Aphelion Issue 232, Volume 22
September 2018
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   
Prologue

The four year old Chinese girl -- affectionately known to her father as Candlefire -- stood on the edge of a field of yellow cole flowers. In her left hand she held the end of a string of rough twine, which coiled and twisted down before spiraling back up to her right hand. There, she held a diamond-shaped kite made of yellow-brown paper and held together with more twine and shaved twigs. She looked around as she breathed in the relatively clean country air of a rural section of Szechuan province.

She closed her brown eyes and felt the breath going in and out of her lungs, felt the strands of brown hair which had broken free of her pony tail whipping in around her face in the breeze, felt the connection with the molecules surrounding her (Candlefire having just recently discovered in one of her father's books the existence of molecules). Finally, she visualized the kite leaving her hand and catching those molecules of oxygen and nitrogen and other gaseous elements floating around her.

At last, she opened her eyes and, tentatively at first, started moving towards the flowers. Her small legs propelled her faster and faster until she was running at a near gallop over the uneven terrain, and when she felt the speed of the air around her synchronizing with the velocity she felt was necessary, Candlefire raised the kite, and almost immediately it tugged and pulled on her, straining to become one with the molecules. At last, the kite was released, and though there was a close call as the twine snagged on both the flowers and on her own feet, it slowly climbed higher and higher until it floated twenty feet above her. Her heart floated with it, traveling the length of string between her hand and the kite. And the joy overflowed in her soul.

But, the feeling didn't last. As the breeze slowed, the kite dropped rapidly, skirting the tops of the flowers and then arcing up again, this time in unstable flutters. She thought immediately of the kite's construction. Maybe she'd done a poor job though her mother would have certainly told her so. Maybe the supporting twigs were too heavy, but then she remembered how she and her father had searched and searched before finding the perfect ones -- strong but mostly dry. She felt tears welling up in her eyes, for inside her was confusion.

Before fully giving in, however, Candlefire narrowed her eyes, concentrated upon the sound of her breathing, and truly watched how the kite behaved, how the wind caught the paper, flowed around it, flowed over it. And then she saw that it wasn't anything either she or the materials had done wrong. Smiling, she pulled the kite towards her until the paper, string, and sticks came to rest on the cole flowers.

four_blossoms

The four year old Chinese girl stood on the edge of a field of yellow cole flowers. In her left hand she held the end of a string of rough twine, which coiled and twisted down before spiraling back up to her right hand. In her right hand she held something which, during its construction over the previous week, had completely baffled her parents.

It was an elegant if strange shape, a curved half-moon in the front, an inverted wedge shape in the rear, the entire object covered with paper pulled tightly onto the spine of the kite. The twine used to bind the kite together was almost entirely subsumed within, and the threads on the outside had been shaved down with a nail file so that little if anything protruded above the curved paper. She closed her brown eyes and felt the breath going in and out of her lungs, felt the strands of brown hair which had broken free of her pony tail whipping in around her face in the breeze, felt the connection with the molecules surrounding her. Finally, confidently, she ran towards the field and held the kite up in her hand.

Almost immediately it soared into the air, only then revealing that its profile was also curved, the lowest points being the tips of the wings. The launch, much to her satisfaction, had taken virtually no effort at all, and she walked slowly as she stared at the kite flying gracefully on its molecular cushion.

From Candlefire's house, her parents watched in amazement.

"How did she see that?" Jian Ying Xue asked with wonder, a moment her daughter would regretfully never get to see as, to avoid seeming weak, the mother withheld nearly all praise.

"She read my books," Xu Zhuang said, "but I saw nothing like that. She," he paused as the kite lifted itself 25 feet above Candlefire, "she only asked me for paper and string, but no help. I am...I am humbled. Have you seen her gazing from her window at the stars?" Jian Ying Xue after a few more precious seconds looked down, her gaze hardening.

"We must see to it that she takes her education seriously," she said. "The country can use such talent, but only if she takes her head out of the clouds. She should not dream so much." With that, Jian Ying Xue turned and walked back inside. Xu Zhuang, his wonder-filled and pride-swollen eyes still focused on his daughter and her kite, smiled.

"But such dreams," he said quietly. "Such glorious dreams..."


The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

by Jeff Williams with Elizabeth Markham

Nightwatch created by Jeff Williams

Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama


I.

It was 12:45AM when Simon stepped out of his car and headed towards the Cannon Moon Café. He had just spent a long day and evening at the Nightwatch Institute practicing for a detailed briefing to an obscure congressional committee about civil engineering work that might, just possibly, be in the vicinity of the Middle East, something many in Congress could never let go without a formal, exhaustive inquiry, and despite his disdain for useless theater, he prepared as well as he possibly could. A needed project was a needed project regardless of its locale.

The Cannon Moon was one of his favorites, partly because of the food, and partly because of his friendship with the owner and chef, Gillian Eckleberry. It was a Thursday night, so he knew that the restaurant would have closed at midnight. However, Simon needed a drink and, more importantly, good company, and he knew that Gillian was most likely still there working out plans for the next day's specials, and as he breathed, he conjured up images in his mind of the two of them, side by side, drinking down a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label until the sun began to rise over the Potomac.

As he approached, however, Simon slowed his pace and looked around. What is it, what is it? he thought as he looked at 30th St., looked at the traffic going by and at the cars parked by the side of the road. Simon turned around slowly, discretely, watching for any evidence of someone or something tracking him. While there were people around, none of them looked remotely suspicious, and, shaking his head, he walked purposely towards the front door of the restaurant.

Just before he knocked on it, however, he again had the feeling of uneasiness. The lights inside the Cannon Moon were still on which he was expecting, but these were the main lights of the dining area and not the dimmer light of a restaurant shutting down from a busy day and prepping for next day's lunch crowd. He again looked at the cars on the street. Too many of them for this time of night, he thought, and he reached slowly for the door handle, pulling ever so gently on the polished brass.

The door gave slightly.

Quickly, he took his hat off and mussed his hair so that strands of his silver locks were curled and scraggly. Then, he crumpled his khaki hat, giving it a much more rumpled appearance before replacing it askew on his head. Using his left foot, he undid the lace on his right shoe. Finally, he partially untucked his shirt. The khaki jacket he left alone.

He swayed back and forth and side to side, checking his balance. Reaching into his coat pockets, he redistributed the heavier items until his center of gravity felt right.

If I'm wrong... he thought as images of a late business gathering or special birthday party passed through his head, complete with shocked and confused CEO's and newly minted octogenarians. Taking a deep breath, he pulled open the heavy door and moved into the vestibule. Then, as he pushed open the inner door, he began weaving slightly, his face a perfect picture of alcohol induced drowsiness. He burped loudly for good measure.

"H-honey, I'm...uh...I'm home," he stammered, and he projected an air of absolute absence of concern even as a gun was pointed at the side of his head. Gillian, along with the rest of the remaining diners and waitstaff, was sitting at one of the elegant tables and was quite still, though her expression was one of great concern as she saw Simon's disheveled appearance. "Oy! Miss Ekleybury!" he said both too loudly and without clear enunciation. "I'm needin' me a nightcap!"

"Simon," she murmured with a mixture of pity and anger, "you picked a helluva night to go on a bender!" The gun pressed harder into Simon's temple, but he absently pushed the barrel aside, shooing it away as if it were a gnat.

"Sit down, now," a male voice said, firmly but without much emotion. Simon staggered his way towards Gillian's table. As he leaned in to speak to her, he caught the heady aroma of Norell, lobster bisque, butter, shallots, cracked black pepper, and even sweat wafting up from her white and slightly stained uniform. It was a strangely heady mixture, and it took extra effort for him to refocus on the task at hand.

"You gonna give me that there nightcap, missy?" Simon slurred as he stared at Gillian through slitted eyes.

Gillian cocked her head towards the door and looked angrily at the drunken man. "Sit down," she hissed through clinched teeth, "or you're going to get us all killed!"

"Sit down with the others," the passionless male voice said from behind him, and Simon slowly turned, leaning on first the table and then on one of the chairs for support.

"An' jus' who the hell are you...pal?" Simon slurred, emphasizing the letter 'p' with a small quantity of extra spittle. The man with the gun appeared to be little more than a boy in his late teens, his curly blond hair falling lazily around green eyes and pale skin. He was wearing a secondhand Chuck T-shirt emblazoned with fading images of Sarah Walker and Chuck Bartowski. His facial expression was as passionless as the voice.

Simon was about to make another slurred comment when, from behind him, he heard a woman's voice say, "Listen to him, sit down with the others, and no one gets hurt." You weren't expecting that, were you, silly boy? Simon thought as he spun around and then feigned extreme dizziness and nausea. He threw his hand quickly over his mouth.

The female voice belonged to a woman, also in her late teens, also holding a gun, also appearing to be as nondescript as her male counterpart. Her dyed black hair framed her face in page-boy style, setting off her cyan eyes. She wore a green and white checked dress, long enough to be more than casual but too short to be truly formal. Her visage was also passionless.

Simon looked puzzled, but, then, he started laughing, first softly in a barely audible giggle, then a louder chuckle like a man at comedy show, and, finally, a maniacal belly laugh like a crazed man catching sight of a full moon. "An'one lookin' for a good bang, tonight?" he stammered though his laughter.

"Get a grip on yourself!" Gillian scolded. With great apparent difficulty, Simon began climbing onto the table, knocking over plates and glassware. Gillian steadied one of his legs to keep him from falling back to the bronze-colored tile flooring.

"Sir, get down," the boy said, slightly more emotion filling his voice. He began moving towards Simon's table.

"We don't want to shoot you," the girl said as she also walked towards the table and raised her weapon. Simon started to dance on unsteady legs.

"Oh dirdy Mackgie Mae, they have taygen her away," he sang as he danced with all the grace of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. "Ohhh, she'll neber walk down Lime Strit nebermo-ore!"

"Shut up, sir!" the boy said more loudly as he reached the table.

"Be quiet!" the girl said. "We don't want to shoot you!"

"Ohhh, the judge she guildy found her for robbin' a homeward bounder..." Suddenly, in a blur of limbs, Simon's actions became coordinated and powerful. One gliding step took him past the boy's gun hand, his left hand sliding down the boy's arm and forcing the gun down as his right delivered a stunning atemi blow to the boy's forehead. A twist of his left hand stripped the gun away while his right slid down to the boy's chest and pushed, driving the boy off balance and sending him tumbling to the floor.

Simon continued to turn, dropping into a crouch in anticipation of a gunshot that never came. Rising, he took another gliding step that took him within reach of the girl. This time, he applied a wrist lock to control her gun hand and force her to release her grip. He raised his hand to deliver a disabling blow -- but then stopped, frowning as he saw the girl's face.

As if oblivious of Simon's attack, she stood emotionless and still, her hand holding a now phantom firearm.

Simon looked around, satisfying himself that the other patrons had secured the guns and had the boy well in hand. He shook his head, trying to understand what had just happened. I'm good, he thought, I know I am, but this seems too easy. Still, try as he might, he couldn't find any other threat beyond the now docile would be gunmen.

Gillian stood, her eyes showing a mixture of anger and compassion, of confusion and of pity. She waved her right hand in front of the girl's eyes, but the teen seemed not to see anything. Allowing her hand to fall on the girl's shoulder, Gillian guided her through motion and pressure to an empty chair.

"All right everyone," Gillian spoke firmly, "just relax! We're okay!" She looked over at one of the waiters, who silently nodded back before walking over to the telephone. "Jiggy," she said to a dreadlocked Jamaican man, "open the bar. Let's calm everyone's nerves. Simon!" she yelled, causing him to be startled and to literally jump. "First off, thank you. Second, wink or something next time you're planning to do something like that!"

He smiled widely as he began straightening his clothes. "Well, I would have thought seeing me dance would have been enough." He lightly touched her shoulder and brushed off a strand of her hair. "Did I give that good of a performance?" Gillian shook her head and rolled her eyes.

She giggled as if she'd just heard the most ridiculous thing ever uttered. "I've seen you drunk, remember? You're the only man I've ever met who could vomit with dignity." Simon playfully cocked his head forward and, suddenly remembering his earlier sabotage, removed his hat and began uncrumpling it. "No, I meant next time you're getting ready to break out them fancy fightin' moves, wink or something so I can do a better job bracing the table!"

"I apologize," he spoke, properly chastened. "I was a bit busy trying to figure out how to not get everyone killed." The boy in the Chuck T-shirt was placed in a chair next to the girl. He, too, was calm and made no move to escape.

Gillian wandered over to them and crouched in front of the girl. "I wonder what they're on," Gillian spoke. "I wasn't an angel at Johnson & Wales," she continued, "I saw an awful lot of things, including a budding pastry chef who thought PCPs were a substitute for powdered sugar, but nothing like this."

Simon caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. "Don't touch the weapons," Simon warned as one of the patrons was reaching down for the boy's gun. "This is a crime scene, remember?" Simon started to walk towards the weapon as soon as the patron had moved on. "So, my dear," Simon spoke tiredly after motioning to two of Gillian's staff to watch the teenage couple, "what brought this on?" Gillian stood and walked over as Simon visually examined the gun.

"He came in through the front door," Gillian said as she looked back at the two of them. "She came in through the bathroom window." When she looked back at Simon, he was looking at her in disbelief. Gillian widened her eyes and threw up her hands. "I'm not kidding! She really did!"

Simon cocked his head and nodded. "This just isn't my night," he said in an exasperated tone.

"And it's mine?" she asked. "Anyway, between the two of them, since we were, you know, surprised, no one had a chance to trip the alarm. Jiggy?" She looked towards the bar and towards the line of customers jockeying for position. "Just one per person! The police won't want everyone blitzed out of their minds!"

Simon was suddenly enveloped in a hug and nearly toppled over. "That was a damn stupid thing to do, and you know it," Gillian said into his ear, something which caused goose bumps to emerge on his skin. Simon hugged her back.

"You're welcome," he said, pulling away with a boyish grin and resuming his examination of the weapon.

"Glock 19," he said. "Good choice, good choice. Not something a connoisseur would have chosen, but it's light, practical..." He froze as something caught his attention, and anyone looking would have seen the same expression on him that one would see on a confused dog. He motioned for Gillian to come closer to the gun.

"What is it?" she asked, pulling her ponytail forward with her left hand.

"Helluva day," he spoke in a perplexed tone as he reached into his pocket for a pen. "Alice in Wonderland said she tried to believe three impossible things before breakfast. It's maybe," he looked at his watch, "1 AM, and I'm already two thirds of the way there, if her gun turns out to be in the same condition." Gillian started massaging the webbing between her left thumb and forefinger.

"What do you mean?" she asked, narrowing her eyes. "I've never been interested enough in them to know whether they're quality or junk." Simon reached for the handle with the tip of his pen. The pen poked into a conspicuously hollow area under the handle of the gun. "Oh," she said, "that would be a problem, wouldn't it," and the two of them stared at each other in confusion. Gillian's mouth opened, but nothing except the quiet sound of her breathing came out. Almost absentmindedly, she climbed up to and sat down on a nearby chair.

"Jiggy," she spoke in a raised, almost squeaky voice, "bring me the best bottle of whisky we've got...and two glasses."

Simon sighed as he withdrew the pen and slowly stood. "One of those glasses better be for me."

"Make it three glasses, Jiggy," she said without missing a beat and without using a trace of humor.

* * * *

"Just an empty magazine?" Stephanie Keel asked incredulously as her fingers paused over her keyboard. Nightwatch's computer guru -- and one of Simon's co-conspirators in the institute's clandestine activities -- resumed typing even as she shook her head. "Amateur hour at the local pawn shop?"

"Glock 19," Simon muttered. "Cheap but not a Saturday night special." Stephanie clicked a link with her wireless mouse. "Besides, no self-respecting dealer or pawn broker's going to let a customer go without at least selling him or her some overpriced ammunition!"

"'The Singing Savior,'" Stephanie laughed after pulling up the home page of a local newspaper. Simon rolled his eyes.

"I never liked the Post. God, I hope to be remembered for far more important things!" Stephanie giggled.

"Y'know," she mused twisting the knife a little further, "if you were going to pick a Beatles song, couldn't you have chosen 'Run for Your Life' or 'Helter Skelter' or something with a little heft to it?"

"A little compassion here?" he said as he pointed his finger at her. "Plus, I'll have you know that as a child I heard that song at least once a week, echoing from every pub on every corner in the old village." He sat back in his rolling chair. "Don't go taking potshots at my English heritage."

"Wouldn't dream of it," she said as she stifled another laugh. "Seriously, holding up a restaurant with an unloaded gun? What kind of robbery was that?"

Simon laid his hat on her desk and started examining a vacuum tube mounted inside an acrylic holder. "I'm not entirely certain that it was...where on earth did you get this thing?" Stephanie smiled.

"Mel Squibb and I did a crawl through the dump a month ago down in Accokeek," she said proudly even as she carefully guided the case back onto the desk. "He'd always wanted to go on one of those with me. Someone had thrown out a perfectly good broken radio, probably forties or fifties vintage." She looked dreamily at her loot. "I couldn't believe I'd found it. Even the pentagrid was still attached!"

"I can't believe Mel shared your enthusiasm," Simon replied doubtfully. "He's too attached to his modern collection of electronic toys."

"I don't think he's going back any time soon. It was more like something to do once and then cross off the list." She turned back to her computer. "Anyway, he's too in lust with his girlfriend to spend too many weekends in a junkyard."

Simon grinned and stared dreamily towards the ceiling. "Anneka Webb," he sighed, "the former Miss Northern Virginia." Simon lowered his head and cradled his chin in his right hand. "Silken blonde hair, deep blue eyes, long legs, huge..."

"Say it," Stephanie interrupted as she turned and arched her eyebrows, "and you'll be missing your favorite appendage."

"Duly noted, madam," he replied softly.

"Did you mention them to Callow?" she spoke as she turned back to the computer screen.

"Anneka Webb's huge...?" Stephanie grabbed an electronics catalog and tossed it at the doctor. "Yes, I did," he said through his laughter. "I mentioned the not-so-wild-bunch, and he didn't seem interested in the least. He was extremely angry with me for, how did he put it, seriously compromising my usefulness in the DC area" Simon eyed the vacuum tube, and after a few more laughs said, "I don't know if I blame him, truth be told. Two drugged out teens isn't necessarily something for us to be involved in." Stephanie shrugged.

"Do we know they were taking anything?" she asked. "Doesn't sound like any drug I've heard of."

"What gets me is how," he moved his left hand in circles, "how flat they were. I didn't see anything in them -- anger, fear, signs of adrenaline." He looked down at the scars upon scars on his left hand. "If they'd been Special Forces, the Mossad, someone professional, maybe. But not a couple of kids."

"They were that calm?" Stephanie asked, skepticism in her voice.

"No," he said, "absolutely flat. Calling it calm is giving it too much energy." Simon reached over and tore a piece of tape from Stephanie's dispenser, wrapped it around his finger, and then tore the tape off and tossed it towards the garbage can. "Not even surprise when a drunken old man kicked their guns away. All they did was fall to the floor and let themselves be caught. No bragging, no remorse, no sorrow, no worry." Simon paused before reaching for his hat. "This isn't the only time in the last week or so that this has happened, either. Three other similar incidents, all in bars or restaurants, all with male-female college-aged pairs. If this is something these little scamps are taking, I can't for the life of me see what kind of thrill they're getting from it. Where's the rush? Hell, where's the motive for attempted robbery in the first place?"

Stephanie entered her data into the computer system and then swiveled in her chair towards Simon. "Is Gillian holding up okay?"

"Oh, sure," Simon replied as he stood up. "Have her produce man show up an hour late, and then you'll see her panicked." He started towards her office door. "After your party tonight, though, I'm still swinging by to see if she needs anything."

