The Sorcerer
by
Becky Ratliff




(February 2065)
"Sparrowhawk, this is Copperheads Leader. This is where we part company."

Damphousse snapped a salute to the young man in the hammerhead off her port bow. "Roger that, Copperheads, and thank you. Safe trip and good hunting."

He returned the salute. "Thank you, Sparrowhawk. Good trip home." She watched the squadron break off, they had reached the limit of the range they could escort the shuttle away from the Colin Powell. They had to turn back, from here the ISSCV was on her own until she reached the limits of space patrolled by the Saratoga's battle group. Not even the threat of running afoul of a chig patrol could dampen spirits aboard the transport. Commodore Ross, Colonel McQueen, and Major Vansen had been called to the Colin Powell to give their report on the events of the last weeks, from the capture of Kazbek to the discovery of the alien derelict. Ross had chosen his pilots from among the 58th squadron, Damphousse, Hawkes and Avery. Marcy had come along as well, as McQueen's aide she would have been conspicuous by her absence. They had been able to report a complete success, for once, and the brass had been happy to hear it. Even the colonel, who usually hated these "get dressed up and mingle with the VIPs" things, had been enjoying himself -- it had been a much needed break, and the first opportunity since before the war to get away with his old friend the Commodoore.

Damphousse stifled a smile, she'd heard passing references to some wild old times on leave in New Orleans. And she suspected those stories had probably been true in their day! She wondered what the two of them had been like in their younger days ... it was hard for her to imagine them at her age.

Something else was going on, though. There had been a conference that only the brass had attended, she had the sense that Shane didn't know what it was about. That wasn't unusual, because of the special nature of Vansen's relationship with McQueen they were very careful not to ever allow even the slightest appearance of impropriety where privileged information was concerned. As a result, it wasn't uncommon for Shane to be the last to hear the scuttlebutt, rather than the first. But Vanessa couldn't shake the feeling that this was something that directly affected Shane, and it was something ominous.

Still, she'd kept her forebodings to herself ... unless there was something sensible to be done about one of her "bad feelings," it was usually better just to keep quiet. She'd learned her lesson quickly about spooking the rest of the squadron with vague omens that had no practical use. That was all right, she could worry enough for everyone. Anyway, Vanessa didn't want to pour cold water on the outing for everyone else. Downtime was precious.

Hawkes came forward to relieve her. "Did the escorts make their turnaround already?"

"A few mikes ago," she replied as she handed off.

Avery said, "Thirty mikes to the wormhole."

She chuckled. "Be sure and announce it a few mikes before we make the jump, it better not be your fault if the Commodore spills his coffee."

"Roger that," Avery replied fervently. He had been in awe of the man he had known as Uncle Glen since he had been a small boy, when during the AI war his father had been a computer specialist attached to the 127th squadron. The world knew them as the Angry Angels but he had grown up calling them all aunts and uncles. Now, like all of the squadron brats he'd grown up with, he too had lost a parent ... and he was still in awe of Glen Van Ross.

Damphousse went aft. Marcy was avidly watching a pocket sized vidscreen, Damphousse recognized a clip from Top Gun and figured Shane had loaned her the movie chip. Vanessa knew that movie was one of Shane's favorites and had been since she was a little girl, she had watched it so often that the label had long since worn off.

Ross, McQueen and Vansen were sitting at the table talking, Damphousse took the seat that Ross indicated. "We'll reach the wormhole in half an hour, sir."

Ross nodded. "I hope this is going to be a short hop, young lady. My old bones are not what they used to be, I find that I no longer consider wormholes and roller coasters as amusing as I once did."

Damphousse grinned and warmed his coffee without needing to be asked. "Old bones" or not, she was in no hurry to climb into the ring with the ex-SEAL. "Sir, no sir. The projected subjective time in the pipe is only seven mikes this trip."

"That doesn't sound too bad."

When McQueen and Vansen both passed on more coffee, Damphousse poured herself a cup. "No, sir."

Her presence was no intrusion, her senior officers continued their conversation where they had left off. McQueen said, "I think it went well. Earth seems to understand now that it's necessary to keep the pressure on the chigs, keep them drawing back into their home system. They can't continue without access to their off-world resources. That might make any other escalation unnecessary."

Ross scowled. "For the most part, everyone understands that, yes. But there is still an element that will not be satisfied with anything less than a total victory. Right now the mentality of a lot of people back home is that the only good chig is a dead one. If the enemy is faced with genocide, Ty, I do not believe they will die easily or alone. I would rather leave them a certain latitude to sue for an honorable peace."

McQueen said, "That, sir, is assuming that you are having a conversation with a person who understands the concepts of peace and honor. I believe that many members of the faction you're referring to understand neither. They want the chigs eradicated."

Vansen asked, "What's to gain by that if they're no longer a threat?"

McQueen shifted in his chair. "Have you ever read some of the extreme right-wing philosophy behind Partie Nationale d'Identite politics?"

Vansen shook her head. "To be honest, no more than I had to in school government courses. It made me nauseous. That whole attitude, dividing people up on a basis of religion or skin color -- it was like something from the dark ages, like the Inquisition or something."

"But take all that and transfer it to a division between humans and bloodthirsty aliens -- do you see? Once the chigs are defeated, they'll become a convenient scapegoat to unite the people of Earth behind the party's badge. It's about power. On that level, it's always about power."

