Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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Sed Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

(Who Watches the Watchmen?)

Part III

By Bill Wolfe

Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams
Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama

Part I synopsis: 

Tom and Simon find themselves face-to-face with a real life mind reader. But he's not alone.  He is the representative of an entire subculture of psychics who can trace their history back for millennia, and they call themselves The Collective.  Needless to say, none of these folks ever answered the phones for the Psychic Friends Network®. 

But this psychic has a problem and needs the Nightwatch Lower Echelon's help.  Seems The Collective has lost their most powerful psychic to come along in generations.  He's young, angry, confused.  .  .and oh yes.  .  .he has kidnapped some of the world's best technical experts and is making them build a psychic amplifier which might just allow him to control the minds of thousands. 

Part II synopsis: 

 

Tom and Simon are working with The Collective, but they are never without a watcher.  They will help their watcher to track down his lost psychic, but only with the promise that Stephanie Keel never finds out that there are people in the world who can read her innermost thoughts.  She's not to be a part of this assignment at all.  But they run into problems that only Stephanie can solve.  Somebody else is also on the trail of the boy, and they are erasing the clues to his whereabouts. 

The Collective, it seems, is not the all-powerful entity that they would have us believe.  They are a mismatched bunch of social misfits that can barely function together, most of the time.  Meanwhile, the boy finds himself a captive and his plans for the device are no longer under his control.  He can fight them, but only for so long.

Simon stumbles upon a way to turn the tables on The Collective and uses it to negotiate a new deal with them. He demonstrates that a little guile can defeat even the best of The Collective's efforts. Our intrepid Nightwatch heroes are not to be used as pawns.  It's equal partners, or nothing.

  #  The Present  #

 

 

Tom Weldon, psychologist and part-time operative with the supersecret organization which calls itself The Nightwatch Institute for Strategic and Economic Studies paused, waiting.  He was waiting for an answer from a psychic who was probably miles away, but connected to him in his mind.  He and Simon Litchfield, his friend and only real connection with Nightwatch, had just emerged from the zone of psychic interference created by an otherworldly artifact that everyone called The Egg.

In typical Litchfield fashion, Simon had stumbled upon the effect and then cleverly.  .  .no.  .  .ingeniously capitalized on the limited advantages that it offered.  That The Collective didn't know about this effect spoke volumes.  It meant that while they might be able to read any mind any time, they lacked the manpower to do so constantly.  It also meant that Simon could devise a strategy for renegotiating their agreement with The Collective.  And there was something else, something he'd needed from Tom.  .  .but as soon as his mind started down this path he was struck with an odd thought:  Simon! Endeavor to proceed with a modicum of alacrity.

Tom shook his head to focus his thoughts on the present.  His mind had wandered—as it often does—and he purposely cleared it of the extraneous minutiae which so often distracted him.  He realized that Pasteel Agarwal had paused too long after Simon's transmitted query.  In pure psychologist fashion, he decided to prompt the psychic.  .  .just a tad.

I think that Simon just asked you a question. Tom was still subvocalizing his thoughts.  He wasn't as good as Simon when it came to speaking with just his mind.  He didn't know how or why, but he knew that his way of communicating was different than Simon's.  It was slow, bulky, almost childlike, in comparison.  It lacked the rich emotional subtext that Simon and Agarwal would send, seemingly without effort.  Nonetheless, he 'spoke' the words he felt would break the stalemate.  He just asked you what you know about Prometheus.

 

This time there was a definite pause in the link.  Agarwal was thinking about his answer, Tom was sure of it.

Allow me to answer your question, Doctor Litchfield, with another question.  I know that this is a bit impolite, but I beg your indulgence.

Go ahead, was Simon's reply.  And with it came a sense of absolute requirement.  Simon was willing to allow his adversary to reply in his own way, but his question would be answered.

Let us promulgate, for a moment, that the entity which calls itself  Prometheus had—somehow—managed to catch The Collective with it's collective—if you'll pardon the pun—pants down as you and Doctor Weldon have done.  Agarwal paused again.  Perhaps to let this sink in.  Tom was beginning to get the same sense of this man as he had from many of his patients.  He was beginning to figure out how he ticked.  What precisely, Doctor Litchfield, would you have me tell them?

For a moment, Tom didn't think Simon would answer.  The link was somehow different.  He was able to communicate his thoughts but only if he made an effort to do so.  He couldn't tell how he knew, but he was sure that his actual thoughts were not being read.  It was almost like a telephone conversation.  He could interject his opinion, but only with a bit of effort.

I would hope, Mister Agarwal, that you would say nothing that would in any way compromise any of our people, or cost lives.  Along with the words, Simon was also projecting a sense of truth, honesty.  .  .maybe resignation?

Precisely,  Was Agarwal's only answer.  I have been your primary watcher for decades, Doctor Litchfield.  I have—as a matter of course—occasionally looked in upon the inner workings of the entity which calls itself Prometheus, and I quite assure you that I much prefer your way of doing business, to theirs.  Does this answer your question?

Can you tell me if all of The Collective shares your views, Mister Agarwal?  Simon's tone had changed, both mentally and.  .  .verbally.   It was obvious to Tom that the answer had not been a total disappointment.

A fair question, sir.  And I fully appreciate your restraint.  Do not forget that I have had ample access to your thoughts concerning your dealings with the Frost Consociation and the apparent reanimation of your first wife, Maria.

That's not why I'm asking, Agarwal.  Simon's anger was real, but Tom found it unconvincing.  He wasn't sure why, perhaps it was simply a matter of experience.

Isn't it, Doctor Litchfield?  Isn't it?  But I sense in your mental state that there might be another reason for you to be so concerned with that particular thorn in your side.  Would you like to elaborate?

Don't play games with me, Agarwal.  Simon answered.  If you're reading my mind you know that Stephanie has uncovered evidence that somebody who just happens to be Nightwatch's equal, seems to have been on the case for a few days longer than we have.  I doubt very seriously that they could have done so without help from the same kind of source that we have.  Namely, I suspect that another individual—or perhaps another faction of The Collective—is helping them, as you are working with us.

Why Simon.  .  .I beg your pardon.  .  .Doctor Litchfield.  I thought that surely you would be able to tell, by now, that I am simply communicating with you and that I am not, in fact, reading your mind.  Nor am I reading the mind of Doctor Weldon, though I have included him in this link. 

How do we know?  Tom Asked.  He had come to this conclusion, already but he wasn't completely confident in his ability to tell the difference.  I think I can tell when you're in my mind, but I'm too unfamiliar with the whole process to be sure that my perceptions are accurate.

Then you are exactly where you need to be, Doctor Weldon.  Agarwal's words were accompanied by that incredibly rich—feeling—that seemed to be beyond the bounds of human prevarication.  It was entirely possible that there were no lies in the link.  I advise you to.  .  .how do you Americans put it?.  .  .to trust your gut.  Yes.  That's it, Doctor Weldon.  Now you know our true secret.  This mental link that we now share obviates prevarication. 

I don't buy it, Agarwal, Simon's interruption surprised Tom.  If what you say is true, how could the boy have hidden his plans from you for so long.? How could the Prometheus Watcher have hidden his help to them?  

Ah.  .  .Doctor Litchfield.  .  .perhaps you misunderstood me.  Agarwal's words sounded and felt quite sincere to Tom.  We—in The Collective—rarely communicate as you and I are, today.  Since neither you nor Doctor Litchfield have the ability to project your thoughts, I have formed a communication link between us.  This link allows both thoughts and.  .  .and the feelings behind them to be articulated.

So you don't get what I've been calling an.  . . an emotional subtext during a normal communication with others of your kind.  Tom was finding all of this completely engrossing.  But he could tell that Simon was becoming annoyed with the diversion.

It is a very.  .  .personal.  .  .thing for us.  Most of the time we simply use a type of mental communication that relies upon mere words when speaking with each other.   Same as you, as a matter of fact.  It is only when we speak with our minds linked together that there can be no dissemination.  It is our greatest boon, and our most foul curse.  

You haven't answered my question, Mister Agarwal.  Simon interjected.  To tell the truth, Tom was almost grateful that Simon had once again brought the subject around to where it belonged.  He hated the fact that he found all of this so fascinating, so distracting.  Using his mind, he tried to feel for an itch at the back of his head to tell him that he was being manipulated into these tangents.  But none came.  He was forced to admit that he really needed Simon in order to get to the bottom of this.  He rather suspected that The Collective needed him, too.  They weren't much better at cutting to the heart of the problem than Tom was.

You are quite correct, Doctor Litchfield.  And I apologize.  In answer to  your question, I fear I must say.  .  .yes.  It is my great fear that some members of The Collective have struck some kind of deal with the entity which calls itself Prometheus.  And—to be quite frank—since they had no need to operate under the constraints I have chosen to adopt, they are quite likely ahead of us in the game.

Aren't you in contact with them?  Tom asked.  Surely if one faction had found The Boy, already, they would have broadcast this information to the rest of their group.  Wouldn't they?

Doctor Weldon, Agarwal seemed almost vexed.  Surely your experiences with our members have provided some insight into how we operate.  I refuse to believe that your years of close work with those for whom early life was—shall we say—difficult—have not provided you some kind of inkling as to what you are dealing with?  Along with the words came feelings of wonder, curiosity, a bit of angst and a load of simple inquiry.  Tom felt almost ashamed that he hadn't yet come to whatever conclusion should be obvious.  It reminded him of some of his professors in grad school who would single out one student and then proceeded to interrogate them about some aspect of whatever assignment had been due for the day.  In an almost reflex action, he thought, furiously.

I think I see what you mean, Tom answered.  It's almost like, among your own kind, you are the same as us.  You can't anymore read another psychic's mind than we can, each other.  Or to put it more simply, you can't do it without an actual assault on the other person's memories.  Sure, I can make someone tell me what is going on, but not without them knowing about it.

Precisely, Doctor Weldon.  Precisely.    Very well reasoned.  And exactly what I would expect from someone so well-versed in the intricacies of the human mind.

So you do consider yourselves to be human? Simon interjected. 

In essence, yes, Doctor Litchfield, Agarwal answered.  And at that, you should consider yourselves warned.  We are as capable of as much humanity as any Nazi, or as much empathy as the average religious fanatic who walks into a crowded marketplace with a bomb strapped to his body.  And feel free to throw in the humility of your sports heroes along with a liberal dose of the hubris demonstrated by any of your elected officials.  Does this answer your question, Doctor Weldon?

I'm afraid it does, Tom Answered.  I'm afraid it does.  So what can you tell us about Prometheus's involvement in this?

Quite simply this, Agarwal said, with complete solemnity. Prometheus and Nightwatch are two sides of the same coin.  Some of us—with myself being the most vocal—admire and respect your methods of achieving your goals.  But Prometheus tends to care less about the body count and more about the resolution of the problem.  Your organization strikes a cord with me and mine, while Prometheus has its own supporters within our little group. 

So Prometheus already has The Boy?  Simon asked.

No, Doctor Litchfield, they do not.  And Tom's skin suddenly felt cold.  Agarwal was sending an empathic subtext which foretold only doom, gloom and an overwhelming sense of worry.  Those who were watching the Prometheus  entity have decided not to share information with me.  I'm afraid that we may need your assistance more than ever.

It is a consensus amongst The Collective, that the Prometheus watcher—my own counterpart, if you will—is now operating independently.   I have made several attempts to contact him, but to no avail. 

What can we do to help? Simon asked.  It surprised Tom to hear Simon so conciliatory.  He had the most vague of insights that Prometheus was of utmost importance to him.  He felt—though he couldn't tell you why—that Simon had some kind of personal vendetta against this other shadow group. 

In his own mind, it almost made him feel a little better that there was someone out there who was willing to counter the likes of Ian Callow when it came to deciding the fate of the world.  And even though Agarwal's words hinted at a very different kind of organizational philosophy, the body count that Nightwatch had racked-up was very disturbing. 

His experience with The Nightwatch Institute had been very limited, of course, but even then, some of what he had learned had scared the crap out of him.  If not for a few cases of pure luck and Simon's unceasing morality, some Very Bad Things might have happened.  This Prometheus organization might just be a needed balance to Callow and company's machinations.  He hoped that when this was all over, he might retain enough curiosity into what this Prometheus organization might be about, to at least look into it.

Doctor Litchfield, well.  .  .for a start, could you tell me please where Miss Keel thinks we need to go and what we are looking for?

I take it that you don't already know, Simon answered.

I am sure that Doctor Weldon knows that I am not currently reading his mind.  But I honestly thought that you shared his deduction, Doctor Litchfield, Agarwal answered.  Is this not so?

I guess the link is slightly different than regular speech, Simon admitted.  Along with this came a sense of relief that Tom couldn't ignore.  For a while there, he feared that Simon didn't fully share in his appreciation of the richness of the link.

Then it looks like the three of us are heading for Tuscany, Mister Agarwal, Simon said.  Stephanie has pinned-down the location to somewhere around the area of Bagni di Lucca, at the foot of the Italian Alps.  And since Prometheus is in on this—and apparently ahead of us, too—I want you to know that you have my full cooperation.  Wherever else we may disagree, you should know that I really don't want them to get there, first.  Go ahead and read my mind if you need to.

Agarwal paused for a moment.  Tom couldn't tell if he were reading Simon's mind, or not.  I shall cover the arrangements, Doctor Litchfield, Agarwal answered.  And before you found and managed to capitalize upon your advantage over us, you were collecting various pieces of equipment.  Have you quite finished?

I think I have everything we'll need.

Very well then, the psychic replied.  But please include Miss Keel in this phase of the mission.  I fear that her talents are going to be needed before we finish.

Now wait a minute!  Tom wasn't sure if it were he or Simon who came through on that.  What he was sure of was that it was he who continued the challenge.  I thought you said that Stephanie was to be out of the loop on this mission!

Please calm down, both of you.  Agarwal seemed more in control than he had since they had come out of the interference zone projected by The Egg.  Miss Keel has proven her worth, yet again.   It will be up to both of you to make sure that she never learns the specifics of what we are dealing with.  Don't forget, either of you, that I know exactly what you feel in your hearts for her and that when the need arises, all of us are.  .  .expendable.

It was a few moments before Simon replied.  But his mental words were accompanied by a veritable smorgasbord of unspoken certainties.  There was no room for doubt.  He wasn't going to put Stephanie in harm's way.  Tom couldn't help but wonder if she wouldn't have felt the same for either of them.

Agarwal, you better make sure that she never finds out about you.  And I mean it.

At this moment, Doctor Litchfield, I really wish I were reading your mind.  Agarwal's words were distinct, well chosen.  For if I were, I wonder what I would find as to how you had come to the same conclusion that The Collective did.  .  .four years ago. 

Once again, Agarwal, Simon replied.  You have managed to highlight the one and only reason that I'm not coming after you with everything I have. 

  #  The Past  #

The Boy shuddered under the effects of the electric shock.  He had tried once again to send his mind out and contact someone.  Pasteel, perhaps, or maybe one of his friends in The Collective.  In any case, he had failed.  As his muscles twitched under the current, as his hands clenched and strained against the padded straps and his toes curled, his last fleeting thought had been:  I've done my work too well.  I cannot fool them.

He suspected that they may have set-up some kind of automatic response.   He refused to believe that they would allow simple human reflexes to determine their success or failure with this project.   He had barely been awake—as the monitors surely must have shown—when he had tried to send a message.  Apparently, the change in brain activity was not a subtle one.  In the few fractions of a second it took to consciously send a message, the scanners that he had helped to develop, had warned them what he was about to do and the electricity had begun to flow. 

Whatever else these electric jolts were meant to do, they interrupted his ability to take action.  It was very clever.  Very human.  He had been warned since his first days with The Collective never to let them know what those of his kind could do.  They tried to tell him that humans would initially bow to their will, only to later plot and scheme ways to overthrow his kind.  It was almost humorous, in a way, that he was now paying the price for his dismissal of their fears.  He had been dealing with humans his whole life and now that he knew that he was not alone, now that he had seen the power of The Collective, he feared humans even less than he had, before.

But he should have feared them.  Perhaps, as Pasteel had always said, he should have both feared and respected the humans.  They became harder and harder to control the more experience they had with his kind.  Not only that, but as the contact continued, they had a tendency to develop certain tricks for thwarting his efforts.  It had all been there in the library that The Collective maintained.  If only he had understood the meaning of what he had read.  Perhaps this was why Pasteel had so strongly encouraged him to read the diaries and accounts of Collective operatives in the human world over the ages.

But Pasteel wasn't here.  The Boy was on his own, and he knew it.  He must now start playing their game.  He had to lull them into a sense of false security.  .  .let them think they had won.  Sooner or later they would slip up, give him an opportunity to take action.  He had been held down and forced to do things he didn't want to, many times before.  He knew that he could endure this.  And to tell the truth, compared to the things that Papa Carlos had done, this was nothing.  These who held him now were mere amateurs compared to Papa Carlos. 

In the moments before the connection with that idiot girl was reestablished, The Boy wondered if Papa Carlos still languished in that insane asylum.  He wondered if the demons that he had caused to plague that manipulative, child molesting monster had ever diminished over the years.  He hadn't checked on the man for quite a while.  Back then, they had been forced to bind his hands in cloth to keep him from tearing out his own eyes in a vain effort to stop the visions.  For The Boy knew revenge.  He had visited it upon the man who had so abused him.  Papa Carlos.  .  .whose hands had been almost gentle when he hung the treasure around his neck.  And that treasure still hung there, he could feel it. 

It was his name, his strength to endure this latest indignity at the hands of the humans.  And if he ever got the opportunity, he would make sure to settle all accounts.  So it was, and had always been for The Boy.  It was the way of the streets.

#  The Present  #

"You're flying coach?  Both of you?"  Stephanie Keel's tone was pure incredulity.  "I thought this whole job was being funded by that huge grant everyone's talking about."  As she spoke, she was scuttling around her cluttered office collecting various gadgets and electronic devices that she thought she might just need.

Tom could tell that Simon's smile was genuine.  "At least you're getting to go in Business Elite, Steph."

"But that's not the point," she continued.  "What about Nightbird One?  Where I can at least carry a little extra cargo?"

"It's part of the op," Simon answered.  "We have to go in as low under the radar as possible.  Tom and I aren't even seated together, though we'll be on the same flight.  And don't worry about cargo.  I have it on good authority that there will be quite a lot of extra baggage space on this flight.  And our client is going to take care of any customs questions.  He has.  .  .influence."

"And speaking of our client.  .  .is he going to meet us in Italy?"  Her eyebrows arched in a whimsical way.  It was unbelievably attractive.

"He's going to be in coach along with Simon and myself.  You'll meet him at Dulles."  Tom couldn't tell Stephanie that Agarwal had to go with them.  He had to shield all four minds from the possibility that The Boy would be scanning the passengers for all incoming flights to Pisa.  It was also the reason they were taking such a late flight—departing at three in the morning—because the plane wouldn't be expected to be quite so full. 

Agarwal had explained how easy it was for members of The Collective to find an isolated island of conscious minds flying through the air and to quickly scan them all for any hint of threat.  But a shielded mind was a blank space.  .  .an empty seat.

On a crowded flight, three or four empty seats together were a cause for suspicion and it was the simplest of tricks to for a psychic to merely cause a passenger sitting nearby to glance in the direction of the empty seats while looking out through that person's eyes.  If the seats were actually unoccupied.  .  .fine.  But if the passenger sees a person sitting in a seat that the psychic 'sees' as empty.  .  .

So they were flying a commercial flight which would have empty seats.  .  .because Agarwal was buying-up a third of them.  And on the off-chance that The Boy was also looking in on the flight controllers on the ground, an entire plane arriving—such as Nightbird One—with everybody shielded.  .  .would have been a dead give-away.  The only way to hide from a psychic was in a crowd.  Tom was beginning to truly understand both the capabilities and the limitations of The Collective.