"7PM at Clarendon's, right?" she asked as she picked up a pen and started doodling on an orange Post-It. "And it's near the Metro station?"

"Yep," he said. "Tom swears by this place." Simon sniffed. "And, I don't know about you, and pardon the expression, but I plan on getting stupendously pissed! Anyway, I've got to go to a meeting."

"Dr. Terrell still after you to take on that dam project?" she smiled.

"He won't take no for an answer," Simon replied. "So, I'm going to try nyet, nein, and any other language I can think of. He doesn't even get that I'm stuck prepping for this congressional crap." He stood up and bowed ostentatiously. "See you tonight, m'lady!" Simon walked out, and though he pulled the door behind him, it caught on the chair he'd been sitting on and remained propped open.

Just as Stephanie was getting ready to resume work, her desk phone began ringing, and she turned to check the caller ID. Upon sighting the number, she sighed, started turning back towards the computer, stopped, then reached over and picked up the handset.

"Hi Diego," she said without enthusiasm as she balanced the receiver on her shoulder. She started doodling on the Post-Its again. "I'm fine. You?" She drew on the Post-It a bolt of lightning striking a stick man. "Tonight? Sorry, I already have plans." She scratched out the drawing, tore off the Post-It and balled it up, then reached over and grabbed her hands free device. "We've...listen to me...we've been through this..." As Stephanie finished setting up the hands free device, she hung up the handset and rolled her eyes as her face began reddening. She scribbled furiously on another blank note. "Diego, it's over. We ended it a year and half ago." She listened for a moment and then tore off another Post-It and balled it up, letting it fall onto the desk top. "Okay, Diego, I ended it. But we..." She stood up and walked to the door. She moved the chair, and as she did so, the door started to close. "It's never coming back. I'm not sure it was ever there in the first place..."

II.

In Middle School...

Xu Xiang Ping stood outside Madame Tsu's office area. Xiang Ping felt nervous and several times felt as if she might vomit. In the office, her final middle school teacher was addressing several of Xiang Ping's classmates. As was the norm, the students held Madame Tsu in tremendous reverence, but the relationships between student and teacher, as well as between student and student, were strong. Madame was very much like a second mother to all her students.

All but Xiang Ping. A girl of only eleven, she clutched a book of Chinese ornithological prints to her still flat chest and cast her glasses covered eyes to the floor. For what felt like the thousandth time, she keenly felt the separation between herself and every person around her, felt the fear rising within, felt the need to collapse in upon herself and shrink below her Schwarzschild radius and became a perfect singularity.

Singularity, she thought. Sagittarius A would be beautiful to behold. She thought of Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose's equations about the nature of black holes, and she thought of the information paradox. Some felt that a black hole was the end of everything. Once a particle fell in, it was forever fixed, a fly trapped in eternal amber. It seemed a satisfying conclusion. But Heisenburg, she thought, says that one can never determine everything about a particle. One can know position or velocity, but never both.

She ran the information paradox through her mind and through the solutions offered to the paradox, such as Hawking radiation.

"Hello, Xiang Ping," Yuan Feng said as he left the office with several other students and walked down the hall. Stunned, Xiang Ping tried to speak but could not find her voice. Yuan Feng was fifteen; more importantly, he was handsome and strong, and even though she was four years, seven months, sixteen days, seven hours, and fifty-one minutes his junior, she still felt a strong sense of longing when in his presence, particularly a desire to hear him speak, just once, a name she had started keeping to herself just after entering school. "Hello, Candlefire. Hello..."

Yuan Feng, on the other hand, periodically said, "Hello, Xiang Ping," and that was that.

She stood and breathed slowly as she again fought off the urge to disappear, to vanish into nothing, and the reddish blemishes on her chubby face seemed to her to be strobing and calling attention to themselves. Finally, after calming down and gathering her courage, she walked unsteadily into the office area Madame Tsu shared with the other teachers who taught Xiang Ping's particular school group. Fortunately, on this day, none of the other instructors were there, so she had to face only Tsu.

"Come in, Xiang Ping," Madame Tsu said as she looked up and smiled. Still clutching her books and looking more at her feet than at her teacher, Xiang Ping entered the room and stood before the desk. "Congratulations are in order, I think, my little one! Eleven years old, and already you have made it to high school!" The girl's face lit up momentarily with a smile.

"Thank you, Madame," she said quietly and then looked down with both pride and embarrassment.

"Still," Madame spoke as she leaned back and put the tips of her fingers together, "I noticed that you only ranked third on the exam." She placed her hands on the edge of the desk. "You worked hard on your preparations?" Xiang Ping's smile slowly faded, and she took on the appearance of one who had been poked with a sharp stick.

"Yes, Madame Tsu," she spoke quietly, her voice cracking ever so slightly. "I stayed after school for your study group. I spent extra time reading at home." Madame Tsu stood slowly and smiled warmly at her pupil.

"But did you work hard, really hard," she said deliberately, "hard for you?" Xiang Ping cocked her head to the side, her face betraying clear confusion.

"Madame?" she asked. "I'm sorry, but I don't understand." Madame Tsu moved to the front of the desk, and as she sat down upon it, her pupil stepped back quickly, nearly tripping over her own feet.

"I think that you do," the teacher said. "You should have ranked first. I know it. Yuan Feng, who did place first, knows it. And in your heart, my dear child, you know it too." The teacher smiled and looked upon her student with nothing but affection. Xiang Ping started to shake though she did her best to hide this, and she began staring even more intently at her feet.

Xiang Ping began turning towards the door and planned to make a quick if polite exit. The feeling of wanting to fold away into nothing grew strong again within her soul.

"Don't go, Candlefire," Madame Tsu said quietly. Xiang Ping looked as if she had been doused with cold water. "Yes, my dear, I remember the name you spoke to me when you thought no one else was listening, the one you said that your father called you after, at age two, you spent hours watching a candle burn down until it had melted away. Candlefire! That is the true you, the one who would spend hours simply observing, trying to understand." Xiang Ping's shaking grew stronger. "Why did you stop using that name?"

"It...it was childish, Madame," she said.

"But, you are a child, Candlefire, and that makes you all the more special. But, I fear, you don't see that." The student clutched her book even harder and tried not to cry. "You placed third, Xiang Ping, because you didn't try. You came to the study sessions because you felt you should be seen to do so, but I saw otherwise. And that is cause for sadness, not just for you but for us all."

"Madame," Xiang Ping whispered in a broken voice.

"Let me finish," Madame Tsu continued. "You are eleven years old and going to high school. This is a rare and precious event. No one in our province has ever accomplished that. You didn't try, and you didn't study either because the test bored you or because you simply didn't want to stand out, and you still placed third. Do you understand, my child?"

"Yes, Madame," Xiang Ping replied, the tears winning the battle and slowly streaming down her face.

"You will master high school quickly, if you apply yourself," the teacher spoke. "And then, who knows. You are brilliant, but you are unfocused, undisciplined, and that in one as talented as you is," she paused and looked down, "a tragic thing indeed. You could be brilliant at mathematics but you then study languages, or languages but you then study sciences, or chemistry but you then study," she pointed at Xiang Ping's book, "you study the birds."

"But, Madame Tsu," she spoke through the tears, "I want to know everything. I want to understand everything. I feel anger because I will never have time to learn it all. How can I think about just one thing?"

Madame Tsu shook her head. "I suppose you wish you could live forever, then?" Xiang Ping's eyes widened as she vigorously shook her head.

"No, Madame Tsu," she said firmly, "because, I would feel anger then as well, for there would come a time when nothing was left to learn. And then what would I do?"

four_blossoms

She sat on the edge of a clear stream, watching the ripples passing over submerged and rounded rocks. Nearby two Mallards -- a drake and his hen -- swam near a dense thicket of Pendula trees and river shrubs. She breathed deeply, trying to center herself, trying to remember the vision of her Tao she carried in her head but often lost during times of stress.

I am eleven, she thought as anger towards Madame Tsu flowed through her, I am going to a good high school. I can learn anything, and I will! Xiang Ping could grasp anything, and she knew it, which is why without having studied she still earned one of the highest scores on the high school admissions exam. Still, the fear arose in her again, a terror she had worked to suppress but could never quite forget. At her middle school, in this relatively rural area, she could hide, she could disappear into herself, and she could, ultimately, get away with giving the higher rankings to such people as Yuan Feng even though he seemed to view her with the same tolerance one gives to the feeble minded or to the stray cat coming by day after day for scraps of food.

But at the high school, which she both prayed to make it through quickly while at the same time feeling anxious about the thought of doing so, she would be unable to hide in the shadows -- unless she pretended to be something that she wasn't, and she knew she could not do that.

In this case, pride trumped fear.

She rolled over and lay on her stomach, watching the ducks. Anas platyrhynchos, she thought, common from North America to Asia. Those two are together now because she has not yet laid her eggs. Then, he will abandon her. She looked down at her own reflection, distorted and shimmering in the flowing stream. Quickly, she reached into the water -- causing the image to momentarily vanish -- and grabbed a cold, smooth stone. Lifting herself to her knees, she curved her finger around the gray black rock, reached back, and then sent it skipping across the water towards the ducks. Agitated, they both reared back and flapped their wings, quacking rapidly until they moved away on frothy water from the perceived danger.

I can learn anything, she thought, and immediately Xiang Ping began dreaming of boats, of the shapes of their hulls, of the way they did or did not cut elegantly through the water, depending on their design. In her mind, a new boat took shape, and she began thinking of the best way to build it in small scale.

III.

Tom Weldon sat at a polished wooden table in the main room of Clarendon's Pub in Arlington, VA. The pub was an upscale bar with an extremely good selection of domestic, European, and microbrew beers along with wicked bartenders capable of alchemy and magic rivaling the wizards of old, or at least that was how the owner had described it to him when Tom first stumbled upon Clarendon's. The food -- typical pub fair of fish and chips, cheeseburgers, onion rings -- was decent and worth what was being charged for it though, truthfully, very few patrons chose the place for its cuisine.

Tom had found the bar during an afternoon drive with his girlfriend, Dr. Miranda Fanshaw. He had been trying to relax her, to take her attention off of the myriad thoughts that poured through her when her bi-polar disorder was being poorly managed. Embarrassing when you're the one who's managing it, he'd thought at the time. Despite all suggested protocols, ethical codes, and efficacy requirements, Tom was both Miranda's lover and psychologist as well as her liaison with one of the psychiatrists in Tom's building. "Hey," Miranda had said excitedly, "a pub! I've never seen that one! Pull over! Pull over! We've got to check this place out!"

The drive had been a failure.

"Here you go, sweetie," Molly the pub's owner said as she placed a glass of Blue Moon in front of him. Fortunately, the trip to Clarendon's itself had been quite successful, and Tom was now a frequent patron, stopping by at least three times a week after a hard day's work at Arlington Counseling Group. Once, he had even come during work with Dr. Jaeger and Dr. Shellhammer for what was called a 'three martini lunch' in the days of old. "One more you can cross off that list," Molly said enthusiastically as her blue eyes lit up and as the ponytail of her long red hair dangled over her shoulder. "Keep it up, and I'm gonna need a new supplier!"

"Gracias," Tom said as he lifted his glass in her honor.

"Hey," Molly said to Simon, "you need anything, Crime Crooner?" She smiled wickedly as Simon cringed. Molly laughed then patted Tom on the shoulder before going back to the main bar.

Stephanie Keel smiled at Tom as she sipped her Red Diamond. "Tom's got an admirer!" she sang softly through the pleasant buzz she'd been working towards all evening.

"Not a chance," Simon spoke as Tom found himself fighting off a blush. "Though she has a lamentable sense of humor, she, clearly, has an excellent sense of taste and style," he took a swig from his glass of Johnnie Walker whiskey, "and she knows much about the importance of letting things age until they're ready." Tom laughed out loud as Stephanie giggled and tried not to let alcohol squirt through her nose. "She clearly has her eye on me!"

"Never do that while the birthday girl's drinking!" Stephanie muttered as she punched Simon in the shoulder. Tom took another large swallow of his beer.

"So which birthday is it again?" he asked playfully. "The real one, not that 29 and holding stuff you keep saying every year."

"It is my 29th," she insisted as she held up her right hand and raised the first three fingers. "Girl Scout's honor, Tom." Tom shook his head and smiled widely.

"Liar!" he exclaimed. "But happy birthday, anyway!" He reached over and clinked his bottle on her glass, and Simon did the same. "You're going let her get away with this, Mr. Hero of the Hour?"

"Oh please," Simon said after dismissing the comment with a wave. "It was bad enough last night having to talk to those damn reporters, then top that off by getting reamed out by Callow this morning!"

"To bastards," Tom said cheerfully as he clinked glasses again. "May we thank them for pointing out how great we are by comparison!"

"It's not like we were in any real danger," Simon continued. Stephanie motioned to a nearby server and held her nearly empty glass up as he approached.

"Another," she said as he made a thumbs up sign and headed for the bar. "Look, you did a good thing. You didn't know about the guns until after it was over." She leaned against him. "Simon tilting at windmills! I think what you did was very gallant!" Simon drank more whiskey. Tom surreptitiously motioned to Simon who quickly nodded.

"I'm heading to the boy's room," Tom said as he stood up somewhat shakily. "I am drunk, and it's time to pay rent."

"I might as well, too," Simon spoke as he pushed back his chair. As the two of them started to walk off, a group of college students at the bar noticed Dr. Litchfield. "Oh dirty Maggie Mae," they started singing as they made the love/devil horns symbol with their hands. As they continued, Simon spun around and bowed towards them before moving on with Tom. "Remind me to gag myself later," he said to Tom as they disappeared around the corner.

"Don't fall in!" Stephanie called out, giggling all the while. "I'm not diving in there to save you!" As the two men disappeared, she thought about how often she'd had to skillfully parry Simon's advances over the years. She'd never considered returning those advances and wasn't planning to now. Still, over the years those insinuations and off-color comments had amused her (though quite often she kept that amusement secret).

Stephanie finished her drink and looked down at her fingers. I'm happy, she thought, I'm honestly happy. That status was rare and precious to her, and she closed her eyes to let visions of that happiness dance in her mind.

"Here ya go," a male voice said as a glass was placed on the table.

"Thank you," Stephanie said dreamily, her eyes still closed.

"No problem," the voice replied. As Stephanie continued allowing herself to wallow in her joy, she absently moved her straw from the old glass to the new and then sipped in a large swig of it. She puckered her lips and opened her eyes. It was a Red Diamond, but the flavor was off.

"Too much coconut," she said as the extra sweetness settled on her tongue. Who cares? she thought. They're buying, the night's fun. I can live with this. She took another sip and, smacking her lips and letting the liquid roll across her taste buds, she shrugged her shoulders and drank faster.

The waiter approached with another Red Diamond and, upon seeing the nearly full glass on the table, looked confused.

"They must not have heard me," he said as he put the drink down. "I told them I'd make this one, but... Oh well, ma'am, it's on the house." Stephanie looked up and smiled.

"Well, thank you!" she said. Cute, she thought, but too young. "I'll make the cheapskates leave you a larger tip!" The waiter laughed and walked off to another table.

I really am happy, she thought as she drank more of the sweet drink. Damn, this is a nice feeling. I wish I could bottle this up and save it for a rainy day. She leaned with her chin onto her right hand while her left idly played with the black straw. Some college kids by the 50-inch plasma TV cheered as one of the players for the Nationals hit a double into the left-field gap. Oh to be young again, she thought even though she was just in her thirties.

Two women walked by, and Stephanie heard them talking about an art exhibit at the Smithsonian. The room began dancing around her, and she drank more until the Red Diamond was half gone. In the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo, she mused and then giggled.

A couple who seemed unaware that they were in public cuddled and fondled their way out of the pub, catching her attention. "'And the women tear their blouses off,'" Stephanie sang softly, "'and the men they dance on the polka dots...'"

"We're back," Tom said as sat down next to Stephanie. Simon sat down across the table, a large package wrapped in lavender paper in his hands.

"Happy birthday!" Simon said as he slid the gift in front of her.

"And, since he neglected to say it," Tom spoke, "it's from both of us." Stephanie grinned as she reached for the package.

"Looks like both of you wrapped it, too," she spoke lightly, a slight slur in her voice. "I see tape on the top over here." She tore into the paper, all the while admiring the beauty of the color and the way little flecks of light seemed to dance just above the package. Then, oddly, the paper seemed to lose its color altogether. Still, to her, the whole room was beautiful, and she felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria washing through her.

Her fingers reached the box, and she noted thankfully that Simon and Tom had not taped the flaps closed. Quickly, she opened it and then extracted a heavy object covered in bubble wrap. As she uncovered it, her eyes lit up in pure delight.

"An astrolabe!" she bubbled. "I've always wanted one of these! Completely useless but so...exquisite!" An amazed expression suddenly appeared on her face. "My god! Even these replicas cost...cost..."

"I found the blueprints," Tom bashfully said.

"I called in the favor," Simon boasted cryptically.

"Thank you! Thank you both!" Stephanie held the instrument up, admiring the intricacies. "I love the pattern on the rete." The word love lingered in her mind and seemingly echoed through every corner of her skull. She closed her eyes and tried to refocus.

"We gave the man who made it some pictures of the ones in the Smithsonian," Tom said, though he sounded like he was speaking from inside a barrel, and opened her eyes to see if she had fallen inside one. "That's what he based it on." The salt shaker on the table glistened as if it held thousands of tiny diamonds casting thousands more tiny rainbows.

"We remembered how much you said you admired the ones you saw there," Simon added. Smiling, joy beaming from her eyes, Stephanie looked at Simon. As she looked at his features, at the rugged lines on his face, at the gleam of his gray hair, at the depth of his brown eyes, to her it seemed as if she were seeing his face almost for the first time. But it couldn't be the first time, part of her thought, and the voice sounded almost urgent. You were seeing him then through the blood streaming down your face. Quickly, however, she shook that image off, and the air of dreaminess and delight rolled through again.

She tried to clinch her fist under the table but found not only a tremendous lack of desire to do anything violent but also, seemingly, a complete inability to make a fist at all. She floated on, merrily, down a sea of pleasant feelings, and the urge to swim to shore was but a distant echo along the gorgeous coastline.

Yes, she thought, I am seeing him for the first time. I'm seeing him clearly. "This was so kind of you," she said to Simon, and there was an awkward silence as she stared at him. Suddenly, she glanced over at Tom. "And you were so considerate too," she spoke though more quickly and with less feeling.

Tom took a gulp of his beer and sat back in his chair. He was smiling, but his eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Stephanie's face, his social eyes almost effortlessly switching to his professional ones. He slowly cocked his head as he zeroed in on her pupils. The wrapping paper appeared to be reflecting there, yet the purple seemed to him to be too crumpled and too far away to be casting such a strong reflection onto her corneas. He leaned forward, watching her reactions, watching her movements.

While Stephanie stared at Simon, Tom silently motioned towards their server. "Check, quickly," he said quietly as the server walked by. Tom's beer buzz was rapidly subsuming as he tried to work out what was causing his anxiety.

"Stephanie," Simon spoke as he put his empty glass down, "come with me. We'll wait outside while Tom picks up the check! Maybe we can find enough stars to give that astrolabe a try."

"That sounds wonderful," she cooed, and Simon looked at her strangely. "Outside," she stood up, her body swaying, the room spinning pleasantly, "under the stars...the beautiful stars..."

Simon cleared his throat anxiously. "Yes," he spoke as he started leading her out, "such lovely little fusion reactors, such exquisite little stellar corpses in waiting, such," he noted the profound lack of effect his words were having, "such pretty future black holes." He led her out the door onto the streets of Arlington.

