had. He lightly dropped to the
cave floor and was
a little proud of himself for not making so much as a peep over the
"Down," was all he had to say. Through the ether, he
breathe a quiet sigh of relief. He
spared a moment to look up at the opening through which he had just
dropped. He was
surprised to note that
even though he knew it was there, he couldn't see it.
He didn't have the advantage of having just seen someone
exit through it, so the best he could do was to guess where it might be
irregular surface of the roof of the cave.
It was no wonder that this entrance had gone undetected
during all the
work that had obviously been done to make the cave a viable base. The floor was so smooth it
like poured concrete. A
could move through this passage without any trouble at all. To Tom, it felt like he
was in an airplane
hangar. . .plenty of room.
"I doubt that any of the maintenance
people will have
night vision." Stephanie
professional, again. "So
should see their flashlights long before they see you, but stay alert
There was a click as she tied them
once again to the security
net. "I recorded
this on one of
their auxiliary channels just after I blew the electrics. I don't know what it
means, but I was saving
it for once you were down. It's
but I think it gives me a location to direct you to."
prepare for orders."
standing by." This
voice was deep, gravelly.
proceed to point theta. There
is a door
marked Chair Room. Stage
your team by
that door and await the Go order.
door is not locked. Do
theta, door designation
Chair Room. Over."
boy who should be strapped to the chair.
On my call and my call only!,
you will enter and terminate the target with extreme prejudice. Empty your clips, Joe."
Control. Boy in the
different, younger. There
accent, maybe Dutch or German.
"You got a
problem with that, Deiter?" Gravelly
Voice Guy's tone was cold.
.uh. . .yes." The
speaker may have been young, but he obviously knew he was treading on
he is strap to chair, what threat could be?"
ignored the younger man, for a moment.
no matter." This
to Tom—a soft, almost grandmotherly feminine whisper. She could have been
ordering bagels. "For
this kind of money, I
don't have problems.
KT lead, I'm sending KT two to the generator room.
Those techs might need some coverage and I think two of us
be enough for this. Copy?"
advise when you are in position.
blew your bonus. Now
get out of my
sight you worthless bastard. And
now on you stay off the KT back-channel.
It ain't for your kind.
If the soldier with a soul responded,
included it. With a
click she was back
on. "While this was
going on, I
tracked three blips heading for a central location and then they
stopped. One of
them peeled off and I know the
location of the other two. Simon,
what's happening? I
can't lock out the
controller on this net without shutting him down, completely. But I'm gonna put him on a
one point five
second delay on what they are calling the KT backchannel and if he
order, I'm going to have to do something."
"Sounds good Stephanie." Simon was pondering,
We MUST go there with all possible speed. Agarwal
was almost pleading with Simon. And
for once there was nothing in the
subtext that wasn't also in his mental voice.
Litchfield, if Miss Keel can guide us to this.
.this. . .Kill Team, then perhaps I
can assist. I can
send my shield ahead of us and anyone
who is in our path can be. . .put to sleep. .
.by the control
pod. If Doctor
Weldon can then drug
them with his. . .his weapon. .
You can do this?
Simon's anger was a little less self-directed than his
feelings. Why didn't you let me know?
There is risk, Doctor Litchfield.
If the mental shield surrounding these caves was. .
.natural. . .I would not suggest it. But the.
words fail me. .
.the uniformity of
is not the living, breathing thing that it should be.
Such actions would be very difficult for me to conceal
subtext said it all. Agarwal
was a born
operative, regardless of experience.
was adapting his tactics and plans based on field conditions. Their plan for a slow,
stealthy search while
the security teams ran in circles was about to go straight out the
window. It was time
for an all-out sprint to the
"Okay Stephanie," Simon's voice was
decision. "Guide us
to the room
where the two blips are standing-by.
Let us know if you've killed the com system. When you do, the guards
will be much more independent and it will
be harder to anticipate their movements."
"Okay Simon, you'll want to take the
next left in the
direction you're moving. I'm
steer you around what seems to be their dining hall.
I'm pretty sure that most of the nonessentials are
there while the complex is under the security alert, but it shouldn't
too much time."
Agarwal interjected. "Excellent idea,
Miss Keel. But may
I suggest that we proceed with all
haste?" He might have tried a little harder to mask his impatience, but
Tom couldn't blame him for that. The
boy meant a lot to him. He
wanted to hurry.
Doctor Weldon, the control pod has just put three
to sleep down the narrow corridor to our right.
They weren't in our direct line of travel but it is
they may have heard our progress and reported it.
If you would do the honors, Sir.
Tom readied his weapon and ducked
down the passage that
Agarwal indicated. The
jumbled as if they had fallen where they stood.
An open junction box and a huge toolbox told the tale. Tom was glad that the
goggles he was wearing
had very good light compensators, because they not only all had
were still on—but they had set-up a portable klieg light
system that no doubt
would have completely blinded any other night-vision system he had ever
The rapid ffsstt
ffsstt ffsstt of his
not transmit over the earbugs. The
taser charge was wasted on these unconscious targets, though they did
when hit. The
somnulant would keep them
asleep so that the psychics could direct their attentions elsewhere. Tom had to admit, it was a
good system. His
only worry was to make sure that he hit
them in the meaty part of a leg, or arm.
He wondered if he would ever have need to pick up a real
If Stephanie noticed his little
detour, she didn't mention
it as she kept-up a steady stream of directions.
Within a turn or two, Tom was completely lost. He couldn't have found his
way back to the
spot they dropped from to save his life.
Twice more, his gun made its ffsstt and already unconscious people
twitched before relaxing
again. None of them
were armed. Tom really
loved this thing.
In the middle of another set of
paused. "Crap crap
something had gotten her attention. "You gotta listen to this, guys. Crap!"
There was a click and then:
"This is Kill Team minus one,
we're at point theta, Control.
standby for orders, KT one. Over."
lights here. Are they back on everywhere?
I didn't hear any chatter on the regular net. Over."
one. You're on an
there. It's not on
the main grid. It's
a drop-dead backup for the chair room.
Should a' told you, sorry.
There was a click as Stephanie's
voice came back on. "Nothing!" She very
obviously peeved. "Nothing
about any independent power system.