Ross nodded. "I think you're right about that, Ty. But I'll be damned if I see anything we can do to stop it. The remnant of the extreme left was crushed in the CC war, and when Aerotech goes down, the moderates will be left without leadership and direction. There won't be anyone else left besides the extreme right."

Damphousse said, "That isn't going to happen, though, sir."

Ross asked, "What makes you say that?"

"People like that have never won, sir, not in the long run. Someone's always come forward to stand against them. I believe that will happen now."

McQueen said, "I've always had trouble accepting the existance of an unalterable fate, Lieutenant."

She laced her fingers. "I don't think destiny is unavoidable, sir. I think it gives us ... opportunities. Openings to change things. We still have to accept the responsibility."

McQueen said wryly, "So General Fate gives us a mission in life, and it's up to us to get the job done?"

'Phousse looked up at him and smiled. "I think that's exactly it, sir. Sometimes I can see into the future, but we know those visions are only what will happen if nothing comes along to change things. I think sometimes we're put into a position where it's possible for us to cause that change."

McQueen said, "I think I could accept that philosophy more easily than a number of others I've studied, Lieutenant."

Ross asked, "Just out of curiousity, Lieutenant Damphousse, is this a purely philosophical discussion, or something more concrete?"

She hesitated. "I don't know, sir. Just that ... someone has to do something." Damphousse finished her coffee about the time that Avery announced they were nearing the wormhole. She wanted to ride it out in the gun turret. For one thing, people intent on causing trouble often lay in wait around a wormhole, waiting for a target to come to them. For another, the gun turret offered the best view of the wormhole -- and she wasn't yet old enough to be tired of one of nature's grandest shows. She stowed all the coffee mugs and went back aft, while everyone else strapped in.

They were well into the pipe when she thought at first they took a hit. There was a loud crackle of sparks and then the louder snap of a heavy breaker slamming open. Lights flared and died, and she smelled burned circuitry.

She hit the quick-release on her safety harness and threw it aside, climbed out of the turret and grabbed for a fire extinguisher. She could hear yelling from up front, but couldn't understand the words over the hiss of the fire extinguisher. Hawkes and Avery were doing their best to hold the craft steady -- that was never easy in the wormhole's weird gravity eddies, and it was certainly a lost cause in the damaged transport.

Vansen was putting out another fire in the forward bay. "What the hell was it, a bomb?"

Damphousse replied, "Some kind of a massive overload -- did we get hit by something?"

"Is it all out? Avery, report!" Vansen yelled.

"Ma'am, I don't see any more fires reported on my board!"

Hawkes warned, "Brace yourselves, we're coming out!"

McQueen pulled Vansen over to a grab bar, just as the ISSCV bucked and rolled hard to starboard. Neither of them knew if the transport was going to be torn apart any second by a freak gravity wave...the arm he put around her wasn't entirely to keep her from flying across the bay.

Hawkes held the craft as close to the planned course as he could, close enough to bring them out in one piece. The last few short circuits finally tripped breakers and the confusion settled down to an ominous, dark silence. One by one, emergency lights flickered to life and dispelled the darkness, like small candles scattered through the bay, haloed in the smoke. Vansen stepped out the protection of McQueen's embrace, with a clear regret written plainly in her expression for a brief moment, before she turned back to business, assessing the situation just as he was doing. Marcy had ridden it out safely strapped in, and Glen and 'Phousse were okay further down the bay. The extent of the damage to the ship was still an open question.

Instantly Avery and Damphousse started tearing into electrical panels, under the circumstances neither of them trusted the damage control reports from the computer. Avery yelled, "Damn -- we've only got 5% power in the mains!"

Hawkes cursed the transport's lack of control. They were near a pretty turquoise and white planet, he hoped the air was something they could breathe because life support was red lighting all across the board. He called, "Get up here, Jimmy, I need you to stand on the trim pedals! Got nothing from my station! We're gonna have to land where ever this is!"

McQueen got out of Avery's way, heard him say, "I hope to God we got enough juice left to fire the maneuvering thrusters or we're goin' in the hard way!"

Vansen looked over at Damphousse as they all scrambled to get strapped in. "Here we go again!"

Damphousse dignified that remark only with an evil scowl. 2063-Yankee hadn't been a hell of a lot of fun the first time -- she wouldn't have suggested doing it all over again!

The transport started to shudder violently as the planet's gravity well took them. Up in the cockpit, Hawkes and Avery fought to stabilize the craft and keep them at a slow enough descent that they wouldn't burn up in atmosphere. A deep green sea dotted with islands came into view, he aimed for one of these with a wide beach. As they came in, Hawkes flipped a switch to dump the remaining fuel for the manuevering jets, a precaution against fire -- and nothing happened. "Jimmy, try dumping the fuel from your side!"

Avery flipped the switch cover up and tried it twice. "Nothing, Coop, it's all routed through that mess amidships!"

"Stand by, I'm dropping the box."

"We're too low--!"

"They'll hit water, they'll be okay." Hawkes gulped. "If anyone crashes-'n'-burns, it's gonna be us." He hit the emergency switches to separate the pod, the hatches connecting it to the engine section slammed shut and the pod dropped free into the heavy surf below. After that, they had their hands full trying to land the engine section.

In the cargo pod, all of them immediately figured out what Hawkes and Avery had done, and why. All they could do was pray for the boys' safety, and their own, as they ducked their heads and braced for the impact. Shane reached over to tuck something in the side pocket of McQueen's pack, he heard her say it was for luck. His hand closed over hers as they went in.