Moments later, the check arrived, and Tom gave the server his debit card. Tapping his feet, he looked around the room nervously. He reached over again for the wrapping paper and looked at its lavender color. She turned on a dime, while we were gone, he thought, like she's someone else. He looked carefully around the table, at the condiments and drinks, at Stephanie's drink. Quickly, he pulled her empty glass towards him and then, tentatively, sniffed its contents. Tom sighed and shrugged his shoulders. When the server returned, Tom signed the credit slip, grabbed his card, and headed quickly towards the door.

As Tom stepped out, he was confronted with a scene that he'd honestly never expected to see. Dr. Simon Litchfield, noted raconteur and connoisseur of beautiful women, was using all of his strength to fight off the advances of a very beautiful woman indeed.

"But the moment's so right," Stephanie said in near desperation, "the moon, the stars...you've got to let me kiss you."

"If I thought you were in your right mind..." Simon grunted. "You're not being yourself, and I can't do that."

Shaking off the surreality of the moment, Tom rushed towards her. He grabbed her, trying all the while to walk the thin line between being careful and being forceful enough to restrain her. He knew he was taking a chance given the various combat skills she'd learned over the years, but he had a feeling that that sort of action was the farthest thing from her mind.

"I just realized it tonight," Stephanie nearly sang to Simon as she struggled against Tom's grip. "I completely," she punched at Tom's arms, "love everything about you! That's the way things are supposed to be between us! I'm just sorry that it took me all this time to finally understand."

Stephanie's internal river of joy was rapidly becoming a rain-swollen torrent, and she felt herself being washed away towards someplace else, some place frightening, some place cut off from him. And it was almost more than she could bear.

Simon looked at Tom, and the two of them wordlessly exchanged the beginnings of a plan.

"What do you think's going on?" Tom asked as he eased the struggling Stephanie towards the relative privacy the alley next to Clarendon's. Several cats scattered nervously as they abandoned the partially open garbage dumpsters.

"Given what she just did..." Simon started to say.

"Don't talk about me like I'm not here!" Stephanie pleaded. "I'm not crazy! I just understand for the first time!" To her, the stars in the sky were beacons of hope, their combined luminosity spelling out Simon's name. Still, a claxon of alarm bells rang in from her mental shoreline, like the bells of a monastery perched on a riverside hill, but while she wanted to acknowledge them, her feelings of love, affection, and longing completely overrode the warnings.

"I've got a sneaking suspicion," Simon said as the three of them moved further into relative privacy. He reached into his pocket for a cell phone, but before dialing a number, he slid a small card into the side of the unit. The keypad blinked three times, and only then did Simon tap out a number he'd called many times in the past.

"Mel," he said, a slight slurring sound in his voice, "we need to talk." He pushed Stephanie back with his free hand. "Yes, damn it, I'm on a secure line! Now just listen! It's a Form 71X conversation..."

Confused by Simon's rejections of her advances, Stephanie fought back tears, and stumbled towards the rusting metal garbage bin. As she stood there, she lightly kicked at one of its blue sides, old metal flaking onto the dirty pavement.

Tom moved closer to her while maintaining just enough distance to avoid taking any major punishment if she lashed out. He was a bodybuilder and was as ripped as any non-professional could be, but as he sized her up as potential threat, he knew that in a real battle he'd lose. He watched her reactions, studying them, analyzing them, trying to get any possible read on what was happening to her.

Stephanie jerked her head and looked him deep in the eye. "This isn't me, this isn't me, this isn't me, this isn't me..." she kept murmuring, and for a moment, Tom thought she appeared to realize that something was terribly wrong with her. She reached up and put her shaking hands on the sides of her head as if she was trying to keep it from flying away.

"Talk to me," Tom said as he tried to make stronger eye contact with her, "tell me what's going on."

"I know there's no prior authorization for this," Simon spoke tensely, "but there isn't time to run this through Callow. You've got to act first and ask questions..." Simon took his hat off. "Listen...listen!...we need the tapes, and we need them now!"

"This isn't me, Tom," Stephanie said again before closing her eyes tightly. The image of a lifeboat conjured itself in her mental waters, and she quickly grabbed hold of its sides. "I don't act like this. I don't make a fucking fool of myself over anyone!"

"No," Tom said encouragingly, "no you don't, so can you tell me why you're acting this way now?" Stephanie shook her head and as she, mentally, climbed aboard the lifeboat, she felt a shock of energy flow into her arms and then slammed her left hand into the side of the dumpster, just barely missing one of the metal stiffeners.

"Because I have to, damn it, I have to..." She crouched down, tears falling despite her trying to will them into stopping. A giant wave of love and longing suddenly reared up, and she was swept off the boat and into the emotional torrent again. "I have to..." A couple walking by on Clarendon Street paused to look at them before quickly moving along. "Tom, I've got to make Simon understand... I need..." She started to sweat profusely. "I need him. I fucking need him, you understand?" She grabbed her head again. "I don't understand. It's not a choice!"

"Stephanie," Tom spoke calmly, "can I have permission to touch you? I want, as your friend, to hold on to you and let you hold on to me, but I also want to honor and acknowledge whatever it is you're going through." She slammed her fist again into the metal and opened small cuts on her knuckles as another violent spasm thought broke through into action.

Tom decided to take that as a firm no. He rubbed his dry lips. It's not hypnosis, he thought. If it's against her will, maybe drugs. No, that doesn't seem right either. He rapidly spun in his mind through the most recent edition of the DSM.

"I have the greatest respect for that man," Simon said as he approached Tom. "But he's so afraid of Callow that he won't always take the common sense approach!"

The college students passed the entrance to the alley. "Duuuude!" they yelled as they staggered by. "Singing Savior! Woo-hoooooooo!"

"Yeah, yeah," Simon murmured. "It's hot as hell in Philadelphia...duuuude."

"Is he sending someone to get us?" Tom asked, his eyes still locked onto Stephanie. "This isn't good. This is something like..."

Simon sighed. "Like something we normally have to go out of country to encounter," he said with great concern in his voice. "We're thinking along the same lines." Stephanie crouched and rocked back and forth slowly. "Mel won't bring us in, but he's sending a car. I thought we could go to your house or your office since they're both on this side of the river." Simon put his hat back on and then put his phone into his coat. "Can you figure out what triggered this?"

"She's acting against her will, that's for certain," Tom said, and for a moment Simon looked wounded.

"Oh good," he said cheerlessly, "I was afraid it was my raw animal magnetism." Despite the situation, both he and Tom managed a slight laugh.

Stephanie yet again lashed out, this time at a plastic milk container.

"We need to get this under control, now," Tom spoke firmly, "before she hurts herself," he paused, "or us. I hate to ask you," he said, "but, I need you to..." Tom cocked his head towards her, and after a moment's confusion, Simon caught on to the psychologist's implication.

"That sounds more unpleasant than you'd think," Simon spoke softly as he stood up and started smoothing out the wrinkles in his clothes.

"At least for the moment," Tom continued encouragingly, "at least until we can get her some place safe." Simon nodded gravely. He took a deep breath and then took his hat into his hands. "When you get close enough," Tom added, "humor me. Check her eyes. I thought I saw something, but I can't figure out what." Looking like a perfect supplicant, Litchfield walked towards her.

She looked up, tears in her eyes. As she saw him approach, she slowly straightened out her clothes and her hair. He reached for her with his right hand, and after a moment's hesitation, she smiled and took it in hers.

"May I have this dance, madam?" Simon asked as he gracefully helped her to her feet. Laughing through her few remaining sobs, Stephanie nodded and came closer to him. As she did, Simon looked into her eyes. While he couldn't say for certain what it was, he too was sure that something about them didn't look right. She stood in front of him, and then took him in a very tender embrace, her left hand tracing circles in the space between his shoulders.

Tom waited for a few moments and then carefully walked up next to Simon. "Be careful," he said, "about touching your eyes, your ears, your nose, or your mouth. It's just a hunch, just a precaution." Simon nodded. The alley was filled with light as an unmarked white van pulled in, and Simon, Tom, and Stephanie moved quickly towards it. I forgot to get her astrolabe, Tom thought as they reached the van, but he did not go back in to Clarendon's to pick it up.

* * * *

Simon walked into the conference room at Arlington Counseling Group and sat down on the burgundy couch, exhausted, and he slowly massaged the bridge of his nose. Tom was sitting on a wooden rocking chair with burgundy cushions. In front of him on the coffee table sat a nearly full cup of rapidly cooling coffee.

"We hold business meetings in here," Tom said blankly, his mind mostly elsewhere. Simon fidgeted nervously and stared at an indeterminate point on the table. "It's the only room where any of us spent any real money..." Simon waited for the sentence to finish.

"I'm glad at least that someone sprang for the bed down the hall," Simon added after he realized no further words were forthcoming..

"Dr. Kugat," Tom spoke as he reached for the coffee cup. "Gaucher's Disease. The enzyme treatments have worked, but he has moments when he's anemic and has to rest." Tom leaned back and drank more of his black coffee, wrinkling his nose as the tepid brew drifted lethargically over his tastebuds. "All that cash spent on the room, and we still buy cheap coffee." He drank more before laying the cup down a little too forcefully onto the table. Small black waves briefly overtopped the rim. "She okay?"

Simon shrugged. "Same as she was in the van. Just wanted to hold me." He sighed and crumpled his hat in hands. "And kept on shaking, like she's fighting it, whatever it is. Fortunately, she's gone to sleep now." Simon cocked his head towards the coffee pot. "Is there any of that cheap crap left?" he asked, and Tom nodded slowly.

"She did what she could to comply without giving in completely," he replied softly. Suddenly, he pounded his fist onto the left arm of the rocker. Simon paused momentarily as he'd sworn he heard the sound of wood splintering. "I don't care how many times I see indignities like this, like that business in Taralma..."

"Alconost," Simon muttered quietly as he poured coffee into a turquoise cup.

"I don't know about you," Tom spoke with a tremor in his voice, "but I plan on wringing the neck of whoever did it! I'm pissed as hell!" Litchfield sighed as he put creamer but no sugar into the coffee.

"We're stuck with a potential enigma," he said as he started stirring. "What is it? It's not hypnosis, I know that. It wasn't a stroke. The one upside to this is that I had ample opportunity to check her pupils, just like you asked. There was no dilation."

"But did you notice something, anything unusual?" Tom stood and walked towards a curtain window.

"Apart from a massive amount of unwarranted adoration?" he asked grimly. "Nothing that I can really describe. Just..."

"Just the feeling that something there wasn't right," Tom continued.

Simon's cell phone started ringing, and he moved as quickly as he could to the couch. He put the cup down and then grabbed the phone from his pocket, putting it onto the table and hitting the speaker button.

"I'm here, Mel," Simon spoke.

"Well, good for us, yes," Melvin Squibb said. "Is Ms. Keel okay?"

"For the moment," he said. "I'm sorry to rush this, but did you get everything I asked for?" Mel cleared his throat.

"Well," he said, "Yes. Yes indeedy, I expedited things for you, but, Dr. Litchfield, you've got to see things from my point of view. Those Form 71X requests are tricky...need preauthorization, see. Without the...er...proper budget codes, nosiree, I can't give you those items."

"We can drop the code words," Simon spoke. "I know this wasn't something Callow set up, but I'll take any heat that idiot decides to send your way."

"Whoa there," Mel interjected. "You're preachin' to the choir, doctor! I'm just telling you that one of us -- preferably you -- has to pay a pound or two of flesh before we can view the tapes nice and proper."

"Tapes?" Tom asked as he wheeled around, curtains fluttering.

"I asked for the security camera feed from Clarendon's," Simon spoke quickly. "If you don't want to show me the tapes until the morning," he continued as he addressed the phone, "I can live with that. Just make sure it's all preserved."

"That was good thinking," Tom said quietly.

"Companies sometimes recycle their security tapes," Simon replied, "particularly if they didn't invest in a high quality system. I want a good look at everyone who had any interaction with us, down to the person who put the Hawaiian umbrella into your beer."

"Molly," Tom added quickly. "You think it was poison?"

"You know it was poison," Simon said, and Tom conceded the point. "That's why you warned me not to touch my eyes or nose, isn't it? Poison, or something in the neighborhood of it."

"Ahem," Mel spoke, "I'm still very much in this little convention." Simon breathed deeply.

"Okay," he said, "the tapes are secure. We can deal with this in the morning." He looked over at Tom. "I don't know about you, but I need some sleep."

"Oh, I'm fine!" Mel said brightly. "I've got to wait for a few reports to mosey in from Hong Kong..."

"Goodnight, Mel," Simon spoke humorlessly as he reached forward and tapped the 'Off' button. "You mind if I borrow your office chair"

"I don't mind," Tom said, "but why?" Simon sighed.

"I want to be near her," he replied, "but I'm thinking sleeping tonight in the same room with her might not be the best idea." Tom smiled weakly and nodded.

"I'm sure you've slept in worse situations," Tom said as he stood to get the chair.

"Absolutely," Simon replied. "You should see the desert in..." Both of them froze as they heard a rustling sound at the hallway door. Stephanie, pale and somewhat sweaty, was leaning against the door frame, her hands shaking. She looked at them with sleepy yet extremely startled eyes.

"Boys," she said quietly, "I hate to bother you. Golly, I do. You're both," Simon and Tom both jumped up and headed for her, "busy men, and I'm sure it's nothing, really, but can one of you tell me it's all right that I'm peeing purple?"

Tom and Simon suddenly stopped and stared at each other.

"I'll get a container," Tom rasped as he bolted towards the coffee cups. Stephanie started to slip in the doorframe and towards the floor, but Simon reached her soon enough to help her back to her feet.

"What's he talking about?" Stephanie asked as she tried to catch her breath. Tom rocketed out of the room and then headed down the hall towards the bathroom. "I woke up with a bursting bladder, and...Red Diamonds shouldn't..." Simon slowly helped her towards the couch, and he was unable to answer her before Stephanie curled up and fell again into a deep sleep.

Simon slumped to the floor in front of the couch and, wearily, took his hat off, used it to drag the phone towards him, and then placed the hat on the floor.

He scrolled through his contact list, inserted his special card, and hit the call button after the appropriate flashes on the keypad.

"Melvin Squibb," a familiar voice said.

"Mel," Simon spoke, " call Callow. We're coming in."

"This time of night?" Mel asked, alarmed.

"He's awake," Simon spoke dryly, "vampires sleep during the day." Simon reached forward again and tapped 'Off.'

IV.

Flying Across Oceans of Time

Xiang Ping sat by the window on Air China Flight 4554, Beijing to Los Angeles. As she stared to her right at the choppy Pacific Ocean and endured yet another round of turbulence, she thought about how this was just the first leg of a long and arduous journey.

She currently had eight hours of flight time remaining to Los Angeles. At 4:30PM Pacific, they would arrive at their gate, and she would deplane. Then, she would stay the night at the hotel at LAX and try to get some sort of sleep before awakening for her 8AM flight from LAX to Boston Logan. Finally, there would be the ride home with the Finlay's -- the family that had agreed to host her until her 18th birthday some three years away.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had not agreed to admit her otherwise.

"You'll love America," Xu Zhang had said as the two of them waited at the gate for the boarding call. Outside the window of the Beijing airport, the massive Boeing 747-200 waited for its load of trans-Pacific bound flyers. "I envy you the things you will see! When you get there, you must buy me postcards! Lots of postcards!"

Xiang Ping smiled as she remembered her father's enthusiasm. He had decided that nearly every famous American landmark was in easy traveling distance from Cambridge, so he had duly requested pictures of all of them.

"I wish that you were coming with me," she'd said as she stared into his brown eyes. "I feel...I feel..." She waved her hands slightly as she tried to find the words that so often deserted her when she was under stress, and she had rubbed her acne covered chin. "I feel alone!" Xu Zhang stared at her with understanding eyes.

"You have no idea the adventures that await," he said. "My Candlefire! My fifteen year old high school graduate! You'll soon be too busy to feel lonely." She smiled though she felt no sense of reassurance.

"Why couldn't you come with me?" she asked. "Just for a few days? Just to help me settle in with the Finlays?" He shook his head sadly.

"You know I do not have the money," he said matter-of-factly. "If it weren't for your scholarships, we wouldn't have been able to afford MIT, much less the air fare. Besides, it is time that you learned to make your own way, to realize the potential in you. The potential I see that you do not." Xiang Ping bit her lip and stared down at the floor through thick Coke-bottle glasses.

"Why didn't mother come with us?" Xu Zhang looked out the window at the plane and smiled an empty smile.

"Your mother is busy tending to the house," he said without conviction. "But she wishes you well. You know that."

Another round of turbulence hit, and Xiang Ping became aware of her surroundings again. Part of her longed to relax, to enjoy the flight, to revel in the view of the seemingly endless ocean floating by below her. However, she could not shut down the flow of her thoughts, the never-ending stream of data about her own condition that tallied up her mood, her temperature, her frame of mind.

She glanced over at a thin westerner sleeping soundly in his seat. His gray hair was already becoming disheveled, and his blue-gray suit was already starting to wrinkle. While she couldn't tell for certain, a small stream of spit seemed to be dribbling down his chin.

How can he be so relaxed, she thought. Why isn't he thinking the same things I am? Why isn't he burdened with so much self-awareness? She looked back at the wing and thought about the area of low pressure being produced above it, the force providing the lift keeping the massive aircraft in the skies. Low pressure, she thought wistfully, and she closed her eyes and longed for sleep she knew would not come.

four_blossoms

"You've already graduated with degrees in biophysics and aerospace engineering?" Harry Knutson asked incredulously as he looked at the Chinese girl in front of him. She was wearing an oversized yellow knitted sweater which, in turn, was draped over a pink T-shirt. Her black skirt came down to her knees where a pair of yellow and black knee socks took over. The ensemble was completed by a pair of black flats and a small gold chain around her neck. Her stringy black-brown hair followed its own individual lines of disorder, many of which wrapped around her thick glasses and chubby cheeks. Her hands were linked like the knuckle couplers on a train.

Rather than speak, she simply nodded and smiled and looked towards the floor.

"And you swear you're seventeen?" Harry said as he cast a skeptical glance at her. "How in the name of God and heaven did you find the time?"

"It's a..." She stopped as she tried to find words that would sound humble. "It's just something I've been able to do. I just try not to think about how it's done." She, of course, was lying as she spoke those words, and she inwardly cringed. In truth, she did think about it, just like she thought about her hair and about why she never felt her mother loved her and about why the birds flying by just then appealed to her so much and about whether or not Harry could ever like someone like her and about... "You are twenty-one, yes?" Harry nodded. "You will earn your astronomy degree next year?"

"Well," he said, "yeah. I will. But you...jeez." Other students milled about and socialized at the Department of Physics barbeque. Why is he talking to me, she thought. Why is he talking to me? Why is he talking to me? Why is he... "What are you working on now...er...Xiang Ping?"

"Angela," she said quietly. "Please, Angela. And, a doctorate. Aeronautics and Astronautics." Xiang Ping decided, for the moment at least, not to reveal that she was also dabbling in literature courses as well.

"You skipped the master's level...at seventeen," Harry said quietly, and he then whistled. Despite her best efforts, Xiang Ping smiled widely, but then, as always, she found herself confronted with a blank page in her mind. Others seemed to know exactly what to say in these situations, but she felt herself to have been born with an incomplete operator's manual for life.

Several awkward moments of silence passed by. Harry took a sip of Barque's root beer. Xiang Ping picked up her cup from a nearby picnic table and slowly swirled her Canada Dry ginger ale.

"Well," Harry finally said, "it was nice speaking with you. I need to go ask Dr. Winkler about..." He motioned towards the doctor with his thumb.