Maybe they. . .hell.
they just went down to
some Italian Home Depot and bought themselves a UPS for cash. .
.dammit dammit dammit! I don't see it on his
board or on any
specs. Listen up
boys, you have to take
the next right and then in that passage, take the third left, you got
that?" In the
could almost hear her keyboard groaning under the rapid, staccato
fingers were giving it.
"Got it," Simon managed to squeeze-in
cut him off.
"Give me a couple seconds, guys. I'll see what I can find. After that third left. .
be one passage
away from that blasted Kill Team.
shut-up, all of you, I've got to concentrate."
Without speaking or in any way
coordinating, they all slowed
their progress down the corridor.
didn't want to take the chance that they would make any kind of noise
might alert the Kill Team that was waiting just ahead, presumably
loaded. Tom readied
his weapon and
noticed that Simon had clicked the safety off, on his pistol. Whatever was going to
happen, it would be
"Okay gentleman," Stephanie sounded
herself. "I think
it. There is some
kind of circuit off
the main bus that is only active when both the primary and
the back-ups are offline.
That has to be it." There
was more rapid clicking. "Somebody was
a very clever little girl, this really does look like an add-on and
labeled as a freezer circuit on the specs."
"Can you shut it down, Miss Keel?"
able to speak with his real voice while transmitting to Simon and Tom. He is close, I can feel it.
"Oh yes I can, Mister Agarwal. And there's more." A
little of the
crowing she had done, earlier, was back.
"I'm going to have to turn the main power on for a few
do it, but I've got the circuit locked open.
There is a junction box in the room with the two blips
that I hope are
the Kill Team. I'm
gonna blow that one,
too. It should give
you a diversion and
knock the lights out in your whole section.
Those two will have to fumble for their night vision once
dodging the sparks from the box."
"Just give us the word, Stephanie,"
answered. They had
all stopped because
just around the next corner, they could see the very faint glow of
light. They were
right on the verge of
the area with the back-up system still functioning.
Tom could hear very low, mumbled conversation from the
of the light. There
was even some
uneasy laughter. . .female, definitely, and
it was still. . .grandmotherly.
"Get your sleep gun ready, Tom." Stephanie was telling them
Simon, that as far as she was concerned, the gloves were still on. "They should be easy
targets once the
lights go out. The
lights in your area
may flicker for a second, but that's all."
Tom was confused for a moment; he had forgotten that she
even know that he'd already used the darts five times.
"Got you covered, Stephanie." Tom answered. He tried to put as much
assurance into his voice as
possible. "I'll go
three, the last back-up gets burned."
She paused for a breath. "One.
. .two. .
As promised, the lights in the
corridor flickered, but only
briefly. Tom heard
a loud report from
ahead and could tell that there had been a bright flash from the
the voices. And
then it was dark. He
started to move.
He didn't pause when he heard Agarwal
groan, as if in great
pain. But just as
he rounded the corner
for the final short sprint toward the Kill Team, the screaming started. .
. .Now #
When the moment came, he almost
missed it. Even
though the machines were maintaining
the mental shield, he was aware that things were happening. There was a lot of
excitement, fear and
worry from the minds within his domain.
He didn't have to be connected to them to sense it. He had hoped that whatever
the events were
that were unfolding, would give him an opportunity to act, maybe even
someone, but the computers watching his brain activity were not easily
distracted by other events. As
he began to try, he felt his efforts stifled by microcurrents directly
The sensation reminded him of the
many dental procedures he
had needed once he was with The Collective.
The dentist had given him Novocain in order to work on his
teeth. Years of no
care and poor nutrition had
taken a toll, and he had needed quite a bit of dental work for a boy
his age. He had
found the experience
of his mouth would be
numb, lifeless. His
brain would send
the signal to smile, but only one side would respond.
Somewhere between the origin of the command and his
.the signal would simply die.
That's what it felt like when he
tried to send a message, or
enter someone's mind. The
simply not make it to its intended target.
He wasn't simply meat, he was dead
unable to defend
himself. And the
anger started to burn
even brighter than before.
He could hear voices outside his
room, but he couldn't
understand what they were saying.
after he heard the laughter of a woman, perhaps an older woman, the
the monitors before him, went out.
had his eyes closed, he was straining so hard to overhear the voices,
feared he had not noticed the darkness for a moment.
It took him a full second to realize that the input
the machines had also stopped. He
hadn't been able to pin the signal down while it was on, but he noticed
And The Boy
summoned his energies and burned-through
the control wires that interfered with his capabilities. This took a tenth of a
second and caused him
to twitch all over. Current
ways, but he had prepared himself for this and simply endured the
.it wasn't really pain.
the wires were severed. They
could no longer control him. He
The generated shield had died with
the screens so his second
priority was to enclose himself in his own shield.
He didn't want any interference from The Collective for
planned to do.
The electrodes that carried the
current that they once used
to control him were his next target.
understood how they worked and he
needn't burn through the heavy wires designed to punish, rather than
to circuits. He had
identified a single
relay under the chair where all the power was fed and he hit it with
raw psychic force he could spare.
flash and pop from beneath him lit the room like a strobe light. Two seconds had passed. The Boy had prepared for
It was only now that he realized that
the power to the
amplifier had also been interrupted.
he wanted the amplifier for what came next.
He needed it. This part of the device,
he knew. With his
mind, he traced the circuits which
fed it and found the generator from which the power had been flowing. Somehow, there was a
massive power surge
feeding into it and it was about to overload.
In his mind, the entire apparatus looked like a huge,
glowing bomb, there
was no way to stop it from detonating.
But off to the side, there was a large bank of batteries
which had not
yet been affected. He
couldn't save the
generator, but perhaps he could preserve the batteries that were still
connected to the amplifier. He
have to divert the flow. . .just
so. . .in order to. .
Three full seconds had now passed
since the screens first
flickered out. He
had not looked to
where he was diverting the power that threatened to overwhelm the
when the screens, some of the banks of instruments and even the cameras
surrounded him began to explode, the pain of the flying glass and the
from the electrical plasma arcs proved almost too much for him to bear. Had the psychic amplifier
that was his brainchild
not kicked in at that moment, he may have lost it all.