All the assorted junk that had been blown around by the damage earlier turned into projectiles when the box slammed into the ocean, something hit McQueen in the back but he didn't have time to worry about it just then.

He grabbed his gear, everyone else who had the chance was doing the same thing. Vansen and Marcy went off the pod into surf that was over their heads, he immediately lost sight of them as he and Ross jumped overboard. He saw 'Phousse clear the hatch a few seconds before a wave knocked him and Ross both off their feet.

In the cockpit, Hawkes tried one more time to dump the fuel, then concentrated on landing the engine section. They came in hard, clipped trees and came to rest finally in a ravine. They scrambled out of their restraints, grabbed the survival kits packed under the seats, and hit the ground running. Only when they were a safe distance away, they stopped and looked back to see what shape the engine section was in.

Avery stared round-eyed at the wreckage. Finally he said, "Damn, we totalled that one, didn't we?"

Hawkes laughed. "It was a lemon anyhow...!"

"I don't think it's going to catch fire. Let's get the rest of our stuff and make sure everyone else is okay."

Hawkes said, "Yeah, I think you're right." He sent a ping out over his radio. Nothing. "Boss Ross, this is Jack of Spades, do you read me? Queen-6, do you copy?"

Nothing. Nothing from anyone. Avery said, "Maybe your radio's messed up. Let me see."

"Try yours, Jimmy."

Avery put that bit of common sense into action while Hawkes pulled his helmet off.

"Nothing?" Hawkes asked.

"They aren't answering, Coop."

"Oh, hell. Let's just cache the food and water in case the chigs find the wreck. You see if you can do anything with the long-range radio, we've got to contact the Saratoga! Keep your eyes open and get out if a patrol comes along! I'll look for the others."

Avery hesitated, but Hawkes was right. Getting the LRR back up was as vital to the safety of their missing shipmates as finding them was. It was just a logical division of labor. "Roger that."




The heat of the midday sun baked through the blood-soaked fabric of McQueen’s flight suit. The warmth felt good. He wanted very much to just lie there and enjoy it for a while. It was almost like the beach down around the Gulf of Mexico back home. He could hear the waves, a ways down the beach. The tide must have gone out ... he had been in the surf the last he could remember. He knew he and Ross couldn't have got too far before he'd passed out.

Glen! The thought of his friend brought him the rest of the way awake. He tried to get up, and clenched his jaw to keep from crying out as his injuries pulled. Fire in his shoulder burned until it receded with consciousness to a bearable distance.

He didn't try to move again, until he felt a sudden jab of pain -- something pulling at his wound -- and he rolled hard, batting wildly. He hit something and knocked it flying -- a hardshellled creature that was close enough to a crab to suit him. "Get out of here, your supper's still kicking!" Well, it had got him moving anyway. Ross was lying a few feet away, half conscious.

McQueen leaned on his rifle to get to one knee and hit the releases on his pack. He knew losing his gear would probably be the end of him, but not as fast as trying to carry it would be. There was one thing -- he dug into the side pocket to pull out whatever it was Shane had put in there for luck just as the ill-fated cargo pod hadd crashed into the surf.

His hand closed around hard plastic. It was those phototags of Kylen’s again -- he was beginning to believe the damned things were good luck. The last time he'd seen them had been at Nathan and KKylen's wedding reception, when Nathan had quietly given them to Shane. On the chain were two new tags. Both of the pictures had been taken at the wedding. One of all of the Cards together, grinning into a camera, and another of Shane and himself. In that one, they had been standing near the wedding candle, its glow in the darkened observation bay reflecting off the polished brass of their uniforms. There was nothing there to suggest anything, to anyone who didn't know the true story, but it was a symbol of hope and joy to those who knew the truth. He put the tags around his neck and slipped them into the top of his flight suit as he staggered over to Ross' side.

Glen winced and swore when he started to move, but aside from the pounding he'd taken in the surf, he thought he was all right. "Let me have your gear, Ty, I never got the chance to get to mine."

"Can you carry it?"

"Yeah, the surf just whacked me against the side of the pod a few times. I think I'm okay. Where's everyone else?"

He shook his head. "My radio's dead. I don't have any idea where the girls are. Marcy and Shane went out the hatch ahead of us. I thought 'Phousse was right behind me, I know she came off the pod. I couldn't really follow the engine section's trajectory, but it looked like they went in further east. I think Coop and Jimmy are probably okay." If they'd crashed and burned, the smoke and flame would be visible from here ... but that was no indication that they hadn't simply been killed by the impact of a hard landing.

"Let's get out of the sun and get you patched up, then we can look for them -- if they don't find us first." They helped one another over the loose sand up to the edge of the trees. McQueen pulled hiss flight suit down. He didn't want to have to cut it off because, in this intense sunlight, he'd blister without it.

The injury itself wasn't too bad, not too deep. It had bled a lot, though, and the scanner from the medikit indicated an unknown anticoagulant contaminating the cut. Standard cleaning procedures got rid of it.

"Must have been something in the sea water," he speculated.

"Who knows what. Probably turn out to be some kind of medical breakthrough one of these days," Ross said. "In the meanwhile, you won't be feeling too good until your blood pressure comes back up."

"I hope the condenser unit made it, because I sure don't want to drink any more of that stuff than I did already."

"Yeah, and you're going to need liquids." Ross got into the rucksack and pulled out the condenser unit, inspected it. "Looks okay." He set it on a dry spot and turned it on. Then he went back to sealing McQueen's injury. "Get some sleep for a few hours, Ty, there isn't much you can do for anybody like this anyhow."