That they were lying to Stephanie was a given.  More than she could ever suspect, it was for her own good.  Simon and Agarwal had both explained it to him and though it went against the grain, Tom believed it was for the best.  Stephanie had been given only the bare bones of the operation. 

Some shadow group—apparently one she had run into in the past—had taken several top technical people and were building some kind of device in the foothills of the Italian Alps.  She would set-up shop in the city of Lucca and try to hack into the local net to support Simon and Tom as they went in to shut-down the clandestine research.  It was a simple, straightforward op—as far as she was concerned.  It bothered her that she was left behind, and she wasn't shy about letting both of them know.  But she also knew that the clandestine organization had some pretty advanced gear in there—including some monstrous back-up generators—and she could help them best by finding a way to cut all power in the place. 

Tom knew that she had managed to retrieve an almost complete inventory of what had been shipped to the complex.  Her palm computer was stuffed with diagrams, specs and even warranty information for a host of servers, generators, passive sensors and multiplexing processors.  She had a lot of reading to do, but somehow, she would find a weakness and exploit it.

"Well, I think I'm looking forward to meeting him," she said.  Stephanie motioned for Simon to scoot to the side so she could retrieve two battery packs from the crowded shelf he was blocking.  "Anybody who can convince Simon Litchfield to fly coach, is a man to be reckoned with."

# The Very Recent Past  #

The Boy caught them on the Autostrade, an empty van driving along at over a hundred kilometers per hour.  With his augmented powers he had been able to scan all flights into Europe within minutes.  His tormentors had been sure that The Collective was going to recruit some human clandestine organization and mount a rescue attempt.  They had even asked him what he knew about what connections Collective might have within the CIA, Interpol, MI6, and others.  Only recently, had they made him scan the roads.  If the shielded team had been a day or so earlier, he would have missed them.  And of course, as soon as he detected them he tried to hide it.  It didn't work.  The current flowed again, as it hadn't done for days.

So far, he had only been told to gather inside information on global trade.  It was a trick that The Collective had used to increase their coffers to the point where funds were virtually unlimited.  His tormentors were playing it smart.  They were taking a slow approach to utilizing his increased powers.  If they were as smart at stock trading as they seemed, they would slowly build a financial base that would make them all but unstoppable.  Done correctly, it wouldn't even raise an eyebrow from the world trade regulators.  A few billion here or there was a tiny fraction of the trillions lost and gained on any given day. 

And the device was everything The Boy had dreamed it could be.  As badly as his plans had gone awry, he reveled in the sheer power of it.  With this at his command, he could have mobilized an effort from the humans to move the moon into a different orbit.  Any unshielded mind anywhere in the world was within easy reach.  His controllers would find the exact location of a target and the displays before him would guide him from his present location to a specific country, city, block and finally, a room.  It was an ability he had not previously possessed, though it was the same that had found him for The Collective the first time.

They hadn't yet ordered him to break through an active mental shield, but he knew that when the time came, it would be as easy as tearing through tissue to see what was on the other side.  The thought terrified him.  For a psychic, having your best defenses battered down by a superior force was exceedingly traumatizing.  According to the archives that The Collective maintained, many do not survive it, at all. If they ordered him to do it, he would resist.  He had to.

They had given him no opportunity to catch them unawares.  Every so often he would test them and take the pain, just to keep them thinking that he was still fighting them with all he had.  If and when he got the opportunity, he even knew what he would do first.  He would burn a junction box beneath his seat.  He knew what it looked like from before he was taken.  It was one of the things that the technicians working with him on the device had thought strange.  If only he'd listened.

The current stopped and The Boy's tortured limbs relaxed.  They knew that he had encountered a shielded mind and they wanted the details.  He tried to hold back but they had become expert in making him cooperate.  By the time the van made its way up the Lima river valley from Lucca, there were security forces watching it.  And because The Boy was shielding them, the psychic in the van had no hope of detecting them. 

The Boy was awake for every painful moment of it.  The drugs administered through the same needles that fed him made sure of it.  He watched through the eyes of others as the team entered their rented cottage on the outskirts of town.  When they left under the cover of darkness, bristling with weapons and electronic gear, it was apparent that they knew where they were going. 

It was to be a straightforward assault through the main entrance of the complex.  They easily defeated the security of the pubic facility and made their way down past the empty spas and mud baths to the terme—the hot springs for which the town was named.  The Boy had fond memories of soaking in some of those spas, letting the natural heat soak in as the day's tensions eased.  The first few months in this place had been hectic, but satisfying.  The entire bagno—bath—had been purchased and the employees given a holiday while it was 'renovated.' 

The trucks came and went for a month before it was reopened.  That nobody counted the trucks nor surveyed their contents was not surprising.  It had been bought by rich foreigners and they were going to make it a haven for more of their kind.  And the money was good.  They paid for everything in cash.

The heavy steel doors were no match for the explosives the team had brought.  With barely a muffled thump, they were open.  The new generation plastics cut through metal like soft butter, only a flash and a wisp of smoke gave warning to their entrance.  The alarms on the door had been circumvented completely by one of the team who was obviously an expert.   There was no signal sent to the security office.  This sobered many within, who had thought themselves well protected on this front.  Of those now living in the complex.  Only two even knew that there was a boy strapped to a chair.  All the rest.  .  .were just following orders.  .  .for the highest pay any had ever seen.

The intruders moved through the caves using night vision goggles so compact that they looked like little more than bulky sunglasses.  Unbeknownst to them, teams—shielded by The Boy—assembled before and behind them.   A lone guard who had not been briefed on what was about to happen, walked his regular patrol. The Boy watched the poor fellow's mind—filled with inane gripes and worries—as his path took him closer to the intruders.

While he watched this, The Boy also scanned the group as it moved in darkness through the caves.  Feather-light, his consciousness skittered around the edges of the shield the psychic had erected.  He found the link that connected this psychic to a control pod and almost instantaneously followed it back to its source:  Cairo.  It was the Cairo pod.  It didn't surprise him.  Pasteel had always had his suspicions about that group.  They were not the most powerful pod, but they had always seemed much more willing to do violence than the rest of The Collective. 

The Boy remembered fuming at Pasteel's reluctance to even take a chance at injuring that Keel woman while they were trying to unite humanity against that ever be-damned comet.  .  .and he felt shame.  He had considered enlisting the Cairo pod in his schemes to get this infernal device built, but had decided in the end that he was equal to the task.  If he'd had a control pod as back-up, he would not have found himself taken, as he was.  One of the problems with reading minds is that you can only know what that person actually knows.  If they are fooled, then so are you.

On the screens before him and in his mind, he watched as the lone security guard's low grumbling came to the attention of the intruders.  They froze in place as he casually strolled the cave, flashlight playing along the walls and floors, keys jingling and Italian leather shoes scuffing on the unnaturally smooth rock beneath his feet.

He turned a corner and came face-to-face with the team.  The Boy barely managed to withdraw his presence from the guard before the man froze—his muscles locked by the Cairo Pod.  The shield surrounding the intruders expanded instantly to envelop him.  In The Boy's mind, it was as if the fellow had disappeared.

"He knows nothing of the boy and nothing of any intrusion alerts having been triggered."  The precise enunciation and diction that The Boy could hear through the speakers indicated that the man was young.  .  .still in his thirties and he was of Asian descent.  If The Boy had to guess, he thought it might be one of the men that Pasteel used to argue with.

The Boy had only the screens, now.  But the tiny cameras implanted in the living rock needed very little light to function.  The hapless guard's forgotten flashlight provided more than sufficient illumination for what happened next.  One of the group, a darker shade amidst the shadows, glided forward and placed the muzzle of a silenced, small caliber pistol to the paralyzed man's head. 

"No!" A whispered command picked-up by the microphones embedded with the cameras.  "No killing unless.  .  ."

The Boy was sure it was the psychic speaking out loud, trying to warn them what would happen.  That they hadn't foreseen this possibility spoke volumes for the degree of trust between this member of The Collective and the rest of his team.  The sound over the speakers by the chair was almost insignificant.  It was the sound of a very well-maintained pistol chambering a new round.  Fast!

The sound of the shot, itself, was lost completely to the several small microphones scattered throughout this section of cave.  But the psychic trauma of the death reverberated through the ether.  Only a very few psychics can shield a death.  The Boy was one of them—even without amplification.  But for the Cairo Pod, there was no protection at all.  They were in the man's mind at the time the bullet tore through his brain, fragmented on the inside of his skull with each ragged piece of it tumbling through a new path of carnage until it stopped.   It was designed to do just this.  No exit wound and all energy expended within the brain pan. 

The Boy knew that the Cairo Pod was out of action.  Whether they would be able to recover in time to help was largely a matter of luck.  At least one of them would probably never quite recover from the experience.  Since they were intensely shielding themselves at the time, it wasn't surprising that their trauma let out only the faintest psychic peep.  The Boy could detect it, but only because he had found their pod and was scanning it at the time. The connection with the pod was broken.  As each member withdrew into his or her own shielded shell, however, each sent out a clear cry of agony, loss, death. 

The Boy knew that no matter what happened from this point forward, The Collective had been warned.  It was only a matter of time before the pod member least affected by the death of the guard would have no choice but to tell the rest of The Collective what had been going on.  One way or another, the cat was out of the bag.  Accompanying the sense of loss, there was also elation.  Here he was, trying so hard to let The Collective know where he was and with one careless action, a trigger-happy human had done it for him.  Almost absently, he heard his controller's voice speaking to the security teams surrounding the intruders.

"Take them!" The voice was calm, obviously accustomed to command.  "Go hot and take them all, now."  The only indicator that the controller was in any way rattled was the fact that he had not excluded The Boy from this verbal command.  The Boy tried to send a message to the psychic on the team to give up, to lay down and play dead until the shooting was over but once again the machines which watched his brain patterns saw the change from shielding to sending and the current flowed before he could begin to transmit.

What the machines did not see, was that The Boy wanted to be punished.  He was in the throes of the current when the psychic—along with his Prometheus team—was gunned down in the narrow confines of the passageway. 

When a psychic dies by violence, all psychics everywhere know it.  The Collective itself—already energized by the agonized cry from some of the Cairo Pod—paused, or bolted upright in bed, when his dying mind called out.  It was too fast for anything but a glimpse of darkness and muzzle flashes as the bullets tore into his flesh.  But there is a signature with any transmission, a mental voice, if you will, and they all knew that it was a man named Young Soo Kwon who had died.  He was one of their more socially able operatives, and had often held long and emotional debates with Pasteel Agarwal over the best approaches to dealing with humanity. 

It was the man that Pasteel had been trying to locate and contact for weeks.  He had pestered just about everyone in The Collective for any help or information any of them had.  He had tried to tell them all that Kwon was in danger.  And as almost the entire Collective scrambled to find out what they could as to what he was doing when he was killed, several noted that they couldn't contact the Cairo Pod, at all.  On an airplane over the Atlantic, in a cramped coach seat, the man sitting four rows ahead of Tom groaned as if in extreme pain.

Without hesitation, Tom untangled his large frame from the narrow confines of the three empty seats he had appropriated, and made his way forward.  The plane was dark, most of the passengers asleep or reading.  The noise in the cabin was a steady drone that he had almost become accustomed to over the last two hours since leaving Washington.  It had been a long time since Tom had flown regular coach.  His legs were stiff from having to try and curl them sideways so he could catch a little sleep.  He could still taste the canned flavor of chicken something-or-another that had been the evening meal and even though he had three seats alone to himself, he could even detect the harsh acetone odor of the nail polish that some nitwit teenager had started to apply an hour earlier—until the flight attendant put a stop to it, of course. 

He shook his head to clear the cobwebs as he hunched down in the isle to whisper into Agarwal's ear.  The stocky Hindu was sitting on the isle seat next to a grossly overweight man who had—because there were so many empty seats on this flight—rolled over onto his side into the seat to his right.  His huge behind was like a plaid wall stretching up to the shorter man's shoulder.  Tom mused that if the fellow suffered from flatulence, the psychic might be blown right across the plane.

"What's wrong?"  It was only partly a question.  "Something has happened, hasn't it?" 

"He's dead.  .  .shot.  .  .I think."  Agarwal was almost whispering too low for Tom to hear. 

"The boy?" 

"No, thank the gods," even in the subdued light, Tom could see that there were tears glistening on his dark skin.  "One of us!"  The tone left no doubt as to of whom he was speaking.  It was one of The Collective.  "Of all of us, he is the one I most suspected of trying to take a different path.  I have been attempting to contact him for some time but he refused my efforts.  I suspect it was he who was leading the others to The Boy."

Tom looked around to see if anyone was taking too much interest in the conversation.   Fortunately, since the plane was so sparsely populated, everyone nearby was either asleep or trying desperately to get that way.  They were only two hours into the nine-hour direct flight to Pisa.  Tom figured they were somewhere over Nova Scotia.

"I was hoping.  .  ." Agarwal started to say something and then stopped himself.  Tom, however, was more than experienced enough with this kind of situation to let it stop at that.

"You were hoping that they would fail, but without harm to your.  .  .friend?"  Tom prompted.

"When one of us dies, Doctor Weldon, it is a loss to all of us."

"Would you like to talk about it.?"  Tom couldn't help himself.  It was just part of his present incarnation. 

"No thank you, Doctor Weldon," Agarwal answered, but his voice was distant, detached. 

"But this matter is something that has now become a concern of the entire Collective and there will be much for us to discuss before this aircraft lands in Pisa."  The little man then closed his eyes and seemed to be feigning sleep.  Tom felt a little silly crouching there in the aisle, talking to someone who was apparently ignoring him.

As he rose to make his way back to his seat, however, Agarwal spoke again.  "But I will tell you this, Doctor Weldon.  We now have the full and unfailing support of the entire Collective backing us on this endeavor.  Try to be prepared for things to go much more quickly than they have.  And now I must bid you, goodnight, Doctor Weldon.  Do try to get some sleep." 

Tom settled into his seat and reclined it as far as it would go.  Sleep?  Hardly.  He had way too much to think about.  He leaned back for some serious pondering and the next thing he knew the flight attendant was asking him to please sit up and buckle in.  They were half an hour out of Pisa.  Tom couldn't believe it.

He looked over the seat and behind him to where Simon was sitting and saw that he too had just awakened.  He hadn't felt this refreshed after a flight since.  .  .well.  .  .since ever.  He had to go to the bathroom badly and was absolutely famished.  He'd slept through at least one meal and he could detect the lingering odor of plastic eggs and soggy bacon.  It smelled like ambrosia.

He suspected that Agarwal had knocked him out like he had done to Simon back at the Canon Moon.   And though he tried to be angry about it, he just felt too good.  .  .too rested to make much of a fuss.  If they did it, he was sure they saved him from hours of pointless pondering over what had happened.  As it was, he felt like he was ready to take on the world.  .  .just as soon as he emptied his bladder.

 

#  The Present  #

"You shouldn't have killed him."  The Boy was speaking as if in conversation, though his mouth wasn't moving.  He was becoming much more fluent in English than he was, before.  He was also developing a sense of how his connection with the girl worked.  She was very simply hardwired to his mind.  She could verbalize his thoughts out loud and describe what he was seeing.  The Boy, himself, had proposed this to the technicians as an avenue for direct mind-to-mind communication.  But he was also sure that none of the scientists or technicians he had been working with had yet had the time to develop this technology by the time that he had been taken.  The breach in their human-designed security must have been very early on.  Perhaps the slaver had been incautious and had attracted the attention of some other powerful men.  One thing The Boy had learned on the streets was that no matter how big the fish, there was always a bigger fish out there just waiting to pounce. 

"They came with violence in their hearts, and we met them with violence.  For all we know, they meant to kill you."  The controller's voice seemed distracted.  The Boy would occasionally hear the shuffling of papers over the speakers.  But he didn't need to be able to read the fellow's mind to tell that his words were nothing but air.  This man, and those he represented would brook no interference with their new toy.  Oh yes, The Boy had seen this kind of man, before.

"When one of our kind dies by violence, all The Collective will know about it."  The Boy had heard this, many times before and had experienced it himself on too many occasions.  Fifteen of their best had died on the ships sent out to fight the comet.  Eleven of them had been violent deaths due to accidents and malfunctions.  Woe to the psychic who is trying to drive a car when this happens.  The shock is immense, indescribable to anyone who has not experienced it.  It cuts through most routine shielding and all but drug-induced slumber.  The Boy had one more facet to add to The Collective's library.  It also couldn't penetrate the effects of intense electric shock.  He doubted he would ever have the opportunity to add this factotum to their records. 

He wondered, however, if someday the electric shocks did not cease, if they just kept ramping up the amperage until he was dead.  .  .if his mind would be able to send out that last call.  Somehow, he doubted it.  "You have hidden yourselves, so far," he caused the girl to say.  "But you must know that eventually you will be tracked down and dealt with."

"It is of no importance.  This base of operations has become untenable, anyway.  We will be moving to more secure quarters soon."

This surprised The Boy, though he realized that it shouldn't have.  Once they were discovered, even the humans must realize that there would be others to follow.

 

"But enough of that, now.  I require that you scan all incoming flights and while you're at it, do another sweep of the main roads.  Also, as of this point, I want you to erect your strongest shield around this entire complex.  Keep it within the bounds of the caves, however.  I don't want any civilians wandering in and out of contact with any of your fellow freaks who just happen to be browsing the locals for information."

The Boy was stunned.  How could they know so much?  Had they simply deduced the capabilities and the tactics of The Collective or had they had some inside help? He realized that his thoughts were being articulated to his controller but he couldn't help himself.  He was sure that he hadn't given so much away in all of the contact he'd had with humanity.   Considering what had happened with the death of Kwon and the injury to the Cairo Pod, this was exactly the right precaution to take.

"What happens when you have to move me and the shield goes down?"  The Boy couldn't help himself.  He was simply curious.  "You must know that The Collective is going to be crawling all over this valley within a matter of a day, or so." 

By our estimates, it should take them until tomorrow morning to get any operatives into town without our knowledge.  By then.  .  .shall we say.  .  .things will be resolved.  There are mechanisms in place to deal with any contingencies.  But enough of that.  I can tell by my readout that you just now erected the shield.  However, you haven't yet begun your scans, as I directed.  You should be proud to know that your efforts have managed to delay your routine scans by exactly three minutes.  Congratulations."

The Boy considered fighting and then thought better of it.  It was no use.  He performed the sweeps as ordered and though he noticed that there was one Atlantic flight that was somewhat underpopulated, it was nothing he hadn't seen before.  The screens before him showed no deception when he made his report, so whatever slight doubt there may have been, was insufficient to trigger the current.  That was all The Boy could ask for.  But in his silence, he waited.

# The Present #

"This will do just fine," Stephanie said, as she scanned the cluttered counters and shelves in the rear of the shop.  "This guy has everything I'll need."

Simon and Agarwal put their heavy cases in the one free corner they could find.  Tom was carrying the remaining two—much heavier—cases that Stephanie had packed and had somehow managed to get on the plane.  It seemed that the normal baggage weight restrictions just didn't apply when The Collective was involved.  The hundreds of pounds of cargo they had brought hadn't so much as raised an eyebrow from the airline employees working the counters when they checked in. Tom had traveled extensively on regular airlines, and had never seen anything like it. 