But it did.
Even through his pain, he felt the
surge of raw power—for
the first time under his complete control—and once again he
reveled in it. His
abilities and his senses reeled under
the pure unbridled thrill of such energy.
The physical pain receded as his mental powers expanded to
so much more
than their full potential. He
his left eye. . .there seemed to be
something wrong with his
right. . .to see what had happened.
He looked, and his
anguished mental cry echoed so far out into the
universe that entire planets whose inhabitants shared a natural psychic
link—and there are several in this part of the
galaxy—groaned in shared
For the human psychics on Earth,
there was a pause as each
of them stopped whatever else they were doing and suffered with him. Some of the weaker were
overwhelmed by the
sensation and lost consciousness, though they eventually recovered. Only those who were
strong, and who were
actively shielding themselves at the moment, were able to keep some
But The Boy knew none of this. What had happened to him
was similar to what he had inadvertently
done to two others so many years ago.
Every circuit that had been added to the amplifier system
spewing shrapnel and energy in all directions.
And strapped to the chair, The Boy had been unable to so
much as cover
his face with his hands to protect himself.
But his mind was intact.
he had so much
power! There would
be time later to
tend to his body. For
now, he would
show those who had sought to make him meat what it meant to deal with
as he! He was no
longer the mouse in
the box, staying still, and quiet.
Like the boys in the Mercado
so many years ago, they had taken something from him, and now
it was time
for them to pay the price. This
way of the Streets. Perhaps
forgotten this, for a while, when he was with The Collective, but he'd
reminded. He'd made
a mistake. He had
allowed the humans to get the upper
hand and he had paid the price for it.
But now they had made
mistake, and it was their turn to
pay. No longer the
mouse, he was the
jaguar, and it was time to hunt.
"Impossible!" Stephanie cried. "Nobody's that fast! Nobody!"
There was the furious clicking of keys over the earbug. "Something is redirecting
surge. I'm shutting
it down, now! What's
happening? Simon? Tom?
All the security teams and the
controller. . .they are all. .
.my God, what's happening to them?
Simon, are you okay?
Answer me, dammit! Tom?
"We're okay, Stephanie." Simon was bending over the
psychic, who was sitting on the hard
rock floor with his hands over his ears, as if trying to shut-out the
a fierce storm.
Tom wasn't sure what was happening,
but he knew that Agarwal
was down and that the two members of the Kill Team were screaming as if
agony. Echoing down
different halls, he
could hear more screams. According
Stephanie, a lot more.
He's here, Tom.
He's alive. There was unmasked joy in
Agarwal's mental voice,
but there was also pain, and fear.
was the first time the psychic had ever called him by his first name. But we must go to him.
He is hurt.
. .badly. .
.but he's. . .he's.
There are no words for the sound the
plump little man made
next. If Tom had to
describe it, he
could only do so by analogy. Imagine
that a car was rolling downhill, and you were standing in its path. Imagine also that your
child was lying at
your feet. Imagine
that you could
possibly leap out of the way and save yourself, but only if you left
to be crushed. Imagine
that you decided
that no matter what, you would stand between your child and certain
death. So without
further thought, you braced
yourself and caught the car with nothing but your body and your
will. Imagine that
you not only stopped
it, but you shoved it back up the hill far enough to give you time to
your child and carry her out of harms way.
Think about this.
read of such things,
98-pound mothers lifting trucks and such, though you've had your doubts. But think about it, anyway. Now, imagine the sound you
would make in
performing this thoughtless, impossible feat.
The slow, strained, gasping grunt as you caught that
object. And the
loud, grating, fierce, almost
martial-arts yell as you
reversed the crushing weight and threw it back.
If you can imagine these two sounds,
then you might just understand
what Agarwal went through as his mental shield took the brunt of a
psychic assault and though his defenses wavered, he threw it back
force of will, alone.
Tom let out a low groan of pain. He stumbled as he caught
just the merest hint of the raw energies
that Agarwal's mental shield somehow deflected from him. He could almost see it
shimmering around him
just as the pain struck. He heard Simon gasp, as well. For that brief moment, Tom
astonishing array of sensations. He
felt heat, and ten thousand cuts, and needles in the eyes and ears and
nose, and sandpaper on a whole-body sunburn, and others that defy
description. Yet it
because it was so fast, it wasn't terribly intense, and it was simply
neural input to process. But
almost immediately. And
when it was
gone, the screams had stopped. All
Stephanie's voice was also silent. Whatever relays she had
been using to transmit to them had not
survived that last psychic surge.
hoped that Simon's last message that they were unhurt made it through. Tom assumed that she would
be able to tell
that all the com systems were now down and would be frantically trying
reestablish contact with them. She
shouldn't be too worried. Not yet, anyway.
He had finally made it to the doorway
where the two members
of the Kill Team had been stationed.
switchbox in the corner was still smoking and there was a thick ozone
mixed with baked insulation permeating the room.
But beneath these smells was the greasy copper smell of
blood, lots of it. The
gray-haired woman and a dark skinned man—were sprawled on the
floor like they
had fallen from a great height. Their
arms and legs were splayed at improbable angles as if their bones and
had been ratcheted back and forth by some unimaginable force. They were bleeding from
their eyes, ears and
mouths but most of the blood seemed to come from their lower orifices,
huge puddles beneath them. And
Tom had seen more death than he cared to remember, he had never seen
on any dead face, ever.
Death has a way of pacifying the
final rictus of pain. He
had seen the looks on the faces of
children burned alive by napalm and had never seen anything as horrid
faces of these two stone killers.
the release of death had softened their grimaces of suffering. .
.he couldn't imagine what they had experienced before it
had ended. Before
him was a door marked Chair
Room. He started
toward it, he had to
finally see what all this effort had been all about.
Doctor Weldon, wait.
Agarwal's mental voice sounded strange in his ears. The subtext was simple. The psychic was straining
something. . .his shield? The quality
of the information in the link seemed somehow heightened.
