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Year of the Black Rainbow
who with their patience and understanding have nurtured my will. Without you. Here We Are Juggernaut. Don't know where I'd be without you. And Mr. Thank you. To the Children of the Fence who have allowed me to do these things I do. my friend and manager. Blaze James. You'll never know the depths of how much I appreciate you. whose help facilitates my crazy ideas. --Claudio Sanchez .THE AMORY WARS Year of the Black Rainbow Claudio Sanchez with PETER DAVID EVIL INK NEW YORK. I'm sure I wouldn't have written past Page 10. My music and concepts are riddled with you. USA Copyright 2010 To my family. sir. whose love and help cannot be measured. Chondra. Peter David who has helped bring this chapter of the mythos to life. determination and wild imagination. NY. My wife.
In the Flame of Error 18. Obscurity Has No Hero 2. The Worst These Worlds Will See 5. The World of Lines 12. The Black Rainbow 7. Made Out of Nothing 14. Pearl of the Stars 13. A Wretched Design 9. While You Were Sleeping 16.Prologue 1. New in Town 20. Everything You Love 15. The Same Old Story 10. Cleanse This Useless Identity 3. All Falls Apart 17. Give Us the Monster 8. Torn to Pieces 6. Magicians 11. When Skeletons Live 21. Guns of Summer 4. This Shattered Symphony 19. I'll Be Your Ghost Epilogue .
Year of the Black Rainbow .
then guardians must intervene. although its origins were detailed in mystic books considered to be God’s first-person testimonial. Most such unbelievers could safely be ignored. The stars were so named since they had been discovered. In all other systems of the universe. for they could be hurt and killed. the universe held nothing but cold. then I shall return with the stars to destroy all I have made. Mages were born to rule. although. appearing to the naked eye as blueskinned. could not. there was no central. they were afraid they would get it wrong and wind up challenging God himself. The system they comprised was named Heaven’s Fence. with each planet bound together by a beam of blue light known collectively as the Keywork. But in this system. should I come forth to change the face of Man with you there to challenge me. building the machines and helping them to work. Just as the Mages kept watch over mortals on the ground. Beyond ensuring planetary stability.” The Prise spent their days in fear of this riddle and their abilities to decipher it if and when the need should arise. pure in their lineage. while others had the potential but needed to be nurtured. Twelve sectors were appointed and given equivalent power. some were born fully formed. We will speak more of him shortly. they were nearly indistinguishable. and there was one positioned to govern each of the twelve sectors. The Mages came from different sources. But of particular interest was a unique system comprised of seventy-eight planets. and ultimately comprehended by one Sirius Amory. one from the other.Prologue In the beginning. who might have named it remained an unresolved matter of perpetual contention. They simply knew that they had always been there and always would be. There were three main inhabitants of the Fence: The worker bees of the colonies. and that too was a matter of conflict for some—had given them strict orders in the course of their creation: “If Man should decide to dabble in my affairs. although it was not an easy endeavor. although less than gods. all equal in their potency. Then there were the Mages with their gray skin and horned shoulder blades. But. growing the crops. however. the Prise maintained rule over the air. written about. One of them. They spun out across the cosmos. More than mortal were they. perhaps because the Keywork nurtured them in a way that no other force in the cosmos possibly could. each as magnificent as the next. again. life thrived on every single one of the worlds. life was a scarce commodity. In the end. Along with this celestial triangle came its division and rule. To believe those words was to be at peace. God -or what they believed to be God. as might be expected amongst people who wielded free will. Whence came that life was an issue of debate. So was it written in the Ghansgraad. there were some who disputed that belief as well. as it were. As was consistent with the mysterious origins of Heaven’s Fence. Then light fractured shadow. far too many to be named. obscure darkness and a longing for something greater than itself. But not believing in God meant that matters were more… …problematic. who postulated the Keywork was generating the essential elements needed to sustain life on all the planets. Whether Man or I present that danger will not be told in the coming. for the vast game of reality made perfect sense if one accepted that the hand of God was maneuvering all the pieces. Somewhere in the Middle… . spent their days tilling the soil. Man. the book purportedly scribed by God Himself…although again. the Keywork served as a bridge between the planets and their main energy sources: The Stars of Sirius. golden tressed women with great wings mounted upon their shoulders. agreed-upon recollection of how the Mages had come to acquire their position in the grand scheme of things. Finally there were the Prise. and many of them doomed to obscurity. though. They were eternally burdened with the crucial responsibility of guarding the Keywork. aligned in a triangle. thus spawning many worlds.
he said. Or. but we don’t have that kind of time. “What?” she said with impatience. ha ha. Why it howled. “Hard to say. its position in its particular sector relative to other worlds in the Fence. vast. Cam. They came out of a door that was carved right out of a mountainside. was a matter of very active discussion. okay? I get it. I’m not. the Military Mining Corp.” She handed him the binoculars and he gazed through them. He preferred to leave such considerations to Cambria. “Maybe you should report in--” Coheed was ahead of her.” She continued to study the landscape but the edges of her mouth were tweaked into a small smile. it’s just a light read—“ “I get it. “At a guess…five by ten meters. and then remembered and removed her hand from his mouth.” “—can be such a—“ She clamped one hand over his mouth. “I’ll be damned. though. but that’s a problem for another day.” “Plus if I did read your mind. At this moment. or that poor excuse for a beard. In the case of Inferno.” “You were. They like to stay low profile. but then he spotted it.” “Like?” She considered it.” “Seriously. “I said. The author of the text had been excommunicated. “The Myth of the Howling Earth” which had resulted in much head nodding in the scientific community and screams like unto the damned from the religious community. At first he didn’t see it. I’m torn between your pathetic grooming antics.Chapter 1 Obscurity Has No Hero The Howling Earth was aptly named. “Quite possibly you and me both. The theologically minded saw the hand of the Lord in everything that existed throughout the entirety of the Keywork. “You’re the only one who calls me that. shut up. which linked all the worlds of Heaven’s Fence into one great. And there were a few who did not purport to know the whys and wherefores of the Howling Earth’s origins. He kept shoving his hair back. About five of them. the voices were howling louder than ever. Inferno here.” She looked away from the binos for a moment. Nor did he ponder the volume relative to the aforementioned phenomenon that hovered high above. it would have come across as a joke. They would say that the Howling Earth’s perpetually mournful state was simply a combination of the planet’s unique atmosphere. They claimed that the Howling Earth was the province of the eternally damned.” A voice crackled back over the unit. “Seriously. their souls (their bodies having been reduced to floating bits of dust) had been exiled to the Howling Earth. He loved listening to her speak. Co.” “What sort of equipment?” .” said Inferno. There had been an entire dissertation entitled. there’d be plenty of room for me since there’s not a lot else going on in there. that much was beyond dispute. You’re smart. don’t you? What’s wrong with ‘Coheed’’?” “I could answer that in detail. “Nothing of any value.” “There’s nothing to mine on the Howling Earth . Coheed knew that he was perfectly serious.” “Specify. Just about different things. Typically they don’t wear uniforms. “And besides. but shared one conviction: that ever since a particular ebony celestial phenomenon had made its presence known. and its terrain and the exact manner in which the many mountain ranges that dotted its surface were arrayed. “Grail Arbor? This is Coheed. Inferno. and then shrugged. triangular whole. throughout the lengthy and occasionally muddied history of the Fence. even if I were in there. had sought to attain power that was on par with that of the creator Himself.” From anyone else.” “Absolutely not. more correctly. there to serve as eternal examples of what happened when one aspired for a station that was hopelessly beyond one’s reach.” “My abilities don’t work that way. “This is Grail Arbor. He could hear a growl of impatience. Coheed had never said as much. Doesn’t make them any less dangerous. you—“ “Shut up. You know that. “You’re smart. Coheed had no idea which was the truth and which was the fiction. “They could be part of the MMC. Beast. when she spoke it almost sounded as if she were singing.” “Looks to be miners of some sort. though. Plus there are no scientific mining expeditions slated for this world.” he said under his breath. There was a soft chuckle from next to him. They would have been the first to tell you that such legends were nothing more than fanciful nonsense.” “Large enough to fit equipment through. “What’s so funny?” said Coheed. Then there were those of a more scientific bent. “How large is the opening they’ve created?” Coheed looked to Cambria.” said Cambria.” “That leaves military. He could do so for hours. “You have something to report?” “We might have found something. ‘What have you got?’” “Look for yourself. Activating his comm unit.” said Cambria.” “Oh.” Her voice was soft and melodious. Cambria studied it and then said.” “How large a door?” “What do you mean?” said Coheed. “You were in my head. and yet somehow she had managed to see his obvious annoyance with her peripheral vision. spotted them. It had been his experience that reality typically lay somewhere between the two. because it sounded…well… “Like romantic nonsense?” He fired an annoyed look at her.” Coheed mumbled something. Cambria was studying the valley through a pair of binoculars. He wasn’t pondering the nature of the incessant wind and its howling accompaniment so much as he was pissed off that it was blowing his thick black hair into his eyes and little bits of debris into his patchy beard. You were poking around just now. on the other hand. at any rate.” Coheed and Cambria exchanged looks. I’ll get back to you. which would have bothered him had he gone to church anytime within the last three decades. Cambria slightly rolling her eyes. Coheed was lying flat on his stomach on top of a mountain outcropping that gave him a fine view of the valley spread out below. then shaking his head like a dog shedding water to get the dirt out. In punishment for their defiance. Go ahead. “No clue. his eyebrows arched. That there had been those who.
would you? Tell him Co and I don’t mean any harm. the seriousness returned. Two of them were nodding their heads. Upon seeing a potential threat. “All right then. but then his face was reflecting the expression on hers. Would they fall into orbit around the stars of Sirius? Would they survive? What…?” “We don’t know. the Howling Earth could break off from the Fence. “I think we found our ghosts.” said Cambria.” “Be a friend to yourself. if the two of them posed a danger. “I’m Cam.” She stuck out her hand. I know you’re a smart guy. This is fucking it because I’ve had it with the both of you. Cambria.” “It’s nice to know you care.” she said. He gave Cambria a cursory glance and then focused his attention on Coheed. It was clear he thought that. as it turned out.” She turned toward the miner who had been scrutinizing her breasts as if he wanted to set up a summer home on them.” Cambria looked to Coheed. “I think.” said Inferno. Why do you say dumb things sometimes? “If this world broke loose of the Fence…” “Then it could start a chain reaction that would send every planet crashing into every other planet. but the more she ensnared. “The subtle approach it is.” “Can you fly?” “Uhm…no. “That is why we’re here. and her eyes glowed red. continued.” She now sounded almost disappointed. It is. Now I don’t give a shit. I’m going to come in with guns blazing. yeah. And you are--?” “Still without the slightest fucking clue as to what you two are doing here. Apparently something had happened that was prompting a good deal of discussion. “we can hold off on the ass kicking to start. The leader noticed it and whacked him on the arm. “This being such a popular vacation spot and all. staggered. Grinning. in unison. after all. impatient noises to convey his annoyance to her. “Are you guys in charge here? We are so lost. “If that were to come about. the more possibility there was that someone of a particularly strong mind could slip free. If I don’t hear from you within the hour. “I was just trying to be friendly.” “A weapons facility wouldn’t explain the low level of Keywork bonding. but Coheed immediately interpreted the gesture to mean that the miner was going for a gun. you said that.” said Coheed. Coheed. or else—“ “Or else. Cambria lowered her hand and stuck out her lower lip in an adorably pouty manner.” said Cambria. “You don’t have to curse at us like that. two were shaking them. “Nobody knows for sure. It was like trying to hold one grain of sand as opposed to a fistful. Cambria. Still…” he paused and then added.” He let it hang there. untaken. If this keeps up. Cambria was capable of holding one person in absolute thrall. The miners had gathered in front of the entrance and seemed to be speaking with each other very animatedly. “At first. This is Co.” “Sometimes. So what’s the plan? We can’t just walk right up to them. and what are you doing here?” said the leader. Cam. “Hiiiii!” called Cambria cheerily. brother. Coheed’s impulse was to step forward and put his fist through the bastard’s face. . The curved handle was quite elegant looking. yeah.” said Coheed sarcastically. Subtle. In doing so. since their gazes would doubtlessly be fixed on Cambria. Either whoever is behind this believes that they are precise enough to drain just enough Key energy without endangering the entire Works. He restrained himself. typical humans had to wrestle with their fight-or-flight impulses. letting his gaze linger on her breasts. We’re just ghost hunting.” “What would happen?” said Coheed. Her long black hair swept back and forth along her back.” Cambria fixed him with a look. whatever you say. Mining equipment. He doubted it was going to present a problem. “whoever’s doing it doesn’t care about the integrity of the Fence.” “Then walking it is. She might have been out for a stroll on the beach. It was a calculated risk.” “It is less about caring than it is making certain that the mission is accomplished.” and he lowered his arm. So invested in their conversation were the miners that Coheed and Cambria had covered half the distance between them before they were noticed.” “Good. He was.” “I thought you wanted to know what we were doing here. Coheed’s eyes narrowed and he felt his pulse beginning to surge.” He began to raise his arm. It was the leader who did so. “you two just suck the fun out of any situation. Minutes later.” She glanced toward one of the miners. as if she were a leper. “So…best if we go take a look. Coheed noticed that one of the miners’ hands was drifting toward the inside of the loose work jacket he was wearing.” came Inferno’s voice. He tried to look as casual as she.” “Who the hell are you. predictably. “Which—assuming that the individuals you’re watching are somehow involved with that—means one of two things.” she said gently. “Talk to him.” “It’s not as if they know who you are.” said Cambria.” Cambria said. She could hold more than that as well. But he reined himself in because he was willing to trust Cambria’s means of handling the situation. With that look. Cambria did a superb job of looking stricken.” said Coheed.” The leader nodded to the miner who had been about to pull out a gun moments earlier. in the meantime. But the moment that Inferno broke the communication. She ignored him. “There’s supposed to be a particular valley that’s absolutely brimming with them. “It’s just. presumably. “Be careful. the miner reached into his jacket and produced a pulser. they were in the valley and heading toward the miners.“Digging equipment. Could be some sort of underground weapons facility. then Coheed was going to be the more formidable. we are so lost…” “Yeah. His tone was wary. Let’s kick some ass. The level of the bonding has been diminishing rapidly. The look that said. and he pointed with one hand while gesturing with the other for the miners to fall silent. The “flight” half of the equation was not in Coheed’s makeup. it looked forced. “It’s called the Triangle Valley.” “Fine. “Sizable weapons. He was looking her up and down. Realizing that she wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. and the cobalt blue barrel was pointed directly at Cambria’s head. unable to keep the smile from his face.” “Cam. Coheed wanted nothing more than to charge straight at the enemy. but not by much.” “I am all in favor of not finding out. I mean. He made loud. Except I don’t do subtle so good. Coheed realized that that was exactly the look she was going for. with a relaxed stride that was accentuating the sway of her narrow hips. Instead she backtracked. wait—!” She utterly failed to wait. She projected her mind into the five miners and Coheed watched in admiration as the miners. minus of course the swaying hips. Coheed followed her. heading for the narrow path they had taken that wended through the low mountain and enabled them to reach the overlook they’d been using for observation.” “Excellent. Cambria was walking slightly ahead of him. He had noticed that she was quite adept at ignoring him when she felt like it. “Agreed. the leader—was watching the two sides and seemingly assessing what the others were saying. He was trying to imagine such an eventuality. while the fifth—the largest and. Her briefly downturned mouth resumed its sweet look. but Cambria gently put her hand on his forearm. Is this it?” “Yeah. He looked at her questioningly. After a few steps he gave up and settled for his normal pace.” said Coheed. I get it. “There will be plenty of time to take direct offensive action if it’s subsequently deemed necessary.” “God forbid that should happen. interrupting Inferno. Coheed appeared exceedingly awkward in his efforts to appear relaxed. When faced with a dangerous situation. We can at least try for subtlety. You too.” “Thanks for that. Coheed tried to force a smile and.” “Ghost hunting?” The flirtatious miner seemed dubious at first. A word from the leader prompted the miner to withdraw.” “There is nothing fun about the destruction of the Keywork.” He paused. correct. Get the hell out of here.
At their widest point. But ultimately he and Cambria were untested in battle. his eyes rolling up into the back of his head. inviting. He whipped his arm back and forth just to restore full feeling to it.” said Coheed. His arm shuddered slightly and he felt a stab of pain. They responded in unison. A few bits of skull remained above the neck. “You okay. Cambria looked as startled as Coheed was. He never had the chance to use it. but obviously that didn’t mean they weren’t capable of displaying some degree of caution. His head was twisted at an odd angle. “The drain on the Keywork . None of the other miners gave the slightest visible reaction. “Cam—?” “It’s not me. inclining his head toward them. Before the leader could react.” He stared down at the miner’s body. then shudder. he was still trying to stand.The miners began to straighten up and looked forward rigidly. there was no question that he was no longer among the living. His head exploded and blood and gray matter splattered all over the rock. But Coheed saw immediately that the leader looked as if he were trembling. his legs flopping about as if a demented and unskilled puppeteer was manipulating him. in anything. then any attempt by Coheed to operate the elevator car could result in…well. Indeed. slamming up against the mountain with a hideous crunching sound. Coheed followed and saw an array of control buttons on the panel. more primitive or superstitious folk would have called it a “glamour.” he considered it further. Cambria gave the slightest clench of her hand and the miner squeezed the trigger. a picture of light that had been erected to disguise the entrance. Then. If they had had sufficient control of their bodies to recoil. “Cannon fodder. I’m not doing it. we can’t. We can’t ask them what they’re doing here. Right. She nodded slightly and the armed miner fired one more time. and he tried to bring his pulser to bear. “So they’re useless for interrogation. “Yes. He slid to the ground as a crimson mixture of saliva and blood dribbled from his mouth and down the front of his uniform. He closed his eyes. Cambria was right behind her pawns and Coheed behind her. the one who had aimed his weapon at Cambria. as disgusting stains of yellow and brown spread across his lap. The pain was beginning to subside. their eyes wide with terror.” a magical spell crafted to disguise something’s true nature. Coheed had figured that there was some manner of door. It was a hologram.” He glanced at the three remaining miners. a threat by proxy. It was the aroma of his bowels and bladder emptying.” said Coheed unnecessarily. Seven curved. but I’d wager they are. until he was able to extend and retract the blades with merely a thought and no hurt at all. Instead they just stood there and stared at him. Doctor Hohenberger had sworn to him that the sensation would diminish in time. “If we can’t use them as sources of information. His caution was understandable. That only left the question of whether that arrogance was misplaced or well founded. the miner collapsed. But a trap for their own people? It made no sense. it had eased into a dull throbbing that he knew from experience would be gone within a minute or so. though. or else was monumentally stupid. Once upon a time. but no: The pawns simply walked straight through the side of the mountain.” He clenched the fist of his left arm. and the subject’s brain essentially shuts down. It’s just…yes.” “What the hell happened?” “I’m not sure. just from my asking—?” “The Doctor told me such things were possible. Apparently that time was not yet. he really did. But this was an age of science. The leader growled low and suddenly he stretched his arm forward. Except. “You first. there was no doubt in Coheed’s mind that they would do so. their head bobs matching hers. This time he was hoping for the former and suspected the latter.” The miner’s arms were flailing about as if he were trying to take wing. and Coheed knew precisely what they were looking at. in actual time. They glittered in the light. The miner tried to answer. “Cam. He was hoping for the latter but suspected it was the former. razor-sharp machetes began to extend—very quickly. if they’re responsible for the diminishment of the Keywork—” “No.” “And that would be?” He smiled grimly. Since they had been at such a great distance. A sickening smell filled the air.” he prompted her.” he said. All right then. “Who are you working for?” he said. His mouth moved but no sound came out. scratching his beard thoughtfully. It was obvious that if they had been cutting through flesh and bone.” said Cambria. It sat there with the door wide open. someone put it in place a while ago. A small. “You’re saying that. I’m fine. “Looks like. Arrogant the minds behind this business might have been. “Old mechanism. her voice flat. steadying his breathing. How’s your hold on them?” “They won’t cause any problems. glancing around. compact pulser snapped out from the inside of his sleeve on a springload. paralyzed. are you okay…?” She managed a nod. His mind was unable to process what was happening even as his body convulsed uncontrollably. puncturing his lungs. The remains of his body slumped over and lay there with blood pooling from his headless neck. boys?” They stared at her. they were two inches across. and so Cambria nodded her head. They’re placed directly into the cerebral cortex and are crafted to make it impossible for anyone to use the subject as a source of information. who sent them. The elevator hesitated momentarily as if summoning strength for the effort. One of the miners reached forward under Cambria’s unspoken prompting and pushed the lowest button. “That individuals could be implanted with…he called them mental wards. if the controls were somehow keyed only to the men that Cambria was controlling. swung the pulser around to face the leader.” “Nice. I’m pretty sure there’s another use we can put them to. With all of that. “Anyone else?” She said in that same cold monotone. because Cambria was already herding them into the elevator. Cambria’s three pawns—which was how Coheed had started thinking of them—moved robotically toward the section of the mountain through which they had emerged.” said Cambria. as they continued to extend until they reached their full length of two feet from their base on his arm to the tip of the blade. He was just going to have to roll with whatever was presented them. He didn’t have the time to process any of it as he barreled through the air.” said Coheed. and then started down with a lurch. He wasn’t daunted by the prospect of a fight.” “Good. but to Coheed it felt like an agonizing eternity. “I’m perfectly fine. The projection shimmered around them as they passed through and they found themselves staring at a metal shaft with an elevator car within it. The miners still had enough of their own minds present to stare in wide-eyed shock at the weapons that had just snapped into existence. His ribs shattered from the impact. if for no other reason than that it seemed unlikely things could go that easily for them on their first mission. That was likely because whoever was inside was not expecting any sort of security threat. Ask any question about anything that the implanter wants to hide. He gritted his teeth against it but it wasn’t enough to keep the low moan from his voice as his skin began to bulge at seven points that ran in a straight line along his arm. they would have done so as easily as if through the air. The armed miner swung his arm around. This time the blast slammed the leader square between the eyes. and possibly a trap.” “I think you’d win that bet. The pulser unleashed a blast that slammed into the leader’s chest.” he managed to get out. “Whatever’s here. and there was a reflection from the vast blackness that hovered far overhead as well. part of him was hoping for it.” * * * There was no high security locking mechanism to the mountain entrance. and it would have been nice to be able to ease into it rather than be thrust headlong into a full-bore firefight. one of them visibly protruding from his chest. “So the whole subtlety thing is done with. Co?” “Fine. Another was driven inward. really. Abruptly he began to tremble. Coheed approached them and brought a glistening blade up to the throat of the nearest of them. The blades made a buzzing sound as he did this. He lay sprawled upon the ground. even the binoculars hadn’t given them a full picture of what they were seeing. “Let’s go. That wasn’t going to be up to him. That indicated to Coheed that whoever was behind this was either certain of his power to the point of arrogance. and then spasm as if completely out of control. The miner to his right. with the only sound emerging from him being a guttural cough. “Cam. but I strongly suggest you don’t ask that question again. Presumably they were going all the way down. “Fuuuuckewwww.” he lied.
but there must still be a part of your thoughts upon it at all times. Control. as if they were peering into the heart of creation. as if they were throbbing with power of some sort. but we’ve seen the results of direct interrogation. he quickly silenced himself. but he wasn’t able to hold onto it.” “It’d be easier to find out if they were of any use. It was one of the times that Coheed cursed Hohenberger’s decision to craft synthetic skin for him that provided the same sensations as normal skin. “All out. the instant that one of the miners turned.” “Ah well. “You can pick which one. Coheed shouted a warning. but whatever it was. You can’t have one without the other. “That. turned and aimed the pulser at Coheed. . suffused with a soft. He wasn’t wild about the situation. yanked a pulser from God-knows-where. yes. Was it possible? Was something actually extracting energy from the Keywork. you know. and when she made eye contact with Coheed. and he might well have been correct. “You’ll want to be able to feel all things.” she whispered. The Doctor said that. yes. It seemed as good a guess as any. we go forward. “When you’re channeling. and there was an intersection ahead of them. aside from ‘gigantic’.” At the far end of the extended line of glowing monoliths that were situated to Cambria’s right was a massive crystalline structure that stretched from floor to ceiling. Quite sure. sending her flying. He heard a steady pulsing of energy in the near distance. Half a dozen metal support beams crisscrossed high above. As they drew closer. “Eyes front.is a relatively recent development. For me to achieve that degree of closeness with these guys in the amount of time we have available to us. a rapid-fire series of “thunks” as metal plates beneath Coheed’s synthetic skin unfolded and interlocked. was unmistakable. but he was still having trouble fully wrapping his mind around it. The monoliths stretched far into the distance. Coheed couldn’t be certain. uhm…I don’t think that’ll be necessary after all. “it’s because we spend so much time together. and placing it into these…these ten foot tall monoliths? But why? For what purpose? No one had ever conceived of any use for Keywork energy other than binding the planets. without slowing. and she was pointing off to the right. you will lose your hold on your puppets. “it is not an autonomic reflex.” said Cambria innocently. The pain for this transition made the blades seem like mere pinpricks in comparison as the skin was literally ripped away. Coheed had no idea how far below the surface they were at this point. we’ll handle it. gentlemen. I’d have to have sex with one of them. He wanted to be annoyed with her. But picking out individual thoughts is trickier. Admit it. But that day wasn’t this one and it was all Coheed could do not to scream out a string of profanities. I guess whatever happens. She crashed into one of the glowing monoliths and sagged to the floor. and feeder tubes extended out from it and into what Coheed could only assume was some sort of vast processing unit. “What is--?” he began to say. Cambria. maybe with time…” “You read mine. Otherwise.” That was what Hohenberger had told him. she mouthed the word.” They rode the rest of the way in silence. “Stay focused. torn to shreds by the transformation of his skeletal structure underneath into a weapon. Of course. he heard a powerful male voice barking what sounded like orders. you’ll thank me some day.” he had said. considering how far underground the elevator had taken them. though. I can’t really read minds. whoever was behind this had some new use in mind for gravity as well. Coheed—both pleasure and pain. That didn’t especially surprise Coheed. “What is that?” “I have no idea. There was a whirling core of energy in the middle of it. Here we are. as if she herself were now a puppet being yanked back on a string. Trust me.” He looked where she was indicating and his jaw fell. the bands of energy that joined one planet to the next in the vast triangular tapestry that was Heaven’s Fence. That’s—“ No one could say that Doctor Hohenberger hadn’t warned her.” “Well…it’s definitely that. and fired point blank at Cambria. They reached the intersection and Coheed said in annoyance. “What the hell have we gotten into?” Cambria said in a low voice. The pulse blast slammed into Cambria’s chest. Instead he chuckled softly and said. if you let yourself become too distracted.” which is what he called that particular talent of hers. But—” “But what?” “I’m assuming. The miner. and he couldn’t begin to fathom what purpose they might be serving.” “Not necessarily. he was beginning to suspect it would probably try to kill them. yes.” “I…culled general impressions out of it. They provided him additional lift. The miners were moving in front of them as Coheed and Cambria fell into step behind them. “I would have let you watch. he thought. Which was why the Doctor’s words flashed before his eyes. Keywork? He shrugged. They were. but it might well have been a mile or more high. “Are you sure?” “Oh God. The one who had been admiring her breasts was now grinning widely. “Yes.” Cambria said. The action froze the miner.” Her hand touched his arm fleetingly.” “That’s very considerate. for all he knew.” and he indicated the miners. as if they were living things. It may simply have reached levels where it came to our attention. He had absolutely no idea what he could expect to see once they reached the end of the corridor. The door had opened out into a narrow corridor. who stared at the empty hand and laughed contemptuously. They emerged from the corridor into a chamber with a ceiling that seemed to go on forever. The only reason he did not was because he didn’t want to give his attackers the satisfaction. As one. Coheed staggered slightly when the elevator finally jolted to a stop. but it was a second too late. You must learn how to bifurcate your mind. but when he saw the alarmed expression on the miners. It was almost as if a static charge jumped through his body from where she’d come into contact with him. they weren’t being provided an easy means of exit if the need presented itself. coming to a common joining point in the middle. “Now which way? Cam--?” “Co. Even as he did so.” She shrugged. and yet there was an elegant symmetry to it. Cambria was looking at them as well. “Whatever it is. “That’s Keywork energy.” Coheed had been present at the training sessions where Doctor Hohenberger had issued her those stern warnings. “Yes. Abruptly there was the sound of metal on metal. and had no outer markings. Hydraulic pressure tubes snaked out from his elbow and insinuated themselves into his right trapezius. they looked resolutely forward. otherwise the arm would have hung helplessly at his side because of the awkward new shape. steady glow. “I’m pretty sure we go that way. It was like trying to come up with a new use for gravity. There were gleaming solid metal slabs lining the wall on either side of them.” “Are you sure?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him. but he could hear it echoing. however. Coheed didn’t like the looks on their faces.” he muttered as the door slid open. It was as if they had wandered into some sort of high-tech cathedral. “Oh my God. You can engage in conversation while you’re doing it. Coheed—practically mad with fury—brought his right arm up and pointed his finger at the miner.” “Can you just…you know…” “Read their minds?” “Well…” “Co.” she said formally. It was in the distance. They were uniform in shape and size. He didn’t need yet another man dropping dead with convulsions. surrounded in darkness with only the faint light of the elevator providing any sort of illumination. The edges were jagged. You have to be concentrating on it.” The gaze of all three miners snapped right onto Cambria. juggernaut. The energy that surged within it.” he whispered.” he said with irritation. Coheed cleared his throat.
” Coheed put out a hand. or what remained of his back. Coheed waded into the midst of their attackers. what was left of the miner barely qualified as human. You did great.” “Yeah. the hand. The Doctor’s voice was as clear to him as if he were there next to him. grinning wolfishly at their truncated screams. before his hands fell to either side. But he was caught flatfooted. Certainly that had to be enough.” He raised his pulse cannon and unleashed another full power blast directly at the crystalline structure. He looked her up and down. scattered like so many ten pins with a massive ball driving right through the middle of them. “You okay. Coheed visualized his anger. thought Coheed. from her position against the monolith. his mind numb with shock. He nodded. and mentally shoved it into his heart. He stopped firing because there was no point in expending energy. and in addition to the pulsers. Coheed. You have to control your anger. The glow of her psionic abilities faded from her eyes and she moaned softly. we put an end to it. who were looking in horror at the blood and gore that covered them. Obviously there was some sort of armory in this underground refuge.” “They may object to that. his own body armor absorbing the shots. The top was way too high. His feet went out from under him and he hit the ground. Less than five seconds after he had triggered the transformation with a thought. huh. bringing the arm up in front of his head to protect it as blasts deflected harmlessly off it. and he swung the cannon as a club once again. Right now. crackled harmlessly along the surface of the structure. The miner’s gun did not leave his hand. Not only had his clothes been stripped away. he swept his left arm. that wasn’t strictly true. they were from within her mind. Reinforcements showed up in short order. Far more effective would be to assault the support points where it was anchored. but instead a series of short. and started running. Stupid of me to let myself get distracted. whispering in his ear. the man wasn’t backing down. Coheed fired and this time the blasts rebounded off them causing no serious damage. firing and moving as he did. Blood fountained in all directions. who had fallen. and the sounding of the alarm had allowed them to prepare themselves. including the two remaining miners. considering its size. “You want to point that somewhere else. but that’s it. One of them stood his ground and pulled out his own weapon. and Coheed smashed his skull flat with the cannon. That had to be regulating the flow into the . turning his back and fleeing. but so had his skin and a considerable portion of his muscles. One of them tried to retreat. Coheed felt a flash of respect for him.” said Coheed as he let loose with a blast at full power and at point blank range. they were provoking him. “I hope they do. They had weaponry at the ready–much larger pulsers than the miners had been wielding. “Seems the body armor did its job. “Co! Behind us!” He spun and saw more of them barreling toward them from behind. I didn’t even think such a thing was possible. “Better than I deserve. and the arm were all that remained of him. rolled it up into a glowing ball. There were a dozen of them.” She shook her head. but the remaining troops opened fire. “It’s incredible. his foot hit a stray organ lying on the floor. Coheed turned and saw Cambria. He was now less than one hundred feet from the crystal.” “And they know we’re here. Cam?” She gestured toward his cannon.” she said. Coheed shielded his eyes and when the energy subsided. Not this time. Then he charged. That didn’t mean the cannon still couldn’t be used for offense. driving his blades into the man’s back. Stupid. “Reasonably sure.” “They were going to find out sooner or later. Four men dressed similarly to the miners they had first encountered emerged from intersections ahead of them. and it was going to be a stretch for her. stupidly trying to shove them back in. not slowing. “Get to that thing and destroy it! I’ll handle these guys and make sure no one else tries to cut us off!” “Are you sure--?” She stretched forth her hands and the air rippled in front of her. the blades slicing through muscle and arteries and bone with equal facility. The new platoon was blasted backwards. They’ll never know what hit them. flopping like a dead fish. “that could have gone better. She just preferred to point at her target because she found it focused her aim a bit better. It beat several more times and then slowed to a halt. He reveled in it. and then fizzled out. Who built that…that thing?” “Whoever it is. He ignored it. upon finding an entire lung plastered on his uniform front. He advanced on the miner who was steadily firing. he might have managed to get off a shot before the transition was complete. although the impact caused them to stagger. Not slowing. and there were flickering lights running all along it. He cracked the skulls of the nearest of them. having never witnessed anything like it before. He sounded the alarm. blood oozing from between their fingers. The other jumped back. but a concentration of pulser blasts toward the bottom should do the trick. It can be a valuable tool if you utilize it rather than letting it overwhelm you.” said Cambria. Focus it. This time he sped forward. sport? Wouldn’t want it to go off. Coheed actually had a clear view of the man’s heart through a gaping wound in his chest. he gouged out those eyes with the tips of his blades. shielding his head. Coheed leaped upon him like a great beast. He saw the terror in their eyes. The crystalline structure had been mounted into a huge round bracket. Right now. trying to cover as much distance as they could before they encountered resistance. which Cambria took and even squeezed affectionately as he helped her to her feet. They went down screaming. Or at least they thought they were prepared. He twisted his body. Now it was Cambria who was standing between Coheed and danger. overwhelmed by a torrent of energy. “Security breach! Security breach!” Firing at full power the way he had meant that Coheed’s pulser cannon needed a few seconds to recharge. He was flat on his back. That was because the gun. “All right. They’re really doing it. He realized that there was no point in blasting away at the vast structure itself. scrambled to his feet and ran like hell. Actually. The other. In doing so. some of it splattering on his face. His entrails were beginning to slide out and he was reaching for them. I think I’ve got a few bruised ribs. Coheed stepped between them and Cambria. his right arm—from the elbow to the now non-existent hand—now consisted of a massive pulser cannon. But they were doing more than just hammering him.The entire process had happened incredibly quickly.” She gazed at the crystalline tower in the distance. even though his body armor had saved him from fatal injury. staccato shots. to discover that a molar and two incisors were embedded in his face. he didn’t go for a massive blast.” “Don’t second guess yourself. They’re mining Keywork energy. He took a moment to wipe some of the gore off on the remains of the man’s shirt. shrieking. refusing to acknowledge anything other than the cold fury that was driving him. One of them plucked at his cheek. He charged forward and this time. The rest of him was splattered over about twenty square feet of real estate. no mercy in him. shouting at the top of his lungs. they had shields mounted on their left arms.” A couple of them did. severing his spinal cord. Coheed was at her side. right now.” * * * Coheed and Cambria sprinted down the row of monoliths. picking off the new arrivals one by one. The blast struck dead center. “Keep going!” she said. when he’d been struck by blasts. smashing whatever he came into contact with. He had to step over severed limbs on the floor to get at his targets.” “We’re going to have to get closer. The man went down. he had felt pain. but Cambria’s eyes glowed as she said firmly.” Coheed held up his pulser cannon. “Drop the shields. kneeling next to her. clutching at their ruined faces. wielding the cannon like a club. It was impossible to miss. Before. the impact. “Not laughing now. They didn’t get that far. Cambria’s concussive blasts didn’t actually generate from her hand. Had the miner been faster off the mark. her arm outstretched. when he started firing his pulser cannon. turned. Suddenly there was an explosion of air and the miner vanished for a moment.
The Keywork energy was being loaded into the monoliths. He’s got me.” The cannon rematerialized on his arm.” “Together?” “Absolutely. . The gargantuan crystalline generator began to topple.” “Shut up. That it was nothing less than human souls somehow being harnessed and tapped for energy as part of a vast machine crafted by the Creator because in this universe. Coheed.” “I have had it with this guy.” said Coheed. The resulting explosion was deafening. He thought he would be rewarded with the cracking of nose and bone and perhaps a copious amount of blood flying. He had heard rumors. “Just what I was going to say. he knew him for who he was.” said Deftinwolf. nothing was ever wasted.monoliths. he was immobilized in the General’s grip. it suddenly clicked in Coheed’s mind. That was impressive. “No. driving it deep into Coheed’s gut. he retracted the pulser cannon. I did not rise to the rank of General to be taken down by someone with delusions of grandeur. Second. It didn’t work. and Cam had been dealing with it far more effectively than he. The result was that both the batteries and the generator were being overwhelmed. “I thought you were watching our backs. sending metal and crystal flying in all directions. feeling battered and exhausted not only from the pounding he was taking from Deftinwolf. dark-skinned man. He had to think that Cambria would have. “Still far less than you’ll need. the self-described General had been in full armor and visible only from a distance. he skidded out of control and wound up crashing to a halt against the vast structure that was Coheed’s target. He scrambled to his feet as the General advanced on him. “Hah!” bellowed Coheed as he slammed his head forward into the General’s face.” said Cambria. And the Howling Earth earned its name. It wasn’t going to do him any good anyway since the General was holding him in such a way that the cannon was pointed away from him. Coheed caught her before she hit the floor. but the agony of the transitions he’d had to put his body through. What is your body. “Oh. “Is that all you have?” said the General. crap. “You’ll beg for an easy death before I—” He was interrupted by a series of internal explosions within the crystalline structure. but that would be tomorrow’s problem. Right now all he cared about was dismantling the device and putting an end to the damage it was already doing. there were various religious factions who remained solidly opposed to such efforts because they believed the energy was supernatural in origin. He slammed into one of the monoliths and rebounded off it. But the man dropped the shattered gun and caught the cannon before it could impact. “Better than you have tried.” he muttered as his arm cannon powered up.” Deftinwolf pushed down harder. the General seemingly having new respect for Coheed.” “Two against one. Exploring the nature of the Keywork had been a major priority for scientists. Coheed did the only thing he could think of: With a thought. Coheed’s body armor protected him from damage. bald head glistening with a fine film of sweat. Even as he did so. his mind racing. powerfully built. Wanting to conserve the cannon’s firepower for the crystal. cracking his knuckles. Standing behind him was a tall. and she sent her willpower hurtling toward him. anyway?” “That’s none of your concern. First. Cambria unleashed a concussive blast of energy. Coheed was starting to wonder if he was going to have sufficient opportunity to find out if Hohenberger had been lying. He came straight at the General. Coheed tried to bring the weapon around as a club once more. Let’s see what you’ve got. “It won’t always be this difficult. “Don’t keep me waiting. but the odds are a marginal improvement. flying end over end. He whirled. Coheed whirled and saw Cambria standing several feet away.” said Coheed with a grunt. and there was all manner of speculation. “Who are you?” said the attacker. The General was blasted backwards. determined to leap into his mind and seize control of him. tried to pull himself together.” He waggled his fingers in a “come here” manner.” He seemed to move only minimally. and then his attacker had grabbed his blade arm by the wrist. Coheed tried to bring his blades to bear. yet suddenly Coheed had been twisted completely around.” the General growled. He was staring in surprise at the shattered remains of the pulser that were still in his hand. The blast from Coheed’s pulser cannon and Cambria’s hands arrived at the structure’s base simultaneously. her arm outstretched. “You’ve just attracted the attention of the Supreme Tri-Mage. He took up position and aimed his pulser cannon at the huge support collar in the floor. and suddenly power—unleashed Keywork energy—pulsed uncontrolled from the bottom of the crystal. little man. and they sliced right through the pulser that had been shoved against the back of his head and would have.” “Yes. It was entirely reflexive.” When he said that. Consider this battle lost.” Coheed wasn’t even aware of his own movement. but seconds later they were drowned out by an escalating series of explosions. but the impact drove the air out of him and knocked him on his ass. He tried to bring the blades back around. which would then be removed from this place and taken off to…wherever. Instead the General’s skull seemed hard as rock. hitting the floor. It was at that point that Coheed realized what the monoliths probably were: A means of physically transporting the energy that was being gathered. immobilizing it.” Coheed wasted no time. Now. He wasn’t entirely sure if destroying the structure would somehow restore the energy. the General deflected every attempted strike as if Coheed were a child. In fact. whipping around the blades on his arm. Cracks began to appear and rapidly started running up the length of the structure. but the General pivoted and lashed out with his foot. and without hesitation. running through its entirety. though. That was the moment Coheed realized it was toppling toward him and Cambria.” he said. “Cam!” Deftinwolf advanced on them. the energy’s composition defied any current technology’s efforts to break it down. When he hit the floor. the pulse cannon shoved deep into his own back. They circled each other warily. The General was caught off guard when the gun suddenly vanished to be replaced by a mechanical hand and forearm. They had both had a ton of information crammed into their heads.” he muttered. Still. but not much had been done along that line for two reasons. smashing apart the metal collar. Still.” said Cambria. “I decided to see what was taking you so long. Deftinwolf lost his grip. Suddenly something pressed just against the base of his skull and a low voice behind him said practically in his ear. “Take it down. He smiled grimly. “You ignorant rats. “You’re Deftinwolf.” “It will be when I have it dissected. he fired.” she said. “Good-bye. He spoke with a low rumble that seemed to originate from somewhere around his ankles. “Nice try. The world was spinning around him and Coheed tried not to sway. At the exact same time. Previous vids he’d seen of him. It did not occur to me that it was a part of your body. it was enough to drive the General back a couple of feet. Coheed felt as if he should know the man.” Hohenberger had assured him. getting to his feet. and the impact staggered Coheed as much as it did the General. It was all that Coheed required. trying to get Coheed to cry out. It was as if energy was being pumped continuously into batteries that were incapable of absorbing it all. Coheed had never given much thought to what constituted the energy of the Keywork itself. The General did not back up so much as an inch. His own hands moving so quickly that Coheed couldn’t even see them. “No!” shouted the General. The General shouted imprecations after them. Coheed. For a scant moment. and he spun around so that he was face to face with the startled General. For a moment nothing seemed to happen. given the opportunity. trying to come up with a plan of attack even as his spine creaked under the way his body was being bent. but there was no longer any sort of regulator. blown his brains out. you bastard. She gestured again and the air came to life once more. but he had no choice save to get out of the way. Instead she let out a scream and stumbled backwards. but he was out of position. take them both down. “I just assumed you were holding some manner of weapon. delivering a series of blows so quick that his fists were little more than blurs. The cracks were multiplying. Mayo Deftinwolf. Coheed bit down deep into his lip rather than give any vocal confirmation that he was in distress. “All right. he slung the insensate Cambria over his shoulder and started to run. “The end. And suddenly the air was blasted apart with what sounded like a muffled explosion and the General was off his feet. Coheed realized what was happening: the power was continuing to feed through to the monoliths.
Coheed charged forward and unleashed a carefully timed blast at the doors. she called. but merely nodded every so often in confirmation. Who’s sneering now. caught more writhing and exploding miners out of the corner of his eye. He was nearly a mirror image of Hohenberger.” “Did you. But he decided that now was not the time to push the point. the Leo—Long-range Exploratory Orb—that was used for remote. and then he exploded. Well…good. Inferno looked at him with interest.” “He said much the same right after I kicked his ass. Coheed had inherited the natural scientists’ skepticism when it came to ascribing spiritual explanations for that which could be given a real world rationalization. “So? What the hell happened down there?” His attitude made him come across as if he were in some position of authority over Coheed. Who was he?” “Mayo Deftinwolf. The elevator was just above him and moving fast. Inferno turned to face them. ever-shifting. obsidian facial hair. He shoved Cambria upward and she scrambled up and out of sight. and then made it to the elevator that had brought them down. What he was witnessing now defied that. “All clear. Screams of the energy beings mixed with the shrieks of those who would soon be nothing but spirits themselves. From far below him there was the distant sound of explosions getting progressively louder. wrapping his legs around the cable as well for extra bracing.” “Had to. Coheed kept running and caught glimpses of the guardians of the damned.” “What happened to you? Why did you pass out?” “It was like…psychic feedback.” “Thirty seconds?” “We picked up an energy surge.” . save for the 20 extra pounds of brawn and a mass of wild. Coheed. He held on as the elevator kept going.” “Your concern is appreciated. and it was howling like a thing alive. and Coheed—who believed he feared nothing—felt his bowels clench and tighten and he thought his eyes were going to explode out of his head. and Coheed stared deeply into it even though he knew he shouldn’t. but one of them caught sight of Coheed and sneered at him just before the doors closed. Instead he told him as briskly as he could what had happened. The screeches that filled the air were absolutely terrifying. The bulk of the vessel was cylindrical. “We need to restore it to—” “I wouldn’t be concerned about that. he heard a low moan from next to him. The ground was trembling beneath their feet. It’s what we were made for. The man’s body spasmed and flailed around as if someone were jolting him with electricity. and Coheed leaped upward. No further words passed until the elevator ground to a halt. as if having considered annihilating him but ultimately deciding that it should not. the shuttlepod descended from overhead. Coheed was reasonably sure it was the one who had sneered at him. As he did. The energy contained within the monoliths was ripping out in all directions. “Cambria! Stay still or I’ll lose my grip!” Instantly Cambria wrapped her arms around him more tightly. automatic vehicle. he could see her eyes widen.” He fired a single blast upward that ripped a hole in the elevator floor. every so often hearing more truncated screams followed by more wet explosions. “I think we should get the hell out of here. One of the screaming phantoms circled directly in front of Coheed. We’re in it now. “Then let’s announce ourselves.” said Cambria. and the miasma of energy leaped into the man’s wide-open mouth and into him. Your demise or destruction would be a considerable setback. Coheed felt a surge of relief. and Coheed activated his comm unit. by the way. looking terrified by everything that was going down. which was much the same thing—could oversee. There was a satisfying scream from within. The being’s form was amorphous. with a gargantuan engine on the far end. It froze. which actually stood there on its own. thrashing about without realizing where she was or what was happening to her. A high-speed transport tunnel whisked Coheed and Cambria directly to Command and Control. “Cam…you really need not to move right now—” Cambria looked down at the yawning fall beneath her and automatically let out an alarmed shriek. and the moment he saw Coheed and Cambria. presuming he and Cambria lived to do so. the laughter would have died in his throat. which was enough to annoy the living crap out of him. When I tried to push myself into that guy’s mind. “What about the energy?” Inferno said. extended exploration when the Arbor’s resources literally had to be in two places at once. At the end of one of them was a satellite vessel. Cambria said nothing. Had a feeling you’d be calling for an evac.” She laughed. remote-controlled by the Grail Arbor orbiting from on high. spattering against any solid objects with an appalling. Seconds later they approached the vast ship known as the Grail Arbor. there was no evidence of anyone else there. He retracted the blades even as he jumped. snagging one with his free hand. he said. clattering to the ground.” The Grail Arbor executed a midair turn and moved quickly away from the Howling Earth. just in time to see the doors sliding shut. And then it arced away from him. sickly sound. He turned a series of corners. But in short order they were drowned out by the cracking of the crystalline structure and now a rumbling from overhead. Others in the underground complex were less fortunate. everything just blew out in all directions. No one else quite treats me like dirt the way you do. Inferno was seated serenely in his command chair. Whoever else had been there had managed to get out and was long gone. The skeleton crew populating C&C nodded in acknowledgment of their presence. “Why not?” “Just a feeling. He spotted one of the miners confronted by a glowing entity. animal life. Shuttlepod will rendezvous in thirty seconds. and it docked with the sort of smooth efficiency that only machines—or Inferno. “Good plan. after all. “The right arm of Wilhelm Ryan. Your presence represents a significant investment of the Doctor’s time.” The body of one dead miner was lying smeared all over the far wall. You need to know more than that?” “Not really. so utterly and abruptly had been the expelling of anything remotely fleshy in his body.Hohenberger had laughed at such a notion. But there were trailing cables beneath it. “Grail Arbor! We need immediate extraction!” “I read you. perhaps without even realizing it.” she said. The rushing air from the elevator shaft was bringing Cambria around. cutting him off. There was no escaping the inevitable conclusion: the energy was alive. The structure was bringing the ceiling down with it.” Her smiling face appeared in the hole as she reached down toward him. He gripped her hand firmly and seconds later he had been pulled up and out of the elevator.” “And understandable.” She hugged him tightly and he was sure he could feel the beating of her heart against his. Coheed and Cambria sprinted into it and were airborne so quickly that they didn’t even have time to belt in. asshole? The doors were open. This day was going to come sooner or later. And extremely pissed off. clutching Cambria tightly as he did so.” said Coheed. but he thought for a moment he saw a face seized in a rictus of shrieking agony. as the miners apparently had been. Coheed and Cambria emerged onto the surface of the Howling Earth. The evac pod was part of the Orb. “Thanks for saving me. He could not wait to tell the Doctor about it. “What the hell--?” “The place is blowing up beneath us. For half a heartbeat the only thing left of him was his skeleton. It smashed a hole and Coheed leaped through. It was a small. The pod blasted upward as if it had been shot from a cannon. there was something inside…I don’t even know how to describe it. Then the skeleton collapsed. If the Doctor could see and hear what Coheed was witnessing now. and a pair of utility arms that extended in either direction.” Precisely thirty seconds later. “I think we’re here. maybe even harnessed gods of some sort. But definitely alive. bodily fluid. He caught a glimpse of a couple of miners within. Organs. Human life. Coheed had heard him laughing. Might as well be sooner. “It took you long enough.” Even in the darkness. Coheed kept running. and he felt empty and alone and cold. Moments later. lest he inadvertently slice right through the cable and doom himself.