And in Italy, the Customs check at the airport had been just plain weird.  They had landed in Pisa normally and it seemed from that point on everything had gone just perfectly.  Their passports were scanned by unusually bored-looking officials and their bags were waiting for them on the turnstile.  There were no lines for them anywhere, though there were crowds all around.  Everyone just seemed to be doing something else at the time the Nightwatch team and their client needed to get through.  Tom had noticed people visibly pausing, as if deep in thought, at just the moment their paths might intersect the foursome as they made their way to the conveniently-waiting, and half empty, regular passenger bus from the airport. 

He was sure it was The Collective at its best.  Somehow they were nudging large numbers of people into deciding to take the next bus, choose another line or just pause to look at maps at just the right time to let this little group through.  Twice he had looked behind to see the normal bustle and crowd seemingly surge to fill the void left by their passage.  As he thought about the blackmail that he and Simon had used in order to try and secure a more equal footing with The Collective, he was sobered.  If they could do this just to shave an hour or so off the team's arrival time, there was no telling what they could do if they felt really threatened.

But the uneasy truce was holding.  Tom searched his mind for any trace that he was being actively watched, as he was before he entered the zone created by The Egg, and felt nothing.  There was the link to Agarwal, alone.  He could use this link to speak, but only with some effort.  Agarwal, however, had cautioned both he and Simon not to use it unless it was absolutely necessary.  The psychic had no idea what The Boy's capabilities might now have become. 

The small computer shop on the outskirts of Lucca had been vacated so recently that the freshly-cooked pasta set to drain in the sink was still moist.  Stephanie was told only that the owner had been paid handsomely to take a three day holiday to visit his mother, in Florence.

"What's this?" she asked.  She was reading a post-it note she had snatched from the largest screen, the one in the center, of the extensive, multi-screen workstation that the shop owner had maintained in the back. 

"No freaking way.  .  ." she was almost speaking to herself as she rapidly typed several strings of code onto one of the keypads strategically placed at the station.  "His passwords?  He left me some of his passwords?" 

Agarwal was momentarily taken aback by Stephanie's reaction.  As she settled into the very expensive, ergonomically-adjustable seat and expertly set it to the parameters of her compact frame, she looked at the little man.  .  .expecting an answer.

"Nobody with this kind of set-up.  And I mean NOBODY leaves a list of passwords to five different banking systems, two military databases, the keycodes to every cell system in Europe and the freaking electric company just sitting on his screen on a sticky note.  Nobody!"

"We thought it would help you to make sense of this station.  Miss Keel, I assure you that Signore Piujolie was quite willing to cooperate with us, fully.  Our compensation to him was.  .  ."

"I have four of these passcodes, Mister Agarwal."  Stephanie interrupted the man and turned her back on him, dismissively, as she continued to explore and test the capabilities of the system.   "I know what it takes to get them and every one of these others are worth millions.  .  .billions in the hacker world."

Stephanie typed furiously.  Screen after screen sprung into life with web sites, streams of data and text as she spoke.  "Do you know who's little shop this is?  Do you?" she asked, finally.

"I am told that he is quite adept.  .  ." Agarwal started.

"It's Mamissmo, I'm sure of it.  Mamissmo!"  From the way she said the name, it was as if she expected everybody in the world to recognize it.  To her, it was apparent that she'd mentioned a name like Leonardo, or Madonna, or Elvis.

Tom couldn't help himself.  "Mamissmo?" he asked.  "Who's that?"

Stephanie looked at Tom & Simon as if they were from another planet.  "Mamissmo," she repeated.  "Only one of the top three hackers in the world.  He's famous!"

Tom almost laughed until he saw that Simon had tweaked to something else.  His disposition changed, instantly.  He was taking all of this very seriously, all of a sudden.  Agarwal, for his part, still seemed completely clueless.

"Mamissmo isn't just a hacker, Tom.  He's a hacker god.  He is the sword of justice and the bane of evil in the cyber universe.  He's the hacker who plastered the Piano-Wire Killer's face all over the internet when the Paris Police weren't moving fast enough to suit his taste.  He is the one who exposed the blood diamond trade through Miami.  And Simon, I know you've heard of this one.  He is also the hacker who redirected the Pentagon's webpage to that pentagram occult site three years ago."

"Sounds like he's made a lot of enemies," Simon said. 

"Enemies?"  Stephanie's voice was starting to waver, she was that upset.  "He is the most sought-after hacker in history!"  He's the one who published the British Prime Minister's Instant Messages to his gay lover, last year.  And Mamissmo is the hacker who emptied the Imelco-Gomez Cocaine Cartel's Swiss accounts after they blew up that Mexican Judge's house!  That's who Mamissmo is, Tom."  Stephanie paused in her tirade as she called-up yet another screen.

"The price on his head from at least five different criminal organizations totals over a billion dollars.  I know of at least two people who have been murdered because somebody thought they might be Mamissmo!  As she spoke, she was reading the contents of the screen.

"And I'm sitting at his station reading his freaking email!  So what did you people do to him, Agarwal?"

"Once again, Miss Keel, I assure you that our compensation.  .  ."

"Compensation Bullshit!" Stephanie spat.  She had sprung from her seat and taken a loose fighting stance as if she was expecting Agarwal to attack her at any moment. "With the information he left on that note.  .  .I know his name, where his family is and where some of his money is hidden.  I've already found over five hundred million euros he has stashed in accounts from Moscow to Grand Cayman.  What compensation did you offer a man like that?"

She looked at Simon, eyes begging for understanding.  "Simon, if the information on that one stupid note were made public, he'd be dead in a matter of days.  His entire family would be dead soon after.  Governments would fall, banks would collapse and indictments would fly for decades!  Don't you understand what your clients must have done?  Can you imagine what they must have done to him, to make him leave this kind of information behind.  .  .in the open?" 

Tom got it.  It had taken a while, but he finally understood the problem.  He could see what The Collective had done.  By controlling the fellow's mind, they had done much the same to him as they had to Callow.  In all truth, he was without a doubt completely unharmed and was probably basking away in the sun on the Amalfi coast, somewhere.  When they no longer needed his hacker's station, he would return to his life with none the wiser.  But Stephanie couldn't be told any of this.  His mind whirled furiously, imagining and discarding scenario after scenario, lie after lie that he could tell Stephanie that would both answer her concerns and preserve the delicate status quo that had kept her in the game but out of the loop for the mission, so far.  He could think of no way to make this better.  Nothing he could do or say could possibly just make it go away.

"Stephanie," Simon's tone was serious, honest.  "Do you trust me?"

It was Stephanie's turn to be taken aback.  She glanced at the triple-damning information on the screens, she gave Agarwal a searching, scathing stare the likes of which Tom had never seen before.  She was sizing the man up, looking into his soul with every sense she had.  And the effect wasn't lost on the little Hindu.  His posture changed, he seemed to stand straighter, taller.  His face assumed a look of dead sincerity.  But in his eyes, he was pleading to be believed.  He had nothing to offer but his word.  And he knew it wasn't going to be enough.  His only goal had been to give Stephanie the best equipment available.  And he simply hadn't understood the enormity of what The Collective had done, until this moment.

Finally, Stephanie turned from him and directed her attention to Simon.  But her visage changed immediately.  Gone, was the intensity.  But what replaced it almost broke Tom's heart.  Every nuance of her look, her posture, her entire being cried-out.  .  .vulnerability.  

Tom recognized this look.  And to see it from tough-as-nails Stephanie Keel rattled him more than he would have imagined.  It was a look he had seen from certain children who had been terribly, terribly hurt by an adult they should have been able to trust.  It was a look that he had strived for, hoped for.  .  .and occasionally even prayed for.  It was the look that said:  Should I? Can I?  Dare I trust you?  Tom had worked with some for months without ever seeing this look.  It was rare.  .  .precious. 

Stephanie nodded.  "Yes Simon, I do.  I really do."

Tom could tell that she meant it.  He could also sense that this was the first time she had truly admitted it to herself.  As a psychologist, he was fascinated.  As a friend who would kill or die for either of them, he was scared to death.  Careful, Simon, he said to himself.  This is important.  Don't screw this up.

Simon smiled with a look of pure relief.  Yet he looked older now to Tom than he had ever looked.  The lines in his face were somehow highlighted and his silvery white hair—still impeccably groomed, of course—seemed less vibrant than usual.  It was as if he were putting all of himself into the words he spoke, subtracting—in some unnamable way—from whatever aura he produced, in the process.  Tom had never seen anything like this in his life.  It was almost like looking at a corpse.  Not until this moment had he realized how much of his perception of Simon Litchfield was a synthesis of both the physical reality of the man as well as the projection of wisdom and vitality incarnate in every look, every gesture, in the very way he carried himself.  He realized that he may never look at Simon quite the same way, again.  And he also understood a little of the price the man must be constantly paying in order to maintain that persona.  When he looked at Simon, now.  .  .he saw the real man.  He was looking at Simon at his most honest, most real moment.  It was fascinating.  It was frightening.

"Stephanie," he said with his old man voice.  "I promise you that this man was in no way harmed.  You know me, girl.  You know how I think and you know how I feel about violence.  .  .even if you don't always agree with me.  Don't you?"

"Yes Simon, I do."  Her answer was simple, pure.

"You know that I will do violence when I think it is necessary, but I swear to you now that I know how this was done and this Piujolie fellow is just fine."

"Do you understand, Simon, what would happen to him?"  Stephanie continued to look deeply into the older man's eyes.  Wanting to trust.  Wanting to believe.  "He has pissed-off a lot of very powerful people.  They wouldn't just throw him in jail, they would torture him, torture his family to death in front of him if this got out.  If I thought for a moment that I was responsible for anything.  .  ."

"Do you think I would be party to anything like that just to give you access to this equipment?"  Simon asked. 

Tom glanced at Agarwal.  The man was transfixed in his corner of the cluttered room.  His eyes darted between Simon and Stephanie in utter awe, completely engrossed in the rare moment of truth, between them.  Even Tom was amazed that he hadn't fully appreciated Stephanie's true concerns.   He was supposed to be the professional.  .  .and yet Simon had cut right to the heart of the matter.  Somehow it surprised and even hurt his feelings, a little, that when it came right down to it, Simon was even a better psychologist than Tom.  But he smiled an inward smile, nonetheless.  He knew professional pique when he felt it.  Tom Weldon was well aware that he wasn't above such pettiness.  It was one of his strengths that he could tease this feeling out, face it.  .  .deal with it. .  .and eventually lay it to rest.

"So you know how they made this happen?" Stephanie now looking at Simon with merely intense concentration, but she had visibly relaxed a little.

"I do," he answered.  No room for doubt.

"And you can't tell me?"  She looked a little hopeful.  .  .like she might finally be let-in on The Big Secret.

"No I can't, Stephanie.  I've made a promise and no matter what, even if you walk out on this operation and out of my life, forever.  .  .I really can't tell you how I know or how they did it.  But I am absolutely sure that he is going to be just fine.  You have my solemn word."

And that was it.  Stephanie took a deep breath of the over-conditioned air, and slowly nodded once again to Simon.  It was enough. So be it.

Tom released the breath that he hadn't even realized he was holding.  Beside him, he heard Agarwal do the same.  But that particular gentleman wasn't completely off the hook.

"You, Mister Agarwal," Stephanie turned her attention to their client.  But she was all business, now.  Her tone was serious, perhaps even a bit threatening, but nothing like it had been, before.  "I will know if anything happens to this man.  .  .everyone in my world will know it if he were to suddenly disappear.  .  .or anything."

"I quite understand, Miss Keel."  Agarwal was at least as serious.  His body language and tone were completely genuine.  Tom was quite sure—considering what he knew—that The Collective would be watching out for this particular hacker for some time to come.  No harm would befall him.

At that, Stephanie looked once more at Simon.  "Thank you, Simon.  I really needed that from you."

"I know you did, Steph.  And I can't tell you how much your trust and respect mean to me.  I won't let you down."  Tom realized that Simon was.  .  .himself again.  His face, his stance.  .  .even his hair was somehow different.  Vital.  Wise.  In charge.   Simon was Simon, and all was right with the world.

"Now!  All of you get out of here and let me work."  Stephanie's tone and demeanor were brisk, businesslike.  "I've got some ideas how to pinpoint the trunk line this illicit research complex must be using.  Even I couldn't hide the power requirements for some of the equipment that I know has been delivered in the last three months.  And since I now have an inside track to everything I'll need, I think I can set up an encrypted live link to your cell phones that even Mamissmo couldn't break." 

She paused to rummage deep into one of the voluminous side pockets of her loose-fitting 'travel' pants.  She pulled out a small leather packet and tossed it to Tom. 

"Here," she said.  "Take these and stick them in your pocket.  They're earbugs with a frequency I can slave to any phone I want."  Tom compliantly slipped the packet into the inside pocket of his black sport coat.

"Well?" she asked, looking at the men as if they were customers who had walked up to her counter at the five-and-dime and were just staring at her.  "What are you waiting for?  Scoot!"

The three men exchanged glances and silently made their way to the front of the shop.  As they stepped out into the fading Tuscan sun, they were assaulted by the clamor of the bustle of regular people, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding in their midst.  Car horns were honking, voices were raised and laughter echoed through the narrow, busy streets of Lucca.  The day's work done and the evening just beginning.  Though the old city itself was a walled enclave, with no private vehicles at all, here on the outskirts it was a thriving sprawl of tiny neighborhoods; each with its own microcosm of vibrant humanity going about the business of life.  It was unbelievably refreshing for Tom, who simply stood with the others, silently drinking in the sights and sounds of the moment.  After the intensity of the exchange between Simon and Stephanie, it was strong, soothing medicine.  He wondered if the others felt the same.

"The bus will pick us up in a moment."  Agarwal's words seemed completely disconnected to reality.

"Bus?" Simon asked.  "What happened to the van with all our equipment.  .  ."

"Your equipment will be waiting for you in.  .  .at our destination."  Agarwal had changed his tone as a group of German tourists noisily made their way up the narrow sidewalk.  All three had to crowd dangerously close to the busy road in order to let their plump masses—even in single file—squeeze by.  Tom could smell sour vino on their breath as they passed. 

It was almost eight in the evening, locally, and Tom realized that neither he nor Simon had eaten since that first meal on the plane.  The shuttle from Pisa had made it in record time, but it had still taken over an hour to reach the shop where Stephanie was to set-up her ad hoc control center.  He had no idea if Agarwal had eaten any of the meals offered after Simon and he had fallen asleep, but the growling in his stomach now rivaled the noises it had made on the trip from the airport as Stephanie complained at how stuffed she was after all the tasty offerings up there in Business Elite, class. 

So while he was sure she was fine, Tom's body demanded fuel.  .  .now!  And here he was in one of the food capitals of the world.  From where he stood he could see two signs proclaiming Ristorante, three trattoria and of all things, a Burger King. 

"Be that as it may, Mister Agarwal," Tom answered the fellow's remark regarding their equipment and baggage.  "But Simon and I haven't eaten for quite some time, do you think it may be possible.  .  ."

"By the gods, Doctor Weldon, Doctor Litchfield, I do apologize." The look of horror on the man's face was unmistakable.  He was truly chagrined.  Without pause, he continued out loud.  "Sujata, have the driver circle the block again, no. .  .make it two blocks.  Tanda, see what you can have delivered to us sometime in the next two minutes, will you please?  Yes, yes that will work just fine, make sure that everyone is.  .  .yes, that will do nicely.  No.  No, I think that the beef would be better, in this case.  Seafood doesn't travel as well.  Thank you, Tanda, well done."

It was so fast, so sure, that Tom was dumbstruck at the sheer scope of it.  Somehow, with all that had been going on, Agarwal was still in contact with a control pod somewhere in the world.  He had almost forgotten that he too had once been connected to such an entity. 

Within half a minute, Tom noticed an old man in white apron and full moustache scurrying from one of the Ristoranti he had noticed, earlier. The man carried a large plastic bag in each hand.

Agarwal fumbled in his pocket and pulled-out a huge wad of bills.  As the man approached, he hastily handed one to Simon.

"Here, Simon," he almost whispered it.  "He's been given your image as the man who forgot his da porta via—carry-out—dinner."

"Per favore, Signore."  The man called-out as he approached.  "Il suo pasti.  Mi dispiache, Signore, ma non ha vistato.  .  ."

"You can speak English, to him, Doctor Litchfield.  We'll translate for him," Agarwal said, still in sotto voice. Tom's Italian was rusty, but he knew the man was saying something along the lines of:  "Please, sir, your food.  I'm sorry I didn't see you leave."

Simon assured him that all was well as he gave the man the money Agarwal had passed him. Tom was impressed when he noticed it was a hundred-Euro bill.  No matter what was in the bag, it was a gross overpayment.  That seemed to be one of the hallmarks of The Collective.  If they had to use you, they tried to make up for it.  He was equally impressed when Agarwal peeled another just like it off and handed it to Tom to pay the fellow from the wine shop who came hobbling up from another direction with a sturdy bag containing two bottles of good Tuscan red table wine, four, one liter bottles of San Pelligrino water.  .  .and a travel-sized corkscrew.   Tom noticed, almost absently, that one of the bottles of wine was in a clear, two liter glass bottle, three-quarters full.  Most likely, it was a wine from the home village.  These vintages were almost never sold to tourists and were reserved for family and close friends.  He had been welcome enough in the homes of a few Italian friends to have tasted it, before.  And he'd never even heard of one that was less than excellent.

By the time the very modern, luxury coach bus pulled up to the corner where the three stood.  They were loaded with enough food and drink to last them the rest of the day.  The fruit vendor who had arrived last, even brought a roll of paper towels and a paring knife that though sharp, had definitely seen better times.  It was obviously one that she used every day, and had somehow 'accidentally' added to the order.  Working with The Collective at their best was nothing short of amazing.

That the bus was crowded with tourists from every part of the globe wasn't surprising.  These Tuscan tours were quite popular.  That none of them seemed to notice the three food-laden men climb aboard at what must have been an unscheduled stop, was just becoming part of the norm, for Tom.  That the last three rows of the bus were empty—including the wide bench seat at the very back was just another little perk and he gave it hardly a thought. 

They settled into their little zone of privacy as the bus lumbered through the relatively modern streets of Lucca.  The smells from the various bags were almost overpowering.  As they sprawled on the roomy, comfortable seats, they each began setting out a spread that would have far surpassed any Italian restaurant anywhere in the States.  There was pasta and salad and fruit and bread, there was chicken and steak and cold, sweet water to wash it down.  .  .and though the wine had to be sipped from plastic cups, it was pure nectar of the ancient gods who once ruled this land.  Tom intentionally opened the labeled bottle, first.  He knew that you always saved the best for last.

The trip from Lucca, up through the valley of the Lima river, is one of the most beautiful, fascinating drives anywhere.  The tourists on the bus chattered away constantly.  Some were napping-off their jet lag, some looking at maps, and a few tried to look out the windows for whatever authentic Tuscan sights might be glimpsed in the fading twilight.  As for the three men at the very back, none of them so much as spared them a glance.  The delicious smells must have permeated all the way to the driver, but no one seemed to notice at all. 

By the time Tom paused long enough to look around, it was dark outside.  He was so full he could barely move.  Once again, he was glad that he had slept for so much of the flight.  And such restful sleep it had been, suspiciously so.  He was about to say something about it when Agarwal jumped as if he had been hit with a taser.

"We've found it!" he exclaimed in an excited whisper.  "We know where he's being held."

Simon started to say something but Agarwal held up his index finger in the universal hand signal for:  Hold-on, I'll be with you in a second.  He was obviously receiving a message from The Collective.

"Excellent work, Mrs. Ablequist," he wasn't quite whispering, it was obvious to Tom that he wanted to share his end of the conversation.  "Very inventive, indeed.  Get some rest, now.  And tell Doctor Byrl that I said you could have a short cognac, tonight.  Yes, Mrs. Ablequist, I'll make sure they all know how much you helped."  He gave Tom an interesting conspiratorial wink, as if they shared an inside joke.  "Good Night, Mrs. Ablequist."