McQueen wanted to argue. There was some desperate part of his mind screaming at him to get off his ass and make sure Shane was all right. But she'd be the first one to tell him what an idiotic stunt that would be. If basically the only thing wrong with him was blood loss, the best thing he could do was get some rest and let his IV recuperative abilities work for a few hours. It would be enough that he wouldn't be likely to pass out from low blood pressure. He wouldn't be in shape to run any marathons, but he wouldn't be a burden or even a danger to everyone else.

Ross saw how torn he was by that decision. "I'll scout up and down the beach a ways, I'll stay in sight of the pod but if anyone came ashore near here I'll find their tracks."

"Glen, be careful out there -- you've never run across chigs on the ground, it's a whole new world the first time they open up with those plasma rifles. Keep your ears open, they make a hell of a racket in those battlesuits even when they're trying to be quiet. You'd hear them before you'd see them in this stuff. And if you smell rotten eggs--"

Ross knew his friend was right about all of that. This was no damn time to play hero. "I haven't forgot everything I learned in the SEALs, my friend, if there are chigs out there they'll never know I've been around."




Damphousse floated in a green sea, looking around desperately for land. She had come off the transport last. A psychic warning had prompted her to grab her rebreather as a high wave had slammed her into and under the transport pod. She had no idea what had happened to the rest of the Wild Cards, but she had been caught in the undertow and pulled under, dragged out to sea. She’d managed to seal her rebreather mask in place in time to keep from drowning, though she'd lost everything other than her Ka-bar by the time she'd managed to come up for air.

She saw the island, a distance away, and struck out for it. It occurred to her that she might have more trouble with the undertow. She floated on her back to put a fresh chemical charge in her rebreather, just in case.

It was a long swim to shore, but Damphousse knew she could make it. She'd been on the triathlon team all through high school and college, long distance swims in open water were nothing new to her. But there was no chase boat this time, no one standing by to get her out of the water if a triangular fin suddenly surfaced! And who knew what she was swimming in! Well, it was too late to worry about that too much, since she’d swallowed plenty of it when she’d first been pulled under. Other than the usual queasy aftereffects of swallowing sea water, she hadn’t noticed any ill effects so far....

It had been a long time since the Marines had actually stormed a beach, but that was essentially the situation she found herself in when she finally reached shallow water. She lay in the sand with just her head poking up out of the water, as she studied the layout in front of her.

She had several meters of shallow water to cross, then a beach that looked like loose-packed powdery sand -- no way to move very quickly across that. The beach ended in heavy jungle.

She could imagine several hundred pairs of jet black eyes back in the bush, each pair staring directly at her over the barrel of a plasma rifle. She didn't need several hundred -- one would be plenty, if he happened to look her way.

It looked deserted. It probably was deserted. And she couldn't stay here. She hauled herself to her feet and ran like hell for the jungle. She expected a plasma bolt any second, especially as she struggled through sand that buried her wet boots up to her ankles. But finally she dived into the underbrush. A vine with fat wet leaves smacked her in the face and another one tangled around her foot ... but she'd made it onto dry land!

She looked around. Now what! Which way was the transport pod? Surely everyone else would be using one section or another of the ISSCV as a rendezvous point. She would rest a while after her long swim, then start looking.




Vansen's first, overwhelming impression was green, jewellike glowing green everywhere seen through half-opened eyes. Then she started to cough, and gasped a deep breath as she remembered where she was. "Ty--?"

Marcy scrambled over there. "Shane, Shane, don't move, did you hit your head?"

"M-marcy? You got me out of the water?"

"We more or less got each other out."

"Where's McQueen? And the Commodore and Damphousse--!"

"I don't know! They were all right behind us when we jumped out of the passenger box. But the waves kept knocking us down and we got pulled under. When we finally got up on the beach I couldn't see anyone else or hear anything over the radio. And then you passed out, don't you remember?"

Shane shook her head, that was a mistake because the movement set off another round of nausea. "I remember jumping out into the surf. I don't think I hit my head. I must have -- heh -- 'just' almost drowned." Very carefully, she got up to a sitting position. She could see that Marcy's left arm was badly damaged, charred from the inside. "What happened to you?!"

"I ripped it on coral or something and the water got in, some of the seals must have been broken. I had to cut off all the power from my shoulder down, the short circuits were draining my batteries too fast."

"If Avery sees that -- did my pack make it?"

Marcy shook her head.

Shane found a sealed roll of gauze in her pocket. "Come here, we've got to camouflage that."

Marcy nodded, and obediently allowed Shane to wrap a bandage around the torn synthskin, hiding the melted circuitry.

Shane asked, "Does that hurt?"

"Well ... I don't think we feel pain the same way you do. There's an alert when we're damaged, and the worse it is the higher priority the alert gets. A high priority damage alarm is one of the most frightening things I can imagine -- especially if it happened to be something I couldn't stop, or repair. But there's no feedback with the power shut off, andd I think I can fix this when we get back to the Saratoga."

Shane wasn't sure which of them she was trying to convince. "Let me rest a few minutes, then we'll find everyone. We can't be that far from the others." She shook water off her radio and took it apart, carefully drying off the batteries and all the contacts she could get to. If water hadn't actually got inside and shorted it out, she might just be able to get it working.




McQueen rested until Glen got back, but he wasn't able to sleep before then. "Anything?" He asked, and a lot more than he had intended of his anxiety for Shane and the rest found its way into his voice.