” . Inferno.” said Inferno. “I hear even scientists do it on occasion. “With the energy unfettered. “Every once in a while.” “If that was Deftinwolf.” said Cambria. Instead he ignored it and said. A veritable geyser of energy was blasting forth. “if that was Ryan behind the attempt to drain Keywork energy…then—” “Then Ryan’s going to know that we exist.” said Inferno. “He’s going to know there’s a threat to his power—Power he believes he’s earned. You’re sure. angling through space.” “Home?” Inferno looked at him oddly.” said Coheed grimly.” “You would.” The view screen flickered for a moment and then the Howling Earth appeared.” said Inferno. No question. “It’s more than that.” “You didn’t see what it was doing to the miners.” “Good. “And it was Deftinwolf. you can stop thinking like a scientist.” “You know what you thought you saw. He’s going to be doing everything he can to discover who we are.” “Oh yes. hurtling straight toward the Keywork bridge that linked the Howling Earth to its neighbors. it’s being drawn back to its source. even if by sheer force. “Picking up an energy spike! Massive!” “Put the source up on the screen.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Coheed wouldn’t have minded hearing Inferno answer that question.” said Cambria drily. “It’s going home.“Sir!” said one of his men. “I can’t wait to meet him. I believe Coheed’s impressions are accurate. “You’re saying it’s sentient? That’s absurd. I know what I saw.” said Coheed.
and Somewhere Slightly Later than the Beginning… .In.
” Ryan looked suspicious. to pretend that he had not heard it. was enamored of the antiquated materials required for classic painting. and then carefully drew it across the sky. Ryan. needing nothing much except various books. Marth placed the brush down upon the palette. “I suppose you are entitled to that.” said Ryan. led to an individual tower that housed the sanctum of each of the Mages. that it required more red. Marth made a sweeping gesture toward a nearby seat.” “Very well. “Your new face sits well upon you. Covent Marth. he was going to have to go back and repaint her to depict her skin crisping and blackening and turning into ash. The more contemporary Mages. and now you are here in his place. for you have replaced Sundihar Jepp. Each of the walkways. “But it was you. Ryan. “We are twelve once again. upon reflection. each a different color.” Ryan had spoken so softly that Marth could easily have chosen to ignore the comment.” Marth was looking not at Ryan.” “Of course. None were able to enter save by specific invitation of he who resided within. A Prise had been drifting upward to inspect the rift.” “Despite your best efforts. Eleven Mages stood in that circle. are we?” “You asked to see me. As head of Sector 4. decisions and votes are kept in the strictest of confidence. Then he inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment of the invitation and entered. But Covent Marth’s desire was that the rendering be so realistic that simply looking at it would call up howls of agony in the mind of the viewer. far preferring to express their artistic side using holography or other light science. glancing left and right as if expecting some manner of trap that would ensnare him the moment he entered. which unified their facial features. their arms upraised in a combination of fear. and we both know it was you. “Come. He hadn’t known she was going to wind up dying in his painting until he had reached that point. “I asked to see you—” “To explain yourself?” Very slowly. so I am hastening to make up the time. Instead. Finally he decided that he would just incinerate her wings altogether and avoid the fuss. but then he simply nodded and followed Marth out of the room. The door hissed open and a dark figure stood within it.” “Perhaps not. continuing not to look at Ryan but rather to focus on his painting. supplication and awe. A series of twelve walkways. At that juncture was a huge twelve-pointed red star. “The other Mages are most accepting of you. remaking one into the sacred image of what one would be. They stepped out into the Hub.” Marth quietly mused. The canvas was spread out before him. with each point representing one of the sectors that each of the Mages oversaw. “The Twelve. were free to regain subtle differences in their manner of dress and hair. “Ah. charts.” said Marth softly. You will become accustomed to it in short order. on the other hand. It was a perfect example of an old tradition that existed simply because it had always been done. There were Mages as well. the world that was dead center of Heaven’s Fence. looking up and pointing and shrieking.” “I am accustomed to it now.” “I understand. Not that their shrieks could be heard in the painting. and other tools that were part of his perpetual contemplation of the universe. if you will.” Ryan waited only a moment. though happy to undergo the procedure. The process that a potential Mage underwent. consuming much of the wall of his sanctum. his voice flat and passionless. He took care to make every stroke of the brush just so. Not long ago. One more was in the middle.” Wilhelm Ryan had looked different when he had first arrived on Sinosure. the vast courtyard that represented the heart of Sinosure. “you will have time for me. In his head. their arms flailing.” said Ryan. What else is there to see?” “Do you see the spirit of the creator looking down upon us?” .” said Marth. expressed his own preoccupation with fine art by decorating the exposed veins spidering across his face with ebony paint. since it was entirely a silent medium.” Marth’s smile remained carefully fixed. burned away everything that one was. Ryan made no move toward it. But. Now he was carefully delineating every streak. They believe that becoming head of Sector 6 will provide you an opportunity to prove your abilities to us. I imagine. the Mage of Sector 6. He knew that other Mages had little patience for something as primitive as painting.” Wilhelm Ryan stood there for a moment. converged at a central point in the courtyard. He had crafted the rift a day earlier but had not decided what was going to be emerging from it until several minutes earlier. Ryan. being welcomed into the brotherhood of the Mages. Mage Covent Marth studied it carefully and decided. “Pardon?” “I said ‘possibilities. he could hear her screaming. He chose not to do so. “Ryan. however. Splatters of blood were striking around them. I represented only one vote.” said Marth as they walked to the center of the star. I would ask you to extend me the same courtesy of not wasting mine.” “Such deliberations. What do you see?” Ryan shrugged indifferently.Chapter 2 Cleanse This Useless Identity The sky above Sinosure was bleeding. “Tell me what you see when you look to the skies. of course. “but I do not pretend that I understood you. revealing her tissue and bones beneath. just so he could be accurate. He wondered absently if he was going to have to determine exactly how her wings joined with the rest of her musculature. but toward the heavens. do come in. Human men and women were running back and forth as well. Then he inclined his head slightly. Come. Walk with me. As soon as he was finished with the blood. every drop of the thick liquid as it oozed from on high. when being elevated to official status. “So we are to get down to it. How could there not be Mages? They were depicted standing in a circle. “You have a remarkable nerve for one so recently added to our numbers.” he called. at least. “The stars. On the planet’s surface.” Marth cast a glance at him. so even if I was against you—” “Do not fence with me. “It is all that I have heard it to be and more besides. people were fleeing in all directions. Ryan had been standing in the middle of that star. “We both know one Mage was opposed to my joining. He lived to a grand age. He blended the red paint meticulously with his brush until he was satisfied with the precise shade. Marth. and a gargantuan drop of blood had enveloped her and was in the process of burning away her flesh.’” “I heard you.” “I have not had as long a period to become as pompous as you. It was.” said Marth. “What think you of Sinosure?” said Marth as he continued to dabble on his easel. There was a chime from the door of his sanctum. an elder. Just as I would not dream of wasting your time. Marth. his voice gravelly. twenty feet from tip to tip. but none of them were being hit. It was a spartan affair.” “I would like to know why. “Possibilities. one to which most can only aspire.” “Yes. in turn.” and there was an undercurrent of irony to his voice. he said.” “I do not have time for games.
“You may have noticed that the sky was bleeding. however. and all will share in its spilling. indicating that a different weapon was the source. was inscrutable.” he said.” “Then. There will be blood. “This will not end well.” Ryan’s eyes narrowed a moment and then a slow smile spread across his face. I perceive a road toward darkness and damnation.” continued Marth. It was slightly higher pitched.” and he raised a single finger. I don’t see how it can be avoided. That was not meant to be literal. My fate is no doubt punishment from on high for some transgression I committed at some point in my long existence. However. The Mages do not believe you. It struck the ground immediately to Ryan’s left. Why? What do you see?” “Possibilities. your fate that is to be determined. Your evil knows no bounds. . But you and I know differently.” said Ryan dismissively. I did. tauntingly. yes. I presume?” “If you call that pathetic rendering that was hardly worthy of a child’s efforts a painting. If Marth was waiting for some sign of alarm from Ryan. with you as the one setting us on that course. you have no choice but to try and stop me before any of it happens.” “Furthermore. You noticed my painting. “We all have our gifts.” said Marth with the air of one who bears more of a burden than any should rightly have to deal with. I have another blessing. Marth’s face. So what are you going to do about it?” “Do you suggest that I punish you for sins before you have committed them?” “If there is no other choice. It was the single most unpleasant thing that Marth had ever witnessed.” “Then why do you not warn the Mages against me?” “Because. I choose to leave it in your hands. A wisp of smoke arose from it. “At this moment. I. “As have I. Much of what we know will die. perhaps it will comfort you to know that I believe you. even were it there. for instance…” He gestured and the air around Ryan began to sizzle. Rumors that they are a force more tenacious than any previous Mage army.” Ryan said with noticeable impatience. especially when the purported army has covered its tracks as deftly as yours.” “Speak your piece. The other Mages are disinclined to believe in rumors. I see possibilities. in fact—” There was another pulser blast then. I discern blackness when I look upon you.” Ryan bowed slightly.” “Harbinger of doom and art critic. Marth looked heavenward and imagined that he could actually see the beginnings of blood dripping from the sky. He is currently staked out at a high point—perhaps in a tower. that you would be well advised to have a care in your actions over the next century or so. as if he felt that whatever he was witnessing was surely someone else’s problem and not his.” “Do you. they typically ascribe it to happenstance. I am saying. threateningly. I discern your Red Army. you seem rather obsessed with that notion. Ryan observed them with detachment. drifting lazily skyward.” “It is not…and it does not. He could blow out the back of your skull with a single squeeze of his trigger finger. Even when subsequent events support the predicted outcome.” Ryan remained unimpressed. leaving a scorch mark on the surface of the symbolic star. perhaps in one of the surrounding mountains. as it were. not waiting for Ryan to prompt him with another question. The safety of the galaxy is resting on your shoulders. the tops of them flickering toward him.” “Actually. “And I take it that I somehow feature prominently in that future which you and only you perceive?” “That you do. First. Instead. “my gift is also accompanied by a curse. “—that I would extend it to you as well. but possibly in the fabric of reality itself. and this one actually created a small hole in the paving. That they are expanding and gathering weaponry enough to destroy all the sectors. “They do not believe you. it is not the least bit comforting.” “How comforting to be able to blame an unseen entity for whatever aspects of your life do not suit you. His brow furrowed slightly and the flame evaporated.” said Ryan.” “Sound advice. Ryan. “if you truly believe your vision of what is to come. a ring of fire leaped into existence around him. So sound.“I would not know what that looks like. after all.” “For one who resists change as much as you.” “Meaning--?” The explosion of a pulser blast drowned out Ryan’s single-word question.” “No. They never do. as the greatest gifts typically are. Ryan stared down at it.” “Are you informing me that he is going to be watching me in perpetuity?” “Obviously not.” The two Mages stared at each other over what seemed a chasm.” “I have heard rumors of them. I assume. And there will be one who is going to be responsible for tearing a gaping wound not only in the minds and bodies of all living creatures.” finished Ryan. A specialty that each of us alone wields.” and Ryan spread his hands wide. giving not the slightest indication of what he was expecting other than to see a demonstration of his own prowess in conjuring flame from the air. I assume?” “Possibly. The flames crackled furiously.” said Marth coolly.” said Marth. “Deftinwolf.” “Do we. my new brother. yes. it is representative of what is impending for the Mages.” Then he turned abruptly on his heel and walked away. Marth stared down at the small hole. no longer any hint of derision upon his face. “not well at all. “If that is your foresight speaking. and for the entirety of Heaven’s Fence. “that is not the limit of my abilities. An instant later.” “And that one who will commit these crimes against God and man will be me?” “I believe that to be the case.” Never had he felt more alone. Ryan idly brushed some soot off his sleeves but otherwise did not seem the least incommoded by the demonstration. however. he was to be disappointed.” he said softly. He has you targeted. “It will be an honor to serve with you. “one should always be aware of the potential consequences of one’s actions. Ryan. “But. “No.” “That would seem a reasonable guess. “I see aspects of the future that are closed to others. Ryan. Ryan. It struck the star to Marth’s immediate right.” “Vielar Crom.” “There is always a choice. It is. “you are targeted by one of my men. All that we know will be threatened.
For God’s sake. The war dragged on.” “You say that as if that’s supposed to impress me.. She was up and out early. Later known as “The Gurash Example. so he shoved it out of his eyes. His lanky brown hair was hanging in his face. Loudly. Telling me repeatedly that I can’t do something isn’t a discussion. he knew that drove his father nuts. but go on. so fast that Hohenberger almost didn’t spot it. The specifics of the encounter were never known.e. Now he chose to find it charming as far as his wife was concerned. Most did not want to know. a morning person.” Hohenberger said stiffly. They would bravely fight back as a single entity to stop him. The young man who had just been summoned froze where he was and slowly backed up. overseer of Sector 1 and renowned for his stronghold of House Atlantic. The Mages saw it as an offensive move towards their power. the collateral damage of the Mage Wars was reaching a level that most found unacceptable. and you’ve got way more than half a brain. He yawned and stretched and yawned once more. Eventually Ryan sought out Althaddeus Favor in the confines of House Atlantic. Dad! Anyone with half a brain knows what’s really going on. “Joseph!” he shouted. “Joseph. 9 and 11 to break away from the union and maintain a coalition. i. and then methodically stretch every muscle in his body until he felt his pulse rate was properly up to speed. Nearly. we’ve gone over this…” “‘Gone over this’ makes it sound like we’ve had some kind of discussion. These circumstances. where Mages Hanthon Jo Seph and Malvas Limbi of Northern Sectors 2 and 3 surrendered to Ryan. Was it all bullshit?” “Language.” “Flattery will only get you so far. And still Covent Marth remained elusive. would lead to the eventual destruction of everything he loved and believed in. And they would nearly succeed. as opposed to Ryan’s most relentless opponent. He did not know any of that when he awoke that morning in his home on Apity Prime. then? Cheap talk that could just be tossed aside when things got tough?” . This would be a desperate attempt by remaining western Sectors 8. Ryan abruptly demanded an audience with the other Mages who then witnessed his assassination of Mage Rolander Gurash. or simply ended his own life on his own terms. In the meantime. and eventually became the last hope of stopping Ryan’s plans. It was said that Favor was imprisoned along with the other missing Mages somewhere within the dark corridors of House Atlantic. Dad. I’m seventeen. Once upon a time that might well have annoyed the hell out of him.” “Joseph. and changed the arc of Heaven’s Fence. Simultaneously. during the night. Mage Grave Minetoter of Sector 9 vanished. but Favor was never heard from again and Ryan took over House Atlantic. governor of Sector 10. He did. Pearl. however.” this would serve as Ryan’s declaration of war. He had long ago come to terms with the fact that his beloved Pearl was—God help him—one of those people. Hohenberger did not have to be a detective to know what was going on. Wilhelm Ryan ruled over Sector 6 peacefully. “Yeah?” Noting that his son was fully dressed at an unusually early hour of the morning. He was old fashioned and was enamored of the notion of his wife being there to wake up to. Once he had loathed those types. as was his wont. and also noting the young man’s haste. seeking to join forces with who he saw as the strongest of the Mages. And they were beginning to protest. all those years you spent telling me the importance of standing up for what I think is right. Instead of venting his rage towards the Mages responsible. leaving sectors scorched in their wake. “Joseph. and its Mage. First he would wiggle his fingers and toes. Your mother will—” “She doesn’t need to know.Chapter 3 Guns of Summer For a time. Not Hohenberger. eluding Ryan’s subsequent search for him. Only then did Ryan realize the potential of an imprisoned Mage. Litan Boss. I promised the guys!” He fumbled for words that would somehow persuade his father as to the rightness of his cause. but eventually the rumors of the Red Army became tangible. Pearl kidded him that most men are satisfied with a fart and a belch before staggering out of bed. and the Mages themselves became as valuable as the Sectors he worked to overtake. the threat moving from abstract concept to reality. So he always made sure to take the proper amount of prep time in getting his body started. Hohenberger took a full minute to stretch. “There’s not going to be a problem!” “It’s a demonstration!” “It’s a peace demonstration! Come on. would become an ally of Ryan’s. his slow assault was setting the stage for a smaller civil war known as the War of the Western Third.” “Dad. Nevertheless. would he consider the day to have started. but no one knew for sure. the victim of some unholy experiment of Ryan’s. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and said with a low moan. Then. in turn. alive but wounded for the first time in the Wars. Mage Althaddeus Favor. Covent Marth. and Hohenberger was struck—not for the first time—how much of his mother’s attitude and looks he had. He tested out a new tactic by flooding Sector 5 with Red Army military who were solely concerned with taking Mage Bran Wilsinger hostage. you’re not—” “Dad. looking over to the left side of the bed and seeing the empty space that had been occupied by his wife. Sector 12 was subsequently conquered. I have to…” “Joseph!” He did not need this aggravation first thing in the morning. as was typical for her. * * * Leonard Hohenberger’s life came to an end on an otherwise ordinary day. Rumors would circulate for centuries about the missing Mage. speculating as to whether he had narrowly escaped where no other had. “Were they just words. he channeled it into new assaults that netted him Mages Chu Valentar and Beirut Akara. Instead. The strategy was unexpected and successful and Ryan had no problem repeating it with Xi Tolendar of Sector 7. Eventually Ryan decided he would take over Sector 10 and its six territories. but was quite certain he knew where the individual was off to. Ryan’s Red Army moved on to the eastern territories.” his father said with a half-wink. Ryan would barely escape death. Joseph stared at him intently. and only then. All that was required was for matters to reach a tipping point that would send them spilling into a full-blown Mage war. his life—or at least his life as he knew it—came to a violent and bitter end as a result of circumstances that he could not possibly have anticipated and certainly not desired. those damnable morning people. come on. was also murdered in cold blood by Ryan. A hustling form moved quickly past the open door of the bedroom. Which is not to say that he died that day. His lifelong study of every aspect of human biology served to remind him that most heart attacks take place first thing in the morning. and his mind operated quickly enough that not only did he know who it was. He looked abashed. “Dad.
That Wilhelm Ryan is out to take them all down. It took a bit of rummaging around because voices tended to echo and so it wasn’t always easy to locate a speaker. But the affairs of the Mages are running roughshod over the people. . A large. We want to say. joking that he looked more like a poet than an award-winning scientist. You know how you are with crowds. You’ve heard them. “Or worse. Power for the people. stumbled to the bathroom. You hate this whole war and what the Mages are doing. You know we’re on the same side. and began sketching on it. and in that she had succeeded. ‘You’ve been given all this power for a reason.“Apparently so. Hohenberger thought. but even behind the obscuring mesh. They were nothing official. Thanks. embracing red tape. The other was vacant. She was wearing the same encompassing helmet and gloves that he was. It was never easy to tell with Pearl. And if the government isn’t going to step up and stop it. thinking about nothing in particular. That displaying an organized show of will and desire can be a guide to a better way of living. Besides. Rumors that most of the Mages are dead or…” He hesitated. turn them into… well. screened helmet and a thick pair of gloves were hanging on one of two hooks next to the door. since the birds would by nature feast upon the things that truly mattered to her. then we both might be in danger.” “By what? A show of force? Do you seriously think you’re going to take up arms against the Mages? Or the Mages’ armed forces?” “It’s not about taking up arms! I’m a pacifist. as much as humanly possible. steal their respective powers. just an assortment of formulae that he hoped would lead to something. dragged it over to himself. It made him smile because he remembered when he had first acquired them after she’d been stung by an insect she’d been studying. That reason is to serve and protect the rest of us who don’t have such power. what are my friends going to think if my dad has to tag along with me?” “Fine. a jungle environment. just like your mother. “How do you like them now?” Since then he’d never made another snide comment about her ensemble. the Mage Wars were typically referred to as “internal disputes” among the Mages. everybody knows that the local governments just pave the roads and make sure the great machines keep running smoothly. Dad. it was an open secret that the government was a joke. Hohenberger got up from the table and headed to the green house. while the Mages were the ones who truly ran things. all right? Just be extremely careful. although it might have been agony. but—” The doctor shook his head. That he wants to seize control of everything for God knows why…because he’s power mad. and he came to the reasonable conclusion that whatever had been residing within the cocoon was now adorning Pearl’s finger. Whatever. And—” “All right. His thoughts had been triggered by some of the vids he had seen lately resulting from the Mage Wars. “Come on. The howl was followed by a series of demented cackles. but also to whatever bystanders happen to get in the way.” “No way. Just hold up a few minutes. Pearl would have had a fit if even a single actual bird were present in her little corner of the world. Arms and fighting and wars are a negative example.” said Hohenberger. He had found that it was during such “voids” that some of his best ideas took place. fine. Hohenberger strode into the kitchen and absently tossed some cereal into his mouth. not against the people. But he had no intention of doing anything about it. We don’t want to lead by force of arms. he opted for the requisite trim once every six to eight. all right. and nothing else. In the only way that matters. It had been her desire to try and replicate. a researcher. “Pearl?” he called cautiously. shirts and jackets hanging in the closet. but they were there exclusively for mood. then we’re going to. as if the Mages were all grouped around a table discussing the issues of the day rather than trying to annihilate each other. she had purred. of course. It has to be used for the common good. There was the distant cawing of birds. “God. but that was all. he wasn’t sure what. With a sigh he pulled on the helmet and gloves and made his way in the general direction of where her voice was coming from. The cackling had subsided to a few mild chortles. Look. Pearl was wearing the same type of protective helmet that her husband was. and stay out of harm’s way. His fellow researchers loved to tease him about his long locks. Dad. as it typically did. We need full disclosure…’” “Full disclo--?” “There are rumors. It made his nostril hairs curl.” Joseph said with a grin. the gloves. All major decisions went through the Mages. He carefully stepped into his clothes. He couldn’t see Pearl because of the overgrowth of leaves and brush. We want to show a positive example! We want to say. Naturally when he thought of “young man. In response. and even tossed off a salute as he hurried away and out the front door of the house. He was a scientist. not only to each other. the Mages themselves have to know that we’re not just going to roll over and take whatever they feel like dishing out. he could see the look on her face practically dancing with triumph. Hohenberger had little patience for it. stuff about morality and hard work and fidelity to a wife and ethics and—” “I get the point. indicating that Pearl was wearing its contents. but…” “But what?” Joseph lowered his voice as if concerned that someone was spying upon them.” “What?” “Nothing. Instead. He noticed that there was a cocoon hanging nearby that had been broken open. Lack of communication was directly responsible for most of Man’s ills. his hair length was less about looks and more about the hour he couldn’t bear to waste getting his hair cut every month. He reached for his pad on the far edge of the kitchen table. and they were the ones who decided the direction of humanity. “Turn right. There were rumors. At least that was what he called it. certainly. This way he did not have to waste any brain cells on trying to decide what to wear when he went into his laboratory. although he still did ask her to wear it under “special circumstances. He had teased her about it. But he was aided with Pearl’s helpful comment of. he tended to believe in calling things by simple terms so everyone would know what everyone else was talking about. A few auburn strands of her hastily pulled together bun had come loose and fallen down under the glass of the helmet to frame her angular face. He stared thoughtfully into space. Dad.” “Joseph—“ “It’s going to be really crowded there. Joseph. saw the strings. honey?” “Mask and gloves!” her voice came back to him from some damned place within. Why make it harder to understand the everyday things? He nervously strolled into the green house and was immediately hit by the overwhelming moisture and humidity. As his gaze had caressed every porcelain white curve of her shapely body. y’know. however.” his thoughts turned back to Joseph. ‘Enough!’ Someone has to say. Not even out of bed and already I’ve likely screwed up the day. remember? It’s about showing the Mages that there are always alternatives to war. pulling the strings of the government and typically content to be the puppeteers. Something inside had crawled out into the world. jet-black hair into a damp ponytail. They were nothing more than elected paper pushers. not a string-cutter. It struck him as a more efficient way to consume the food than mixing one with the other beforehand. “Is everything okay. I’ll come with you. and if I have to worry about you. as part of your mandate in overseeing the twelve sectors. Pearl had a far more involved and convoluted name for it that incorporated all manner of technical terms involving the studying of the insect life that she was cultivating there.” “And what other things did you teach me growing up that I can just ignore when it’s inconvenient. He rose. On the other hand.” as he called it. “But I don’t—” “Mask and gloves!” He knew better than to argue with her. Now she had her gloved index finger extended and there was some manner of insect balanced delicately upon it. showered and pulled his shoulder-length. Officially. Hell. “The Great Debate” was the official term. He had five pairs of identical slacks. and although he was only what some might call “middle-aged”.” “Absolutely. that evening she’d strolled into the living room wearing the mask. For Hohenberger. he was startled out of his free-association reverie by a howl of what sounded like triumph. Nothing concrete at first. Still. Before he could let them wander down that path to its natural conclusion and thus prompt more worries about his son’s well-being. Hohenberger. String cutting was a young man’s game. huh? All that. dummy!” He did so at his first opportunity and found Pearl halfway down the aisle. That they do all the work the Mages don’t want to be bothered with. Dad. followed by a glass of milk. “Look…just be careful. Someone—a lot of someones—have to stand up and say. It still sounds a bit nebulous to me. Hohenberger had been very much feeling the weight of his years upon him lately. anyone with half a brain had to know that there was more going on than anyone in an official capacity was willing to admit to. Hohenberger had to think that the government believed the general populace to be raging idiots. No more wars.
” and the smile on her face spread even wider. especially when there are greater issues to be considered…” “I want my son to live to become an actual grown man instead of ‘almost. You grafted a stinger on it while it was still in the cocoon?” “Yes sir!” “And…” He hesitated. * * * Mom is going to kill me…the shirt’s ruined… It was odd that. “the result could be…well…anything. You have ambitions for human beings. Pearl was the polar opposite of her husband when it came to discussing projects on which she was working. know how things can escalate out of control incredibly quickly. of all people. It was Elizabeth Parks.” The prospect of facing crowds was no more alluring to Hohenberger than it had been when Joseph had mentioned it.” she said triumphantly. and you are not going to tell me that you allowed it. failures and successes. Leonard. passing thoughts. “Why? I mean. We have to allow him to make some decisions about his life. Or maybe just crap luck. Instead she was heading for the door. all of it as it happened. He pulled it off and tried to speak. That’s what this is really all about. He was in such a hurry that he had neglected to remove the protective covering. Leonard!” She shook the beloved syringa off her hand as if it were a germ. Only the word “End” was now visible. but mine’s been mostly talk.” and her voice dropped. feeling a bit foolish. all the joy and enthusiasm ebbing from it. Leonard hurried after her as quickly as he could go. “Pearl. You. with protestors waving their signs and chanting and acting as if it were some big damned holiday rather than an attempt to make a serious point. “Leonard. Hohenberger tended to provide her constant updates. It was amazing how much ground Pearl could cover when she was upset about something. This was all about protecting people from exactly this. Instead he stared down at the floor. And there was more than enough death to go around. It was all abstract and suddenly it got real… . yanking off her protective mask. “Some sort of…dragonfly?” he said tentatively. bad and ugly.” “Pearl. considering that I genetically constructed it while it was still in the chrysalis stage. thought Joseph. Plus. See?” “A stinger. “You know how dangerous the situation is. “You are not going to tell me that. Serves him right. There was a huge gaping wound in the side of her head and there was something thick and grey and gelatinous seeping through.” he tried to say. though.” “Don’t stingers generally have the same properties? Self-defense mechanisms that inflict toxins upon those who attack it?” “When nature generates it. We were protesting in the abstract. They didn’t slow or offer apology. Lizzie stared at him lifelessly. accidentally kicking him as they went. I’ll want to see if it breeds true. “No.” “Fine. She didn’t appear to be giving it the slightest further thought. Ironic.” He studied it. “Where’s Joseph? “Listen—“ “He didn’t. The prospect of telling his wife that she was on her own.” “Really. you need to listen to…” “He did not go out of this house to that rally. The air was alive with explosions. all of the ebullience that she had displayed before. is what this is. End the Mage Wars emblazoned across it was lying next to her. was not an option. The remnants of a sign that had the words. pulling the gloves off as well and allowing them to fall to the floor. “Lizzie. you have to listen to me…” “Like you listened to me? Like you let Joseph listen to me? I told you…and take that helmet off!” He did as she ordered. Leonard! Do you want that?” He tried to meet her gaze and couldn’t. When a human creates it. But he’s almost a grown man. She paid him no mind. its green wings fluttering and catching the light in such a way that it seemed iridescent. “it has a stinger. and it had to be a damned loud one to stand out for Joseph. typically. And now they were scattering. Blood was pouring out from her nose and through her mouth. Now. a pulser blast ramming through him. for fuck’s sake. The startled insect flittered to get its bearings for a moment and then darted off. “And that is…unusual?” “For this type of insect? Absolutely. Pearl didn’t allow him to the opportunity. And to see what properties it would generate.’ He could be killed. yes.’” “Do you. She didn’t even bother with the hook. They probably thought that he was dead. There was a scream nearby. driving through his back and blasting his intestines out through his front. The air was thick with the stench of blood and death and bodies lying in the heat of the Keywork.” he said. Something or someone hit the ground a few feet away from him. that was the thought that kept going through Joseph’s mind. would you call it that?” “Because. who on some level couldn’t quite believe how detached from the insanity he had become. she just dropped it. and the sound of it hitting people. Do you really want our son in the middle of that?” “Obviously not.” “You mean pass the mutation on to offspring?” “Exactly. precisely. The town square had been packed with people. had dissipated. “All your talk of gene tinkering inspired me. The blasts made totally different sounds when they ricocheted off the armor of the soldiers as they fired away at each other without the slightest regard for who was in between them. the good. she was far less reticent.” “Yes. “I can’t wait to show this to Joseph. that much was certain. that distinctive sound. Why give it a stinger?” “To see if I could. but he couldn’t get anything resembling a voice to emerge from between his lips. And you were my inspiration. That’s what this was all about. despite the chaos that was ensuing around him. what’s the purpose?” “The purpose?” “Of the stinger. but now were useless for anything except as food for the packs of stray dogs that occasionally wandered the streets. “I call it a ‘syringa. of course not. He knew that she had been up to something new with her insects. studying it closely.” she said. He leaned forward. Still. He recognized her immediately. This is just ironic. Is he awake yet?” He shifted uncomfortably.” She patted the side of his helmet. Hohenberger right after her.” All of the joy. and she held it up so that he could see it more clearly. like cockroaches moving in all directions when a darkened room was abruptly illuminated. since she despised dwelling on failure—and then share them with Leonard. Pearl. He went down in a heap. studying the dragonfly. that splutch noise as the pulse blasts cut through skin and muscle and bone and just ripped people apart with such ferocity that—when enough blasts hit home—they were scarcely recognizable as people anymore.“I did it. And why. considering the surrounding racket. the boy presented a solid argument over—” “Oh my God.” “Pearl. That was the surprising thing to Joseph. Pearl preferred to wait until she had genuine results—positive. however. That’s a little more complicated. on the other hand. “The progress you’ve made…” “Is with insects. It was eerily beautiful. Instead they were just sacks of meat that had once had hopes and dreams and aspirations.” and she turned the syringa this way and that to study it more closely. which he would not have thought possible. “Pearl!” he called after her. She emerged from the green house. Joseph couldn’t help but think about all the times he had fantasized kissing that mouth. Someone ran past him. Suddenly the person who had kicked him was lifted off his feet. Then let’s go to that rally and get our son out of there. naturally. of pulser fire ripping through the air. but she had refused to go into specifics.
he is not thinking straight. and pulser blasts superheated the air. representing his power and prestige and his life of service to the great circle. sending their simple peace rally spiraling into an actual armed conflict. tears rolling down her cheeks.” . He felt a swell of relief that was followed by the exact same thought he’d had moments earlier: that his mother was going to kill him. And so. speaking in his customary metallic. rather than rely on vocal cues to discern the urgency of a situation. what she was saying. Then he heard a horrified shriek. Ryan has gone to ground.” Marth shook his head.” said Crom. Chapter 4 The Worst These Worlds Will See Covent Marth knew what had to be done. Marth knew it now. but Elizabeth’s dead eyes remained upon him as everything below the neck ignored the commands being sent from above. You had no business being here. His confidence has caged him. Fortunately. because there was a pounding in his ears that was shutting out everything else. One of the murdering bastards was pretty much like another. my lord. Marth found it steadying that he had to pay close attention to what Crom was saying. Much more. nor hint of anything. “Down to you. he would elude detection. He licked his lips. “We have his sanctum surrounded. There was no hint of pride in his voice. and the blood and stench and gore—was gone. discovering his limits is a devastating experience. Vielar Crom.” “Yes. The problem was that he was not entirely certain that he was going to be able to do it. He could guess. Except that made no sense. Ryan would have wanted this stopped.” he said. She was gesturing wildly to someone. If only they had listened in the beginning. nor did he particularly care. and everything—his mother. Marth felt confident he could right Ryan’s wrongs and bring sanity back to these worlds. practically in his ear. “and down to me. he did everything he could to fire his thoughts directly into his mother’s brain: I’m sorry…I think I ruined this nice shirt you bought me for my birthday…please don’t kill me… And then a haze of white settled over him. Perhaps he thought that by hiding in plain sight. but it sounded remarkably like his mother… And then his mother’s anguished face occupied his entire field of vision. the pain that had been encroaching upon him was gone. He could have been reporting a triumphant victory or a stunning defeat and he would have sounded much the same. A conflict that Joseph and the others were ill-suited to engage in. it was too damned late.” “The legend of the original Tri-Mage was a tale of arrogance. He wouldn’t have wanted us making our voices heard. and we showed him otherwise. “It says much of Ryan that he took that as something to aspire to rather than something to avoid.” the soldier said with a grunt before hauling himself to his feet. because he wasn’t sure just how much—if any —he would be able to withstand. No! You had no business being here! We had every right! We have every right not to live like this! We have a right not to have our lives be lost at the whim of power-crazed Mages! We have… Oh God…it hurts… His mind had disconnected from the agony.” except there was a viscous. He thought he had the advantage over us. Yes indeed. For one who holds himself in such high esteem. The helmet obscured most of his face. Ryan had poisoned them all. Alliances had been made and forged and broken. even though he was reasonably sure he was not telepathic. and she was shouting something at him. Ryan was what he was. His father wasn’t going to be thrilled either. it does. “It appears our intelligence on the subject was correct. because none of them ever knew who was working with him and against them. Why would someone as selfaggrandizing as that give a damn what Joseph and his companions had to say? It seemed just as likely to have simply been malign fate that had betrayed them. though. really. suddenly. perhaps his father. He strode across what was left of the great Mage gathering place on Sinosure known as the Hub. it would have to be that close to be audible. It was possible to see where they had been. he was going to have the opportunity to say it in person.” The Mage Wars had spread over a legion of worlds in which countless lives had been lost in the ensuing strife. Face forever hidden behind a steel mask. my lord. It seemed entirely too coincidental that the forces of Ryan and Marth had shown up at exactly this point in time. even if you did not have the slightest familiarity with any aspect of his distinguished record. His final thought was that he had never been happier than he was at this moment. Booted feet pounded past him. if you ask me. Ryan. though. Then there was another heavy thud. He tried to stand. A helmet crashed to the ground near Joseph and bounced away. Her face was a portrait of agonized misery. With all the insanity unfolding around him. blood trailing from it. almost inflectionless voice. Once there had been twelve walkways in the Hub’s vast mosaic. his tongue the only muscle in his body that he was still capable of manipulating.” and Marth smiled grimly. He dreaded the return of that pain. “Such ridiculous notions from one who decided to declare himself the Supreme Tri-Mage. Each of the Mages had raised up their own armies. He didn’t know if it was Ryan’s men who had Marth’s men on the run. The sounds of marching feet moving in perfect formation converged around Marth. although his chin twitched slightly when he saw that Joseph was staring at him. Joseph said. but now it was beginning to creep back. but there was nothing remaining of them other than shattered stones and a general outline of each of them. more pulser blasts flying. reducing it to a distant.” “In my opinion. and Joseph had just enough time to see the stump of a neck and realize that the helmet still had a head contained within. He tried to speak.” he said softly. was at the head of a squad of one hundred and fifty men. or vice versa. red-tinged liquid bubbling up from his lungs and the words came out mumbled and slurred and incomprehensible to everyone except Joseph himself. Still. “You weren’t supposed to be here. the man who had demented dreams of dubbing himself the Supreme Tri-Mage. That is as it should be. leaving the smell of burning flesh wafting up his nostrils. The voice was screaming “Joseph! Joseph!” which was a remarkable coincidence because not only was his name Joseph. He must be in a panic since our forces routed his on Apity Prime. but again nothing comprehensible would emerge. Manipulated them so they couldn’t trust each other. just like that. By the time Marth had realized it was just Ryan against the rest of them. It was inevitable. promises kept and then reneged upon.“This way! This way! Tighten formation! Seward. one for each of the Mages. Worse: They were right. The commander of his loyal troops. More screams. It was a soldier. Ten of the twelve walkways had been demolished. Crom was the sort of man who inspired confidence in you.” “He placed too much confidence in Deftinwolf. steady buzz. Mustering his strength. “That must have been a crushing blow to him. on point!” a voice bellowed. He sported the colors of Wilhelm Ryan.” “Yes. clutching at a wound in his upper right leg. Joseph couldn’t tell who was doing the shouting. “Stupid bastards. There was more he needed to say. and Elizabeth’s eyes. and he came in quickly behind Marth. He could no longer hear her. And then.
and soon that silence was obliterated by the cheers of the soldiers. Long minutes passed before nothing was left save the rubble and the silence.” * * * The last citadel standing. it is folly to believe that Ryan is going to repent. That was all that Crom required. “Permission to—?” He did not need to finish the request. The air was suffused with the ear-splitting noise of the tower’s final collapse. The only way he could possibly escape is if he could mentally transport himself from one point to another. General?” said Marth. that he would accrue all the legendary powers that accompany the title. it is you.” “I notice that you use the past tense. no glee.” “Your gift to me of prolonged life.” “Madman. surrounding the citadel that constituted Ryan’s last stronghold. now” was all he said. that does not make it any less a tragedy. and it was up to him to set things right. knowing full well that Crom was as likely to sprout wings and fly as he was to celebrate anything. the rest would collapse in short order. His monotone delivery was difficult to hear over the escalating series of explosions.” “With respect. General. we would have detected it. the final symbol of unfulfilled potential. presuming that is still possible. and there were none who trod the world that were more powerful than Mages.” He paused and then added. “I go in there. Full bore pulser cannons unleashed their payloads upon the citadel. trying to put as much distance between themselves and the destruction as possible. The ground shook as if a giant were taking vast.” Crom bowed to him. Such as he deserves to be put down like a rabid animal. That is ever all that has mattered to me. General. “I am a soldier. if not God himself. “He could not possibly do that. that power has been long lost to the Mages. you mean? No. I consider that to be sufficiently satisfying. more experienced soldiers looked in Crom’s direction. Provided this tacit permission. Most military men were reluctant to speak truth to power. in the vain hope that it might be averted.” There was a thunderous roaring from the citadel as the tower began to collapse in upon itself. everything that Crom was saying made sense. leaving a thin coating of debris on their clothes. The last to possess it was.” said Marth.” “Hardly a satisfying conclusion to his business. Once he had looked upon his citadel with such pride. Crom shook his head. Hold him responsible for the death and destruction that he has inflicted on his brethren. However. “How would you address the problem. This man. in fact. Marth watched in fascination. nor stage some manner of final face-to-face confrontation. Confront him. shattered husk of what it had been. on the assumption that if the supports were taken down.” “I have every faith in you. Yet Crom never hesitated to say precisely what was on his mind. my lord. Most of the firepower was concentrated on the lower sections of the tower. “You have reason for celebration this day. Then the older. “Any possibility of escape tunnels?” said Marth. It was all that he was required to say. All he felt was sorrow and the sense that wasted lives were being celebrated with a wasted death. Marth paused at the threshold and then entered.” This was the foremost of the many reasons that Marth preferred Crom as his General.” “Indeed. this…traitor to the cause of the Mages. Naturally they had not believed him. If only this could have been avoided. it is up to me to locate them and restore them to their greatness. sir. new . My goal is for a maximum victory with minimal loss of life. Perhaps Ryan thought that if he declared himself to be such. Certainly my goal is not to allow he who has my fealty to risk himself needlessly. He aspired to be like God.Crom’s men were already fanning out. Marth saw it as something of a symbol for the entirety of the circle of Mages. destroyed so many lives. Nothing more.” “You certainly have been with me quite some time. That time when he had been face to face with Ryan. He was the last fully functioning Mage. “I am interested in knowing how you see it playing out. He raised his right wrist and spoke into his comm unit.” Crom was silent for a moment. no sense of triumph over the destruction of an opponent who had caused so much bloodshed. “We performed soundings of the area. or surrenders unconditionally. they joined the youngsters in a whooping cheer that was nothing less than a collective sigh of relief from humanity. my lord?” “I? I have no reason for celebration. his mind whirling back to a time that was simultaneously so long ago and yet so recent. the younger ones were the quickest to take up the huzzahs and cries of joy. “I have used it in your service. If any can accomplish it.” Marth turned away.” Marth stared at the citadel. That is not how you would handle it?” “No.” He glanced warily at Marth. Larger pieces of rubble tumbled all around them. Failing that.” “Thank you. could he?” “Teleportation. nor did Crom.” “You have used it well. and several of the falling pieces posed a threat until Marth gestured casually and they incinerated in mid-flight. No. It is not in my interest to provide opportunities for repentance. He entered his sanctum.” “I shall make certain the troops are ready when you wish to depart. crumbling downward.” “To come?” “Others of my order remain missing. They never believed. He aspired to be the Supreme Tri-Mage. They were in Ryan’s clutches. If there were anything underground. my lord. thunderous strides across it.” It went against Marth’s grain to allow it to end in this manner. and their whereabouts remain unknown. Otherwise I will take it upon myself to inflict a terminal punishment upon him as some small token of retribution. General. how he had tried to warn the other Mages. He did not trust himself to speak. “With respect. The General said nothing. I had possessed sufficient knowledge to see all aspects of this conflict and find a way to forestall it…short of murdering Ryan before he had sufficient power to pose a threat. It was a broken. So he limited himself to a single nod and then looked toward the citadel. The responsibility that accompanied that unwanted status was practically suffocating. The entire thing tumbled in slow motion. because there was every chance that he would give voice to more doubts or uncertainties or simply order Crom to stand down so that he could attend to this himself. you should have let me take the shot when I had the chance all that time ago. then?” “Annihilate his citadel and extract his remains from the rubble. The soldiers scattered. my lord. And oh. my lord.” a miniscule crackle of static in his electronic speech pattern betrayed the slightest hint of the cold fury within. unable to tear his eyes away from it. brick and stone flying in all directions. Would that. Oddly. “You do not join in. Now it was a symbol of greatness lost. but instead simply inclined his head slightly. the Supreme Tri-Mage. of a ring of power that had been shattered beyond repair. Just because a tragedy has ended. The charges hammered home. “believed that he was destined to take over the entirety of the Fence. The pulser corps had backed off the moment the structure began to lose cohesion. and then said. If he can destroy no more lives. even if it flew in the face of what the Mage believed. my lord.” “You sound skeptical. despite my occasional knack for foresight. It was slow at first. wherever they were imprisoned. trying to warn him of the insanity of what was to come. Marth did not budge an inch. General. but it was still standing. I hope to be worthy of your trust. shaking his head as he did so. for Marth gestured that he should proceed. General. “End this. Either he commits suicide in shame over his actions.” “‘Risk?’ You believe that I cannot dispatch him?” “I believe it is a waste of your time even to try. With Ryan dead. And now they were gone. he felt no satisfaction. my lord. “I must meditate on what has gone before…and what is yet to come. They kept their positions as dirt and dust billowed toward them. He would have to find the others of his kind. the citadel trembling furiously under the pounding. He was an utter madman. “How do you see this playing out.