"Yes," she said with a false smile. "I understand! It was nice talking with you!" She paused as he started to walk away. "Ask him about Hawking Radiation!" Ask him about Hawking Radiation? she thought as she inwardly scolded herself. What could I have said? What could I have said? She looked down again at her feet. Maybe I could have said the age of consent in Massachusetts is sixteen. And the world spun on without her.

V.

Simon, Mel Squibb, and an extremely sleepy Stephanie sat a table in the Popular Culture section of Nightwatch's library. Most of the lights in the facility were off though it never officially closed except for inventory. Even if it had been the middle of the day, however, this particular section would have had few if any patrons as most of Nightwatch's staff felt little need to know if "Oops...I Did It Again" had been remastered or if the Magnum, PI film had performed as well as was hoped at the box office.

The sound suppression arrays and encrypted Wi-Fi would have been of interest had any ordinary patrons known the equipment was there in the first place.

"You cleaned this quickly," Simon spoke as he watched the security tape from Clarendon's, and his tone indicated that he was clearly impressed. "It's even streaming clearly." Mel, while still looking at the screen, did his best to suppress an 'aw shucks' grin.

"It didn't take me two minutes to realize they hadn't sprung for a quality system," Mel replied. "Got myself a machine that lets me do the conversion lickity split," he snapped his fingers, "and then I could use some of my electronic ephemera to clean the signal right up."

"I never knew you could..." Simon snapped his fingers. "There," Simon said, standing up and pointing at one of Clarendon's waiters. "Can you close in on the face?" Mel nodded and, skillfully manipulating the systems on the laptop, highlighted one of the frames and enlarged the portion of the image containing the server's appearance.

"Give me a sec to clean that up for you, doctor," Mel said as he made a rapid series of adjustments. The image pixilated, whited out completely, then settled in, revealing clearly the waiter's visage.

Simon shrugged. "I never saw him." He leaned back on a nearby support column and focused on the face of the server. It was the face of a young man, someone in his late teens or early twenties. He was roughly six feet tall with a very thin body, and as the frames began accelerating to normal speed, he moved with a sort of jangly walk that reminded Simon of Shaggy from Scooby Doo. The boy had red hair that stood in wiry curls. "Brown eyed and freckled and definitely not around before or after." Stephanie had her eyes closed as he approached the table.

"What's she drinking?" Mel asked.

"A Red Diamond," Stephanie said wearily. She held her head in her hands and massaged her forehead. Atypically for her, instead of cargo pants and utilitarian vest, she wore a somewhat oversized Betty Boop T-shirt and faded blue jeans. For reasons that Tom was thankful he hadn't had to elaborate upon, Miranda kept some of her lounge-wear at Tom's office. "God, what's taking him so long with that coffee?"

"The cafeteria isn't open," Simon spoke as he walked up behind her. "Tom's gone looking for a coffee maker he can commandeer. I did try to talk you into staying at Tom's office and sleeping this off." He leaned forward and whispered something into her ear. She nodded silently, and Simon placed his scarred, calloused hands on her head and began massaging her temples. As he did, he looked over at Mel. "I don't care for most mixed drinks. In any case, she'd ordered a refill, and this fellow here is apparently the one that brought it."

"Thank you," Stephanie said as she moved out of Simon's grip and closed her eyes again. Backing up quickly and respecting her space, Simon moved and stood behind Mel. "Can you back up and follow him from the time he arrived to the time he left?"

"I've gotta cue up the different cameras," Mel replied. "I need to lock into the time codes."

"A young man, you say," a voice said from behind them. Mel jumped slightly and spun around to look. Simon remained motionless and even closed his eyes.

"Nice of you to join us," Litchfield said with feigned disinterest.

"You both realize that none of this was authorized," Ian Callow said as he walked forward and placed his own laptop computer on the table. "You've exceeded your authority, Simon. I don't risk assets on wild goose chases, and I don't allow missions until I see the justification for them." Callow, wearing a black Nightwatch jacket, black pants, and black shoes, stared at Simon as if he wished the engineer would spontaneously combust.

"Oh come off it," Simon muttered. "This mission dropped itself in uninvited." He scratched his left eyebrow. "Besides, half of what we do here is based off of exceeding our authority, so don't start with that self-righteous tone."

After an angry glare, Callow walked back into the shadows and grabbed a covered cup of Starbuck's coffee. Food and drink were forbidden in the library, but this was another bit of protocol the Assistant Coordinator for Institutional Effectiveness was able to ignore with impunity. Simon did find himself wondering how Callow had even gotten Starbuck's at this time of night in the first place.

"Dr. Litchfield," Callow said between sips as he walked forward again, "you know as well as I that Nightwatch is an absolute necessity in this zany little world of ours, particularly the activities we do not declare in our prospectus, but we won't be able to do any of that effectively if you keep freelancing! The more we expose ourselves..."

Simon cut Callow off with a wave of his hand. "Don't," he said wearily as he sat down next to Mel. "You're royally pissed because none of this was in your control. Don't pretend this is about anything else."

Three quick beeps emanated from Mel's computer, and only then did Simon break eye contact with Callow. Mel reached forward and pressed one of the function keys.

"I'm not going to argue with you about this now," Callow said. "We have more pressing matters to worry about tonight, but rest assured, you and I will have a chat about this, and we will straighten out the proper procedures that you will follow." Callow pulled up a series of images on his computer. "Now, you said it was a young man who drugged Ms. Keel?" Callow turned the laptop towards the others and pointed at the screen. "Either he's a prodigy, or he's working with someone else, someone with a very sophisticated skill set."

"You've gotten a report already?" Simon asked skeptically, but as he looked at the image, his eyes widened in disbelief.

Mel's typing ceased as his attention was also drawn to the image. Initially bewildered, a grin slowly grew until he looked positively giddy with excitement. He reached over and gingerly tapped Stephanie on the shoulder.

"We don't have anyone on the campus who can analyze the chemical breakdown," Callow said, "at least not until morning, but I did find someone to run some of the sample through an electron microscope. We can't analyze it, but we can damn well look at it."

Stephanie looked and tried to focus. At first, everything on Callow's screen was just a blur of black and white, but she narrowed her eyelids into slits and concentrated. As she did, quiet fury began welling up inside.

The image on the screen looked like a small metal sesame seed. Around the front were small bumps in various sizes, and on the back were what appeared to be mechanical flagella. It was clearly a tiny machine, but it also appeared to be rapidly breaking down as significant portions of it looked to be deforming.

"Interesting," Callow said quietly, "don't you think, Ms. Keel?"

Mel whistled in appreciation. "Nanobots? In the bloodstream?"

"Not this one," Callow spoke quietly but admiringly as he stared at the image. "This one's been metabolized and filtered out, as have most if not all of them," he looked over at Stephanie, "judging by her lack of undue affection towards Simon."

Simon glanced at Stephanie and tried to judge how she was reacting. "How many of them were there?" he asked as he decided he did not like the character of the energy coming from her.

Callow shrugged his shoulders. "I didn't ask for that, Dr. Litchfield," Callow spoke, "just for a clear image of anything unusual. Consider yourself momentarily off the hook for disturbing me." Simon rolled his eyes. As they returned to the image, he looked at the damaged portions of the machine.

"It's either bad engineering," Simon observed, "or maybe, just maybe, it's designed with a limited lifespan in mind. Maybe a little of both." Simon looked back towards Mel. "There's no way our redheaded friend put this together."

Mel shook his head. "Could be some sort of savant," he responded, "you know, one of those really bright kids who get a master's degree before they start shaving? Maybe he's a nanotech version of Doogie Howser. Ah!" The laptop beeped again, "Got it!" Mel said, "yes indeedy!" He pointed at a set of images on the screen. "Our boy came in here, through this service door. Looks like he made a delivery of some kind, then he walked out." Simon moved back towards Mel.

The door had started to close, but the boy apparently slipped in a box or a stone or some sort of obstruction since the entrance did not close completely. No one in the busy kitchen noticed. Mel forwarded the video until the door opened again. This time, the delivery boy was dressed in clothes that looked very much like the rest of the waitstaff's, and he walked through the room and through the kitchen slowly but confidently.

Moves as if he belongs there, Simon noted. Careful not to draw attention to himself, just another waiter in a busy pub. Like he's done this before. "I take back 'uncoordinated,'" he said.

The image shifted again as Mel switched to the camera focused on the bar. The intruder looked once around the room, seemed to take note of where Stephanie, Simon, and Tom were sitting, and then quickly checked the computer screen behind the bar. The bartender, who was busy speaking with one of the more scantily dressed college girls in the pub, never noticed. Stephanie's Red Diamond was ready for pick-up. It was then that the man reached into his pocket and pulled a small tube, the contents of which he quickly poured into the drink, and then he picked it up and carried it to Stephanie's table. He then moved quietly and confidently back the way he came and slipped unnoticed out the service entrance.

"Close in on that vial," Simon directed.

"That one's gonna be tricky," Mel said. "Yessiree." He logged in through the special wi-fi connection and, after going through several challenge screens, arrived at a directory called 'Form 71X.' "Nothing I can do here is going to resolve something that small. But," he tapped on the keyboard, "I have something we can log in to that may be of assistance."

"Jet Indigo," Callow said absently as he looked through more of the raw data on the nanobots collected by the microscopist. He suddenly jerked his gaze towards Mel. "Yet another item you both failed to get permission to use!" Mel shrank slightly in his seat.

Simon raised a suspicious eyebrow. "Jet Indigo?" he asked.

"It's," Mel cleared his throat, "it's an NSA code name." He clicked a few more keys and accessed the Jet Indigo files.

"I was able to obtain a beta-test copy for our use," Callow said, glints of pride in his voice. He looked directly at Mel. "At considerable effort, I should add." Callow cracked his knuckles one by one. "I wasn't able to find a real name for the project, so, Dr. Litchfield, I'm afraid you're stuck with Jet Indigo."

"All right," Litchfield said, "given that, what does Jet Indigo do?" Mel looked over at Callow. "Or is the function coded too? Maybe 'Mood Indigo' or 'Blue Alert'?" After a long pause, during which Callow's irritation was obvious, the Lower Echelon official nodded towards Mel.

"Even the best surveillance images have their limits, Dr. Litchfield," Mel said. "There's only so much you can resolve something before an image dissolves into visual mush." Mel zoomed in on the tube. "See, see how pixilated everything is? Might as well be a smear. And that's after I've cleaned and scrubbed the thing until it's shiny."

"The contents of the tube are purple," Simon spoke.

"He's a dead man," Stephanie whispered. She closed her eyes, but as she did, adrenaline began pumping into her system.

'I wish we could read that," Simon said as he pointed at part of the smear. "I think it's a label." Mel zoomed in further on the washed out field of pixels.

Stephanie slowly stood, so slowly that Simon and Mel failed to notice, and she moved into the shadows, violent images running over and over again in her mind.

"Ordinarily," Mel said as he highlighted the smear, "we'd be out of luck at this point, but we've got Jet Indigo on our side." Mel began entering commands into the program. "The beauty of it, so I've been told, anyway, is that it takes a look-see at the target, cleans up the image to the fullest extent possible, and then, what it can't resolve definitively, it resolves by making an educated guess."

Simon furrowed his brow. "It reads patterns? Like our brain fills in a missing 'the' in a sentence?"

"The algorithm," Callow added, "is designed to read through what can be seen and then, based on known patterns, sort through all of the likely possibilities using those patterns, the context of the image, the likely language in use."

"That's what I'm entering now," Mel said, "all of the context clues I can give it. Of course, 'Boy Wonder, in the pub, with the poison vial' isn't a specific option at this time."

"Dreadful oversight," Simon said with mock sympathy.

"Oh," Mel said, "I think you'll be eating that tone in moment! We finish loading the info, it goes through the range of linguistic motion, the 1's and 0's fly in a stream of thought, and then..." The image on the screen resolved itself into something clear and easy to read. "Then we get a screenful of gibberish."

"Lobe Proton NX9," Simon spoke skeptically. "Lobe Proton?" Stephanie turned, a confused and somewhat disgusted look on her face.

"I was expecting something better, truth be told," Mel said quietly, his voice betraying clearly a sense of disappointment. "Kind of anticlimactic, really." He exhaled as his fingers danced just above the keys. "Well," he continued, "it is still in beta testing. Suppose I should be a wee bit more understanding. Can't have a stealth generator-type of success every time."

"You used your quota of good luck when you landed Anneka," Simon murmured without cheer as he walked towards the stacks and let his eyes wander over the magazines and vacuous memoirs present there.

"Given what we know that stuff can do," Callow spoke sternly, "'lobe' and 'proton' seem like perfectly reasonable words to me. Having said that, change the parameters, Mr. Squibb, and start again. Put the program through its paces; iron out the bugs."

There's something familiar, Simon thought as 'Lobe Proton' wafted through his mind, something I'm missing. Something obvious. "You know," he said as various threads in his thoughts started to knit themselves into a more and more recognizable pattern, "if the program makes the best guess it can, I suppose 'lobe' would be a very logical one given the context, but something tells me..." He paused and turned to look at Mel. "If we can work out something more plausible than lobe, I'm willing to bet the second word will be much easier. What are some other four letter words beginning with 'l' and ending with 'e'?"

"I can think of many four letter words to apply to you, Dr. Litchfield," Callow smirked while looking at his screen. Fresh images of the nano device came streaming in.

"'Like,'" Mel said gamely. "'Lime,' which would fit the setting for sure." Mel shook his head. "'Lime Proton' doesn't really sound reasonable, does it."

"'Lame,'" Simon continued, "lamé. 'Lamé Proton'?"

"Not unless someone fit a disco into a nucleus," Mel quipped.

"'Lose,'" Simon added, "'love.'" Simon was getting ready to say 'live' when somewhere in his brain, a new neural pathway opened between brain cells, and the new path illuminated and sparked and sent forward its information to Simon's consciousness.

Simon blinked.

Mel snapped his fingers.

"'Love Potion #9!'" Simon and Mel shouted at the same time.

"Fits the context," Mel said as he zoomed back and then highlighted the poisoner's face, "matches the effect on Ms. Keel." Simon rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands.

"This idiot," Stephanie hissed as she came forward again, "dumped a load of machines into my body, just to make me fucking fall in love?" Seeing her standing, Simon sprang over to her and prepared to help if she became dizzy or faint.

She was in no danger of that, however, as her fury began to blossom. "No one," she intoned, "no one makes me do anything against my will! Never...again!"

"I understand," Callow said blandly, "that you're emotional, Ms. Keel, but if you'd calm down..." Stephanie spun around and stared into Callow's eyes. She did indeed feel extremely dizzy, and the rapid head movement did nothing to help, but by sheer willpower she fought off the effects.

"No!" she yelled. "You may have read the files, you may have heard Simon describe the hell hole I was in when he first met me, and you may have even read what was done to me, against my will!" She lunged forward and grabbed Callow's arms. "But, you bastard, you will never understand!" Callow stood motionless, and while he appeared unmoved, Simon could see a single drop of sweat begin welling up on Callow's forehead.

"All right," Simon spoke softly as he took hold of Stephanie's shoulders and guided her towards the table. While he was still holding her, she turned her head and stared Callow down again.

"No one," she said quietly as she tried to burn into his soul. "Not demons and Afghani mystics, not Celinde Gryphius...not you." She broke free of Simon's grip. "And not you." She walked swiftly if unsteadily and then sat down next to Mel.

Callow cleared his throat. "I want to know who that fellow is," he said as he pointed at the man on Mel's screen. "More importantly, we need to know who he's working with."

"I want to know why," Stephanie growled. "Why me? Of all people? What's the purpose in filling me full of love-crazed robots?"

"The usual channels?" Mel asked after a long, awkward silence.

"Yes, the usual channels," Callow said to Mel. "I'll make the arrangements."

Simon stared at the boy's face. "My friend," he said quietly, "you just poked a hornet's nest with a very short twig."

* * * *

Tom stood silently as the elderly Mr. Coffee machine he'd found poured hot water through grounds of indeterminate age. Along with a few styrofoam cups and some creamer, these were the only items he'd been able to scrounge as he walked through the darkened corridors of the institute.

While he'd been in the middle of his search, he'd wondered why so few coffee makers were around when those machines were ubiquitous in the average office setting. However, when he finally did find what he'd been looking for, they were stashed away in what was supposed to have been a locked cabinet. Only someone's failure to fully close the door had given him access.

Paranoid about their coffee, he thought. Suddenly, his eyes settled on a picture of Dopey from Disney's Snow White. In his hand was a pasted in coffee cup, and around him were the words 'Hi ho, hi ho, if you drink you owe!', and an arrow pointed down to a jar labeled with the word 'quarter.' Expensive, he thought. Miranda's office only asks for a nickel.

Miranda. The word echoed through his mind as he watched dark droplets fall into the coffee machine's carafe. In a flash, he envisioned a copy of the DSM with the symptoms of bipolar disorder highlighted in yellow.

Why are you second-guessing yourself? he thought. You've already been through this; you know you've done everything you can, followed all the protocols. Except falling in love was not among the recommended treatment regimes. That hadn't been planned, not at all, but in the crucible of the moment -- the manic training sessions, the planning for his unwanted but necessary trip into space to help save the planet from Comet Cthulu (more properly known as Fenton-Mendelev 7), the exhaustion and terrible stress--he'd needed something to hold on to. More importantly, Miranda had needed him, and like a white knight he had ridden in on his clinical steed.

However, he also thought about the last time Miranda had slipped into a full-on manic episode, the day they had found Clarendon's.

After a slow morning with an even slower afternoon forecasted on the books, Tom had come home to eat a quiet lunch by himself and to deal with some of his other business affairs. What he'd found was his girlfriend, Dr. Miranda Fanshaw, running through the house and carrying wet paint brushes and poorly sealed cans of paint to several different rooms.

"Couldn't go to work today," she'd said breathlessly. "Babe, you need to spruce this place up, and I've got just the plan..."

He'd gotten her cleaned up and out of the house as quickly as he could. Fixing the damage to the carpet and to several of the poorly painted walls had taken longer. Later, he'd called her psychiatrist to discuss options about adjusting her medication.

I missed those signs, he thought mournfully as he closed the mental image of the DSM. No, he thought as the book slammed shut, I just didn't want to see. Tom's phone began ringing using the generic ring tone it used when an unknown number was calling. He took out his phone, noting the Virginia area code.

"Black," Stephanie croaked through the earpiece before he had a chance to say anything. "Black coffee."

"Er, almost ready," he said. "Whose..."

"Mel's phone," she snapped. "Black coffee," she spoke more firmly, and an angry click signaled the end of the call.

"Gotcha," Tom said to no one, and he walked towards the machine which was even then gasping out the last of the hot water over the grounds.

At least some of Miranda's clothes were still there, Tom thought as he poured the coffee. I'm just glad Stephanie didn't ask why Miranda would need a change of clothes at my office. Tom suddenly recalled how much money the replacement table in Dr. Richardson's office had cost.

There were good times, and he replayed a few of them through his mind as he poured himself a cup of coffee mixed with hazelnut-flavored creamer.

"They weren't enough," he whispered, and he took the cups in his hands and headed back for the library.

* * * *

"Tally ho!" Mel cried enthusiastically. "Yes, indeedy," he said proudly, "and here's our happy little poisoner!" Several photographs popped up on the screen. "Eric Graham Fischer, sophomore, Georgetown University. Here's his driver's license, student ID, college yearbook photo, and..."

When the next image the popped up, Mel's jaw plummeted towards the floor.

"...and a Nightwatch ID," Simon finished. Callow and Stephanie both pushed their way closer to the screen. Simon smiled wryly and looked over to Callow. "Fits the context," he said and looked up at the ceiling tiles. "I think, Ian, that we need to look at Nightwatch's security vids."