"Good news, I presume," Simon ventured, once the man was obviously finished with his conversation. 

"Very good news, Doctor Litchfield."  Agarwal was obviously proud of what his people had accomplished.  "We haven't had much time to ourselves since we landed, please allow me to—how do you Americans say it?—ah, yes.  .  .allow me to bring you up to speed."

"I'm sure Doctor Weldon will forgive me if I repeat a little of what he already knows." He waited for Tom's quick nod of assurance before he continued.  "In the early hours of this morning, a team from, shall we say—another organization—located and attempted an assault on the cave complex where the boy is being held."

"Caves?" Tom embarrassed himself by interrupting so soon into the tale, and doubly so for the slight quaver he heard in his own voice.  He shrugged a silent apology and motioned for the man to continue.

"I know it's a problem for you, Doctor Weldon, and I apologize."  Tom had almost forgotten how much this fellow knew about him.

"But to continue, during the flight over, that team—which included one of our own who will be sorely missed—met with violence."  His tone had turned suddenly cold when he mentioned his lost comrade.  He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts before forging ahead with his tale.

"Our fellow was supported by a pod from Cairo, one of whom has recovered from the experience to the point where she could tell us where to look.  The mountains surrounding Bagni di Lucca are riddled with caves which often lead to the hot springs from which the town gets its modern name.  The main entrance to this complex is a public spa which has been only recently reopened after significant renovations—read this as major investment—and which was bought by foreigners.  This morning's disaster was an attempt to gain access through this spa.  This is the place—as you might imagine—that Miss Keel would have found if her counterparts in the other organization hadn't been quite so professional about erasing their trail."

"To the point, however, some of our members decided to randomly scan the locals and several found that many of the townspeople were wondering where one of their compatriots had gained his newfound wealth.  The fellow had paid all his outstanding debts and had been buying new clothes, a new Vespa and had even had his teeth fixed."

"I'm beginning to understand how you people operate," Simon interjected.  "I don't know whether to be fascinated, or terrified."

"Most of the townsfolk thought he was dealing in drugs," Agarwal continued, unfazed.  "And to tell the truth, the man in question believed that he probably was.  But Mrs. Ablequist isn't the type to take surface thoughts for Gospel.  She located the man and.  .  .caused.  .  .him to reflect upon his good fortune."

"Scarier and scarier," Simon whispered to Tom.

"It turns out that this man owned some land that had been passed down to him through his family.  It isn't very good land, it's too rocky and much of it is quite steep.  He never used it for much except to keep a few goats and sheep, but on the edge of his land there was a cave.  And it seems that a foreign gentleman had paid him well—in cash—for the right to use the cave and to build a narrow road across his property."  The significance of this was not lost on either of the two listeners.

"Also, when he was a boy, he and some friends had explored this cave and he knew that it connected to several of the same systems that had been developed into Caldi, or hot baths."

"Could still be drug running," Simon said.

"Indeed, Doctor Litchfield," Agarwal answered.  "Especially since when the road was being built, he got curious as to what was going on and tried to sneak back into 'his' cave.  But he was caught by men with guns and was warned never to return, or to speak with anyone about what was going on.  He thought they would kill him but they didn't.  He just knew they were drug lords, probably working for the Sicilian Mafia, and that he was certainly going to go to hell for his stupidity.  He even saw the drugs, bag after bag of white powder stacked neatly along the rock walls of his cave." 

"You think the boy is being held by drug runners?" Tom asked.  "The Mafia?"

"No indeed, Doctor Weldon," Agarwal was grinning with pride.  "The memories of the stacks of white powder and the men with guns was too.  .  .how can I put this?.  .  .too Hollywood.   Real drug runners would have killed him if he had seen such things.  The memories he had were false memories.  They had been implanted by a psychic of great ability, but they were sloppy, hurried.  They didn't fool our intrepid Mrs. Abelquist.  She looked for the—the patch—and then looked beneath it.  The men and the guns were real enough, but what he had actually seen was machinery of a type he had never encountered.  Banks and banks of panels with lights and computer screens and many other things he didn't recognize."

"That's what Stephanie said we should look for," Simon was deep in thought.

"Even having been warned, this fellow had—on several occasions—meant to tell some of his closest friends what was going on, but every time he tried, he seemed to forget all about it."

"Sounds familiar," Tom said. 

"Oh no, Doctor Weldon, this would be something completely different than what we did with you."  Agarwal was serious.  "Only a very few of us can insert a mental block which prevents a mun.  .  .I do beg your pardon.  .  .a person from mentioning something that we don't want them to.  It's very difficult and it rarely lasts more than a few months.  There are only a handful of us who can manage it, at all."  Agarwal was properly embarrassed at his near miss.  Mundane is not a description that Tom particularly cared for, regardless of the word's genesis.

"Is the boy one of them?" Tom asked.  In light of Agarwal's obvious contrition, he let it go.

"Indeed so, Doctor Weldon.  As a matter of fact, he's the best we've ever seen."  Agarwal paused a few moments to refocus his thoughts.  "In any case, our intrepid Mrs. Ablequist once again.  .  .caused.  .  .this man to be curious enough to try to sneak up on his cave, but this time she was with him."

"Now that sounds familiar," Tom whispered, this time, to Simon. 

"There is more, Doctor Weldon.  The cave entrance is now sealed and locked with a heavy steel door that is just out of sight from the entrance.  But as I said, the owner had explored this cave as a youth and knew of another entrance, a small and hidden entrance a little east and uphill from that which was sealed.  In his memory, this will join with the lower cave passageway at least a hundred meters past the barrier."

"Wouldn't they have sealed this, too?" Simon asked, still thinking.

"Mrs. Ablequist says she thinks, not," was his simple reply.  "The man remembers that this secondary entrance joins in at an odd angle, and from above.  He remembered that his friend hurt his ankle dropping to the uneven floor all those years ago.  And he also remembers that from the main passage, they couldn't even see where his fellow had dropped from because it is shielded by upthrusting rock.  It merely appears to be a simple irregularity in the passageway ceiling."

"Do we know how to get to this secondary entrance?"  Tom asked.  He felt he needed to be helping Simon develop a strategy for their upcoming mission.  Anything to get his mind off of the fact they were going to be crawling through a tight passage, surrounded by rock on all sides, pressing in on him with the weight of a whole mountain behind it.  He shook his head and refocused his thoughts.  There would be enough time later, for that kind of worry.

"She once again caused him to be curious, perhaps I should say very curious as to whether that second entrance had also been sealed.  She stayed with him as he picked his way through the rocks along the hillside and found the spot that he and his friends had explored.   He was so curious that he actually crawled in the first few meters."  Agarwal stopped to take a long pull from his water bottle.  The bus rounded a steep curve with a little too much speed and all three were jostled around in the seat.  Agarwal dribbled some water on his—admittedly rumpled—though spotless white suit and started rummaging through their supplies for the paper towels that had accompanied the fruit.  Tom thought that before this little interlude, the man had seemed to be picking his words carefully. 

He suspected that the land owner had been more than a little reluctant to actually enter this tiny crawlspace without so much as a flashlight.  Especially when he considered that the fellow fully believed that there were armed drug smugglers with guns somewhere inside of it.  He assumed that The Collective had been forced to persuade the man to do so.  He was insightful enough, however, to wonder if perhaps he was just assuming that the man would be reluctant to crawl into the darkness.  He wondered if he were simply projecting his own fears into this unnamed man and then translating that into a belief that The Collective had been willing to coerce him. 

Perhaps the man had no fear at all of solid, pressing earth on his back, squeezing him like a boa constrictor as he wriggled forward into darkness.  Perhaps he didn't feel that the air in the cave was so black and thick it choked you as it oozed like a greasy pool into your lungs.  'Geeze', he thought to himself, 'I really need to stop thinking like this or I'm not going to be of any use to Simon, at all.' 

Somehow, his fear of letting Simon down simply washed away his growing anxiety.  At least for now.  Fortunately, perhaps, Agarwal had finished dabbing at his chin and suit and continued with his story.

"Mrs. Ablequist stayed with him and as soon as he could see that the passage looked clear—which was only this afternoon, about the time we were discussing hackers with Miss Keel—she.  .  .how should I put this?  She released him.  Of course, he immediately lost all interest in what was happening on his property and scurried off.  But our Mrs. Ablequist now had a visual image of both cave entrances and the road.  She also knows a roundabout way to access this area and more importantly, she knows that the boy must be in there, somewhere."

"I thought you people couldn't scan someone who was shielded."  Tom was puzzled, he thought he was getting a handle on what The Collective could and couldn't do.

"Oh, we can't, Doctor Weldon, but there are certain of us who can scan any area for which they have a visual reference.  And in doing so, from the entrance to this cave, our members have encountered a psychic shield of absolutely astonishing size and power."

"Didn't this alert the boy that this entrance has been discovered?"  Simon asked, thinking tactics, at last.  Tom could tell that he hated not having an actual plan.

"Not at all, Doctor Litchfield.  Unless we actually try to breach the shield, none of us can tell that there is another of us.  .  .exploring the boundaries."

"Interesting," Simon was deep in thought.  "What we'll need is a diversion.  If we had a second team we could.  .  ."  He was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone.  

"Looks like a job for.  .  ." he uttered in the falsely serious voice of a radio announcer long gone from this world.  "Supergirl!" he answered the call and finished his line with the same word.  His caller ID had informed him that it was Stephanie, calling. "So how are the toys?" he asked her.

"What? Earbugs?  Oh."  Tom could tell that Stephanie was in charge of this conversation.

"She says to tell Tom to get the earbugs out of his coat pocket and to give one to each of us."

Tom jumped to comply.  He had completely forgotten about them.  He snapped open the pack and handed one to Agarwal, then to Simon.  He took one for himself, leaving one in the pack, and started feeling around for the 'on' button.  Agarwal was already—with a rather distasteful look on his face—putting his into his ear.

"She also says that there is no on switch.  She has the only controls," Simon volunteered as he expertly switched hands with his cell phone and put his into his left—his 'bad' ear. 

".  .  .including volume." Stephanie's voice boomed in Tom's ear the second he placed the tiny flesh-colored device into his ear canal.  He rather shared Agarwal's aversion to anything so hard and plastic so deep inside his body.  But he'd worn them many times, before, and knew that they did no harm.

"Too loud," Simon said, in a conversational tone, though it reverberated in Tom's skull like he'd used a bullhorn at point blank range.

"Better?" she asked, loud but not nearly to the pain threshold, like before.

"Down a little more, if you please, Miss Keel." Agarwal's cultured voice sounded strange and mechanical through the still-to-loud connection.  For once, Tom wished the fellow would be just a little more succinct. 

"How about now," Stephanie's voice was now merely conversational.  It was impossible to ignore because it was right in his ear but at least it was not distracting.  

"Perfect," Tom volunteered. 

"Right.  Good." Tom could hear keys clicking in the background.  "Now, all of you, I'm tracking the bus's GPS in realtime and you should be arriving at the depot in.  .  .just over ten minutes."  There was more clicking in the background.

"Simon, listen.  .  .when we get back I have simply got to get some funds allocated to really upgrade my system.  This guy is a freaking genius!"

"Have you found out anything, Steph?" Simon asked.

"Found out anything?" Her voice was giddy with excitement.  "What's this sound like to you?" 

There was a click on the line and a male voice came on:  "Control to unit five, you're two minutes overdue for check in, answer on alt two."

Another voice, higher pitched but not squeaky: "This is unit five on alt two to Control.   Sorry Tony.  Got distracted by the geeks taking down the back-ups.  They needed some help with the dolly."

"Five, you're not there to help out, you're there to make sure we don't get no more visitors.  You do your job and let them pack that shit up best they can. Roger?" The voice was stern, but not really mad. 

"Roger, control.  No way they come in again the next night.  We'll have us another good, old fashioned turkey shoot, all right.  But not tonight.  .  .tomorrow, maybe.  Roger?"

"Not our call, five. Orders are to expect it anytime. They was right about that first one but no guarantee we get the same heads-up next time.  Roger?"

 "Roger that, Control.  Switching back to main. Over."

"Roger back to main.  Stay sharp, five! Over."

There was another click and Stephanie was back in the link. 

"That sound interesting to anyone but me?"  There was a definite smirk in her tone.  Tom thought about how silly that sounded, but it was true.

"Stephanie, how?" Tom was amazed.  They had obviously switched channels but the recording sounded live, unbroken.  This was a sure sign that a com system had been well and truly compromised.

"Tom!"  Stephanie's sounded like a little girl with her first email account.  "You should see what this thing can do.  I couldn't figure out why it was do damn fast so I pried the lid off a box I thought was nothing but server and this Mamissmo has built himself a freaking Cray!  And I'm talking petaflops of raw number crunching power here.  Oh, it's aftermarket 90's tech he must have bought when Cray went belly-up but he's juiced it to the point where he can do anything!  He's fast as lightning and everybody looking for him is outgunned.  Yee  Haaaw! I have got to get me one of these!"

"How'd you break into their system, Steph?" Simon asked.  The bus was entering the town and the other passengers were starting to collect their bags from the overhead racks.  Tom and Agarwal had begun to tidy up the remains of their sumptuous repast, segregating the trash from the food and bottles that they hadn't been able to touch.  Tom made sure that the unmarked glass bottle of wine was well insulated by bread and clean cups in its plastic bag.  He was saving this one for later.

He only understood part of what Stephanie was crowing about.  But it was obvious that once again The Collective had found the very best resources available.  He'd never heard her so excited.  If she was feeling left-out of the field op when she started, she was pretty obviously over it, now.

"Break in?" her pretty voice was an evil chuckle in Tom's ear.  "Simon, I didn't hack their system.  .  .I ate it.  With this baby and Mamissmo's passcodes, I own every cell tower in Northwest Italy, Switzerland and Southern Germany.  I own every Angstrom of bandwidth, there is.  Every tower, every repeater and every stinking K-Mart walkie talkie out there belongs to me, right now."  Tom thought that maybe he'd felt something like what she was saying, but only once before.  The first time he'd flown as gunner in an attack helicopter against ground troops.  .  .

He had to suppress a shudder as he cut the memories off in mid thought.   He hadn't been bothered by those times in quite a while and tonight wasn't the time to revisit them.  But as he thought about it, perhaps the analogy was sound.  Perhaps he did know what Stephanie was feeling.  She didn't feel like a god, she felt like God.  Only in her case, without the lightning bolts.

"And I have to tell you that their encryption is first rate—at least as good as the Secret Service, back home—and this thing just waltzed right in and swallowed their whole network.  I'm seeing their control screen in realtime.  Boys.  .  .realtime!  Hey? Anybody want a billion dollars?"  Tom heard Agarwal gasp, but for some reason it didn't come through over his earbug.

"Enough, Stephanie," Simon was using his command voice.  Tom had heard it, before but never directed where it was, now.  "We get it.  The toys are working fine.  Listen, we may need to cut the power.  .  ."

"Cut the power. Cut the phones. Usurp their radios and play false messages to their field units.  Heck, if they are using the pumps they ordered for what I think they are, I can hit them with a brown-out/surge, one-two combo that will reverse the flow so hard it would lift you off the toilet seat!  Maybe not Tom, though. He's a lot heavier."  Tom couldn't help it, he had to grin at the image.  Despite Simon's efforts, she was reveling in her newfound power.

"Stephanie?" Simon's voice reminded Tom of his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Dawbs.  Her hairspray outweighed the rest of her head and she swaggered around the room with a yardstick in her hand, glasses perpetually about to fall right off the end of her short, wide nose.  Now that was an image he hadn't conjured in a while!

"Yes, Simon.  I'm sorry, really."  She sounded contrite.  .  .somewhat.  "Listen, I've got you covered on that.  The specs on those diesel generators they have to be using for electrical back-up indicate that I can knock them out with a simple power cut, followed by a surge and a cut and a monster surge.  It will burn them out like a drum full of flash powder.   And that I could do in my sleep on my old system.  Whenever you say, Simon, the lights go off and they stay off till you want them back on."

"What about their com?" Simon asked.  "After your little demonstration, I think I have an idea how we can redirect their troops to avoid.  .  .contact."

"Their com system has a battery back-up that should last a couple hours, at least.  But I can burn that, too, anytime you say.  No lights, but working radios till you say otherwise.  Whoever designed this place spent a little too much on the hardware.  All the breakers and surge protectors are solid state.  If they had used so much as an old-style fuse box in that place I'd be royally screwed.  But this thing can speak solid state like it was babytalk.  I can pump as much power as I want through any part of their overgunned system, any time I want.  I'll divert so much through their trunk line that it will start melting cables before it trips any safety I don't want tripped."  Her tone was more subdued, finally, but she was still managing to crow.  "Did I mention that I also own the entire power grid?  Anybody want me to turn off the lights at the Vatican?"

"Stephanie?"  Tom had a thought.  "How secure is this line we're using?"  If she could hack their com system.  .  .

"Are you kidding me?" She was almost laughing in Tom's ear.  "Listen, even if I had the frequencies, the encryption codes and the randomizer sequences back at my station back at the Institute—which I used to think was a pretty hot ride—I couldn't break this cryp.   No foolin', Tom.  His supercomputer tie-in will keep me four, maybe five seconds ahead of anyone trying to hack us."

"Five seconds?" Agarwal's normally serene composure sounded like it was about to crack.  "Miss Keel, that doesn't sound like very.  .  ."

"Five seconds, mister."  Stephanie's interruption was on the mild side of outrage.  "That's a freaking eternity in this business.  Do you know how many times this signal is being scrambled and reintegrated in Five.  Freaking.  Seconds?"

Tom was glad he was only on the periphery of what happened next.  Stephanie was treating this unimaginably powerful man to a dressing-down like he probably had never experienced in his adult life, if ever.  He may be one of the shining stars of an organization that could very likely control the world, but he was learning the hard way that you never ever dis a geek and her toys.  Not unless you really know what you're talking about.  And he truly admired the fellow's self-control and humility.  He had spent a fair amount of time over the last several days thinking about how these abilities from such an early age would effect the normal human psyche, and in the back of his mind a glimmer of an idea began to form.

Obsequiously muttering apologies as he walked, Agarwal was directing them towards a medium-sized limousine, idling in the parking lot.  There was a driver, but he stared straight ahead even when the rear doors opened and the three clambered into the wide, comfortable seating compartment.  The rich leather seats were more like lounge chairs with seatbelts.  There were only three of them, two facing forward and another—set in the place where the front passenger would usually sit, faced to the rear.  The driver was enclosed completely in darkened glass and couldn't even be seen from inside the car.  Tom thought it was some kind of Mercedes, but he'd never seen anything quite like it, before.  Though it had ashtrays, they were so clean that they looked unused.  The compartment had no smell at all, completely neutral. Custom job, definitely. Even with his bulk and Agarwal's stout width, they all had plenty of room. The thing wasn't much bigger than an SUV but it was all luxury and comfort.  Considering the narrow roadways that dominated most of Europe, it made perfect sense.

"Pasteel," Simon said as the limo smoothly negotiated its way out of the parking lot.  "This whole valley runs east-west, is our entrance on the North or the South side of the main cave complex?"

As Simon and Stephanie and Agarwal discussed possible scenarios for false communications for the security teams, Tom had a little time to ponder.  Anything to distract him from the idea of crawling through that secondary cave entrance.  He looked out the window and saw a business district that was exactly one building deep.  There was mountain behind every shop on one side of the road and a river behind every business on the other.  He didn't know where they were going and just assumed they would be taken to someplace where they could collect their gear and that was close to their insertion point.  It was funny how when you were working with The Collective, you just assumed that somebody had seen to the details.  He wondered what would happen if a psychic were to scan this limo, now.  No doubt they had taken care of that, too.  For all he knew, the driver might not even consciously know he had passengers back here.