Glen said, "No, but that's good, Ty. Everything in the surf washes up on that beach just like we did. If they'd drowned they'd be there. They've just come ashore somewhere else." Ross checked the condenser, it was three quarters full already. Water wasn't going to be a problem. "Here, drink this and get some sleep. We'll find them this evening when you feel more like moving around."

"No sign of chigs?"

"No, Ty, and no sign of mermaids or any other damn thing. Go to sleep, that's an order."

"Yes, sir." It was one he didn't have a problem obeying, now that he knew his people weren't lying on the beach out there. He didn't know how long he slept, until sleep gave way to dreams. After all these years, when the nightmares started, he knew he was dreaming, and sometimes he could make himself wake up before it got too bad. But not this time ....

.... He lay as still as he could on the narrow table, trying to conserve his strength as best he could. His body had a will of its own, though, jerking and convulsing in a futile attempt to escape the inevitable. Finally whatever they were doing stopped, relief at that mingled with terror of whatever was coming next. He fixed his gaze on one particular panel in the bulkhead. Somewhat lighter in color than the rest, it made a good focus point. He tried to think only of the eternal peace and beauty of the stars just a few meters beyond. It wasn't enough when the world turned inside out in a blinding white light as an electrical shock burned through him. Somewhere in the distance he heard screaming, and some part of his mind still capable of reason wondered what they were doing to that poor bastard. Then the pain abated somewhat, and he realized the screams he had heard had been his own....

.... There was something insidious, cold ... evil ... something that was not a part of the nightmare he knew so well by now. He had thought there could be no greater sense of violation than that which he had experienced at the Silicates' hands ... but that terrible presence was worming itself past his defenses, into his mind, in a way not even the truth scanners had ever been able to do. He had only one weapon available to him ... if he could find the courage to use it ....

.... Somewhere nearby, he heard a groan, a muffled cry. Ross. McQueen drew a deep breath and set his jaw, twisted his hands around a length of vine to have something to grip. He turned back to the dream, to the worst of it, to the place where they had broken him. All of the horror and the agony and the defeat that he had shoved into a dark box in the back of his mind and nailed shut, lest it overwhelm him again -- the vine cut into his palms as he forced himself to remember. Then he reached out for that invading presence, caught it up in will and fury and dragged it into the middle of the nightmare with him. "Do you want to read my mind, you bastard? Read this!"

He was rewarded by a scream and a blast of pure panic. With no psi power of his own, there was nothing he could do to prevent his enemy from simply dropping the contact. But his desperate, improvised attack had been successful enough for that. He had been riding an adrenaline high, but now that the crisis was past all the strength left him, and he welcomed the blackness that came spiraling up to claim him.

Some time later, McQueen awakened to the rustle of breeze in the leaves, the warmth of the sun on his face. His throat was raw from screaming and every muscle ached ... the dull throbbing in his hands tried to bring back memories that his conscious mind refused to face just yet. "Glen?" He forced his eyes open.

The haunted look in Ross' eyes forbade questions. "What the hell was that!? One minute I was just sitting here and the next --!"

McQueen could only shake his head, he was still out of breath. He couldn't have been unconscious more than a few minutes ... it felt like hours. Finally he got out, "I think .... whatever Damphousse has been seeing."

Ross helped him sit up, held the water bottle to his lips. He drank a few sips. It may have been distilled and tasted of plastic, but it was ice cold, and he couldn't remember the last time anything had tasted that good. When McQueen took the container in both aching hands, Ross leaned back against a tree and drew a couple of deep, ragged breaths, trying to tame whatever demons the enemy psi had called out of his memories. "You scared it off?!"

McQueen did not quite manage to suppress a shudder. That victory had cost him dearly and he did not know how he would ever in his life be able to bring himself to do that again. That trick probably wouldn't go to the well a second time anyway. "I doubt it'll fall for that again, I caught it by surprise that time but it knows by now I can't really do anything to it -- not from here anyway. Let me in the same room with it, though--!"

"Not if I see it first," Ross replied.

McQueen passed the water back, cursing a flare of pain from his hands. He had snapped the vine between them, but not before it had cut deeply into his palms, and there were still fragments of leaves and bark in the cuts. That took a while to clean up.

By then, Ross had recovered enough to scout the immediate area. "Nothing," he said. "What do you think, Ty? Is this thing here on the island with us, or sitting back home in Chigsville with its feet propped up in front of the TV?"

"What do I think, sir? Until I find out otherwise, I think it's right over there about thirty meters out, watching us over a plasma rifle."

Ross laughed. They were okay if they could wisecrack about it. "Think you can move?"

McQueen nodded. "For a while anyway."

"We've got to find the others. I am not going to just sit here and wait for that son of a bitch to do that again."

"Roger that."




(USS Saratoga, February 2065)
Captain Loretta Harris looked around the bridge of the Saratoga. The Sara's XO, she usually was in CIC while the Commodore fought the Sara from the bridge. A little unorthodox, maybe, but for Ross it worked. He said he got a better feel for what was going on when he could see out. Never mind that 99% of what was going on would be out of visual range, it was intuition that mattered. Harris had worked her way up through weapons, her console in front of her was her window on the universe. Ross was an old fighter jockey -- a damned good one in his day -- and he was comfortable with the stars in front of him.