“You were never in your citadel? Our information was wrong?” “No.” “You are wrong. Although he knew there was no point. Marth lashed out.” “Again. and there was genuine anger in his words. I.” Marth whirled and saw that Ryan was standing ten feet away from him.” “A tunnel? They said there were no tunnels.” he said.” The significance of that pronouncement was not lost on Marth. I would be able to convince the lot of you of your full potential. Ryan had—to some degree— made his task increasingly harder. Ryan had already done something to them. Outside the cheering of the soldiers was tapering off as the celebration continued. That you were a caretaker of the concerns of others. other hand.” said Marth.” Marth immediately made for the door.” His mouth twisted in disgust. The only thing that was certain was that apparently Wilhelm Ryan was capable of absolutely anything.” “Yes. Ryan stood there and simply stared at the non-remains of Covent Marth. One moment Marth was there. my dear Marth.” He circled the room slowly. I. Instead you were disgustingly content with your status and your limitations. No one can. Marth. perhaps out of a sense of courtesy.” “You cannot teleport yourself. ordinary people who had just been trying to live. What could we have accomplished?” “We could have ruled the universe. but it did not budge. with the air of someone who knew that his end was at hand. Covent Marth. on the other hand. Y willingly closed your eyes to all that you could accomplish.” and he paused. pain unlike anything he had ever known.” “Yes. and against that pain was the now calm voice of Ryan. Ryan said nothing as Marth did so. Upon that we agree. it is too late. focusing his power. There was nothing left of him save for a black splotch on the ground where he had combusted. to heal the rifts that had been torn in the natural order of things. There was a sizzling like meat being overheated. “I will give you an opportunity though. A new democracy where everyone has a voice… “It is a shame it has come to this. very obviously. no gore. can see you perfectly. It was quite correct. but it was too late. “How did you learn it?” said Marth softly. So let us see you transport. Transport yourself to safety.” “Ryan. hoping that once I joined your ranks. allowing a brief moment of self-satisfaction. ‘It can’t be. Ryan’s mask of calm slipped.” said Marth. There was no blood.” “I have.” “Our brethren no longer. That’s not to say the murder and capture of the Mage’s prior to Marth had been simple for Ryan by any stretch of the imagination. There was no way of knowing for certain. the Supreme Tri-Mage. they had joined up with the Mages who had not yet fallen. perhaps you might have learned the secret as well. Marth’s forces were formidable.” The voice boomed out of everywhere in his sanctum. In fact. a reconstruction. or even grasp the possibilities. “How is it possible?” “If you had studied the ways of the first Supreme Tri-Mage.” “Let me guess. nevertheless he made for the exit on the far side of the room. in fact. and it would fall to Marth to find them and educate them in the ways of being a Mage.” “I’m asking anyway. to say nothing of the lives of simple. and clichéd.’ That is trite. and a final ear-splitting scream. when the truth is that all you give a damn about is your own mad quest for power. such a thing was impossible. pain that made it seem as if the only sensation he had ever known was soul-searing agony. He was standing in the center of his sanctum and he turned slowly in a full circle. “Kindly do both of us a favor and do not say. Marth had just been lowering himself into his chair of contemplation. are no one. for I am hardly no one. “We could have been gods together. one that fully described the enormity of his mission: namely. unless Ryan deliberately downgraded the destruction for shock value. one that musicians would write songs about and that scholars would teach their students and that historians would describe at length.” “How odd. “Our full potential is to be pawns in some massive power game of yours?” “Y have made yourselves pawns. still trying to grasp where Ryan might be.Mages would have to be recruited for the first time in ages. so that you cannot see me to incinerate me. . Marth staggered. Now. It was true. but is. but many of their surviving soldiers had not sworn allegiance to Ryan.” he whispered. Here. Yes. It was ironic that in overcoming each Mage. How pathetic is that? How disgustingly pathetic? Each of you content to rule over a single sector of Heaven’s Fence when there is so much more that we can accomplish. and there was pain. overwhelmed by the forces of Covent Marth. yes. Marth. and the voice was so loud that it virtually blasted him to his feet. You’ve abrogated your responsibilities as a Mage. And now I am here.” “How does your twisted logic and sense of self-aggrandizement possibly come to that conclusion?” “Because only I am willing to embrace the full potential of the Mages. and also again. instead of simply viewing him as a cautionary tale of the dangers of overreaching. It would be called The Quest to Mend the Fence.” The horrific implications of what he was saying crawled upon Marth like a thousand cockroaches. “Limitations that come from your refusal to question the fundamental make-up of the universe! Limitations that come from your inability to realize what we could accomplish if we pooled our power!” “What could we have accomplished?” “It’s too late to ask now. and then Marth blew apart in a million directions simultaneously. The Mages were content with their place as ou ou proscribed in the Ghansgraad. well secured. But none of you were willing to consider it. it not only can be.” “Your custody.” “You’re alive. to say nothing of demonstrably wrong since. It would be a great quest. and now the bulk of those were part of Marth’s army.” “And what have you done with them. I was there. and the next. “You didn’t…” “I did. Yes. He had already sacrificed enough soldiers in trying to convey—successfully—that he was on the run.” “They were correct. obviously.” “You couldn’t. He slammed into it with the full weight of his shoulder horns. “No. “That would imply that somehow you were trustworthy. pain beyond anything he had ever thought possible. Ryan might have conquered the other ten Mages. the only one of your sorry lot who willingly embraced my responsibilities. or perhaps was in the process of doing it. or perhaps simply out of amusement in seeing Marth’s growing awareness of his own vulnerability. within your sanctum. that would be an excellent name. Here. I am. Ryan’s mind brushed aside the attack and stabbed forward into Marth’s molecular structure. That was as Ryan had expected. an order that had been severely damaged by the lengthy Mage War.” “Limitations that come from God through the word of the Ghansgraad.” “Wrong!” For the first time. speaking the last words that Covent Marth would ever hear: “Instead I’ll have to do it all myself. “You will extend me the courtesy of taking me prisoner. he wasn’t. That door likewise did not open. He realized that he was about to embark on a quest to restore order to Heaven’s Fence. “am Wilhelm Ryan. you bastard? What hideous experiments have you performed on them? What have you transformed them into?” “Give yourself willingly into my custody and you will find out. though.” * * * Wilhelm Ryan severed the bonds that were holding Covent Marth’s atomic structure together. Y on the ou. as you have done with eight of our brethren. For so long I stood on the outside looking in at the Mages.” “Where are you?” “With you. With destruction at an atomic level. Far too late.
. She had been staring off into the air. “The one. She brushed it away brusquely without even looking at him. bracing himself. None of it mattered. Instead. He had been talking to her as one would talk to a coma patient. Leonard stood there and waited.” “Wilhelm Ryan. Ryan’s army would fall upon them and annihilate them. he brushed back a strand of her hair. though.” “Of course I worry about you. It caused the cup to slip off the saucer in his hand and crash to the floor. Whatever she said.” “Not fair?” “Pearl—“ “Not fair? Not fair?!” She lunged at him then. Instead her body trembled with barely suppressed rage. to his surprise. ashy shade that further accented the shadows of her bones gently showing beneath. He didn’t make any major issue over the fact that this was the first occasion she had found her voice in what seemed to him an interminable amount of time. Gently. speaking as calmly as he could. tentatively. He thought for sure that she was going to smash it into his face.” “Our son. “Yes. Her skin had regressed from the creamy white of fine bone china to a nearly translucent. the fact alone that it was so disheveled made it almost seem as if she had been transformed into someone else entirely. her hands placed delicately upon her lap. as if the world had simply ceased to exist for her. perhaps use the other hand to gouge out his eyes. That ugly. She looked up at him with depthless pools of pain reflected in her eyes. so inarticulate with rage that she was incapable of stringing a sentence together. Ryan won. it would be an assault of verbal abuse designed to strike at his core. He didn’t make the slightest attempt to avoid it. lately just about everything he looked at reminded him of blood. That was not surprising to him. her long. It happened as if she was moving in slow motion. and then he realized that she was actually asking him about something he had said to her earlier that day. But those shifts had succeeded.” and she found her voice again. unkempt hair falling around her face. whatever invective she might hurl at him.the War of the Western Third had left him personally disfigured by a deep actinic burn on the lower half of his body. just as Ryan knew they would. “Our son? You let him go off to be killed. and Leonard would not have been able to swear that she was fully cognizant of her whereabouts. It took him a moment to fathom what she was inquiring about. Ryan had special plans for Crom. She seemed unable to articulate the rest of what she wanted to say. who had been holding a glass of tea and was sipping from it in a vain attempt to steady his jangled nerves. jumped at the sound. and yet he was taken aback by the ferocity of the move. So overcoming Marth’s army had required some shifting in his own strategies. he said. And once Marth’s soldiers had celebrated sufficiently. Dropping the sodden towel on the coffee table. All of them. God…when I think of the times you’d have worked yourself to death if I weren’t watching out for you. All of them… …save for General Crom.” he said. she would be right to do so. It scarred him physically. disgusting mockery of a Mage? The one who—” her voice trailed off. and her open palm swung toward him. Now. Pearl was sitting in a chair in the family room. and he had plenty of time to deflect it or dodge it. And then. “What you must be going through…” she said. she was staring directly at Leonard. crush his nose. You never worry about you. to shatter him. She was typically so meticulous in maintaining it. She exhaled slowly and her head slumped. but did even more to jar him at a mental level. stammering out random words. The battle wound proved that despite what Ryan himself believed and demanded others believe as well. knowing that when she finally did manage to assemble coherent thoughts. her voice barely above a whisper. Pearl had virtually retreated into herself. Leonard hadn’t been able to get her to eat anything more substantial than a slice of dry toast since the accident. “Don’t worry about me. To punish him as much as she possibly could in retaliation for the loss that they would be mourning the rest of their lives. saying the words and hoping that they would penetrate. He was our son. They so startled her husband that Leonard. It would be nothing worse than what he had already been hurling at himself. “You…it…he…” Tears began pouring down her face even as she went on like that for a full minute. he was mortal and could be damaged. “Pearl. Pearl. “who was responsible for the death of my son. and the hand cracked across his face. Chapter 5 Torn to Pieces “He won?” They were the first words that Pearl Hohenberger had spoken since the death of her son. Pearl. He did neither. who was busy using a towel to wipe up the spilled tea. It didn’t matter.” This time her gaze shifted to him and there was such cold anger in it that he couldn’t meet it. he started to reach over to rest his hand on her shoulder. The brown-tinted liquid puddled and looked to Hohenberger like very thin blood. It was purely reflex. What right have you to lay any claim to him?” “That’s not fair. her fist flopped to the side as if it had become too heavy for her to keep raised.
I…” Her voice trailed off. “I would never work myself to death, Pearl,” he said softly. “Because that would take me away from you, and I want to be with you for as long as humanly possible.” The edges of her eyes crinkled and she smiled for the first time in what seemed ages. “Well,” she said with a sigh, “I can’t believe you could feel that way after the way I’ve been acting, Lenny.” “I’m just telling you the truth. That’s all.” He hesitated. “Pearl…are…are we…?” “Okay? You’re going to ask if we’re okay?” “Well…yes.” She seemed to be staring into herself, her gaze turning inward as if she were searching for the answers in her soul. “No,” she said finally. “No…we’re not okay. I just…there’s so much going on…I just…I mean, at the moment I’m calm. I’m a little scared, how calm I am.” Truthfully, so was he, but he didn’t say that as she continued, “Ten minutes ago I felt ready to put my fist through your head, and now I just feel badly that I wanted to do that, and that’s not to say that ten minutes from now I won’t be back to wanting to hit you. I don’t know where I am or what I’m thinking, and that’s, you know, strange for me…” “Because you always know—?” “Shut up.” His lips pressed tightly together. “Because I pride myself on being rational, and this is irrational. This is…” her voice trailed off and she stared at him. She frowned for a moment and then, apparently realizing something, gestured wanly and said, “Talk. Go ahead.” He put out his arms to her, silently inviting her. She pressed her body against him and he wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly. He wanted to cry, but was concerned that it would set her off and he fought back the tears with effort. “Your son died in your arms,” he managed to get out. “Everything you’re feeling…everything you’re going through…I’m feeling it too, Pearl, but I’m trying to go through the motions so our entire lives don’t collapse around us. No one tells you how to deal with something like this or how you’re supposed to act or react or…or how you can pretend like your life will ever go back to something resembling happiness. And I’m just so damn angry too. I’m angry with myself, with those bastard Mages… I’m mad at God for doing nothing to intervene in this mess.” His face tightened up into a skewed mass of emotion that was somewhere between emotional breakdown and scathing hatred. It softened as he looked down at his wife. “God, Pearl, I love you so much…there’s nothing you could say to me that I wouldn’t understand why you’re saying it…” “Even if I hate you again in a few minutes?” “Even if.” “But Ryan…” she paused and her voice filled with venom. “Him…him, I won’t stop hating him. Not for a minute. Not for a second. Whether you were an idiot because you let Joseph go, or a supportive father trusting his son to take responsibility for his life, I’m going to go back and forth on that for a while. Maybe forever. But Ryan’s culpability…that’s not going to change. He has to be stopped, Leonard.” “I agree, but…” “But what?” He released his hold around her and met her gaze, trying to smother his sense of helplessness and failing utterly. “But how?” “Stopped. Terminally. Permanently. Don’t you see, Leonard? Someone has to kill him.” It was staggering to hear Pearl speaking in this manner. No one was as loving of life, as respectful of that gift from God, as Pearl. To hear her talking about killing someone so matter-of-factly…it was as if he didn’t know her. Still, that should not have been surprising. In many ways, the woman that she had been was dead, her soul left behind bleeding on the street with her late son. “All the Mages tried to do that, Pearl. None of them succeeded. How is anyone else supposed to—?” “The people need to do it. The government certainly isn’t going to.” “The government answers to Ryan now,” said Leonard. “He’s taken charge of Apity Prime. Of the sector…the whole damned Fence…since the death of Covent Marth.” “We don’t know that he’s dead. We know that’s what Ryan’s people are claiming, but he could have escaped.” She was speaking with a sort of desperate urgency. “It’s possible that he could be biding his time, waiting for the right moment to strike back.” He was reasonably sure that wasn’t the case at all, but he didn’t have the heart to say so. “Yes. Yes, that’s possible, I suppose.” “So then it’s just a matter of keeping the sentiment of the people of this sector arrayed against Ryan. Make them resist his every move, his every decree. Make people realize what a complete, total and utter bastard he is.” “They know that already, don’t they?” She shook her head firmly. “No. Because he spews lies with such confidence, such certainty, and so convincingly, that people accept those lies as truth. The lies are so big no one could conceive that they’re deceptions. People are stupid, Leonard. Massively, staggeringly stupid. They don’t want to look beyond the confines of their living rooms and their personal entertainment and the world as they imagine it to be rather than what it is. They know deep down exactly what Ryan is, but it’s too much work for them to act upon it.” “And can you blame them?” He saw her look of incredulity, but forged on nonetheless. “Joseph was part of a group of people who tried to act upon their convictions. He was hardly the only one who paid the ultimate price for it. After seeing so many people slaughtered in the crossfire of Ryan’s men battling Marth’s, how enthusiastic do you think people will be about offering protest if Ryan’s men have their guns pointed directly at them?” “It doesn’t matter.” “It does to them.” “Whose side are you on?!” Hohenberger was suddenly seized with a wave of anger. He knew that everything she was saying was motivated by grief, but where the hell was his right to grieve? He was no less devastated by the fate of their son than she was. Why did he have to scrutinize every word he said while she could lash out at him without regard to anything save her own surging anger? “I’m on the side of not losing my wife along with my son! I’m on the side of keeping what remains of my family alive!” “We’re not a family anymore! We’re just…us!” “And that’s not enough?” “It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take until Ryan is dead and gone.” “And if that day never comes?” “It has to.” She hesitated and then said with even more fervor, “It has to, if Joseph is ever going to know peace.” * * * Wilhelm Ryan was in his glory, but he wasn’t certain he needed to be so showy about it. Staging a massive victory parade down the streets of Apity Prime had not remotely been his idea. “I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Why is there a need to openly revel in it?” “It will serve to consolidate your power,” Deftinwolf had assured him. “And it will provide the people a chance to express their adoration for you…and for you to bask in it.” “I’ve won the Mage war. There are none who stand in my way. I’ve conquered them. How are they to adore one who conquered the other Mages and took all their power?” “It is precisely because you have conquered them that the people want to adore you.” “I’m not certain I follow…” “It is better to live in love than in fear. Fear is bred from uncertainty. Give them reason to love you, and they will flock to you. At which point you can do whatever you want to them, and they will thank you for it. Take the transformation of your ascension to Supreme Tri-Mage as a time of celebration rather than anxiety, and it will transform them into your adoring servants rather than frightened masses.” As much as Ryan hated to admit it—Deftinwolf’s words made a certain degree of sense.
Deftinwolf had nodded. Ryan had stroked his leaky, veiny chin thoughtfully and had finally said, “If you truly believe this to be of some importance, however minor,” and he had waved his hand in a laissez-faire manner, “then make the arrangements and I shall cooperate.” As a result, a day later, down the main street of the main city and into the main square of Apity Prime rode Wilhelm Ryan, winner of the Mage wars and the first Supreme Tri-Mage in millennia. He towered above the throngs, as was appropriate for one of his stature. The vehicle in which he was riding had been carefully designed by Deftinwolf to be both protective of Ryan and yet as unthreatening to others as humanly possible. It was a huge work of art. A tank towering ten stories high, festooned with swirls of red and yellow, and with banners and ribbons trailing from it that fluttered in the breeze. It also packed enough firepower to level five city blocks with just a few shots, but no one would have known that to look at it. The dome atop the tank was constructed entirely of transparent adamant. It was as impenetrable as the rest of the vehicle, and yet Ryan was entirely visible so that the masses could see him and adore him. Not everyone did. No one posed a threat to him. In addition to the formidable defenses that the tank provided, there were soldiers marching in quick-step on either side to provide further deterrence to any potential hostiles. Deftinwolf was at the head, cradling a pulser cannon in his arm that normally would have required the strength of two men to support. Bringing up the rear was another squadron of soldiers who had cylinders mounted on their backs and hoses attached to them with nozzles holstered at their sides. It appeared to be firefighting equipment of some sort. Serving as a stark contrast to the daunting display of sheer military force that was cruising down the middle of the city was music that was blaring over speakers mounted on various buildings. It was jubilant and celebratory, pulsing so loudly that people’s skeletons vibrated along with the beat. It served to drown out the howls of protest from some demonstrators who were waving placards with messages opposing Ryan. They were far in the minority. Most of the crowds had turned out to join in the rapture over the end of the Mage Wars. They didn’t care that Ryan had started it. All they cared about was that they needn’t concern themselves anymore with stray blasts coming out of nowhere and blowing their damned fool heads off. Ryan’s control over the public airwaves, in both radio and vid, had been instrumental in paving the way for a smooth reception. Ryan Will Guide Us had been the watchwords of Heaven’s Fence, with variations on that message pumped through every broadcast medium for hour after hour until it was practically embedded in the people’s cerebral cortex. It was so prevalent that people had scrawled the words on building walls and alleyways with spray cans of paint. There had been worries that the Wars were going to produce some sort of doomsday weapon that would be unleashed upon the Fence and devour it whole in a vast inferno. Heaven’s Fence will burn had been the oft-repeated prediction, and the majority of the masses were so relieved that hadn’t happened that they were embracing the opportunity to voice their relief. But the protestors were, as far as Ryan was concerned, not to be tolerated. A time of celebration was fine as far as it went, but there was no reason to put up with such outright shows of disrespect. A sizable number of them had gathered directly in the tank’s path in a clear attempt to stop the convoy’s progress. Deftinwolf was stepping forward, gesturing with his head that the troops should clear the way so the tank could proceed. When Ryan spoke, his voice went directly into a communications unit jacked into Deftinwolf’s ear. “General, pull your men back. I will attend to it.” Without waiting for Deftinwolf to respond, knowing that the order would be obeyed, Ryan flipped a switch so that his pronouncements now boomed over a loudspeaker. “Today is intended to be a day of celebration. I expect the residents of Sector 1 to recognize my sovereignty with as much fervor as those of any other sector, and join me in healing the great divides caused by this unfortunate but necessary war. Please step away so that the parade, and the celebrations, can continue.” They did not do so. Instead they converged on the tank, waving their signs higher and shouting profanities and anti-Ryan slogans. The boos raining down upon them from the vast majority of celebrants didn’t appear to deter them. Ryan shrugged. “Very well. There’s no reason that everyone else should be inconvenienced due to the actions of a few. On your own heads, then.” The tank roared forward directly at the protestors. Several of them scattered. Many of them held their path, still waving their placards, screaming obscenities, virtually daring Ryan to run them over. He obliged them. The looks of surprise on their faces was borderline comical. A few more of them, staring down their own deaths, broke and ran at the last moment. It did them no good, because they tripped each other up and collapsed in a heap. Ryan didn’t slow his tank or shift his path so much as an inch. Instead he ran right over them. The outcries of the rest of the crowd—cheers, actually, because crowds tended to adore a spectacle and this was certainly an example—drowned out the crunching of bones and the bursting of organs. A massive pool of blood spread from beneath the tank’s treads. Some of the protestors who had managed to avoid getting crushed shouted fury over the fate of their fellows. Upon seeing that, Ryan’s supporters—in order to show their love for him—shoved the protestors forward so that they fell beneath the tank’s treads as well. The tank ground to a halt, and then backed up, mashing even flatter what was left of the bodies. Then it rolled forward once more before stopping completely. Once again, Ryan’s voice boomed so that it was heard throughout the city: “My people! The pains you experienced as a result of the Mage Wars surely remain fresh in your minds. But I ask you this: As you were slaughtered in between the warring Mages, trampled like grass underfoot, where was your Almighty then? Is It too good to meddle in the Fence’s affairs? Or is It simply not there? The Ghansgraad makes empty promises to you, based on so many ifs, whats, and whens. I challenge that there is no celestial watchman from on high waiting to save anyone. My rule is here and now. Should you be willing to embrace it as my believers, than you’ll receive greater rewards than you’ve ever dreamed here in this life. Why wait patiently like dogs for a tidbit from the master’s table when I, Wilhelm Ryan, invite you to sit at the table and feast? Wilhelm Ryan will guide you! Let us cleanse ourselves of On High and Its deceit! Deftinwolf, let the cleansing begin!” As he had been speaking, the cheers escalated in volume until they came close to drowning out Ryan’s voice. It was the cue that Deftinwolf had been waiting for. He gestured for a squadron of soldiers bringing up the rear to come forward. They unholstered their nozzles as they did so, then took aim at the crowd and—upon Deftinwolf’s order—began firing. Liquid blasted out in all directions, and at first people stumbled, taken aback, fearing foul play. Many of them screamed, their mouths naturally wide open as a result. The liquid cascaded down their throats. They staggered, looked surprised. The soldiers let up on the “assault” for a few moments to allow the reaction to set in. Others in the crowd, who had been running instinctively, stopped in their tracks when they saw broad grins spreading across the faces of those who had been soaked. “The finest refreshment, courtesy of House Atlantic,” Ryan declared. “Let this be a day and night of the greatest celebration Apity Prime has ever known. And let it start here!” The soldiers turned on the nozzles again, and this time people in the crowd were falling over each other to get a taste. “Let all the pleasure and joy that can be shared, be shared by all! I, Wilhelm Ryan, so order it!” And Ryan looked upon what happened next, and found it to be good. The city had gone berserk. Word spread quickly of Ryan’s treat for those who supported his reign, and that was only the beginning. Whereas before, the sight of the Red Army moving through the city was enough to cause fear and panic, now they were greeted with interest and anticipation. They provided wine in copious amounts, and champagne to celebrate the greatness of the rule of Wilhelm Ryan. Everything else that followed more or less, developed naturally. The relief that the people of Apity Prime felt over the fact that the wars were over and that they were going to live, and that Wilhelm Ryan had a grand vision for where they were going to go next that was certainly going to benefit them…all of that came together and combusted like a volcano that had been stoppered and was now being unleashed. The city exploded in celebration. When the libations that Ryan provided had been used up, the citizens began looking elsewhere. The bars were as overrun as if a dozen sporting events were being celebrated simultaneously. Unfortunately, some of the exultation led to violence, particularly when some of the bars wound up going dry. Revelers turned to liquor stores, and when some of them couldn’t sell the booze fast enough, they were looted. Other victims of assault were those still bold enough to oppose Ryan, by waving their signs and shouting their protests in the drunken faces of his new followers. The revolutionists wound up with their placards ripped down, and were beaten into silence. But those were merely blips in an overall air of gleeful, unrestrained, unrepentant insanity that consumed Apity Prime.
Their heads clouded with drink and pure, raw emotion, the citizenry unleashed its passions. The air was thick with sweat, and cries of ecstasy mingled freely with moans of agony from those who tried to keep their heads and suffered physical abuse as a result. The bars that still had supplies finally stopped taking money. It seemed ungracious and not keeping with the spirit of joy, somehow. That worked out fine for the bartenders and owners, because willing partners rewarded the graciousness of the bar owners in other ways. The carnal delights that spread through the city were hardly limited to the business sector. It was overall a night of drunken debauchery such as no one could remember in the history of the Fence. Ryan had left the city as the insanity began, retreating to his new abode at House Atlantic. He had embarked on the remodeling of the keep, replacing an assortment of murals and statues depicting the achievements of the previous owner with images of himself. He had also created a tower for himself, a high tower that many felt attempted to reach to the clouds. From the tower, and his sanctum within, using the technological wonders at his command, he watched a city that was gripped in the throes of celebration with much the same manner and intensity that people were seized by orgasm. He waited to see if he would feel something as the debauched and occasionally depraved spectacle unfolded. He looked upward toward the night sky and said, “Honestly…was this the best you could do? Truly? Create creatures willing to work themselves into a state where they toss aside all reason? If the answer is yes, then what does that say about you? If the answer is no, then why didn’t you put some more effort into it?” He shook his head. “You disappoint me. We are going to have words, you and I. When I am running the universe—when I am lord over all creation—rest assured I’ll do a better job than this. And my followers will never doubt me the way yours are beginning to.” With that, Ryan retired to his inner chambers. He did not sleep as normal beings did. Instead he retreated into a deep contemplative state that he could control at will. Typically he remained in that state for an hour, two at the most. This night he stayed that way for six. He considered that most unusual. When he emerged from his inner chambers, he found something even more unusual waiting for him against the morning sky.
The Black Rainbow
On the Star IV world of Bendelesh, the home of the Prise—the winged guardians of the word of God—Paranoia was the first to see it. The Prise had no single leader. Instead, each of the sisters took turns serving as the main voice of the Prise as situations required. In those instances, even the term “leader” was not one that they used. They preferred the term “guardian,” for “leader” implied that there was a diminishment of free will amongst the Prise. Not that it mattered all that much, the Prise customarily operated with one mind and spoke with one voice. Never had there been a hive mind that nevertheless valued its individuality as much as the Prise. To an outside eye or individual, there was nothing to distinguish one of the Prise from another. Physically they looked identical. They were long-lived, certainly, yet could die of natural causes or in battle. But who would be mad enough to battle the Prise? Wilhelm Ryan. That name was intruding upon Paranoia’s musings with growing frequency these days. It seemed his shadow continued to grow and stretched everywhere—even here into the heart of the Prise’s orange and gold temple, where great columns stretched nearly to infinity and walls shimmered in pale colors that evoked the star itself. This day Paranoia was wearing the tiara that signified her status as guardian. It was the first day of her term, one that had no set termination point. The Prise would simply decide that it was time for the tiara to change wearers, and the guardian would hand it over to the next individual. Paranoia reached up gently and touched the tiara. She knew that it was not appropriate for any of the Prise to take pride in the status of guardian. Yet secretly she was rather enamored of the tiara and wondered if some daunting situation would present itself during her term that would require her to serve, well and truly, her sisters, rather than simply be a figurehead. She walked to the outer rim of the temple and stared out at the skies. Morning and night were merely abstracts on Star IV, with the view never changing. Still, she had come to think of those arbitrary divisions as a means of keeping track of the passage of time in the universe. Paranoia blinked in confusion, not fully comprehending what it was she was staring at initially. She rubbed her eyes, blinked several times, and rubbed them again. It didn’t appear to make any sense; it had to be some manner of freakish cosmic occurrence, an illusion, a trick of the eye or of the mind, certainly. One that would vanish in short order, back to the inner recesses of her subconscious. It did not. “What in God’s name…?” she said, and quickly came to the conclusion that that was exactly in whose name it was. It was a signature written upon the fabric of reality and only one individual could have been wielding the pen that produced it. An ebony band was curved across the entirety of the skies above Heaven’s Fence. It was absolutely massive, as if someone had just reached into the firmament with unprecedented fury and ripped out an entire strip of reality, leaving a vast, gaping arc of nothingness in its stead. It was like a gigantic, pulsing open wound. A massive black hole seething with smoke and gas. It had no beginning, no end, and seemed as if it could swallow the entirety of Heaven’s Fence with absolutely no trouble. And from deep within its recesses, Paranoia was certain that she could hear distant screeches of infuriated agony, as if a doorway had been opened to a realm where a billion tortured souls were howling over their fate of eternal torment. That should not, could not have been possible across the void, even were that truly the case. Yet that was what she thought she was perceiving within her own head. Ordinary eyes would not have been able to see it set against the blackness of space. But Paranoia’s eyes were hardly normal; they could locate a single speck of meteorite dust bounding across the night sky. For those residing on the planets below, however, as the vast triangle of Heaven’s Fence slowly pivoted on its unseen axis, it would certainly be visible during the daylight hours that the Keywork provided. Paranoia closed her eyes and reached out with her heart, her soul, her very being, to perceive the reaction that was being prompted from below by this…this Black Rainbow—the words seemed to have a unusual weight or import to them—that had appeared out of nowhere. “What do you sense?” Her sister, Ambellina, was standing several feet away from her. Paranoia had not heard her enter. The Prise typically made no noise, unless they were charging into battle. The saying was that to hear the Prise meant that you were hearing the hoof beats of your death approaching. Ambellina typically was not much for small talk; she tended to cut straight to the heart of matters. “You’ve seen it, Ambellina?” “Of course,” she said impatiently. “And I know you are feeling for the concerns of Man. Again, what do you sense?” Paranoia kept her eyes closed. Then she let out a slow sigh and spoke as if whispering. “Panic. Confusion. Fear. Elation.” “Elation?” Ambellina cocked a thin, blonde eyebrow. “Elation? “ “Yes. Among other—” Ambellina shook her head impatiently. “Man can be utterly ridiculous sometimes.”
We routinely took a direct hand in their affairs. It is a warning to them. are going to have to be prepared to do the right thing. sister. Then it would become her problem. that we have failed Him. ideally speaking in a sepulchral voice projected directly into her mind.” “You believe passionately in your opinions. listening to the air. You.” “But it was our way. hoping that it would speak directly to her. who was staring at her fist as if it had operated entirely on its own without regard to her wishes. “The fact is…the fact is. hugging her tightly. but ‘twas not always so. sister.” Paranoia stared at the Black Rainbow.” she said patiently. “but they are simply not capable of dealing with someone on Ryan’s level.” “Your faith in humanity is touching. wait. Depravity and debauchery ran rampant through the cities as a result. “What does that mean. is precisely what we are going to do. They are seeing the Black Rainbow as well. Paranoia gripped it and allowed Ambellina to haul her to her feet. sister. You are aware of what transpired on Apity Prime. They should be united in their interpretation of it. all but forgetting our children as they drew away from us and into the waiting hands of war.” “You don’t think that God is urging us to attend to Ryan ourselves?” She looked once more at the Black Rainbow and.” “Our province is the sky. Ambellina immediately put her arms around her.” “They’ve proven nothing because they haven’t truly been given the opportunity to battle Ryan on anything approaching his level. But something within her bridled against that. Ambellina!” “No. in a tone that left no room for argument.” said Ambellina firmly. they must learn to walk on their own. clutching her skull and trying to overcome the ringing in her ears. defensive as always about the humans who scurried about on the worlds below like ants with opposable thumbs. “I know that contemplation is your way. The sisters know that. This will be dealt with. We have yet to truly listen. Man was our business. precisely?” “It means that it is going to be your responsibility as guardian to make the right decision in this matter. We were trying to be kind to them by letting them exercise their own free will. Her fist struck Paranoia on the side of the head. You said yourself that they are not. Paranoia could step back and let someone else attend to it. Instead.” She touched her jaw tentatively and then pushed hard on it. I think we are being urged to show humanity the light. Ryan’s actions are the affairs of the land. Make some sort of a statement. But you continue to have far too much empathy for them. She looked up at Ambellina. I believe I have found exactly the one to show it to. Swift actions are going to be required. Not when the pure anger of God is incarnate before us.” said Ambellina impatiently. And that.” She pointed toward the darkness.” “Free will that was given us by God. Paranoia. not meeting her gaze. of course. They were like our children. But there was nothing. Contemplation and caution and studying all aspects of a situation. With imagination. studying her. Ambellina remained perfectly still. We have convinced ourselves of that over the years. we do. We are the guardians of the word of God.” “Excellent. so sorry.” “If that is indeed what it is—” Ambellina hit her. but there actually seemed to be a bit of moisture in Ambellina’s eyes.” Ambellina tilted her head. It is a warning. “Why should they not have a full range of reactions?” “Because of what it means!” “They don’t know what it means. Then she opened them. and if God is displaying His ire with those above. but do you?” Paranoia circled her. Ambellina. and in many ways that is just as bad. But we do not have time for that. Once upon a time. And I will.” . then obviously it cannot bode well for those below. “Yes. But Paranoia…the timing of the Black Rainbow cannot be ignored. “What?” “That’s not what’s going to happen. the Black Rainbow appeared as mute condemnation of both Ryan’s victory and the lack of the public’s condemnation of it. if not worse. That is the essence of free will. It is not enough that we gather our forces to combat him directly.” “Paranoia. Her term as guardian would eventually expire and another of her sisters would take charge. “I will alert the sisters. And in my observation of humanity. and haven’t we done a superb job of it so far. you know that.” “The ‘right thing’ meaning whatever you believe is the correct course of action. Please accept my…I am so. Come the dawn. Paranoia.” “No one has died at our hand. she smiled.” “We don’t know what He is saying. “There is a reason. stunned. I understand that. Their deaths are the direct result of neglectful caretakers. “But you see the danger and pointlessness of unbridled violence. Neither do we. to deal with the consequences of their own actions. and Paranoia was sure she was imagining it.” “Yes. humanity must respond in the only way that it can: with innovation. They’ve proven that. Elation!” “Why not?” said Paranoia. that would put forward the common sense of the matter to the Prise in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” “And what would you suggest? That we charge down en masse to destroy him?” “We have no choice.” she murmured. It is a direct sign from God that He is angry with us for the way that we have stood by and let Ryan engage in his battle for power and dominance. To become adults. We turned our sights inward long ago.” “Ambellina…” “We will descend from on high—“ “Ambellina—“ “—and show both Ryan and Deftinwolf the dangers of…” “Ambellina!” The sharpness of her tone snapped Ambellina from her contemplation of slaughter.“Sister!” “I love you. snapping it back into place with an audible click. She could. We were allowing them room to grow…” “Nonsense. she looked down at Paranoia and then extended a hand. And your wisdom about such concerns is extremely important to me.” said Ambellina. they’ve died because we stayed our hand. if we are to save them and live up to the trust that had been placed upon us by our Maker. She hit the ground and sat there for a moment.” “But children cannot remain so forever. as much to her own surprise as Ambellina’s. Ryan celebrated his triumph.” “We always have a choice. as if she were deeply in mourning. We must be united on their behalf. “That is what He is saying. “I am sorry. We have let down our maker.” “I know. “What?” “There is a reason that this happened while I am guardian. Sooner or later. With its own resources marshaled to meet the enemy and stop him. and this is more than just a display of his anger. “I…” Stricken. Thrusting ourselves directly into the affairs of Man…that is not our way. Not now. “No. Paranoia. content that her purpose was to follow instead of to lead. There is a reason that I am expected to deal with it.” Ambellina closed her eyes as if trying to gather her thoughts so that she could then explain them as simply as possible. Ryan will be dealt with. Nothing save for the decisions that she was going to have to make. A warning that Ryan must be taken firmly in hand. “Our sisters have awoken from their slumbers.
He was wrong. It wasn’t as if Ryan had any sort of psychic ability. then. How would you propose that one of them might be behind it?” “Obviously. The most extreme reaction he ever had was to be disconcerted. he was in a situation where other men would likely have wet themselves.” “I see. He was quite certain that nowhere. however. because “I learn from history. It seemed to hang there in the sky. He was. and the future will attend to itself. mildly disconcerted. the warmer it would become since heat tended to rise. Aside from Ryan himself. Mayo Deftinwolf was never scared. even Deftinwolf was flat-out amazed at the sheer accuracy of Ryan’s predictions.” He paused and then said. Before he could do so. since Ryan was intended to be the sole occupant. “Is it…your doing?” “No. in all of his discussions with Ryan at any point. typically out of place in broad daylight. and send the General off with his blessing. his arms folded. They both knew that each of them had considered all the aspects of the situation. He stopped. invisible beneath his cloak. with apparently not the slightest intention of disappearing anytime soon. because he did nothing tentatively. He had never been in this chamber before and he hadn’t been quite certain what he would see. His silvery skin. taunting and defiant. Furthermore. That wasn’t the first thing that struck him about the room. He took advantage of that privilege now.” said Ryan slowly. There are some who…” “Or…that he is issuing me a challenge. He was further confident that his scrutinizing of history would serve him in good stead insofar as his aspirations to greatness. What was mildly disconcerting. He bowed slightly. the Almighty. the beginning and the end of all that is and ever was and ever will be. all business. Which was why Deftinwolf was mildly disconcerted. “It would have to be the Prise. beat for beat. He had figured that the higher up he went.” “Yes. “Sir…are you suggesting that—?” “That it truly is a symbol from God? That the Maker. that he would not share that fate.” Deftinwolf was relieved. because what the hell was Deftinwolf supposed to do about a black damned rainbow? Shoot it? Blow it up? Conquer it? He reached the highest point of the High Tower and yet hesitated before entering. of just how far they could go and no further in their endeavors. they were now simply. “One does not need to be able to know the future. would it not? Only they would be capable of placing such an image in the sky. Ryan was sure. “Yes. Instead. As devoted as he was to Ryan. had there been a mention made of a Black Rainbow appearing out of nowhere. sir. so his reaction was reflective of his enormous level of self-possession. and the domed ceiling was clear. It was good to know that Ryan was ahead of him on the subject. “there is a situation about which—“ “The Black Rainbow. He had anticipated every single move that the Mages would embark upon. none was allowed in the High Tower save for Deftinwolf. There were naturally multiple images of Ryan as well. I suppose…” Deftinwolf’s voice trailed off as he suddenly began to comprehend what Ryan was implying. has placed a sign across the . providing an unobstructed view of the skies. A trick of the Mages. one only needs to be conversant with the past in order to guide the present.” Ryan had said. perhaps?” “The Mages are either dead or incubating. As he walked through the vast hallways of House Atlantic.Chapter 7 Give Us the Monster Mayo Deftinwolf was not scared. it is not. It was one of the smaller rooms he had seen in his walk around House Atlantic. He certainly had not been expecting to see this: Himself. Deftinwolf smiled. who would suggest the most efficient ways in which the matter could be addressed. That was reflective of the rest of House Atlantic.” “For what purpose?” “To sow discord. The moment Deftinwolf had entered the place he had felt chilled nearly to the bone. To make the people believe that it is somehow some manner of…of sign from on high that God disapproves of what has transpired. “Sir. Ryan would nod in satisfaction. He knew full well the unfortunate fate that had befallen the first Supreme Tri-Mage. Ryan’s voice called from within: “You may enter. the room was entirely lined with gleaming metal shined to such a high polish that there were at least half a dozen images of him surrounding them.” he said. The room at the top of the high tower was so chilled that he had to flex his hand a few times to keep from losing feeling in his fingers. He was standing in the middle of the room. through their back-and-forth. Then again. Ryan would then confer with Deftinwolf.” Deftinwolf did so. high-ceiling rooms that could seat a thousand people with room to spare. The Black Rainbow. how large did it need to be? The floor was simple.” “The faithful are putting forward that argument as well. He raised his fist to knock—not tentatively. He was uncertain of the protocol. talk yet again of how vital Deftinwolf was to the great causes that were being pursued. Thus had he been able to dispose of them handily in the course of the wars. The problem with the Mages being as long-lived as they were was that they had fallen into consistent patterns of behavior. On the other hand. exactly as Ryan had told Deftinwolf they would. for this was still a relatively new environment. and he could have sworn that they had frost on them. This was typical of the give-and-take between the General and the Supreme Tri-Mage.” “Or that he approves. Ryan had told him.” Inwardly. sir. at this point. to cause confusion and unrest. He opened his mouth and mist floated from it. striding up the stairs with full confidence. Never for a moment did he consider the possibility that Wilhelm Ryan would not know what to do or how to react.” So Deftinwolf was fully accustomed to everything that they encountered being anticipated by Ryan. Ryan had clearly made it his natural habitat. The first thing to hit him was the cold. “No. Ryan had analyzed every aspect of the other Mages’ behavior. they could not be. peeling away all the layers so that the conclusions they had already come to would be laid bare. all clues came from history. looked remarkably well suited to the icy quarters. unadorned black and white tile. There was no time at any point in the wars that the Mages did anything that Ryan had not allowed for and prepared for. he had noticed many of the servants were wrapped in heavy clothing to compensate. It made the situation more palatable. Those patterns had made them easy pickings for Ryan’s uncanny ability to extrapolate their next move in every situation by looking at what they had done in the past. Glittering chandeliers hung overhead. though. Many lifetimes of service on Ryan’s behalf had left him secure in the knowledge that there was nothing Ryan and he could not handle. and will therefore know what mistakes to avoid. Deftinwolf saw it as a symbol of the limits of his and Ryan’s power. looked around. was this: The Mage Wars had turned out. with just the slightest touch of hope. past cavernous. Wilhelm Ryan liked to keep it cold. Deftinwolf paused to gather himself and then stepped forward.
Those were her three occupations these days. one step above catatonia. Thank God we were nowhere near it. providing shelter and shade. Hohenberger was completely certain that Ryan had never said anything of the kind. “Do it! Do more than try to instill fear with your Black Rainbow! All-seeing. “Very good indeed. can you. but apparently that was the case. Furthermore. He was fine as long as his activities were limited to video chats with his pals. “For the time being. a stream of gel-like pus oozed from an earthworm-like vein below his left jawbone. Mayo had become accustomed to such things and took no notice of it. or the concerns of the people. more importantly. The strong do not issue warnings. You can’t truly buy into any of that bullshit.firmament that is intended to say to me. watching vid. Thank God we live far away from the madding crowds. They called it the Black Rainbow (Hohenberger watched in bleak amusement as the on-screen spelling went from being lower cased to capitalized in the course of a news cycle) and were fully confident that it would be gone within a few hours. speaks volumes to me. He would never have guessed that constant fear could take so much out of you. General. Not that the news reports didn’t try. sir. “Wild pronouncements that God threw that up there as a sign of an oncoming apocalypse. endeavoring to shield the citizenry from anything that could be considered upsetting. like gossamer drawing taut and loosening again. That was the third thing that occupied her. Instead she focused on three things. tell them…” “Yes. Some days she neglected to bother with the gloves she once regarded as imperative. She would stand in the green house for hours on end. “Are you sure?” He was relieved that she seemed willing to engage in a discussion that was of a scientific or even philosophic bent.” “As it does to me. The General wasn’t daunted by the prospect of squaring off against the Creator. done so by now. much less into the maw of Heaven. then He would do more than put on a celestial light show. then it is one I intend to join you in fighting and winning. ‘Very well. for I shall destroy you as casually as one would crush a nettlesome insect’?” He smiled. Not to be confused with those people who assert that God put it there to voice his approval of Ryan’s triumph. May I ask how. “Very good. Ryan. During the day she would watch it shimmering. The strong strike quickly. low mountains. These days. Send us running about. of the ability. little man. Leonard Hohenberger felt as if he was always terrified. efficiently. being constantly suffused with fear. and that was the extent of his concerns. surrounded by forest. She had once again retreated into herself. Jubilation? Hohenberger thought. to hinder us. “There are some who say—” “I know what some are saying. which was carefully controlled by the government. What you are seeing in the sky is nothing less than God Himself acknowledging that I have caught his attention. I firmly believe it. The syringa would land on her finger and simply sit there. needing to feel a direct connection with the one thing still in her control.” He spread wide his arms. How can they call it that? Hundreds of people injured.. Slender windows lined the upper dome and the Black Rainbow was visible through them.” and Deftinwolf nodded in the general direction of the Black Rainbow. during the night she would look up at the swath of stars that were no long visible due to the huge black. he was tired of feeling this way. sir.” he said calmly. that it’s almost as if we’ve abrogated the right to call ourselves human beings anymore. or sleeping. She would watch it from beneath her protective mask. precisely. Second. or a bad thing?” “It is merely another challenge.” said Ryan with a contented purr. The news reporters talked endlessly of how Ryan said he wanted to work closely with the government to bring a new spirit of cooperation and order to Heaven’s Fence. and with no mercy.” Deftinwolf bowed deeply. She no longer sat about. And if your men seem the least bit daunted over the notion that we have somehow earned the wrath of God. she would sit in front of the vidscreen and intently watch the news. Supreme Tri-Mage. cordially invite you to take your best shot!” He waited. as the delicate. The fact that God—if such there be—is holding back from doing so. Know this: If you wish to stop me. sir?” “Tell them that His wrath is distant and irrelevant. Pearl was certain it would not be. then he surely could have. He puts on a good show. and I’ll do so. Where shall I send my troops?” “Nowhere. General.” said Ryan patiently. There is only one challenge left to you that is worthy. The words kept banging around in his skull. She would simply curl her long legs under herself and sit on the ground gazing skyward. my dear General. Leonard?” “Bullshit…?” The last time Hohenberger had heard Pearl swear. Pearl didn’t sit in a chair. and would have. though.” “Always. First. all-knowing. * * * Leonard Hohenberger was terrified. although only part way. These days. Nothing happened. may I ask: Is that a good thing. It was exhausting. “But if He had it within his ability to dispose of you. and I am it. The intent was to put forward as positive an image of the world and Ryan’s control of it as possible. and nothing resembling the hand of Man. The news also made passing reference to an unusual astronomical phenomenon that had “intrigued” scientists and theologians alike. He remembered the days when Joseph would scramble fearlessly upon the branches and Pearl would have to cry out to him not to climb too high for fear that he might… You should never have let him head off into the city. then do it now! A blast of energy that even I could not withstand! Or abolish me in a burst of spontaneous combustion! I. You should have kept him here where he was safe.” “If it is a challenge to you. Drunken insanity and violence. I am pleased we are on the same side in this regard.” “Nowhere…?” “This is precisely what our opponent desires you to do. upon her beloved insects in general and the syringa in particular. he saw her standing so motionlessly that the insects might have mistaken her for a tree. trying to come up with some manner of direct opposition. He didn’t give a damn about the government.” she said sharply. and it was certainly understandable at the time.” He pivoted on his heel and walked out. Except you said it yourself: Were He of a mind or. You have triumphed over all who opposed you. I’m not “suggesting” that. Leonard Hohenberger had never been as glad as he was now that their home and laboratory occupied a sizable spread off in a fairly remote area. They spoke of the jubilation over the ascension by Wilhelm Ryan. “No. The highest structures in the vicinity were towering trees. curving arc. and on the occasions that Leonard would look in on her. with her hand extended.” “And the prospect of battling the Almighty is not one that you find daunting?” “I think of it more as that the Almighty is battling us. threw back his head and called out in a challenging voice.” Deftinwolf processed that information. you intend to rise to this challenge? Tell me against whom to fight. do you? I mean. that goal had become increasingly problematic. and mine is right here and will have a very immediate impact. The Black Rainbow. and that was a terrible thing to see. Ryan had definitely never mentioned anything about catching God’s notice. It was impossible to put a happy. “It’s Ryan’s doing. it was while Joseph was being born. It has generally been my philosophy that warnings are for the weak. These days. sunny face on the insanity that had occurred in Apity Central. She would sit outside and stare at it whenever she wasn’t with her insects. He was willing to follow Ryan into the gates of Hell. Behavior so appalling. “You don’t actually believe there’s a God after everything we’ve been through. Lousy stinking fear that filled every atom of his being. “we shall carry on as we were. He smiled. Pearl and Leonard might well have been living in two different houses. leaving Wilhelm Ryan looking heavenward. As he did so. Come against me. and by this point he honestly could not tell whether they were Pearl’s sentiments or his own. General. He cared about himself and about his desire for power. sir. you’re not one of those deluded fools who tries to put a coat of gloss . “He seeks to distract us from our current plans. General. Now it seemed uncharacteristic.” she said the first time she gazed upon the Black Rainbow. green-winged creature fluttered about. sir. Now it was fear. He would strike me down with a bolt of lightning from on high. Wilhelm Ryan. much less having the Almighty throw down the gauntlet. stretching its wings. Once his constant companions had been his wife and his son. Still… “With all respect. the capital city of Apity Prime. His initial concerns had been well-founded.
exactly as they had been described in all the literature.” and she pointed toward the Black Rainbow. “is nothing more than a trick conjured up by Wilhelm Ryan to celebrate his own greatness. thanks to all that had happened.” . or Ryan. very slowly. Scientists should know better than to think that there’s some invisible sky magician looking down upon us like some benevolent mother or father figure. Your mom…she’s hurting so much. then you can just forget it! You know why? I don’t have any fear anymore! I’ve got nothing except my hatred for Wilhelm Ryan and for every weak-willed. “Leave it alone! Leave me alone! Just…” Her voice trailed off. The whole world’s gone crazy. “Goddammit!” “Do you want me to—?” he started to offer tentatively. the Keywork. and had called him that from then on. I fear that…” He hesitated. spiteful creature?” “Pearl. and whether the Rainbow was God’s disapproval or Ryan’s symbol of triumph. and to scare the crap out of people. it’s not. that was irrelevant. or something else entirely. and I don’t have the words to help her or make her feel better. What that boiled down to was: It was his son and he could bury him wherever the hell he saw fit. a few blinks away from overflowing. It was what he had called him when he was a little boy. Hell. No headstone had been necessary. unconcerned about her nakedness. It killed you. all of it! You cannot seriously believe that all these worlds…I mean. Hohenberger covered his face. “Where was He for my son!? Where was that cosmic motherfucker when my son’s life was spilling out onto the street? Where was He then!? When Ryan launched his crusade and thousands upon thousands died. and came to realize that he didn’t care. with the occasional slip receiving a scowl and a remonstration from their very determined youngster. punctuated by a broken sob. “No. Joey. On the ground. in fact. He wanted to cry or scream or react in some manner. suffused in a soft blue glow. “is that we might take solace in the idea that this is the end of it.” “You are a scientist. It was a Prise. saying that the particular way that the light filtered through the branches was unique. and this…this clearly insane creature who had taken up residence in his wife’s body. He tried to frame a response but it didn’t come readily to him. Leonard wasn’t thinking about that. and that this…this emptiness…was all he was ever going to feel.over every tragedy that befalls him by cheerfully declaring it’s all part of God’s plan. the green house. of a thousand chimes. He felt drained of emotion. “Hey. His son was dead. When he reached the ripe old age of eight he had loudly declared that “Joey” was a baby name and henceforth he would be addressed as “Joseph. His eyes were dams. Human beings are symmetrical. for the most part. Hohenberger certainly had enough—as he liked to call them—high friends in low places. There was only one place for him to go. keeping her elevated. That.” “I imagine it is. softheaded. His son was dead. unseen bully who visits disaster upon us whenever He’s bored. Designs evolve from nature in order to achieve full functionality and maximum potential. He kept telling himself that eventually the full impact of the past days would fully sink in and that he would be able to release his pent-up frustrations. his lab. her rage seemingly spent. where the hell was he? I’ll tell you where he was.” Hohenberger was so startled that he twisted around to see the source of the voice and tumbled off the rock. and the money he had made from various medical breakthroughs which were now in common usage throughout Heaven’s Fence had earned him both money and the right to be left to his own devices whenever possible. The only thing approaching a garment was a tiara upon her head that glittered in the light. She wasn’t waiting around for him to reply. there were any number of spots like it in the forest. but he couldn’t. That the fire of her anger is just going to bake her into something hard. Now that he’s won. “I’ve heard that to…to look upon…upon—” “To see our face is to die?” “Yes. Plus there was a sizable rock. her fists balled. just to watch it all go to hell. It’s…it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. No. He stared heavenward. She floated there. “I’ve—” His throat was constricting as if it had too much blood in it. She was talking as much to herself as she was to him. It was like the jingling of bells. so it was hard to believe that establishing once and for all that there was no God could ever be done definitively. But Joseph had always been fond of that one place. He needed to regain control over something. Maybe I should just back off and let time do the job. and then walked. and no different than any of those other powerless assholes who did nothing to stop him!’ She stood there. his arms splayed to either side. I am afraid what is going to happen to Pearl. Leonard sat perched upon the rock. for God’s sake—pardon the expression—it’s a perfect triangle! You cannot think that it just…just happened to develop this way! That there wasn’t some designing mind behind it!” “So what if it’s a perfect triangle? Planets are perfect spheres. don’t you think that—“ She whirled on him. All of this was just a warm up for wherever Ryan’s schemes take him next. that you are going to die as a result?” “I…that is to say…” He paused and then said. running his fingers gently over the indentation that was his son’s name. dead inside. Who could possibly contemplate worshipping such a vindictive.” he said as if still talking to his son. One of those types that refuses to believe the world is cold and heartless and hopeless. Leonard. Her wings were gently beating. uhm…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. His reputation as a scientist was formidable enough. I’m afraid that I’m going to spend the rest of my life feeling like this…of feeling helpless and—“ “Fear not. Typically this was not something that local officials would have approved of. He called the glade “inspiration hideout. what if everything Pearl said turned out to be right? Of course. he raised his eyes toward the speaker and instantly he covered them again. Joey. As far as Pearl was concerned. He heard the door bang behind him. stared up at the Black Rainbow. Joey. I am afraid of what is going to happen to the world…to the worlds. yet as ephemeral as the rustling of a butterfly’s wings. shrugged in unison. a boulder that he liked to sit on and just daydream. “look at the world in which we exist! Look at Heaven’s Fence! The manner in which it’s constructed. Or…even more likely…a vast. then he is long dead now and no longer a consideration. that was all that mattered. Hohenberger looked up toward the being who had appeared from nowhere before him. and Wilhelm Ryan was responsible for it. And I’m worried that your mother…that she’s going to become permanently what she is right now. it didn’t matter. Then. wondering if it was God. “I don’t know what to do. “I.” His parents had exchanged patient glances.” claiming that he had his best ideas there. incompetent Mage who wasn’t able to stop that freak in his tracks! And if you don’t look up and see anything except the ‘Supreme Tri-Mage’ laughing down at you. it becomes hardened. proving a negative was always problematic. lying on the plot of dirt under which his son was lying. He never was! Or if he ever was. “We’re scientists. But if it were possible…would Leonard even mind at this point? Would he truly care if he and Pearl—if Man—meant nothing in the scheme of the universe? He needed to get out. her body trembling. are you?” The question stunned Hohenberger. “Why are you doing that?” There was the faintest hint of amused curiosity in the voice. “And the most terrifying thing. “I’m afraid of what is to come. Except this is probably just the beginning. followed by a loud. He hit the ground.” he finally found his voice. You have been chosen. and if you think I’m going to be one of those terrified masses who looks up at it and trembles in fear of the Almighty Ryan or even the Almighty Himself. A man like Ryan…he doesn’t conquer just for its own sake. But part of him wondered if he wasn’t just kidding himself. because the voice was nothing like anything he’d ever heard. Are you going to take the word of others when personal discovery beckons?” Slowly. And it’s horrifying to think what the next level is going to be. though. she turned from him and stormed away into the green house.” He flopped backwards on the rock. Besides. Except if you build something from clay and just leave it out in the heat.” he said softly.” “Pearl. anything at this point. Leonard Hohenberger. He fled the house and ran. ever again. There was the shattering of glass. That doesn’t automatically equate with the notion that there is an architect above it all rendering that design on some cosmic blueprint and then physically producing it. it’s all over. His son was still dead. Instead he had carved Joseph’s name into the boulder that he had so enjoyed sitting upon. If he was. but there was so much going on in the world that it simply wasn’t the sort of thing they had time to worry about. The glade wasn’t particularly distinctive. considering what he’s done so far. He is always looking to the next level. Your time for fear is done. “Is my face that terrifying a thing to behold. And more than anything. trying to steady his voice. a mile to the glade. and it’s killing your mom. He needed to get away from his home. then you are quite simply not the intelligent man I thought you were. It was a sign of how much Hohenberger felt the need to be in control that he actually stopped and composed himself even though there was no one else around. It was where Leonard and Pearl had laid their son to rest. and I don’t have any answers.