He also mused that although The Collective was blind to the inner workings of the cave complex, because one of their own was shielding it, Stephanie, using mundane technology, had managed to tap in—not to their thoughts, perhaps—but to their words and was reading their system as well as any number of control pods might.  From the conversations he was only half following, she had also retrieved a security schematic of the parts of the cave system where there were active patrols.  It was apparently quite large, with whole sections sealed using everything from plywood to heavy steel to bulky banks of machinery.

Thanks to her, they wouldn't be going in blind.  But Agarwal was also saying that if the impenetrable mental shield ever dropped, The Collective would be ready to swoop in and put every unshielded mind to sleep, almost instantly.  All they had to do was to find the boy and unhook him from that infernal contraption.  But first, he had to crawl through that narrow, tight opening.

Fortunately, these thoughts were interrupted by a click/hum beneath his seat that made him jump.  He looked between his feet and saw a page of white paper slowly glide out and settle.  Stephanie was sending them cave maps with various locations highlighted on a printer that he hadn't even known was there.  Yeah, this ride had just about everything. The sturdy, heavy frame and reinforced roof wasn't pressing in on him, at all.

# The Present #

The Boy didn't have to strain at all to maintain the shield, and this worried him.  He didn't even feel tired, though he knew that this was so only because of the drugs they were pumping into him with that slow, steady drip.  He was beginning to understand that he wasn't straining to maintain the shield because he wasn't doing it consciously.  His masters had a new trick, it seemed.  The wires in his brain were stimulating the proper centers using a very low electric current to erect and maintain the shield completely on their own.  Of course, he had shown them how to do it on so many occasions.  This particular little function had not been in the original design.  Once again he marveled at the logic and inventiveness of the humans.  They no longer needed the electric shocks to control him, and he wondered how many he had endured since this had been so. 

Surely The Collective knew where he was, by now.  Somebody on the Cairo pod must have survived the deaths of both the guard and of one of their own kind. Though in retrospect, the strongest of them had probably been linked to Kwon at the moment of his death, too.  And that made things much more unsure.  He could only hope that one of the weaker members had blacked out when the guard was killed and had managed to miss the psychic firestorm that had followed.  Maybe then, The Collective would be able to sort through the mess. Perhaps none of them had yet regained consciousness.  It had been less than a day, after all.  But with their new trick, it was difficult to predict whether they could move him before Pasteel and his beloved Nightwatch team could arrive.  Surely Pasteel would contact Nightwatch after Kwon's death.  But even if he mustered all the resources at their considerable disposal, it would take another two or three full days for them to reach this place.  Surely.

And he wondered if, perhaps, Pasteel wouldn't come at all.  What if he had simply written The Boy off as a bad seed come to a bad end?  These humans would be dealt with, eventually.  The Collective would never let them actually use power such as they now had at their fingertips.  So far, it had only been used for the accumulation of wealth, but soon they would be able to influence world leaders with a force nearly equal to that of the whole Collective, combined.  And that, they would never stand for.  Maybe Pasteel was simply sitting alone in his study, probably in that battered red leather chair and his threadbare smoking jacket, convening counsels of The Collective to discuss the best way to proceed to isolate and then destroy this new threat that The Boy had brought to them.

Yes, yes, it was a shame that they would have to kill The Boy to destroy the device.  Perhaps they would wait until the shielded convoy was on the road and then merely cause some poor American jet pilot on a routine training mission to accidentally drop a load of bombs on them as they made their meandering way down some nameless, narrow Italian roadway. 

A terrible tragedy, but not unprecedented.  The Collective had sacrificed their own, for the greater good, before.  And he had read of lethal accidents in the Italian Alps where an American military jet and civilians had crossed paths.  It would be unexplainable, horrible.  .  .and very very clean.  Knowing The Collective as he did.  He would even be willing to wager that no true innocent civilians would be harmed.  And somehow, they would even compensate the American pilot whose career would surely be ruined.

Once again, he tried to contact someone.  .  .Pasteel.  .  .anyone.  .  .and he felt the tiny tickle in his head that meant that the computers had detected his effort and merely quashed it using microamps instead of volts.  He wasn't even hooked to the girl, anymore.  There was nothing but emptiness on the other side of the link.  He wasn't a person in this tableau, he was just a thing.  He was now simply an organic generator that erected a psychic shield around the complex.  Input in.  .  .product out.  Very human.  If you manage to overpower someone, they are nothing but meat to be put to your uses.  It was no different here than on the Streets.  No doubt, once they moved him to their new location, he would be made to show them how to mimic more of his abilities using their inputs and computer-generated signals.  He doubted it would even be eventually necessary for him to be conscious, at all.  And of course, they probably knew the location of others in The Collective should something happen to him.  It struck him that if they weren't stopped, others of his kind might suffer the same fate as he.  But there was a difference, he had earned this fate.  He brought it on, himself with his own arrogance, his pride, his false confidence in himself and his incredible underestimation of the humans. 

He tried to be angry with them at what they had done.  He tried to summon his rage to fight and override their control, but the drugs kept him calm, almost serene.  His body wanted to relax and give up control to the machines, to just rest, a while. 

But he refused.  He knew what happened to meat!  He had been meat before, and he had sworn mighty oaths that he would never be meat again.  He considered struggling but decided instead to play another game.  It was a game he knew well and had never lost.  And as he had done in a stinking orange crate so many years ago, he hunkered down and simply waited.  He waited for an opportunity, any slip in their control, any moment where their computers and eyes and thoughts were otherwise occupied was all he needed.  They would have to move him, there would be time on the road as he was transported.  Perhaps they would encounter a traffic accident, or a rock slide. He must be ready to act without thought, without decision.  He was a mouse in a box, whiskers twitching, waiting for his prey to blink.

# The Present #

They were at the 'secret' entrance to the cave.  Dressed head-to-toe in black, lightweight, tough, neosilk body suits, they were tar-coated wraiths flitting surefooted over the rough terrain.  Their heads were shrouded in a synthetic ebony sheath so feather-light, it felt like nothing but air.  Their eyes would have shown—in that small patch where the itchy adhesive had been applied to hold their diaphanous cowls in place so they didn't slip—blocking their vision at a critical moment—were it not for the night vision glasses they all wore.  You couldn't call them goggles, they were an even newer generation than those worn by the previous team, more like wrap-around sunglasses than anything else.  Seems The Collective looked into the top-secret labs where these things were developed and managed to persuade one of the researchers to borrow the only three prototypes in existence.  Melvin Squibb would have given his left.  .  .eye.  .  .for a chance to take one of these things apart.  To Tom it was like walking in shadowless green twilight.  The brightest sunshine wouldn't have been better.  With these, every surface was sharp, clear and easy to judge. 

Tom started his breathing exercises as he checked his gear.  He tried to calm his fluttering heart as the prospect of the crawl ahead became more and more clear.

"Gentlemen," Agarwal's voice whispered into Tom's earbug.  "It's time."

This was the code they had agreed upon in the little cottage where their supplies had been staged.  Apparently the little old lady who lived there had decided to visit her daughter, in the village.  She had, somehow, forgotten to lock her door and had even prepared a tray of fresh-made pastries and tea before she left.  Simon had given Tom a look and mouthed the phrase:  Scarier and scarier, to him when he'd noticed. They had all removed their earbugs and told Stephanie that they were just working out hand signals.  But what they had done was to decide whether they would be linked—mentally—for the operation.  Simon was reluctant, but he agreed.  Agarwal would be linked to both of them for the duration and to one of several control pods dedicated to nothing but this mission.  The pods would see what Agarwal saw, but wouldn't have direct access to either Simon or Tom.  .  .or so he told them.  It was the only way for them to communicate without Stephanie hearing every word.  And this was something they all knew was one of Simon's absolute priorities.

Agarwal had been shielding them since the flight, but they hadn't felt that tickle which meant that one of them was in their thoughts since they had agreed to come out of the zone of interference generated by The Egg.  Sitting on the ground outside the low, flat opening beneath an overhanging basalt boulder, Tom was glad for the distraction.  His heart was pounding so hard he feared Stephanie would ask which moron thought it was a good idea to bring a drum set with them on this mission.  He felt the familiar tickle even as he was watching Simon expertly check the heavy pistol he wore strapped low on his right leg. 

Because there were other options, and the armed security details were supposed to be otherwise occupied, Tom had opted for something less lethal for this one.  He was carrying something that looked like nothing so much as an old World War II German Schmeisser MP40 Maschinenpistole submachine gun.  But instead of a deadly stream of 9mm lead, it fired only taser/sleep darts.  It was ingenious, really.  The dart itself contained the super-compressed gas that propelled it like a tiny rocket, so there was no need for a bulky cartridge or tank.  And the velocity was constant since each dart had an independent source.  Each projectile had drop-down fins for stabilizing it during flight and a dual-action payload.  As soon as the titanium needle penetrated a substance with the same conductive properties as flesh, a tiny capacitor hit the target with a short taser shock, just enough to stun while the simultaneous injection of a powerful sedative had time to work. 

Tom had never seen anything quite so quick and effective short of a silenced, long-range sniper bullet to the brain.  The video had been sobering.  The 'volunteer' had been wearing full body armor but the dart had hit him in the joint at the back of the knee.  The needle had easily penetrated the double-thick Kevlar® and the poor fellow tensed-up in taser rictus and collapsed.  Only the faintest of gasps had escaped him and the only noise he had made was the clatter of his AK-47 as it hit the floor.  According to the video, the sonic signature of the projectile had been adjusted to mimic the frequency of the average mosquito.  So even if you missed, to your target it sounded like a tiny bug just flew by.  .  .fast.

The barrel was a little long for Tom's taste, but it was needed in order to give the dart time to expel all its gas into the baffles before leaving the muzzle.  By the time it was free, it was pure subsonic and ballistic grace.  It made almost no sound at all.  The only way to really injure your opponent was a shot to the eye or maybe to the throat.  And anybody wearing a pacemaker, probably shouldn't be doing something that would put him in front of one of these things, anyway.  When he had first test-fired one back in the Nightwatch shooting range, he'd fallen in love with it.  He couldn't wait for the technology to trickle down to line-of-duty cops all over the world.  When it did, the police might never again be forced to shoot to kill.  A shot to the pinky toe would drop most people within seconds.

Agarwal had refused any weapon.  The Collective had its own way of defending itself.  He had argued with Simon about the pistol but Simon had insisted.  Neither Tom nor Agarwal needed to be able to read his mind to understand that Simon was ready to do whatever was necessary to make sure that this boy was no longer a threat. 

"When you need a gun," Simon had stated, simply.  "When you really need a gun in your hand, nothing else will do.  Because when you really need a gun, it is time to kill somebody."  And to that, Agarwal had no argument.

Can you hear me? Agarwal's mental voice sounded in his head—along with a range of emotions that Tom could have made a series out of if he were to write it up for Psychology Today.  The man was worried, scared, excited, hopeful, fearful, outraged, determined and more than a little bit pissed-off.  All at the same time and in a blend that constantly shifted, ebbed and flowed like the rainbow colors of an oil slick in rough surf, lapping against a tide wall.  The incredible richness of the experience was amazing.  And once again, he realized that he had missed this.  He wondered how he would ever again be satisfied by merely hearing words and interpreting body language.

Loud and clear, was Simon's response.  Tom could tell that he was controlling his emotions, though quite a few seemed to sneak through, anyway.  He was worried, mainly, with just a hint of determination and an overriding sense of just being tired of doing this.  Tom got the impression that Simon had quite simply done this—armed and ready to leap into harm's way for some very important purpose—just too many times.  He was tired of the anticipation, the adrenalin and the willingness to do what had to be done.   But Tom could also sense the man's reluctant acceptance of his place in all of this.  If not him, who?  If not now, when?  And all of these things came through crystal clear in the blink of an eye.

Link feels fine, he sent.  He wasn't sure what the other men felt from his transmission, but both paused in what they were doing and Agarwal spared a moment to look at Tom, and then at the dark, low opening into which they must all soon crawl.  Simon stepped-up and patted him on the shoulder, allowing his hand to pause for just a moment, with just the barest hint of a squeeze before he turned to face the cave entrance.  He didn't need to use his mental link to his friend to understand what Simon meant.  He knew about Tom's claustrophobia, and he had an inkling of what Tom was feeling.  Tom's intimate knowledge of Simon's body language said it all.  Screw the link, and screw The Collective.  Simon's simple gesture was more rich, more emotionally satisfying than any psychic overlay.

"Okay Moe, Larry and Curly," Stephanie's voice—sans any other input—was welcome in its simplicity.  "I've switched you over to their system.  I'm hiding you're signal in their bandwidth so you should have at least the same coverage and clarity that their teams will.  Radio checks."

"Simon on, sound's good Stephanie."

"Tom receiving, four by four." When he was nervous, sometimes he reverted to old habits learned long ago.

"The quality of your transmission signal is superior, Miss Keel, as are all of your efforts."  If Tom was sure of anything, Agarwal was never a part of any military organization, anywhere in the world.

Stephanie's indulgent chuckle at their Client's turn of phrase was catching.  All three men smiled in the darkness and in a moment of rare male unity, when each of them realized that he too was grinning, they each turned and pretended to be doing something else.  Tom had seen this before but he still caught himself checking to make sure that his boot knife was fastened.  .  .and he smiled again.  It eased the tension that was starting to build.  That opening looked half the size it did when he got here.

I can help you with that, Doctor Weldon.  Agarwal was using the 'private channel' he had experienced with his control pod back at the Cannon Moon.  Tom could just tell that Simon wasn't in this part of the link.

Help me with what? Tom knew what he meant, he just needed the time to think about it.

It is a simple process to temporarily dull the worst of your fears concerning tight places.  The subtext was simple.  It was almost as if he were offering to tie his shoe for him.  Tom was tempted.  Very tempted.

Tell you what, Pasteel.  If I really need it, I'll let you know.  I appreciate your offer but first of all it's still mind control and second.  .  .well, it's just something I have to learn to face and deal with. 

As you wish, Doctor Weldon.  Through the link, Tom could feel the man's respect as if it were a palpable thing.  If everybody communicated like this.  .  .

"Okay Simon, I'm set to turn off the lights whenever you say and I'm pretty sure I've got enough recordings to keep them running in circles on the other side of the complex for at least an hour before they start hearing the same stuff a second time.  I'm going to just let you guys in on the highlights, if that's okay.  There's going to be an awful lot of chatter once this thing gets rolling."  Stephanie's earlier (over)exuberance had been replaced by a pure professional competence.  Tom understood much of her reluctance to even see violence done.  She was in the right place, with the right tools.  .  .and no matter what, she wasn't going to have to hurt anyone.  As a matter of fact, she was working very hard to make sure that nobody at all got hurt.  For several reasons, he sincerely hoped that her efforts were not going to be in vain.

They had already decided on the order.  Simon went first because he was, by far, the trimmest.  Agarwal went next.  Despite the psychic's girth, Tom was still much broader in the shoulders and Agarwal's mass was considerably more.  .  .pliable.  If this crawlway was too tight for any it would be Tom.  He practiced his breathing technique as Simon's feet disappeared beneath the low overhang.

"Ten feet in," Simon's low whisper was clear in Tom's earbug. "Stay to the right when you feel smooth stone, Tom.  It's a little tight on the left."  Tom's heart rate didn't exactly increase, but it sounded a little louder in his ears.

Agarwal was on his belly, his head had already been swallowed by the opening.  He didn't seem to be encountering any difficulties as he slithered forward.  All too soon, his feet also disappeared. 

"No alarms, no signals."  Stephanie's voice was calm.  Simon's movements hadn't yet tripped any sensors.  This might just be a real back door, after all.

Doctor Litchfield, you are on the edge of the shield that has been erected around this complex, please pause while I examine it.  .  .there is something quite odd about it.  Tom was on his belly but hadn't entered the gaping maw, before him.  The jutting flat rock at the top and the curved lower surface reminded him of the time he unexpectedly came face-to-face with a nurse shark while scuba diving off the coast of Fiji.  At least this time there weren't any teeth.

Pasteel? Tom sent, as he entered the maw.  He was half curious but also using one of his stress-relief tricks.  .  .distraction.

Yes, Tom.

Won't he be able to tell that your shield is intersecting his? So far, so good.  The night vision glasses threw the crawlway before him into stark relief.  Usually, with a helmet-mounted light in a narrow passage, there were shadows and a less-lit periphery outside the more intense center of the beam.  This was much more like a tight space in daylight, and it helped.

Not at all, Doctor Weldon.  It is difficult to explain but a mental shield isn't so much like a soap bubble as it is a droplet of oil, floating in a less viscous fluid.  Physical penetration is meaningless.  I would have to try to punch through it with psychic energy for any disturbance to be felt.  This is not physics, Doctor Weldon, it is something.  .  .different.

Tom felt smooth stone beneath him.  Simon had warned him that the crawlway narrowed at ten feet in.  Had it only been ten feet?  It felt he'd been creeping along for at least ten meters.  He concentrated hard on forcing his arms and legs into the motions necessary to move him forward.  Anything to distract him from the pressure that was building on his back and stomach.  It was as if a large stone vice was gradually being cranked down, bringing the ceiling and floor together in an inexorably—unstoppably slow pinch that would simply continue to squeeze and squeeze until he wouldn't be able to expand his chest for more than a light pant.  Then the bones would start to snap, of course, which should give him one or two decent gasps before that space too, was taken by the rock.

Then if you can adjust the.  .  .the physical boundaries of your shield, why not just send a.  .  .a pseudopod.  .  .of shielding out to your opponent's head and.  .  .maybe surround it?  Tom was scrunched as far to the right as he could get.  Simon had been right, there was much more room for his right shoulder than his left.  And it was deeper on the right, too.  With his right arm outstretched over his head and his left arm tucked as close to his body as he could manage, he wormed his way past the narrows.  The smell of cave dust, dung and moist rock filled his nostrils as his face and chin dragged in the moist clay that was the floor of this section.  His entire visual world consisted of a very close-up view of the irregular green—but that was just the goggles, he knew it was actually brownish-red—clay inching by.  His arm pressing into his left side felt paralyzed, though he could still wiggle his fingers.  If his life depended on it, couldn't have flexed it a millimeter.

We're not amoebas, Doctor Weldon.  Tom was too busy concentrating on steady shallow breaths and forward movement to notice if there was a humorous subtext to the man's communication.  His right foot found a solid toe hold on the top of the crawlway and he pushed hard.  .  .he was through, he could move his left arm, again.  The physical proximity is almost immaterial.  Were I to do what you describe, I would still have to cross that last micrometer of his shield, and this would be no different than trying to penetrate it from its outermost spatial boundary.

Agarwal, Simon's mental voice was icy, he was in full assault mode. Is this.  .  .chatter?.  .  .putting us at any risk of detection?  Tom could feel that Simon understood that he was trying to distract himself from his other worries, but the man was a professional, and also knew that compromising themselves with the boy was the last thing they wanted, at this juncture.

To be frank, Doctor Litchfield, not with my shield in place, it isn't.  It was neither pride nor hubris.  Tom felt a simple confidence through the link that was—in its way—as thoroughly convincing as Stephanie's dismissive assurance that nobody was going to hack her com.  He paused in his crawling, this part of the shark's alimentary tube was downright roomy compared to what he had just squeezed through.  And besides, he was looking at the bottoms of Agarwal's shoes, about six inches in front of his face.  He noticed a single cricket leg stuck in the compacted mud at the toe.  He couldn't be sure, but it looked like it twitched.