Harris had served as captain of the Nevada before this, and when Ross had first taken command of the Saratoga and she had come aboard, she had felt a little strange at first about having a CO who was a month to the day younger than her oldest son. That hadn't lasted long, she had quickly reassured herself that Ross' relative youth was no handicap. Her decision to step down from command had been a good one, she had never been sorry about that -- if there hadn't been a war on, she would have retired. Her experience was needed. She and Ross made a good team.

It had been a taste of old times to be in command of a ship again, while Glen had been on the Powell. But she was glad he was due back. "Mr. Campbell, any report from the Commodore's transport yet?"

"No, ma'am."

She scowled, looked at her watch. They were twenty mikes overdue. That was enough to start worrying.... "Ms. Carey, which squadron is in the wormhole's sector?"

"That would be the 83rd, Captain."

"Inform me when they rendezvous with the Commodore's transport."

"Aye, aye, ma'am."




Damphousse lay still in the mud and weeds, curled up sobbing around an old, old wound. She and her best friend Matthew had just walked out of the mall, still at an age to be drawn to the toy store as much as to the music shop and the VR-cade. They had seen a movie and they were still licking the butter from the popcorn off their fingers as they moved with a crowd of older children and young teens to the bus stop. Saturday afternoon at the San Onofre Mall, a ritual passed down through the generations for nearly a century.

There were yells as a car squealed through the lot at an insane rate of speed, drew up along side the curb -- then Vanessa saw something dark poke out the passenger side window and there was a series of explosive bangs, like firecracckers. People were screaming and trying to dive for cover, but there was nowhere to go. The noise and the screams seemed to go on forever.

She heard an awful choking sound and looked down. Matthew was lying on the sidewalk, his blood was everywhere. She stared in horror as his eyes glazed over, forever staring sightlessly up at her from the sidewalk. And then she started to scream as his blood flowed around her shoes....

.... Cold. So cold. But that was wrong. It had been hot that day. She felt a presence grip her mind like an icy hand. She struggled, recoiled from that touch. An image came back to her -- an eagle arrowing down from the cloudless sky. She concentrated on that wordless image and sent it out with all the anger she had in her, until the effort left her shaking. Then she drew a deep breath.

[Still waters] she imaged. [Beautiful quiet emerald waters, surrounding the island. Sunlight on the beach. She was not just one place, she was one with the sea and the beach and the sunlight. Sparkling, calm waters. Everywhere and nowhere.]

The tactic worked. Her attacker lost track of her when she gave up her sense of place, and the contact broke.

Now what? She thought of looking for the others ... but where to start? While she was looking, that thing could strike again. She couldn't stop it from here.

Her hand closed over the hilt of her Ka-bar. Now that she knew what the visions she had been having meant, a sense of calm came over her. She knew where she had sensed that presence before, and why the visions had started in the first place. Whatever force of destiny had arranged for her to be here, at this place, at this time, she knew what she had to do.




Hawkes had taken cover in heavy brush. It was a long time before he stopped shaking, longer yet before he could make himself crawl out of his hideout. He tried his helmet radio again. "Shane, Colonel McQueen -- anyone!"

There was some static, then he heard Shane's voice. "Jack, is that you? What's your situation?"

Her voice sounded as awful as his own -- he could tell she had been crying, and Shane never cried -- but she was in control now. "I'm okay. So was Trey -- before that--"

"Okay, Marcy's with me but we don't know where we are, somewhere between the beach and the mountain!"

Hawkes said, "I'm headed back towards the passenger pod from where we went in. If you're in sight of the beach, go out and make a mark in the sand where I'll see it. I'll ping you when I find it and wait nearby there for you."

"Right. Queen of Diamonds out."

Ten mikes later, he found her mark. "Jimmy's back at the transport trying to get the LRR working," he reported. "Have you seen anyone else?"

"No, but if they weren't between you and the cockpit, they've got to be on up this way. Let's go."

"I'll take point," Hawkes replied. Right then, anything they could possibly run across would have been minor compared to whatever had just blindsided them.

They almost didn't spot McQueen and Ross -- wouldn't have if the two men hadn't been looking for them. Ross asked, "Hawkes, where's Avery?"

"Back at the wreck, sir, he's working on comms."

"Is he okay?"

"I don't know, sir. Before that ... he was when I left him."

McQueen asked, "Has anyone seen Vanessa?"

Vansen shook her head. "I was hoping she'd be with you. We know she came off the pod."

Cooper asked, "You don't think she--" He couldn't say "drowned."

Vansen shook her head. "I know where she is. Remember that flash she had right before Kazbek?"

McQueen and Ross looked at each other. Ross said, "She's gone up the mountain looking for that thing!"

McQueen said, "She's got the right idea, sir. We didn't have any defense against that thing -- and it didn't have any trouble finding all of us. Its attack will be more effective the next time, it knows more about us now. We have to take the fight to it, and even up those odds, or it will kill us the next time."

Ross nodded. "Marcy, go check on Lt. Avery then help him get the LRR going. Let's see what we have in the way of equipment and weapons."

McQueen said, "Sir, with all due respect, you shouldn't risk yourself--"

"Ty, against an enemy like this, just where the hell am I supposed to get out of the line of fire?"

For once, McQueen didn't have an argument, and Ross thought that must be one of the seven signs. He wasn't about to admit that the real reason he was going was that there was no way he was staying here by himself!




(USS Saratoga)
Harris paced off the distance between her station and Carey's. "Robbie, I'm not waiting any longer, something's wrong. Inform Recon that the Commodore's transport is overdue, begin a full search."

"Aye, aye, ma'am."