Tom had almost forgotten that he
wasn't alone in his
quest. He turned
and saw that Simon was
helping the heavier man down the short hall leading to this smoky
looked like he was
trying to carry a heavy burden, his back was bent and he legs were
wobbly. Simon was
having a difficult time supporting
He mentally chided himself for his
scrambled to help the two men. His
fascination with what was on the other side of the door was momentarily
forgotten. As he
neared them, he could
hear Simon calling to Stephanie over the com.
his earbug was dead. "I
think the whole system is offline,
Simon," he said as he reached to help support Agarwal in his slow
plod. With his
greater height and bulk
he was able to provide much more lift than Simon could.
"Let me take him," he
Simon gave him a searching look. Both knew that once that
door was open, all bets were off.
If Agarwal was shielding them from some kind
of mental attack, they might only have seconds in which to act. Simon might have to use
his pistol, after
all. Tom nodded his
understanding as he
heaved, almost lifting Agarwal's feet from the floor.
Simon released his end and hurried into the room.
"Damn," was all he said when he saw
the carnage within.
He has killed them all.
Agarwal's mental anguish was loud and
clear though the link. All
of them, and all at once. So
death, so much suffering! I have never even heard of such power.
such a large area. He
must have been treated very badly to have
unleashed this terrible destruction.
Everything we worked for has been undone.
He has changed so much, my Dezcentavo.
Dezcentavo? Tom had heard the
name—or something like it—before.
Was this the boy's name?
Had they even known the
boy's name up to now?
clicked in his
mind. Where had he
heard that name,
before? It meant
.but what was it?
Simon had paused at the door marked
Chair Room. He was
waiting for Tom and Agarwal to catch
I cannot make contact with the control pod. I lost them when he killed
all the mundanes. .
.the people. . .in the
complex. Just. .
Then it looks like it's just the three of us, then. In the
subtext there was a grim
determination from Simon. He
have been able to sense the deaths of everyone in the complex the way
had, but learning of them had had an effect on him.
Tom wanted desperately to take a
moment to collect his
thoughts. There was
something about the
boy's name. . .something important. But
other thoughts seemed to crowd this memory out.
Strange memories were whirling around inside his head. He saw a face. .
.it was a face he
recognized. . .someone he had worked
with, before. It
was someone in his regular life. . .another
And Simon was in the memory, too. The woman was saying
something to Simon. She
was telling Simon to remember a certain event
when Tom said his line. His
Tom knew he should remember what he was supposed to say. .
.but the words just wouldn't come.
With an effort, he cleared his mind and focused on the
hand. He needed to
be sharp for
this. As his mind
cleared, he realized
that he had shifted the dart gun to his other hand.
It was light enough for him to use like an oversized
should he need. And
he was fairly sure
that multiple shots to the same person could—if
necessary—prove at least as
lethal as Simon's weapon of choice.
in Simon's mental voice.
I'm as ready as I will ever be, Tom
answered, finally. His mind
was finally clear, but it had been more difficult to do than he could
remember. Pasteel, surely the boy knows we are here, by now.
It is possible, Doctor Weldon, but I think not. Do not forget that a
shielded mind is a
blank spot in our senses.
that he has set-up a perimeter around this location that will instantly
any unshielded mind that wanders in. Such
energies were believed to be impossible.
keeping us all alive, right now but should my control slip. .
Is there anything we can do to help? Simon
Doctor Litchfield, Doctor Weldon, I can protect you
better if you allow
me to fully link with you, much as we did, before.
Agarwal's answer surprised Tom, for a
moment. He had
nearly forgotten that since
Simon's. . .renegotiation.
.with The Collective, that they had not been actively
reading his mind
I'm not so sure.
. . Simon's
mental voice and subtext
were in complete concordance. He
like it, didn't trust it, and didn't want to do it.
There was desperation in Agarwal's
plea. With a close enough link, he will not be
able to harm you without harming me.
And lest you have forgotten, sir:
We Do Not Kill Our Own.
The adamancy and the vehemence of the little man's
sobering. He had
absolute confidence in
this one truism.
Let's do it, Tom volunteered. He did so as much to break
the stalemate as anything else. He
wasn't crazy about the idea, but at least
it made a certain amount of sense.
Damn you and damn him! Presumably,
Simon was referring to the
I'll do it, Agarwal.
I'll do it.
But only for as long as it takes to get this over with. .
.one way or another.
Do I have
One way or another.
For a moment, Tom feared that this
time it was Agarwal who would
balk. But he
Litchfield, I give you my word that I will dissolve the
link when it is no longer necessary in order to protect both you and
In that case, I agree.
reluctant resolve in his mental subtext was unmistakable.
Are you ready, Doctor Weldon?
Go! he replied.
Time's a' wastin', people.
he realized that perhaps that wasn't true.
This entire discourse had taken only seconds—so
things were with the
Tom felt an all too familiar tickle
in the back of his
him that The Collective had kept to their side of the bargain. They hadn't invaded his
mind since the new
agreement was struck. Tom
found it more
than a little telling.
Can you note the difference? Agarwal's
message was vastly
different than before. Along
subtext, there were other dimensions to the transmission. Tom could feel the effort
expending in order to maintain the shield at its current strength. The boy's kill zone took
measures to counteract. He
feel the man's pain at what the boy had done, his sense of having
something. And Tom
knew that if he
wanted more, he had only to reach for it and it would be there. He had done this once
before, and decided
that it probably wasn't worth it.
These psychics appeared to have an entirely different set
of rules when
it came to allowing others to rummage around inside their heads. The fact that they seemed
to feel completely
free to do so to mundane humans apparently wasn't even a consideration.
answered. To tell the truth, I had
forgotten what this was like.
And again Tom could feel so much more from Simon than he
have imagined. Simon
was weary of all this. Though his adrenalin was
up and he knew he was
about to go into a situation where life and death might hang in the
balance. . .he was just plain tired of
it all. He'd been
here—or at least in
similar straights—too many times, before.
Loud and clear, he answered.
Loud and clear. Let's
Tom adjusted his grip on the stouter,
shorter man. The
poor fellow seemed a little better, but
he was still wobbly on his feet. Only
now Tom knew for sure that it was because of the intense concentration
taking for him to shield them all from the lethal energies that the
the help of the psychic amplifier he had caused to be
Simon's wordless nod to both of them
was returned. They
were ready. He
slowly turned the knob on the heavy metal door.