“Oh my God.” and she squeezed his. “Are you talking about ACG…Artificial Cellular Generation? With all respect.” “That is correct. “Isn’t it a little late for that?” “It is never too late to do what is right. so hard that he had to back off lest he break her. Miss…Prise…look. and he trembled and let out a sigh as she did so. You do. But they will not be any ordinary three. the . She was standing there in the middle of the living room.I’ve improved the healing time of sustained fractures.” “Th—?” He had to choke back a laugh. And presumably imbuing them with abilities that will make them formidable enough to take down Wilhelm Ryan. ever been there in the first place. He burst into his home and Pearl was waiting for him. A complete idiot. “this hurt. A force of such overwhelming strength that it will stop Wilhelm Ryan in his tracks. I’ve done things with ACG. looking inward rather than at her. “You were right. no. and he had no idea how long she had been there waiting for him. or splice enough genes. or if he was simply too terrified to move.” He was afraid to. of course. It was like having several different destinations in mind and he had just been handed a roadmap so that he knew how to travel from one point to the other. I can use the TP523 to modulate expression levels of proteins that are primarily involved in the functional categories of cell growth. But speed…speed of their creation will still be an issue.” He then gently set her aside. or he will stop the project before it can come to fruition. and the glory of her presence. Ryan must not know this is being done. that have been boons to medical science and improved the overall quality of life.” “And…what am I supposed to do?” “You will create a ground force. My God. that could make blood distribution even more efficient. Yes. he looked back up at her. “Three. and Hohenberger wanted to fall back. in fact.. Really. Then it faded. he was too absorbed with the concepts thundering through him. leaped from her finger to his temple. this was the first time in recent history—perhaps in any history—where a member of the Prise had interacted in this manner with a mere human. he was still dubious. What sort of sense of discovery was that? “Think of it as a divine spark. they had been present the entire time. To the best of his knowledge. but the resulting creations would be functionally indestructible. “This hand. then.” He wasn’t bothering to look at her. He felt as if he needed to say something. let’s just take it a second at a time.” He did as she asked. Instead she took his hand. he desperately wanted to believe that the Prise represented a means of rising up against him. I’ve used it to grow skin grafts. There was no sign of the Prise. organ replacements. Please. he had cried out in terror. Anything. my…my heart.” “How many.” She walked slowly toward him and he braced himself for more anger or accusations. How could I not have seen it? How…?” “It is clear now?” “Of course it’s clear. utterly convinced she had to be joking. “It’s all in the TP523. Perhaps an artificial bone structure…yes. “You will find that quality trumps quantity. She watched him head toward his laboratory and wondered what the hell had just happened. “I’m the right man?” “You are the only man. They had simply been floating around in different parts of his brain and he had never made the connections before. which immediately shamed him. holding her tightly. All you require is the creative spark. But what if that was false hope? How much more disappointment could he endure before it crushed him completely. I’ve been an idiot. Leonard was even beginning to wonder if she had. More than anyone else. “Of course.” she said gently. The synthetic 23amino acid peptide I developed for fracture healing. Except he was.” “And how precisely am I going to accomplish this project? Am I going to pull one hundred thousand men out of my…” Suddenly he looked down. and she touched his forehead. and it was with conscious effort that he resisted. or to have the words he’d just spoken thrown back in his face. Formulae leaped into his head. Miss Prise. And yet he asked the question: “What can I do? I’m just one man.it hurts me more than any man can bear. to run as fast as possible. Then he looked down at her and said. like a statue. embarrassed. just like that.” “But he’s won! Ryan has won! He’s conquered the Mages! He has taken control of all twelve sectors! What else is there for him to accomplish that he can be stopped at?” “Do you truly wish to do nothing and thus learn the answer to that question?” He considered that.“For…what?” ‘To stand against Wilhelm Ryan. except it would involve healthy cells instead of cancerous ones. Even if I could fashion clones.” she said.” he whispered. then?” “Three. Beyond even the ken of Wilhelm Ryan. like a burst of electricity. and he knew why. And fractures. Ryan has to be taken down. Their cell replacement velocity would be so rapid that they could overcome any injury short of decapitation. You will create them. about growing human beings from scratch. to fashion a human being.” “And that’s me?” Despite the confidence in the Prise’s voice. You will have to expedite the growth process. And suddenly. She represented hope. And rather than embrace the moment. Her husband would have been in no position to tell her. I’d give you anything—everything—if only I knew you’d take it.” “Really. and they will possess abilities beyond human ken. “Yes. to scramble away from her.” “All…all right. thirty years…” “You do not have that sort of time. and I’m the one who’s going to do it. “Ass? Is that the word you were searching for?” He thought he heard a slight increase in the tinkling sound that might very well have been barely restrained laughter. Even so she almost lost her footing and caught herself against the wall at the last moment. something that was in short supply these days. But it is not for you to speak. And it is to be done in absolute secrecy. especially if I could craft a techno-organic metal that…” Abruptly he remembered that he was not alone.” “Create them?” Leonard could scarcely contemplate what she was suggesting. Instead he was paralyzed on the ground. Seeing what this has done to you…. I’m flirting with disaster.” “I…I don’t…” She glided forward.” “But I don’t know how!” “Yes. “I hate everything I am becoming. Not only that. “Is God responsible for the Black Rainbow?” “That is yet another question to which you do not truly wish to learn the answer. it would take as much time to grow such a…a creature…as any other human being. Now: Ask of me the only question that matters. “Pearl…every night I pray to God that you can rest.” It was an understatement to say that Leonard was skeptical of the concept. not wanting to finish the sentence out of respect for the celestial creature that had appeared before him. yes. and the rage against Ryan that was devouring his wife. Three against Ryan’s hordes?” “Yes. He had other things on his mind. and it wasn’t as if the Prise had placed them there. It didn’t matter. Unless you’re suggesting we wait twenty. The Prise reached down toward him. The TP523 could hyper-accelerate the cell growth. Between the death of his son. Miss… do you have a name?” “Yes. “No. extending her index finger.” “With all possible respect. But you’re talking about…I don’t know. She had been correct about that. A jolt. It would be a sort of an anti-cancer. all fears and doubt went away. His eyes wanted to take in all of her beautiful body. that is beyond my abilities. You will not require one hundred thousand men to accomplish this goal. He cried out. and he could not determine for the life of him whether she was somehow holding him there with the power of her mind. By the end of the day.” “Isn’t it…and I say this with all respect…” He was having trouble keeping his gaze focused upon her face..” “That is more than sufficient if the one man is the right man.” Sparked by the mention of the name. Small things.
There were incessant disputes as to the significance of the Black Rainbow. The gender of humanity capable of producing ova. What he managed to discern was a female (except he didn’t know…) Female. so easily expressed in the past. “and furthermore. had been the first thing to vanish when the grief of her son’s death had overwhelmed her. acting on behalf of. he’s reacting?” Hohenberger crossed the lab and leaned over her. And he looked upon the face of his creation. the Eurocons were the fingers. But when rioting over the Black Rainbow showed no sign of an end. The woman he fashioned from cell samples. As his body’s needs were being attended to. the ebony stripe in the sky was changing Heaven’s Fence. as if someone else was pouring information into it. and he would only know that while he had been in Joseph’s thoughtful place. the origins of one of which he did not know but.” and charged them with regulating the sectors and reporting to him.” Hohenberger found Inferno’s attitude to be rather annoying. While Ryan’s zealots and those who opposed his rule had conflicting agendas. Cases of depression became more widespread. He estimated initially that it would take him at least six months to create his first protohuman. Naked and drifting helplessly in the all-enveloping nutrient bath. I was never that young. Conflicts arose that often erupted into confrontations. “He’s reacting. as did the homicide rate. and therefore did not know. The suicide rate began to rise. Entire cults arose centered on either worshipping or disparaging the Black Rainbow. they would prove to have a very dangerous “something” in common: a rapturous passion to fight for the cause. It was a means of cutting through the cumbersome array of governments and bureaucracies that had infested Heaven’s Fence. divided between those who saw it as a sign that supported the rule of Wilhelm Ryan. and what it portended for the future. to the fact that she’s a woman. All he knew was that he was floating (except he didn’t know any state other than floating) in an eight-foot tall cylinder (except he didn’t know shapes) someplace (except he didn’t know places) and that he was hungry (except he didn’t know how to eat or what to eat or even what eating was). eggs. * * * Coheed came on line eighteen weeks. He had no way of knowing that it was because a gestational tube connected to his belly was pumping sustenance directly into him. she was one of two lab assistants who Hohenberger had taken on to aid him in some of the detail work in the creation of the IRO-bots. The reactions were typically extreme. So they channeled their rage and frustration at each other or even themselves. what it meant for the present. Slowly he became aware of his whereabouts. Doctor Stockmeyer. When such confrontations threatened to bubble over into full-blown conflicts. By the following morning. It appeared that the creation of the IRO-bots had been therapeutic for her. eighteen hours and eighteen minutes after the moment that he was conceived. he would have learned that it was cellular material that had come to him courtesy of the Prise. unassailable. for fertilization and procreation… The knowledge came flooding into his head. The man he created from cell samples. although not by much. Her laughter. After a time. He beat the schedule. He appointed twelve overseers. Either way. The real target was Ryan. and had he received an answer to that question. And knowing that he would send his creation into the inferno of battle. Ryan grew bored with wasting the Red Army’s military resources on keeping the peace for a people he considered no more than insects. Doctor. and that suited Wilhelm Ryan just fine. The fact that it had returned to her was an auger of good things as far as Hohenberger was concerned. and even moreso when Pearl observed that he sounded remarkably like a young Leonard Hohenberger. . “I was never that arrogant.” And social scientists came to the conclusion that all that death was actually misdirected anger. a tabula rasa.” And then he set about creating the remaining two thirds of his trinity. His mind was blank. the origins of which he knew. * * * “He’s reacting to Cambria. bordering on the epidemic. And now he was preparing to strike as well. but he would not have been able to express any understanding of them or explain them to anyone. and too powerful. The opposite of male. Ryan no longer even bothered to glance at the skies.presence of the Prise would be little more than a distant memory for him. He was a creature of pure sensation. had been willing to come on board in total secrecy and without asking any questions. nor would he have been able to speak it even if he had known. inspiration had struck. sometimes Ryan’s men would intercede. Reports of respiratory infections increased tenfold. never wondered about. emergency clinics were filled with wheezing children and worried adults. Logical questions. He did not know his name. people felt that Ryan was untouchable. If Deftinwolf was the hand of Ryan. Coheed twisted around in the tube and tried to see something of his whereabouts. But. By the same token. The normally bright days that graced the Fence were now dingy and gray. and with. Her eyes were closed. Inferno did so with his customary calm. He did not know what he was or where he was. Prim and proper. All he knew was that slowly that pang in his gut was beginning to subside. Before Inaid could respond. her hair floating around her head like a black mass of seaweed. there were just as many who channeled their desperation into supporting the one being who they thought could make the Black Rainbow go away…namely Wilhelm Ryan. She and her partner. and those who saw it as a condemnation of Wilhelm Ryan. slightly superior tone of voice. It gave her a sense that they were accomplishing something. Enthusiasts described the era as the “Year of the Black Rainbow. three days. oddly. Leonard Hohenberger. how it related to Ryan was at the center of all such disagreements. But he did not ask. the Eurocons were able to help turn off kettles before the water within reached full boil. and served to extinguish—or at the very least dampen—the flames of rage burning within her.” Pearl had laughed at the comment. never lost sight of them. Ryan’s authority. Chapter 8 A Wretched Design While Hohenberger worked. keeping their pulse on the people. He knew absolutely nothing. or what the object displayed above represented. which was gratifying to Hohenberger. His eyes lingered over the curve of her hips. Had he been of a mind to question it. In short. designated them as “Eurocons. even that would be gone. to the point of unspeakable crimes against one another. Nothing made any sense to him because he had no frame of reference.” The observation had been made by Doctor Inaid. at least at first. or IRO-bots as he called them. Which is either good or bad depending on whether one believes that ignorance is bliss or folly. he dubbed him “Inferno. Coheed was startled and his body went rigid momentarily. which was a mirror image of his own. on the other hand. the upturn of her breasts. too well protected.” Leonard had said archly. Coheed slowly opened his eyes. “What are you planning to use these things for?” “What do you mean. studying the readings. such as.
” He patted Inferno on the back. processing the information faster than any normal man possibly could have. and knocked over a cabinet that weighed just over three hundred pounds. the more likely he is to notice. checking the computer feed. turned toward Cambria. “As I was saying…at the moment. With that same overly dramatic flourish. “I see they work. “but it’s incredibly lightweight. “But she’ll have other advantages.” Inferno’s gaze never left him. The pieces fell next to Stockmeyer. well. That was typical for him. You are in the process of creating two more beings such as myself. whose involvement had been purely in tracking the IRO-bots’ DNA and hadn’t been at all involved with the development of weaponry. as you are in the process of doing with Coheed and will shortly be doing with Cambria. He should not have been surprised. that is hardly as problematic as producing three hundred of us.” “Why is he getting all the weaponry instead of Cambria?” said Inaid. his skinny limbs swinging like pendulums on a clock as he moved. indicating that bits of information were flowing into Coheed’s cerebral cortex as planned. and—obviously—even more in Cambria. She went to Stockmeyer and put out a hand.” “That. It probably is. It ripped over Inferno’s head. Coheed will have no trouble wielding it. He was carrying something that was several feet long beneath a cloth cover. It may look heavy. It should come naturally to you. pausing for effect.” “Trust issues? I’m not sure I’m following. there is that.” said Hohenberger. sound responsive. “I’ve rigged it to be triggered by sound—in this case. Both of them are. it faded. wait!” shouted Stockmeyer and then. who was also on the floor. a ninety-nine percent genetic match. “The data does not necessarily indicate any causal link between Coheed’s perception of Cambria and the readings you’re getting. he yanked off the cloth to reveal a small but nonetheless formidable-looking cannon.” “That is exactly right. Three of you will be all that is required. and kept the smile etched on his face for as long as he could. “Inferno.” said Inferno mildly.” Slowly Inferno nodded. if I may ask…” “Of course. I am endeavoring to make certain that Wilhelm Ryan does not learn of my activities. I customized it for our uses. Once the structure is implanted in Coheed.” “Yes.” said Hohenberger to Inferno’s assessment of Coheed’s state of mind. “Doctor! It’s finished!” Doctor Stockmeyer entered with his typically gangly stride.” “It is rather simple.” “Thank you. you’re far more attuned to machinery than I am. Stockmeyer always had something of a flair for the dramatic.” “The more IRO-bots you produce.” Hohenberger said. Even better. really. “That’s true.” said Inaid.” “Yes. Her eyes widened and the liquid in the tank bubbled ever so slightly. The amount of cellular matter that is required to produce one of you is…sizable. and having data pumped directly into my head. First and foremost: resources. “judging by the readings—the pulse.” “Why am I not producing an army of you?” “Yes. I risk sabotaging my efforts before they reach fruition. “Why don’t you monitor the information flow? After all. Hohenberger just grinned. “Oh my God!” said Inaid. If you produce only three of us and Ryan should turn us. It could well be coincidence. they will be cybernetically entwined. realizing that it was too late. floating in the tank. the three of you will be more than a match for any army. “believe me.” “You should not assume anything. Inferno. “At the moment. There were only so many people he wanted to be of the exact same mind as he was. If I attempt to create the sizable army that the situation would seem to call for.” “And the cannon?” “Ah. We will be receiving new information. and it will have minimal recoil. That is the only way you will learn. her eyes wide in shock. which was just enough warning for Inferno. skeletal metal arm lying there. Doctor. Anyway. There was what appeared to be a long. “Of course.” “Finances are a restriction in acquiring it?” “Finances are a factor. as he carefully positioned the iron bar so that it was leaning against the skeleton. You cannot be certain how your other two creations and I will function once we are put out into the world. Eventually. She will possess low level psionic—” At that moment. The instrumentation was operating within normal parameters. helping him up. Be right back. when I have Coheed and Cambria fully functional. Cambria opened her eyes for the first time. Inaid had a hand to her mouth. . Doctor. he threw himself backwards.” Stockmeyer said. He was barely in time as machete-like blades snapped out of the metal arm.” “I know I am. One of them sliced through the iron bar and it clattered to the floor.” He walked away but quickly returned with an iron bar about five feet long. neatly bisected.” he said finally. gasping for breath. “Doctor. “No. Inferno stared thoughtfully at Hohenberger. who was cradling the weapon. You will no longer have full control over us. and that a weapon being pointed at her was a threat to her well-being.” This time when he returned it was with something else covered. He pointed toward her. Asexual. this time on a rolling table.” “Several reasons. It gleamed in the morning light. Inferno was the closest to Hohenberger.” “Care to demonstrate?” “Happily. and unwittingly delivering a devastating army into Ryan’s hands. “He’s designed to be emotionless. but there was enough there to tell her that a gun was a weapon.” Hohenberger watched him go. Inferno.“That’s impossible. that you have nothing to do with. Doctor Inaid cocked her head and stared at it with puppy-dog curiosity. “Stock. If anything. the hormone surge—he’s reacting in a way that doesn’t seem consistent with that design. I’m so sorry! I…I don’t know what I was thinking…” “No harm done. new cortical stimulation.” Hohenberger held his gaze for a long moment and then laughed. it may also come down to trust issues. Information was still pouring into her cerebral cortex. smoothing his lab coat and trying to recapture his air of professionalism. Doctor. You can ask anything you wish. but not the only one. Inferno. He was starting to feel relieved that there would be other genetic components in the Coheed mix. “Cambria isn’t going to have the bone structure or necessary body density. of the three of them. he yanked the cloth clear. kept going. the air above him seemed to come alive with the force of a seismic shockwave.” Stockmeyer.” he said. “Is the new toy ready?” “It is indeed. “A transforming arm-cannon. He shoved away some materials carelessly from a table and lay it down.” “I hope that you are correct. or three thousand. but Hohenberger could see in her face that she remained unconvinced.” “Whatever the intent. it seemed deeper and more penetrating than ever. a clapping of the hands…” “You mean like this?” said Inaid and brought her hands together. Makes them more effective fighting machines. Just as Inferno knocked Stockmeyer flat.” Inaid shrugged. There is always the concern that we might wind up allying ourselves with Ryan. He merely has to think it and the blades will be produced. you wanted to ask me something?” “You created me. It disturbed him how well Inferno was able to know Hohenberger’s mind. “That makes a great deal of sense.” and he easily lifted it off the table. The basic mechanisms were designed to create a digging machine. though. Then.
” she said. The fingers twitched spasmodically. “I was right. Doctor Inaid turned to look at him.” said Stockmeyer.” he said with conviction. Those DNA matches… you said I was reading too much into it…” “Into what?” said Stockmeyer as Inferno helped him to his feet. My God. .The cannon clattered to the ground.0001 match-up with those typical of a Mage. “I…I’m not sure. How would you even know—?” “There are certain markers to look for. “And you can. The perceived threat past.” He was sure that would be enough. wasn’t I? You denied it. “Mages don’t procreate. but damn it. “Cambria. I thought I spotted them and Doctor Hohenberger claimed I was getting concerned over nothing. Leonard. I was right. But the things you’re mucking with—that you’ve pulled us into! The danger involved! They could wind up blowing this place off the face of the world before they’re even fully activated!” “It will be fine.” said Hohenberger. Denied it to my face. The moment it did. her face grave.” “How can you be sure?” “Because I can be.” he said firmly. “I promise you—” “And if you’re wrong? What are you going to do when this place is a crater and we’re all incinerated? What are you going to say? ‘Whoops’?” “That won’t happen. “has DNA traces that have a . there was the sound of retracting squares of metal emerging from the base and all along the shaft of the cannon. Cambria’s eyes fluttered shut.” “That’s impossible. “What the hell was that?” Doctor Inaid shouted. too. Within moments the entire device had transformed into what looked like a solid metal arm.” and she looked with worry toward Cambria. Doctor. “we’ve kept ourselves purely on a need-to-know basis. They don’t provide DNA samples.
Coheed tried to reposition himself but it was too late. He thudded to the ground just as Cambria’s shock blast slammed into where he’d been. Cambria saw it coming and still was hard pressed to get out of the way. Cambria was knocked clear off her feet. Coheed leaped out behind her and bellowed. I—“ “It’s okay. “Don’t forget. She started to get up again and suddenly Coheed landed heavily on her back. She spun. snagging the upper portion of the tree as her blast tore through the air below him. She had fired a blast directly into the ground. Coheed swung his legs up and wrapped them around the trunk. and she had no idea that Coheed was perched in the brush ahead of her. unsure of whether she should try to move him or if that would just make matters worse. tackle her and take her down.” he said. He was snickering in what could only be termed an extremely annoying fashion. and all he had to do was knock her cold. said “Anything goes”) with no problem. The tree to which the snare was attached snapped taut just as the loop drew tight and bit into his ankle. “What the hell is your problem?” “My problem? My problem?” She extended her hands. “A-ha!” in a manner that he was certain would freeze her in her tracks. Cambria landed first. It braced him sufficiently that he was able to push backwards and yank the blades clear of the tree. because she was as competitive as Coheed…perhaps even moreso. flattening her. The blades sliced through the rope that Cambria had swiped from the Doctor’s supply shed (he had. it would have knocked some sense into you!” He got to his feet and dusted himself off. you idiot! He took two steps and left the ground. “Always been there. “Cam…remember about respecting our surroundings…protecting the environment…” “Screw the environment!” Realizing he had about two seconds. but the soles of his boots kept skidding off. She turned and saw Inferno standing there. Coheed started to take a step back but then held his ground and simply stared at her challengingly. Cambria folded her arms and looked upward. The tree shuddered and there was a loud cracking and snapping as the upper section ripped free from the lower. they drove into my guts! Cam. he tried to leap clear of it without stopping to analyze it. “I landed on the blades. sending them both hurtling skyward. Coheed pulled his torso upward and swung his left arm around. He was positive of it. Coheed. trying to pull himself out of his spiral. The branch snapped off from the impact and seconds later Coheed. The training exercise would be over and he would be the unquestioned winner. “Shit!” bellowed Coheed. The aroma of a grove of pine trees a short distance away mingled with the smell of sweat from the wrestling man and woman. you might want to rethink the—huh?” Coheed had lowered his right arm but was now bringing up his left. as the tree sailed over her. Then. But all was fair in war and… He paused. remember? So if you were planning to shoot the tree. “I landed on ‘em!” Coheed screamed. It wouldn’t take more than a sharp blow to the head. “Where did those come from?” “You like ‘em?” said Coheed. “was just plain dumb. The moment she was within range. and with absolutely no leverage at his disposal. Cam! I think…God. leaving it hanging there halfway. Once again it would have taken nothing more than a quick. As . He ripped the tree clear with a series of deafening snaps as the branches tore off and he hit the ground once more. over the blast. It didn’t make any difference. His black workout uniform was covered with dirt. and she ran to him. She brought her hands up again and pointed them straight at Coheed. Coheed a few moments later. His fist was curled. so inarticulate with fury that she couldn’t even finish the sentence. Letting your guard down like that…” Her eyes narrowed and she shoved her hand against his chest. Cam. The moment he heard it. after all. When she drew near enough. Seeking to rebound from his foolish hesitation. Coheed lashed out with his right foot and caught her square in the gut. oh God. “Give up. and her head was pushed down into the soft dirt. which was a long ways from his triumphant cries of a mere moment earlier. Instead he warned her. And then Coheed was atop her and she was still confused.Chapter 9 The Same Old Story Coheed had her cold. seamless assault was instead slow and clumsy. He tried to pull them free but they were buried too deeply. He slammed heavily into a particularly large overhead branch. leaping at her feet first. and he was right. I’m gonna die. and it was just long enough for Cambria to dash past him unmolested. and if he had leaped immediately he would have had her but he didn’t want to attack her…but she was supposed to be the enemy!…But how could he pretend that when she—Enough! Just do it. The air seemed to sizzle around him and suddenly Coheed was blasted backward. She glowered at him. Have respect for our surroundings.” she said. clearly ready to hurl another shock blast at him. He glanced up just in time to see the branch about to land on Cambria’s skull. She hit the ground. He tried to bring his feet up so that he could brace them against the tree and push. The Doc told me about them this morning. supported by his arm. The machetes rammed into the tree. Coheed was yanked heavenward as an audible spraaaaang filled the air. brought the tip of one of his blades directly above her eyeball. but before she could unleash a blast. “What the hell—!” she said in protest. Now let’s see…” Displaying remarkable strength. And suddenly something snapped at his ankle. “You stupid—!” shouted Cambria. covering her head. Coheed dropped to the ground and landed heavily on his side… And started to scream. “Am I supposed to thank you for that?” “You mean for making it so that you didn’t get cracked in the skull?” “Maybe if it had hit you in the skull. “Where do you get off—?” she started to say. It was the most terrifying sound Cambria had heard in her relatively short life. “That. What should have been a quick. He didn’t even look down. backed up. He tumbled through the air. decisive blow to end it. grinning. She cried out in fury. instead. This time Coheed leaped straight up. he drew back the upper section of the tree and let fly. She would hate that. a hand grabbed her wrist firmly. it’ll be okay!” Cambria cried out. Cam! If you can’t point at me—” “I don’t have to point. Cambria took aim once again. and Cambria had more than enough time to get out of his way as he landed about a yard beyond where she’d just been standing. leaves and bits of bark. with a low grunt. His left arm thudded into a towering oak with a wide trunk. he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He let out a shriek of pain as glistening machetes snapped out up and down the length of the arm. you imbecile!” And suddenly both Coheed and Cambria were airborne. flying two yards before crashing up against a tree across the clearing. It started to fall backwards but then the branches snagged in the branches of other trees. his arms flailing. Coheed hung there. he could easily leap out. saw him. ready to strike… And then he opened his hand and. but her hands were being held flat to either side. Warned me the bastards would hurt like a son of a bitch. missing her by scant inches. apparently ready to activate the cannon within. He caught it just before it struck her and tossed it aside. Cambria had been sprinting through the woods. “The Doctor warned us not to damage any of the environment. Coheed brought his arm around. and once again. making no attempt to hide her presence. Cambria and the branch fell back to the ground.
it would solve a lot of problems. That Hohenberger wanted to keep his creations as far from her as possible because… Well. he could have been upon her and severed her jugular vein before she knew he was anywhere near. Do you understand that?” “Yes. On those occasions when they encountered each other. He quickly realized that everything about his body language made it seem as if he was about to launch an attack. feeling uncertain of what to say and not even sure why that would be.” “You want to see calm?” Her eyes began to glow in a manner that was very distinctive. “Do not even think about trying to seize control of my mind. This made Coheed slightly crazy because he felt that if he could only establish some sort of rapport with the woman. they’re called ‘wargames’ for a reason.” Coheed looked to Inferno and shrugged in a What am I supposed to do? manner. she seemed to process that information and then return to staring.” “Programming. It was not a plea but more in the spirit of an order mixed with a very pronounced warning. But she never did. portable tent nestled under an overhanging tree.” Then he walked away from them with that insufferably confident stride of his. staring at something.” “Do I look as if I’m in distress?” He studied her. “Can I help you?” said Pearl when the silence seemed as if it would go on forever. You’re not real. and instantly modified it so that he appeared more casual and at ease. obviously it was her problem and not his. He nodded in approval. “Is human psychiatry part of your programming?” “Programming? I don’t understand. and then threw it with perfect accuracy at the space recently vacated by the raccoon. ‘Ferno.” Cambria said heatedly. So stop acting like you’re our teacher or that you know so much more than us…” “I know. he would have arranged it so that that was the case. Now remember it. striking a defensive posture. “I was afraid I would hurt her. Except it was bugging him. said a single word to him. begging for succor. but it was his token nod to living in a civilized manner. His vision zoomed in on it and he saw that it was a name. This training exercise was about incapacitating your opponent.” said Coheed. Do you truly believe that an enemy will not use every trick at his or her disposal to turn your own weakness against you?” “I’m not weak. before realizing bleakly that it was so hardwired into him that he couldn’t do a damned thing to change it. That which my husband imprinted upon you. Instantly on alert—for he had been trained to assume that any unexpected noise was a potential hostile—he was out of his tent. even dispassionate. Her son. I was…I just wanted to know if you needed…I don’t know…assistance.” Inferno stared at him for a moment. “Is this some sort of training thing? That you repeat what others say in order to more fully grasp the language?” “Repeat—?” He winced.” “That act he pulled about being hurt! He—“ “He caught you off guard. Coheed suspected that there was something else at issue.” and Inferno turned to him. “When Lenny first explained—” . “Can I help you?” She cocked her head.” she said as she stomped away. He looked calm. then yes. He didn’t. with defiance in her voice. whatever Pearl’s problem was. “that an enemy will not provide you the same consideration. her jaw set. He even began to calculate the angle and trajectory of his assault before he brought himself up short. you are.” He heard a snort of laughter from Coheed.was typical for him.” “Say that you understand it. if he wanted you to know as much as I do. do you not?” Coheed stared at her. * * * Coheed’s quarters consisted of nothing except a very small. Wilhelm Ryan is lying there with a sucking chest wound. She tried to pull away but he didn’t release her immediately. Because I can assure you. If you gotta ask. but you could have done better. “Yeah! You better run!” Coheed shouted after him. Furthermore. “Shut up. “You better run. If he had wanted. You both did well.” said Pearl. really studied her closely for the first time since he had come into existence.” said Inferno firmly.” said Cambria. “If you were willing to give an enemy quarter. When she noticed that Coheed was a few feet away. the only action you take is to finish him off. “I mean…no. as if he had no personal stake in any of what was going on. Because I didn’t want to hurt her pride. Coheed followed her. He stared at the rock. He shrugged. Stop thinking about everything in terms of tactics and assault. Acting like you’re this big know-it-all when you’ve barely been walking the world much longer than either of us. yes? Those things that you are supposed to follow rather than ignore?” “Why not talk to him about it?” she said. yes?” “What do you mean?” “Amazing. her eyebrows knit. You’re a glorified vidcamera is all. “Odd. Inferno didn’t seem to comprehend any better than his “brother. She had just been standing there. Despite the Doctor’s explanation as to why they were living a distance from the house. He heard a footfall from a short distance away. “you were foolish to throw yourself onto her. “You know that was against your instructions. and it did nothing to benefit their training if they had a nice comfortable room in the house. “You’re in enough trouble. Coheed had no idea what to make of Pearl Hohenberger.” “I fail to see how he is in trouble. “Let go. So that should tell you something. there were several times where you could have dispatched her. You. The raccoon. You do remember about instructions. Chances were that they wouldn’t even have a tent at their disposal. flipped it a few times. You grasp that. The Doctor’s reasoning had been that they could pretty much rely on the notion that they would be out and about in challenging environments. Coheed wasn’t sure why. Grown from bits and pieces.” “Concern over her wellbeing was not among your mission parameters. The Doc put you in charge of training ‘cept all you really are. Coheed licked his lips. and the targeting information that ran through his brain instantly identified it as Pearl Hohenberger. Which is far more than either of you.” and he gestured with a nod of his head toward Coheed. namely the Doctor’s wife. If in the midst of a battle. “You got something to say?” said Coheed. deciding it was overmatched. from genetic this-and-that. For that matter. Or his. “all that the Doctor knows. “What do you find so amusing?” “You. “What do you mean?” “You were grown. Still.” he said more softly. He followed her gaze and realized that she was studying a boulder that had lettering carved into it. as much from the fact that he was letting go as from her own strength.” She pulled away from him then.” Inferno said coolly. She had not. “Don’t!” he said sharply. You do understand you were artificially created. leaving him standing there.” “Once you calm down. he mentally chided himself. He picked up a rock and took aim. Deciding to take the opportunity to address the issue directly. “He treated this like it was a game…” “Well. “I understand. You could have used your arm cannon.” “Tells me you’re an obnoxious prick who’s getting kind of full of himself. She heard him approaching because he allowed her to. she would look at him. and she looked up at him. quickly skittered away. Why didn’t you?” Because I enjoyed the attention I was getting from her. A twig snapped loudly under his foot because he deliberately stepped on it. “Good. His incredibly keen eyesight picked up on the movement of a human form. are his eyes and ears on us. there was no sign of disapproval in his face. A raccoon chattered at him. to the best of his recollection. Her son is buried here. and it always seemed as if she wanted to say something to him.” she said. Coheed. That was precisely what the Doctor said you would say. “Look…Cam—” “Save it.
“For someone who’s new to these things. I swear on…on the eyes of your son. Lenny mixed some of his DNA into yours. He’s built into you a sense of—denial. Coheed dropped to the ground opposite her. trying to take in this interesting creature her husband had fashioned.” * * * Apparently satisfied. All the time. and I’d keep trying to…I guess suffocate you.” Coheed was silent for a moment. I knew he’d balance me out if I got to be. and Wilhelm Ryan wasn’t here. Being able to look at someone and pinpoint their…their vulnerabilities…” “Thus giving you something to target and making you a more efficient killer. words are overrated. And maybe I knew the reason that I could try to rein you in was that at the exact same time. The whole idea that someone can cause you tons of pain. Or the Joseph he should have been if he had not…” Slowly she sat. And for…” Her voice caught. and then without even realizing he was going to say it. Well…if I were him…what would you say to me?” She laughed uncomfortably and tried to pull her hand away. It’s like watching his soul staring out at me. instead staring into his eyes. In the end.” she said. When I first saw you. Can’t say I blame him. But it —” She shook it off. but…I am. “Anyway. We were both right. I have trouble with. You have his eyes. because I wanted to have something I could lash out against directly. You’d be amazed how many people don’t understand that. all you need is the person you love. I suppose. “S’cuse me?” “His. and instead of just wanting to kill them. create a perfect harmony. When confronted with it. I mean. and then he said. Leonard said he did it that way so that you would be more vested in the stakes of humanity. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. rather than feeling like outsiders. “He was always here. right when Lenny first started this entire proj—this whole thing. Why do you think that is?” “I don’t know. “Can you get him? Ryan.” She just stared at him.” “You said I reminded you of your son?” She nodded. Or maybe his nickname. “Yes. he called out. And that. That applied to all things. You were my only child. He was here. “You’re warm to the touch. I have…” she sighed. Coheed. I swear. “You have his eyes. “Is human psychiatry.” “For what?” “For not being there to protect you. You know the first step to being a successful. Lately it’s been Leonard. except I just thought I was being a good mother.” She sighed in relief. surgically altered people. Len. “Leonard. Cam?” . “I would say that…I’m sorry. Take him down? Put an end to him? She was giving him a mission—now this was something he could really understand. but now I see it for myself. Coheed watched her go and then became aware that someone was behind him.” said Coheed.. but Joseph as I always imagined he’d be. she looked quite calm. “For blaming your father for it. He’s been steering clear of me for the most part. I suppose. either.” she said at last. ready for yet more misplaced emotion directed at him from yet another female. and the rest of it…that’ll work out one way or the other.” “What do you mean?” She sighed and looked down. We were the perfect match for so long. Then a few good. she said. and he was. He turned and saw Cambria leaning against a tree. “This is silly. “All right. Two seemingly discordant parts of a song that when put together. But I think I’m starting to understand two things. like a swimmer descending into the depths of a pool.” he said. She didn’t even seem to be listening to him.” “I bet I would be. well…” He shrugged. after all. even mildly pleased. ‘Beast’ is how he refers to you in his papers and memos to himself. A-ha. Following her lead. Inferno knows and understands. I was right and he was wrong! Except that’s not true. but he was firm.” He reached over and took her hand.” “And what would those be?” “That there’s more to human life than missions. He…” She shook her head and very gently. I had a good day some months ago. but then understood and even smiled slightly.” That appeared to be all she wanted to say. you wind up loving them all the more. “I don’t understand. However you’d put it. You and Cambria do not comprehend that you are artificial creations. “part of what my husband has taught you?” “No. But instead. Not Joseph as he was.” She pursed her lips and slowly nodded.” He didn’t let go. Highly trained. I mean. He was stern where I wanted to be permissive. “Thanks. “I’m a fast learner. just human weakness. You didn’t do anything wrong. Leonard kept loosening the rein and loosening it. giving you the room to run. certain parts of your brain simply shut down. sometimes you don’t need ‘so many’ words. “I’m sorry.” she said. And he stayed here. and we were both wrong. That whole idea. part of me was going. “And I will. “You handled that well. and I had no right to get huffy over it.” She turned back to him as he continued. Sometimes you don’t need any. We complemented each other in every way. You think you’re just people. even parenting. “I shouldn’t—” “You just what. choosing new words that would fall within Coheed’s parameters so that she could get an answer to the question. I thought I was looking at Joseph.“Who?” She looked confused at the question. I don’t know why I’m surprised by that. You were right. you caught me off guard and I paid for that. but you and the woman do not.” “He calls you ‘Beast. Your father. “Well…that makes two of us. “I…” She stopped pulling.” “Yeah.” She nodded toward the inscribed rock. I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about. He braced himself. Then a lot more bad days.” “And have you said any of this to the Doctor?” “Not…in so many words. For me. And nothing will penetrate that…that psychic filter that’s ingrained in your brain. It’s just…” “Just what?” “Look. She looked down at it in surprise.” “Did you really think it was his fault?” “I really wanted to think it. I guess. she turned away and walked off toward the house. I think he doesn’t know what to make of me anymore.” She moved toward Coheed and he felt as if her gaze was boring into his skull. when it comes to someone you love. he’d try to give you room to grow. shaking her head. you know…too much.” “No problem. Indeed. “Thank you. “There’s the good days and the bad days. I’m not sure I do.’ you know.” “Yes. loving couple? Not getting in each other’s way. you’ve worked out a lot of it.” she put up her hands.” he said. “The way I tricked you…made you think I’d hurt myself—” “You have nothing to apologize for. “And when you died. her arms folded. see. “What would you say to me?” he repeated. You truly think of yourselves as real people. “My son’s. “Look…the whole love thing is still—I’m kind of hazy on it. and vice versa. her gaze seemed to be boring into him. “We were two opposite parts that made up a whole. She started to turn away from him. He wasn’t rough about it.” “I’m sorry?” “That’s his code name for you. would be the best way to put it. I…used to call him Lenny.
because you really could be badly hurt during a mission and if you are. “Good night. “I’m going to go to sleep.” “Oh.” She glowered at him.” He took her by the hand and gazed into her eyes.’” “Really. Like reprogramming. Hunh. period.” said Coheed with a grin. “Some sort of humans with accelerated abilities. I wouldn’t be distracted from the mission. remotely funny. Knowledge. We have to remember what we’re being trained for. And that job is to save the soul of humanity.” “Good night.” said Coheed. “I can’t help how I feel. although—and he couldn’t be sure of it—it sure looked like she was accentuating the sway of her hips as she walked. Beast. I wouldn’t expect you to let it distract you from the mission. Your feelings don’t get to enter into any of this.” “Figures.” and she pulled her hand away from his.” “I’d abandon the mission entirely.” “Yeah? What’s your code name?” “'Knowledge.” she said with the air of someone who didn’t think it was. presuming such a thing is possible. Procedure states the mission is top priority. I would drop whatever I was doing and make sure that I got you to safety. You know it.” “I’m sure we have souls.” He wanted to ask her if she desired company.” “Tough to do. To make us—I don’t know—better killers. . if your name is Knowledge.“You’re not going to let this go. If you were severely injured. Well…I guess it makes sense you’d know that. “Oh! Hey…” “What?” she said with a slightly exasperated sigh. ‘Beast.” “Good. “if we pretend we don’t have souls ourselves. are you?” “I got a feeling you don’t want me to. I’m not a robot. And I can’t let that happen. That’s what we’re called. then maybe you should go talk to the Doctor and ask him to—I don’t know—brainwash you or something. because they’ll sure as hell have something to say about it. in fact. all right? I thought you’d really injured yourself. how do you know that we do? Maybe that’s part of the process: removing our souls. How about Inferno?” “That is his code name. I suppose. He wanted to just pursue her whether she said she wanted company or not. if I were severely injured.” “And what does that mean?” She shrugged. If you’re losing sight of that.’” “I know. Coheed. “I got scared. his code name is ‘Inferno. I can’t allow it to distract me. You’d better hope to God that Inferno or Doctor Hohenberger don’t hear you.” “I don’t—” “It’s not about how you feel.” Cambria looked as if she was about to say something else to him. Finally she shrugged.” “If we’re IRO-bots. and from our job.” “Let them say whatever they want. We can’t allow anything to distract us from that. but her heart wasn’t really in it. “You can be such an idiot sometimes. I’m not a machine. but then changed her mind.’ That’s pretty funny.” “He can’t do that. I’m…” “An IRO-bot.” “If you were injured.” “How could you possibly know that?” “Because a soulless machine would leave you to die from an injury and finish the mission. and it scared me.” “You think maybe you could call me ‘Sexy Beast’?” She didn’t answer him or even give him a backward glance as she walked away. And Pearl Hohenberger knows it. “Inferno is so boring. Cam. “Did you know we have code names? At least I do.” “Hilarious. Just as.” “That’s the wrong attitude to have.