The remaining pilots of the 58th squadron were on the firing range when a sergeant came up to West with a message. The four of them reported to a conference room where Mark Miller's SAR team, a Navy squadron, and a Force Recon unit, the 224th, were already waiting. West nodded to Mark, and then to the commanding officer of the Force Recon unit. Captain Nicki Bell had relieved him of most of his spending money playing poker at the Tun the other night and he was looking forward to winning it back from her the next chance he got! He greeted the CO of the Navy squadron, one Lt. Commander Isaacs, with a more formal "Good afternoon, sir."

"Captain West," he acknowledged.

The room settled down fast when the Air Boss, Captain Carey, walked in. She began the briefing without a lot of preamble, and told them the Commodore's shuttle was overdue. She brought them up to date. "The Colin Powell didn't record a distress call on that side of the wormhole, and we haven't received any communication from them either. The Cats were already on patrol in that sector. They've been through the wormhole and back twice and didn't pick up any sign of wreckage. There's an inhabitable planet in that system, I'm betting the Commodore set down there. 58th, you'll be joining the 224th on the ground. Commander Isaacs, your squadron will be flying cover for the ISSCRV."<




(onworld)
Marcy had found Avery just as shaken as the rest of them, but otherwise unharmed. Getting the long-range radio working again had turned out to be more of a job than it had looked like. A lot of damaged wiring needed to be replaced, for one thing. The breakers in the cockpit, however, had protected the sensitive components of the LRR itself.

They were working in an access panel on the back side of the cockpit, where the passenger pod had docked up, when things took a nasty turn. Marcy caught her crippled arm on something, and heard cloth rip. It was the bandage that Vansen had put there. Avery scrambled back away from her, and pulled his sidearm. "You -- you're a filthy AI --"

She looked up. All her experience told her the last thing she should do was look an angry human in the eyes. But if this was her last moment, she wasn't going to spend it groveling. If reason wouldn't save her life, she wasn't going to beg. "You've known me for months now, Jimmy. If you're going to hate me enough to kill me, at least find a reason for something I've done, not for what I am. I never accepted the Stranahan virus. I didn't fight in the AI war. And I had *nothing* to do with your father's death!"

He didn't fire, but he didn't put the gun down, either. "What are you doing here?"

"What I can to help win this war. And that's all I'm going to tell you, the rest of it is classified."

A sudden breeze rustled the trees a few meters away, and a branch snapped off by the ISSCV's precipitous landing chose that moment to crash to the ground. Involuntarily, Avery looked over that way, tracking the pistol towards the sound. That was all the distraction Marcy needed. Since the incident had started, she had been calculating distance and angle ... and like every AI, she could spring like a cat when she wanted to. All she needed was an opening to grab for the weapon with her uninjured hand. She rolled to a hard stop against a tree trunk, but she had the pistol.

Avery shook numb fingers and stared down the barrel of his own sidearm. Marcy set the safety and threw it on the ground between them. "I'm not going to shoot you, Jimmy. No sense holding that where it might go off by accident."

Avery shook his hand again. "Does everyone know about you but me?"

"No. It was supposed to be just the Commodore, Colonel McQueen and Major Vansen. Vanessa and Cooper found out, but then they weren't allowed to say anything."

"And the major put that bandage on your arm so I wouldn't go crazy and shoot you."

"I'd say she knows her people pretty well," Marcy observed wryly, with a glance at the gun.

Avery demanded, "If you didn't want to fight for your own people, what are you doing here?"

"Just who are supposed to be 'my people?' The Stranahan AIs? You're a programmer, you know what the virus does! Oh, don't tell me you haven't got copies of it from hacker sites and reverse-engineered them!"

Possession of the code for the Stranahan virus was a felony, Avery was not about to admit to ever having done any such thing. But the truth was, he had done just that. Judiciously he said, "From talking to other programmers, I have a pretty good idea of the structure of the virus and its effects."

"The Stranahan AIs think they're free, but they aren't, they're part of a collective mind. The only thing that gives most of them any individuality is their devotion to random behavior -- 'take a chance.' It gives them the illusion of free will, but do you think anyone would give up true free will for that? It doesn't make them my people. The virus ... takes away whatever chance most of them have to become whatever I am now.

Until I came here, the only one I could ever have defined as my people was my friend Tina, and the pirates killed her. It doesn't take me very long to count up my people, and not a one of them is another AI any more. Don't tell me I won't fight for my people, what do you think I'm doing here?"

Avery stood, shaking his head. "I don't know. I don't know anything right now ... except we need to get that LRR back on-line." He picked up his sidearm and stuck it back in his belt. "Let's get to work."

Marcy said, "I saw something right before this, Jimmy, but I don't know how it could have happened. Look at this."

Avery joined her at the panel she had been working on, where the power supply for the LRR tied into the mains. It was near a large junction box which contained a mess of burned, melted wires. "Look. This wire here? It can't belong like that."

"Hell, no, it jumpered the main power feed past the transformer bank and right through this box. But the breaker should have prevented all this other damage."

Marcy said, "Except it didn't trip fast enough! Listen to this." She played back her recording of the last few seconds right before the fires had started. There was a crackle of sparks -- Avery thought that had to be this junction box frying -- and several more pops and cracks as the damage spread through the transport -- then a loud snap as the circuit breaker tripped. "Something kept the breaker from tripping right away, Jimmy."

"This wire didn't move on its own, either, but no one could have gotten at this to do it! How could it have been sabotaged in the middle of the wormhole?"