# In the Chair.
Simon's sharp intake of breath was
the only warning Tom had
before the smell hit him. It
ripe, sharp odor of burned insulation, ozone, body odor, feces and
flesh. Simon's much
momentarily blocked Tom's view of the chair—which was
centerpiece of the room. There
metal cabinets all around which used to be gray, but were now streaked
black smudge from the fires that had burned within them. In Stephanie's last
transmission, she had
spoken of something redirecting her power surge to someplace she hadn't
guessed that he now knew
where it went.
The room was simply loaded
with equipment. Much
of it seemed to be
large banks of circuit panels and various monitoring screens, but there
also reservoirs of what appeared to be hospital-grade fluids,
and sealed waste receptacles.
There were huge bundles of wires and
tubes leading from one
end of the room to the other.
them seemed to eventually find their way to the massive metal base upon
the chair was perched. Simon
the left a little, to make his way past a still-smoldering conduit, and
his first glimpse of the thing strapped to that horrid device. It hardly looked like a
person, at all. It
looked more like a boy-shaped, life-size
rag doll had been lightly sprinkled with charcoal lighter fluid and set
aflame. The only
bright spot on the
figure was a small, silver medallion on its chest.
It looked like it may have been beneath the boy's clothing
had only slipped out after the worst of the punishment was over. Strapped as he was, some
movement had, no
doubt, been possible. If
he had been
conscious at all, he had to have
writhing in intense pain as he was burned.
The medallion caught Tom's interest immediately, but he
was too far away
to make out any details. From
vantage point, it looked like a small silver coin.
He heard a quiet moan of anguish from
beside him. He felt
a sudden acute pain in his chest and
for a moment, he thought he was under some new kind of psychic attack,
he realized that what he was experiencing was nothing but heartbreak. .
.and it wasn't his. He
was—somehow—empathetically connected to
Agarwal. He was suffering with the man as he began to
understand what had happened
to this boy that he loved, so much.
But the sound did not go unnoticed by
the figure in the
chair. Beneath the
hairline, a single—unblemished—deep brown eye
opened. His right
eye was completely covered by a flap of skin from a
deep gash on his forehead. There
still a large, triangular piece of glass embedded in one end of the cut. There was no blood to be
seen at all. Apparently,
the heat of the exploding
monitors and circuits had cauterized the wound.
Without doubt, it was a mixed blessing.
Pasteel? Is that you?
The strength and
intensity of the communication was staggering.
You came for me, but
The sheer volume of the boy's mental
sending made Tom's head
throb. Had the boy
done this through Agarwal's shield? He wasn't sure. Perhaps they could open
their shield for communication without
opening it for anything else. There
seemed to be no emotional subtext at all from the boy.
We came as soon as we could, Dezcentavo. Agarwal's
response, on the other hand, was as rich with
compassion, pity, fear, love and above all else, sorrow. It was we who cut the power to this
place. You are
hurt, little one, and
you are safe with us. Please
offensive field so that we can help you.
No! I will not be made meat by
them, again. I have
the power now, Pasteel.
I have it!
You will kill anyone who comes close, child. You must stop this, at
are safe. .
.WE are safe. Only
THEY will pay
for what they did to me. Tell
human dogs to leave us now, and I will grant them safe passage to the
We cannot do that, child.
you know it. We
only want to help you, please just
let us help you. They
have come far and risked much. They
will not leave until. . .
Tom had been trying to slowly,
subtly, position his dart gun
to allow him a clear shot at the boy should he need it.
He had slid the strap from his shoulder and
was holding it loosely in his left hand.
His actions—he hoped—were temporarily
hidden from the boy by a low bank
of still-smoldering electronics. The
effort had caused him to shift his balance a little, as he stood,
the bulk of Agarwal's weight. When
stocky man's knees buckled, they both dropped to the floor. His dart gun skittered to
the side as he
grappled to control their fall.
He felt a sharp pain in the center of
his head, but it was
it was his close link
with Agarwal, or maybe he was just beginning to figure out how all of
worked. But he was
sure that the boy
had just tried to attack Simon and him without hurting Agarwal. Somehow, the psychic had
turned the force
away. But the
effort had taken just
about everything the little man had.
Tom caught only a fluid, graceful,
sensation of motion from
the corner of his eye. Simon
forward and started to raise his pistol.
The pain was intense.
Tom's right hand, which had been supporting Agarwal's
head, felt like a
molten spike had been driven through it.
He jerked it back with such force that the poor man's
as his head was violently twisted.
registered a gasp of pain from Simon, and he could see Agarwal's right
fingers curled in an agony that mirrored his own.
And then the pain was gone.
Tom tried to reach for his dart gun, but he couldn't move. Just like in the back room
of the Cannon
Moon. . .his muscles were frozen.
don't make me do
shielding them! I
cannot protect myself without hurting
Dezcentavo. . .The
man's body may have been a frozen
sprawl with limbs akimbo, but his mind was still strong and his resolve
crystal clear. Tom
could feel it.
do to them you must do to me.
We stand together, child.
Tom couldn't move, but he could still
He felt the intense
pressure the boy was putting on Agarwal's shields.
He could feel the
where the boy had punched through the shield with whatever it took to
person's muscles and he realized just what the psychic had done for
With the raw power at his disposal,
the boy could easily rip
his mentor's shields apart and do whatever he wanted, but because of
Agarwal had linked them, what the boy did to one, he did to all three. He couldn't harm Simon or
Tom without also
hurting his friend. And
were in whatever lethal field the boy had erected, he couldn't just
unconscious, for then the psychic's shield would drop, too. It was a true standoff.
Pasteel, Tom tried to whisper
with his mind, he wanted to
communicate with him without the boy hearing him.
He didn't know if it worked, or not.
.the boy's name. . .it means ten
centavos. . . right? I recognize the medallion
he wears around
his neck. It's an
old Brazilian, ten-centavo
coin, isn't it?
Yes, Doctor Weldon.
But now is
Tell me what you know about it.
. .Pasteel. .
.it's important. . .
But. . .
Trust me, Pasteel.