Just Past The Middle… .
the sheer arrogance. Two. “Yes. what outside agency could possibly intervene in my operations?” “I do not know. of course. sir. That is an impossibility. there are no ‘outside agencies.” “The Prise? Certainly they tend to stay above all such considerations. Which would mean that they are working with someone. “if there are any who might not see it that way. “for your long-term defeat. The last thing he wanted was for Ryan to think that he was inept at his job.” “Is it possible there are some who do not? I mean. I wish I had some sort of answer for you. why simply send in two individuals? If they’ve decided to become involved…” “Have the Prise ever had the stomach for a direct fight?” “No. sir?” “The Prise. “Two? Two men demolished the project?” “One man. and when it did. How many in their army?” “Sir?” “How many? You were obviously overwhelmed by force of numbers. His veins swelled subtly under his skin. Ryan didn’t say anything immediately. sir. every wizened man or woman who is gasping their last before meeting their no-doubt-well-deserved end—does so with my knowledge. is it not? Except. anything is possible. after all this time.” “Which leaves me again wondering. in as brisk and straightforward a manner as he could. sir. he found his voice. No.” “No.” Once again Ryan did nothing outwardly to betray what was going through his mind. and then I’m going to want you to investigate it. “Terminated? I did not order that.” “But who?” “Well. but it was challenging. General. and they’re terrified that they need to intervene.” he added hastily when he saw Ryan’s frosty look. sir?” “If it were some manner of organized resistance. General. Instead. If he had. They unleashed the energies of the Keywork back into the void—” “Stop. it would be those insufferable winged creatures. even if the urgency of the message—sent on a high-security. “The operation on the Howling Earth has been terminated. no. One woman. they haven’t. “What troubles you. And once we know—?” “Then I shall attend to them. Everything. How sweet. After a few moments.Chapter 10 Magicians Mayo Deftinwolf reoriented Wilhelm Ryan’s world when the general’s holoimage appeared in the middle of Ryan’s sanctum at the highest point of the High Tower of House Atlantic. If anyone were to have the resources.” “Sir—” “Tell me everything that happened. The Supreme Tri-Mage simply did not react that way. Ryan listened attentively.” “Two thousand?” “No. taking all of it in. I need more information. sir. there would have been more of them. would they attempt to—” “You must seriously ask why. in any event. The more I think about it—as much as I hate to admit it—the more it makes sense.” he said slowly. high-speed connection—hadn’t been sufficient to do so. and they demolished everything they encountered. For that matter. The Keywork isn’t going anywhere. but…they were like nothing I have ever seen. “And decided that it was a sign from God that he was angry with them because they kept their hands clear of the Mage Wars. sir. Everything that any surviving man may have told you. he considered the situation. General. For that matter. not a broadsword. ”They are not the kind to come straight at me with swords of flaming fury.” “Are you certain. But such displays of obvious frustration were not for such as Wilhelm Ryan. deep in thought.” “Perhaps if you composed a list of possibilities…” “Yes. but still. He interrupted occasionally with a question. “General.” he said at last. and there is absolutely no need for .” “You’re saying that they saw the Black Rainbow…?” Ryan nodded. or that they are far more formidable than one could reasonably expect.” “What of the project? Should we rebuild…?” “We will do nothing until I know precisely what we are dealing with.” said Ryan firmly. How many of them were there? A hundred? A thousand?” “Two.” “I understand fully. “operating on their own.” he shook his head.” This brought Ryan up short. The General was looking uncommonly angry.” “You mean aside from the two mad people who assaulted you…although. touching his fingers to his oozing forehead in order to help himself focus. though. By ‘terminated’ I mean it was destroyed by outside agencies. it is. Wilhelm Ryan was literally at a loss for words. excellent idea.” “Outside—?” For the first time in his life that he could recall. General?” said Ryan with that silky calm of his.” “Yes. “It’s absurd to think that they would involve themselves in this. turning over all of this new and unexpected information in his mind. it would have involved raising his fists heavenward and screaming in fury. “The abilities of the Prise are such that it could literally be anyone. of course. I will send it to you. We have all the time in the world. “the fact that they were successful means one of either two things: that you are astoundingly incompetent.” Deftinwolf did so. You should know that as well as anyone. you did not. This alone was enough to capture Ryan’s immediate attention. General. Why now. sir. “Perhaps they were on their honeymoon. The project can wait.” said Ryan with a sibilant hiss. to my knowledge there is only a handful of individuals who would have the raw clay of knowledge that the Prise could mold into a form that suits their needs.” said Deftinwolf with a slight sigh. who would be insane enough to organize resistance? Certainly all rational individuals know the inevitable price of such a hopeless undertaking. it required every bit of effort on his part to contain himself. “Before we deal with the nature of these beings.” “Yes. They prefer to remain on high as the deliverers of orders to the likes of lowly man. neither is the Black Rainbow. tentative steps.” said Deftinwolf. One would never have been able to tell by his outward demeanor. It would do well for you to remember that. So I say again. “Not anytime soon. They broke into the mining operation.” admitted Ryan.” said Ryan thoughtfully. “I suppose it could be…but no. There is nothing happening anywhere in this entire damned triangle that is beyond my purview. every couple that is recklessly fornicating. “A couple. General. But then. It wasn’t done. when the answer is right in front of you?” “The answer? You mean…the Black Rainbow?” “Yesss.” “They. General. I want a scalpel at work here.” said Ryan. He was resolved to maintain his reserve in front of his most trusted underling. Everything that you yourself witnessed. “A couple of lunatics.” and he glanced toward the celestial intruder. Once I have composed the list. otherwise he said nothing until the General was finished with his detailed accounting.’ Everything that happens on Heaven’s Fence—every babe who is taking his first.” It took long moments for this to sink in on Ryan. But have a care: this will require subtlety.
Sometimes they are made for us. Wilhelm Ryan? That your plan of attack. “and I very much suspect that you do not either.” “We do not always make our choices. “What. There was only one enemy that mattered to him now: Wilhelm Ryan.” Ryan studied Crom. * * * General Crom.” “But what of your well-being. then what possible threat can some man and some woman pose to me. he chose to meticulously scavenge for food in his cell. there has been word of the phenomenon.” The slight uptick in his voice was as close as Crom could come in expressing incredulity. Crom was not at all surprised when Wilhelm Ryan appeared in his cell. General: I admire you.” “I have a future?” Although it was intended to sound like a question. then that is exactly what they want: for us to act precipitously and thus perhaps hasten our own downfall. in the service of Marth and under life or death circumstances. Put your feelers out for the time being. I am disinclined to give them what they want. Crom had learned to take a positive outlook from that: it made him even more of an enigma to his enemies. The fact that it was unbreakable did not deter Crom from testing its strength every single day. quite right. but your formidable ability to drain electricity and power from any power source mandates a less technological. the constant monotone with which he spoke flattened the sentence out. of course. the creature who had consigned him to his pit of nothingness. Everyone who gives a damn about which side you’re on is dead.” “A future in this cell? Or a future that involves abrupt termination by you?” “There is a third option. If they are not here.” said Ryan. even when he had possessed a face. “You owe them nothing. It simply wasn’t in his personal make-up. In this same respect.” replied Crom. You are indeed a wise individual. This “advancement” came to him courtesy of the same catastrophic injury that had made a shambles of his upper body and neck—there was literally nothing for anyone to see save for the leaden covering. preying on everything from rats to any insect unlucky enough to run. Or do you simply assume that you are.” said Ryan. “What are you saying. General. They could both have been carved out of granite for all the emotion that either of them displayed. would be to destroy the population of Heaven’s Fence?” “Yes. It is simply that I have a responsibility to the men who trusted me. taking nothing for granted. but you are who you are.” “You are a being of infinite time and resources. creep or fly in. in order to thwart an assault from on high. and the most that the Prise can do is try their little manipulations while taking care that my eye never falls upon them. And because of that. Your responsibilities to them ended the moment they breathed their last. save for a removable portion that allowed him to eat. even down here. A length of unbreakable chain ran from the metallic wall to the manacle secured around his right ankle. “You must have assumed I had forgotten about you. ‘To whom do you think you are proving your loyalty?” Ryan said at last. By his reasoning. and I am who I am. If the Prise are indeed involved in this business.” “You intend to release me?” “Under the proper circumstances. Your only allegiance is to yourself. General Crom was never surprised at anything.” “If you say so. We hold our futures in our hands at all times. no matter how formidable their personal firepower might be?” “Yes. unforgettable?” “I assume nothing. Besides. finding it difficult to grasp the concept of loyalty to anything.” “That is most wise.” Deftinwolf bowed deeply and then vanished. “Comfortable?” Ryan said at last. You are. and I shall pass my thoughts on to you shortly. what reason have I to be alive?” “I have no interest in your survivor’s guilt.” “Good.” “Admire. He sounded as if he were talking about someone else. there is no single word to summarize that. less a mask than it was a metallic second flesh. is God’s weakness?” “Obviously. but they would not be so foolish as to try and harass me here. Or. more—primitive—means of restraint. sir. Especially when I can use all the allies I can acquire. he didn’t want to give Ryan the satisfaction of provoking a response. General. General. the fact that it was able to restrain him the day before did nothing to assure that it would hold him this day. “My well-being. I am saying it outright. The fact is. I have no thoughts on the matter. “I would have preferred to provide you with some more elegant means of restraint. Yes. He was typically methodical in that regard. “then He draws his strength from having believers.” “I don’t believe that. he refused the food Ryan delivered to him. Why willingly add any more weapons to the resources of the opposition? So Crom simply stood there and waited for Ryan to say whatever he had come to say. Then again. who remained unmoving. To your soldiers? Dead.” “That is correct.” “If there is a God. Beyond that. To annihilate you would be a waste of material. Since Ryan was so much on the General’s mind. a decision of endless loyalty to Covent Marth. or even more likely to do whatever he was going to do. enemy. Then. His cell was small. General?” “My thoughts would be that if there is a God and He is indeed challenging you. Crom’s face was outfitted with robotic technology.” “You refer to the Black Rainbow. then. They pose no threat to me. to deprive him of his believers…” Crom stared levelly at Ryan.” “Guilt does not prey on my mind. “You admire me. or the next. When Wilhelm Ryan appeared in his cell.” Crom did not even have to ask. Eventually. They might choose to muck around with matters on the Howling Earth.” . sir. The only lapse in your wisdom was who you chose to serve. then being opposed to Him is a foolish undertaking. “It has been a while. naturally. in my stronghold. the wise soldier—and certainly the wise commander—never provided the slightest visible reaction to anything. “If I swear fealty to you. Crom did not react. sir?” Ryan almost laughed at that. None pose a threat to me. and that his fate was only something to be considered in the abstract. Instead. “Yes. in fact.” said Ryan. had not been the most demonstrative of men. So what are you hoping to accomplish?” “If they are dead. in this case.” “And you are suggesting that proposing you join my endeavors would be a waste?” “I am not suggesting it.” “I am pleased we see eye-to-eye on this. Just as you hold your future in yours right now.” “Perhaps ‘admire’ is too strong a word. If nothing else. fused permanently with his own skin and organs. In case word has not reached you in this hell hole: There are some who believe that God himself has issued a challenge. General. You possess one of the foremost military intellects in existence. If the most that God can do is glower at me from on high with his ebony light show. Wilhelm Ryan. Ryan no longer sent any food at all. but alas. “To Marth? He’s dead.” “As am I. you naturally have at your disposal the option to waste as much of both as you wish.” “Your thoughts. General? Do you truly believe that I am somehow threatened by this man and woman? They may have demolished our little enterprise.us to go rushing ahead into a new endeavor. I owe them—” Ryan’s eyes widened as he shot back at Crom. ‘Having a lessened predisposition to destroy you’ is probably more accurate.” Crom said nothing.
Consider that. consider this as well: If I have the ability to destroy the Keywork and all life upon Heaven’s Fence. since he was convinced that strong emotional ties between them could prove destructive to their missions in the long-term and should be discouraged or. and the last things to vanish into the air were his glowering eyes that remained fixed upon Crom for some time before finally vanishing into nothingness. Such a tactic had worked on other foes. then what was the point of it all? Why conquer individuals if not to rule them? Your vast war becomes an empty exercise.” “You are insane. And General…one last thought: You have spoken much of your devotion to God. Someone who is one step ahead of God is interested in having you on his side. there did Coheed and Cambria show up as well.. then God might have to do it Himself. Neither of them seemed to be aware of it. Think about it. and if Ryan was not taken down by humanity. Consider how your ego will benefit by serving me. Ryan acquired his supporters: those who were willing to convince themselves that the identity of the person or persons overseeing Heaven’s Fence was of no relevance to them. The battle had been taken to Wilhelm Ryan in a way that it never had been during the Mage Wars. They staged protests against Ryan. You have nothing but. by all means. As time passed. more particularly. If God wants to precipitate it. Instead he did it slowly. Chapter 11 The World of Lines . This was something of a relief to Inferno. my dear Crom. If that is the case—and I believe that it is—then this is easily remedied. These people. General. although naturally you can tell yourself that all you wish.” He disappeared once more. constantly monitored their actions and served as their eye in the sky. Those fervent beliefs helped to stoke the flames of rebellion. There were some who believed that these mysterious individuals. Crafted from varied components including DNA supplied by the celestial Prise. It will be glorious. and to an ideal. except in ways that they are able to serve me as raw material. to attempt to annihilate me…then everyone dies.“You could not. And these individuals challenged the authority of Ryan and. It went downhill from there. or perhaps they were but simply unwilling to admit it. His believers. or anything as grand as the cosmos. You would be regarded as the greatest military man in the history of the Fence. who had put forth the Black Rainbow as a sign to let people know that these powerful beings were going to be coming to rescue them from whatever schemes Ryan had hatching. Word began to spread that there was a resistance growing against the power base of Wilhelm Ryan. of whom the government had no trace and seemed to be quite certain as a consequence that they could not possibly exist. Others who saw Wilhelm Ryan as a dark cancer that would slowly grow to consume the entirety of Heaven’s Fence. Were God to shake off the ennui. Would you like to know what I think?” “It is of no relevance to me. ready and willing and more than able to unleash punishment upon Ryan’s armed forces. It did not work on them. There were cries to shake off Wilhelm Ryan as a dog shakes off fleas. he would actually confront them face to face and attempt to simply blow Knowledge and the Beast out of existence. I would truly shed them. Me. on the other hand.” He held up his hands as if he were framing huge lettering in a sign that stretched across the unseen horizon. as long as they had jobs and food and a home to go to and a bed upon which to rest their heads? But there were others who had a much broader view of the worlds upon which they lived. which prevents him from doing anything other than putting on celestial lightshows…if he were to confront me directly. Knowledge. or faith. proved all too effective against Ryan’s interests. not encouraged.” and he glanced around the room. his men and any who were allied with House Atlantic. his people investigated every possible aspect of “Knowledge” and “Beast. and to a vast and grand purpose to which you are still devoted. they were beings upon whom Ryan’s abilities proved ineffective. since they both could be staggeringly stubborn at times. What makes you believe that I would stop short of annihilating every living. let Him. as they would be referred to in whispers throughout the Fence—were not beings spawned of anything natural.” “I think. in the months that passed. I don’t even think this is about your loyalty to Marth. General. I think this is about loyalty to yourself and your own ego.” His voice dropped to a whisper as he envisioned the ultimate holocaust that—for the moment—existed only in his imagination. You absolutely cannot deal with the fact that you chose the losing side. And wherever Ryan’s army was out in force. They targeted Ryan’s soldiers. That they were orchestrating matters in order to lure in Ryan’s men so that they could then come sweeping in and smash through them. including Marth. They did so with an unrestrained joy in the orgy of battle and boundless confidence that they would triumph…which they inevitably did. There were others who were convinced that they were the right hand of God. were behind the protests. It seemed almost supernatural. None of this bothered Ryan. and Inferno—KBI. People who are bludgeoned into submission do not willingly stay that way for long. Their tactics.” “I could. the Beast. sent into incendiary situations in cooperation with the government who felt that their own peace officers were overmatched by the ferocity and anger of the crowds. Mutually assured destruction. On one occasion. and this time he did not do it immediately. leaving devastation as their calling card. breathing creature upon Heaven’s Fence?” “If you did that. Knowing that time was on his side. “Let him rain down fire and burn us all. and while you are doing so. “and I am curious as to why you would think that I would hesitate in that endeavor? After all that you have seen. firm in the belief that there was no creature upon Heaven’s Fence of which he was not master.” “Insanity is simply sanity with new rules.” said Ryan.” They used spies and soldiers and bribery and incentives and double blinds and scapegoats and decoys… And eventually Ryan found them. “that this has nothing to do with God. just thinking about something as majestic as that. Admiral. “‘Admiral Vielar Crom: the first Admiral in the history of the Keywork.’ If I had tears to weep. Take your time. Him.” “You would not. What did it matter who was running things. Inferno. these insects…they are insignificant.” “I will. at the very least. he could not help but notice the bond that seemed to be growing between Coheed and Cambria. All gone in one massive burst of cosmic destruction. There are certainly worse places to be. And there was every possibility that God might feel the need to annihilate the entirety of humanity while He was at it. the less visible but no less important member of their endeavors. God is not going to want to see me pushed to that level. “Such as here. the way they managed to be right where they needed to be.” said Ryan as if he’d been prompted. after all that you know that I am capable of. That Ryan had deep and fearful schemes that the Lord on High was trying to warn humanity about.” “Only if the purpose of the war was to rule.
that’s where the KBI is going to be. was Inferno’s mighty space vessel. Supposedly Ryan is trying to figure out a way to incorporate the Mages into his bag of tricks somehow by experimenting on them.” he paused for dramatic effect. that was fortune for Hohenberger. Our business shouldn’t entail threats or hostilities or being manhandled. grabbing Hohenberger by the front of his shirt and lifting him clear off the floor. “It’s a simple endgame. I can as much as guarantee you that they will haul you out of this house before they do me. Deftinwolf was right. But it will hurt like hell. there would be blood everywhere. so he risked sticking his unshielded head into the green house and called her name a third time. though. Everywhere he turns. Or do you think that your more—how shall we put it? —heavily armed associates are going to come riding to your rescue? You know as well as I that they are off gallivanting around Heaven’s Fence.” Hohenberger managed to say. You are acting as if you know why I am here. their own safety comes first.” said Deftinwolf. unconvincing word of protest. and there will be no escaping that pain for the duration of it.” Hohenberger closed his eyes and held them shut to indicate “Yes” as fervently as he could. Slowly he set Hohenberger on his feet. Shoot to wound rather than kill. even if they have to search every planet on the Fence to do it. I know it won’t bring you back. “should never play cards. they won’t hunt them down and kill them. blasting apart anything stupid enough to get in their way. do anything together. with much of the day gone. and I cannot for the life of me guess who is the more irked. Like Leonard. There was something else on Deftinwolf’s mind. He wasn’t sure why he was doing it. The KBI was accomplishing everything that he needed them to do.” Deftinwolf said calmly. though. If anyone is running from them. It shouldn’t have required your death to get me off my ass and into the fight. or perhaps he had taken them off the bodies of fallen enemies.” He picked up several small rocks. and that notion was even more ominous than the prospect of death. and now the silence was beginning to take on a life of its own. which would make it rather problematic if you were intending to deny it. he could see Coheed and Cambria mowing through Ryan’s soldiers. and give you a little peace besides. but perhaps it will help your mother with her pain. And you’re right. it just seemed the thing to do. “You have been up to some things that have tremendously inconvenienced both Wilhelm Ryan and myself. You will recover. “Joseph.” He waggled a scolding finger as if he were expressing impatience with a misbehaving child. I might add. A massive form that he recognized instantly was standing directly behind him.” Deftinwolf said so softly that Hohenberger had to strain to hear him. “Of course we do. should it?” “We have business?” Hohenberger was choosing his words carefully and trying his hardest to keep his voice from shaking. He didn’t want to have to put on all the protective gear. I promise you. He assumed that she had gone into the green house to study her precious insects first thing in the morning. We both know what you have been up to. they don’t. of course. the blood in his head pounding with such intensity that he felt as if his eyes were about to blow out of the sockets.” “I…I don’t know what you’re talking about. Doctor. “Isolate Ryan. If we did not. then the Doctor would be dead by now. Doctor. “Pearl?” he said again. “It will not be permanent damage. Perhaps Pearl had been right and they couldn’t be a family anymore. It hung upon him ominously. ready to rain down firepower on their enemies in the unlikely event that Coheed and Cambria found themselves in over their heads. but at least maybe they could try to be a couple once again. if you endeavored to call for help. That had not happened yet. “The recruits are just kids. Hohenberger let out a cry of alarm and stumbled back. Make those who remain alive so terrified of the KBI that they turn against Ryan to save their own lives. Now. and as he turned he was caught completely off guard. He was wearing a heavy red overcoat that fell from his squared shoulders down to just below his ankles. He hoped that some of that positive feeling might possibly rub off on Pearl. All I can do now is try to make up for my stupidity. You tried to get me to understand the importance of getting involved. It was at that point that Hohenberger suddenly reached an obvious conclusion that was like. He could understand her being low-key about it. “then they go after the eight surviving Mages. but just barely. He hoped that bastard Deftinwolf was there to see again how powerless his recruits were in the face of Coheed and Cambria’s invincible might. Do you understand what I am saying? Blink once for yes. The Coheed and Cambria worlds tour. Kids who don’t know any better.” he said with a sigh. a knife to his heart. There is no acceptable response to represent no. “If you offer up one more stammering. there’s just rumors about them so far. I think you need to sit down now. He stood in front of the rock at Joseph’s inspiration hideout and smiled wanly at it. really. And hovering high above it all. the whereabouts of which I have taken great pains to make certain are public knowledge. his mind racing. but Coheed and Cambria will find them and free them from Ryan’s control.” Hohenberger said to his son’s grave. scattering them left and right. moving so quickly across the room that one moment he seemed to be on the opposite side and then he was right there. Yet again there was no response.” “I…I don’t know what you—” Deftinwolf was upon him. Mayo Deftinwolf was standing there with his arms casually draped behind his back. and when he did. “Please. They don’t deserve to die for that. In his mind’s eye. very important business. And maybe make it impossible for Ryan to find fresh meat for his troops. to command Deftinwolf to leave immediately or he would call… “Who are you going to summon?” Deftinwolf asked as if reading the Doctor’s mind. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. I mean. waiting for a knife to his heart or a gun to be pressed against his head. I can’t even imagine what he’s trying to use them for or what they’re going through. “You. Hohenberger did so. They’ll be heading to those as well. Pearl was probably afraid to embrace the notion of hope or the belief that Heaven’s Fence might some day be rid of the blight known as Wilhelm Ryan. and I just stuck my head in the sand and tried to say it wasn’t my problem.Hohenberger could scarcely believe how smoothly everything was going. He went to the green house and rapped on the door. and he had opted not to disturb her while she was there. as if a shroud had been draped over him and his house. * * * Hohenberger was moving with new confidence and additional spring in his step these days. Then he turned and walked away from the spot without the slightest inkling that he would only return there one more time in his life. it seemed a reasonable plan to find his wife and suggest that perhaps they dine together. I’m…” He hesitated and when he spoke again. Blow up as much armament as possible. “Who do you seriously believe is going to try to escort me out? Why. “And there are several other training camps as well on other worlds in the Keywork. preventing him from saying anything further. “Good. Ryan won’t know what hit him. he realized that there was no reason to be in dread of such things. palmed them a moment. His chest glittered with several large medals that he had no doubt earned in his service of Wilhelm Ryan. Hohenberger gasped and his throat closed up in fear. I will do damage to you. Then he carefully smoothed out the front of Hohenberger’s shirt as if he were a professional groomer.” He gestured for Hohenberger to walk ahead of him to the living room. At the same time. He stopped in the entranceway to the living . Still no reply. You are not particularly skilled at hiding your reactions. or…well. Don’t embarrass yourself. But they’ll minimize the loss of human life. his legs like leaden slabs. “I…that is…” Deftinwolf calmly waved off any further attempts at protest. “I’m sorry it took me so long to come around to your point of view. but Hohenberger was sure that she was eager to know how they were progressing in their activities. “Pearl! Pearl. And then. “We are both intelligent men. He had not seen her all day. providing additional ground cover should it be necessary. honey?” No answer. because who’s going to want to join up with Ryan if they know they may never make it out of training? Oh. Kids who are dragged into the clutches of Ryan’s army with promises of vast fortunes or rewards in this life or the next. launching a full-scale attack against one of the training camps where Deftinwolf was training new recruits to Ryan’s army. Joseph. indeed. tensing the entire time. She had allowed herself to show only the slightest of interest in the activities of the KBI. Coheed and Cambria are going to go easy on them. I would simply kill you and that would be that. Considering Deftinwolf’s next words. He entered his house and called out. At the moment. Doctor. or watch the vid together. Knowledge and Beast had proven themselves too formidable. there was a choking in his voice. why. Destroy the people who are foolish enough to follow him.” “I—” Hohenberger tried to point toward the nearest door. and then lay them down atop the larger boulder. if his desire was simply to dispose of Hohenberger. It will not impede your ability to function in any way. they were on the world NulKigh-Cutta. everywhere he looks. Carefully he closed the door. attacking various sites. we have business. It won’t be easy.
of course. her mouth open and screaming. as if he was witnessing something that was remarkably tragic. It was so horrifyingly narrow that she wasn’t even able to move her arms.” said Deftinwolf. there was nothing but inky blackness below. Not only would that prove to be a hopeless endeavor. The preliminary samples. that goes without saying. but.” He reached into his pocket and produced a small envelope. but there was no physical cause this time. “I could stand here extending this to you all day. but he is prepared to be generous. He whipped the rod around and it took Hohenberger in the back of his right knee. “Where’s my wife?” “That’s a very good question. “You actually tested this…this thing…on victims?” “Wilhelm Ryan prefers the term ‘subjects. but he couldn’t do a damned thing about it. Why.” His voice was flat and humorless. certainly. If you wouldn’t mind sitting down…” “I’m not going to sit down! Where’s Pearl? What have you done with—?” He got no further. “Your wife appears to be in quite a fix. Tragically. Deftinwolf’s voice dropped again. actions are all that matter. in some display of bravado. Wilhelm Ryan will require an interest payment as well. even more achingly. terrified Pearl. Suddenly he couldn’t breathe again. Doctor. but not knowing the contents. “The poor thing must be suffering terribly. this time so softly that Hohenberger felt as if just the act of breathing might drown it out. or at least an attempt to create one. Hohenberger nodded. It was perfectly rectangular and seamless. “However. God only knew when she had been taken. “I don’t…are you telling me Wilhelm Ryan wants me to apologize to him? Beg his pardon?” “Words mean nothing. although who knew for how long. you know. Doctor. Very good. He said it with an air of resigned frustration.room and said. “How magnanimous of him. Masks do not become us. like a magician about to show off a particularly dazzling trick. Her face was a rictus of terror. Hohenberger tumbled backwards and hit the couch with such force that the couch started to tilt as well. Leonard couldn’t determine whether it was because the video had been shot without sound.” “Yes.” “Very good. It was Pearl. Even so. It jolted Hohenberger and nearly catapulted him from the couch. the bed in Joseph’s old room. Quickly Hohenberger took the chip and inserted it into his computer.” “It is. Maybe one night in five did she crawl into bed with her husband. Many nights she flopped down either on the living room couch or. and proffered it to Hohenberger. “Presuming it isn’t encoded in some way that would prevent it. She had been placed into something that could only be described as a glass coffin. you arrogant bastard. but it has to come to an end. The vast influence of the—” Hohenberger was suddenly on his feet. and you are simply living in it. An array of files immediately appeared on the screen. Instead he actually nodded slightly in approval. but it would only result in Pearl’s predicament coming to an untimely end in retaliation. say. Hohenberger’s leg bent forward as the Doctor cried out in pain. and at the moment it was closed. the sight of it was still like a hammer blow to his chest. That was the unspoken part of the sentence. the tests…tests?” He looked in shock at Deftinwolf.” He inserted the chip into the player and stepped back. Take all the time you want…” Time that Pearl doesn’t have. instead he opened it carefully so as not to damage whatever was inside. The terrifying thing was that Hohenberger had an idea of what he was going to see before it appeared on the screen. has unhinged you. obviously something that he’d had in his palm. That your personal tragedy. “The Monstar virus?” “Correct. He began to study them. slamming it back down. Hohenberger repeated just loudly enough to be heard this time. “Tell me what you want. threatening to flip over. but no voice was emerging. You will have to deliver your creations to him. unable to intervene in time. and then she would go straight to sleep more often than not.” “But what would be the purpose of it?” . He could not see the bottom of it.” Hohenberger managed to say something.” Deftinwolf could have put his fist through Hohenberger’s face at that moment.” “What sort of action?” “Well…now we come to it. Now…” He held up a small vid chip. there must be some sort of atonement on your part.’ When referring to it. He suddenly realized that not only had he not seen her this morning. or if she simply couldn’t be heard while she was within. I can assure you that he will be far less gentle than I. “There is something you need to see. But I’m not entirely sure how much time your beloved Pearl has. He discovered a data chip within and held it up curiously. This Beast and Knowledge…their career has been exciting. coupled with the interference of the Prise. through which presumably food or drink could be introduced so that she could survive. She is nowhere that you’re going to be able to find her. He is aware of the death of your son. it seems unjust to punish you for the indisputable crimes you have committed against his person. “You will do what I say. free to disbelieve me. it was with such fury that Deftinwolf was certain that—had Hohenberger been armed—he would have tried to fire on him. in fact he had not seen her since last night. and beaded perspiration clung to her skin. The coffin hung from an unseen point in the video. trying to comprehend what it was that he was looking at. We are men of conviction. however. just wide enough to enclose her without providing her any additional space to move around. she’s not. Deftinwolf brought his foot down hard on the armrest. I suppose.” “Is he. Is that understood?” Hohenberger nodded. “So now the mask comes off. Within seconds he understood. “A manufactured virus of some sort. This time everything required to rip his soul from his body was playing out on the video screen. but his voice was so strangled that it was barely above a whisper. But I don’t understand…” “Have a look. however—to put it in banking terms—is merely repaying the principle.’ but ‘victims’ is accurate enough. of course. and although he made no move on Deftinwolf. Her thin nightgown had been soaked through with sweat. You have to understand that this is his world. His impulse was to rip it open. “You have mightily inconvenienced Wilhelm Ryan. and when I say it. Deftinwolf leaned forward and cocked an ear. certain individuals mounted an assault on House Atlantic in the vain hope that they could rescue poor. He was but a helpless witness to a disaster in the making. like someone standing on a sidewalk and seeing two vehicles barreling toward each other at breakneck speed.” said Deftinwolf. so—” Hohenberger grabbed the envelope from Deftinwolf’s hands. Still. He believes that you are not in your right mind. each spidering out in a different direction and composed of a crystalline-blue substance that Leonard had never seen before. On that basis. and also of your manipulation at the hands of the Prise. “I didn’t hear you. rather. and the realization chilled him. Except it’s not what I want. If only she were being held at someplace accessible like. Then the camera that was recording the entire thing angled downward and Hohenberger saw that there was a yawning pit beneath it. The coffin was suspended by eight chains. right in front of her face. “This is a virus. This meeting was all I had scheduled. low lit with the yellow-blue haze of a headlight on a foggy night. what with her not being there. Now we come to it. “I’m sorry? I didn’t quite catch that. whereupon Deftinwolf slammed forward with the base of his palm and struck Hohenberger in the chest. The edges of Deftinwolf’s mouth twitched. I object to characterizing it as a ‘thing. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if. That is understood. or I will simply stuff you in a box and let Wilhelm Ryan explain what he wants of you. they were pinned at her sides. It’s always about what Wilhelm Ryan wants.” He paused and then said. I would request you use the name given it by Wilhelm Ryan…” “The ‘Monstar’?” Hohenberger had found the name in the file.” he said. He requires that you take action in order to settle accounts. But the window could be slid open or closed. The only aperture in the whole thing was a narrow window. are really the one who is under deadline pressure.” With great effort. “What do you want?” “Ah. you and I. House Atlantic. his fists were trembling and this time when he spoke. You. That.” “Atonement?” He shook his head. You are. The Doctor looked at it suspiciously and didn’t reach for it. Deftinwolf’s hand made the slightest of downward gestures and a long black rod snapped out. It is about what Wilhelm Ryan wants. “I assume you have the proper equipment to read the information contained upon it?” said Deftinwolf. They had been so distant lately that her not coming to bed with him wasn’t all that bizarre. And if it should come to that.
and the Keywork is energy. and things will be done to her. would you?” “But he’s not God!” “Well…there we come to it.” and he paused dramatically. “In the grand scheme. “All right. It is by no means a certainty.” said the General.“You’re an intelligent man. That changed. I just…I need to think. when he discovered that Deftinwolf had simply turned off the sound on his vid screen. I understand your devotion to Ryan…okay. though. It’s something that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself about. However. But certainly there are larger. let me make something abundantly clear to you. my good doctor.” “But the Keywork isn’t alive! A virus can only affect living things. “what Joseph would have wanted?” Never had Hohenberger more desperately wanted to kill a human being than that moment when he wanted to come at Deftinwolf and rip his entrails out and strangle him with them. make you whatever you want. The only thing that finally ended it was the resounding crash and shattering of glass after Hohenberger grabbed a paperweight and hurled it with full force through the vid screen. Who said anything about ‘when’? This is merely an. So what is your decision?” “I—I don’t know—” “You don’t know what? Whether you want to see your wife alive ever again? Doctor. pathetic remains of the woman that was once recognizable as Pearl Hohenberger are finally hurled to its deserved death. more fundamental matters to be considered than loyalty to one man!” “I’m sure there is. The virulence of this Monstar would be…General.” He waited three seconds.” “But I can’t! Billions of lives—!” “Billions of lives that might be—might be—lost. a faint clucking with his lips. At the point where the Monstar were used…the people would welcome death. I’ll do whatever you say. when the poor. Doctor.” Hohenberger began to tremble with a mixture of fear and outrage. You have the data in front of you.” Hohenberger went back to studying the equations and records in front of him.” and he pointed at them. one of the things that Wilhelm Ryan wants you to work on.” “Good. Well…where you and your wife come in. woman and child dropping dead. “I’m begging you. When you have solved the problem. As you can see from the reports and studies. Please. which is again why you should not be concerning yourself about it. Time in which she will likely be driven out of her mind with fear. Those chains. that Wilhelm Ryan requires. “Things that will make her long for death with such intensity that. everyone on all seventy-eight planets will die in a flurry of chaos. Believe me. the air was also filled with the terror-filled screams of Pearl Hohenberger. “This is…my God. not living!” “Are you sure?” Three words.” “Of course she does. Not that it really matters all that much in the grand scheme of things. I’ll do it. And it was an answer that he did not possess. You would not question those who devote their lives to serving God. do you? It could be a pit that simply has a bottom against which it will crash. I’m…” His voice choked. the quality of life on Heaven’s Fence would have reached such abysmal levels that death would be nothing less than a mercy bestowed by him upon a desperate population. What makes him not God? Obviously. the virus will then permeate every molecule of every living thing. you see. because he knew that not only could he not possibly battle someone as formidable as Deftinwolf. the sheer killing power. “have been chosen by no less than Wilhelm Ryan himself to make the Monstar a reality. I don’t understand it. “Yes. then she is out of time immediately. “There.” He dropped his voice so that it was almost a purr. far more than one man. Instead what you need to be focusing on is the one life that will most definitely be lost: that of your beloved wife. “She was foolish enough to trust you. However. . Deftinwolf pointed at the screen. I will be directly responsible for the death of billions!” “When?” Deftinwolf made a scolding noise. but at least she will still have a mind to be driven out of. Within moments the only sound that remained was the soft sobbing of Leonard Hohenberger. Except don’t think that the chains will simply be cut and she will be allowed to plummet to her death. but at least I’m aware of it. “I…understand the situation. Or perhaps there are spikes protruding from it so that your wife will know the sensation of being impaled.” “How can you say that?” Deftinwolf smiled. You. That. which continued because it refused to shut off despite Hohenberger’s best efforts. Or perhaps—” “All right!” shouted Hohenberger.” “And…and what circumstances would those be?” “Ah. It’s so difficult to find quality workmanship these days. Unspeakable things. destroying the entire mechanism. you see. if you refuse to cooperate. Unfortunately. You tell me. Terrible things. or the Keywork itself losing its cohesion and causing the worlds to drift apart.” And with that. no doubt—to retrieve the results of your efforts. actually.” “Don’t hurt her. The entire coffin could tumble into…well.” He barely recognized his own voice as he said the words. Of primary concern is that it doesn’t quite work yet. as opposed to a mass of gray matter that’s spread all over the floor. “It’s…it’s out of the question! It’s impossible! When he uses that virus. He will then dispatch someone—me. but instead he restrained himself and simply watched Hohenberger writhing in the grip of a dilemma that threatened to rip him apart. the Monstar—when properly introduced into the Keywork—will consume the energies therein. Make no mistake. But it would take a remarkably long time. you don’t really know. None of which mattered. Even as the Keywork dissolves. She doesn’t deserve this. and Deftinwolf could easily have reached over and choked the life out of him for daring to raise his voice. It will almost be a race to see which happens first: every man. But Wilhelm Ryan is far. “and that is sufficient for me. although it is certainly a formidable threat. if you only knew the circumstances under which he would employ the Monstar. do you know what this is? This is…this is a partially completed formula for doomsday! How can you be a part of it? I mean. You need to be worrying about the Monstar. that is essentially it. it still lacks the devastating virulence. would be able to do so in no time at all by being introduced directly into the Keywork. Take all the time you need. Wilhelm Ryan can destroy all life on the Fence. is where you come in. That was all that he had said: three simple words. “Tsk tsk. Wilhelm Ryan will be taking good care of her. The Monstar. And since the Keywork provides light and energy to the populace of Heaven’s Fence. you simply activate it and it will automatically send a message directly to Wilhelm Ryan. ‘if’! An absolute worst-case scenario that Wilhelm Ryan will use only as a last resort.” and he waggled a finger. That’s one of the unknowns of the entire equation. “I’m not going to tell you that. Is that what you want? What she wants? Is that. He put his hand to his head. Deftinwolf walked out of Leonard’s house. but yes. everyone dies and everything ends! Why does the order of it matter in the least?” “Because Wilhelm Ryan says it matters.” “The grand scheme of things?” Hohenberger echoed incredulously. I’m afraid. he’s just curious to know. Yet Hohenberger realized that the answer to those three words might well hold the entire future of Heaven’s Fence within it. Instead she will be removed from the coffin.” “You want me to fill in the gaps in Ryan’s research so that he can successfully complete a virus that can eliminate all life and destroy the fabric of the Keywork itself?” “I would have put it a bit less melodramatically. When the sound came on. “Yes. “are not the sturdiest. Doctor. then he would be condemning Pearl to death. That’s enough time. there is the chance they might snap. and no one else. Good…personal…care. well…you would understand that by that point. Never had he felt more helpless. To aid it in reaching its full potency and potential.” and he clapped a hand on Hohenberger’s shoulder as if he were a friend congratulating him on a great honor.” “Absolutely. She’s never done anything wrong in her life. her final words will be curses hurled at you because you allowed it to happen. but even if he somehow miraculously manage to kill Deftinwolf. You. that is really the more secondary concern. Slowly he started to shake his head. however. as silent in departing as he had been in his arrival. it’s the ability that God has to smite all life with little-to-no effort. Your cooperation buys your wife time. because the screams continued in Hohenberger’s head long after the last sputters of electricity stopped flickering in the shattered remains of the vid.” he said much more quietly. And you will notice that there is a communications program built into the file. “As you see. And while you are working on perfecting the Monstar.
with his face impassive. after all. Yes. None. you fucker? It’s not going to fucking work! I’d yank out every tube and starve to death if I could. because it is the one that will drive that bastard.” he says as if I hadn’t said anything. Staring at me with those empty eyes. “What the hell do you mean. fleeting images. He’s staring at me. His skin. “you ARE complicit in his rebellion against me. it won’t get you shit. barely moving. they just glow a stale yellow. They have tubes jammed into me. Torture me all you want. covering the rest of his head. “I would think it’s obvious. staring. No screams or curses or promises of what I’m going to do to him. This is what heaven is like: The peace. that your husband has done this to you. his face always obscured in shadow. He has a hood pulled up.” He makes a slight wheezing noise that probably passes for a laugh. The comedy stylings of Wilhelm Ryan.” “You admit to complicity in your husband’s actions.” “I am sorry that you must be inconvenienced because of the actions of others. Nothing about what he’s going to do to me. or what Leonard’s creations are going to do to him. Even on the brightest of days. manage to overwhelm eleven other Mages? “Are you in any pain?” “I CAN’T MOVE MY ARMS OR LEGS!” “Why would you need to? You’re not going anywhere. then that explains a lot about the vacancy I’m seeing. disgusting horns. He is going to try and break me. My guess is that his pathetic body is some bent. “We—you and I—are trying to teach your husband the error of his ways. to cry. and besides. Day Two I shouldn’t engage him. so that he can then use me in some way against Leonard. You were not willing to do so on your own. and imagine Ryan being torn limb from limb. He tries not to stare at me. I say nothing.” “Well. The quiet.” “He didn’t! You did! Don’t think for a minute that you can make me blame Leonard for this!’ “Although. a conscientious wife would have let the proper authorities know what her husband was up to. And he’s not so much. “A woman of your intellect. Humiliate me. boxing me up in this glass coffin. He’s the mighty Supreme Tri-Mage. He’s trying to act as if he’s on my side somehow. The bastard is just standing there. Say something. with its cold steel walls that reflect the glow of whatever is lighting this coffin. it’s not. ladies and gentlemen. purplish mixture. Nothing. but I can’t move a damned muscle. After all. weighted by centuries of his evil. because you’re not going to break me. impotent creature he is and fall on their asses laughing. If you can see a person’s soul in his eyes. Just standing. Astounding. Being able to live within my own head and not have to worry about anything or anyone else. goddamit! Say something! Boast of your superiority! Outline your plans to torture me! Open your lying mouth and tell me— “I’m sorry. So I have to take more emphatic steps. That’s not going to be me. you’re sorry?” I say when he returns the next day. How in God’s name did someone this obvious. That is the mindset I am embracing. Do you hear me. to break me. try to undermine me. shouldn’t talk to him. Now I see him clearly. He’s still standing there. If someone stripped that robe from him. He’s trying to turn me into a goddamned science experiment. I’m sorry? What the fuck—?! The bastard was responsible for my son’s death! Where does he get off…? He’s leaving. He tilts his head slightly.” “I’m admitting to nothing. this ridiculous. There’s a guard standing off to the side. women weep and strong men wet themselves and all that glorious bullshit. a blueish.” “Why all this talk of torture?” He sounds surprised. this is heaven. Two thick tails of white hair hanging on either side of his face. Son of a BITCH. I do. I am doing what you are unwilling to do. Maybe I remind him of his mother. And. but it’s not going to work. “Inconvenienced? Having to wait for someone who’s running an hour late for an appointment is inconvenienced! You’ve got me shackled inside a fucking coffin!” He’s probably not used to anyone talking to him like this. Yes. he almost looks embarrassed. it’s not like I have much of anything to live for. Play upon my phobias. That way he can’t use me against Leonard. I hear them trickling away. That’s it. skeletal thing. gracing us with his vile presence. Pearl? And that’s the best that you can come up with?” “It’s all that you deserve. That’s all he says. for me to say something? To break down. What’s he waiting for. his power would be broken because the people would see the scrawny. Whatever the hell he has planned. I will simply hold the image of Joseph close to my heart. his face oozing liquids that any decent creature would have the courtesy to keep inside his body. I’ve only ever seen pictures of him. He stands there on the other side of this room. oh look. and a shapeless garment obscures him from head to toe. to beg for mercy? He’s got a fucking big surprise ahead of him. Nothing about why he’s done what he’s done so far! He’s just… He’s gone.” . No pupils in his eyes.” says Ryan. And then there are those massive. providing me nourishment. When he walks. And there’s a catheter as well to handle the waste.Chapter 12 Pearl of the Stars Day 1 I am in heaven. He thinks he can do that? Fuck him. “That is regrettable. No fear from me.” he says to me. like a dog listening to a high-pitched noise. trying to dehumanize me. Let him destroy me in a fit of pique. if that’s what he thinks is going to happen.” “Fuck you. that fucker.” “INCONVENIENCED?” It’s all I can do not to laugh. but that’s okay. and that will keep me sane. Wilhelm Ryan enters this stinking chamber. And let him lash out in response. the most insane. But I can’t help it. Not a word of explanation. which can’t be much larger than ten by twenty. When he does glance my way.” he has the nerve to say to me. darkness covered his face. “Yes.” “Stop it! Stop doing that! Stop trying to pretend as if you give a damn about my physical comfort! Stop acting as if we’re in this together somehow!” “We are. He’s walking out.
What upsets you the most isn’t that Joseph is dead. Yes. I want to crawl out of here. He’s gone. “I am sorry.]YES. He’s probably taken up with someone else. I can hear my own pulse. No… “I’m just curious. But I can’t let him win. It’s in every aspect. No. I wanted to know how hard it was on you. He was the one who died and set all this into motion. Hold on. Reciting lists of elements. . injecting poison directly into my thoughts. I can’t let him know. and they crawl across the floor and into the coffin. I tick off the hours in my head. as if we’re good friends. I have no idea. and I can actually see his words forming into spiders as they emerge from his mouth.” “I know I’m going to kill you. Of course. Frankly…you have been through enough.” “That must have been difficult for you.” he says. but they are. “You can admit it. Different species of insects. YES. Where’s Leonard? Where’s his precious KBI? Why haven’t they come to get me? Have they even noticed? Do they even care? Leonard probably doesn’t. after all. He doesn’t seem to understand. Leonard says I’m tone deaf. I can’t sing a bit. Yes. It’s only right that you should be there when he died. There’s the death of Joseph—” “Don’t you mention my son’s name. his insidiousness…it’s the only thing keeping me focused. this wanting to die. Singing songs. nothing worth torturing you over. you were there when he was born. Thought he gave up trying to break me. and tears are pouring down my face. I don’t care. You feel that you should be dead instead of Joseph. The moment you let Joseph ease out from between your legs. Survivor’s guilt can be a devastating thing. and he leaves again. plucked the thoughts out. which at least means I’m not dehydrated. the spiders… “You can admit it to me. placing your hand on your belly. NEVER MY SON. I’m being sarcastic. I’m just guessing. Sixty beats a minute. how they’re getting into here. NOT MY SON. Day Twenty-Three “It should be Leonard in there. I have to kill him. OH GOD YES. steady. “Do you seriously believe there is anything you know that is of the slightest interest to me? You know nothing. this disgust that you’re still sucking oxygen while your son is lying mouldering in the ground. “You’re suffering because of him. I want to crack that veneer of aloofness. but no.” It’s like he reached into my head. Trying to fuck with me. What if I said I would put Leonard in there instead of you? Would you accept that and leave gratefully?” “Go to hell. fucking KBI isn’t here. just Ryan. but you’d never have the guts to do that. would you. they’re everywhere. Try to organize them. even as my mind screams. JUST LET ME OUT OF HERE. Estimating. smell it. I don’t think I’m sleeping anymore.” I’m going to kill him. you wouldn’t. and God. I will not give him the satisfaction. My eyes are stinging me like a thousand hornets. YES. Rattling off shopping lists from two years ago. My eyes ache but I can’t close them for more than a minute or so before they snap open. crawling into my mind. YOU BASTARD. how much time. It isn’t that Leonard has betrayed you by embarking on his mad revolt against me that has placed you in harm’s way. I should think. that’s my resting pulse. Sixty times sixty. His words…they’re like spiders. he’s the only one who comes to see me. feeling him kick.” He shakes his head sadly. Bastard.” Ryan goes on. Day Thirty-Two He won’t stop talking. certainly.” Ryan says. as if addressing a classroom. and right back I go howling.” he says again. as if he’s regretting what he’s saying. Day Five Keep flexing toes. THIS IS HIS FAULT. Using my heart as a guide. I can’t. I’m trying other things. Leoanrd’s not here. A puzzled look crosses his repulsive face. Ryan’s back. It’s that you’re still alive at all.” I can barely think. Day Thirteen He’s back. Day Twenty-Seven “Or Joseph. maybe we are. standing by helplessly and watching him die was like a shot to your own gut. It’s only justice. and you feel that you should pay the penalty for that. and I say nothing aloud but my lips are quivering. Did he kick at all when he died?” I won’t let him see how I want to cut his throat exponentially with each word. Otherwise will lose all feeling in extremities. Might well be more than thirteen days. Fucking Leonard.” He says it just as if there had been no break in the conversation. ANYONE. Pearl. to my being a mother. I’m trapped.” he says. he was kicking within your womb. to everything. and I shout back at myself that I am a traitor to my son. Day Nine Where is he? Why doesn’t he come talk to me? His taunting.” NO. “I am sorry.“Yeah? Then do what I’m willing to do instead and kill yourself. He won’t win. PLEASE. everywhere. My vision is swimming in front of me. He should be here instead of me. it must seem. you might as well have signed his death warrant. and that’s an hour. to myself. He was the one who died and set all this into motion. that torturing you would seem excessive. Someone younger and prettier and who never had a son that Leonard let get killed. Only options left to me. What I would do to just turn over. taste it. It’s symmetry. I want to see some sort of reaction. JOSEPH. DIE IN A FIRE. Ryan returns. ANYTHING. because you failed to protect him. “Allow me to rephrase. it should be Leonard in here. “You know that as well as I. He’s been gone for three days.” I tell him.” I hurl it out at him defiantly. He’ll realize. You’re guilty because you let him down. “You know nothing of interest to me. Death spasms can take so long. trying to waggle fingers. I’ll go mad if I don’t kill him. Day Nineteen Not really sure how many days have passed.” He says nothing for a time and then shrugs somewhere under his robes. “So easy to protect him while he’s inside your body.” I tell him. Joseph’s not here. I thought he was here. And my mind screams. How nice it must have been. slow. Shed my outer coating and fly out of here. Songs. Then again. Hold on. He can’t hear me. I can actually see them. No. Like an insect. the lying piece of shit. He’ll see. especially if they’re prompted by a shot to the gut. You can feel it. So recently. “Or Joseph. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know if you just stop saying that. Or maybe he was and left again.