"Callow, Dr. Litchfield," the assistant coordinator spoke sharply.

"Something else fits the context, now that I think about it," Stephanie murmured. "Something Simon should know well at this point?"

"What does?" Tom asked as he finally arrived and placed a coffee in front of.

Stephanie looked up at Simon. "The Singing Savior," she said as Tom placed the coffee in front of her. "Please tell me this is strong enough to hold its shape even without the cup." Simon looked down at her, first with a confused expression, then with a wide-eyed stare, then finally with a wide, toothy grin.

"Four attempted robberies," he said as he turned to Callow, "four sets of college students, each a male-female pair. All ended without shots being fired. All of them claimed to remember nothing about what happened." Callow furrowed his brow.

"Interesting theory," Callow mused as he again approached the table. "The vids are being loaded onto the server," he said to Mel. "But those attempts at robbery don't sound like 'Love Potion #9,'" Callow continued as another set of images appeared on Mel's screen. These were multiple images, each stamped with rapidly moving time codes.

"If you can make machines that cause someone to fall in love," Simon said, "then you're also capable of whipping up a batch of, say, 'Raised on Robbery.'" Callow nodded grudgingly.

"How long has Fischer been working here?" Stephanie asked as she not so politely pushed Mel over and starting to write a search program.

"Three months, give or take a glimmer," Mel said in a somewhat wounded tone. "I, uh, take it that you're thinking those robberies are connected?"

Callow looked over at Simon, locking in with him stare for stare. "To be honest," Callow said as he took out a small black notebook and a silver pen and began writing, "those types of petty crimes aren't my concern unless we can tie them in to something like nanotechnology. To borrow some of Dr. Litchfield's language, I couldn't give a rat's ass about what happens out there otherwise."

Simon smiled bitterly. "You'd throw your mother under a bus."

"Gladly," Callow replied quickly, "if something significant enough was at stake. And, Dr. Litchfield, unlike yourself, I am not engaging in hyperbole." He stopped writing and looked up. "While it would have been tragic, for instance, if anything had happened to Miss Eckleberry, I still wouldn't have given it a second thought without something of greater import being involved. I have to think on a much bigger scale." The silver pen was lifted from the page and pointed at Simon's head. "And you should as well."

Simon's fists clinched though he did his best to hide this fact from view. "How do you live with yourself?" A long and uncomfortable silence filled the room.

"What intel have you gathered about Mr. Fischer?" Callow finally said to Mel, who then deferred to Stephanie.

"He's on Dr. MacMillan's staff," she said while never taking her eyes away from the program she was writing. "A run of the mill intern. Decent evaluations. Prudence Walls noted that he's always willing to go the extra mile." Tom looked confused.

"Who?" he asked.

"MacMillian's assistant," Simon spoke curtly.

"He must've been one of the gophers brought in for the conference," Callow sighed in exasperation. "That damn interdisciplinary conference! All of those different presenters, all of those different staffs. We needed extra help for it, and then they were supposed to be out the door with something extra for their resumes." Callow looked at Simon. "More compassion, more emotions getting in the way. Someone in Dr. MacMillan's office just couldn't bear to let them go and decided to keep most on."

Tom watched as Stephanie seemed to disappear further and further into her work, looking for signs that she was pushing herself too hard. "Something tells me he won't be in today."

"The question," Simon replied, "is whether he'll have gone to ground or whether he'll be floating face down somewhere along the Potomac."

"Why would you think that?" Mel asked, genuine confusion reflected on his face. "I mean, if he's working for someone..."

"That working theory you were talking about," Tom said as he moved closer to Stephanie. "If we assume the robberies and Stephanie's poisoning are connected, which one seems out of place?" Mel shrugged.

"Stephanie, I guess, but why..."

"The robberies seem carefully planned," Tom said. "If you ask me, they were field tests of some kind. This," he stood directly behind her, "just seems impulsive somehow, like it was made up on the fly."

"But we're back to why again," Simon said, "I don't understand the motivation." He had walked back towards the stacks again and didn't see as Stephanie reached up and started to massage her neck.

Tom looked down at Stephanie's head. "You think you're on to something," he said to her, "that's plain to see."

"It's...a hunch," she said as she leaned forward again and pulled up the security videos. Mel looked at what she was doing.

Stephanie smiled grimly as she dialed in on a specific set of time codes and on a specific corridor in the institute. The images started flowing forward. The camera in question had an excellent view of Stephanie's office door, and after a few moments of nothing, the door open and Simon walked out, pulling the door behind him, only the door didn't fully close. He soon left the field of view. Suddenly, from out of shot emerged Eric Fischer who was walking down the corridor before something caught his attention just as he passed her office door. He backed up, seemed to listen for a few moments, and then started forward and out of shot as well.

"That," she said quietly, "was his motivation."

"Why, exactly, did you think of that time?" Simon asked. Stephanie blinked several times before she pulled up the program screen and resumed writing code.

"It's personal," she murmured quietly.

"Diego?" Simon asked, and after a long pause, she nodded lightly. "When?"

"I don't know," she murmured. "Six months? A year?" She stopped typing. "Maybe more."

"So, if I understand," Callow spoke as he came forward, "you were speaking with a former lover, and Mr. Fischer there overheard you and decided you needed to meet someone new?"

"I was reminding someone," she said quietly, "that something had ended a long time ago." She slammed her fingers on the keys. "Damnit! I can't think straight!"

"No," Mel said encouragingly, "you're on the right garden path. This is gonna take a while. You fellas might want to go grab a Danish or something." He frowned as Stephanie started entering more information. "No, not there. Save it for the subroutine."

"No," Stephanie said as she continued typing. "It should go here." The two of them continued arguing, and Simon found himself becoming lost in their technobabble.

Callow, seemingly examining the entire tableau set before him, finally locked his stare on Tom. After checking that Simon was still occupied with Stephanie and Mel, Callow quietly walked forward, grabbed Tom's elbow, and pulled the perplexed psychologist into a secluded area in the stacks.

"And what is this about?" Tom asked cautiously. Callow, after a last check to see if their absence had been noticed, let go of Tom's arm.

"In about three minutes," Callow said as he placed his fingertips together, "I'm going to ask Mr. Squibb a question, to wit, where does Eric Fischer live. Once the address is located, you and I will go to Mr. Squibb's office where we will devise a persona for you," Tom looked confused, "a police detective's persona. You, Dr. Weldon, will conduct the search."

"And why not Simon?" Tom asked. "That is the sort of thing he does best." Callow smiled bitterly.

"You don't get it either, do you," he said. "Simon is compromised, at least in the DC metro area. He became involved in a pretty big way in this Cannon Moon incident. He's been interviewed by reporters. His picture has been in newspapers, on television, in blogs. I won't be able to use him here for god knows how long."

"He won't like that," Tom said plainly.

"That's obvious," Callow replied, "but that's also a necessity. For some reason, Weldon, Simon trusts you, and that should help to salve his wounded pride."

"I'll agree," Tom said, "as long as you're the one who tells him." Callow nodded, but as Tom started to walk back to the others, Callow grabbed his arm again.

"Besides," Callow continued, "it's not as if you're not adept at these sorts of things. You acquitted yourself well in Nigeria, for instance, when we needed you to impersonate a doctor during that weaponized soybean business. It's also, I should add, where the people you're working for made their first mistake."

Tom looked doubtfully at Callow. "Just what are you implying?" he asked as he jerked his arm away. "I'm not working for anyone other than Arlington Counseling Group. I was in Nigeria on company business."

"Ah," Callow said as he again glanced over at the others. "Yes, that explanation worked fine with Simon, and I didn't really think about it specifically. But, Dr. Weldon, you've always been an unknown quantity to me. Despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to find out anything substantive about your background. On the surface, of course, you're clean..."

"Because," he said in an irritated tone, "there's nothing to find." Callow smiled and shook his head.

"There's always something to find, Dr. Weldon," Callow said, "unless someone is scrubbing his or her records. You're too clean."

"Look," Tom hissed, "I'll pretend to be a detective for you, but quit trying to make me out to be..."

"Why do you travel so much?" Callow interrupted.

"Counseling business," Tom said quickly, "and personal interests, why does it matter?"

"Trips to Rome," Callow continued, "Prague, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Moscow, all relatively innocuous..."

"They are innocuous," Tom muttered.

"Your flight records showed you traveling to Madrid when we borrowed your services...in Nigeria."

Tom opened his mouth but nothing came out.

"British Airways Flights 216 and 456," Callow continued. "Madrid, Weldon. Madrid! Not Lagos or Abuja City. Either you or whoever you work for forgot to cover your tracks."

"I don't know what you used to track down my private records," Tom finally said, "but obviously British Airways or whoever I flew with recorded its data incorrectly."

"Oh, obviously," Callow said sarcastically. "I only wish I'd cross-referenced those records sooner."

Tom stared intently at Callow. "You were trying to kill me when you recommended me for the Cthulu mission," he said, smiling malevolently.

"Never," Callow said without conviction. "I'm watching, Weldon. Always watching. And you will slip up. I promise you that." Callow reached up and knocked some dust off of a biography of Grace Kelly. "Now, we'd better go explain the plan to Dr. Litchfield."

After a moment's hesitation, Tom nodded and blinked, and the two of them made their way back to the rest of the group.

VI.

Snapshots from a Quantum Photo Album

"Chancellor Goldstein," Xiang Ping said in a plain tone as she read from her notes, "Dean Acheson, members of the board, honored guests, and you, the students whose dreams still reach to the stars, thank you very much for inviting me to speak with you today about the challenges and rewards involved in modern astronomical research. I must, however, tell you this before beginning my discussion on the exciting new discoveries recently made about noctilucent clouds and micrometeorite bombardment. I am but twenty-seven, and though I have my astronomy doctorate, I feel uniquely unqualified to speak on the same stage where such luminaries as Dr. Pearl Jessup, Dr. Graham Koonz, and Dr. Turay Owusu have previously lectured. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to at least honor their words if not equal them..."

four_blossoms

"You have more degrees than a broken thermometer," Dr. Alvin Whichard said as he spread raspberry-flavored cream cheese on his bagel. "Angela, no one doubts your ability to do anything you set your mind to."

"Except lose weight," Xiang Ping said as she unenthusiastically picked at a Weight Watchers roasted chicken entree. "I feel like I keep having this conversation. All the time," she waved a bit of chicken on the end of her fork in the air. "Focus, focus, focus! You're like everyone else through my life!" She finally placed the chicken in her mouth and chewed slowly.

"Just don't do anything solicitous," Dr. Whichard said as he took a bite of his bagel and found it to be quite dry. "You've got to start considering the long term -- your reputation, what you're going to be remembered for. You make a splash with something, get a little notice, and then..." Xiang Ping swallowed the morsel of chicken and then cast her eyes towards the wall of the cafeteria. "Stanford hired you as a physicist. You need to publish more physics research. Maybe head out to the LHC and do some work there."

"I have published recently," she said defensively.

Whichard eyed her sternly. "The Ornithology Argus and 'A Reconsideration of the Migratory Habits of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird' will not earn you tenure," he said, "in the physics department." Xiang Ping stared down at the table, unable to think of a single word to counter his argument.

four_blossoms

"...and I feel quite unqualified to lecture you, budding literature scholars one and all, on the intricacies of Shakespeare's late romances." Her delivery was flat though Xiang Ping did try to occasionally make direct eye contact with members of the audience. "However, knowing that you recently heard from Dr. Hogarth himself concerning the intricacies of the semiotic thickness of the text of Cymbaline, I will try to, if not equal his words, at least not dishonor the stage upon which he stood!" Some of the students in the audience chuckled, but the comment failed to produce the full laughter she'd been shooting for, the one she'd indicated by placing a smiley face emoticon next to the appropriate spot on her notes, and Xiang Ping suddenly felt very alone in front of them.

four_blossoms

She lay next to him and stared at the popcorn ceiling and the slowly spinning brown and brass of his ceiling fan. Despite her efforts to relax, she found herself unable to calm her swirling thoughts. How did I get here? she pondered as she tried to remember what she'd done in the first place to make him notice her. Think! Think! What did you do this time? She tried desperately to remember their first meeting and the first words she'd said to him, and the futility of that led next to equally futile attempts to remember the three dates they'd been on. Who initiated? Who kissed who first?

The panic became almost too much to bear, so, slowly, she rose, careful to not wake him. If she couldn't remember what she did, there was no chance she'd be able to keep him. How had she done it? She was desperate to remember. She picked up her glasses from the oak table next to the bed and put them on. Maybe I should try contacts. I'd be more attractive with contacts. Maybe?

Xiang Ping walked through the darkened house before finding the exit to his balcony. After quietly opening the door, she stepped out and watched, naked and shivering, as the stars shown in the sky. M44, she thought. Alpha Canis Minoris. Alpha Leonis. Kappa Ursae Majoris. Iota Ursae Majoris. Alpha Hydrae...

four_blossoms

"Your qualifications, Dr. Xu," Dr. Costandina Economos said as she and the rest of the committee looked on, "are impeccable, and while much of your career at Rice to this point has been impressive, we have unfortunately concluded that you are not yet ready for tenure with the engineering department. Still, we considered you for tenure much earlier than usual, as you know, so we encourage you to..."

"May I ask how you reached your conclusion?" Xiang Ping said as she stared through her thick lenses at Economos. Before the chairperson started speaking, however, Xiang Ping had already lowered her gaze to the table top.

"There is," Economos said sympathetically, "a lack of focus to your efforts. Your researches have been...eccentric...at best. You've done a good job with your teaching duties as well, but your students, at times, find you..."

"Confusing?" Xiang Ping asked. She tried to focus on her breathing.

"Unapproachable, Dr. Xu," Economos said. "Digressive, as well. Your lectures, your explanations, the notes you post online all betray the truly staggering number of interests you have. While the breadth of your knowledge is not in question, it is, we feel..."

"...a tragic thing indeed," Xiang Ping said quietly as Economos turned and looked at her fellow committee members. "I could be brilliant at mathematics but I then study languages, or languages but I then study biophysics, or biophysics but I then study," she pointed at the ceiling, "the stars."

four_blossoms

The lectures, the commencement addresses and the occasional bursts of recognition that prompted them, the interviews all began to swirl into a single soup of events in her mind:

"Chancellor Wallace, distinguished colleagues..."

"...Dean Thorton-Jeffcoat, Chairman Wong. Distinguished Faculty

Chairs..."

"...President Ulgine, Provost Olsen, Senator Festermann..."

"...I am honored..."

"...humbled to appear before such a distinguished gathering..."

"...here to report my team's

exciting findings concerning the

discovery of dimensions six and

seven..."

"...despite the recent deaths of my mother and father in the great

earthquake..."

"...given the extreme wake vortices produced..."

"...habitat destruction on a nearly unimaginable scale..."

"...the feasability of introducing such massive quantities of

sulfur-dioxide into the upper atmosphere..."

"...the required change in Delta V being greater

than the engine can produce..."

"...and I thank you for your time as I leave you with this thought..."

"...and I thank you for your time as I leave you with this thought..."

"...and I thank you for your time as I leave you with this thought..."

"...and I thank you for your time as I leave you with this thought..."

"Wisdom is only achieved when one truly understands how little he or she knows."

"Wisdom is only achieved when one truly understands how little he or she knows."

"Wisdom is only achieved when one truly understands how little he or she knows."

"Wisdom is only achieved when one truly understands how little he or she knows."

"Wisdom is only achieved when one truly understands how little he or she knows."

Dr. Xu closed her journal, the last book left to pack as she cleared out her office at Duke University and prepared to start her new position at Case Western Reserve. She stood and, shivering, barely had time to close her office door before the tears rolled out, and she placed her face in her hands so that she could muffle the sobs.

VII.

It was 9 AM, and Tom had been waiting in the parking lot for over an hour, watching as residents and their cars had departed for work, school, or simply breakfast. As each car left, he checked a list of license plate numbers that Stephanie and Mel had provided, and he marked off each relevant number.

Of key interest to him were three different plates belonging to a red VW Beetle; a green, used, and well-worn Mini Cooper; and a tan and blue Audi Quatro -- the cars belonging to Eric and his two roommates. Tom reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed a small walkie-talkie.

"You there...'Mulveany'?" Tom asked.

"Rog," a deep baritone voice replied over the speaker.

"Clear," Tom said.

"Clear here," the voice responded. Tom turned the volume down to its lowest setting and put the walkie-talkie into his pants pocket. He stepped out and straightened the three piece gray suit he'd been given and then scratched at the black mustache glued to his upper lip. "Hypo-allergenic my ass," he muttered as his skin registered its disapproval.

After climbing the outer stairs, he stepped onto the open breezeway of the second floor of Building 8 and walked towards Fischer's apartment, in the process making eye contact with his partner, Nightwatch pilot Ed Wendell. The large man, resplendent in his black suit and sun glasses, nodded and then resumed his post as lookout.

Very slowly and cautiously, Tom approached the door of Apartment 8K and stood before it. According to the records Stephanie had obtained, Eric Fischer lived in this apartment with two roommates -- Bronwen Roberts (age 19) and Jackson 'Jack' Howard (age 20). All were students at Georgetown, and all were supposed to be out at this hour.

He took out the kit Callow had given to him--a familiar black plastic box--and he opened the lid. Quickly, he removed two silver disks, each slightly thicker than an ice cream sandwich and equipped with suction cups on one side. He placed one over the doorknob and one over the deadbolt lock. Immediately, a small keypad on each illuminated in bright red light. After punching a three digit number into each, a quick series of quiet clicks and whir sounds was made, and then each keypad flashed green. Tom removed the disks, turned the doorknob, and entered the apartment.

Things were exactly as he'd been led to believe. The door opened into a small living room furnished with tasteful if 'previously loved' furniture. Two doors exited from the living room -- an entrance to a small kitchen and dining area, and another leading to the hallway, and Tom took the latter. According to intelligence, the first room was shared by Roberts and Howard (though the presence of a blanket and sheets on the couch caused Tom to think the information may have been out of date). He then passed entrances to the bathroom and laundry area before reaching the closed door to Fischer's room. This he opened quickly.

He was immediately greeted by a series of well-worn posters tacked to the wall, posters of the Battlestar Galactica (the BSG-75 version), Leonard Cohen, the band Vampire Weekend, and other figures (presumably from the entertainment industry) which he did not recognize. The room was in all other ways typical with clothes scattered about, the bed unmade, the desk cramped with nearly every available inch of space covered by either a computer or by various papers and magazines. With a deep sigh of resignation, Tom approached the desk and tried to find where to begin.

He pushed three shirts off of the desk chair and then slid over to look at the computer. It wasn't a model he recognized, and when he turned it on, he quickly realized why.

"Linux," he said quietly as he turned his attention to the papers beside the computer. Several English literature assignments laid there, all marked with either mediocre or very low scores, and as he flipped through them, he quickly noticed that none was dated earlier than a month and a half ago. As he was getting ready to see if the computer had finished booting, however, Tom heard a shuffling noise from behind, and he spun around in the chair.

"Dude," a chubby black haired boy said as he held a golf club in both hands, "you better get the fuck out before I call the cops!" The boy was calm though Tom could see sweat stains spreading underneath the black polo shirt.

"Son," Tom said sternly and evenly as he reached for his coat pocket, "I don't think you want to threaten me unless you want to try and live down a felony conviction." He flashed a Metro Police badge and identification card. The boy's eyes widened though he also examined Tom with a look of suspicion.

"You're a cop?" he asked, the golf club still in his hands.

Tom nodded slowly. "Detective Lieutenant Terrance Weill. Search warrant." He put up his ID and reached into his other coat pocket and pulled out a folded sheet of pink paper.