Doctor Litchfield, you may proceed.  But you should both know that there is something very strange about the mental shield into which we will be entering.  I have never seen anything so.  .  .constant.  .  .so perfectly stable in all of my years of experience.  Mental shields are always shifting as the intensity of concentration of the person generating it waxes and wanes.  This one does not.  And I quite assure you that I don't know what this may portend. 

I can tell that it is, indeed, generated by the boy, but it.  .  .resonates.  .  .in a manner which reminds me of nothing so much as a.  .  .machine.  Perhaps this is just an artifact of his efforts at technological augmentation, but there is something about it which lacks.  .  .life.

Neither Tom nor Simon answered.  They had nothing to add.

"Hey, you boys taking a nap?" Stephanie's voice was lower than before, in Tom's ear.  She had probably adjusted the volume again.

"I can see light, ahead Stephanie.  Are you ready to pull the switch?" Simon's whispered answer surprised Tom.  Agarwal had only started to move so Simon couldn't be too far, ahead.  If he could see light, and hadn't warned him of any more tight spaces.  .  .then perhaps the crawling phase was almost over.  He had to physically stifle an audible groan of pure relief.

"If you're looking at the light with your goggles, look away, Simon.  They're going to get real bright, here in a second.  Put your tray tables and seat backs up, boys, we're in for a bumpy ride from here on out."

Tom couldn't see any light, but he could hear Simon's shuffling as he moved forward.  There was a click in his earbug as Stephanie patched them in to the security net.

"What the..."

"Hey!. . . "

"Merde!.  . ."

"Control we just lost all lights on the South Corridor.  Looked like some kind of power surge just before they blew."

"Damn it, that was bright!  This is six to Control, we've just had some kind of.  .  ."

All of these were followed by a truly evil, though quite feminine chuckle in their earbugs.

This is Control to all units.  Cut the chatter.  Back-ups should be.  .  .SHIT! We've got heat and smoke detector alarms in the generator room.  Response three, check it out.  Emergency lights showing operational on all levels.  All security units take position alpha."

Tom thought that whoever this guy was, he was good.  He didn't rattle easily.

"This is six.  Negative, Control. North passages are negative—repeat negative—for emergency lights.  Going to night vision."

"Control to six, I'm showing green on emergency lighting on all corridors."

"Negative Control, we're in the dark, here.  Night vision functioning.  .  . Damn!  Roger Control, we got our lights back.  Proceeding to alpha.  Over."

Stephanie's voice betrayed the fun she was having.  "Simon, I show one blip heading toward your pos.  Standby."

"I can hear him," Simon's voiceless whisper was crystal clear in Tom's ear.  "He's in the main passage and I'm right above him. 

"Let him pass, Simon."  Stephanie' concern was apparent.  "I think he's just going to guard the back door entrance that we're bypassing, anyway.  He should move out of earshot."

"Okay Steph," Simon obviously understood, as well.  "If we play this right, we might not have to hurt anybody."

"Thanks Simon.  I show him as past your position, now.  I'm pretty sure that I can track all the armed units, but I can tell from the chatter that there are maintenance teams and other workers moving around who don't show up on my screens.  They all have radios, so if they see you.  .  ."

"We understand, Stephanie.  We'll be careful."  Simon's tone and concern were perfect.  And once again Tom wondered if—in his own way—Simon might not be a better psychologist than he was.

I'm about to drop to the floor guys.  Simon's mental voice was calm, but the subtext feelings were anything but.  For the first time ever, Tom got a glimpse behind Simon's calm, professional façade when he was about to go into a situation where violence might be required.  The trepidation was no surprise; he felt the same kind of thing, himself.  What was unexpected was the anger.

Tom realized that Simon was angry, and he wasn't making any apparent attempt to disguise it.  With the richness of the link, Tom was sure that Simon's anger was with himself.  He was just plain pissed-off that here he was, again, with a gun in his hand, and about to go looking for somewhere or someplace to use it.  It was a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a man who Tom thought he knew very well. 

I have extended my shield to fill most of the corridor, Doctor Litchfield. Agarwal was less nervous than Tom would have thought.  But then again, he had never actually done anything like this, before.  What Tom sensed was more like excitement, and worry.  But it was worry about the boy, more than anything else.

I do not sense the presence of anyone who should be in direct line of sight, so you should be safe.

You ready Tom?  Simon's concern was real.  He understood that his friend was suffering in the enclosed space.  Upon feeling Simon's subtext, he actually felt the air get a little thicker, the solid weight of the mountain pressing on his ribs and chest with just a bit more force, as if it had constricted at the moment his mind returned to where he was.

Just try not to break your leg when you jump, Simon.  I don't want to have to carry your skinny ass through the rest of this cave.  Tom's words had just the right mixture of courage, levity and concern, he could tell.  But he also knew that the subtext would tell both his companions everything he could never say out loud.  It was comforting to know that you were saying how you felt without actually having to articulate it.  He began to wonder how some of his patients managed to do it, at all.

Over the earbug, Tom heard a quiet grunt immediately followed by Simon's voice.  "I'm down, the coast is clear.  Stephanie?  Anybody reacting or heading this way?"

"Negative, Simon.  But don't forget about the unarmed personnel."

"I won't."  Simon sounded more businesslike than before when addressing her fears.  "Pasteel, the floor is smooth but I suggest you try and hang from the lip before you drop.  Don't try to do it like I did."

"I concur, Doctor Litchfield."  Tom could hear the grunts and gasps, as well has the shuffling and sliding noises from just ahead of him in the passage as Agarwal maneuvered himself to exit the passage feet first.  He didn't complain, but Tom could tell it was pretty tight.  In any case, he was able to move forward again as the stocky man's feet disappeared from his view. He got just a glimpse of the top of the man's black-clad head as he scooted himself backwards. 

"I can see your feet, just a little further and you'll find a good handhold, your drop should only be about four feet once you let go."  Simon was talking Agarwal through it.  Carrying him through the cave would have been much more difficult.

Tom moved forward just in time to see Agarwal's fingers release the rock lip that represented release from this nightmare of a crawl through some great rock beast's alimentary canal.  His earbug very clearly relayed Agarwal's loud grunt, gasp and whooof! as he landed.  It didn't sound like a graceful operation.

"Everyone okay?"  Stephanie had apparently heard it, too. 

"I quite assure you, Miss Keel, that nothing is injured but my pride.  Fortunately, the area of my anatomy where the bulk of the impact was absorbed is quite well padded."

"Yep," there was humor in Simon's voice.  "He took most of the shock with his butt, but he looks like he'll be okay.  Give us a second before you drop, Tom.  He's still right under the opening."

Tom had taken a moment to adjust his dart gun, anyway, but he was more than anxious to get out into a passage where he could stand up.  He realized that if he were to always enter a cave through a crawl like this, he would have much less trouble with the wider.  .  .walking.  .  .passages than he normally did.

He didn't even pause to turn around.  He slithered forward with his upper body hanging over the precipice.  As soon as his head was out, he felt better.  The passage, below, was roomy, wide.  It felt like he was in a tunnel with four lanes for cars rather than a cave.  He exhaled a breath he hadn't even realized he was holding.  Below him, he could see that Simon and Agarwal were out of the way.  Agarwal was looking up at him, but Simon had moved slightly up the passage, pistol in his hand, watching. 

"Here I come," he whispered.  And then he was out and over.  His handholds were good and he simply tucked under and flipped his legs over his head until he too was hanging from the lip, though he was facing the opposite direction than Agarwal had.  He lightly dropped to the cave floor and was a little proud of himself for not making so much as a peep over the earbugs.

"Down," was all he had to say.  Through the ether, he heard Stephanie breathe a quiet sigh of relief.  He spared a moment to look up at the opening through which he had just dropped.  He was surprised to note that even though he knew it was there, he couldn't see it.  He didn't have the advantage of having just seen someone else exit through it, so the best he could do was to guess where it might be on the irregular surface of the roof of the cave.  It was no wonder that this entrance had gone undetected during all the work that had obviously been done to make the cave a viable base.  The floor was so smooth it almost looked like poured concrete.  A small forklift could move through this passage without any trouble at all.  To Tom, it felt like he was in an airplane hangar.  .  .plenty of room.

"I doubt that any of the maintenance people will have night vision."  Stephanie was all professional, again.  "So you should see their flashlights long before they see you, but stay alert gentleman."

There was a click as she tied them once again to the security net.  "I recorded this on one of their auxiliary channels just after I blew the electrics.  I don't know what it means, but I was saving it for once you were down.  It's scary, but I think it gives me a location to direct you to." 

"Control to Kill Team, prepare for orders."

"Roger Control.  Team standing by."  This voice was deep, gravelly.

"Kill team, proceed to point theta.  There is a door marked Chair Room.  Stage your team by that door and await the Go order.  The door is not locked.  Do you copy?"

"Roger, copy Control.  Point theta, door designation Chair Room.  Over."

"Your target is a boy who should be strapped to the chair.  On my call and my call only!, you will enter and terminate the target with extreme prejudice.  Empty your clips, Joe."

"Roger Control.  Boy in the chair. I copy."

"A boy?"  This voice was different, younger.  There was an accent, maybe Dutch or German.

"You got a problem with that, Deiter?"  Gravelly Voice Guy's tone was cold.

"Ja.  .  .uh.  .  .yes."  The speaker may have been young, but he obviously knew he was treading on thin ice.  "If he is strap to chair, what threat could be?"

"How 'bout you, Brakora?"  Gravelly Voice had ignored the younger man, for a moment.

"Boy, girl, baby, no matter."  This voice was—surprisingly to Tom—a soft, almost grandmotherly feminine whisper.  She could have been ordering bagels.  "For this kind of money, I don't have problems.

"Control, this is KT lead, I'm sending KT two to the generator room.  Those techs might need some coverage and I think two of us will be enough for this.  Copy?"

"Roger KT one, advise when you are in position.  Over."

"Deiter, you just blew your bonus.  Now get out of my sight you worthless bastard.  And from now on you stay off the KT back-channel.  It ain't for your kind.  Move!"

If the soldier with a soul responded, Stephanie hadn't included it.  With a click she was back on.  "While this was going on, I tracked three blips heading for a central location and then they stopped.  One of them peeled off and I know the location of the other two.  Simon, what's happening?  I can't lock out the controller on this net without shutting him down, completely.  But I'm gonna put him on a one point five second delay on what they are calling the KT backchannel and if he gives that order, I'm going to have to do something."

"Sounds good Stephanie."  Simon was pondering, calculating. 

We MUST go there with all possible speed.  Agarwal was almost pleading with Simon.  And for once there was nothing in the subtext that wasn't also in his mental voice.  Doctor Litchfield, if Miss Keel can guide us to this.  .  .this.  .  .Kill Team, then perhaps I can assist.  I can send my shield ahead of us and anyone who is in our path can be.  .  .put to sleep.  .  .by the control pod.  If Doctor Weldon can then drug them with his.  .  .his weapon.  .  .

You can do this?  Simon's anger was a little less self-directed than his earlier feelings.  Why didn't you let me know?

There is risk, Doctor Litchfield.  If the mental shield surrounding these caves was.  .  .natural.  .  .I would not suggest it.  But the.  .  .the words fail me.  .  .the uniformity of this shield is not the living, breathing thing that it should be.  Such actions would be very difficult for me to conceal under normal circumstances.  The mental subtext said it all.  Agarwal was a born operative, regardless of experience.  He was adapting his tactics and plans based on field conditions.  Their plan for a slow, stealthy search while the security teams ran in circles was about to go straight out the window.  It was time for an all-out sprint to the goal line.

"Okay Stephanie," Simon's voice was calm, determined.  He'd made his decision.  "Guide us to the room where the two blips are standing-by.  Let us know if you've killed the com system.  When you do, the guards will be much more independent and it will be harder to anticipate their movements."

"Okay Simon, you'll want to take the next left in the direction you're moving.  I'm going to steer you around what seems to be their dining hall.  I'm pretty sure that most of the nonessentials are sheltering there while the complex is under the security alert, but it shouldn't cost you too much time."

Agarwal interjected. "Excellent idea, Miss Keel.  But may I suggest that we proceed with all haste?" He might have tried a little harder to mask his impatience, but Tom couldn't blame him for that.  The boy meant a lot to him.  He wanted to hurry.

Doctor Weldon, the control pod has just put three apparent technicians to sleep down the narrow corridor to our right.  They weren't in our direct line of travel but it is possible that they may have heard our progress and reported it.  If you would do the honors, Sir.

Tom readied his weapon and ducked down the passage that Agarwal indicated.  The three were jumbled as if they had fallen where they stood.  An open junction box and a huge toolbox told the tale.  Tom was glad that the goggles he was wearing had very good light compensators, because they not only all had flashlights—which were still on—but they had set-up a portable klieg light system that no doubt would have completely blinded any other night-vision system he had ever used.

The rapid ffsstt ffsstt ffsstt of his weapon did not transmit over the earbugs.  The taser charge was wasted on these unconscious targets, though they did twitch when hit.  The somnulant would keep them asleep so that the psychics could direct their attentions elsewhere.  Tom had to admit, it was a good system.  His only worry was to make sure that he hit them in the meaty part of a leg, or arm.  He wondered if he would ever have need to pick up a real gun, again.

If Stephanie noticed his little detour, she didn't mention it as she kept-up a steady stream of directions.  Within a turn or two, Tom was completely lost.  He couldn't have found his way back to the spot they dropped from to save his life.

Twice more, his gun made its ffsstt and already unconscious people twitched before relaxing again.  None of them were armed.  Tom really loved this thing.

In the middle of another set of directions, Stephanie paused.  "Crap crap CRAP!," something had gotten her attention. "You gotta listen to this, guys.  Crap!" 

There was a click and then:  "This is Kill Team minus one, we're at point theta, Control.  Over."

"Roger that, standby for orders, KT one. Over."

"Control, we got lights here. Are they back on everywhere?  I didn't hear any chatter on the regular net.  Over."

"Negative, one.  You're on an independent system, there.  It's not on the main grid.  It's a drop-dead backup for the chair room.  Should a' told you, sorry.  Over."

There was a click as Stephanie's voice came back on.  "Nothing!"  She very obviously peeved.  "Nothing about any independent power system.  Maybe they.  .  .hell.  .  .maybe they just went down to some Italian Home Depot and bought themselves a UPS for cash.  .  .dammit dammit dammit!  I don't see it on his board or on any specs.  Listen up boys, you have to take the next right and then in that passage, take the third left, you got that?"  In the background, Tom could almost hear her keyboard groaning under the rapid, staccato drumming her fingers were giving it.

"Got it," Simon managed to squeeze-in before she cut him off.

"Give me a couple seconds, guys.  I'll see what I can find.  After that third left.  .  .stop!  You'll be one passage away from that blasted Kill Team.  Now shut-up, all of you, I've got to concentrate."

Without speaking or in any way coordinating, they all slowed their progress down the corridor.  They didn't want to take the chance that they would make any kind of noise that might alert the Kill Team that was waiting just ahead, presumably locked and loaded.  Tom readied his weapon and noticed that Simon had clicked the safety off, on his pistol.  Whatever was going to happen, it would be soon.

"Okay gentleman," Stephanie sounded pleased with herself.  "I think I've found it.  There is some kind of circuit off the main bus that is only active when both the primary and the back-ups are offline.  That has to be it."  There was more rapid clicking. "Somebody was a very clever little girl, this really does look like an add-on and it's been labeled as a freezer circuit on the specs."

"Can you shut it down, Miss Keel?" Agarwal was able to speak with his real voice while transmitting to Simon and Tom.  He is close, I can feel it.

"Oh yes I can, Mister Agarwal.  And there's more." A little of the crowing she had done, earlier, was back.  "I'm going to have to turn the main power on for a few seconds to do it, but I've got the circuit locked open.  There is a junction box in the room with the two blips that I hope are the Kill Team.  I'm gonna blow that one, too.  It should give you a diversion and knock the lights out in your whole section.  Those two will have to fumble for their night vision once they stop dodging the sparks from the box."

"Just give us the word, Stephanie," Simon answered.  They had all stopped because just around the next corner, they could see the very faint glow of reflected light.  They were right on the verge of the area with the back-up system still functioning.  Tom could hear very low, mumbled conversation from the direction of the light.  There was even some uneasy laughter.  .  .female, definitely, and it was still.  .  .grandmotherly.

"Get your sleep gun ready, Tom."  Stephanie was telling them all, especially Simon, that as far as she was concerned, the gloves were still on.  "They should be easy targets once the lights go out.  The lights in your area may flicker for a second, but that's all."  Tom was confused for a moment; he had forgotten that she didn't even know that he'd already used the darts five times. 

"Got you covered, Stephanie."  Tom answered.  He tried to put as much assurance into his voice as possible.  "I'll go on your mark."

"Okay boys.  On three, the last back-up gets burned."  She paused for a breath. "One.  .  .two.  .  .three." 

As promised, the lights in the corridor flickered, but only briefly.  Tom heard a loud report from ahead and could tell that there had been a bright flash from the direction of the voices.  And then it was dark.  He started to move.

He didn't pause when he heard Agarwal groan, as if in great pain.  But just as he rounded the corner for the final short sprint toward the Kill Team, the screaming started.  .  .

#  The Boy.  .  .Now  #

When the moment came, he almost missed it.  Even though the machines were maintaining the mental shield, he was aware that things were happening.  There was a lot of excitement, fear and worry from the minds within his domain.  He didn't have to be connected to them to sense it.  He had hoped that whatever the events were that were unfolding, would give him an opportunity to act, maybe even contact someone, but the computers watching his brain activity were not easily distracted by other events.  As soon as he began to try, he felt his efforts stifled by microcurrents directly to his brain. 

The sensation reminded him of the many dental procedures he had needed once he was with The Collective.  The dentist had given him Novocain in order to work on his teeth.  Years of no care and poor nutrition had taken a toll, and he had needed quite a bit of dental work for a boy his age.  He had found the experience interesting.  Half of his mouth would be numb, lifeless.  His brain would send the signal to smile, but only one side would respond.  Somewhere between the origin of the command and his muscles.  .  .the signal would simply die.

That's what it felt like when he tried to send a message, or enter someone's mind.  The impulse would simply not make it to its intended target.  He wasn't simply meat, he was dead meat.  Completely unable to defend himself.  And the anger started to burn even brighter than before.

He could hear voices outside his room, but he couldn't understand what they were saying.  Just after he heard the laughter of a woman, perhaps an older woman, the lights from the monitors before him, went out.  He'd had his eyes closed, he was straining so hard to overhear the voices, that he feared he had not noticed the darkness for a moment.  It took him a full second to realize that the input signals from the machines had also stopped.  He hadn't been able to pin the signal down while it was on, but he noticed its absence.

And The Boy moved.  He summoned his energies and burned-through the control wires that interfered with his capabilities.  This took a tenth of a second and caused him to twitch all over.  Current flows both ways, but he had prepared himself for this and simply endured the sensation.  .  .it wasn't really pain.  .  .until the wires were severed.  They could no longer control him.  He was free.

The generated shield had died with the screens so his second priority was to enclose himself in his own shield.  He didn't want any interference from The Collective for what he planned to do. 

The electrodes that carried the current that they once used to control him were his next target.  He understood how they worked and he needn't burn through the heavy wires designed to punish, rather than feed power to circuits.  He had identified a single relay under the chair where all the power was fed and he hit it with all the raw psychic force he could spare.  The flash and pop from beneath him lit the room like a strobe light.  Two seconds had passed.  The Boy had prepared for this moment.