” and he points to the guard standing at the door. I would do it. Maybe it’s a trick of Ryan’s. standing just on the perimeter of the pit over which I’m suspended. and with that horrible semblance of a smile. I’ve been keeping track…” “Pearl…you’ve been here less than a day. and then the worms get to you. and I’ve had my good days and my bad days.” I wrack my brains. You haven’t. Day One I’m in hell… . Certainly during all this time. eating me alive. like the one I’m in. purple and dripping and festering. I could sit in a bath for a month and still not be clean of what he makes me feel. to… “You are lying. the only motion available to me… Oh my God… “Pearl…” Oh my God…it’s true. Whatever you’ve endured…it’s only the beginning. he has no need to. And we both know the reason for it. and the entirety of Heaven’s Fence is counting on me and I absolutely do not care. trying to remember a time when the guard has left. oh my God. Genuinely. no different from you.” “There is no need for me to lie. wouldn’t your fingernails have grown considerably? You can’t move your hands. I can’t stand it any more I just want out… I close my eyes. Think: Have you seen any guard besides him? No. it goes into the ground. “It’s because you deserve to be here. A coffin. that’s what his voice is whispering. The lord of lies. I brought this on myself. “what do you mean. He hasn’t even been here long enough to grow beard stubble from lack of shaving. but you can touch the ends of your fingers. Even when he’s not here. It’s there every minute of every day. Not your husband. and if Joseph returned from the dead right this second and volunteered to switch places. and your nails were quite closely clipped when you were brought in. How pathetic a ploy is that? How desperate is he to try and wear me down. the ones who are responsible for your being here. they’re everywhere. I would do it in a second. and my resolve is strong. “You are the prince of lies. I can barely croak out words. digging up every uncertainty like a gravedigger unearthing bodies so that he can examine the effects of years’ worth of decay… He’s trying to destroy me. who is howling like a wounded and dying animal. to break me. they’re just stinging me to death. that’s what’s going to happen to me. I have to get out. and I see the pity on the guard’s face. I’m never getting out of here.Day Thirty-Seven His voice won’t stop. Except I’m sure I haven’t been sleeping much at all. How much more of this am I supposed to endure? Day Thirty-Eight He walks up to me. “You seem agitated. And I shriek in protest. The truth is far more entertaining. and yet I do. and there’s Ryan’s voice again. and that’s when I realize it’s my voice. exploiting every weakness I’ve ever had. Pearl. Your time here can be measured in hours. He looks genuinely puzzled.. and Leonard is counting on me and I don’t care. the spiders and worms. every chink in the armor of my marriage. the worms in my body. Pearl. there’s no privacy. It’s because the creatures that your husband created. the first time I’ve done so in days. at least once. the spiders in my mind. every teenage angst. No one…but me…” And that’s when the screaming starts.. “You’re wrong. I have to get out. No one is. There has been no changing of the guards because you have not been here long enough. and those soulless eyes contemplating me. “You think you’re going to break me?” I rasp. I’ve said something that clearly makes no sense to him. “He is a normal human. Like a worm. reviving every childhood trauma. my tongue feels like it’s two sizes two big for my mouth. consider you a hindrance to their mission since you are a distraction for their maker. I know it’s true. You’re here…because there’s no one else in the whole of the universe who cares about you except me. “They’re not coming for you. and he affects that pathetic fake look of concern. not in weeks. there’s no part of you that’s immune from their hunger and they just eat at you and eat at you until your body is nothing but some pitted mass of fleshy colored clay. It…it could have happened during brief times I was asleep. inside and out. he keeps on talking. Why is that?” I speak to him. but I’m still here. much less sentences.” he says to me. sooner or later they get through the coffin and into your body and they’re just…just devouring every part of you. I would have noticed the guards switching off. and all I can see is his face. burrowing into me like a worm. Puzzled. Check for yourself.” I say to him. It’s because you’ve alienated your husband to the point where he no longer gives a damn about you. That’s it. and Joseph is counting on me and I don’t care. that’s what I’m going to be. He…he ensorcelled the guard somehow so that they would never change… Or…or maybe it’s twins…or triplets…or… Except… …except in science…in all things…the simplest answer tends to be the correct one… “Pearl…if you had been here for over a month. a month?” “A month. Whatever you think is measuring passage of time is happening in your own mind. He has not gone off shift yet. I wonder who it is. and I—” He looks at me in a way that he has not before.” I rub the tips of my fingers. He’s not acting. There has been no one to replace him. You’ve kept me here for over a month. I feel raped just by his empty gaze. Only mine. Not God. Pearl. but I know it’s true.” I laugh at him then. I deserve to be here. Look at that man. He’s right. More than. and the amusement on Ryan’s. You’re so wrong.” His voice is everywhere. “Pearl. Despite the fluids I’m continuing to receive. his voice won’t goddamn stop.
Leonard sat cross-legged. pacing with such intensity that it seemed as if he was going to leave a groove in the carpeting. His first instinct was to reach up and slap at the sensation as hard as he could. Hohenberger stomped away from them. He had been staring at them for so long that he no longer needed to see them.Chapter 13 Made Out of Nothing The shouting from all around Leonard Hohenberger was becoming more than he could withstand. anything. and Cambria looked sympathetic. He tried to put his mind elsewhere. Wilhelm Ryan. and he probably told someone. while Coheed. None of them heard him. They were firmly ingrained in his memory. Its little talons were . “I will deal with this. the entire story had come out. to make something that does not occur in nature and transform it into a reality. who was sitting calmly in an overstuffed easy chair. I will figure it out. So we start going through people. leaving nothing but the numbers and letters. Without Pearl nothing mattered. shut up!” Coheed looked surprised. There was Coheed. All right?” Without waiting for a response or really caring in the least if it was all right with them. but every so often. There simply is no other choice!” “It isn’t that easy. In between his sobs. The argument continued to escalate and Leonard tried to tune it out. He stared down at the syringa. Cambria and Inferno had been bounding around from one planet to the next to the next. He didn’t even bother to put his helmet and gloves on.” Cambria pointed out. He watched it flutter upward. Hohenberger continued. with a sigh. they weren’t coming up with anything better. feeling weak in the knees. There was nothing reasonable or even sane about his impulse. It was easy to start dwelling on how he had come to this pass. and Coheed was the main proponent of leaping directly into action. Something flittered away and then danced in front of his eyes before lighting on his knee. his hands folded neatly on his lap. End of story!” “We don’t know where she is. The KBI had been stunned silent by the news. but he ignored it. Because. “Because that is what Ryan is going to do while you’re running around beating the hell out of anyone you can get your hands on. Cambria and Inferno had been certain that running around in a scattershot fashion trying to track down Pearl’s whereabouts was not the best course of action. as was typical for him. “We have to go after her. uncaring about the welfare of anyone or anything else.” “But—” “There’s no ‘but’ in this. his lab coat whipping around him. He yanked open the door and thrust himself in. some little member of the avian family would manage to find some small means of entrance and would worm its way in. “She could be anywhere. For several days. Or at least have the appearance of being active. He had not given any thought to the little beast since she had first shown it to him. It didn’t matter. How can you not see that?” “How can you not see that we have to do something!” Hohenberger muttered something under his breath.” said Coheed. I lived most of my life before the three of you came into it.” “Fine. someone brought her there. It simply sat there.” “Is she in this house?” “Obviously not. I mean. But that wasn’t going to solve anything. Cambria! Someone knows where she is. It was the first time he had ever entered the green house when Pearl was not there. challenging Ryan’s forces and causing all manner of havoc. we find him and pummel him until he’s told us everything he knows. ready to slam it down upon the dragonfly for no reason other than to see it pulped. floating around in his mind. first and foremost. I solve problems. looking as concerned and helpless and frustrated as Coheed. “Yeah. Inferno was inscrutable. He dropped to the ground. Thinking only about what will suit me. He brought his hand up. A bird was descending straight toward it. Rather than muttering under his breath. “That’s one place we’ve eliminated. Unfortunately that possibility had been lost the moment that Cambria looked around and said. I’m as bad as Ryan. Unaccountably he was filled with rage toward the creature. we get her out. they made it clear that they were determined to take a firm hand. his hands draped over his knees. it is! We find her. Hohenberger had been staring at the equations and trying to develop the missing link that would enable the Monstar to become active. He did so now.” said Inferno. It has always been considered her little part of the world. slamming it shut behind him. even if he desired to provide it to him that very night. Hohenberger got to his feet and bellowed. the problem was that he didn’t know how to give Ryan what he wanted. How is that even possible? How—? And then he felt something on the top of his head. And if you suddenly start to get too close. and then found himself standing in front of the entrance to the green house. he had had to tell them exactly what was going on. Someone besides Ryan. and that was when he heard a high-pitched screech. the data. And when the KBI had returned home. He walked slowly through the green house. All we have to do is eliminate a bunch more and eventually we find her. Leonard could practically hear Pearl shouting at him to be sure and don the protective gear. That is what I do. and there was a distinct and awful possibility that she would never be coming back. But he was having no success on either front. but calmer about it. He’s going to sit back and be amused by your efforts if you’re wasting your time. Every likely suspect. no longer having any desire to stand. and how his world had come crashing down upon him. at the creature that Pearl had crafted through manipulation of DNA. But what point was there now in attending to that protocol? She was gone. and the formulae for the Monstar continued to run through his head. he’s going to kill her before you get any closer. It would then feast on Pearl’s little friends until she managed to dispose of the creature and find how the hell it had managed to get in. its wings twitching. and that someone told someone else. he was hoping against hope that he could discover both the virus and its cure and combine them. Make it seem as if the Monstar could accomplish what Ryan desired. The green house was supposed to be secure against tiny intruders. And if he doesn’t know anything. She was seated on the edge of the couch. we go on to the next and to the next until—” “Until she’s dead. his hands balled into fists. He needed to focus on what was important: giving Wilhelm Ryan what he wanted… So that he could destroy Coheed and Cambria? So that the virus could destroy everything? What have I become? My God. “Where’s Pearl?” He had broken down into a blubbering wreck as days’ worth of frustration and fear poured out of him in one rather undignified mess. because he couldn’t destroy the real target of his fury. He hadn’t wanted to. a small brown thrush or sparrow or some damned species. and we kill Ryan while we’re at it. Someone grabbed her. he’d hoped to keep the truth of his situation from them. “All of you. he shook the insect off himself. what will meet my needs. how low will he bring me yet? He wants me to craft this virus. he closed his eyes so that the rest of the world went away. He hesitated with his hand aloft and then. and I will find a way to solve this problem. That happened from time to time. while at the same time wind up effectively dismantling itself should he endeavor to put it to use. There was nothing that Leonard could do as the bird.” said Inferno. Their shouting back and forth and their obvious frustration finally pushed Hohenberger to the breaking point. He had no idea where to go or what to do. he just wanted to destroy something. Instead he opened his eyes and shook his head as hard as he could to clear away whatever was on top of it. How low has he brought me? Even worse. Unfortunately. After that. and entering without her permission would have been a terrible breach of protocol. to someplace that would enable him to solve his problem. That was where the problem had arisen. If he needed to focus more clearly on them. made a beeline for the fly. but only initially.
It’s the one that puts us most directly in touch with God. Hohenberger knew exactly what he was going to do. nor does Pearl. Even as the insect vainly sought an escape. He knows what’s at stake.” he added quickly. It was now completely enclosed. as if Inferno had just suggested the unthinkable. ‘In the name of love’ doesn’t mean anything. A pipedream. trying to find a way out. but paused at the door to say. and not in humanity. Trust it. I don’t have the time for it. and then died with one final uncomprehending chirp. even though the dragonfly was almost as large as the bird itself. Something that will enable me to provide him the letter of what he wants. Inferno turned without a word and exited.” “Inferno. don’t be an idiot. “I don’t think anyone knows for sure. In the time that it did. eager to grab hold of the insect. It twitched pathetically. I don’t know what’s wrong. tried to reply. best hope for the people of Heaven’s Fence. It’s gotten me the Prise. When they’ve allowed love to be transformed into hatred or jealousy or something else unworthy. at any rate. Cambria stepped into the lab and closed the door behind them. . unable to keep the bitter tinge out of his voice. The fact is that people have done terrible. with Coheed right behind him. If the Doc were to try and help Ryan…we’d have to fight against him. and yet Hohenberger fancied that it was looking up at him with a sense of betrayal. They may think they know. but still. terrible things in the name of love. too. Then she stood with her back against it and simply stared at Hohenberger. Hohenberger’s mind was racing.” he said. He could be snapping those chains on his own even now. She was remarkably warm to the touch. It was just an insect. Nothing else matters. but not Beast and Knowledge. He wondered what else it might be capable of when paired with something equally dangerous.” “I would be the first to admit that. It’s gotten my son and most likely my wife murdered. He could be killing her even now. The words would not come. I have to do something that he could not possibly anticipate or allow for. But sometimes you can’t be sure until much. Inferno. he thought. “You love Pearl. “I think she means it.” It had not been Hohenberger who said that. They’ve done it when they’ve lost sight of what the emotion is. Coheed and Cambria were right behind him.” She nodded. It was about a foot off the ground when Hohenberger dropped the helmet down on top of it. Not in the animal kingdom. Nothing that pure could possibly lead you off course.” Inferno and Coheed exchanged glances. Not Coheed and Cambria. Every wasted hour. or I’ll make you get out. presuming she still can be helped. although it was what he was thinking. “Doctor. And he was going to give in to the demands of their mortal enemy. You do what you have to do. He headed straight for his lab. She then turned and headed out of the lab. He wouldn’t want that. It tapped its stinger against the glass jar in futility.twitching. he knows that we’re here to fight against everything that Ryan stands for. Because that would make you complicit in his madness. however. you’re not actually thinking of cooperating with Ryan. I’ve been trusting in the notion of ‘hope’ far too long. “Doctor? What’s going on?” There they were: The last. “I understand. And I can’t tell the others about this. and the first step toward true knowledge is realizing how little we know.” he said to Cambria. The fly whipped around and jabbed its stinger directly into the side of the bird.” In mute acknowledgment of that likelihood. yes. There was. We all have it within us. Not ever. Granted. “I don’t think you have the right to—” “Get out. deftly angling away from it. That didn’t matter to him. Nothing else matters.” and then she closed the door softly behind herself. No words passed between them for a time. are you? You’re not thinking of giving him what he wants. He grabbed off the helmet and the oversized gloves and ran back to where the fly was still positioned. I have to help her. it happened just that quickly. Barely twenty-four hours later. “Come with me.” said Coheed. They do. From the living room he could hear Coheed. much later when you see how it all worked it out. They were trusting him. One moment the bird had been airborne. with no facial features capable of manipulation. who allow Ryan to do whatever the hell he wants without taking any positive steps to stop him.” “Those are fine words. he was hardly an expert. though. And was forever damned.” “I don’t know what’s right. It had been Cambria. He had never seen a toxin that worked that quickly. All that mattered was the dragonfly and what it might represent. Cambria? So far having ‘hope’ has gotten me a God who glowers down at us with his Black Rainbow without offering any substantive help. as if trying to sting the jar into submission. In fact. and he could hear it thumping lightly against the interior. but not the spirit. And even before it clicked shut. “Knowledge. It had been Inferno who had spoken. brings her that much closer to the end of whatever Ryan’s deadline is. Hohenberger couldn’t believe it. The syringa hovered over the bird for a moment as if to verify for itself that the bird was no longer going to pose a threat. “The Doc would never do that. more intensity to his tone than before.” Inferno said in that formal tone of his that sounded the way Hohenberger did when he was lecturing students back in his teaching days. Coheed cocked an eyebrow in a way that seemed to say. apparently satisfied with having spoken her piece and disinterested in Hohenberger’s immediate reaction. They were looking to him. of course. Inferno was standing in the doorway of the lab. “I’m just…I’m curious as to your opinion. at some point.” he said rather unnecessarily as he walked out of the green house. although I doubt they’d admit it. they may even convince themselves of it.” “Hope?” He laughed bitterly at that. Nothing else matters.” He hadn’t realized how close she had gotten to him until she took his hand in hers. Hohenberger tried to speak. Hohenberger sprinted to where the protective gear was hanging. And then Cambria said softly but firmly. I cannot allow for that. The damned thing was actually exhibiting curiosity. “You have it within you to do great things. if for no other reason than that they’ll want to discuss it and it will prolong things. and everything else will fall into place. “What’s the point. The odds of the answer being right here in front of you…the odds of Pearl’s investigations providing you what you need to give Ryan what he wants… I have to get ahead of him. and the next it plopped out of the air. “Doctor?” He looked behind himself. Cambria and Inferno still arguing. it was taking a closer look at the bird. “But they’re not rooted in reality. You.” she said with a shrug. I have to outthink him. spasmed once or twice. “know nothing. and he did not sound upset because Inferno never sounded upset. There’s no way that—” “Get out.” “No. Cambria. Love seems to have significant power as an emotion from what I’ve learned. She could be dead even now. The bird arced around to make another dive at it… …and fell. he did it. “Doctor.” “Doesn’t the rightness or wrongness of my actions matter? I’m not admitting anything one way or the other. They were watching him warily. it had never seen anything like the bird before thanks to its sheltered environment. every wasted minute. This is a longshot. It took him only a few minutes to find a bell jar and transfer the syringa from the makeshift enclosure to the new containment. and he said again. or perhaps it would just devour it whole. the bird’s death had been practically instantaneous.” Inferno said again. The doctor didn’t need to hear details of the conversation to know that none of them was getting any closer to convincing the other of anything. You just have to do the best you can and hope that it all works out. It was so light that when it struck the ground it made no noise at all. Because I am Knowledge. Keep your love for Pearl firmly in your heart.
he said.” He spoke so matter-of-factly it would have seemed to anyone else that there was nothing wrong. Hohenberger’s doppelganger. We will all find out. Cam. “Yes. But he said nothing other than. If it is clear. I am beginning to understand the concept of love. I simply require that you remain on station. “Or are you just saying that to convince yourself—?” There was a familiar noise from overhead. “I will inform Coheed and Cambria to join me in—” “They will be staying here. Inferno nodded and said. He shouldn’t be sending Inferno away. as per Hohenberger’s orders. descending to pick up Inferno and return him to his ship. then there is nothing more to discuss. but—” He pulled back on his temper. “What did you talk to the Doctor about? Yesterday when you told Inferno and me to go and you stayed with him in the lab?” “It was private. . sir?” said Inferno. There is no ‘but’ after that sentence. He seemed to be looking inside himself rather than at Inferno. at will summon the shuttlepod that would return him to it. “That’s not right! He can’t just…just order you around—“ “He can do exactly that.” “Trust can be betrayed.” Seeing that there was no point in trying to push Hohenberger further on it. seeming to have suddenly taken great interest in studying the tops of her boots. actually. Coheed and Cambria were waiting for him. the pod was airborne. he shouldn’t—” “We have to trust the Doctor to do the right thing. Here. Inferno.” He bowed slightly at the waist and walked out of the house.” “I said—” “I heard you. He could not keep the anticipation from his voice. Coheed had been desperate to do exactly what he had been advocating for days: Take the fight to Ryan. “Does he have a lead on Pearl? Does he—?” “He wants me to return to the Grail Arbor. I suppose I will find out. You know that as well as I.” There was much that Inferno wanted to say in response.” he said and then strode into the pod. he was disgusted by the presence of the alien races. closing his eyes. had remained consistently on the move.” and he tapped her forehead. had been a melting pot of race and culture.” “Which is an odd thing for someone who calls herself ‘Knowledge’ to believe. I must ask again—” “And I must tell you again that I have my reasons and you are not to question them. It had not been easy for Inferno to keep the Beast reined in. you don’t. steadying himself.” said Hohenberger. He was in his study. Leonard had woken one day to find Inferno missing from the makeshift training facility he had established. The KBI had been remaining where they were. “This is just wrong. Inferno. The next day Inferno had returned in a shuttle vessel informing Hohenberger that the Agostis. “Do you have a mission that you wish to send us on?” With a the slightest touch of hope—which was about as much emotion as Inferno would allow himself to display—he said. “It is not my job to second guess him. to all intents and purposes.” She sighed and lowered her head. his fingers steepled in a contemplative manner. deeming them impure and confining them to camps until he could determine what should be done with them.” “I do. was not anyone else. “A bit of both.” “Doctor. Hohenberger’s whereabouts?” “No. It’s just a goddamn shame that you can’t trust me the same way. welcoming in the displaced masses. Some had escaped off-world and jumped at the chance to share the Grail Arbor as a quiet contribution to the fight against the man who had cast them from their homes. seated behind his desk. “What I am not telling you is beside the point. “What did he want?” said Coheed. Go smashing around with the subtlety of an avalanche and try to determine through force of arms and righteousness of anger where Pearl was and effect a rescue that would doubtless leave the object of the mission dead.” He paused and then said. All that matters is what I am telling you.Chapter 14 Everything You Love “You summoned me. He recounted the tale to the Doctor. then there is something wrong with your ability to process information.” “Do you really believe that?” said Coheed. Coheed. who’d moved there when their planet was destroyed by a hypernova.” Coheed bristled at the idea. He was. in measured tones. Inferno. but—” “No. Is that clear?” “Yes.” “And you believe that?” “Yes. and it often seemed that there was nothing the Doctor could say or do that Inferno would not anticipate. When Ryan took Sector 11’s ruling Mage prisoner during the wars. Yes. The KBI watched the pod touch down and then Inferno looked from the pod to his compatriots. The door irised closed and. If he had said it. “This is wrong. It was the LEO from the Grail Arbor. Then. “Here?” “Yes. but to trust him.” said Inferno. Coheed and Cambria were alone. “Do you have news on Mrs.” “No.” “Until?” “Until I say otherwise. If it is not.” “I’d like to know. “I need you to report to the Grail Arbor. Sector 11. And that is that you are to return to the Grail Arbor and remain on station until I give you your next assignment. a more progressive part of Heaven’s Fence. “I told him that he should trust what he’s feeling in regards to saving Pearl. for security reasons and to elude detection by Ryan. Either it is clear or it is not. Now do as I say. “It’s nice that you can trust the Doc. however. No.” Inferno’s back stiffened. “Doctor…what are you not telling me?” Hohenberger did not reply at first. “Why?” said Inferno. and then he said more softly. a group of aliens off-world had given him the ship. The Arbor. sir.” “And?” “And wait. as we all must. considering everything you do comes from up here.” said Coheed firmly. the Mages and people of Heaven’s Fence weren’t the only victims of Ryan’s hostile takeover. I did. including the Agostis.” The Grail Arbor was one of the most formidable weapons in the KBI’s arsenal against Wilhelm Ryan.” “For what?” “I have no idea. But Inferno remained connected to the vessel at all times and could. dammit. and lives would not have been destroyed. moments later. perhaps matters would have worked out differently. “Yes.
And then he had spotted her coming down the hallway. heading from one class to the next. It was like a switch had been flipped within him. They pulled apart for a moment. I kissed you.” he said. The spell was broken by a loud “harrumph. because his expectations of her were not based in any true knowledge of her personality. If he had done so. There was something in the Doctor’s voice that signaled that they should be concerned. in an effort to be as close to her as possible—to feel their bare chests flattened together until they nearly melted into a single being. She stopped and looked up at him questioningly.” He placed his other hand atop hers so that they enfolded it. I figured that out. It hadn’t been Pearl. and she stepped forward. that was certain.“Not everything. Doctor?” said Coheed cautiously. The sensation was brand new for the couple—the first perception of passion becoming too much for Coheed’s programming to handle. hitting the floor heavily and lying there unmoving.” “I can take care of myself. Something that just isn’t right. there was no real guarantee that Hohenberger would be able to control his creations. “Camille. Hohenberger could still see his.” “If we have an assignment. with legs that seemed to go all the way up to her neck. if the beating of his heart hadn’t been an autonomic reflex. He closed his eyes and took it all in. Beast.” He kissed her gently on the forehead.” he said because he didn’t really know what else to say under the circumstances. this time a bit more steady. Coheed stood there with his shirt rolled up to just under his armpits.” “I just…” “I know.” she said gently. There had been no failsafe word installed in Inferno. Would she have been a positive influence on him? A negative one? Would she have let him down. I know it and I think you know it. Because I’m going to be right there with you.” she said. That’s what we were born for. their lips coming together softly at first. too. Up until that point. as the machete blades snapped out. How amazing it must have been for them. Leonard had come to a dead halt. To this day. “And I need you. especially after what happened with his wife. This one will just require the two of you. “we risk our lives going up against forces that want nothing except to annihilate us. Leonard’s first love was a tall blonde he had first encountered when just beginning secondary education. “Slow down. You never forget your first love. You can’t start worrying about something happening to me. Hohenberger was waiting for them. “Do you feel everything you do revolves around bloodshed as your name suggests? “Absolutely n—” The air between them was overwhelmingly magnetic.” said Cambria. pulling up his shirt as she did hers. In his mind’s eye. They had the shaky. “Something’s going on. or the next. from time to time. I have need of you.” “No. “No problem. He hated to admit it. No. any time he even considered addressing her his mouth went completely dry. The Doctor went back into the house as Coheed drew up alongside her and took her by the hand. She laughed with a toss of her head in such a way that her hair had surged around her face as if it had a life of its own. He forgot to breathe. But when he had first begun engaging Inferno. He would have stared at her decapitated body as her blood poured out on the floor and he would have felt absolutely nothing. uh…uhm…” He had never felt quite so embarrassed. gasping for air. but Leonard realized there was no guarantee that the next model. but. nothing is going to happen to me. For the rest of his secondary education career. Leonard had been so disinterested in girls that his parents thought he was asexual and everyone else figured he was into guys. “Presuming the two of you can tear yourselves away from each other. Come here. “Something is always going on. And I…” His voice trembled.” “I mean. because if we go in there and he tries something…” “You’ll kill him?” “I’ll do what I have to.” “That’s good to know. her closeness catching him off guard. The instant he said it.” Cambria was most definitely not the source. “They.” and with her free hand she reached up and stroked his bearded chin. “Cam…I love you—” “Yes. Once Inferno was joined by the Beast and Knowledge. but rather his own imagined version of her? He would never know. at least she would have noticed him. he would have done so without hesitation. you know…defend you. chatting with friends of hers. At that moment.” “Yes.” “I know that Doctor Hohenberger needs us. shouldn’t Inferno be a part of it?” “Not this one. Doctor.” “And you love me. “don’t worry. but disobeying him didn’t really seem to be an option. Fortunately most of his views of the world matched up with the Doctor’s. Hohenberger was standing in the doorway to the house some yards distant. he would still remember that. “You’re saying that you’d turn against Doctor Hohenberger?” “I’ll turn against anyone who tries to hurt you. and then squeezed her hand once more to show strength and support. She saw what had happened and her eyes widened. “It’s okay. caught up in the throes of passion. And if something happened to you—” “Co. particularly if something went horribly wrong and they were taken over by the very malignant forces they were designed to combat. aim it at Cambria and blow her head off. who was as close to a clone of himself as he was going to produce. if Hohenberger had instructed Coheed to engage his arm cannon. unadulterated look of young love as they shared the first kiss of both of their lives. Besides. he would sometimes contemplate what his life might have been like if he’d ever had the nerve to speak to the beautiful blonde and tell her exactly what she meant to him. We put our lives on the line all the time. Hopelessly shy during that time. but he hadn’t thought of it when he had created the first of the three beings who would become the KBI.” he said. His face was impassive. entirely unsure of themselves. He concentrated and the blades were withdrawn into his arm. might likewise be in accord with him. he never worked up the nerve to approach her.” she said. Coheed and Cambria collapsed. They hadn’t met until graduate school. She was gorgeous. They jumped back from each other. And if the Doc tries to hurt you…” “You’re not serious. . I just wanted you to know that. I have an assignment for you. Instantly he yanked his left arm away from her. “I know you care about the Doc. Then she put her hands over her mouth and giggled. Cambria yanking down her shirt and blushing furiously. one that was so permanently lodged in his mind and he was sure that even if he lost all his faculties. And I just want to know that you won’t hate me if I have to. with the Doc. Coheed. because I could never hate you. far preferring the world of academics to the world of percolating teen hormones.” and she approached him again and placed a dozen smaller kisses across his face and neck. They awkwardly fell into each other’s arms. he would have forgotten to maintain that as well and would have keeled over on the spot. it quickly became evident to him that Inferno was his own man. just in time. please. Coheed was still hesitant even as Cambria smoothed the front of her shirt and started toward Hohenberger. remember. “What’s the problem.” she said. He had seen them coming together outside. All he knew for sure was her name. Hohenberger nodded. she didn’t spot him at all. As it happened.” “I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret anymore.” Cambria whispered and their gazes locked before their lips came together once more. pleased that the failsafe had worked flawlessly since—if it had not—then he hadn’t been sure exactly what his next move was going to be. Together they strode into the house.” Coheed and Cambria exchanged looks. Don’t tell me you don’t because we both know that’s crap. it won’t.” “I remember. “Sorry. how raw the emotions that they were both experiencing for the first time. and Cambria quickly pulled it down to cover him.
Doctor. He looked like a well-educated doorman. boxy bioscanner with him as he and his General followed Hohenberger to his laboratory. as if he were staring at a schoolgirl who had just committed some manner of social faux pas. then you do not get your precious Monstar. No reason they could not act as such. There. Once he was confident that his men were in position. But he did as he was told. They had been too well trained to just go crashing into things and producing a racket. There was no responding blink. Deftinwolf strode to the front door and knocked on it. But it’s mine. It seemed a perfectly good and understandable relationship. And despite all that. one of them would blink. sir. indicating to the troops that they should take up positions surrounding the house. Deftinwolf did so. “Of course I understand that. I did. to spring a trap upon him. which surprised him since he thought that nothing could. There were any number of factors that he could not account for. spreading out without making a significant amount of noise. neither would a thousand in all likelihood. “Excellent. Deftinwolf honestly wasn’t certain whether to admire him or pity him. and you will save your life which is. “You must have known this was going to happen.” He smiled mirthlessly at Hohenberger. staring up blankly at the ceiling. attached to a variety of intravenous bags. actually.” Hohenberger regarded him blandly. and he also felt it sent an important message of confidence that he was there without any sort of back-up.” said Deftinwolf reluctantly. Deftinwolf made a circling gesture with his raised finger. he took the time to drop his voice to an oddly conversational mutter. moving with his usual confident saunter. after all. “I would not do that were I you. and there was a distinct chance that things could go tragically. in case you have not yet realized that. That was simply unacceptable. sat the object of the hour: a gelatinous cube completely enveloping a human heart. unaccustomed as he was to someone giving him this much aggravation. People obeyed him and if they did not. “Do you have a bioscanner?” Hohenberger said abruptly. and you will see the release of your wife in no time. Chapter 15 While You Were Sleeping General Deftinwolf had made his first sojourn to the home of Leonard Hohenberger completely on his own.” Hohenberger stared at him for a long moment.” said Deftinwolf readily. “Why? Don’t you have a bioscanner in all that marvelous equipment of yours?” “Yes. The Beast appeared lifeless save that he was breathing. He had the element of surprise. On the metal lab table beside the pair. There was a fine line between trying to put forward an image of strength as opposed to pointless overkill. keeping them closed for exactly two seconds. “You realize if something were to happen to me. My wife…is she alive?” “Yes. closing their lids. its ventricles poking out through the substance like a porcupine. who looked slightly puzzled to have his services required since there had been no battle thus far.” “Bring him to my lab. “I have a medical technician to attend to wounds. horribly wrong. This meant that there was every possibility that Hohenberger might be stupid enough to attempt a betrayal and endeavor. So. but one that would instantly sap their intellect and will if spoken.” Despite the importance of his position in the grand scheme of things.” He was clearly losing patience. “Come this way. mewling thing that was his wife.” he said. but both their lives.” “I did not come here to fence with you. of course. She is alive. to that pathetic. very much in danger. An assortment of tubes hung nearby. and then Deftinwolf could see his resistance wilting. like someone who had had a stroke and was effectively a prisoner of his own body. and opening them again. in some way. indicating with a sweep of his arm that Deftinwolf should enter. Deftinwolf had to fight the urge to strike him in it. invited guests.” “Where is it?” “First thing’s first. Hohenberger had a plan.” he said. It all came down to Pearl. Why not? They had so far. he was still willing to throw everyone and everything away if it meant saving her.” ‘Yes. The question caught Deftinwolf off guard. bringing the small. it would bring them out of their paralysis and they would remember nothing of what happened while they were under its spell. They did so oddly. just kicked it in. was easier. It was as if they were blinking in slow motion. that one hundred would not be enough. Tell me that you have Knowledge and Beast waiting for us as well. The Beast was basically sleeping but with his eyes open. I assume it is the fact that I am not stupid that you sought my help in the first place. Every so often. and Hohenberger said mildly. what I would do. Doctor. there was nothing to indicate that they were alive.And so he had decided to correct that oversight when it came time to program Coheed and Cambria. General. Deftinwolf was gratified to see the formidable Knowledge and Beast laid out on tables like the dead. despite the way that she had allowed grief to consume not only her. Coheed and Cambria lay upon their backs. Cambria.” “She is not dead. He likely has one.” He reached for the Beast’s throat. but he saw no reason to engage in brutal acts of destruction. and you may not trust the results. an unusual one that they would not likely encounter in their day-to-day battles against Wilhelm Ryan. They were. and I will say good evening. In fact. General. He summoned the medtech.” “How do I know? How do I know unless you show her to me?” “You do not get to dictate terms. Other than that and their very slow breathing. The door swung open and Hohenberger was standing within. “If I do not see that my wife is alive. Deftinwolf could scarcely contain his excitement. I am not stupid. the lighter of the two. If the word was spoken again. when Deftinwolf arrived at Hohenberger’s isolated mountain retreat. Still. “How do I know that? She could be dead by now and you would have no reason to share that information with me. This man was creating impediments to the Way Things Were Done. “You have it. “I have been waiting for this. my men will cut you to pieces before you have an instant to celebrate your good fortune.” . he had one hundred troops with him. he would kill them. He could have. But you don’t know what’s going to happen once you’ve killed him. A simple word. after all. He looked down at the Beast and passed his hand experimentally over the Beast’s face. Then again. And I’m going to do it with my own hands. They did so immediately. His return to the Hohenberger domicile was as a result of the good Doctor summoning him via the communications program in the files that Deftinwolf had left with him.” Hohenberger folded his arms and stuck out his chin slightly.” said Hohenberger. But it was a plan conceived in hurry and desperation. It was astounding how he could continue to love that creature. “Tell me you have the Monstar. Say anything else.” “Fair enough. There was the likelihood that if they were to find themselves going up against a full-on assault from Knowledge and the Beast. and settled for feeling vague contempt. then? That which Wilhelm Ryan declared you were to provide us?” “I would not have activated your summons had I not done so. Deftinwolf was reasonably sure that Beast wasn’t trapped within. Hohenberger managed to haul Coheed into the lab and wrestle him up onto a gurney.
played out across Heaven’s Fence.” Deftinwolf could no longer contain himself. Slowly.” The medtech looked afraid to give a wrong answer. The medtech was shaking his head. You give your opponent what he wants but not in the way he wants it. he wasn’t.” said the Doctor.” “My wife is already shattered. then they were absolutely my concern. “Do not play games or toy with me. she will be brought here immediately. From her body. The worst that happens is that I do not have to live with the guilt of what I’ve done. He had the targeting sight on. who in turn scurried to carry out his General’s order. at least. as if they were highly volatile material. No single element is responsible for the diseases that plague us.” Hohenberger folded his arms and actually smiled slightly. infuriated.” “Best guess. If he truly doesn’t wish to use it. but lethal once combined.” “This is not a game. “Well?” he said impatiently. He returned to his lab as he heard the last of the drop ships take off. but inevitably. He would treat them with extreme caution. This is the one you get. I should think. Look for any abnormalities in their blood stream.” “And then what? You’ll kill us both?” “What would be the point of that?” he said with a shrug.” he snapped at the medtech. And I have done so. Doctor. You’d have to find a way to isolate the virus from their blood. but I don’t know what I’m looking at. But the scanner can’t type it. Wilhelm Ryan will respect that. since he had nothing more to say to him. Consider that. “That’s all it’s been to Ryan since the beginning.” Tired of trading words with Hohenberger. The Beast contains the compound that will provide the disease the required level of virulence that your master is seeking. and thus I am a murdering bastard as well. Even as he wanted to yield to the impulse. he knew he wasn’t going to. Doctor!” “Of course it is. is it Ryan’s fault that your son is dead? Or are you angry with yourself for failing to protect him? Or is it God’s fault for failing to protect any of you? It is easy to select one individual element and say that it is entirely that element’s fault. . Hohenberger had managed to arrange that much. He was certain that at that moment. If he does. At that moment.” Deftinwolf had never wanted to pull a trigger as much in his life. and tell me quickly. But he had to do more than that. What if the vial were to shatter? What if you had a traitor in your midst? What if an accident occurred? What if—?” “None of those things were your concern!” “If I made the Monstar a reality. reluctantly.” He stared levelly at Deftinwolf.” “All Wilhelm Ryan cares about is making sure that the Beast be disposed of. “And pray tell. Coheed and Cambria were being whisked off to House Atlantic.” “Then your troopers will die. the indifference. Allow them to entertain themselves with her.“Really.” “Is it? Or are you simply looking to blame someone else for your own failures? In the end. Or don’t. It is entirely up to you. “What did you think would happen? That I would simply present you with a vial filled with something so virulent that releasing it could destroy all life in the Keywork? It would be unconscionably stupid for me to do that. And she will die in such a way that she will be begging for it to happen sooner than it will. Which was fine as far as Deftinwolf was concerned.” “And combining their blood will give us the Monstar?” “No. As for Knowledge. Doctor. would have liked nothing more than to wipe that smug expression off Hohenberger’s face. The General was beginning to lose patience.” Deftinwolf was unimpressed by this last-ditch effort of Hohenberger’s to try and save his little experiment. which is why it would be an extremely bad idea if any of your men decided to…avail themselves…of her body. what was the point of putting him down? Especially since it would render him useless to Ryan should the Supereme Tri-Mage later decide that he had further use for him. You think in a manner that is outside the norm. I suspect that she won’t be aware of what’s happening to her…but we can always hope. Cambria. Tell me what you have done. It’s unlike anything in my data banks. “Scan them. But the truth is. it might be appropriate to throw her to the troops. then. Deftinwolf lowered his weapon. Deftinwolf. “I want all of your research. me. and that impulse was absent from Hohenberger. although as it so happens that compound gives the Beast immunity to the virus within Knowledge.” He bowed slightly. “Have them brought out to the ship. focusing on the needs and desires of Wilhelm Ryan. If there is anything missing—if there is the slightest sign that you have held anything back—your wife will die. but then.” and he gestured toward Cambria. It revealed a highly secured area that he had crafted long ago. You claimed that he had no desire to employ the Monstar. much as it had been days earlier. he truly didn’t care if he lived or died. what is going to happen to me?” “I don’t pretend to know the specifics of how it will transpire. I have simply done it…creatively. “You are an intriguing adversary. “I have given Wilhelm Ryan what he asked for. It was just Deftinwolf and Hohenberger once more.” Hohenberger did not respond. It is always a combination of things. Everything you used to make the Monstar a reality. One of the most fundamental aspects of human beings was the desire to survive at all costs. * * * Hohenberger was alone. You would be doing me a tremendous favor. looking confused. “Think of it. ‘He and he alone is to blame. Do you understand that?” “Understand it?” He laughed bitterly. you are depending upon Wilhelm Ryan’s good humor and respect to appreciate your cleverness rather than reward it by returning your wife to you in pieces. Not wanting to sully his hands on the Doctor. In that. and that is entirely Wilhelm Ryan’s doing. “Contemplating that has filled my every waking moment since you first set foot in my home. Making sure that it was contained was also of importance. I’m sorry. Giving you the virus isn’t enough. The scientist was completely serious. I am presenting to it in a manner that will deter him from doing so.” Minutes later Deftinwolf’s men had gathered up everything—Coheed. Except. “considering her current state. very slowly. he could see it in Hohenberger’s eyes: the vacancy of hope. “as two components of an explosive. “Once Wilhelm Ryan has satisfied himself as to the truth of your claims. you have created a perfect analogy for the way the universe works. Deftinwolf brought the medtech forward.’ You’re a considerate man. And murdering bastards have to respect each other. I have just completed a virus that will enable him to kill billions. of course. At least Ryan wouldn’t dare touch them. It would be a very complicated procedure. Taking you at your word. A game in which everyone—you. though. A vast game of power. but I am reasonably sure that Ryan will kill you in retaliation. Knowledge contains the core disease itself. We can realize that and accept our own place in that grand scheme…or we can just point fingers and say. Doctor. well…” He shrugged. everyone—is nothing but a pawn. he pulled out his pulser and pointed it directly between Hohenberger’s eyes. That being the case. “You are too small and this is far too big. he restrained himself. And how can you be so sure of that?” “Because Wilhelm Ryan is a murdering bastard.” There was unexpected fire in Hohenberger’s eyes and steel in his voice. and so a perfect little pinpoint of red light took up residence just above the bridge of the Doctor’s nose. “How long until Pearl is released?” said Hohenberger.” “You did not specify in what form I was to give it to you. Each of them harmless as long as they are on their own. General. and Hohenberger relieved him of his concerns. So I’ve decided that one of the pawns should make his own move. I promise you that. just in case unwanted visitors happened to show up. It is entirely up to you.” said Hohenberger. but as always.” “How? From your wrath?” “No. all of Hohenberger’s notes—and secured them all to the drop ship.” Deftinwolf didn’t understand at first. He tapped a button on the wall and it slid aside. then that should not prove to be a problem. The medtech came as he was bidden. “What have you done?” he said with an edge to his voice. “Give me the virus in its pure form. and the General said. And he had. Besides. that in your delivery of the Monstar. “Shoot or do not shoot. he withdrew his hands. “There’s something in him…and in her.” “Really.
or a hand. “Far moreso than I would have credited him. or at least not physically so. because—and I apologize for the hyperbole—but the fate of every living creature on Heaven’s Fence is going to depend upon your actions…” Chapter 16 All Falls Apart “Diabolical. Ryan was appearing to him as a hologram. She glanced around the shuttle and then sucked in her breath sharply when she saw Deftinwolf. still in a pre-birth. gesturing toward her seat. Instead Ryan produced the closest thing to a laugh that he had ever heard from the Supreme Tri-Mage. He turned away from her. They were not face-to-face. quickly. with the round door irised open in the side. or anything to break the smooth black surface.” “He met the terms of the arrangement. I’m sure that you and she will have a most intriguing…chat. Diabolical. or an entire arm. It had not been long ago at all that he watched with amusement as Coheed. He did. At first she had hesitated to enter. There are means of returning her as less than the woman she was. He’d named her Josephine. but stopping short of physical mutilation. Cambria and Inferno. though. There was a single passenger seat against the wall. Once he even bumped the General with his elbow and immediately started spewing apologies. Granted. His face. an homage to a boy she would never have the opportunity to know. She did not look directly at him. Now there was something else—someone else—floating in the viscous liquid that filled the vat.” It was the complicated array of devices that had basically served as the birthing area for Coheed. “then the chances are that I am no longer alive. but it was a plan conceived in hurry and desperation. although she kept giving them suspicious glances the entire time. facing each other and standing at attention. Yet at the same time that moment seemed a lifetime ago.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. as seemed to be the trend of late. Slowly he placed his hand flat against the vat and stared in at her.Within that area was contained what he had come to refer to as “the vats.” Ryan said again. her muscles quickly regaining their strength. From within the shuttle. instead she kept glancing in a sidelong manner at him. “If you are watching this. remained unreadable. the one that he had usually employed when he was filming experiments in progress. “Are you comfortable. legs curled up. “We must do as we have promised that we would do. Ryan actually seemed to be displaying just a touch of admiration for an opponent. like a trapped animal. caressing the oozing cracks therein. He is allowing for the possibility that I might employ the virus the moment I get my hands on it. You have sent me the specifics of the good Doctor’s notes on his creation of the Monstar?” “Yes.” * * * Pearl Hohenberger slowly approached the small shuttlecraft. sir. in such a way that his conscience could feel unsullied. A tiny being. for she felt as if she would be stepping into a coffin. He had to make preparations.” he began. There was not a single window. “Will you kill his wife?” “Hmm? Why would I do that. which had previously contained Coheed. Pearl. I will be sending you back to Doctor Hohenberger with his wife. He would not have been the least bit surprised if.” “But you are under no obligation to return his wife to him. “Sit down. If that is the case. It wasn’t the General’s place to question. Deftinwolf and Ryan. the sooner we can bring you home. so that he could review them and possibly see somewhere where he had made an error. and feared that it might. Deftinwolf ignored it. She blinked in the sunlight like a mole just dragged out from its burrow.” said Ryan. General. you’ll have to admit. “Yes.” he added. almost as a casual afterthought. be returned in a less-than-whole manner. and there was a distinct chance that things. Pearl used the cane to get past them as quickly as she could. His wife will be returned to him. He hoped it would never come to that. Ryan had immediately gone to where he was keeping Pearl Hohenberger a prisoner and slain her on the spot.” Without a word she slid into the seat and clicked shut the straps. looking slightly nervous. They were for his own reference. however. with the Beast and Knowledge safely tucked away. It was obvious that she was becoming stronger. state. “But nothing so crass as returning her corpse. He sat down in front of his vidcam. the better. He noticed that she was sucking her thumb. could go terribly wrong. was intended for viewing by someone else. which was where Pearl Hohenberger would be seated. “The sooner you do so. unable to contain his rage. but a bit rough. and fasten the restraints. although she was moving a bit faster with every passing minute. of having a conscience in the first place. It was not what Deftinwolf had been expecting.” “You mean…that we should make certain he is reunited with his wife—” “—in a manner that is not what he was expecting. Of course. The cabin was cramped. Deftinwolf watched the entire process with amusement. had beheld Cambria and manifested an example of his physical interest in her. Every so often he would glance toward Deftinwolf. “How could you even suggest such a thing? No. view port. putting the cane in first to ensure her balance before entering the rest of the way herself. before he lost control. but he did give it to me. It was a sleek cone design and pitch black. Deftinwolf was still en route in his vessel. but adolescent. because the Supreme Tri-Mage was speaking in a manner that Deftinwolf was unaccustomed to hearing. This. Her legs were unsteady and she was walking with a cane. The man is diabolical. however. and what you must now do. forcing himself to think in a logical.” “Yes.” Ryan actually sounded stricken that this could even be a topic for conversation. Pearl?” “Stop it. I will look them over carefully. She could.” Mayo Deftinwolf was astounded at the way that Wilhelm Ryan had made that pronouncement. ask. He had thought that Ryan would erupt in fury upon learning what Hohenberger had done. for instance. Then she remembered where she had just spent the most recent days of her life and allowed the small platoon of guards to guide her there…not that she could have prevented them from doing so even if she’d been so inclined. however. There were any number of factors that he could not account for.” “You mean missing some fingers. He seeks to free his wife from my kindly clutches while simultaneously hoping to buy additional time for Heaven’s Fence by delaying my accessing the Monstar. Just cut loose her dangling coffin and allowed her to plummet into the depths. arms tucked under its miniature chin. General?” “Because he attempted to get around giving you the Monstar. for Deftinwolf had felt that the sooner he conveyed the news to his master. One of the hazards.” he said. but not the way I expected. then listen carefully: Here is what I have done. as if worried that one of them was going to shoot her or trip her or something.” “An intriguing notion. with the pilot seated next to Deftinwolf. linear progression and remove any hint of emotion from the equation. General. running the final checks before takeoff. He provides me what I want. and as soon as you return. only obey. he had a plan. ”if Hohenberger can meet his commitments in a way that is other than what is expected…there is no reason that we cannot do the same. Slowly she eased her way in.” he continued before Deftinwolf could reply.” “Good. Deftinwolf did not ask Ryan if that was indeed his plan.” “Stop what?” . The guards stopped just outside the ship and formed two perfect lines. no.