"Hold it open," the boy said, and Tom began expanding the paper to its full size. "You guys don't execute search warrants alone, do ya? No one on TV ever does."

Tom stared and tried to muster his calmest, most patient expression.

"And television is your idea of reality?" Tom asked as he made a 'tsk tsk' noise. "You're correct, though," he continued as he turned back and started looking over the desk again. "That's why Detective Mulveany is staring down the back of your head right now." The boy blinked and slowly turned to look over his left shoulder. Ed stood there, expressionless, his seemingly bald head shining in the light of the sun streaming in through the bedroom window.

"Dude," the boy said, "you guys...uh...you guys must like live at the gym." Jack smiled nervously. "You dudes are ripped!"

"We hear that often," Ed said in a deep baritone. The boy giggled uncomfortably.

He turned and looked back at Tom. "You officers gonna leave me in suspense, or you gonna tell me what this is about?"

Tom shot an impatient look at the golf club, and the boy finally dropped it to the floor like it was suddenly extremely hot.

"Good man," Ed said as he patted the boy on the shoulder a little too hard and then patted him down and checked for other weapons.

"You Jack?" Tom asked as he continued rifling through the papers. "You got some identification on you?" Jack tried to speak, stuttered nervously, then slowly reached into his pocket for his wallet. He pulled out his driver's license and showed it to Ed.

"It's Jack," Ed confirmed as he handed back the license.

"Well Jack," Tom said, "your friend Mr. Fischer is in a world of trouble, and we need to find him. Quickly. We have reason to believe that he's been involved in illegal file sharing."

"File sharing?" Jack said in disbelief. "You guys might serve papers to someone doin' that, but you don't go looking for 'em like this!"

"I'm not talking about music, Jack," Tom said calmly and as Jack's expression continued its downward spiral into total confusion. "I'm talking about file sharing. And I'm not kidding. Mr. Fischer's in serious trouble, not just legally but in terms of his life, and we need to find him now." Tom turned and stared Jack in the eye. "If you know where he is, you need to tell us before bigger fish than us start swimming in this sea. I'm talking fish who could screw up your tax returns for the next hundred years."

"I don't know," Jack said as he shrugged, but then a knowing smile crossed his face. "It's that chink cougar he's been seein', isn't it?" He snapped his fingers. "She's stealing secrets or something?"

Tom cringed inwardly and also, metaphorically speaking, decided that it was time to take off the gloves. He had begun actively disliking Jack Howard, so, slowly, Tom stood, and as he reached his full height, he lightly flexed his muscles and then reached forward to button his coat.

"Before you start using words like 'chink' around me, son" he said quietly but powerfully, "you'd best be aware that my wife Yee Chang has given me fifteen of the best years of my life. And before uttering any more racial slurs, you should also know that my two kids don't appreciate that kind of language about their mother's heritage, and if they're unhappy..." Tom slowly turned his neck, causing the vertebrae to make ominous popping sounds. "You reading me, son?" Jack gulped.

"It's a free country," Jack spoke uncertainly after clearing his throat. "You may not like it, but I can say whatever the hell I want in my own damn apartment!"

"Sure," Tom replied calmly. "But you really might want to reconsider. You're what? A sophomore? A junior?" Tom scratched his chin. "You going to tell me that if I run you through the system, I'm not going to find at least one if not more unpaid parking tickets? And you live in this city?"

Jack coughed and looked at the floor. "I'm readin'," he said though his voice was little more than airy tones. "Ten-four."

Tom winked and made a gun-cocking motion at the boy. "Now," he continued in a quieter tone, "let's start again. You were saying that Eric has been associating with an older Asian woman. Do you happen to know if he has a photograph of her in here?" Tom wished at that moment that Jack had never arrived as Eric's computer was password protected, and he felt it imprudent to bring out the other gadget he'd been given in addition to the electronic lock picks.

Jack shrugged his shoulders and scratched his arm. "Well," he said, "Fisch hasn't been here much the last few weeks. He's been at her place...I think."

"Does she have a name?" Tom asked as he abandoned the desk and started looking around Eric's night stand.

"Angie," Jack continued. He started to move, but stopped when Ed cleared his throat a little louder than was necessary. "Angelica, Angela, Agnes," he said. "Something like that. I've only seen her a couple of times. Ain't much of a looker if you ask me, but then Eric's never been any good at gettin' any if you know what I mean. Probably takin' what he can get!"

"As are you, I'm sure," Tom said as he started to open a drawer. "I noticed you had to sleep on the couch last night." He looked over and smiled knowingly.

Jack's smile, which had only just dared to approach daylight again, disappeared entirely.

Just as Tom was about was to twist the knife a little further, however, he noticed a photograph lying on the floor beneath the night stand. Slowly, he reached for the picture and examined it. It was a picture of a very plain looking Chinese woman, probably in her mid to late 40s though her thick glasses made it difficult to tell for certain. Tom held the picture up.

"This her?" he asked Jack.

Jack narrowed his eyes and then started nodding.

"You happen to know where Angie Angela Angelica Agnes resides?" Tom asked.

The boy looked around nervously before finally shrugging his shoulders.

"Okay, Mr. Howard," Tom said as he placed the picture into his pocket, "we are leaving everything here as we found it. If you see Mr. Fischer," he handed a business card to Jack, "call that number immediately, but do not, repeat, do not tell him that we're looking for him. Not unless you want an obstruction of justice charge thrown at you. Capische?"

"Um..." Jack said as his voice trailed off.

Now it was Tom's turn to slap the boy too hard on the shoulder. "Good man," he said. "Let's run her through the files," he said to Ed, and the two of them walked confidently out of the apartment. Just as they were closing the door, both heard the sound of Jack vomiting into Eric's wastebasket.

Both of them walked wordlessly down to the car as Tom scratched manically at the mustache and Ed scratched his bald head.

"I hate bald paints," Ed growled. "I always told Callow I didn't do disguises, so what does he do?" Ed pointed at the latex cap.

"You suppose there's a glue version of itching powder?" Tom replied, and he tried to pull the fake mustache off. "Damn! Needs solvent."

"Yee Chang, Dr. Weldon?" Ed asked. "That was genius! Evil genius, but..." Despite their mutual discomfort, Tom and Ed both descended into gales of laughter.

"Call me Tom," Tom spoke as the two of them settled down and as he reached for the car key. "I don't like prejudices. And I don't like bastards either, which is why you and I are running through Denny's and having a nice long breakfast before we go back and speak to Callow." Ed smiled as Tom reached out his hand. "Deal?"

"Oh yeah," Ed said as the two of them opened the car doors and climbed in. "Sorry about not warning you about our friend Jack's arrival. Wouldn't you know my battery went dead just before he showed up."

"Don't worry," Tom said as he started the car. "Jack's battery's been dead a lot longer than that!"

* * * *

"Dr. Xu Xiang Ping, age 41," Mel said in a chipper tone as the Chinese woman's picture appeared on the projected image from the computer, "also known as Dr. Angela Xu, born in Szechuan Province in what is now Chonqing Municipality. Father Xu Zhuang, lifelong worker in the Chinese chemical industry. Relocated to the current Szechuan Province and died in the great earthquake there. Mother Jian Ying Xue, lifelong worker in the aviation engine industry. Relocated and died with her husband." Callow loudly drew in his breath as Tom scratched at the reddened area where the fake mustache had been.

"Unless her family has been mystically resurrected and transported here," Callow spoke with impatience, "I'd rather have the pertinent details of her life if you don't mind, Mr. Squibb." Mel cleared his throat, bent down, and advanced through some of the information he'd collected.

From the back of the office, Simon and Stephanie watched as Dr. Xu's history was reviewed. Occasionally, he glanced in Stephanie's direction and was worried. She was like a woman possessed. However, this was not the possession of the machines from the night before but her own intense, nearly murderous concentration on the task before her. He had seen her in such states in the past, but it had been a very long time since he had seen this type of fire in her eyes -- the fire of absolute vengeance. Mel finally continued.

"Listen," he spoke. "Eric Graham Fischer may not have been a prodigy, but this Dr. Xu was, by golly. Graduated high school in China at age fifteen. Immigrated to the US and graduated MIT at 17 with a double-major in aerospace and biophysics."

"That's impressive," Simon conceded.

"That's not the half of it," Mel said as he whistled admiringly at the information. "Those are just the first two."

"How many does she have?" Tom asked.

"Well, I've already told you about the first two," Mel continued. "Let's see, edited highlights." He smacked his lips. "Okay, the doctorates. Aeronautics and Astronautics at 19. Then there was Engineering, Astronomy, Physics, and Biophysics. Master's degrees include Nanotechnology, English Literature..." His voice trailed off. "She has a few more grad and undergrad degrees, plus the ones in progress. Here's her CV." He projected it up on the screen. "Nanotechnology," he said under his breath.

"Got her," Stephanie whispered as she made a fist with her right hand. Simon again watched her.

"My god," Tom said as he looked over the information. "Doesn't the woman ever sleep?" He shook his head in bewilderment. "Look at all of those publications, and not a pattern in sight!" He manically scratched at his lip. "Discovery of new dimensions, climate studies, micrometeor and cometary research..." He cocked his head to the side and then shook it. "Hummingbirds and ducks?"

"Odd," Mel added as he scanned her CV. "She doesn't have any ornithology focused degrees."

"She's a certifiable genius," Callow said as he stood up, "one who is more than capable of creating these nanobots, and one we need to find."

"That could be difficult," Mel said. "She's an academic vagabond."

"It certainly appears so," Callow said.

"Positions at MIT," Tom said as he looked over the list, "Princeton, Stanford, Rice, University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Case Western Reserve, and Ferringham College. Ferringham?"

"Near Terre Haut," Simon spoke. "Pretty new. A friend of mine helped set up the engineering school there. Issac said they want to establish 'a different kind of college,' whatever that means, though my understanding is that they're still looking for their niche." He looked carefully at the list. "Assistant Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies? Sounds like it is right up her alley, whatever it is!"

"I'll get a trace on her," Stephanie said as she jumped forward and again knocked Mel out of place and onto the sidelines.

"Find out how she and Fischer met, too," Callow added. Tom continued watching the information which stayed in its own viewable window as Stephanie worked in another.

"What is it?" Simon spoke as he approached the psychologist. "You see something of interest?"

"Maybe," Tom said as he looked at the pieces of Dr. Angela Xu's puzzle. "It's all guesswork. I mean I've never met her, never been involved in a proper work-up of her history..."

Simon smiled. "It's never stopped you before," he said innocently, and Tom laughed lightly.

"Okay then," Tom continued. "You see that academic and professional life up there? It would have taken intense focus to earn those degrees, but she's so good that she can do it quickly. And then her attention wanders. Astronomy, physics, biology, birds, engineering. And there's no rhyme or reason to her publications or research. Plus, look at how she can't seem to stay in one place for very long. No tenure."

"That's probably why I've never heard of her," Simon said. "Hummingbirds and optimal cooking temperatures for pasta sound interesting, but they don't exactly tie in with discovering new dimensions. It doesn't look like she's ever established a reputation in any field." Tom nodded.

"Tremendous abilities," Tom said, "combined with an inability to fully harness those abilities. Maybe even a certain awkwardness or lack of focus. Sounds like she could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum." He continued scanning. "Very high-functioning autism, maybe even what they used to categorize as Asperger's Syndrome." Tom desperately tried not to scratch his lip. "All it is right now, really, is a hunch."

"No," Simon protested, "take it from someone who knows. What it is is an intuitive leap."

"Maybe," Tom said before smiling. "Maybe indeed."

"She's on paid leave from Ferringham," Stephanie said as she read the information and then proceeded to further searches.

"She just started there," Tom said quizzically. "Why is she on leave?"

"Recruitment duties," Stephanie murmured as she glared darkly and continued typing. Mel nodded and then consulted another laptop. His eyes lit up.

"There we go, Mr. Callow," he said. Callow, who had been in the far corner and had been speaking quietly on the phone, quickly hung up and gathered around, as did Simon and Tom. "It was so obvious that I didn't think to check first, don't you know." Callow smiled, something which lowered the temperature in the room by several degrees. "Er...yes...anyway, they met here, at that conference. See? She's right here on the list of speakers."

"'Deconstructing the Planets and Firewalls of the Old University Paradigm,'" Callow read. "Conference meals were served in the cafeteria. Check the security vids for those days, Mr. Squibb."

"Why?" Simon spoke. "We know the connection now. Do we really need to know if she had chicken or fish?" Callow eyed Simon and smiled a cold smile.

"We need to see why he's working for her," Callow said blandly. "His roommate described her as a 'cougar.' Did she give him, say, 'Love Potion #9'? Dr. Litchfield, no one is more crazed and irrational than a lovesick fool as I'm sure you understand."

Simon returned Callow's ice cold smile as understanding flowed between them.

Mel, for one, felt a shiver of fear as he sensed the energy in the air.

VIII.

In the Present Day

"I'm sorry I've upset you so much, my dearest heart," Eric said as he sat on a wooden chair by a white-curtained window overlooking the Potomac River. He lowered his head.

She paced in the small kitchen, green tea perking in a pot and fish sticks cooking in the oven. She looked and saw that they only had a few moments more to go before they were ready. Of all the foods in the world, she thought, why do you love frozen fish sticks so much? She shook her head to clear her mind as strands of brown hair with tints of gray broke free from her ponytail.

"You still haven't told me why, Eric," she said sternly as she faced the stove and tried to gain control of her racing thoughts. "Why did you jeopardize everything? The planned tests were very much a success, the nanobots had escaped detection, and I could have left and set you free. Why, Eric, why in the name of god did you do this to me? That batch wasn't safed. It might not even have metabolized properly. Someone might have seen! And what if he or she did? You...impulsive...boy!" She slammed her fist onto the counter, causing the pot of tea to jump and rattle. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. In the sudden quiet after the crash, however, she slowly became aware of the sound of Eric's breathing, and, instinctively, she locked on to that sound and recognized what it meant. A pained expression formed on her face, and she reached up and removed her thick glasses, placing them on the counter next to the teapot.

She turned and approached him in the blur and knelt in front of him, holding the sides of his head. Slowly, she lifted it and stared into his eyes. At this range, even she could see that he was crying.

"Oh my god," she said quietly as she closed her eyes and leaned her forehead onto his. "Eric, sweetheart, I'm so, so sorry. Please, forgive me. I didn't," she reached around with her thumbs to wipe away his tears, "I didn't realize! I didn't think '#9' allowed sorrow." Eric slowly raised his arms and started to stroke her shoulders. "I'd never want to hurt you! Never! It's why when this is over I'm going to let you forget me, most of me anyway." She looked up and drew in her breath sharply. His tears were stronger now, more pained, and she felt the familiar turmoil and uncertainty coursing through her mind.

Eric tried to speak, tried to form words, but all he could manage was a series of short puffs of breath and uncoordinated movements of his mouth.

"I know, darling, Xio Tian Xin," she spoke quietly. "How much, inside, you must hate me. Must despise me. It's a feeling I'm not unfamiliar with." She leaned forward and tenderly kissed Eric's forehead. "And the bots stop you, don't they, out of my own selfish reasons. It was terribly unfair, I know. I had planned on someone much older, one of the conference participants, but when you sat at my table..." She looked at him and smiled. "You were just too beautiful to resist. And no else has seen it, I'll bet. You are..." She bit her lip and pulled back slightly. "You must hate me so much. But you mean..." She started to stand but felt Eric hold on tightly. Finally, she was able to pull away and cross over to one of the kitchen cabinets, grabbing her glasses along the way. Opening the door, she reached in and pulled out a purple tube and a small capsule with the letters DBTHTLY engraved on the side. She quickly turned off the oven at the precise instant the timer struck 'zero.'

Eric watched her approach, his eyes still filled with sadness, and he tried to shake his head in protest, but as she kneeled again in front of him, she placed one finger onto his lips and made a 'shhhh' sound.

"Onomatopoeia," she said as she examined the purple vial and, finding the color not exactly to her liking, shook it until it visibly brightened. "Those lovely words like 'buzz,' 'flush,' 'splash,' words that sound like what they mean. Do you know poetry, Eric?"

"A little," he said as the bots still in his system noted that the impulses would not violate any of the programmed protocols. "It was never my favorite thing." He shook his head and blinked, "but you...darling...bring out the poetry in me for you." He smiled brightly and reached out to touch her cheek. She smiled widely as she continued shaking the vial.

"I need to log this later," she said as she examined the brightening tube. "These went to sleep much more quickly when the tube was on its side." After one more look at the color, she nodded and handed it to Eric, who took off the stopper and swallowed the liquid in one gulp. "Good," she said tenderly. "You'll feel better as the levels rise again. And this," she said as he handed the capsule to him, "should help ease any present sorrows." He took it in his hand as she went to the counter and poured green tea into a cup. Like a caring lover, she turned and walked it to him, handing it over and watching for his reaction to it.

Eric placed the capsule in his mouth and swallowed it with a large sip of tea. After the second set of liquid settled, he drank more and looked up, clear pleasure in his eyes.

"Either the tea is very good," she said pleasantly, "or 'Don't Break the Heart That Loves You' settles in more quickly than I'd planned. We'll have to see." Standing, she held out her hand, which Eric took in his very tenderly, and with a slight tug she urged him to stand.

Eric Fischer stood a full foot above her tiny frame, and she looked up at him and beamed with a mixture of pride and affection. Pulling again, she led him towards the bedroom.

"I'm still angry, Eric," she said, "but there is this advantage towards our postponed parting. A little more time for whatever," she kicked off her flats and climbed under the unmade white comforter, "we like!" Eric also took off his shoes and climbed in behind her, cuddling up until they were spooning. His face was pure bliss as both sets of bots executed their programming, while hers carried a mixture of absolute happiness and terrible longing. She eased her body back towards him, closed her eyes, and breathed in deeply as she reached for her glasses and placed them on the bedside table.

Eric gently kissed the back of her neck and softly nuzzled her hair as she again confronted the onrushing mass of thoughts that she felt had always defined her so negatively.

"For now, this is where I want to be, and," she squeezed his hand softly, "in a week, or perhaps two, I'll go...and I'll help you forget all but the merest traces of my former presence in your life. You'll think of me from time to time in your mind's eye, just a little cole flower in your ever-growing field of experiences, and then I'll vanish, like 'poof.'" She laughed quietly. "Onomatopoeia!"

"I don't want to forget you," Eric said, and though his expression was one of happiness, Xiang Ping detected an unexpected forcefulness in his words. Quickly, all of the formulations, programs, and designs of the various bots flashed through her mind, and she rapidly examined each one, looking for the flaw that was still allowing him to feel the pain of the love the bots had imposed upon him.

"I, Eric Graham Fischer," she spoke as she decided to continue and as she enjoyed her neck being kissed, "will have to endure your loss somehow, untreated so that my mind may stay clear. And you'll join the others there," she paused as she tried to collect her thoughts, "the ones I'd hoped and wished and longed and planned for, the ones who wait for me so often...in my little graveyard of broken dreams..." As her voice trailed off, Eric intensified his kissing, and she gently turned so that he could reach other areas of her head.

"I love you," he whispered quietly, "my Candlefire!" She drew a sharp intake of breath as her eyes flew open, and she rolled over to face him, looking into his eyes and at his ever so slightly purple tinted gaze, and then she leaned in and began kissing him passionately, like her life depended upon it, like the world would end if she didn't do everything in the exact right way.

IX.

Tom sat in Stephanie's office and drank slowly from his coffee cup, thinking over what he was certain would be coming soon -- some sort of action, perhaps involving mild to moderate combat, either physical or using firearms. Neither sounded appealing, and he cringed inwardly as he thought back along the stream of his life, both the one he was living now as well as younger versions of himself, versions who had been in to space and helped save the world, versions that had worked with Simon to thwart mad scientists in Kenya, and yet other versions he preferred not to think about at all.