Whatever Tom was expecting, he wasn't
prepared for what
happened next. For
a moment, he was The Boy With No
Name. What Agarwal
was giving him was a memory
that he had taken from The Boy, himself.
his cup to
Papa Carlos. It had
been a good
morning's begging and there were several reali
in change and even a few bills.
With a certain pride, he poured it out on the rough wooden
to the nearly empty gallon- jug of beer and the battered dominoes. Papa would be so happy. Perhaps he would even smile.
Carlos' face closely as his eyes flickered over the bounty that had
before him. One
finger probed the pile as it usually did, judging whether The Boy had
well. And The Boy
felt a tinge of
trepidation as the man's sun-wrinkled brow furrowed.
He had seen something odd amidst the assorted coins.
singled-out a small, silver coin and he plucked it from the pile,
holding it up
to a ray of light streaming in from between the slats.
He looked closely at it, for a moment.
The Boy held his breath.
Papa Carlos had a look on his face that he
had never seen, before. The
The beer on
was still fresh, and it smelled sweet to The Boy when the man nudged
who was drinking and gambling with him that morning, and showed him the
coin. Old Peitro,
started to laugh so
hard when he saw it, that he choked on spittle, which only aggravated
man's wheezing, and triggered one of his coughing fits.
His breath—on the other hand—reeked of
onions and stale cheese but The Boy did not flinch away from it. He knew better.
one of these in a very long time, boy.
Who has given you a gift of such value?
How could they part with such treasure for one such as
The Boy, looked at the coin. He
remember ever seeing one like it, and had no memory of anyone dropping
his cup. Several
Touristas had reached
in their pockets when he approached them and had given him whatever
found. It was
probably one of them, he
thought. But he
still didn't know if he
had done something wrong, or very very right by showing it to Papa
Carlos. All he
could offer was an apologetic
shrug. It was
better not to speak when you
weren't sure where things were going.
still as the man took a piece of scrap twine and began to wrap it
coin. He had been a
and his fingers remembered how to quickly tie knots.
It was a skill he had seen the man use many times, his
ankles still bore many subtle scars which testified to the strength of
has no place in my pocket, boy."
Papa Carlos said as he worked.
"It was given to you and you should keep it." And he smiled.
The Boy let
breath he hadn't even realized he was holding.
He had smiled!
the necklace he had woven. It
crude, rough, but it seemed the most beautiful thing that The Boy had
in his life. The
man almost gently
lowered it over his head. Without
thought, The Boy bowed his head and accepted his gift as if he were a
receiving a knighthood from the king.
boy. This is you." And his hand briefly
brushed the The Boy's
cheek in a gesture that was almost.
. .gentle. .
Tom let out a gasp.
The entire memory had taken barely a second but it had
been so complete,
so nuanced that he instantly understood so very much about the boy in
the chair. He knew
the man's temper, his abuses, and
how he had broken these abandoned, unwanted children to his will. And he understood
something else, as
well. He realized
that this gift, was no gift at all.
are you doing, old man?
For a moment, Tom wasn't sure if The
Boy—he could never call
referring to him,
or to Papa Carlos. Reliving
memories of another was a very confusing manner of communication. Somehow, however, he
realized that it was
Simon that The Boy was speaking to.
heard a sound behind him. Simon
He was fighting The Boy the same way
he had fought the
control pod that night in the Cannon Moon.
Tom had almost completely forgotten about it. He tried to remember if he
had heard Simon's pistol fall from his
hand when The Boy had stopped them, before.
let me stop
him! He's. .
.he's blocking. .
Hurry, Doctor Litchfield.
Whatever you are doing.
. .hurry. Agarwal's mental voice was
anguished, weak. Tom
could feel the man straining to protect
them with everything he had. It
like one of those movies where the characters are in a room with the
slowly, inexorably moving in on them.
The force was absolutely overwhelming and it seemed The
Boy was trying
to crush the man's defenses to the point where he
could—perhaps—break the link
and separate Agarwal without actually killing him.
But the plump little psychic was
having none of it. Rather
than fighting the unnaturally
overpowering force, he was defending only the link between the three
men. He was putting
everything he could muster
into giving The Boy no choice but to kill him.
He was trusting that The Boy would hold back.
Hurry Simon, Tom's mental voice
.but something in his mind clicked
almost as soon as he had formulated the thought.
Another memory seemed to invade. It was a very different
kind than that which Agarwal had given
him. This was his memory.
It was he and
Simon in the basement when they were being shielded by The Egg. Simon had asked him for
the name of a friend
of his, another psychologist and an expert in a very specific field. Hypnotism.
Simon had her brought to the basement
much the same way as
Tom had been and she had hypnotized both of them.
And this woman was good, very
good, within her specialty.
Pasteel? He is raising his gun! We. Do. Not. Kill. Our.
Own! How many times
have I heard you tell me
this. How many
You give us no choice, little one.
I am sorry. Do
what you must do,
Simon! Tom tried to scream
with his mind.
Endeavor to proceed with a
modicum of alacrity.
what he had been trying to remember!
That's what he was
supposed to say when
the time was right!
you can all die!
The crushing weight he could feel
through the link increased
heard an anguished
moan escape Agarwal's lips. He
his link. The man
was at his absolute
limit. He just
couldn't hold-out any
As the link and the shielding began
to fail, Tom felt a pain
in his chest, as if an invisible hand was closing around his heart.
Incredibly, he felt one last surge of
wouldn't have believed it
possible that there was anything left in the man, but somehow he had
into whatever well he drew his strength from, and found a little more. The link grew.
Simon, but from an odd perspective.
there was pain. Pain
from the burns to
the exposed portions of his body.
from when he had diverted the power surge here in order to protect his
machines. He felt
the pain in his chest
and he knew what Pasteel had done.
had linked them all together. An
now would kill all of them. Tom
considered doing just that, but then he would have to give up the
machine. After all
he had done, and all he had
suffered. . .he would never give up
the device. . .never!
was pure grit. He
was straining to hold
the pistol which was right now already pointing directly at Tom's face. Simon was going to shoot
him unless he forced
his way through the shield and into his mind, now!
dropped the lethal field as he concentrated all the power at his
this one last assault. Tom
mind prepared to plunge his consciousness into Simon's.