” The door irised open.“Stop acting like you care about me.” “I…I won’t. “He would never do that. but he turned over his pets.” She shook her head.” “He would and he did. for whatever reason.” Pearl had no response.” “You’re mistaken. “Why…your husband’s cooperation. I don’t believe you!” He shrugged.” she said even as she stepped out of the door. Pearl…are you familiar with an insect derived from a dragonfly?’” He saw her eyes widen. “his one true love. yes I can see you are. you bastard. I rather suspect that he will not be capable of lying to you. He crafted a rather nasty little virus. There’s no need for us to do that. her face go pale. It landed on the ground at her feet. but I’m on a rather pressing schedule. Tedious.” “Never.” “It’s not sweet. “You seem intact. of course.” “One life in exchange for billions. Pearl. See what happens. “You see?” said Deftinwolf approvingly. Apparently your little insect is an instrumental step in your husband’s very big creation for Ryan. He was willing to put the lives of billions at stake just to get you back. One has to do what one can in order to keep the people happy. “You will not even need that cane by the time you reach your destination. It is what it is. it’s rather sweet. and headed toward the house. I am told you will be fully restored. The shuttle’s thrusters roared to life and the small ship leaped skyward. “Whether you believe me or not really isn’t of much relevance. Use it as you see fit. easy as you please. But we are done moving you around. . In fact. but necessary. There’s going to be a rally this evening celebrating the greatness of Wilhelm Ryan and I’m expected to be his representative there. “In God’s name. When you think about it.” The shuttle suddenly jolted to a halt. He wouldn’t do anything to help you. on the other hand. So why would your husband be exempt from your righteous anger? But as I said…that’s in your hands. “This is where we part company. One that could destroy the entirety of the Keywork and billions of people with it. as only a wife can. Knowledge and the Beast. “Tell me. Pearl looked around in confusion. in fact.” “I don’t believe it. The door irised shut. “We’re not friends. I believe you have a romantic evening ahead of you. as if she was reminding herself how to form words with each syllable.” he continued with a patronizing inflection in his voice.” “How nice for him. The small engines of the shuttle continued to hum in standby mode as Deftinwolf looked at her sympathetically. “Yes. Ask him yourself. regarding the object at her feet with fear and loathing. And it’s not something Leonard would do. endorsing his decision to put billions of lives on the line just to save your own.” She spoke with great effort. When you see him.” “Perhaps. She was standing clear of the shuttle and Deftinwolf tossed something out to her.” he said. She got to her feet and stepped forward out the door. she had been so caught up in his words that she had literally forgotten that she was in the air. We got what we wanted. carefully.” “Necessary?” She could barely get the word out. his need was to get you back. simply say one word to him: ‘Monstar. She stared down as it as if he had just flipped a handful of excrement to her. Not only that. shoved it into her pocket.” He had been saving the best for last. from what I understand. very slowly. Pearl. He wouldn’t cooperate with you. He always knows. especially since she was a bright enough woman to intuit that she wasn’t going to like the answer. I hate to admit it. He couldn’t give Wilhelm Ryan what he wanted fast enough. Except that no longer appeared to be the case. Remarkable. well…then that’s simply justice.” “And what was that?” “Hmm?” “What did you want that you got?” He liked prolonging the exchange. If you take action. but it cannot be avoided.” “Do you really believe that?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. Your people kidnapped me.” “It’s lies.” “After what he did to me—?” He looked her up and down as the shuttle continued its sharp climb. you would have killed Ryan…killed me…killed anyone who helped him if you had that opportunity.” He had spoken very carefully. Just served them right up to us. Apparently more than your husband does. “A token of our appreciation. Then. And in this case. how much he loves you. that’s all you’ve been. you don’t even have to do all that. picked it up. And he did apologize. isn’t it? After all. He wanted to build up that moment of dread in her mind. “We will have you to your home within minutes and you will be able to put all of this behind you. Good health to you. He hates you as much as I do. and he knew he had her. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” she said. There are others who have run afoul of Wilhelm Ryan who departed his company in far worse shape than you. cutting off his view of Pearl Hohenberger. You have all your fingers and toes and internal organs. “Your legs are fully functional.” “It was regrettable. It was as if her vocal cords had been severed. But his hatred wasn’t enough to dampen his willingness to aid Wilhelm Ryan when it suited his needs. “All lies…from the General who serves the prince of lies…” “How do you know that?” “Because Leonard knows the right thing to do. He turned to the pilot and made an “up” gesture with his thumb. and seconds later the shuttle was driven skyward by its powerful thrusters. Pearl was left standing there. Her hands fumbled at them and seconds later she had pulled them clear. Both your eyes are still in your head. Repeatedly. He cares very much. she reached down for it. And do you also always know the right thing to do? Would you know the right thing to do if you happened to discover that everything I told you was true?” “I won’t dignify that comment with a response. I know. Pearl tried to stand up automatically and was yanked back down into her seat since she had neglected to undo the straps. Besides. then bring me right back to that…that coffin…and lock me away some more—?” “Of course not. The most she could manage was a faint rasping from the back of her throat. why?” “Because Wilhelm Ryan said so.” “No. Like we’re friends. If you do nothing…then you’re complicit in Leonard’s actions and give tacit approval. “Pearl…you’re in a delicate state of mind right now.’ Then watch his face. It prompted the desired result. with the same sort of dexterity typically required to slide a knife between someone’s ribs. Ask him if he did not willingly toss aside all means of resistance…give Wilhelm Ryan ultimate power…surrender Knowledge and the Beast…all for the sake of saving you.” “Another part of his little mind game. Your actions from this point on are entirely in your own hands. Wilhelm Ryan went over the notes your husband so generously kept in his endeavors.” “My dear Pearl. It would be best if we didn’t discuss this any furth—” “Fuck my state of mind! Tell me what you’re talking about! Tell me what’s going on? Why are you letting me go? Is this some sort of…of sick joke? You’re going to fly me around for a while.” He turned to the pilot and gestured toward the sky.” “No?” “I won’t be your pawn.
She shoved her tongue deep into his mouth. and the odd thing was that she was flying. and that was when his twisting around caused him to fall off the real couch in the real world. then Leonard would summon Inferno. and Joseph was sitting next to him on the couch. pervert the intention of the syringa. but instead because of something above. his arms spread wide. When she saw him. not by something shifting in the ground beneath him. did you create a doomsday virus. He had been far too agitated to simply go to bed and sleep. She had dragonfly wings projecting from her back. The skin had peeled away from her skin like overripe fruit. but there was time enough for that later. and Pearl. Watch. and she kissed him with an intensity and passion that he had almost forgotten she had. and suddenly Leonard felt a deep fear. or the creature that had been Pearl. Then he skidded to his halt. howling for salvation that would not come. but they would be safe enough. I need the woman you were to look at the woman you are now and realize that they did this to you. He would tell Inferno all about Josephine. screaming her name. that you need to be stronger than they are. “Honey! Joseph is right here!” “I can go away. even after all of that…you still would never do what you’re doing now. Which is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. He screamed as he tried to shove her off himself.” Slowly she was advancing on him. cause her to squeeze the trigger.” She was drawing closer. Ryan didn’t know about Inferno. and I swear. “The most marvelous family a woman could ever have.” he said cautiously. Pearl was approaching him slowly. and suddenly Pearl’s face—Pearl herself—had transformed into something scarcely recognizable as human. and he thought the ground truly was rumbling. Leonard if it’s a lie. He might know that the two of them managed to get around in an unknown vessel. a sense that something terrible was about to happen if he let Joseph out of his sight. That meant… What did that mean? “Pearl?” he whispered. Yes. but he didn’t have the slightest idea that Inferno. for just a heartbeat. his hand went right through his son. “I just want to do you right here and now. No doubt the source was a small airship. “Wait!” he said with growing urgency. how the fuck long do you think I would survive in any event? Tell me you didn’t do it. Then again. He couldn’t allow that. and then there something in her hand. and when Leonard reached for him. her feet dangling just above the ground. The remains of her lips pulled back into a sickening parody of a smile as she whispered. She laid the brownies on the table and eased herself into Leonard’s lap. “what are you doing?” “Is it true?” “Is what true—?” “Don’t play games with me. which was very much intact. You see—” “I don’t want to see. I want a simple. He was vanishing into the air. “Pearl…listen to me. The sleeping Hohenberger hit the ground. clean. yes-or-no answer. “My family. he had delivered Coheed and Cambria to his mortal enemy. At that point. which…as it turned out…it was. Even when you were so angry with me after Joseph. He had only ever seen Coheed and Cambria in action. to—” “Tell me about the Monstar. especially when there was so much to explain to her.” “Pearl. drifting in and out of consciousness. “He said that you integrated the syringa somehow.” said Pearl with a sigh. if he was alone in the woods. stinking fear. as soon as her safety was assured. he though that Pearl was really there before he realized he was alone. much less Pearl.” Slowly Joseph began to fade. “I swear to God almighty. Hohenberger sprang to his feet and ran for the front door. “Pearl!” He made a snap analysis of which direction the shuttle had come from and started running that way. and then looked down in horror as the rumbling tore open the floor to the side of the couch. they would put a strategy together to retrieve Coheed and Cambria. He saw it and came to a dead stop. We are truly blessed. Plus he still had one thing on his side: As near as he could determine. “Pearl. I don’t want to know that it’s complicated. One that could kill everyone and everything on the Fence. or perhaps a shuttle. making no sudden movements. They’ve…they’ve brainwashed you somehow. He was determined to stay awake until Pearl was safely back at home. And he would tell Pearl about her as well. He told himself that what he had actually managed to do was buy time. As soon as Pearl was back. The realization caused him to let out a confused and alarmed cry as he feared. “Don’t worry about him. his mind momentarily caught in the twilight line between waking and sleeping. “How did you think this was going to end?” and then she buried her teeth in his throat. Leonard. He kept trying to push away from his mind any thoughts on what he had done. He would tell her about all the plans he had created to combat the Monstar in the unspeakable event that Ryan managed to unleash it. He told himself that none of it mattered as long as it meant Pearl was home.” She was less than a foot away and her hand was shaking so violently that Leonard was concerned she would fire the thing involuntarily. Think about the fact that the woman I knew would never do this. Right now he had to focus on tending to his wife’s needs. fluttering delicately and enabling her to drift through the air.” said Pearl.” she said with a low chuckle. I will know and I will kill you. closer. He wanted to start shouting profanities directed at the unseen Ryan and Deftinwolf. He ran toward her. She was having trouble keeping the pulser leveled because her hand was trembling. He was shouting her name the entire way. drew back her blood-covered mouth and howled triumphantly as she thrust with her legs and pushed the both of them into the gap. do not play games with me. “Pearl…it’s complicated.” “Yes. and he started awake. and she shrieked. “The…the—” “They said you gave him a virus called the Monstar. more hysterical than he had ever heard. He threw it open and looked up just in time to see a shuttlecraft angling quickly away. which was odd. She was holding a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip brownies and smiling. He thrashed around in terror. along with Coheed and Cambria?!” . “Yes or no. that the crevice he had dreamed up truly was going to open before him. Fatigue tugged at his eyelids. making an idiot of himself if she was nowhere around. so much that she needed to know. terrified that anything he might do could set her off. Think. of course. she stopped moving. to see what was happening.” he said slowly. and there was nothing but her skull with bits of flesh desperately clinging to it. He was certain from the design and style that it was one of the Red Army’s vehicles. Then he realized that the trembling was being caused. Pearl emerged from the kitchen. She looked ashen and seemed to have lost about ten pounds.” Her voice grew louder and shrill. Turned you against me. turn it over to Ryan. at least there wasn’t anyone around to be embarrassed in front of. but Joseph wasn’t waiting.” He was paralyzed. and then he shouted.” said Leonard. smiling and talking about all of his future plans and all of the great things he was going to accomplish. because if Ryan unleashes a doomsday virus. The air should have been suffused with their aroma. And it would make everything okay. walking on a cane.Chapter 17 In the Flame of Error Leonard had been lying on the living room couch. He tried to push Pearl off himself. He couldn’t smell them. And in that confusion. possibly the most dangerous of the trio. That in order to save me. would never come. She had been slender to begin with and now looked practically skeletal. was still at large. This time it wasn’t out of a moment of joyous incredulity. He felt a burning behind his eyeballs and the vein in his temple was throbbing so fiercely that it seemed as if it was going to blow out the side of his head. A gaping chasm waited for them. and then the couch began to shake. He was. She was holding a hand pulser on him. we are. becoming transparent. This time it was from pure. you were willing to kill everyone else. and he choked out a laugh of strangled joy.
Arms with hands. He suspected he knew exactly where she was going: Inspiration Hideout. to put it mildly. I know in his heart he meant well. I need to escape. I’m ready to pull the trigger and put an end to this…this farce. I want myself back. uncertain. The pulser is no longer in my hand. It’s what Ryan thinks he deserves. and then other hands are helping as well. a triumph of experimentation… …and freedom. I loved to dance. I want her back. It was as if a barrier had been erected between his brain and his lips. * * * He lies there and I can see the swelling already beginning to rise from where I struck him. Freedom from the voices screaming within my head. he heard the pulser powering up. she swung the pulser up and directly into his face. It pulls me up and I go with it. It represents so much to me: a potential for new life. the barrel of the pulser aimed right at him. Higher. our son. but I don’t know who he is anymore. Find her. our… I drop the cane because I don’t need it anymore. what if Ryan had…I don’t know…put a bomb in her or something? We’re talking about Ryan. it has slipped out of it and clattered to the ground. He raised his eyes and saw. The ground was sufficiently hard that he wasn’t seeing her footprints.“Yes. with a sharp intake of breath. his legs wavering and threatening to buckle under him. I can’t do it. That was when he knew. I want to bring the cane slamming down again and again and scatter pieces of his skull all over the forest. She had left a gun behind. It’s testing me. I can hear Ryan in my head. Let him worry about the sins that he has committed. I don’t even think about it. telling me to pull the trigger. You need to know! Leonard’s mind screamed. It took him a few moments to realize that he was surprised to be alive. My problems are being left behind and below. whispering. for God’s sake. to take care of her. of doubt and uncertainty and naked fury. Hohenberger leaped at it. The trail was taking him unerringly in that direction. I need to remember who I am. Let Leonard stew in the guilt of his own making. tried to speak the words that his brain were able to string together with facility but that he could not force his mouth to speak. It needs to know how much I want the secrets contained within it. Guiding me toward what I need. The pulser is aimed squarely at the back of his head. and noted that the further he went. He realized belatedly that it was the cane even as he hit the ground. he had thought he was a dead man. It has decided that I am worthy. for the love of— . And then I see it again. licked his lips and tasted dirt. heading off at a different angle than she’d been approaching him. It’s what Deftinwolf thinks he deserves. It goes up. It’s what they want me to think he deserves. It’s the syringa. He tried running. Her state of mind was. But how can I do it? These branches loom in front of me… And suddenly they are gone. That’s it. I can leave them all behind and start anew. And I don’t know what I think anymore. and I’ll lay it all out for you if you’ll just listen a moment! What he managed to get out was. Hohenberger got to his feet. but he no longer needed it. She yanked it clear of him and something slammed into the side of his head. “You need—” and then the cane struck again. and he was becoming increasingly certain that she was heading there for some damned reason. freedom from all the disasters that have been visited upon us. and his knees buckled and down he went. He wished that he had a cane to lean on the way that Pearl had… “Pearl…” he muttered. Then he realized that that was all he was seeing: the gun. the more exhilarated I feel. or perhaps a God in whom I do not believe has placed it there to guide me. He tried to think so loudly that she would somehow be able to pluck his thoughts from the air. and I take aim with the gun. Blackness enveloped him and just before he slumped into unconsciousness. this time on the back of his head. My eyelids open to slits. or if they’re implanted by Ryan and Deftinwolf. and Pearl was nowhere to be seen. Find her. and yet he’s right there. There was no telling the full extent of the damage that Ryan had inflicted upon her. leering at me. I tentatively reach up toward one of the hands and it takes me in a grip that is both firm and yet gentle. It’s not shaking anymore. It wants to dance with me. and I look down at Leonard. and all I can see is Wilhelm Ryan’s mottled purple face. Soon the marks from the cane had vanished entirely. everything we ever shared. and the spiders are coming out yet again. Perhaps it’s there. and I have no idea from where it should come. They are no longer branches. and I’m young again. But it’s guiding me. the lighter the track from the cane became. They are gesturing to me invitingly. the hands open and inviting. one that he was helpless to overcome. to do the right thing on behalf of Heaven’s Fence. and together we dance. feeling as if he were swimming through a thick soup in order to do so. our beliefs. I’ll show it. but the cane had dug in hard enough that he was able to track it. He tried to stand. I reach toward the fly and it flutters just beyond my reach. I need guidance. to find her. make everything all right! Ryan thinks he’s won but I’ve fooled him! Him and Deftinwolf! I’ve played them both in order to free you. I need to still the voices of Ryan and Deftinwolf. beyond any question that he was never going to wake up. In my youth. and I miss her terribly. I know that now. He’s nowhere near here. The cane… He saw small digs in the dirt from the cane. and I can’t recall the last time I was this hap— * * * Leonard Hohenberger fought his way back to consciousness. It has been so long since I felt that sort of abandon that dancing brings. waving to me. You need to know the back-up plan! The cure I’ve come up with that’s going to solve everything. He needed to get to her. This is a test. He sprinted after it. I follow it. I can feel them crawling around in there. wishing me well. He lifted up his head. It was lying on the ground. Freedom from the knowledge that my husband has acted to destroy the entirety of Heaven’s Fence because of me. and yet for some reason it does not. Anything is possible. Hurry! Hurry! Leonard’s mind shouted at him. They pass me upward. He is a traitor to everything we knew together. and the ones who are near me point toward the syringa darting around me. I don’t know whether my thoughts are my own. one to the next. right there in my head. or even to herself. and it transforms into my beautiful dragonfly. That should repulse me. The multiple hands wave good-bye to me. Instead I follow the insect. He ripped both pants knees and blood and dirt mixed as he staggered back to his feet and forced himself to keep going. so young. but who was to say it was the only one she had on her? My God. That is what the insect portends for me. She might be a danger to others. I’ll show it I’m worthy. And then Ryan’s face begins to shift. She was leaning on it less and less. and it invites me to join it. I reach the highest point to which the arms and hands can take me. but—!” With a screech. I close my eyes and try to see Joseph’s face. I need to get them out of there. Leonard winced when he touched it and made a mental note not to do that again. trying to grab it away from her. Or at least I think I see it. I left that girl far behind. I would practice leaps and spins and feel as if I could fly. and the higher I go. I leap toward the dragonfly and I am light as air. telling me that it is impressed by my determination. This insanity. He reached up tentatively to the back of his head and could feel a lump already growing. They are arms.
a military man. But we have reached the crest and the rest of the way will be much. my love. Having the troublesome Doctor killed by his beloved wife was the sort of ironic denouement that appealed to Wilhelm Ryan. and yet when he bumped up against anyone near him. But I will be. It seemed as if they had been together forever. like a bent branch. Yet he kept pushing through. that’s what I’ll be. that same knowledge that had created the individuals who had caused Wilhelm Ryan so much aggravation.” Chapter 18 This Shattered Symphony Mayo Deftinwolf was in his glory. He screamed her name then. Wilhelm Ryan!” Cheers and shouts and huzzahs filled the air to the point where it was near deafening. moving toward the General with what could only be described as a singularity of purpose. the capital of Apity Prime. And yet. Apparently. heavy thud. and he wasn’t enamored of that notion. “It is a road that has been leading steadily uphill. now. But Ryan understood that they went a long way toward keeping the public passive and the adoration for him percolating. Even though Hohenberger had the element of surprise. presumably. Hohenberger fell back. he reached over tentatively and drew a single finger against her open palm. and the people were too busy jostling each other to take any notice. and as such he prided himself on always being one step ahead of the enemy and keeping a careful watch for any potential ambush. impossible. pain stabbing into them as he put weight upon them. use it on her husband. It would serve to let the people know that Wilhelm Ryan had asserted his control over those who had tried to bring him down. “Hohenberger. He strongly suspected he knew where it was going. of course. and thus the climb has been challenging. “Nobody move!” His voice thundered into the microphone. seemingly trying to avoid contact with anyone else. “Don’t worry. bound in death with her beloved son. Joseph had perched upon and spoken so dreamily about all his plans for when he grew up. For you. people packed in shoulder to shoulder. He knew all too well that Wilhelm Ryan had little patience for lavish displays of staged public affection. At that moment.” he whispered. my friends!” Deftinwolf called out to them. and he was no longer crying out Pearl’s name. he knew what was planned. he continued to scan the crowd as he typically did in any gathering. as the flags flew. did not obey him. and so shrugged and allowed them their head. even with being stomped to death a very real possibility. And Deftinwolf was extremely skilled at keeping that enthusiasm at fever pitch. All for you. he had been certain that Pearl was going to blow his brains out and save Deftinwolf the trouble. He had been watching the news. And so Deftinwolf had had his men organize a demonstration in Apity Central. And while that was happening. I swear to the God whose company you’re in. Their threat was over. He burst into the clearing and saw exactly what he had feared: Pearl was lying flattened against the large rock that. None of the other soldiers had spotted him as of yet. it had not been put to that use. Hohenberger was just pulling the pulser clear of his coat and Deftinwolf already had his own. and yet it had also passed in scarcely more than a heartbeat. much easier! We will feel the exhilaration of running where we had been walking with effort! We will know the greatness of a destiny that we will share with the Supreme Tri-Mage. If Deftinwolf had not had a microphone to his mouth. because I’m going to be the man you wanted me to be…needed me to be…and I wasn’t. watching the crowd. “It has been a long and difficult road. he would recoil from them as if he’d received an electric shock. Because Mayo Deftinwolf was. And from within the folds of his coat. though. once upon a time. Deftinwolf squeezed off a shot and winged Hohenberger. Leonard Hohenberger sank to his knees. As the people cheered. and he tried to bring his pulser up to fire off a blast at Deftinwolf.” he whispered. and Deftinwolf was unquestionably the man to deliver it. but he realized they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. far larger pulser yanked clear of his side holster and was aiming it square at Hohenberger. he heard the sound of something striking the rock with a disgusting. And he knew at that moment precisely what he was going to do. a splatting noise like wet cement being thrown against a wall. “The Red Army stands ready to take on all threats! There is no obstacle we cannot overcome. He was lean. as the music played. no challenge that we cannot rise to meet! Only the best and the brightest serve in the army of Wilhelm Ryan!” He gestured to indicate the squad of soldiers who lined the stage. her body crumbled like a puppet bereft of its strings. but even though a tourniquet had been applied to stop the bleeding. She lay upon Joseph’s grave. He began to sob violently. Their entire life together flashed past his eyes. The Black Rainbow looked down upon the assemblage. Anyone who stands opposed to the Supreme Tri-Mage will quickly pay the ultimate penalty!” More cheers. Hohenberger somehow sensed that Deftinwolf had noticed him. That was. Deftinwolf took his place on a hastily constructed stage. Deftinwolf figured out within seconds who the man was and the nature of his mission. he would have seemed mute even if he was shouting at the top of his lungs. A woman who had been tortured in so many senses was now at peace. So it was that Deftinwolf spotted the man moving through the crowd toward him. praying that the noise wasn’t what he thought it was while knowing that it was. however. He couldn’t fathom it. that she had plummeted from overhead. starting one sentence after the next and unable to complete any of them. as if it were building upon itself. Then he looked in the direction that the shuttlecraft had gone in.Still a hundred feet away from Joseph’s beloved place of contemplation. Deftinwolf strongly felt that another celebration of Ryan’s greatness needed to be held in order to counter any of the headway that Knowledge and Beast had made in the public consciousness. like a shattered cradle. “The enemies of Wilhelm Ryan are your enemies as well. Deftinwolf was far faster. and walking stiffly. and soon the family will be together again. Had he killed his wife in self-defense? That would be almost as satisfying a punishment. and everything in between. It was clear from the broken branches that lay around her. like a man on a mission. first and foremost. Everything is going to be better. He was wearing a long coat and a hat pulled low over his eyes. . and Deftinwolf had been more than happy to facilitate that outcome. I swear to you. Hohenberger pulled out a pulser. and it froze them in their spots. Deftinwolf did not hesitate. there was still a good deal of spilled blood to clean up. And we will stop at nothing to protect you from them. louder and louder. which didn’t bother Deftinwolf all that much except that his men would wind up having to oversee the cleanup detail. from the first time he’d laid eyes on her to their wedding to the birth of their son to now. having to fight the motion of people around them so as not to fall and get crushed underfoot. This time they did not stop shouting. Instead he was babbling incoherently. He looked up and he and Deftinwolf locked gazes. And when Leonard Hohenberger had expended all his energy and grief and frustration. impending demise did nothing to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm. for whatever reason. Countless lives would have been lost. more cries of “Wilhelm Ryan is God!” and “Ryan will live forever!” and similar sentiments. carrying above the shouts of the crowd. the weapon dropping from his hand. their faces unseen within their helmets. In the end. “You’re with Joseph now. Hohenberger. “I’m sorry. This time it continued to escalate.” and he kissed her knuckles. There was a message to be delivered this day. Deftinwolf recognized it instantly. So it was shocking to see him here. Not realizing what was happening. although it still left Hohenberger walking around with all that knowledge in his head. At first Deftinwolf endeavored to quiet them so he could continue to talk. it was the one he had tossed out of the ship to Pearl so that she could. and thinking that Deftinwolf was threatening them. the crowd was ready to break into a stampede.
you are severely mistak—” “You gutless shit! Don’t have the nerve to take on a single unarmed man?” The bloodthirsty demands from the crowd were beginning to annoy Deftinwolf. Inferno had figured out through simple reverse logic what his creator was up to. The closer of the soldiers began. Fortunately Inferno had been able to discern that in about two minutes. he was actually smiling. He reacted entirely on instinct as he brought his pulser level and fired off a shot. indeed. however. The Grail Arbor made do with ten.Having seen the target of Deftinwolf’s assault. invited to take a tour of outer space on foot and helped on his way by an exceedingly annoyed Cambria who was embarrassed to admit that she had brought him along “because he seemed to have an honest face.” Deftinwolf said slowly.” Hohenberger managed to say. The crowd was cheering its approval. roared in fury. grabbed the pulser out of the holster of the nearer man. or both. They started calling Deftinwolf’s name. really—and could not say that he was the least bit surprised. The crowd roared its approval even as Deftinwolf holstered his pulser. Deftinwolf leaned in toward him. along with the spy himself. none of them could hear him as he addressed Hohenberger. would require a crew of at least a hundred to man her properly. Finally the soldiers regained their footing. a dozen Red Army soldiers elbowed their way into the sea of people. A pair of soldiers grabbed at his arms in an attempt to restrain him. He had been certain that the Doctor was headed on a suicidal course the moment that Hohenberger had ordered him to remain on station in the Grail Arbor. Now step to!” “Yes sir. You were trying to kill yourself. was it not? Chapter 19 New in Town Inferno witnessed the death of his father—the death of himself. Hohenberger didn’t even stagger. and really. gripping the squirming doctor between them so tightly their knuckles went white under their crimson gloves. He yanked his arms clear. It was not a mindset that . but then his head tilted backward and his eyes rolled upward. he slammed his shoulder into the man on the right. “Bring him up here!’ Deftinwolf ordered. You knew you could never accomplish it. “that I am going to transform you into a martyr in front of these people. The Grail Arbor hung silently in the depths of space. He didn’t know the specifics of what Hohenberger had in mind.” said Hohenberger as if he were addressing an idiot. but they hauled Hohenberger up to the stage. Typically they were downtrodden protestors who were being stomped underfoot by Ryan’s forces. Deftinwolf. intercepting the spy’s first attempted clandestine transmission to the General. Slowly Deftinwolf rose to standing. Meanwhile the crowd’s enthusiasm was reaching new heights. with a definite tone of pure terror in their voices. they had—here and there—picked up likely recruits in their mission. “General—” Deftinwolf held up a single finger and the soldier immediately went mute. “You’re a fool. for maximum potential. but he was able to make out enough to see his danger. Even as he did that. With your intellect and his resources. since ultimately it all served to benefit Wilhelm Ryan. That potential happy time now seemed further away than ever. in a rare lapse. with a faint whisper not much louder than the cooing of a dove. He stumbled as they pulled him up the steps. Tearing his attention from Hohenberger’s body. empty save for Inferno himself.” he said. Deftinwolf put the microphone aside. as if they were caught up in the throes of religious fervor. since Hohenberger had made it quite a ways toward the front before catching Deftinwolf’s attention. as if he were pleased with the denouement of this tragic waste. His head was trembling violently and there was a gurgling rattling in his throat. General!” and he raised his voice. Insanely. Leonard. Hohenberger snarled at him. nearly falling before they yanked him to his feet and half-dragged.” both of them said in unison. After that. scarcely able to contain his anger. as Coheed and Cambria had embarked upon their anti-Ryan crusade. She killed herself rather than submit to your will. The fact that Hohenberger was alive at all was nothing short of miraculous. caving in the Doctor’s chest. are going to be joining her shortly. What would Pearl think of such a plan?” “Pearl is dead. And either you. and rather than—I suspect—live with whatever the hell you bastards did to her. Originally. The crowd was shouting. “Gentlemen. “When I think of all that you could have accomplished on Ryan’s behalf. Had he wanted to blow Hohenberger’s arm off. His wife was going to be of paramount importance to him. Still. there had been no one on board at all. A huge wad of spittle flew through the air and landed squarely on Deftinwolf’s face. “Not me. “secure him in some guest quarters. and swung it toward Deftinwolf while screaming “This is for Pearl!” Deftinwolf’s vision was momentarily blurred from the spittle filling his eyes. melting through flesh and ribcage as it exited through his back with ease. Hohenberger slammed his foot down with full force on the boot of the man on his left. my friends! I but serve the will of Ryan!” He glanced at the red splotch on the floor of the stage that was the only thing left of Leonard Hohenberger. you can ponder the fact that your ineptitude enabled this man to get his hands on a weapon and nearly blow my head off. “I heard you say how enemies of your master were going to pay the ultimate penalty! Why don’t you collect it right now?” “If you think. that’s right.” he said. although in one memorable instance a new crew member had turned out to be a spy from Deftinwolf.” Deftinwolf said to him. “Ends…here…you’re dead…dead and damned…and you don’t even…know it yet…” He tried to say more. My my. Both soldiers lost their grip just for a moment. Then again. but that was all the distraction Hohenberger required. Hohenberger was trying to say something. they had stopped taking on recruits. although Inferno felt that the practice could be resumed after the threat of Wilhelm Ryan had been disposed of. The soldiers looked surprised. The General’s blast struck home. to give the crowd what it wanted just because they were howling for it. he cried out. when their alien benefactors had presented them with the vessel. Inferno was extremely difficult to surprise. Because he had set down the microphone and the crowd was busy calling for blood at full volume. Ordinarily a vessel of that size.” Coheed took the liberty of removing the spy’s face right before Cambria chucked him out the airlock. With a strength born of desperation and a cold fury stemming from having nothing to lose. Leonard Hohenberger joined his wife and son.” “Not endless. ignoring Hohenberger and addressing his men. I will attend to him la—” Hohenberger drew his lips together and let fly. amongst his gifts. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” “I was trying to kill you. sizzling right through it with the force of a burning pile driver. although he was far too controlled to let that be evident. “What did you think I was doing when I pointed a gun at you? Demonstrating my loyalty?” “You weren’t trying to kill me. and it was a move that so stunned his men that it gave Hohenberger the split second he needed. “You will clean up this mess. he could have done so. The spy’s mission had quickly been terminated. half-carried him to Deftinwolf. or have me or one of my men do it for you. the possibilities were endless. Hohenberger glowered at Deftinwolf. “Yes. that’s what it was all about. or I. His eyelids fluttered and then. and then he spread wide his arms and welcomed the crowd’s love. Your master’s little plan failed. fortunately they didn’t have far to go. This had not proven at all problematic for Inferno who possessed. “You will then report to the stockade where you will surrender yourselves to confinement. the ability to interface directly with artificial intelligences. Deftinwolf wasn’t especially inclined. causing Hohenberger to yelp in pain as he was reminded of the flesh wound on his shoulder. The packed crowd tried its best to get out of their way. “Traitor!” and “Kill him!” because that was the level of their devotion to Wilhelm Ryan. he suspected that Hohenberger himself did not know. even as he ducked so that Hohenberger’s blast sailed harmlessly over his head. So come on. but he knew that the Doctor wasn’t going to last much longer. hailing him as a hero. he just fell straight down and collapsed in a heap. She didn’t kill me. a noise that Deftinwolf recognized only too well. even though it still could not be heard above the shouting of the crowd.” When Deftinwolf did not immediately reply. crossed the stage to Hohenberger and dropped to one knee over the scientist. but that the Doctor was simply hedging his bets. And as you sit there and wonder if I’m going to kill you. Deftinwolf was a crack shot.
He was hardly an emotional rollercoaster. and everything in between. “I’m going to Apity Prime. “It’s one of my more…humanizing ones. But here. He entered the green house. And you could use one or two human aspects. Slowly. “I’ll know it when I see it. It seemed extraordinarily unlikely that Coheed and Cambria—particularly Coheed—would be willing to cooperate with such a decision. this is where we stand: Ryan has Coheed and Cambria. so…” he shrugged. He desperately wanted to give in to it. worse things in the universe than death. He sat there on the Grail Arbor. He had once been devoid of any sort of emotion. “Doctor. because—and I apologize for the hyperbole—but the fate of every living creature on Heaven’s Fence is going to depend upon your actions. telling him that there was absolutely no way that he was going to cooperate in Hohenberger’s attempts to placate Ryan. Their reactions. applauded Deftinwolf’s display of sang froid in disposing of an obvious threat. to inspect the Doctor’s home and see what information might be gained from looking around or.Inferno pretended to understand. If that is the case. somehow or other. after all. “then the chances are that I am no longer alive. He would scour every single planet of the bane of life. “To destroy Wilhelm Ryan?” said Bezal. The house seemed…extraordinarily empty. It was as if an emotional void had moved in and set up housekeeping. in the grand scheme of things. Since you and I have the same voice. serious-faced man named Bezal. Inferno did not bother to respond. It was. however. A dragonfly buzzed past his face and he waved it off. If the Doctor was going to manage to retrieve his wife. he was looking for. spoken. Instead he rose from his command chair. he had been feeling more and more over the months. he will. But that would be perfectly acceptable: Leave Ryan to be ruler over seventy-eight planets worth of barren ash. But the rank and file.” he said. So it would be necessary to incapacitate the two of them in some manner that was not available to him insofar as Inferno was concerned. Ryan’s being in charge was nothing short of a slow.” Inferno walked out of the command center. But he did not. or perhaps might show up himself. he had touched nothing. humanity was insignificant as well. and protest seemed muted. the speaking of that word a second time within their hearing will revive them. “If you are watching this.” and he smiled thinly. after all. the common man. He had never quite understood Pearl Hohenberger’s fascination with the creatures. Nothing seemed to be leaping out at him. * * * Inferno landed a safe distance from the house and secured the pod from prying eyes. Inferno would have thought that emptiness was a binomial state: either something was empty or it wasn’t. Seeing him now on the screen. Inferno. and just lay waste to the whole damned world.” “Her?” Inferno had no idea what Hohenberger could be referring to. “Bezal. Wilhelm Ryan would be spared. descend upon Apity Prime with all guns blazing. arguably self-defense. She is effectively our ‘child. Josephine is a genetic construct of Pearl and me. that makes you the only other individual in the universe who can restore them. with his compatriots missing and his creator and “mother” dead. Insects fluttered around him. and concluded that it was so minimal that it wasn’t even worth consideration. because it made him a more efficient instrument of destruction.” said the image of Hohenberger. because he had created force fields around his precious House Atlantic that were impenetrable even by the superior weaponry of Inferno’s vessel. and the intelligentsia expressed reserved outrage over the death of such a brilliant man. He had never been sure whether this was Hohenberger’s intent or not. on the other. because he would be saving them from whatever evil machinations Ryan had intended for them. seeking some clue as to what to do.” said Hohenberger. They whirled over him in what a more imaginative individual would have described as a dance of welcome. he had no intention of providing them warning that he was there. he would have felt nothing upon seeing such a thing. This caught Inferno by surprise. Then again. I am assuming that you are the one watching this. filled Inferno with a rage that nearly blinded him. once upon a time. Inferno was convinced that when he was taking leave of his creator. He wandered from room to room. in the grand scheme of things. I’ve no doubt of that. in assessing the situation in a detached fashion. Why not just cut right to it and just kill everyone and be done with it? In a way. prolonged death anyway.” he said to the emptiness. He had to believe that Ryan could be taken down once and for all. even better. like someone who had forgotten what a genuine smile was supposed to look or feel like. “Sir?” said Bezal. I would have been able to. what direction to take. watching the vidcast of the rally where Leonard Hohenberger had been killed. “I have instilled within them a devastating virus called the Monstar. Still. and what you must now do. Broadcasters were spinning it as the demise of a radical extremist who refused to believe in the awesome power and destiny of Wilhelm Ryan. Anyway.” he said aloud. he had remained respectfully silent as Inferno had watched and rewatched the final moments of Doctor Hohenberger on the main viewing screen. not understanding what Inferno was referring to. “she is gestating in the vat. All of this had occurred to Inferno before he returned to the Grail Arbor. There were. giving voice to what everyone was thinking. Inferno was greatly saddened to see him come to such a state. “I gave you that memory. He wanted to take the resources of the Grail Arbor. even though he understood intellectually that it had never been alive in the first place. but he could at least acknowledge that Hohenberger would probably feel that way. He had every reason to think that Deftinwolf would send a contingent of men. then listen carefully: Here is what I have done. He would incinerate all life in a paroxysm of destruction that suited his name. His second in command was a wiry. “Anyway. you have the conn.” There were murmurs of approval. like pinprick-sized flashes of light jumping around in a field of blackness. so perhaps it was simply a matter of perspective. and the KBI had to stand for something greater than that. plus this insidious virus that Ryan was hungering for. The reason he didn’t was because Hohenberger was a part of him. But do it. as if he were able to reply directly to Inferno. although it will take Ryan some time to figure out how to do it. he was right. Taking a stand against his creator. and what Inferno thought of merely as mildly annoying. on the wrong end of a pulser or a knife or of a spell concocted by Wilhelm Ryan. however. Because he was certain that Wilhelm Ryan would not hesitate to destroy all life if it suited his purposes. Then again. and only understood that Inferno was connected to Hohenberger in some way. On the one hand it seemed a brutal resolution. and then realized in a sort of removed way that. their lack of support for the great man who had been Leonard Hohenberger. Some sort of post-hypnotic trigger. Inferno was charting the reactions of the general public. As it turned out. That word is ‘Camille. and he looked toward his commander when Inferno spoke. The image of Leonard Hohenberger coalesced on the screen. “Yes. sadness. they seemed rather insignificant. Ready the LEO. He wasn’t entirely sure what. So don’t get yourself killed. he was doing so for the final time. There were a hundred variations of the way things could go. and that alone was doubtless proof of…something. and then was surprised to hear himself having said that. By my calculations. and then into the living room. The virus can be extracted from their bodies. as long as it’s my voice saying it. He went into the lab. I rendered them insensate through the speaking of a predetermined safety word. great legs. Bezal knew nothing of Inferno’s background. there was no way that Inferno could see Hohenberger coming out of this in one piece. Inferno noticed how much older and how haggard Hohenberger had become. Hohenberger was well respected in academic circles. He had considered revolting against Hohenberger. perhaps. “what would you have me do?” The vidscreen abruptly lit up. “Fortunately enough…there will be a cure for it by then. tearing it to pieces. After all. He knew that humans had a tendency to give names to inanimate objects.” said Inferno. He had to believe that the KBI had been created for a grander purpose than genocide. but there had been moments of happiness. even if he did not agree with them. somehow. he’d be doing them a favor. It made him feel even more lonely in the world.” Hohenberger said. If company did arrive. The Doctor’s interests were hardwired to be his own. Her name is Josephine. Otherwise what was the purpose of having created them in the first place? “There has to be something more. looked around. I rigged the vidscreen to respond to your voice. after all. even if you don’t realize it. precisely. He calculated the odds that the screen’s flaring to life within two seconds after his voice being heard in the empty house had been coincidence. Then he would attack the other worlds as well. “I would imagine that you have already figured that out. He had.’ . that would effectively shut down Coheed and Cambria before they even knew what was happening.’” “Blonde hair. The problem was that. and now he would never have the opportunity to ask. and every single one of them ended with Hohenberger. then he was going to have to give Ryan what the Tri-Mage desired: Coheed and Cambria. he didn’t know what. unless there has been an unexpected series of events. but… “Even as we speak. the house seemed bereft of life.” he said to no one save himself. it will require him many months to extract it and restructure it into a form that he will be able to utilize.
Why should there be? Hohenberger’s dead. that alone may be more than enough to thwart it. and then two. Doctor Hohenberger miscalculated. He redid all of Hohenberger’s analysis. had he been other than who he was. A detailed scan of her revealed that not only was he correct. most likely. Instead. as emotion had yet to take over his rationale in the same way it had nearly engulfed Hohenberger’s. Teague let out a scream and turned and ran. whose body twisted several times before lying still. She was already further developed than the normal amount of time would have allowed for her to be.” he said to Josephine. Coheed and Cambria. And…he was wrong. his arms flopped to either side. A minute passed. Yes. “When she’s born. born—Josephine is going to be a normal child. the priority would be to keep this child safe. He turned just in time to see the soldier lying upon the ground.” Teague rolled his eyes and then folded his arms and let out his breath in an annoyed sigh to indicate that he was going to do as instructed. At least ten years after she hits puberty. Were he someone who was given to a poetic nature. A tall. Just as he started to turn. the Grail Arbor. Inferno checked through the files and found all of Hohenberger’s research and records about Josephine. Several months of monitoring her vitals while she’s still in the vat— down to the molecular level—will give you more than enough time. He informed the Grail Arbor that he was going to be there for a while. By the time he got to the fourth go around of tests.” He did not need to add “Good-bye. Once you’ve done that…” And he shook his head. He quickly discerned that the child was developing even faster than Hohenberger had originally realized. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Keywork is some sort of biological entity. the stranger fired several more shots into the soldier. and I’ll do my best in that regard. ran new tests. “And I don’t have the faintest idea what that’s going to be. than I do myself. if not moreso. As he was waiting for the machines to cycle through the results. the antibody would not have the requisite time to fully develop. he would have scowled. “I am trusting you. they should continue to do whatever was required to mask their presence. He ran them again. Doctor. all they understood was which way to point their weapons and how to squeeze the trigger. approached the abandoned house. only now fully realizing the mistake Hohenberger had made with Josephine's gestation time. Ryan may take a while to achieve the breakthrough needed to harvest the Monstar from Coheed and Cambria. He sprinted from the scene and it was only when he’d fled about fifty yards did he realize that he’d gone in the wrong direction. and did not. having unslung their weapons to play it safe. as the sounds of weapons fire shattered the still of the day. what if he’d made others? What if the antidote NEVER worked? Inferno couldn’t allow that. since Ryan intends to use the Keywork as a means of transmitting the virus.” The lieutenant stared at him silently for a moment and then said. He studied the test results as they came through. at this point Josephine would be about the size of a five-week-old embryo. In fact. all business. I have placed an antibody for the Monstar into her blood. This was going to be a rare instance in the history of humanity where a cure predated a disease. That was unusual for him since Inferno’s internal clock was typically quite accurate. even if it meant devising a secondary failsafe. as if Teague had not spoken. “The antibodies will be present. she did not respond. Once she reaches embryonic maturity. was no place to raise a child from infancy. “Wait here. It was entirely possible that Hohenberger was right and the speed of her physical development would slow once she had reached nine months. Or at least as normal as one can be when she’s carrying the salvation of humanity within her body. or as least as patiently as he was capable of.” Inferno paused. cherry pick the best of it. he had lost track of how much time had passed. her every vital sign subjected to the closest scrutiny possible. the less he liked. It needs a gestation period during which time the nutrients provided in the vat will bring it to full strength. The blast. their weapons slung. Lying on his back. Nor is the antibody yet of sufficient potency to combat the Monstar. acerbic man with a sallow complexion and a firm belief that the world was largely comprised of idiots. The lieutenant and two of the soldiers entered the house. As it was.” That was when he heard the noise of thrusters from overhead. a warship. Good luck. “As difficult as it may be to believe. We don’t have time to wait twenty years. But he was not.” he said heavily. But once she is—well. Inferno immediately began updating all the data that Hohenberger had on Josephine. and you’re looking at the only individual who would have any incentive to come here because only I could possibly understand his work. He was too anxious to try and bring her to full gestation because he needed the antibody in her system to create the antivirus. Along with the four soldiers was Doctor Teague. the Keywork. “She is going to need to be protected.” “Secure it?” said Teague disdainfully. he might well have seen in it a symbol of the void that had just been left in his life. and the more he saw. he shared the same grasp of science as the great doctor—he was as brilliant. he started firing wildly in the general direction of the house. He’d make sure the safety of Heaven’s Fence was ensured. “From what? There is clearly no one around. Teague started running again. Thankfully. my friend…the only being in the world who knows me as well. the pulser rifle leveled at the doorway to the house. Then the man turned and his gaze fell upon Teague. The antibodies in the infant’s bloodstream won’t be ready when she is born. but that there was no sign of deceleration. The private’s weapon was in his hand in an instant. wanting to make certain that there was an oral history of everything that had transpired. Doctor. apparently the good doctor had yet again looked toward future necessities. the ship was back the other way. The senior in rank was a lieutenant who said briskly. We need to secure the premises. He saw what Hohenberger had meant about acceleration. “How long does something like this usually take—?” And then he jumped. * * * Four of Deftinwolf’s finest soldiers. use the antibody within her to develop an antiviral medication for the Monstar. With a yelp. but… find a way to introduce the antiviral into the Keywork. As of the point that I’m recording this. “This sounds insane to me even as I’m saying it. and Teague turned to the private who had remained with him and said with annoyance. and the helper T-cells will be inadequate for the task. “Wait here. He wasn’t underestimating Ryan for a moment. According to Hohenberger’s calculations. She will reach full term in the third of a time that a normal human child would require.” The screen went blank. and yet again. but it’s going to take a lot less time than that. . which came in at an angle. But she is not going to be a factor at this point in the game. Teague could not wait for the opportunity to go through all of Hohenberger’s research. But there’s more. if not better. Project Josephine. and as such it needs proactive protection from the Monstar. He should never have put any acceleration into her genetic make-up.” he said. “Company’s here. The wall slid down and he saw exactly what Hohenberger had told him would be there: a human embryo. But the accelerated techniques used to create you. There was a terrifying man standing over him. he decided that it would be possible to move Josephine to the Grail Arbor. Then he set to work. He sat stiffly in the chair and began speaking. However long it was going to take Ryan to extract his beloved virus from the bodies of Coheed and Cambria. I have not yet determined how to synthesize the cure from her blood. “Fall back before—” And then the private was knocked off his feet by a pulse blast that seemed to have come from nowhere. but had no intention of liking it. his face remained impassive. not waiting to see what was happening. Still. and then present it to Ryan as his own work. The technology appeared portable. and that although they should remain on station. Inferno stared at the emptiness of the blank screen for some time. but Inferno’s own at-a-glance assessment pegged her as being a little over two months. ricocheted off his armor plating. The soldiers with him would be in no position to inform the Tri-Mage of the truth of things. a pulser in his hand. one of Ryan’s premiere scientists. He looked up and. He thought that the hastening of her development was within the bounds of what would be required. The somatic hypermutation in her cells won’t allow for the necessary replication. For the time being…we’re going to have to find some other way to stop Wilhelm Ryan. But for now. but her own humoral immune system will not be fully developed enough to generate them in sufficient quantity. could not be fully utilized. her body will slow to normal growth…it won’t make any difference. Unsurprisingly.combining the best of both of us. he went to the vat and punched in the security code. At point blank range. certainly Inferno was going to be able to prepare the antiviral through Josephine’s blood before that. We need to secure the premises. Teague waited patiently. he heard a horrific scream. Then he went over the console and activated the recording journal. Her system won’t be able to provide the necessary antibodies for decades yet. “Fall back to the landing ship!” he snapped at Teague. and his mind began to wander into the worst possible scenario: If the doctor had made an error like this. “Journal Entry #1. startled. the ship that represented his escape left far behind. He went to the vat and stared in at the child floating there in the liquids.