As he completed re-burying those old bones of knowledge, the door opened and Simon walked in, holding his hat in his hand.

"Callow's having a fit," Simon spoke, a wry smile on his face. "That part of this I enjoyed!"

"What's the downside, then?" Tom asked as he drank more coffee. Simon looked at the ceiling tiles.

"The bad news is that we're on our own. Ed, Allison, Bill, and Jan are all leaving in a few hours on a flight to Australia." Tom squinted.

"Can't Callow just work his usual magic?" Tom asked, a tone of disbelief permeating his voice.

Simon shrugged. "You'd think," he said. "It's just some flight for Dr. Eddison, but apparently it's important enough that even The Heart of Darkness back there can't work his voodoo." Simon sat down in Stephanie's chair. "All of this happened too quickly. Nobody else who's 'briefed' and who has any training is available. I think it's just going to be the two of us."

"Three," Tom corrected. "I thought Callow wasn't letting you do anything locally?" Simon leaned forward.

"He doesn't have much choice," he said quickly, "I'll wear a disguise. What do you mean three of us?" he asked quickly. "Stephanie's not going, not on this one." Tom chuckled and then finished off his cup. He eyed Simon and stared at the engineer with his best 'Are you going to stop her?' look. "You know she shouldn't do this. She needs rest, she needs..."

"I know what you're worried about," Tom interrupted. "So am I, but given our circumstances..."

"Where is she?" Simon asked as he stood up and put on his hand. Tom nodded towards the hallway.

"I'd look wherever Mel sends you to check out your guns." Simon paused for a minute, looked at the floor, nodded, and then walked off. After a moment's silence, Tom lobbed the empty styrofoam cup towards the garbage can, missing it by mere inches, and he cursed at no one in particular as he stood to retrieve it.

* * * *

Simon slowly entered the room, a special area in one of the sub-basements where he and others could familiarize themselves in private with some of the armaments Nightwatch wasn't supposed to have. He pulled out of its holster the Glock 19 he'd checked out from Mel and placed it on a nearby table, the same table where Stephanie was carefully checking over an identical weapon.

He looked over at Stephanie who was almost unnaturally preoccupied with familiarizing herself with the firearm. "You don't like guns," he said as if reminding a hopelessly allergic person that she didn't like pollen.

"Nope," she said as she tentatively pulled on the trigger and then let the gun balance in her hand. "But things are different now, and none of us knows how many zombies she has working for her."

Simon nodded. "Just one lovesick fool," he said helpfully. "At least purple looked like the color in the vial she gave him." He remembered back to a few hours earlier when they had finally tracked down the exact moment in the Nightwatch cafeteria when Dr. Xu had given her concoction to Eric. "You hate guns," he said firmly as he carefully reached over to touch her shoulder. "You didn't even want to shoot Celinde, and she was a direct link back to the hell Gryphius put you through."

She continued her preparations as if Simon wasn't there.

Slowly, he let go as he picked up his weapon and began checking its readiness. "Did I ever tell you what it's like to kill someone?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," she replied curtly as she inserted the magazine. "Several times. Even when I told you I didn't want to hear. Now that I'm ready to do this, I don't need you clouding up the..."

"And did I tell you what an awful thing it truly is?" he continued as if she hadn't replied, "to take someone's life away from him," he paused, "or her?

Stephanie looked up but did not slow her actions. "You're starting to sound like Eastwood in Unforgiven," she muttered as she again felt the way the gun balanced in her hand.

Simon had indeed been right about her dislike of guns, but as Simon noted this had evidently not stopped her from learning what she could about them and about how to use them.

"Clint Eastwood talked about the effects of the killing," Simon continued after clearing his throat. "He didn't talk about the decision. You have to decide to end someone's life." He continued his preparations. "It's not like we're soldiers. It's not like you're trained day after day to do your job, to fire your weapon, to ask questions later. We're¼we're different. No indoctrination. No legal basis for our actions. We are, in every sense of the word, free agents. Maybe even vigilantes."

Stephanie turned around as she holstered her gun. "And this is going where?" she asked.

Simon placed his gun on the table and looked her dead in the eye. "There is a consequence," he said in a deep voice, "a consequence to you. I've never done anything on this job that I couldn't, in the grand scheme of things, justify, but even so, there is a corrosion, my dear. There is a chipping away at my soul, at the structures that prop up who I am, and I have to constantly work to keep patching them, to keep replacing the rotting beam. I've been successful so far, but every year it gets harder and harder."

"Are you telling me I shouldn't do this?" Stephanie asked, nearly hissing the words. "It took Gryphius months to break me to his will, to get me to take pleasure in the torture he was putting me through, and this stinking little boy and his cradle-robbing pal did it in minutes!" Her hands tightened into white-knuckled fists. "Are you telling me that isn't a danger to everyone? Are you telling me that if necessary I shouldn't do everything I can to stop them?"

Simon licked his lips and slowly shook his head.

"I would never tell you that," he said quietly, unblinking, as he stared deeply in her eyes. "You just seem a bit too eager to get there."

Stephanie cursed under her breath and started to turn away.

"Before you go off and yell obscenities into the daylight about me," Simon said calmly, "let me tell you a story."

Stephanie looked back slowly. "About?"

"About when I went back to 1939," he said. The trip through time was something she knew only vague details about, and Simon never volunteered information. "Something was happening," he said, "something that was my fault. I'd saved a man who was being beaten to death by a two thugs." Simon smiled slightly. "Eddie Winter. A funny, kind, deluded train engineer. Wouldn't have harmed a fly but couldn't control his gambling habit, and I saved him." Simon closed his jacket. "That one act of kindness nearly destroyed everything we knew, but I managed to fix things before too much had changed. But, there was one problem."

She nodded for him to continue.

"He was thanking me," Simon breathed. "And he was probably dying from the wounds another set of thugs had given him. But he might have pulled through, and I'd already seen the damage caused by my saving him the first time. I had to make a choice, and I had to do what was right. And I can justify every swing of that shovel." Simon looked down and grabbed the side of the table. "But I have to live with that memory, and every day it takes more and more effort to seal up the cracks that memory causes in my soul." He looked down at the tiles of the floor. "Do it because you have to, Stephanie. Not because you want to. Please. For me. For yourself."

* * * *

The Trull Building lay like a headstone on the outskirts of Georgetown Research Park just on the Maryland side of the border. One of the final buildings built, it betrayed its origins as a simple physical plant transformed into extra rental space during a period of high demand, and while that period had waned considerably, Trull stood as a reminder of both the headier times as well as the need to respect the master plans concocted by very expensive architects.

A half mile away, a nondescript gray and windowless minivan marked with a Steptoe & Sons logo was parked on a street corner. Simon, whose face was disguised by a fairly convincing salt and pepper beard and a pair of aviator sunglasses, looked over information on his PDA. He tugged at the sleeves of an uncomfortable brown tweed jacket and looked down at the herringbone pattern and sighed.

"Why did these things ever come back into style?" he asked quietly. "What do you want to bet," he asked Tom, "that Dr. Hershberger didn't just decide out of the goodness of his heart to let Xu use his lab space?" Tom smiled slightly.

"Given her poisoning of Eric and those other college kids," he replied , "I'd bet you're right. Where did you say he'd gone?"

"To one of the Antarctic outposts," he said, "can't remember which one. But, he managed to get there just before they were frozen in for the winter. He apparently sublet his condo and his lab space just before he took off. Convenient, huh?"

"You think he may have traveled with a convenient satchel full of little convenient vials and convenient instructions to take them at regular intervals?" Tom spoke. He closed his eyes and began breathing deeply and regularly. Opening them again, he turned to Simon and asked, "You ready?" The engineer simply nodded. "How about you?" he said to the passenger in the rear of the van.

"Sure," Stephanie said quietly as she tapped keys on her laptop. "Give me just a sec to finish shutting off the park's CCTV." She frowned and made a tsk tsk sound. "Premiere cloak and dagger folks just across the river, and these guys can't be bothered to make this even a little difficult!" She then looked at Simon and managed a forced smile.

Simon sat and thought of all that they had been through together, of all that she had done for him and all that he had done for her. The truth was that he was grateful to have met her even though the circumstances of their original meeting were horrible at best and nothing that anyone should ever have to endure. And while Tom had proven an invaluable member of their trio, Simon and Stephanie had worked well together long before the psychologist had ever come into the picture in Patagonia

Now, he wondered if the two of them had been together too long, if too many of his methods had flaked off of him and grafted on to her. Have I made her into a killer, too? he asked himself as he locked eyes with Stephanie and nodded solemnly.

"You won't do anything silly," he said, "like come to Trull instead of making sure the guards don't go out checking on their busted cameras, correct?"

Stephanie smiled warmly, too warmly, Simon thought, and then nodded her assent.

Without any further words exchanged, they exited the van and started walking towards Trull.

"High road," Stephanie spoke as she peeled off for her appointed route towards the security office. Tom and Simon passed beneath a middle-aged Honeywell CCTV camera, one that both devoutly wished to be deactivated.

"Low road," Tom added 15 seconds later as he too departed. Simon walked on, slowly but deliberately.

"Scotland," he said quietly as he massaged his fingers and prayed the anti-inflammatory medicine his doctor had given him would help dull the pain of his arthritis. To cheer himself up as he started down the stairs towards the Trull Buidling's main entrance, he began thinking of all the wonderful things Scotland had given to the world, starting with whiskey and continuing on to deep fried Mars Bars. They were, he thought, chocolate napalm but well worth the recovery time for oral burns.

He crossed a grated platform covering subterranean equipment and reached the front door, an uninspiring metal and glass affair which would have been at home at any convenience store. A keyless entry unit sat outside the door, waiting for the plastic cards ubiquitous in the DC area. Above the door hung another of the Honeywell cameras. Simon took out his PDA as well as a black card and connected them with a small cord. He inserted the card into the slot and then keyed in one of Stephanie's more pedestrian but effective applications, this one called Wild Card. Seconds later, the lock disengaged, and he walked in, putting the phone and card up as he did. Quickly, he removed his gun and checked to make sure that the front desk as expected was vacated, the building having too few occupants to warrant a receptionist. Satisfied, he made his way towards the elevator, veering away at the last second and making his way for the stairs. Reaching the doors, he slowly opened them, taking care not to overly excite any ill-fitting hinges or balky air springs.

After moving through and easing the door shut again, Simon climbed up the stairs slowly and softly, taking care to make the minimum of noise, and he consulted his PDA along the way, confirming the location of Dr. Hershberger's laboratory. As he moved along, he heard the faint hum of a rising elevator. The low road, Simon thought as he smiled and finished climbing to the third floor.

Pausing at the stairwell exit, he repeated the same procedure from the first floor and made his way toward the elevator where he found Tom guarding the hallway leading to the lab.

Simon consulted the floor plan on his PDA to double-check that there was only one entrance to the Hershberger lab and then stashed the device in his pocket.

"Elevator's locked," Tom whispered. "We're as secure as we're going to get." Simon retrieved his gun and pointed down the hallway towards the entrance. Tom nodded and took aim as they slowly moved towards the laboratory. As they inched closer, Simon's eyes glanced up onto one of the security cameras and then back down at the door. Seconds later, however, he motioned for them to stop.

"What is it?" Tom asked.

"That," Simon whispered as he nodded towards the camera. "That one's new. It's not even Honeywell. I think..."

"Please," a male voice spoke from behind them. "I have a gun, it's aimed at you, and I will fire if I have to." The voice spoke plainly and with little emotion.

"Hello Eric, my boy," Simon said as he rolled his eyes. "How's your love life these days?"

"Put the guns on the floor," Eric continued, "then kick them towards the door. Please, I have a gun, it's aimed at you, and..."

"...we're seriously screwed," Simon continued as both lowered themselves and put the guns down. "Is he close enough?" he asked quietly. Tom lightly shook his head.

"Doesn't sound like it," he replied. "Even if he's inept he'd still have time to..."

"Please stop talking," Eric interrupted calmly. "Kick the guns towards the door."

"You don't suppose he forgot to load it this time?" Tom asked rhetorically. The two of them complied as they pushed the guns along the hallway. As the weapons came to a halt, the laboratory door opened, and a short Asian woman stepped out and picked them up. She stood up and looked at the three of them through her thick glasses, smiled slightly, then motioned for them to come forward just before disappearing into the room.

"Move forward please," Eric continued, "and I will not shoot." Tom and Simon moved forward. Simon moved very slowly, attempting to lure the boy in close enough for a counterattack, but he annoyingly matched the doctor's pace exactly. With a light sigh, Simon momentarily gave up the plan.

Dr. Xu was standing next to a laptop computer as they entered, the image on its screen showing the hallway and Eric just as he disappeared from view and entered the lab. She keyed a sequence on the number pad, and the images ran back and then forward again just as Tom exited from the elevator.

"Stop there, please," she said to her two guests.

"Listen," Eric said mechanically, "and I will not shoot." Dr. Xu turned and smiled warmly at Eric and held her hands up.

"It's okay, Eric," she spoke soothingly. "The situation is nominal. And expected." She placed her hands quickly into the pockets of her yellow and white polka-dotted lab coat, her eyes focused more upon their feet than their faces. "I was expecting someone from the police, Detective Weill, and you did not disappoint." She smiled more brightly. "And, might I add," she smiled shyly, "Congratulations to you. You worked quickly. But, with only two of you, I suspect you weren't sure of your case."

Simon smiled widely. "You do realize that the SWAT team has you surrounded. Surrender now, and I guarantee your safety." Xu giggled lightly and shook her head. "No," Simon continued. "I really didn't expect that to work."

"Well, no kevlar vests," Xu said matter-of-factly, "the wrong weapons for Washington, DC. Wrong uniform in general. Wishful thinking, Mr...?"

"Jerry Carr," Simon spoke as he gazed confidently upon the Chinese scientist.

"Astronaut on Skylab 4," Xu said without missing a beat, and then she made a 'ball is in your corner now' expression.' Litchfield cleared his throat and smiled as the dust settled upon the remains of his ego.

"So," he rallied in a somewhat subdued voice, "I suppose Conrad Gordon Bean wouldn't fly either." Xu smiled as she turned towards a three-tiered test tube holder and made a 'tsk tsk' sound.

"Oh dear," she said with a small degree of exasperation as she turned it from its side back to upright, "gone to sleep again. One of us, Eric, was sloppy, and it honestly could have been me." Xu grabbed a tube full of green liquid and started shaking it vigorously. "So, sir, we've tried Jerry Carr and Conrad Gordon Bean, which has now intrigued me greatly. Given Detective Weill's presence, I had assumed you were police, but now that you've suggested two nom de guerres," she stared at Litchfield, "I think my perceptions have changed. Would you care to inform me with whom you are working?"

Simon kept his expression as neutral as he could, but inwardly he set about trying an anatomically impossible action -- kicking his own rear end. You're getting old, he thought angrily, giving away the game by being so damn flippant about things.

"All right," he said flatly, "I'm a sarcastic son of a bitch. I admit it. My name is Lt. Harry Bradley, Detective Weill's supervisor. No SWAT teams are outside, I'll grant you that. I didn't believe half of what was being told to me, by either Weill or my bosses. I mean, really, college brats drugged out on some super germ. And what did following this asshole's hunch get me? Here, at the mercy of the likes of you." Xu pursed her lips and nodded as she continued shaking the vial.

"Plausible," she replied, "except that you had your weapons drawn. Now, assuming you had little evidence to work on, you may have come to make inquiries, certainly, but no arrests. You also have no warrant, or else you would have made mention of it by now." She looked at the dull color of the liquid in the tube. "I really must work out why they do this when the tubes are on their sides. In any case," she continued, "assuming you had a warrant and were attempting to serve it, weapons in hand, you would have had back up, and those individuals would have made some sort of move by now, either storming in or calling about negotiations."

Simon's eyes widened as he tried to figure out the woman in front of him. As much as she was speaking to them, she was also speaking to herself, working out the problem before her as if it were some kind of mathematical equation. He glanced over at Tom, who simply shrugged his shoulders. Looking carefully over his shoulder, Simon calculated that Eric was still, frustratingly, out of range.

"Who are we, then?" Simon blurted, surprising even himself with the question. Xu stopped her shaking and stared directly into his eyes and slowly turned her head from side to side.

"Yes," she said as if that question had yet to occur to her. "Yes, that is an interesting conundrum. If, as is obvious, you are not the police, then who might you be?" She folded her arms and started pacing, her lab coat rippling over her pink blouse and purple slacks. "Industrial espionage, perhaps. If any of my micro-programmers had been detected, it's possible one or more companies could be interested. Or, perhaps..."

As Xu continued speaking, Simon began running through his small list of options, none of which were very appealing. Rushing Xu, overtaking her, and using her as a shield until some sort of arrangement with Eric could be reached was high on his list, but there was a strong probability of either himself or Tom being shot in the process. The sacrifice would and could be made if nothing else presented itself though he found himself disliking the plan from the perspective of honor. Something about taking a hostage just didn't seem like good sportsmanship in this context.

"...a researcher from a rival institution, perhaps one based in the District of Columbia itself," she continued.

The next best option, as far as Simon could work out as Xu spoke, was for both himself and Tom to charge at Eric, but, again, there was a strong likelihood of severe injury or failure. Even if, as he suspected, Fischer was untrained, a lucky shot or two at point blank range would cause severe damage or even death. And then there was the matter of Xu herself, someone who on surface appeared relatively harmless but who had already proven herself more than capable of using others to do her bidding. Would she also be capable of outright violence?

"But," she said as she stopped pacing and started agitating the vial again, "but...yes! I have it! And, I believe I even know who you are, Mr. Jerry Carr Conrad Gordon Bean Harry Bradley." She bit her lip and then smiled slightly as if very pleased with herself. "A colleague of mine at Farmingham, Dr. Isaac Holshouser, told me a little story before I came down for the conference."

Holshouser, Simon thought as all of his planning came to a screeching -- if temporary -- halt.

"He told me of a friend of his," she said quietly, "a friend whom he suspected of a great many things. An engineer, but more than that. An adventurer, but a cut above even that august term." She smiled even wider. "Oh, the stories Isaac tells in the conference room. Combine that with Eric's lack of discretion at Nightwatch... Tell me, Dr. Litchfield, are any of those stories true?" Simon watched Xu with both growing alarm and a growing sense of admiration.

"What does the evidence suggest, Dr. Xu Xiang Ping?" he asked with a more than polite smile.

"Thank you for saying my name correctly," she spoke with genuine appreciation as she bowed slightly and looked towards the white linoleum flooring. "So many got it wrong when I first came here, to MIT, like the rest of the world must, by default, use the same naming conventions." She cocked her head to one side. "A colleague from Hong Kong suggested I come up with something more Anglicized." Xu pursed her lips. "Still, I've grown so accustomed to Angela that I barely register..." She stopped speaking as her eyes darted over to her guests, and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen! I'm holding you at gunpoint, and I'm boring you with stories about the perils of immigration. Please," Xiang Ping said as she moved towards an electric kettle, "may I offer you some tea?"

"No thank you," Tom replied, his voice slightly agitated. "I'm not certain I want what you'd put into it."

"Lieutenant Weill, or whatever your real name might be," she spoke sternly, "I take my tea very seriously. Whatever else I in my zeal might do, my tea is strictly out of bounds." She smiled pleasantly and blushed. "Still no?"

"Do you think," Simon said, "that you could have Eric there point that Glock somewhere else? Your record with the proper usage of handguns is less than stellar."