If it killed poor Pasteel, too, so be
it. He had sided
with the humans.
He felt his
easily breach Pasteel's sheild. Simon's
mind was open to him.
not figure out why Maria had
not answered him when he came in the door. She seemed to have left the
on, maybe to get warm. He thought maybe she was doing some sit-ups or
something, and perhaps that was why she was on the floor, naked. She
exercise and then hop right in the shower… She was being
practical, that was
it. Then he saw his clock on the floor next to her, and then his eyes
the cord to her neck.
Boy/Agarwal reeled at the intensity
of the feelings that Simon's mind had conjured.
He felt Agarwal break the link with Simon in a reflex
was much like jerking your leg up if you stepped on a wasp, barefoot. But
the images continued. Agarwal
severed the link with The Boy.
lifelessness in her eyes stunned
him. It could not be. It was a trick, a joke. He called to her, dove to
side. He reached to check her pulse, but her body was cold.
Boy/Agarwal couldn't think, couldn't
act. How is it
possible that white
people can feel such incredible anguish?
They are always happy, and rich, and fed!
Simon's hand, muzzle of the heavy pistol
loomed like a locomotive tunnel in Tom's vision.
He was looking directly at it when it blossomed into
white flame. At the
moment that the
booming sound assaulted his ears, he felt a tug on his head and the
world. . .diminished. His connection to the
machine was broken.
felt himself react. .
.thrusting with his mind against Simon's hand, and he felt
of incredible pain. Through
his one good
eye, he saw the pistol drop out of sight and heard the clatter as it
floor. He had done
it! It took all of
his strength to break through
but he had made the old man drop the gun!
still the images continued, blocking out
almost all other sensations. The
in his hand echoed the pain he had felt that day and only added to the
verisimilitude of the memory.
yanked back as if scorched and
a sudden feeling of helplessness seized him. Words choked in his
his noiseless scream echoed only in his soul as the sobs wracked his
found his voice, the link was weaker
than before. He was
still in all three
minds but he was himself again, too.
had forgotten how powerful Dezcentavo was, even
amplifier. At any
moment, he could
regain enough control to kill Simon where he stood.
Since the link to Agarwal was broken, now it was only
mental defenses that were keeping him alive.
His mental reliving of his own worst moment was the
suggestion that Simon himself had requested, there in the basement of
name was the key.
Simon's shot had disabled the machinery—either
on purpose or by
chance—it was just he and The Boy, now.
was still shielding Tom
Simon! he yelled, mentally. The medallion. Rip it off his neck and
throw it away. Hurry! He
only assume that since he was still receiving images from Simon, that
connection was still held through The Boy.
brown eyes gazed up at him from
the floor. They were so calm, so peaceful--almost happy.
Simon’s eyes trailed
downward, following the line of her cheek. Wrapped around her neck was
electrical cord, wound so tight that it almost cut into the skin.
felt a hand at his. . .no.
.at The Boy's throat.
Tom saw an
image of The Boy's single dark brown eye looking up at him, in horror. And he realized that
Simon, too, was having
trouble distinguishing what was really in front of him and what was
his memory. And the
horror reflected in
The Boy's eye was not at what the old man was doing.
What he felt was the echo of the abject emptiness that the
man had somehow survived. He
in the anguish, unable to defend himself and unable to punch through it
that the machine was dead.
was a tug and a sharp pain as the
stainless steel chain rubbed against, and then cut into his burned
flesh. For a
moment, it felt like a piece of black
electrical cord from an alarm clock that
was—innocuously—shaped like an old
steam locomotive. Tom
wasn't sure whose
thoughts were whose. His
bouncing between perspectives and feelings as if it were a rubber ball
cement mixer. There
was The Boy, and
Simon, some of Agarwal's fatigue and even his own ideas about the
between Papa Carlos, the medallion, and the name that The Boy With No
adopted for his own.
focused his thoughts as he had trained
himself to do. For
the moment, he had
to be himself, and push away the images and
sensations of the others
that were clattering around in his jumbled mind.
Carlos lied to you. He
spoke softly with his mental voice, much like he tried to do when he
working with a client in his office.
The coin was worthless. He was not showing love
when he gave
it to you, he was mocking you.
In his mind, he pictured the anonymous email he had
Do you understand, son?
hundred million of these
would equal one centavo. He
you worthless! But
he lied to you then,
like he lied to you so many times.
You're not worthless.
Tom put as much
feeling and faith into that last statement as he could.
In the link, there can be no lies. It was time to put this
psychic connection to use. The
doubt him. He
must be able to see the truth in
Tom reached into Agarwal's mind, next. He had been shown what to
look for and he
found it, immediately. The
too drained to offer resistance, even if he'd tried.
He opened the memory he found and
shared it with the link.
the necklace he had woven. It
crude, rough, but it seemed the most beautiful thing that The Boy had
in his life. The
man almost gently
lowered it over his head. Without
thought, The Boy bowed his head and accepted his gift as if he were a
receiving a knighthood from the king.
boy. This is you." And his hand briefly
brushed the The Boy's
cheek in a gesture that was almost.
.almost even loving.
Tom sent this memory straight from
Agarwal's mind. It
was loaded with subtext. There
were vague images of other lies, to
The Boy and to others. There
feelings he felt when being called into Papa Carlos's room. Of the man's hands
loosening his belt, and
letting his pants drop to the dusty dirt floor.
And of what he made The Boy do next.
You are NOT Dezcentavo!
was NOT you! Break
free of him,
now. It's okay. We will take care of you. We are NOT all like him. You know this, son. You
And with all the honesty, concern and
promise in his being,
Tom spoke: Your name is not
. .Help us, son. Help us to find your REAL
Tom lurched forward, his muscles
under his own control,
again. Beside him,
stirred. Tom rolled
him over to see if
he was okay but from the little man's dry lips croaked the words, "The boy, see to the boy."
When Tom stood, he could see Simon
standing by the chair,
trying to loosen the scorched straps holding the young man down.
There were tears running down the
burn-ravaged cheeks. But
the quiet sob Tom heard didn't come from
him, it came from Simon as he gently, patiently worked at the ruined
In the end, they'd had to cut the
melted nylon bindings to
free him from his own device.