Coheed is close. stumbled to his feet and kept going. his beloved wife— No. had been so confidant that Teague presented no danger. the first thing that Inferno did was inspect the area. I may be Leonard Hohenberger on some sort of molecular level. Had he said prayers? Had he silently cursed an insensitive.He was on what appeared to be a narrow path and he kept his feet to it. fell. who had effortlessly dispatched the other soldiers. not mine. certain that at any second that man. Do I even have a soul of any kind? Who or what am I. set his mind to thinking in ways that would solve problems— His mind. he had lost the ability to factor his own survival into an assault plan. would be upon him. dead long before he crumbled to the ground. Inferno was certain that by this point it had already been cremated. Pearl. Teague couldn’t believe his fortune. “Idiot. Sometimes it would be as a result of something she said. not mine. That gave him the full picture of all that had transpired there. much less running for his life. anyway? —who had been the only person in the world who truly understood him— Hohenberger. Inferno had no idea why the woman had climbed a tree and then thrown herself from it. He smiled. Inferno envisioned his creator standing over the grave of his wife. One moment the man was on the other side of the clearing. Because she always believed in him. stumbled. you are! You’re going to shoot me with that pulser!” “Is this what’s bothering you?” said the man. but he’s as much machine as man… —and even when he was stuck— …and I have no idea where he and Cambria are. That absolutely could work. Even if he’s disabled. Such violence seemed inappropriate to a section of the wood that Hohenberger had so revered. and the next thing he knew he had come up with fresh approaches. He led a mostly sedentary life and so did not have much opportunity to engage in any sort of strenuous exercise. monster of a man. That’s how it always had been with Pearl. and a couple of broken branches. sprinting as fast as he could. shoving the pulser back against Teague. “Don’t shoot!” “I’m not going to shoot. and tossed off a short salute to her. Hohenberger had lost the will to live. “Thank you. This man.” said Teague. or at least as close to sorrow as he was capable. and even they are not like me… —and had been able to inspire him. Casually he tossed the weapon aside as if it meant nothing. Otherwise there was no way that Hohenberger would have willingly thrown himself into a suicidal attempt on Deftinwolf’s life. Chapter 20 . and the next. ripped up his knees. and footprints leading up to it. I suppose. uncaring God? Had he simply been silent? Inferno would never know. If I can get within range… That could work. His. Unfortunately Teague had thought he already had the gun clear and squeezed the trigger too hurriedly.” said the terrifying man calmly. in Joseph’s former place of contemplation and reflection. reduced to ashes and scattered to the winds of space. But then he noticed that there had been violence there not long before. Apparently the good doctor had been meticulous enough to attend to his wife’s burial. Vids had shown Deftinwolf’s men hurriedly bagging up his body and carting it away after the failed assassination attempt. It was because it had happened here. as if the answers to his problems could somehow be discerned there. Not for certain… —and found himself facing difficulties that seemed insurmountable— Wait. No one in the world can possibly understand me because there is no one else in the world like me. staring at it. He stepped back from the corpse upon the ground and actually felt sorrow. Not mine. * * * “Idiot. The weapon never cleared his jacket. Hohenberger would find himself with some sort of insolvable problem. Blood was all over the boulder. It required only minutes for Inferno to verify his hypothesis. or more accurately. Not me. which would have essentially required his digging her grave himself. He stood in front of the boulder. The man was standing in front of him. Once the shuttlepod had landed. Which means I can use the instrumentation on the Grail Arbor to track them and get a read on where he and Cambria are. but her stay had been truncated. There was no need to rush: Hohenberger was dead and Inferno was certain that Pearl was as well. and he yanked out the small hand pulser that he kept secreted inside his jacket with the intention of shooting the now unarmed man in cold blood.” said Inferno. that he had willingly disarmed himself. As a result he blew out his own heart and lungs.. Teague froze. He looked up at a nearby tree and saw bits of bark scraped away. “Yes. something large had been buried nearby Joseph. I don’t have his soul. Someone had scaled the tree. His problems. he was right there. No one can understand my problems or what it is like to not fully experience human emotion. He reached a clearing and screeched in alarm. His biomechs. but other times just being in her presence helped to focus him.” he said. and then he would be with Pearl. The Doctor has all the specs from the biomechs that were installed into Coheed when he was first created. and there was freshly turned dirt nearby. that frightening. It wasn’t because the fool had tried to kill him and had ended up in killing himself. And if I can do that. but I don’t have his spirit.. Pearl Hohenberger had come home. He ran. they’ll still be generating a traceable energy signature. his heart pounding. Hohenberger would never lie beside his wife. No one save for Coheed and Cambria. Beneath the ground was Pearl. He was sure that his legs were going to give way.
Perhaps tying someone to a chair. and then a thousand. Inferno eluded the threat and kept on coming. if you and your men had not handled his attack so clumsily. at least one other. not an organic individual. There has to be someone else. If his wife did not dispatch him. He was close. and once more he was able to see Wilhelm Ryan. and he deftly moved the pod from one side to the other. The field was designed to repel either projectiles or energy blasts. Ryan turned and followed Deftinwolf’s gaze. Someone who has been transporting them from place to place. He was banking on the notion that if Coheed was there. seething with power.” “I am not one who should be afflicted with regrets. sizzling with the continual thunder of the pulser explosions. “And their ‘father’ should be here as well. General. From the point of view of military strategy: The longer we keep these two alive. but otherwise had no impact. Within seconds only five hundred feet remained between him and the outer edge of the force field.” “I’m perfectly aware of that. Cambria would not be far away. Everyone has.” “It was regrettable. He struck the top of the force field dome.” said Ryan softly. they represent a threat in ways that we might not be able to anticipate. sir. The air exploded repeatedly around Inferno. This one hit him full strength. its thrusters guiding it. and I do not see that his death fell into that category. The escape hatch blew open and Inferno leaped toward it. regarding him with a contemptuous sneer. “I’m sure you have before.When Skeletons Live “I wanted you to see this. Ryan looked over and saw that Mayo Deftinwolf had entered. In the highest tower of House Atlantic. “It cannot harm us in any event. attempting to outwit us. and not a moment before.” “So it would seem. Whatever Hohenberger had done. the more chance there is that some outside agency is going to attempt to use them against us. of Leonard Hohenberger resides within them.” Slowly he nodded. As a result. One of the pulser cannons clipped him just enough to send the pod angling into another blast. whether his wife killed him or I did. At those times. never raising his voice but still allowing an edge of steel to creep into his tone. over and around every single blast. Faster came the pod. He determined the angle of every shot and made adjustments so that he was able to dart under. but he considered it an intriguing notion and was contemplating testing it out at some point. brought his legs together. not more . “have that pod blown out of the sky. He would be. and fell with the speed and accuracy of an arrow.” said Ryan. Wilhelm Ryan had studied his captives extremely carefully and they were completely inoperative. and he slid one boney finger along the line of her chin. Someone who is. there was nothing to provide traction. finishing aloud the thought that had been meandering through his head. Instead he was looking up. at least. “But I have no care to find out. The General bowed slightly and Ryan acknowledged his arrival with a very slight tip of his head. he slapped his arms to his sides. “there is concern among the scientists that they will need the two of them alive in order to—” Deftinwolf wasn’t looking at Wilhelm Ryan. But I think I have a particularly good view of it from this elevation.” “They can have them when I am through enjoying staring at their helplessness. he’d done it well. but none were able to connect.” said Ryan.” “Why?” said Ryan. round vessel was descending at a blinding speed directly toward the high tower. and even glimpsed Wilhelm Ryan staring up at him with that baleful glare of his. The moment they cut loose. it was possible to see that the Rainbow was far more than a mere optical trick of light. for he had rigged the biosensor array to key in on the unique energy pattern generated by Coheed’s biomech. He angled straight toward the high tower.” said Deftinwolf. “It is more difficult to accomplish that if the subjects of their study are elsewhere. “Lovely night. and he braced himself as the shuttlepod spiraled down toward the field. he would have wound up dead either way. Air rushed past him. Then the pod spun away. On the other hand. On the other hand. Summon the scientists.” * * * No one in the world could have maneuvered the shuttlepod as deftly as Inferno did.” He fired an angry look at Deftinwolf. sir. “Sir…the scientists have already had a good deal of time to spend upon Knowledge and the Beast.” He looked to Ryan and said. That was when his luck ran out. “the spirit. “General. performing aerial acrobatics that would not have been possible for anyone else alive. I deem what is necessary. don’t you agree?” Knowledge and the Beast were lying upon gleaming. Inferno pushed himself through the exit and fell. with all respect. A small. It was an astounding combination of skill and luck. The air itself was burning. Every time they thought they had him. and although he was far too experienced a soldier to allow something as amateurish as astonishment to appear on his face. even now. “Attention primary gunneries. Energy sparked around him.” Deftinwolf was immediately on his comm device. The spirit of his ingenuity and his desire to bring me down. The bonds were there more for form’s sake than anything else. “Do they have nothing else to keep them occupied?” “They wish to serve you with full alacrity. cutting off his view. so close. melting the metal on the right side of the vessel. so as not to make it sound as if they were being demanding. Inferno started sliding. his arms and legs spread for a moment to slow his descent. and Inferno scarcely slowed. Inferno hit the emergency evacuation button. sir. Inferno had both in abundance.” There was a noise at the entrance. Ryan didn’t know that to be a fact. It didn’t matter. General. and seeing how long they could be forced to look at it and still retain their sanity. but necessary. The force field was deliberately created to allow assault blasts to go outward while preventing anything from coming in. held in place by bio-clamps that Ryan had been assured would resist any attempts to break loose of them. He was standing over Knowledge. General?” “Sir. sir. which was a particularly opportune time for viewing. General. since you seem to be little more than a vegetable. he had seen all he needed to. Inferno could see the high tower. The pulser blasts erupted behind him and around him. the scraping of a familiar footstep. We are secure behind the shield generator. Perhaps we could measure brain activity and see if there’s a change in even the minimal amount that we’re currently registering. Inferno now had no more control over it than if he had been piloting a falling boulder. then we should have taken advantage of that turn of fate to make use of his vast abilities.” he said. The only thing of true interest to us at this point is the Monstar. “Perhaps we should try that with you. and still the pulser cannons were unable to zero in on it. it might be difficult to get an accurate assessment. “There is more to the resistance against us than these two. is it not. Lock on descending vessel and destroy it immediately. it was obvious to Ryan that his General was certainly surprised by something. the skylight stood open to the heavens as it always was.” “I see your point. “Yes…perhaps they have overstayed their welcome at that.” “Sir. grabbing at the force field and unable to get a grip on it. The high tower loomed beneath him. affecting a tone of mild surprise. It was twilight. Still…” and he gestured toward Knowledge and the Beast.” Ryan considered it and then mentally shrugged. What is done cannot be undone. indestructible gurneys composed of castrodinium. leaving a deep crater. The thrusters misfired and went out. not on theirs. Both of the cannons targeted the incoming pod and opened fire. “See if it drives you quite mad. attaching the viewing lens of a telescope to their eyes. too. With the force field coming up fast. They would not have had the reflexes nor the steely reserve. It was just enough time for the pulser cannons to draw a bead on him.” Deftinwolf looked at them cautiously. As long as these two are breathing. General. The Black Rainbow glittered high overhead. “…as to when you were planning to return the subjects to the lab. Two heavy duty pulser cannons had been mounted on the upper turrets of House Atlantic. a curved dome of rippling energy. your scientists are…inquiring…” he had chosen the word carefully. But his unique connection to the machinery that piloted the Grail Arbor made it so that the ship was able to move with the speed of his thought. It was a swirling miasma of black energy.” said Deftinwolf. I suppose. It was said that some people endeavored to observe it for extended periods of time with telescopes and invariably went mad from it.” “People die on my terms. looking heavenward. “There is no use belaboring it. Have them drain every drop of blood from these two and we’ll be done with th—” “From what I understand. He had allowed for that possibility. His altitude fell from five thousand feet to three thousand.” said Wilhelm Ryan.
He had made it clear that sound could travel through the force field.” It had been Ryan who had spoken. “Camille!” shouted Inferno. it was there. and although his confidence seemed boundless. the beating heart of the universe. and worse.” Cambria’s gaze flickered from Coheed to Ryan. Slowly Coheed turned and saw Ryan standing directly over Cambria. however. there in the nothingness. No. and who could possibly resist the allure of knowing everything? She could see herself/himself standing above everything. She had come to as well.” she said. Wilhelm Ryan was right there. He wasn’t squeezing yet. Deftinwolf ducked. Cambria formed her will into a spear and drove it straight into Wilhelm Ryan’s mind. Ryan. But she had never had an encounter like this. His flesh shuddered beneath each blow. his foul breath washing over her. The gurney. who was still strapped down. Fortunately. * * * Coheed’s eyes snapped open. pushing against each other. A rare look of surprise registered upon Ryan. Coheed came in quickly. picking up speed with every passing moment—not that such terms as “moment” had any meaning where they were. The machetes snapped out of his left arm. no sense of right or wrong. and Deftinwolf’s eyes widened. “Foolish woman. The images that began to fill her head were darksome and terrifying. “That’s far enough. Deftinwolf hurtled backwards. which was impressive under the circumstances. It was like trying to punch through concrete with a feather. And nearby him was Mayo Deftinwolf. “Look behind you. shouting something about a fool. and her overwhelming need to challenge God himself because He represented the ultimate conquest.” “Really? I think someone else would disagree. He started to grab for his sidearm even as he shouted.than ten feet above. it was with more bravado than conviction. Ryan shouted up to him. each trying to overwhelm the other. the slightest chink in his armor. She had reached into peoples’ minds. fingers intertwined. controlled their actions. and Cambria could see it all there.” she said. Cambria shuddered. and she doubled her efforts.” “You could not be more mistaken. He did. but it would take only the slightest movement of his muscles to do so. she perceived the slightest hesitation. who also wasn’t paying attention to him. and with an infuriated growl. for He was the ultimate unknowable. with no sense of up or down. “You son of a bitch. and her attempt to drive her mind into his met with something unprecedented for her: resistance. Coheed leaped across the room like a panther and slammed into Deftinwolf with bone-crunching impact just as Deftinwolf was trying to get back to his feet. not understanding what was happening. Ryan staggered. She felt him trying to stab his mind into her. He glanced to his right and froze. His face was right up against hers. Cambria had never experienced anything like this. that’s what they were fighting for. not giving him a chance to recover. it was there for the taking. Right there. impervious to the blast. It was like a living organism. wielding ultimate power. “Cam. Because Ryan had done the single worst thing he possibly could have. It was as if Cambria had stepped from a hothouse directly into an arctic chill. although that might have been fanciful on his part. wait!” he said. “So you have names other than—” And Cambria shoved her mind toward that of Wilhelm Ryan. but was only partly successful. “even the slightest twitch. however. right there. that made Heaven’s Fence far more than just an agglomeration of planets. and that was when Cambria called out. Deftinwolf did not go down. that’s what this was all about. and Ryan reached out for her again. severing the bonds that were holding him to the gurney. He saw that he was tied down to some sort of table. a direct conflict that catapulted her mind into some other sphere entirely. Coheed held up the gurney defensively as Deftinwolf fired off several more shots. Coheed was faster. dropping his gun as he did so. skidded across the floor and into Coheed’s waiting hands. “Guards!” He was fast. she had lost her moral compass. and when he was inches away he started to tell her. and the key was in the Keywork. the slightest uncertainty. the Supreme Tri-Mage. He was trying to get her to disengage through sheer force of will. to think that you—” but that was as far as he got. his face getting pale.” Perhaps suspecting a trick. and her eyes locked upon him. their necks were snapped from the impact of the gurney striking them. two beings who were polar opposites. each knowing that a stalemate was not an acceptable outcome. The universe tilted around them. no. There in the void. He had his hands upon her throat and his face was a mask of hatred. And then comprehension dawned. The only thing she did know was that she had to triumph. All that mattered was achieving power. because with a primal scream that seemed torn from her innermost reaches. and then he spun once and hurled the gurney toward Deftinwolf as hard as he could. hitting the wall.” he said. prepared to throttle her. It was like some perversion of an act of love. and Cambria was right nearby. Someone is waiting for you. More than just the heart. But he wasn’t looking in Coheed’s direction. it was far more than that. Co. pounding him quickly in the gut with a rapid series of blows. and she pushed back against it. and then Deftinwolf struck back. was hardly any other individual. “Farewell. Ryan nevertheless cast a glance behind himself. right in her mind’s eye. the living energy that pulsed through it. although she wasn’t quite sure how yet.” And suddenly they were hurtling through the void.” echoed Ryan. “Co and Cam. * * * Darkness. Cambria’s control would have been instantaneous and irresistible. Darkness and bitter cold that permeated every cell of her body. fearful of the consequences. and the gurney sailed across the room and struck the two guards who had just entered at Deftinwolf’s behest. “Because I’ve instilled in you the realization that you’re going to lose. All that mattered were her desires. Were she and Ryan battling in another realm? Was this a delusion mutually concocted by their struggling minds? There was no way for her to know. Cambria laughed. He did not sit up immediately. and Coheed took that moment to thrust his foot up with all his strength. Ryan pushed back. She bestrode it like a colossus and she could just hold the entirety of Heaven’s Fence in her hand. their helmets protected their heads. stagger back against the wall. To know Him was to know everything. unfortunately. hitting the floor. and Coheed knew what she was going to do just before she did it. She was totally disoriented. like an icy knife. “I already have. Coheed’s foot slammed into Deftinwolf’s crotch with such force that Coheed was sure he could hear one of Deftinwolf’s balls crunching on impact. “You cannot win this. Coheed’s head snapped back and he hit the ground. The heart and soul of the Universe. Coheed leaped clear of the gurney just as Deftinwolf fired his sidearm. Coheed was on his feet and he started toward Deftinwolf once more. Then Deftinwolf turned and looked right at Coheed. take it and place it in her chest… “It’s mine!” roared the voice of Wilhelm Ryan and he was coming right at her. Ryan. fool!” And Inferno smiled. Instead he was staring up. because suddenly the lives of every creature that walked or swam or crawled upon Heaven’s Fence was of no consequence to her. “It’s all right. She had lost more than her sense of her whereabouts. achieving dominance. Deftinwolf then drove his own knee forward into Coheed’s face. she saw that now. Deftinwolf saw it at the last second and tried to twist his body away to block.” She smiled the wolfish smile that looked so at home on Coheed. . and I break your little girlfriend’s throat. he was starting to turn her own power back against her. but he might as well have been ten thousand feet. Their gazes locked. because he instantly realized that he was not where he thought he was supposed to be. light and dark crashing together. It was a will that had overcome other Mages. confused at first. Which was all that Inferno needed to verify.” snarled Deftinwolf. his soulless eyes boring into her. It was a will that had caused countless people to cower before him. smashing Coheed on the side of the head with such force that he went down to one knee. With any other individual. That was all she needed to push back against him with such force and fury that when he spoke. they came together. “One move. an astronomical phenomenon.
A small aperture opened in the base of the force field dome. leaping toward them like volcanic eruptions. a dozen members of the Red Army charged from the great double doors that were the main entrance to the keep. Inferno slammed the rifle butt into his helmeted face. Inferno was already moving. tripping over bits of human remains.” said Bezal. banging into each other. hadn’t we. then. Ryan.” “Eighteen minutes. Whoever was operating the field back within House Atlantic was only just then realizing what was going on. thirty seconds. That just pissed him off. They opened fire. at the ship’s helm. They were moving as quickly as humanly possible. but it didn’t seem reasonable that it could be. the pulser rifle slung under his arm. They would have returned fire.” “Well. “God wants you. and his joints were aching. Inferno didn’t wait for that circle to close. “Sir!” shouted a monitoring lieutenant. bereft of compassion or fear or guilt or any sensation that one could remotely describe as human. down the length of the energy dome that encompassed House Atlantic. It was an odd. plenty of activity within. It was no longer simply a band across the sky. The second soldier toppled over. Odds were that he was dead before he even reached the ground. The Grail Arbor remained helpless to have any impact on that. * * * Inferno skidded down. There was a loud “crack” of the soldier’s neck breaking and Inferno yanked his pulser rifle clear and was firing it another soldier before the first one’s dead body hit the ground. eager to haul them in. and the strength bred into him courtesy of his creator had done the rest. the operator didn’t wait to see what else was going to happen. He leaped over the next closest soldier. their pulser rifles at the ready. The aperture had only been open for about five seconds and Inferno had already inflicted that much damage. there was nothing save for large black craters with bits and pieces of human bodies scattered around them. . They were alert to the possibility that it was some sort of trick. They brought their weapons up to try and aim at him. however. He slammed shut the aperture… …trapping the rest of the squadron outside the field.” * * * House Atlantic was one of the most heavily guarded locations in Heaven’s Fence. sending bits of brain and bone and helmet flying everywhere. Several of them were blown into pieces before they even fully registered that they were under assault.” And Ryan’s gleaming eyes. The fall that Inferno had endured was simply from too high a point. bashing out the soldier’s teeth. moving so quickly that the soldiers hadn’t even registered he was standing yet. “Not when I’m through with Him. Bezal smiled grimly as he oversaw the Grail Arbor unleashing its big guns on the soldiers far below. The protective visor did its job for a split second and then shattered under the power of Inferno’s thrust. and blasted the leg off the second one while the latter soldier was still reacting to getting his helmet’s faceplate sprayed with gray matter and gore. Seconds later. They ran in perfect precision. The guns ran hot. double time. Inferno didn’t even bother to waste the shot. assaulting the ground mercilessly.” he said. grabbing at his stump of a leg. and the rest of his face was a crimson mass that wasn’t capable of producing anything beyond an inarticulate moan as he toppled over. Within seconds there was no one left moving outside the dome field. Inferno. the one who was standing between the aperture in the force field and himself. it was a yawning pit that was preparing to reach out to them and drag them away into nothingness. The frenzied operator within House Atlantic reopened the aperture. Inferno plowed into the nearest soldier like a linebacker. The soldiers were about to charge through it in pursuit of Inferno. He lay there in an unmoving heap. and Inferno was lying five feet away from it. Desperately trying to find shelter. their weapons aimed at him as they moved to encircle him. He covered the distance between the force field and the great front doors of House Atlantic so quickly that he was almost to the door when the first of the reinforcements emerged. The Black Rainbow was stretching in front of them. and it was all happening so quickly that it took that long for the other soldiers to react and open fire. even bizarre sound coming from him. simply stared back at her with the emotion one might see in a flashlight. Even as Ryan’s forces were being annihilated outside the field. Cambria looked defiantly at Ryan. The other soldiers didn’t know which way to run as blasts continued to pummel the area around them. Reflexively the other soldiers took a step back in the face of Inferno’s seemingly insane charge. and that was when death rained down from the sky. But the shock-absorbing armor that lined his suit had done its job and saved him from sustaining any major injuries. screaming. of course. He was still dizzy from the fall. There was. wrapped an arm around his helmet and twisted all in one motion. tumbling end over end and finally crashing to the ground. Nevertheless. Massive explosive blasts erupted all around them. was quite sure that that was going to change soon as well.He gasped. Where soldiers had been. He blew the head off his first target. reinforcements were dispatched to aid them and stop Inferno. they approached him with caution. He was up and on his feet. they ran one way and then the other. “House Atlantic has just sent out a distress call to any Red Army vessels in the area!” “ETA based on last known positions of the closest ships. “we’d best be out of here in eighteen minutes and twenty seconds. But Bezal. He reversed the rifle and when the first soldier emerged from the door. and the energy waves that had buffeted him as he tumbled down the curve of the dome would have been enough to shatter bones. leaving his mouth nothing but a hole full of bloody stumps. High above. was moving with such speed that the rest of the world seemed to be operating in slow motion. but there was nothing for them to shoot at. Tendrils composed of destructive energy rippled across its surface.
was everywhere. But it still wasn’t letting him get back to try and help Cambria. and that was when Deftinwolf heard a terrible and familiar clanking noise. He looked at it with some concern. thrust into an existence where there was no existence.” * * * The force field operator. ever have. and the Black Rainbow is nothing more than a random celestial event. the pure ineffable nature of her feelings for him. They tumbled away from one another and hit the bottom of the steps. in which case I am the stronger and He is a weak and pathetic thing not worth attending to. and she formed her passion and her fervency in her love for Coheed as if it were a javelin and she hurled the soulful emotion deep into the soulless heart of Wilhelm Ryan… And suddenly Cambria was back…except that she had gone nowhere. praying that the stickiness of the blood would act as a sealant and prevent it from peeling off any more. There was a loud “clang” as it hit the floor.” and he aimed the rifle squarely at Liltrequie. and she called out even though she could not see him. trying to break or snap or sever anything that they could get their respective hands or machetes on. and it said. Deftinwolf reached back. Beast!” he shouted. and fear was propelling him. She had no idea how or when she had managed to break free. aim his pulser at Cambria and pull the trigger.Chapter 21 I’ll Be Your Ghost Neither Cambria nor Wilhelm Ryan had moved so much as a centimeter. “You should have stuck with love. twisted. He was distracted fighting these piss ants. I knew it. and he reached up and shoved it back into place. Coheed crashed into Deftinwolf. end over end. burying him beneath a huge pile of rubble. Not slowing his forward charge in the least. roaring in pain. judging by the angle of the noises he had heard when the cannon came on line. Blood was dripping into his mouth as well and he spit it out. .” said Cambria. sat in his heavily armored control center and watched grimly as blasts continued to rain down from on high. “this is a close second. as if his face was an orange. “The field…” he whispered. rolling in opposite directions. God only knew what she was up against. I knew we should have cut the bastard’s arm off when we had the chance was the last thought that ran through his mind before the pulser cannon on the Beast’s arm discharged its payload. the pain from the slice was searing. useless slab of metal. took a chance and dropped straight to the floor. As a result the two of them hit the long staircase and started falling. He swept his left arm around and deflected the pulser blast off the blades in his arm. snarling profanities and hammering away. and in the depths of her heart. down to the bone. It simply bounded away from him and struck a nearby wall. just like that. And Ryan’s voice was within her. Coheed felt something snap deep within his chest and suspected it was a rib. And then Deftinwolf. but then relaxed. Door’s only as strong as its hinges. He used it to drag himself to his feet. It was the most formidable weapon in her arsenal. no longer a door so much as it was a huge. and suddenly the entirety of House Atlantic shook violently. Of course. she gathered into herself and formed it and shaped it into something that she could use against Ryan. pouring into his left eye. feeling for the wall and finding it. Either way. whose name was Liltrequie. but it was. Or else He is a collective figure of the imagination and does not exist. thundering against the force field.” She unleashed a shock blast from her hand. Certainly more than enough to withstand whatever was being thrown at them. He smelled something burning and realized it was his own flesh. “Love? Truly?” “Of course. as weapons go…” and she brought up her hand. “At least it provided some amusement value. She sensed rather than saw Wilhelm Ryan. The door was heavily armored and could not possibly be— And then. * * * Coheed turned to head back up the stairs in order to help his partner. Through the vacant doorway now strode Inferno.” And Cambria envisioned Coheed in her mind. the door was torn outwards. He went down. swinging the cannon like a club and smashing his opponents into a fine paste. The entire way down they continued to pound on each other. moving with such speed and ferocity that he lifted Deftinwolf clear off his feet. still holding back the blasts. He felt some of the skin starting to peel away. His arm cannon had snapped into existence.” he said. She was leaning against the gurney that she had been strapped to. nor touch nor taste nor smell anything. She felt as if she had been unborn. “Because you are someone who believes that he can have it all…and that shows you the hopelessness of your ambition. no different than a nebula or a comet. Either God is afraid to face me. Wilhelm Ryan is the single most powerful thing in all the cosmos. Deftinwolf. He had a look like that of a cornered animal on his face. and in the longing of her soul. There was nothing but blackness and oblivion. She wouldn’t have thought it possible. Several shots rebounded from the cannon as he staggered to his feet and then charged the soldiers. He sustained some damage from the strike. but nothing remotely sufficient to slow him down. all of that.” said Ryan. But Coheed could not pull free because Deftinwolf had clamped a hammerlock around his neck. “Are you going to remove the field…or am I going to remove you?” Liltrequie’s response came seconds later. And Coheed leaped into the way. because it’s something you will not ever. “Sturdy door.” said the Beast. Leaning against the wall a few feet away was Wilhelm Ryan. the feeling. He watched the energy levels and wasn’t thrilled with them. partly blinding him. unable to help himself. His pulser cannon needed another few seconds to recharge. leaving a gaping hole. Now. hitting the stairs hard. “Is that…your best weapon against me?” said Ryan. Deftinwolf tried to get traction on the ground and then. “They’ll kill you! This ends here!” “You’re half right!” came the Beast’s voice. * * * Wilhelm Ryan advanced on Cambria. Coheed’s charge had carried him to the edge of the steps and over. But it seemed to be as much for the purpose of steeling his own resolve as it was anything else. There is one thing more powerful. and in the distance they could hear the big guns of the Grail Arbor. with a screech of metal. Darkness had settled against the night sky. the pulser rifle in his hand smoking ominously. the emotion.” “You’re wrong. “Those are my men. and the words of love. They remained paralyzed for long seconds. Wilhelm Ryan brushed it aside. voice dripping with scorn. Cambria could not see anything. Blood gushed. The wall shattered from the impact. much less worshipping. “Hit what I was aiming at. and he was coming at her. “Hah! Missed. and then he and Coheed lost their respective holds on each other. there was no ground. but they seemed acceptable enough. you pathetic—!” Deftinwolf started to howl in triumph right before the wall behind him—the one shattered by the impact of the Beast’s cannon— collapsed on top of him. Ryan looked around in confusion. Coheed swung around to face his attackers and brought the cannon arm up to shield his face from assault. the world swaying around him. “You see. * * * There was nothing within the Black Rainbow. all she knew was that she was no longer attached to it. The pulser cannon roared over him but otherwise didn’t harm him. The door to Liltrequie’s control center abruptly shuddered. “but the hinges were shit. It flared repeatedly. and it was just long enough for Mayo Deftinwolf to recover from Coheed’s unexpected strike. and suddenly he was struck in the back by a series of pulser blasts. screamed as one of the blades cut diagonally across his face. Then he heard the sound of running feet.
the muzzle of his arm cannon smoking. shoot where he isn’t. “To transport yourself. “Sir…if we don’t fire back at the Red Army ships.” though? I don’t rate a—” “Coheed. Wherever Inferno is.” he whispered. bleeding. perhaps? Ryan had been working on the individual residing therein. Co. They meant nothing to him. He moved with machine-like precision.” “Sir. No. His last conversation—if one can call a series of orders “conversation”—kept replaying through his head. scattered around. “Not a single ‘Nice shot. which led him to believe that Ryan was not someone who was predisposed to taking prisoners. he had said to Inferno. But it was empty. Lieutenant. They hit the floor around Cambria and she dodged them deftly. He ignored the screaming servants. not here. and turned away from her. standing at the top of the stairs.” “We should have known going into the lion’s mouth it was only a matter of time before it’d show its teeth. This struck Inferno as somewhat odd: Wilhelm Ryan was not someone who could be remotely described as forgiving or generous. ripping open the doors of various cells. huge pieces of debris fell from the upper reaches of the open roof surrounding the high tower. was a massive space vessel. Under no circumstance do you cease the barrage until you hear from us. and he flashed a look of pure hatred. Clear? Bezal had drawn himself up straight.” “I’m going to hope it’s long enough. “Shore up defenses and continue the assault on planet-side. * * * Inferno charged through the lower floors of House Atlantic. It was the first one he had encountered where the door was hanging partway open.” “Continue the barrage. He went down. As he did so. filling his or her mind with all manner of his insidious influence until he had agreed to ally himself with Ryan and do whatever he bid? That could be. and Cambria at that moment wasn’t sure what would happen if he got his hands upon her. bolting for any exit they could find. That was when the high tower roared with an explosive blast. but Inferno didn’t think that was the case.” He paused.” said Bezal. which clattered away. whispers that many of the other Mages were still alive and were being experimented on. This one struck home. “what did they do to the poor bastard?” It was possible that he had been moved. A bunch of them. but his anger was drowned out by more blasts. The resident of the cell had been so driven by hunger that he had been devouring stray rats in order to survive. Inferno supposed that he should have felt sorry for them. his fingers extended into claws. “Readings from all over!” shouted the tactical officer. The problem was that he wasn’t finding anyone. There were the remains of a rat carcass lying there. If they escaped. Ryan’s control broke. Sir. He crashed into the far wall. If that was the case. And suddenly something slammed Inferno from behind. He didn’t.” said Bezal. why the candles? Hardly the sort of situation where romance seemed appropriate. Brainwashing. studying it. glancing around. Ryan did not move with quite as much alacrity. came at her. This thing had been eaten by a man. Whoever was within had been released. “We’ve got to go after him! We have to end this now!” said Cambria. At first he thought the rats had been eating each other. carted away somewhere. . Furthermore there were no overhead lights. Servants and other civilians fled past Inferno. we were able to pick up his locator beacon. looking for any prisoners that Ryan might have taken. sir. Out of curiosity he pulled it wide and stuck his head in. There had been rumors. but then he realized that the size of the bites was wrong.” Wilhelm Ryan. Coheed and Cambria sprinted down the stairs. His hope was that somewhere deep in the bowels of House Atlantic. The other cells had been mortar and brick. “then it will matter. From above the Grail Arbor’s big guns continued to pound House Atlantic. and Inferno wasn’t picking it up here. * * * General Vielar Crom knew right where to go. screaming in fear. and not all that long ago. Instead there were just candles scattered around. Ryan nearly tripped. Inferno could not have cared less. absolutely. fine. But if they had to pay for turning a blind eye to the nature of their master. and several of the larger pieces clipped him. their pale flames flickering in the darkness. Bringing down Ryan’s stronghold around his ears is what you have to focus on. These walls were metal. and Ryan had fallen through. squared his shoulders and nodded. He drew it back and looked down. And I’m counting on you for pinpoint precision. He had blasted away the floor directly in front of Wilhelm Ryan. The cell looked very different from any of the others. He’s still on the move. the world whirling around him. Cambria reached into his mind and squeezed ever so slightly. The cell smelled of sweat. Than he composed himself. Could it be the power itself? That they didn’t want any sort of power source available to the occupant of the cell? Why would that be the case? He entered the cell just to see if there were any other clues and after three paces he stepped on something that squished disgustingly under his foot. Surviving an assault by Inferno’s own people was taking a close second and moving up fast. They knew they were serving the incarnation of evil. This caused him to roar with fury. Inferno didn’t understand. for God’s sake—!” More blasts came down from overhead. * * * On the bridge of the Grail Arbor. you’re right. Can’t allow that. He was scant feet away from her. the order of things restored. I’m afraid. Although death had a particular smell to it. but make sure that we’re collapsing it everywhere but on top of him. as if it had been occupied very recently. Why would he have let someone go once they were within his clutches? Perhaps they had simply died and the corpse had been disposed of. impenetrable.” And that was when the sky around the Grail Arbor seemed to explode.Cambria took advantage of his momentary distraction and unleashed another shock wave. Behind them the high tower of House Atlantic crumbled. which made sense since he was far more machine than man. heavy duty. and when he spun to face her again. he could not have looked more astonished. barely visible in the sky but still clearly an engine of destruction. Once the force field came down. “Red Army vessels!” “Where the hell did they come from!? Why didn’t the sweeps pick them up?!” “They must have scrambled our tracking radar. “My God. So it may well have been that all those rumors were just rumors after all. Cambria backed up. He reached the final door in the hallway and stopped. might be. It was Coheed. “Yes. All of the cells were vacant. then. but he did. Bring the damned place down. “Do we still have a track on Inferno?” “Aye. Coheed and Cambria are down there? You could be— We can take care of ourselves. Absently he scraped his foot several times on the ground to get the crushed rat blood and fur off it and then knelt down next to another one. no electricity of any sort flowing into the cell. rescued. and suddenly finding Wilhelm Ryan wasn’t the only thing on their minds. showing up day after day. Which meant they were worried that the cell’s resident might have been capable of getting through an ordinary wall. There were huge bites taken out of the thing’s side. and this time her shock blast was once again brushed aside as if it meant nothing. it may not matter. Bezal paced in concern. “Sir?” The tactical officer looked at him with clear concern. they could be found. Inferno wondered who the poor bastard was. how can we just keep pummeling House Atlantic if you. He managed to turn just in time to see a battered. He wasn’t entirely certain how he knew. and thoroughly infuriated Mayo Deftinwolf coming right at him. Not just a single carcass.” The TAC officer turned in his chair and said. Small flares of energy discharges were visible as the ship pounded House Atlantic.” said Cambria. I’m not sure how long our shielding will hold up. “You were trying to leave just now. For starters. Sir. For just a second. losing his grip on the pulser rifle. He looked up and there. once we rupture the structural integrity of the place.” “If we give him the time he needs.” said Bezal grimly. If they wanted to keep someone in the dark. the walls looked different. slamming Ryan back. sending him staggering.
* * * Blinded partly by blood and completely by rage. were swarming. and Bezal knew that time was not on their side. wielding glowing swords. trying to shake the winged beings free. He had picked up the pulser rifle he had dropped earlier. “Coheed.” * * * Inferno sprinted up a flight of stairs. “I’m going to kill you because of what you did to Hohenberger and because of what further evils you would do. and emerged into a hallway. despite all common sense to the contrary. and it was all he could do to try and shove it back into place. Still with a length of chain in his hand. and when he charged around a corner. and abruptly realized. there was a shadowy form directly in front of him. He grabbed at it. you could have a bit of a problem. “My only regret is that I can only kill you once. With supernatural calm. studying the damage. As he did so. It snapped.” he said. and still Bezal kept all available power siphoning through the guns. I haven’t seen him. “And I’ve decided that I’ve had enough with subtlety.” Without another word she sprinted off in the direction that she was sure would bring her straight to Ryan. trying to grab at it. He staggered. dropping the chain behind him. God damn it!” . thought Bezal. but it was no use. * * * Coheed and Cambria hit the bottom of the stairs and kept moving. for the moment. “I am Ambellina of the Prise. Deftinwolf’s face was starting to peel completely away from the skull now.” Ryan glanced around. Inferno gripped it and yanked. he was far too well trained for that. lunged at him blindly. Deftinwolf tried to curl himself into a ball to minimize the damage. “They’re obviously giving us time to get clear. The world was spinning around Inferno and his vision cleared just in time to see Deftinwolf coming right at him. “Where is Deftinwolf?” “I don’t know sir. There was a crunching of bone and a scream from Deftinwolf. Inferno. howling. outside the realm of typical vessel decorum. They clung onto the ships. He was rewarded with a satisfying crunching sound. turned and yanked. A gigantic piece of debris plummeted straight toward Crom and the General knocked it aside with a sweep of his arm. The collective power of the Red Army was going to wear them down in short order.” and she pointed down a hallway already littered with rubble. Inferno threw himself against the wall and the pulser blast ripped past him. “Coheed!” shouted Inferno just as the cannon roared. ” * * * “Sir!” shouted the tactical officer of the Grail Arbor. Inferno yanked the chain clear and Deftinwolf hit the ground. “If one of them punctures your lungs.” said Inferno. slashing and gouging and gutting the ships as if their own protective shielding meant absolutely nothing. Inferno was Hohenberger. Inferno jumped in behind Deftinwolf and slung the slack portion around Deftinwolf’s throat. Inferno methodically whipped the chain around again and again and again. the big guns of the Grail Arbor continue to hammer away at the structure of House Atlantic. missing him narrowly and only because he skidded to a halt just in time to avoid being struck by it. Pieces of the ceiling right above him began to fall. but Inferno was too quick. * * * “Shields at thirty percent…twenty. The nearest vessel. angled down and around. The shadowy form raised his arm. He tried to crawl away. to put it mildly. “His fall would have carried him. trying to stand and unable to.” said Inferno with a fake solicitous tone. striking him repeatedly and mercilessly.” “We have to find Ryan. staggered once under another impact from above. “The…Prise…” Where they had come from was impossible to determine. There was another explosion. Bezal couldn’t believe it. Either that or we will simply extract his body from the rubble when we return to rebuild House Atlantic as a more…efficient means of punishment. gripping the chain with either hand. And he found him.” Deftinwolf staggered. Blood flew in all directions. tearing at the gleaming skins of the vessel. Inferno slammed his foot into Deftinwolf’s left knee.” said Cambria with determination.” she said. Bezal had to fight the impulse to drop to bended knee and gripped the side of the chair to remind himself to remain standing. We need to find and kill that bastard. this battle is taking place in our province. the Red Army fleet began strafing the vessel.” Deftinwolf tried to reach behind himself. Mayo Deftinwolf grabbed Inferno and slammed him against the nearest wall. we did the best we— “Holy shit!” The TAC officer’s expletive was. General. it was still near. and within seconds had torn a gaping hole in the flagship. It wrapped around Deftinwolf’s right arm. imprisoned Ryan. Inferno whipped the chain around and it slammed against Deftinwolf’s head. missing him by scant inches. “they’re going weapons hot! They’re locked on!” “Ignore them!” Bezal said. Shall I—?” “The General can take care of himself. he snarled into Deftinwolf’s ear. flanking the ship’s shield with a battery of pulser fire. He brought the chain around and down and proceeded to pummel Deftinwolf mercilessly. and yet it was understandable.Only one thing was of the slightest consequence. He brought up his rifle to fire.” shouted the Grail Arbor’s tactical officer. There was no sign of rising panic in his voice. members of the Red Army frantically waving their arms as they flailed among the shrapnel. Then he started pushing aside the rubble that had.” said Crom. cutting through the hulls. not knowing whether Deftinwolf even heard him. Explosive decompression shook the vessel and the side detonated. There was a chain attached to the wall. obviously for the purpose of keeping a prisoner immobilized. but Inferno was behind him and. From high above. to grab at Inferno. he wasn’t especially successful. Then he turned and threw him with full force into the cell that he’d just been looking into. Inferno darted to one side and snapped the chain around again. it only required one pull to rip it clear of the wall. There was a cannon on the end of it. Damage reports were coming in from all over the vessel as the protective power of the shields continued to weaken. He found Wilhelm Ryan lying on the ground. propelled through space into the planet’s atmosphere. the vacuum rushing in as air rushed out. for the skies were suddenly alive with hundreds upon hundreds of diving blue forms.” said Coheed grimly. trying to yank it clear. Inferno stepped back. Deftinwolf screamed again and sagged. and he strode out of the cell. half-buried under falling rubble. and although it wasn’t right on top of Inferno. Nothing happens here that we do not allow…and we will not allow you to be destroyed. “I believe I just broke several of your ribs. With his strength. “Fifteen percent…ten…” Sorry. He glanced at Cambria in grim amusement. Pulling the chain tight. “They could have brought this place down with just a few shots. slamming into the Red Army vessels. but they were simply everywhere. but the chain was everywhere. with a sort of detached surprise. It expelled bodies as if they were refuse. “Good-bye. and now the right arm was hanging limply at his side. by great pumping white wings. and I’ll be damned if I put our safety above that opportunity!” As the big guns of the Grail Arbor continued to hammer at the ground. Deftinwolf came right at him. sir. the flagship of the Red Army. Besides. And all Inferno could see as Deftinwolf charged was the General standing there and killing Hohenberger. “down there. “This is our one chance to bring down House Atlantic. He whipped it around and struck Deftinwolf across the chest. down to his genetic core.” A piece of debris nearly took off Coheed’s head. “Perhaps we should accommodate them. her voice impossibly coming through the ship’s speakers. and a thirst for vengeance coursed through Inferno’s veins like lava. “Your means of escape has already been prepared. uncaring of any danger to himself. that he didn’t care. The Grail Arbor’s view screen flickered as if something had taken control of it and then the visage of one of the Prise looked in at them. He wasn’t sure if Deftinwolf was still alive.” “I’ve got to get you to safety—” “To hell with my safety. “Good. The Prise. It was a matter of moments to clear it out enough that the Mage was able to rise to his feet.
the structure that had come to symbolize Wilhelm Ryan and everything he stood for… …stood no longer. no.” He saw Cambria step in behind Coheed. “The captain reads clear of the primary target area. and a giant billowing cloud of dust arose from throughout the structure. I’m reasonably sure we shouldn’t be here any longer. Inferno has left the building. trying to find some way to combat the seemingly invincible.” said Cambria. smashing apart the towers. let’s bring down the House. and House Atlantic.” “But—” “Now. no. and somewhere in her head Cambria was sure that she could hear someone saying No.” said Bezal. collapsing the support beams. “You okay?” “I will be if you don’t blow my head off.” said Inferno.” “I think we can safely assume that he wouldn’t have done so unless he had Coheed and Cambria with him. “Sir!” said the tactical officer. no.” he said in a voice that would brook no disagreement.“Sorry. collapsing into the lower section. psychic feedback from her brief (and yet all too long) connection to Ryan. and nothing was presenting itself. Well then. There was a thunderous roar that seemed to go on forever. “We went to where I’m reasonably sure he should be. watching in silence. The ships were regrouping. * * * Grail Arbor’s guns now focused their full might upon House Atlantic. but she had no way of knowing for sure if it was her imagination or some sort of ghostly.” “Well. There was a sound like a vast implosion. . “Come on. The KBI stood a safe distance away.” said Coheed with obvious chagrin. so I strongly suggest we be elsewhere. no. The upper sections of House Atlantic finally gave way. and it was clear that that was of great irritation to her. but he wasn’t. * * * The Prise were continuing to rip the Red Army to shreds. “Where’s Ryan?” “I don’t know.
the Rainbow was gone. And Josephine deserved to be a normal child. All he cared about was that before too long. There were. Coheed and Cambria did not look any different. though. that he had removed the Rainbow in order to test the faithful and see if they truly believed in his power even with evidence of it now gone. Well…as normal as one could be when one had the destruction of humanity running within their blood.” said Inferno softly. There were all these opinions and more besides. Not that I’ll ever admit it to you. Soon. the sheet lying on the floor. It is what he would have wanted. It’s…what I want. her physical development would begin to slow so that. They deserved to be a normal couple. They were all naturally talking about the same thing: the disappearance of the Black Rainbow. but their breathing changed. There he sat in front of the vidscreen and began watching the various news broadcasts. He peered in and saw Coheed and Cambria lying naked upon the bed. Still others claimed that Ryan wasn’t gone at all. . When the dawn had risen. plenty of theories. And I will miss this. She was well into her second trimester. You will be two normal people. He walked out of the lab and down the halls to the bedroom that had once belonged to Leonard and Pearl Hohenberger. “When the two of you awaken…and you will eventually. and lighter. I’ll make sure that everything is in place. as enigmatic in its exit as it had been in its entrance. Coheed and Cambria would be able to leave all of this behind them and have the life he never could. “Camille. It had other occupants now. With him gone. living a normal life with your infant daughter. Most were connecting it to the fall of House Atlantic and the disappearance of Wilhelm Ryan. Some said that removing it was God showing his approval. so much so that someone might have thought them dead. None of which Inferno cared about. or what you were. her growth rate would be human norm. of course. their limbs entangled. Well…as normal as one could be when one had the salvation of humanity running within her blood. He would be as happy for them as he could possibly be. He rested a hand gently on Cambria’s shoulder. They were sleeping soundly and looked like an utterly normal couple. others claimed that the timing indicated that Ryan himself had put it up there and it had been his power maintaining it.Epilogue Inferno stared into the vat at Josephine. I’ll always be there as your brother. trust me…you will have no knowledge of what you are. the Rainbow naturally followed him. It became much slower. The pundits and theologians and all of them had plenty to say on the subject.” He walked away from them then and into the living room. just on a human scale. Inferno walked over to them and looked down upon them. She was continuing to progress nicely. She would be a normal child. by the time she had reached the equivalent of a full nine months. No more code words or missions.
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