"A safety precaution, those empty guns" Xu replied as she poured a cup of tea for herself. "I couldn't risk an accidental discharge during the tests. I didn't want anyone physically harmed by the experiment." She looked with dissatisfaction at the nanobots in the vial. "Wake up," she prodded in an almost motherly manner. "Anyway, getting the subjects to actually follow through on the desired course of action was the only verification I required."

"Don't you think getting innocent college students to commit felonies was harm enough?" Tom asked, his voice rising.

Xu moved towards a nearby drawer. "The American legal system is quite predictable," she said, "and the courts in the District of Columbia have exceedingly full dockets. What was it Marlon Fitzwater once said? This city is a workfree drug place?" She opened the drawer and reached into it. "At worst, they'll plea to lesser charges and receive probation and time served. They might even be able to have the charges dismissed." She stood up straight, two sterile plastic syringes in her hand. "Gentlemen, I have what will sound like an odd request, particularly under the circumstances." She placed the vial upright in the test tube holder and the wrapped syringes on the counter as she walked over and retrieved her tea cup. "Forgive me," she said in a sincere tone before taking a sip. "Forgive my intrusion into your lives, forgive the overzealousness of my...assistant...Eric. That woman from Nightwatch, Stephanie Keel, was never meant to be part of this."

Simon laughed quietly. "You have the advantage here," he said as he stared at her. "Why would you want our forgiveness? I'm not personally in the habit of forgiving people threatening me with guns." Xu nodded sympathetically.

"I understand," she spoke. "I wish that there was some other way to make you understand, but, alas, there is no other course that I can think of." She took another large sip of the tea, wrinkling her nose as something in the brew dissatisfied her tastebuds, and then walked back to the syringes and began removing the plastic covers. "So, in lieu of long explanations and detailed analyses, I will now bestow a precious gift upon you. A beautiful gift." She sighed deeply "And, sadly, one you will never appreciate."

"It's strange," Tom spoke, his emotions still running high. "I realize that looks can be deceiving, but you don't look like a killer." Xiang Ping stopped what she was doing and looked at him, first quizzically and then, seconds later, with revulsion.

"You think me a killer?" she said in utter disbelief, her Chinese inflections suddenly becoming more apparent.

"She wouldn't hurt her worst enemy," Eric spoke suddenly and with great force, causing the three of them to jump at the sound of his voice.

"What else should we assume?" Simon asked. In his mind, he had nearly settled on the human shield defense. "That gun, those needles, it's hard to reach any other conclusion. And you stand there and speak of it as a gift? Pardon me if I don't feel warm and fuzzy about the situation!" Xu's mouth hung open.

"I'm not going to kill you," she said, a hint of outrage still in her voice. "This is FTG!"

"And that means...?" Tom prompted.

Again, she stared as if the meaning should have been manifestly obvious.

"'Forget the Girl,'" she replied. "You must gain a greater appreciation for music." She shook her head in sadness. "For me, music is a great solace and comfort. I am, in many ways, behaving monstrously, especially in regard to poor Eric over there, but I am going to make amends with this. In a few moments, neither you nor Mr. Weill will ever remember me, and you'll be all the better for it to boot!" She inserted the first syringe into the test tube. "It's completely harmless, I assure you. And, soon, Eric will receive his dose and I'll be just an unpleasant shadow of a memory as he matures," she took on a melancholic air, "gets married, has a career."

"Is this how you get all of your boyfriends?" Tom asked, almost under his breath. Xiang Ping slowly looked over at him with an expression of pain, of sorrow, and of hurt.

"So," she continued hoarsely, "I now present you with a choice. You can either inject each other carefully and methodically, or I dump the contents of these syringes into a dart gun I borrowed from the local zoo and inject you wherever the needle happens to hit. I'm not fond of weapons as a rule."

Simon was just about ready to tell her exactly where the needles could go when a shot rang through the room, impacting behind Xiang Ping in such a way as to leave no doubt how close the bullet had come her head. The impact, however, knocked over several books which dominoed into the test tube holder, sending the contents smashing onto the floor.

Simon glanced over to Tom and caught his eyes looking back. Wordlessly, the details of the plan were agreed upon, a rapid nod of each one's head indicating who would be taking out whom.

The old engineer lunged forward, grabbing the left wrist of the Chinese scientist. Stunned by the gunshot and shattering glass, she'd barely begun regaining her senses when she felt the pressure on her arm and reflexively jabbed the needles towards Simon's neck.

Simon couldn't divert his attention long enough to see what was happening with Tom and Eric, but the commotion and sudden exhalations told him of a fierce struggle. However, the absence of further gunfire to Simon indicated that any threat from Eric Graham Fischer was neutralized. He was, though, finding the same could not be said for the seemingly small and frail Xu Xiang Ping.

It was all he could do to hold her hand and the needles away from his neck even as he heard another set of footsteps entering the room.

"Put them down," Stephanie yelled, "or I swear to god I will shoot you in the head this time!" The sound of Stephanie's voice momentarily distracted the scientist, and Simon seized upon the advantage, shifting his weight forward and shoving Xu onto the floor, the syringes flying from her hand and across the room.

Simon knelt down, his knee putting pressure onto her left arm, his hands holding down her right.

"Tom," he barked, "situation?"

"I've got him," the psychologist replied. "He's covered." Stephanie joined Simon and started patting down Xiang Ping. As she was searching the pockets, however, Simon noticed a peculiar expression on the scientist's face. She began blinking rapidly and searching the room with her eyes. Quickly, Simon scanned the floor and saw that the bulk of the shattered test tubes seemed to be directly underneath her. He locked eyes with Xu, who smiled weakly as she began breathing rapidly. She looked down at Simon's hands.

"Don't keep touching the skin," she said softly. "Most of these weren't safed yet. They were sleeping, but I would assume the agitation is waking them up." Simon nodded slowly as he crept his hands off of her exposed arm and onto the fabric of her lab coat. "Please," she said to Stephanie, "in the drawer behind you. Latex gloves." Stephanie nodded and, her face also taking on a peculiar expression, stood up and fetched a pair for herself and another for Litchfield.

"Xiang Ping," Eric said as he looked in the direction of where the scientist was sprawled on the floor. "I can't see you. Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Eric," Xu replied. Again, though, she caught Litchfield's attention and slowly shook her head. "Get him out of here, I beg you," she said quietly.

"Tom," he said, "take Mr. Fischer into the hallway. I've got some questions to ask the good Dr. Xu, and I don't need him interfering with the interrogation."

"Xiang Ping?" Eric spoke with alarm as Tom began pulling him from the laboratory. "Candlefire?" he called, his voice growing louder. "Candlefire!" his voice echoed as he was led into the hall and as the door closed behind them. Xiang Ping looked towards the ceiling and sighed.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Look at her eyes," Stephanie said as she slid on the gloves and took over holding down Xu's arm. The scientist's eyes seemed to glow slightly as some sort of light began to pulsate within them.

"All right," Simon said matter-of-factly, "what do we need to do? What can we do to shut these things down?" Xu again shook her head, and the shaking seemed to produce another change as her eyes began dancing with color, first dots of purple and orange, then flecks of gold and red, then blue, then green, then all of them swirling as one color seized dominance, became prominent, and then ceded control to another.

"It's only a matter of time," she spoke as her body suddenly went into spasm. Simon switched from holding her down to trying soothe her instead

"Come on," Simon said encouragingly as he helped to calm her down, "you can't tell me that a genius like you isn't capable of getting out of this."

"Almost none of these were designed to work in tandem," she said as the colors swirled more prominently. "I was waiting for the clinical trials. The official ones. They are interacting," she held her breath and shut her eyes tightly as another spasm shot through her body. Her muscles loosened again slowly, and as she opened her eyes, the colors within them danced even more vibrantly and flashed hypnotically. "They are interacting chaotically. The body isn't made for this many simultaneous chemical and electrical processes."

Stephanie stood up and looked around at the equipment. While she recognized many of the pieces and knew some of their functions, none of them seemed capable of producing a cure for Dr. Xu's current condition. As she gazed down upon the woman and upon the swirling patterns of light, Stephanie felt her heart momentarily turn to stone, felt a strong sense that the scientist was only getting what she deserved under the circumstances.

"I am grateful to you both," Xiang Ping spoke weakly. "I'm glad not to be alone now. So often, you see..." Her voice drifted off. "It doesn't matter. It doesn't change anything, but Eric has been a light shining into my shadow. Terrible for him, but so..." She looked at Litchfield. "I genuinely care for him."

"Funny way of showing it," Stephanie spoke though part of her immediately felt terrible for doing so. Xiang Ping slowly turned her head, her sad eyes focusing upon Stephanie's.

"You're...beautiful," Xiang Ping spoke very slowly. "So beautiful, and you don't know it. But I am here...dying...being consumed...and I am so very jealous." As Xu looked, tears began falling, first droplets, then in rivulets, the saline streaming in pulsating lines of orange, green, purple, yellow, indigo, and many others, staining her cheeks and hair. Simon slowly reached down with his gloved hand and held the scientist's.

"Why were you doing this?" he asked quietly with a slight smile. "You don't act like someone trying to take over the world, and yet you used those kids like toys. Why, Xu, what is the reason?" She cried even harder.

"To belong, finally," she whispered. "To once and for all have a place to call home. I had to make a splash, the ultimate splash, and..." Suddenly, she drew her breath in sharply, arching her back and her neck in the process, and her body was rocked with convulsions. Simultaneously, the light in her eyes began to settle onto a single color, a vibrant and burning red.

"What...what's wrong?" Stephanie asked as she too knelt down and grabbed one of Xiang Ping's hands. Xu slowly exhaled as her body relaxed, and she began smiling with wonder. "Are you in pain?"

"No," she replied almost dreamily and with a tone of great surprise. "I wondered which one would dominate. I didn't expect it to be this one. And, my goodness, I didn't expect it to feel so...good! Ma'am, you must leave now. I want a last word with Dr. Litchfield, but I need to know that Eric is safe. Get him out of the building. Please, now?" Stephanie looked to Simon, who nodded his assent. Reluctantly, Stephanie stood, and after one final quizzical look, left the lab.

"What is it?" Simon asked.

"You are in great danger, so we haven't much time," she said, breathing deeply. "I told you I wasn't trying to take over the world, but..." She slowly reached up with her left hand and pointed to her purse. "I needed some start up capital when I developed this idea, way before I had grown the first bot. They gave it to me in exchange for..." She convulsed again, and the red light in her eyes grew even brighter. "I only made a single batch, one little vial. I was due to deliver it before leaving Washington." She gritted her teeth as she forced herself to continue speaking. "I don't want the world, but there's a possibility they might."

"Who are they?" Simon asked. "What did you make?"

"I called it," she continued in harsher tones, "'Light My Fire.' And I can tell you now, with certainty, that it will, and it will be...amazing, Dr. Litchfield, and if Isaac's stories are true, you may be the one who has do something about them!" She breathed in sharply and harshly. "Get out, now! Remember, yellow cole flowers, over the fields of Szechaun! Yellow!" She pushed Simon's hand away as she began screaming. At that moment, he saw the red color spreading from her eyes along her face and down along her cheeks and then her neck. He could guess where it was going next. With a start, he realized the exact implication of "Light My Fire," and after a last sorrowful look at Xu, he headed rapidly towards the exit, stopping only to grab her purse.

In the room, alone, Xu started laughing. "What might have been and what has been," she said between laughter, "Point to one end, which is always present./Footfalls echo in the memory/down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened." She laughed more before more convulsions rocked her. "Time past and time future," she yelled. "What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present." She hugged herself tightly. "I am death," she spoke almost hysterically, "the destroyer of worlds!"

* * * *

"What's going on in there?" Stephanie asked with annoyance as Simon forced the three of them out of the building.

"Candlefire!" Eric screamed, his head and neck craned back toward the Trull Building. It took nearly all of Tom's strength to keep the boy under control.

"There's no time," Simon spoke rapidly. "Up there," he said, pointing to a shrub-covered berm.

"Tell me," Stephanie said forcefully as she grabbed Simon's arm. The two of them stopped as Simon stared into her eyes.

"Do you know," he asked in a blunt tone, "how much potential energy is locked up in the cells of a human body?" He arched his eyebrows. After a moment's pondering, Stephanie started pulling Simon towards the shelter of the berm.

four_blossoms

The four year old Chinese girl -- affectionately known to her father as Candlefire--stood on the edge of a field of yellow cole flowers. In her left hand she held the end of a string of rough twine, which coiled and twisted down before spiraling up to a most curious contraption, a device of paper maché and fireworks held together with more twine and shaved twigs. She looked around as she breathed in the relatively clean country air of a rural section of Szechuan province.

She closed her brown eyes and felt the breath going in and out of her lungs, felt the strands of brown hair which had broken free of her pony tail whipping in around her face in the breeze, felt the connection with the molecules surrounding her. Finally, she visualized the exquisite reaction that would occur when she yanked upon the string, the conversion of matter from one state to another, and, at last, she smiled, and with a childish whoop, she pulled hard upon it, at last opening her eyes and laughing with joy.

* * * *

The explosion ripped out large chunks of the third floor, most of which blew away from the protection of the berm, but several large bits of concrete, rebar, and other debris did land uncomfortably close to them. As the third floor largely collapsed onto the second, and as Trull began to consume itself in a bright and brilliant fire, Simon noticed the large piece of aluminum that had embedded itself in the dirt next to his head.

"Candlefire," Eric whispered, and he started whimpering. Simon looked at his two companions and, seeing they were intact, lowered his head and pulled off the surgical gloves. As Tom and Stephanie moved over and settled around Eric, Simon stood up, dusted himself off, and headed rapidly in the direction of the van, the sadness on his face out of view of his companions.

X.

They sat in the library as they waited -- tired and impatient -- for Callow to arrive. A large cup of coffee sat in front of Eric, but it was untouched and growing cold as the boy stared towards an empty spot in the air. Simon watched the boy while unscrewing the cap from a bottle of pain reliever.

"I'd be a fool to ask if you're okay," Simon said as he popped two pills into his mouth and swallowed them with a swig of water. "And I'd be lying if I said I understood what you're going through. But," he pushed the cup a little closer to Eric, "I do know that everything starts with little steps, and right now, all I want you to do is drink. You don't have to talk, you don't have to explain." He leaned down so that he had a better view of the boy's eyes. "Just drink, okay?" Eric looked back through bleary, red-rimmed eyes swollen from tears, and after a long pause, he nodded, took the cup, and took a few small sips. Satisfied, Simon wandered over to Tom.

Stephanie sat at her laptop, scanning the first reports coming in about a mysterious explosion and fire in a local industrial park. She had thus far found no signs of Callow's work in the reports, but it was only a matter of time before a local gas company would come forward and report that it had only just the day before conducted repairs on the building. Or it could be any number of other equally plausible explanations. Either way, no word of 'exploding professors' would ever see daylight.

As she looked up, Stephanie noticed that Eric had put the cup down and was covering his face with shaking hands, and after a long pause while she tried to work out the most appropriate course of action, she stood slowly and moved closer to him.

"Eric," she said quietly. "I understand. I really do. Those things tore me apart emotionally." She kneeled beside him as his body began shaking. "It's more than that. Someone," Stephanie closed her eyes, "some monster, used me like a lab rat too. Did terrible, terrible things to..."

Eric slumped further in his chair, catching the attention of Simon, who also moved closer.

"I know what you're feeling, that sense of horror, that sense of rage at what's been done to you," Stephanie continued. "But the first thing you have to understand is it's over, it's over. The hard work is ahead of you, but..."

"You don't get it at all," Eric said softly. "You don't get it all..."

"Stephanie's just trying..." Simon started to speak as Tom watched the proceedings carefully.

"I know, dude, I know," Eric added. He uncovered his face, revealing bloodshot eyes and streaming tears. "I...I...I would have done it all without those robots, okay? She didn't need to do it. God damn me, but it's the fucking truth."

"What?" Stephanie spoke in a confused, whispery tone. Simon, out of view of both of them, slowly stood straight as his eyes settled into an expression of sadness and understanding.

"I sat down with Angela," Eric continued, "because I thought she was the coolest girl I'd ever met, and I wanted to get to know her better, and I never thought she'd want to know me, but..." Eric's body shook harder. "In a way, I'm glad, because I got to be with her, but she never knew. You understand? She never knew." He stared at an empty spot on the table. "All of those things she made me say, all of those things she made me do, I would've done 'em anyway. God help me, just to be with her, just to be near her..." With that, he completely lost control of his emotions and collapsed sobbing onto the table, a shattered, lonely wail streaming out from the very center of his soul.

Stephanie rose and stared straight at the wall as her hand slowly rose and covered her mouth. "Oh my god," she said quietly, She looked down at the boy. "Oh my god," she said again, but this time with both tremendous shock and tremendous sympathy. Simon, after a few moment's contemplation, motioned for Tom to follow him out into the hall.

"Stockholm syndrome?" he asked as the psychologist emerged. Tom smiled grimly and shook his head.

"I don't think so," Tom said quietly. "I don't think so at all." Simon took off his hat, leaned back against the wall, and slammed the plaster and sheetrock with the palm of his hand.

Epilogue

four_blossoms

Xiang Ping and Eric stood on the balcony of a quiet bed and breakfast in the countryside of Roanoke, Virginia, watching the night sky full of stars and the long train of the Milky Way. He stood behind her, her body pressed into his, his arm wrapped around her chest. Both wore the quiet glow of lovers in the calm aftermath following a storm of great intensity. Only the most observant, if anyone had been there to observe them, would have noticed the faint purplish glow in Eric's eyes. She stared above, thinking of the things still left to do. There were major tasks to accomplish in the days ahead, but, for now, the two of them could relax in the mountain paradise around them.

"If only I could make you understand," she spoke smilingly as she luxuriated in his warm embrace. "There is solace, and there is joy, but it can be so lonely too. At times, they can be like your only friends. At times, they make you feel so lost in the emptiness of it, the sheer distances." Eric, smiling, opened his mouth but found his words choked off by a series of small facial twitches and tremors.

"I love you, Candlefire," he spoke silkily, though his mouth moved as if it was not entirely in his control, and Xiang Ping smiled but nodded in a melancholy way.

"It still sounds wonderful," she spoke quietly, "no matter the circumstance." Eric again tried to speak, but while the same twitches and tremors arose, he closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he breathed deeply.

"Tell me about them," he said as he hugged her tightly. Xiang Ping looked up at him with surprise.

"Really?" she asked with genuine wonder.

"Yes please," he said smiling. She shrugged her shoulders, nodding as she reached into her pocket and pulled out her glasses with their thick, Coke-bottle lenses. Resting them on her nose and ears and adjusting them until they were just so, she raised her hand and pointed at a specific point in the sky.

"Okay," she said pointing at a point of flickering light. "Do you see?" She felt him squeeze her tightly. "Good! Follow carefully...M44, Alpha Canis Minoris. Alpha Leonis. Kappa Ursae Majoris. Iota Ursae Majoris. Alpha Hydrae..." And the two of them shared a sense of calm and amazement that can only be found on a dark night under a sky illuminated by a gently flowing stream of stars.

yellow cole flowers

The End


© 2006-2010 Jeff Williams

© 2006 for "Synchronicity" by Elizabeth Markham

Bio: Jeff Williams is, among other things, a college teacher, author of numerous short stories and longer fiction, and creator and editor of the Nightwatch shared universe series. Click on the "Series" button to find the Nightwatch "bible" and to read some of the earlier entries in the series by Jeff and various others. Jeff was also the Serials (longer fiction) editor for Aphelion for a number of years.

Elizabeth Markham is an Aussie author and poet whose work has appeared in various places, including Aphelion.

E-mail: Jeff Williams

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.