The Collective had arrived within
hours. Since the
damage was contained within a cave
complex, they were able to keep curious eyes focused elsewhere until it
be cleaned-up, and the bodies removed.
There was never a hint in the press that anything had
happened, at all. If
any were angry at the damage done to the
psychic amplifier by the power surges, Simon's shot.
the C4 he planted
wherever he could find something that looked important.
.they never mentioned it to Tom.
Stephanie had been going crazy. She knew what had
happened, of course. She
had been using the internal com system to link with the
team's cell phones and when the power surge had gone crazy, it burned
lost contact with them
for over an hour before they were close enough to the surface for the
signal to reach them.
Thank God that nobody had been
killed, though she felt bad
about the electrical burns one of the people had suffered. She checked on the young
man while he was in
the hospital and although he would be scarred, he was going to survive
it. The doctors in
Lucca were amazed at his
She even allowed herself to feel a
little pleased that she
was able to help pull-off this kind of operation without any casualties. And besides, she'd made a
new friend. Seemed
all of a sudden she was corresponding
to some hacker in Italy who went by the name of Mamissmo. Somehow, they had
an awful lot, in common.
Callow was oddly subdued about
Simon's machinations in the
lower levels of The Nightwatch Institute.
Under any other circumstances, he would have been livid. Perhaps The Collective
directly, and maybe it was the very generous bonus that Nightwatch
for a job well done. In
any case, all
the people were finally released by Simon, and the triple-time had
piled-up for some of them.
Callow didn't even wince when he got
the bill from a Doctor
Olivia Overstreet. She
had billed them
at over two hundred dollars an hour for the full three days she was
there. Seemed her
specialty was hypnotizing people
and had proved very entertaining to those who were trapped down there.
The back room of the Cannon Moon was
much tidier than it had
been last time Tom was there. Seemed
that Gillian had a little more heads-up time for this little visit. He couldn't help himself;
he'd simply had to
have the lobster bisque, this time.
was everything he remembered it to be.
To hell with his diet.
make it up by hitting the gym a little harder for the next week, or so.
Finally, the plates were cleared and
the three were again
alone in the room, nursing glasses of wine and simply staring at each
other. Tom wasn't
looking forward to
this, and he was absolutely positive that Simon wasn't, either. But a bargain is a
bargain, and both had
given their word.
"Has he decided on a name, yet?" Tom
asked. Everybody in
the room knew who he was
"He's leaning towards, Fortunado,"
"It means. . ."
Simon finished the sentence for him.
"That boy's been through a lot, Pasteel.
You certainly have your work cut out for you."
"Indeed, Doctor Litchfield, I quite
agree." There was
something odd about the little
man's smile. "But I
ideas along that track."
"I can recommend some good
said. "But I'm not
sure you could
really tell them everything you'd need to."
He tried—and failed—to imagine how that conversation would go.
But he shrugged-off the thoughts and focused on what they
had all come
"I suppose it's time," Simon ventured. "Have you worked it out so
memories will jibe with Stephanie's?"
"It took some doing, but we think
we've come up with
the proper balance."
"Before we do this," Tom interjected. "I wanted to tell you that
the way you stood with us, there in the cave.
You were willing to die rather than let him harm us, and
"It means more than you may imagine,
Weldon." The little
thoughtful, and he took a sip of his white wine before he continued. "In the past, we have
position that—quite frankly—the wellbeing of one of
us was vastly more
important than that of just about any number of.
Simon cocked his head, with a smile
he said: "You mean,
mundanes, of course."
"Not anymore, Doctor Litchfield. Not anymore. You see, down in the cave
you both demonstrated that your unique
abilities are at the very least, equal to our own.
Without your strength and mental discipline, we would have
failed. And sir,
compassion. . .let us just say. .
.this may have ended very badly for all of
us. When you shot
the machine instead
of the boy, you made everything that happened next possible."
Simon's nod to the man was the
epitome of civility.
"And as for you, Doctor Weldon,"
and wisdom we may still have failed.
seems incredible to me that I lived with that young man for ten years
realizing what that medallion—and the name he had chosen for
of it—really meant. I am in your debt, sir."
Tom tried to be as gracious as Simon
with his gesture of
that he managed to pull it off.
"And now, gentlemen, the pods are
staged and ready. If
you would please just relax your minds
and accept what is about to happen, I promise you that you will not in
Tom doubted it would work, but he had
to give it a try.
"That's our time, for this week,
folks. We'll pick
it up from here next Tuesday,
Both of them stole glances at the
shelf clock Tom kept on
the mantle. Just as
he always did, Mister Turnington
then also checked his
watch, just to make sure. Of
course, Mistress Turnington noticed
done and scowled at him. She
just hated it when he had to double
everything everybody said to him.
"Until then I have an assignment for
you." Tom said as
they all stood. "I
want you both to try and write down
three things that you really love about the other.
Don't talk about what's on the list and Sandy, don't leave
where you know he'll find it. It
fair to tempt him like that, okay?"
"And Ed, don't you bug her about
whether or not she's
started it once you have it finished. It
isn't a competition, you won't win any prize by getting it
With murmured promises to try and do
better, they left.
As he sat to work on his notes, Tom
thought about his next
appointment. It was
their third session
and so far, everything seemed to be working fairly well. It was an Indian fellow
and his adopted
teenage son. The
kid had been badly
scarred in a kerosene heater explosion a few months ago but his real
was Adjustment Disorder.
The poor kid spent years as a
homeless street child on his
own in Brazil, and he was trying to come to terms with his distrust of
in general. From
some of the stories
that were coming out, the kid had been through seven kinds of hell.
But they both seemed really open to
Tom's help and in his
experience, once that hurdle was passed, anything
© 2006-2007 by Bill Wolfe.
Bill Wolfe is a Health Physicist
working for the
Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This makes
he's the resident science geek but he's been known to be quite wrong,
to time. He is the proud owner of two granddaughters and three
whom are teenagers—so please feel free to shoot him, now. (To
which the editor
adds, “No, no. Wait ‘til you get home.”)
As of now, all of his writing has been
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