It was only now that he realized that the power to the amplifier had also been interrupted.  And he wanted the amplifier for what came next.  He needed it.  This part of the device, he knew.  With his mind, he traced the circuits which fed it and found the generator from which the power had been flowing.  Somehow, there was a massive power surge feeding into it and it was about to overload.  In his mind, the entire apparatus looked like a huge, glowing bomb, there was no way to stop it from detonating.  But off to the side, there was a large bank of batteries which had not yet been affected.  He couldn't save the generator, but perhaps he could preserve the batteries that were still connected to the amplifier.  He would have to divert the flow.  .  .just so.  .  .in order to.  .  .

Three full seconds had now passed since the screens first flickered out.  He had not looked to where he was diverting the power that threatened to overwhelm the batteries, so when the screens, some of the banks of instruments and even the cameras that surrounded him began to explode, the pain of the flying glass and the burns from the electrical plasma arcs proved almost too much for him to bear.  Had the psychic amplifier that was his brainchild not kicked in at that moment, he may have lost it all.  But it did. 

Even through his pain, he felt the surge of raw power—for the first time under his complete control—and once again he reveled in it.  His abilities and his senses reeled under the pure unbridled thrill of such energy.  The physical pain receded as his mental powers expanded to so much more than their full potential.  He opened his left eye.  .  .there seemed to be something wrong with his right.  .  .to see what had happened.  He looked, and his anguished mental cry echoed so far out into the universe that entire planets whose inhabitants shared a natural psychic link—and there are several in this part of the galaxy—groaned in shared anguish.

For the human psychics on Earth, there was a pause as each of them stopped whatever else they were doing and suffered with him.  Some of the weaker were overwhelmed by the sensation and lost consciousness, though they eventually recovered.  Only those who were strong, and who were actively shielding themselves at the moment, were able to keep some kind of control.

But The Boy knew none of this.  What had happened to him was similar to what he had inadvertently done to two others so many years ago.  Every circuit that had been added to the amplifier system had exploded, spewing shrapnel and energy in all directions.  And strapped to the chair, The Boy had been unable to so much as cover his face with his hands to protect himself.

But his mind was intact.  .  .and he had so much power!  There would be time later to tend to his body.  For now, he would show those who had sought to make him meat what it meant to deal with one such as he!  He was no longer the mouse in the box, staying still, and quiet.

Like the boys in the Mercado so many years ago, they had taken something from him, and now it was time for them to pay the price.  This was the way of the Streets.  Perhaps he had forgotten this, for a while, when he was with The Collective, but he'd been reminded.  He'd made a mistake.  He had allowed the humans to get the upper hand and he had paid the price for it.  But now they had made the mistake, and it was their turn to pay.  No longer the mouse, he was the jaguar, and it was time to hunt.

#  Now  #

"Impossible!" Stephanie cried.  "Nobody's that fast!  Nobody!"  There was the furious clicking of keys over the earbug.  "Something is redirecting my power surge.  I'm shutting it down, now!  What's happening?  Simon?  Tom?  All the security teams and the controller.  .  .they are all.  .  .my God, what's happening to them?  Simon, are you okay?  Answer me, dammit!  Tom? Answer me!"

"We're okay, Stephanie."  Simon was bending over the psychic, who was sitting on the hard rock floor with his hands over his ears, as if trying to shut-out the sound of a fierce storm.

Tom wasn't sure what was happening, but he knew that Agarwal was down and that the two members of the Kill Team were screaming as if in agony.  Echoing down different halls, he could hear more screams.  According to Stephanie, a lot more.

He's here, Tom.  .  .Simon.  He's alive. There was unmasked joy in Agarwal's mental voice, but there was also pain, and fear.  It was the first time the psychic had ever called him by his first name.  But we must go to him.  He is hurt.  .  .badly.  .  .but he's.  .  .he's.  .  .

There are no words for the sound the plump little man made next.  If Tom had to describe it, he could only do so by analogy.  Imagine that a car was rolling downhill, and you were standing in its path.  Imagine also that your child was lying at your feet.  Imagine that you could possibly leap out of the way and save yourself, but only if you left your child to be crushed.  Imagine that you decided that no matter what, you would stand between your child and certain death.  So without further thought, you braced yourself and caught the car with nothing but your body and your strength of will.  Imagine that you not only stopped it, but you shoved it back up the hill far enough to give you time to scoop up your child and carry her out of harms way.

Think about this.  .  .you've read of such things, 98-pound mothers lifting trucks and such, though you've had your doubts.  But think about it, anyway.  Now, imagine the sound you would make in performing this thoughtless, impossible feat.  The slow, strained, gasping grunt as you caught that unstoppable object.  And the loud, grating, fierce, almost martial-arts yell as you reversed the crushing weight and threw it back. 

If you can imagine these two sounds, then you might just understand what Agarwal went through as his mental shield took the brunt of a massive psychic assault and though his defenses wavered, he threw it back through pure force of will, alone.

Tom let out a low groan of pain.  He stumbled as he caught just the merest hint of the raw energies that Agarwal's mental shield somehow deflected from him.  He could almost see it shimmering around him just as the pain struck. He heard Simon gasp, as well.  For that brief moment, Tom felt an astonishing array of sensations.  He felt heat, and ten thousand cuts, and needles in the eyes and ears and up his nose, and sandpaper on a whole-body sunburn, and others that defy description.  Yet it was tolerable because it was so fast, it wasn't terribly intense, and it was simply too much neural input to process.  But it passed almost immediately.  And when it was gone, the screams had stopped.  All of them.

Stephanie's voice was also silent.  Whatever relays she had been using to transmit to them had not survived that last psychic surge.  He hoped that Simon's last message that they were unhurt made it through.  Tom assumed that she would be able to tell that all the com systems were now down and would be frantically trying to reestablish contact with them.  She shouldn't be too worried. Not yet, anyway.

He had finally made it to the doorway where the two members of the Kill Team had been stationed.  A switchbox in the corner was still smoking and there was a thick ozone smell mixed with baked insulation permeating the room.  But beneath these smells was the greasy copper smell of fresh blood, lots of it.  The two—a plump, gray-haired woman and a dark skinned man—were sprawled on the floor like they had fallen from a great height.  Their arms and legs were splayed at improbable angles as if their bones and joints had been ratcheted back and forth by some unimaginable force.  They were bleeding from their eyes, ears and mouths but most of the blood seemed to come from their lower orifices, making huge puddles beneath them.  And though Tom had seen more death than he cared to remember, he had never seen such looks on any dead face, ever. 

Death has a way of pacifying the final rictus of pain.  He had seen the looks on the faces of children burned alive by napalm and had never seen anything as horrid as the faces of these two stone killers.  If the release of death had softened their grimaces of suffering.  .  .he couldn't imagine what they had experienced before it had ended.  Before him was a door marked Chair Room.  He started toward it, he had to finally see what all this effort had been all about.

Doctor Weldon, wait.  Agarwal's mental voice sounded strange in his ears.  The subtext was simple.  The psychic was straining to maintain something.  .  .his shield?  The quality of the information in the link seemed somehow heightened.

Tom had almost forgotten that he wasn't alone in his quest.  He turned and saw that Simon was helping the heavier man down the short hall leading to this smoky abattoir.  Agarwal looked like he was trying to carry a heavy burden, his back was bent and he legs were wobbly.  Simon was having a difficult time supporting him.

He mentally chided himself for his thoughtlessness and scrambled to help the two men.  His fascination with what was on the other side of the door was momentarily forgotten.  As he neared them, he could hear Simon calling to Stephanie over the com.  .  .but his earbug was dead.  "I think the whole system is offline, Simon," he said as he reached to help support Agarwal in his slow plod.  With his greater height and bulk he was able to provide much more lift than Simon could.  "Let me take him," he volunteered.  "You can take point."

Simon gave him a searching look.  Both knew that once that door was open, all bets were off.  If Agarwal was shielding them from some kind of mental attack, they might only have seconds in which to act.  Simon might have to use his pistol, after all.  Tom nodded his understanding as he heaved, almost lifting Agarwal's feet from the floor.  Simon released his end and hurried into the room. 

"Damn," was all he said when he saw and smelled the carnage within. 

He has killed them all. Agarwal's mental anguish was loud and clear though the link.  All of them, and all at once.  So much death, so much suffering! I have never even heard of such power.  .  .over such a large area.  He must have been treated very badly to have unleashed this terrible destruction.  Everything we worked for has been undone.  He has changed so much, my Dezcentavo.

Dezcentavo?  Tom had heard the name—or something like it—before.  Was this the boy's name?  Had they even known the boy's name up to now?    Something clicked in his mind.  Where had he heard that name, before?  It meant something.  .  .but what was it?

Simon had paused at the door marked Chair Room.  He was waiting for Tom and Agarwal to catch up.

I cannot make contact with the control pod.  I lost them when he killed all the mundanes.  .  .the people. . .in the complex.  Just.  .  .killed them.

Then it looks like it's just the three of us, then.  In the subtext there was a grim determination from Simon.  He may not have been able to sense the deaths of everyone in the complex the way Agarwal had, but learning of them had had an effect on him.  Are you ready, Tom?

Tom wanted desperately to take a moment to collect his thoughts.  There was something about the boy's name.  .  .something important.  But other thoughts seemed to crowd this memory out.  Strange memories were whirling around inside his head.  He saw a face.  .  .it was a face he recognized.  .  .someone he had worked with, before.  It was someone in his regular life.  .  .another psychologist? 

And Simon was in the memory, too.  The woman was saying something to Simon.  She was telling Simon to remember a certain event when Tom said his line.  His line?  Tom knew he should remember what he was supposed to say.  .  .but the words just wouldn't come.  With an effort, he cleared his mind and focused on the tasks at hand.  He needed to be sharp for this.  As his mind cleared, he realized that he had shifted the dart gun to his other hand.  It was light enough for him to use like an oversized pistol, should he need.  And he was fairly sure that multiple shots to the same person could—if necessary—prove at least as lethal as Simon's weapon of choice.

Tom?  There was concern in Simon's mental voice.

I'm as ready as I will ever be, Tom answered, finally. His mind was finally clear, but it had been more difficult to do than he could ever remember.   Pasteel, surely the boy knows we are here, by now.

It is possible, Doctor Weldon, but I think not.  Do not forget that a shielded mind is a blank spot in our senses.   I believe that he has set-up a perimeter around this location that will instantly kill any unshielded mind that wanders in.  Such energies were believed to be impossible.   I am keeping us all alive, right now but should my control slip.  .  .

Is there anything we can do to help? Simon asked.  

Doctor Litchfield, Doctor Weldon, I can protect you better if you allow me to fully link with you, much as we did, before.  Agarwal's answer surprised Tom, for a moment.  He had nearly forgotten that since Simon's.  .  .renegotiation.  .  .with The Collective, that they had not been actively reading his mind at all. 

I'm not so sure.  .  . Simon's mental voice and subtext were in complete concordance.  He didn't like it, didn't trust it, and didn't want to do it.

Doctor Litchfield.  .  .Simon!  There was desperation in Agarwal's plea.  With a close enough link, he will not be able to harm you without harming me.  And lest you have forgotten, sir:  We Do Not Kill Our Own.  The adamancy and the vehemence of the little man's declaration were sobering.  He had absolute confidence in this one truism. 

Let's do it, Tom volunteered.  He did so as much to break the stalemate as anything else.  He wasn't crazy about the idea, but at least it made a certain amount of sense. 

Doctor Litchfield?

Damn you and damn him! Presumably, Simon was referring to the boy.  I'll do it, Agarwal.  I'll do it.  But only for as long as it takes to get this over with.  .  .one way or another.  Do I have your word?

One way or another.  .  .indeed.  For a moment, Tom feared that this time it was Agarwal who would balk.  But he continued.   Doctor Litchfield, I give you my word that I will dissolve the link when it is no longer necessary in order to protect both you and Doctor Weldon.

In that case, I agree.  The reluctant resolve in his mental subtext was unmistakable. 

Are you ready, Doctor Weldon?

Go! he replied.  Time's a' wastin', people.  Though he realized that perhaps that wasn't true.  This entire discourse had taken only seconds—so things were with the link. 

Tom felt an all too familiar tickle in the back of his mind.  This—more than anything—convinced him that The Collective had kept to their side of the bargain.  They hadn't invaded his mind since the new agreement was struck.  Tom found it more than a little telling.

Can you note the difference? Agarwal's message was vastly different than before.  Along with the subtext, there were other dimensions to the transmission.  Tom could feel the effort Agarwal was expending in order to maintain the shield at its current strength.  The boy's kill zone took some serious measures to counteract.  He could also feel the man's pain at what the boy had done, his sense of having failed at something.  And Tom knew that if he wanted more, he had only to reach for it and it would be there.  He had done this once before, and decided that it probably wasn't worth it.   These psychics appeared to have an entirely different set of rules when it came to allowing others to rummage around inside their heads.  The fact that they seemed to feel completely free to do so to mundane humans apparently wasn't even a consideration.

Wow!  Simon answered.  To tell the truth, I had forgotten what this was like.  And again Tom could feel so much more from Simon than he could possibly have imagined.  Simon was weary of all this.  Though his adrenalin was up and he knew he was about to go into a situation where life and death might hang in the balance.  .  .he was just plain tired of it all.  He'd been here—or at least in similar straights—too many times, before. 

Doctor Weldon?

Loud and clear, he answered.  Loud and clear.  Let's get this over with.

Tom adjusted his grip on the stouter, shorter man.  The poor fellow seemed a little better, but he was still wobbly on his feet.  Only now Tom knew for sure that it was because of the intense concentration it was taking for him to shield them all from the lethal energies that the boy—with the help of the psychic amplifier he had caused to be built—was projecting.

Simon's wordless nod to both of them was returned.  They were ready.  He slowly turned the knob on the heavy metal door.

# In the Chair.  .  .NOW! #

Simon's sharp intake of breath was the only warning Tom had before the smell hit him.  It was a ripe, sharp odor of burned insulation, ozone, body odor, feces and roasted flesh.  Simon's much smaller frame momentarily blocked Tom's view of the chair—which was apparently the centerpiece of the room.  There were metal cabinets all around which used to be gray, but were now streaked with black smudge from the fires that had burned within them.  In Stephanie's last transmission, she had spoken of something redirecting her power surge to someplace she hadn't predicted.  Tom guessed that he now knew where it went. 

The room was simply loaded with equipment.  Much of it seemed to be large banks of circuit panels and various monitoring screens, but there were also reservoirs of what appeared to be hospital-grade fluids, chemicals, drugs, and sealed waste receptacles. 

There were huge bundles of wires and tubes leading from one end of the room to the other.   All of them seemed to eventually find their way to the massive metal base upon which the chair was perched.  Simon stepped to the left a little, to make his way past a still-smoldering conduit, and Tom had his first glimpse of the thing strapped to that horrid device.  It hardly looked like a person, at all.  It looked more like a boy-shaped, life-size rag doll had been lightly sprinkled with charcoal lighter fluid and set aflame.  The only bright spot on the figure was a small, silver medallion on its chest.  It looked like it may have been beneath the boy's clothing and had only slipped out after the worst of the punishment was over.  Strapped as he was, some movement had, no doubt, been possible.  If he had been conscious at all, he had to have been writhing in intense pain as he was burned.  The medallion caught Tom's interest immediately, but he was too far away to make out any details.  From his vantage point, it looked like a small silver coin.

He heard a quiet moan of anguish from beside him.  He felt a sudden acute pain in his chest and for a moment, he thought he was under some new kind of psychic attack, but then he realized that what he was experiencing was nothing but heartbreak.   .  .and it wasn't his.  He was—somehow—empathetically connected to Agarwal.  He was suffering with the man as he began to understand what had happened to this boy that he loved, so much.

But the sound did not go unnoticed by the figure in the chair.  Beneath the closely-singed hairline, a single—unblemished—deep brown eye opened.  His right eye was completely covered by a flap of skin from a deep gash on his forehead.  There was still a large, triangular piece of glass embedded in one end of the cut.  There was no blood to be seen at all.  Apparently, the heat of the exploding monitors and circuits had cauterized the wound.  Without doubt, it was a mixed blessing.

Pasteel?  Is that you? The strength and intensity of the communication was staggering.  You came for me, but so soon. How? 

The sheer volume of the boy's mental sending made Tom's head throb.  Had the boy done this through Agarwal's shield?  He wasn't sure.  Perhaps they could open their shield for communication without opening it for anything else.  There seemed to be no emotional subtext at all from the boy.  .  .just words.

We came as soon as we could, Dezcentavo.  Agarwal's response, on the other hand, was as rich with compassion, pity, fear, love and above all else, sorrow.  It was we who cut the power to this place.  You are hurt, little one, and you are safe with us.  Please drop your offensive field so that we can help you.

No!  I will not be made meat by them, again.  I have the power now, Pasteel.  I have it!

You will kill anyone who comes close, child.  You must stop this, at once. 

You are safe.  .  .WE are safe.  Only THEY will pay for what they did to me.  Tell your human dogs to leave us now, and I will grant them safe passage to the outside.

We cannot do that, child.  And you know it.  We only want to help you, please just let us help you.  They have come far and risked much.  They will not leave until.  .  .

Tom had been trying to slowly, subtly, position his dart gun to allow him a clear shot at the boy should he need it.  He had slid the strap from his shoulder and was holding it loosely in his left hand.  His actions—he hoped—were temporarily hidden from the boy by a low bank of still-smoldering electronics.  The effort had caused him to shift his balance a little, as he stood, supporting the bulk of Agarwal's weight.  When the stocky man's knees buckled, they both dropped to the floor.  His dart gun skittered to the side as he grappled to control their fall. 

He felt a sharp pain in the center of his head, but it was bearable.  Perhaps it was his close link with Agarwal, or maybe he was just beginning to figure out how all of this worked.  But he was sure that the boy had just tried to attack Simon and him without hurting Agarwal.  Somehow, the psychic had turned the force away.  But the effort had taken just about everything the little man had. 

And Simon moved.

Tom caught only a fluid, graceful, sensation of motion from the corner of his eye.  Simon stepped forward and started to raise his pistol.

Fool!

The pain was intense.  Tom's right hand, which had been supporting Agarwal's head, felt like a molten spike had been driven through it.  He jerked it back with such force that the poor man's vertebrae popped as his head was violently twisted.  His ears registered a gasp of pain from Simon, and he could see Agarwal's right hand, fingers curled in an agony that mirrored his own.  And then the pain was gone.  Tom tried to reach for his dart gun, but he couldn't move.  Just like in the back room of the Cannon Moon.  .  .his muscles were frozen.

Pasteel, don't make me do this.  Stop shielding them!  I cannot protect myself without hurting you. 

Dezcentavo.  .  .The man's body may have been a frozen sprawl with limbs akimbo, but his mind was still strong and his resolve was crystal clear.  Tom could feel it.  What you do to them you must do to me.  We stand together, child.  We are one. 

Tom couldn't move, but he could still think.  He felt the intense pressure the boy was putting on Agarwal's shields.  He could feel the place where the boy had punched through the shield with whatever it took to lock a person's muscles and he realized just what the psychic had done for them.

With the raw power at his disposal, the boy could easily rip his mentor's shields apart and do whatever he wanted, but because of the way Agarwal had linked them, what the boy did to one, he did to all three.  He couldn't harm Simon or Tom without also hurting his friend.  And because they were in whatever lethal field the boy had erected, he couldn't just render them unconscious, for then the psychic's shield would drop, too.  It was a true standoff. 

Pasteel, Tom tried to whisper with his mind, he wanted to communicate with him without the boy hearing him.  He didn't know if it worked, or not.  Dezcentavo.  .  .the boy's name.  .  .it means ten centavos.  . . right?  I recognize the medallion he wears around his neck.  It's an old Brazilian, ten-centavo coin, isn't it?

Yes, Doctor Weldon.  But now is not.  .  .

Tell me what you know about it.  .  .Pasteel.  .  .it's important.  .  .

But.  .  .

Trust me, Pasteel.

Whatever Tom was expecting, he wasn't prepared for what happened next.  For a moment, he was The Boy With No Name.  What Agarwal was giving him was a memory that he had taken from The Boy, himself.

He brought his cup to Papa Carlos.  It had been a good morning's begging and there were several reali in change and even a few bills.  With a certain pride, he poured it out on the rough wooden table, next to the nearly empty gallon- jug of beer and the battered dominoes.  Papa would be so happy.  Perhaps he would even smile.

He watched Papa Carlos' face closely as his eyes flickered over the bounty that had been heaped before him.  One scarred, calloused finger probed the pile as it usually did, judging whether The Boy had done well.  And The Boy felt a tinge of trepidation as the man's sun-wrinkled brow furrowed.  He had seen something odd amidst the assorted coins.

His nimble fingers singled-out a small, silver coin and he plucked it from the pile, holding it up to a ray of light streaming in from between the slats.  He looked closely at it, for a moment.  The Boy held his breath.  Papa Carlos had a look on his face that he had never seen, before.  The man was.  .  .amused?

The beer on his breath was still fresh, and it smelled sweet to The Boy when the man nudged Old Peitro, who was drinking and gambling with him that morning, and showed him the coin.  Old Peitro, started to laugh so hard when he saw it, that he choked on spittle, which only aggravated the old man's wheezing, and triggered one of his coughing fits.  His breath—on the other hand—reeked of onions and stale cheese but The Boy did not flinch away from it.  He knew better.

"I haven't seen one of these in a very long time, boy.  Who has given you a gift of such value?  How could they part with such treasure for one such as you?"

For the first time, The Boy, looked at the coin.  He didn't remember ever seeing one like it, and had no memory of anyone dropping it in his cup.  Several Touristas had reached in their pockets when he approached them and had given him whatever change they found.  It was probably one of them, he thought.  But he still didn't know if he had done something wrong, or very very right by showing it to Papa Carlos.  All he could offer was an apologetic shrug.  It was better not to speak when you weren't sure where things were going.

He stood mute and still as the man took a piece of scrap twine and began to wrap it around the coin.  He had been a fisherman, once, and his fingers remembered how to quickly tie knots.  It was a skill he had seen the man use many times, his wrists and ankles still bore many subtle scars which testified to the strength of those knots.

"Such a treasure has no place in my pocket, boy."  Papa Carlos said as he worked.  "It was given to you and you should keep it."  And he smiled.

The Boy let out a breath he hadn't even realized he was holding.  He had smiled!

Papa Carlos held up the necklace he had woven.  It was crude, rough, but it seemed the most beautiful thing that The Boy had ever seen in his life.  The man almost gently lowered it over his head.  Without thought, The Boy bowed his head and accepted his gift as if he were a nobleman receiving a knighthood from the king.

"This is you, boy.  This is you."  And his hand briefly brushed the The Boy's cheek in a gesture that was almost.  .  .gentle.  .  .almost affectionate.  .  .almost even loving.

Tom let out a gasp.  The entire memory had taken barely a second but it had been so complete, so nuanced that he instantly understood so very much about the boy in the chair.  He knew the man's temper, his abuses, and how he had broken these abandoned, unwanted children to his will.   And he understood something else, as well.  He realized that this gift, was no gift at all. 

What are you doing, old man?

For a moment, Tom wasn't sure if The Boy—he could never call him Dezcentavo—was referring to him, or to Papa Carlos.  Reliving the memories of another was a very confusing manner of communication.  Somehow, however, he realized that it was Simon that The Boy was speaking to.  Tom heard a sound behind him.  Simon was moving.

He was fighting The Boy the same way he had fought the control pod that night in the Cannon Moon.  Tom had almost completely forgotten about it.  He tried to remember if he had heard Simon's pistol fall from his hand when The Boy had stopped them, before. 

Pasteel, let me stop him!  He's.  .  .he's blocking.  .  .me.

Hurry, Doctor Litchfield.  Whatever you are doing.  .  .hurry.  Agarwal's mental voice was anguished, weak.  Tom could feel the man straining to protect them with everything he had.  It was like one of those movies where the characters are in a room with the walls slowly, inexorably moving in on them.  The force was absolutely overwhelming and it seemed The Boy was trying to crush the man's defenses to the point where he could—perhaps—break the link and separate Agarwal without actually killing him.

But the plump little psychic was having none of it.  Rather than fighting the unnaturally overpowering force, he was defending only the link between the three men.  He was putting everything he could muster into giving The Boy no choice but to kill him.  He was trusting that The Boy would hold back.

Hurry Simon, Tom's mental voice echoed.  .  .but something in his mind clicked almost as soon as he had formulated the thought.

Another memory seemed to invade.  It was a very different kind than that which Agarwal had given him.  This was his memory.  It was he and Simon in the basement when they were being shielded by The Egg.  Simon had asked him for the name of a friend of his, another psychologist and an expert in a very specific field.  Hypnotism.

Simon had her brought to the basement much the same way as Tom had been and she had hypnotized both of them.  And this woman was good, very good, within her specialty. 

Pasteel?  He is raising his gun!  We. Do. Not. Kill. Our. Own!  How many times have I heard you tell me this.  How many times?

You give us no choice, little one.  I am sorry.  Do what you must do, Simon.  Hurry!

Simon! Tom tried to scream with his mind. Endeavor to proceed with a modicum of alacrity.  That was what he had been trying to remember!  That's what he was supposed to say when the time was right!

Then you can all die!

The crushing weight he could feel through the link increased exponentially.  He heard an anguished moan escape Agarwal's lips.  He was losing his link.  The man was at his absolute limit.  He just couldn't hold-out any more.

As the link and the shielding began to fail, Tom felt a pain in his chest, as if an invisible hand was closing around his heart.

Incredibly, he felt one last surge of effort from Agarwal.  He wouldn't have believed it possible that there was anything left in the man, but somehow he had dug deep into whatever well he drew his strength from, and found a little more.  The link grew.

Tom was looking at Simon, but from an odd perspective.  And there was pain.  Pain from the burns to the exposed portions of his body.  Pain from when he had diverted the power surge here in order to protect his machines.  He felt the pain in his chest and he knew what Pasteel had done.  He had linked them all together.  An attack now would kill all of them.  Tom considered doing just that, but then he would have to give up the machine.  After all he had done, and all he had suffered.  .  .he would never give up the device.  .  .never!

Simon's countenance was pure grit.  He was straining to hold the pistol which was right now already pointing directly at Tom's face.  Simon was going to shoot him unless he forced his way through the shield and into his mind, now!

Almost absently, he dropped the lethal field as he concentrated all the power at his command toward this one last assault.  Tom focused his mind prepared to plunge his consciousness into Simon's.  If it killed poor Pasteel, too, so be it.  He had sided with the humans.

He felt his power easily breach Pasteel's sheild.  Simon's mind was open to him.

He could not figure out why Maria had not answered him when he came in the door. She seemed to have left the shower on, maybe to get warm. He thought maybe she was doing some sit-ups or something, and perhaps that was why she was on the floor, naked. She would exercise and then hop right in the shower… She was being practical, that was it. Then he saw his clock on the floor next to her, and then his eyes followed the cord to her neck.

Tom/The Boy/Agarwal reeled at the intensity of the feelings that Simon's mind had conjured.  He felt Agarwal break the link with Simon in a reflex action that was much like jerking your leg up if you stepped on a wasp, barefoot.   But the images continued.  Agarwal had not severed the link with The Boy.

The lifelessness in her eyes stunned him. It could not be. It was a trick, a joke. He called to her, dove to her side. He reached to check her pulse, but her body was cold.

Tom/The Boy/Agarwal couldn't think, couldn't act.  How is it possible that white people can feel such incredible anguish?  They are always happy, and rich, and fed! 

In Simon's hand, muzzle of the heavy pistol loomed like a locomotive tunnel in Tom's vision.  He was looking directly at it when it blossomed into orange and white flame.  At the moment that the booming sound assaulted his ears, he felt a tug on his head and the world.  .  .diminished.  His connection to the machine was broken.

Tom felt himself react.  .  .thrusting with his mind against Simon's hand, and he felt another stab of incredible pain.  Through his one good eye, he saw the pistol drop out of sight and heard the clatter as it hit the floor.  He had done it!  It took all of his strength to break through but he had made the old man drop the gun!

But still the images continued, blocking out almost all other sensations.  The pain in his hand echoed the pain he had felt that day and only added to the verisimilitude of the memory.

His hand yanked back as if scorched and a sudden feeling of helplessness seized him. Words choked in his throat, and his noiseless scream echoed only in his soul as the sobs wracked his frame.

Tom found his voice, the link was weaker than before.  He was still in all three minds but he was himself again, too.  He had forgotten how powerful Dezcentavo was, even without the amplifier.  At any moment, he could regain enough control to kill Simon where he stood.  Since the link to Agarwal was broken, now it was only Simon's own mental defenses that were keeping him alive.  His mental reliving of his own worst moment was the post-hypnotic suggestion that Simon himself had requested, there in the basement of the Nightwatch Institute.

Dezcentavo!  The name was the key.  Simon's shot had disabled the machinery—either on purpose or by chance—it was just he and The Boy, now.   Agarwal was still shielding Tom and himself.

Simon! he yelled, mentally.  The medallion.  Rip it off his neck and throw it away.  Hurry!  He could only assume that since he was still receiving images from Simon, that the connection was still held through The Boy.

Maria’s brown eyes gazed up at him from the floor. They were so calm, so peaceful--almost happy. Simon’s eyes trailed downward, following the line of her cheek. Wrapped around her neck was a black electrical cord, wound so tight that it almost cut into the skin.

Tom felt a hand at his.  .  .no.  .  .at The Boy's throat.  Tom saw an image of The Boy's single dark brown eye looking up at him, in horror.  And he realized that Simon, too, was having trouble distinguishing what was really in front of him and what was burning in his memory.  And the horror reflected in The Boy's eye was not at what the old man was doing.  What he felt was the echo of the abject emptiness that the old man had somehow survived.  He was lost in the anguish, unable to defend himself and unable to punch through it now that the machine was dead.

There was a tug and a sharp pain as the stainless steel chain rubbed against, and then cut into his burned flesh.  For a moment, it felt like a piece of black electrical cord from an alarm clock that was—innocuously—shaped like an old steam locomotive.  Tom wasn't sure whose thoughts were whose.  His mind was bouncing between perspectives and feelings as if it were a rubber ball in a cement mixer.  There was The Boy, and Simon, some of Agarwal's fatigue and even his own ideas about the relationship between Papa Carlos, the medallion, and the name that The Boy With No Name had adopted for his own.

Tom focused his thoughts as he had trained himself to do.  For the moment, he had to be himself, and push away the images and sensations of the others that were clattering around in his jumbled mind.

Papa Carlos lied to you.  He spoke softly with his mental voice, much like he tried to do when he was working with a client in his office.  The coin was worthless.  He was not showing love when he gave it to you, he was mocking you.  In his mind, he pictured the anonymous email he had received.

Do you understand, son?  It was worthless!  One hundred million of these would equal one centavo.  He was calling you worthless!  But he lied to you then, like he lied to you so many times.  You're not worthless.  You Are Not Worthless!  Tom put as much feeling and faith into that last statement as he could.

In the link, there can be no lies.  It was time to put this psychic connection to use.  The Boy couldn't doubt him.  He must be able to see the truth in Tom's words.

Tom reached into Agarwal's mind, next.  He had been shown what to look for and he found it, immediately.  The psychic was too drained to offer resistance, even if he'd tried.

He opened the memory he found and shared it with the link.

Papa Carlos held up the necklace he had woven.  It was crude, rough, but it seemed the most beautiful thing that The Boy had ever seen in his life.  The man almost gently lowered it over his head.  Without thought, The Boy bowed his head and accepted his gift as if he were a nobleman receiving a knighthood from the king.

"This is you, boy.  This is you."  And his hand briefly brushed the The Boy's cheek in a gesture that was almost.  .  .gentle.  .  .almost affectionate.  .  .almost even loving.

Tom sent this memory straight from Agarwal's mind.  It was loaded with subtext.  There were vague images of other lies, to The Boy and to others.  There were the feelings he felt when being called into Papa Carlos's room.  Of the man's hands loosening his belt, and letting his pants drop to the dusty dirt floor.  And of what he made The Boy do next.

You are NOT Dezcentavo!  That was NOT you!  Break free of him, now.  It's okay.  We will take care of you.  We are NOT all like him.  You know this, son.   You know this. 

And with all the honesty, concern and promise in his being, Tom spoke:  Your name is not Dezcentavo. .  .Help us, son.  Help us to find your REAL name. 

Tom lurched forward, his muscles under his own control, again.  Beside him, Agarwal stirred.  Tom rolled him over to see if he was okay but from the little man's dry lips croaked the words,  "The boy, see to the boy."

When Tom stood, he could see Simon standing by the chair, trying to loosen the scorched straps holding the young man down. 

There were tears running down the burn-ravaged cheeks.  But the quiet sob Tom heard didn't come from him, it came from Simon as he gently, patiently worked at the ruined straps. 

In the end, they'd had to cut the melted nylon bindings to free him from his own device.

#   Afterward   #

 

The Collective had arrived within hours.  Since the damage was contained within a cave complex, they were able to keep curious eyes focused elsewhere until it could be cleaned-up, and the bodies removed.  There was never a hint in the press that anything had happened, at all.  If any were angry at the damage done to the psychic amplifier by the power surges, Simon's shot.  .  .or the C4 he planted wherever he could find something that looked important.  .  .they never mentioned it to Tom.

#

Stephanie had been going crazy.  She knew what had happened, of course.  She had been using the internal com system to link with the team's cell phones and when the power surge had gone crazy, it burned everything.  She lost contact with them for over an hour before they were close enough to the surface for the regular signal to reach them.

Thank God that nobody had been killed, though she felt bad about the electrical burns one of the people had suffered.  She checked on the young man while he was in the hospital and although he would be scarred, he was going to survive it.  The doctors in Lucca were amazed at his recovery. 

She even allowed herself to feel a little pleased that she was able to help pull-off this kind of operation without any casualties.  And besides, she'd made a new friend.  Seemed all of a sudden she was corresponding to some hacker in Italy who went by the name of Mamissmo.  Somehow, they had an awful lot, in common.

#

Callow was oddly subdued about Simon's machinations in the lower levels of The Nightwatch Institute.  Under any other circumstances, he would have been livid.  Perhaps The Collective influenced him directly, and maybe it was the very generous bonus that Nightwatch received, for a job well done.  In any case, all the people were finally released by Simon, and the triple-time had really piled-up for some of them.

Callow didn't even wince when he got the bill from a Doctor Olivia Overstreet.  She had billed them at over two hundred dollars an hour for the full three days she was there.  Seemed her specialty was hypnotizing people and had proved very entertaining to those who were trapped down there.

#

The back room of the Cannon Moon was much tidier than it had been last time Tom was there.  Seemed that Gillian had a little more heads-up time for this little visit.  He couldn't help himself; he'd simply had to have the lobster bisque, this time.  It was everything he remembered it to be.  To hell with his diet.  He could make it up by hitting the gym a little harder for the next week, or so.

Finally, the plates were cleared and the three were again alone in the room, nursing glasses of wine and simply staring at each other.  Tom wasn't looking forward to this, and he was absolutely positive that Simon wasn't, either.  But a bargain is a bargain, and both had given their word.

"Has he decided on a name, yet?" Tom asked.  Everybody in the room knew who he was talking about.

"He's leaning towards, Fortunado," Agarwal answered.  "It means.  .  ."

"Lucky."  Simon finished the sentence for him.  "That boy's been through a lot, Pasteel.  You certainly have your work cut out for you."

"Indeed, Doctor Litchfield, I quite agree."  There was something odd about the little man's smile.  "But I have some ideas along that track."

"I can recommend some good psychotherapists," Tom said.  "But I'm not sure you could really tell them everything you'd need to."  He tried—and failed—to imagine how that conversation would go.  But he shrugged-off the thoughts and focused on what they had all come here for.

"I suppose it's time," Simon ventured.  "Have you worked it out so that our memories will jibe with Stephanie's?"

"It took some doing, but we think we've come up with the proper balance."

"Before we do this," Tom interjected.  "I wanted to tell you that I appreciate the way you stood with us, there in the cave.  You were willing to die rather than let him harm us, and that means something."

"It means more than you may imagine, Doctor Weldon."  The little man looked thoughtful, and he took a sip of his white wine before he continued.  "In the past, we have taken the position that—quite frankly—the wellbeing of one of us was vastly more important than that of just about any number of.  .  .others."

Simon cocked his head, with a smile he said:  "You mean, mundanes, of course."

"Not anymore, Doctor Litchfield.  Not anymore.  You see, down in the cave you both demonstrated that your unique abilities are at the very least, equal to our own.  Without your strength and mental discipline, we would have failed.  And sir, without your compassion.  .  .let us just say.  .  .this may have ended very badly for all of us.  When you shot the machine instead of the boy, you made everything that happened next possible."

Simon's nod to the man was the epitome of civility.

"And as for you, Doctor Weldon," Agarwal continued.  "Without your insight and wisdom we may still have failed.  It seems incredible to me that I lived with that young man for ten years without realizing what that medallion—and the name he had chosen for himself, because of it—really meant.  I am in your debt, sir."

Tom tried to be as gracious as Simon with his gesture of acknowledgment.  Somehow, he doubted that he managed to pull it off.

"And now, gentlemen, the pods are staged and ready.  If you would please just relax your minds and accept what is about to happen, I promise you that you will not in any way be harmed."

#  Epilogue 

Tom doubted it would work, but he had to give it a try.

"That's our time, for this week, folks.  We'll pick it up from here next Tuesday, okay?"

Both of them stole glances at the shelf clock Tom kept on the mantle.  Just as he always did, Mister Turnington then also checked his watch, just to make sure.  Of course, Mistress Turnington noticed what he'd done and scowled at him.  She just hated it when he had to double check everything everybody said to him.

"Until then I have an assignment for you."  Tom said as they all stood.  "I want you both to try and write down three things that you really love about the other.  Don't talk about what's on the list and Sandy, don't leave it out where you know he'll find it.  It isn't fair to tempt him like that, okay?"

"And Ed, don't you bug her about whether or not she's started it once you have it finished.  It isn't a competition, you won't win any prize by getting it done, first."

With murmured promises to try and do better, they left.

As he sat to work on his notes, Tom thought about his next appointment.  It was their third session and so far, everything seemed to be working fairly well.  It was an Indian fellow and his adopted teenage son.  The kid had been badly scarred in a kerosene heater explosion a few months ago but his real problem was Adjustment Disorder. 

The poor kid spent years as a homeless street child on his own in Brazil, and he was trying to come to terms with his distrust of people, in general.  From some of the stories that were coming out, the kid had been through seven kinds of hell. 

But they both seemed really open to Tom's help and in his experience, once that hurdle was passed, anything was possible.

The End

Copyright © 2006-2007 by Bill Wolfe. 

Bill Wolfe is a Health Physicist working for the Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This makes him think he's the resident science geek but he's been known to be quite wrong, from time to time. He is the proud owner of two granddaughters and three daughters—two of whom are teenagers—so please feel free to shoot him, now. (To which the editor adds, “No, no. Wait ‘til you get home.”) As of now, all of his writing has been for Aphelion.

 

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