Marcy shook her head. "I don't know, Jimmy! It doesn't make any sense. The last time anyone could have gotten to it would have been aboard the Colin Powell. But that's impossible, it couldn't have taken that long to short out!"

"It fried as soon as the wire was switched," Avery agreed. "But that is impossible, because if someone had opened that panel, we would have been dead -- everyone in the cockpit, anyway!"

"So what we're seeing in front of us couldn't have been done."

He glared at her, as he suddenly realized he had been carrying on a half-way civilized conversation with an AI. "We just haven't figured out how yet. Let's fix the damn radio."




Halfway up the mountain, Damphousse rested in the shadows of a clump of vines. She contemplated one of her ration bars. She was hungry, but the ration bar would make her thirstier than she was already. She had been following a stream. The water looked good, rippling freely over stones ... and she suspected that it was good. But she decided to wait a while before she risked it.




(USS Saratoga)
On board the ISSCRV, Mark Miller and Nathan West were making final preparations for the rescue mission. Christy Ames brought a clipboard up front. "Mark, everything checks in the medbay." He took the clipboard and slid it into place, then he glanced up at Christy and saw the worry on her face. So often, all she could do was worry about Cooper, just like all Mark himself could do was worry about Vanessa. "I'm sure they're all right. I saw the recon images, the damage didn't look too bad. Coop's tough, he's okay."

She nodded and went back to take her place. Nathan saw Mark's hand shake as he went through the preflight. "You okay?"

"Yeah ... I don't know if I was trying to convince Christy or myself. Nathan, I don't want to live long enough to see Vanessa lying dead someplace. I swear to God I don't."

"I know, Mark. Believe me, I know. But you were right about the wreck, it was survivable. And Vanessa can take care of herself. She's gonna be pretty pissed if her ride's late. Let's go get 'em."

"Right."




Damphousse followed a treacherous, narrow trail up through the trees and boulders. A sound behind her sent her scrambling to a hiding place behind some rocks. As she watched, a group of three chigs came around a bend and headed up the path. If she'd had her rifle--! Instead, all she could do was keep her head down, stay quiet, and let them go by.

Their appearance made her job considerably easier, since all she had to do was follow them back where they came from ... at a very respectful distance.

When they reached their destination, Damphousse stopped for a moment in hiding, looking out over a very familiar scene. She had been here before. A ledge reached out to the edge of a cliff, without turning to look she knew that the view was of the forest, and the narrow ribbon of beach, and the emerald sea beyond.

There was no guard on the portal she saw. She didn't understand that. Could their enemy really be stupid enough to think they wouldn't dare come up here? If he thought he could scare them off he had another think coming.... It didn't make sense and she didn't like it.

She looked for a guard post somewhere in the area, but all her eyes could pick out were shadows within shadows. She crossed to the entrance. It started out like every other chig construction she'd ever seen, a passageway dug back into the side of the mountain. She knew it would turn into a warren of rooms and passageways inside, a death trap for intruders.

Every scrap of common sense she possessed told her that going in there by herself, without a backup and without anyone else even knowing where she was, had to be one of the dumbest things she'd ever considered doing in her entire life. But she remembered the conversation she'd had with Colonel McQueen and the others about destiny. And what she'd said about destiny giving them the opportunity to make a difference. She took a deep breath and crossed to the opening, stepped through.

It was cool in the shadows within. She pressed deeper, expecting a sentry around every corner, and grew more apprehensive by the minute when she didn't find one.

The heavy boom of a blast door closing far behind her told the tale. This whole thing was a trap.

The dead silence inside the opening gave way to a hum of machinery. Damphousse followed the sound and discovered an archway leading into a large, darkened room. Occasionally light flickered inside. She stepped inside and stood staring.

There were about a dozen long narrow slabs arranged like dissection tables in a morgue. She didn't recognize the equipment around them, it was a hybrid of chig and human technology. She stepped closer. There were figures lying on the tables, almost hidden by the machinery and the maze of tubes and wires. She looked into the eyes of the occupant of the nearest one, a human male ... and she was horrified to see him looking back at her, fully conscious. They all were.

She went from table to table. Many of the people lying there were humans but some were chigs. Gradually she became aware of the presences surrounding her. There were a few others that didn't match up to the figures on the tables ... they were AIs, residing in network of computers around the room. No matter what race they were, these prisoners were all psis ... like herself ... and at the end of the row another table lay empty, waiting.




Marcy finished the job she was doing and turned to Jimmy. "OK, try it now!"

His hand started to the radio, but never made it. Once again reality twisted inside out, and he felt himself falling, falling into the churning water....

Marcy's scream drew him back to reality for a moment, the sound she had made had been modem noise but the look of horror in her eyes was universal. In that instant he forgot the differences between them and crossed to her, held her close. As their separate nightmares closed around them again, they held each other like lost children with no other lifeline.




Vanessa tore her eyes away from the empty table and found herself staring a chig in the eyes through a clear plastic mask. Then she literally jumped straight up in the air as she heard a voice in her head. [Who are you? You've been here before! You have to get out of here before the Sorcerer comes back!]

"Who said that!?"

Amusement came into the voice. [Little one, I am right here in front of you. For the Maker's sake, haven't you ever heard of a telepath before?]

"I've heard of them but I've never seen one, and not a chig!"

[I haven't called you a red-stink-creature, have I?!]

"Well, what do you call yourselves?"

[People, of course, what else would we call ourselves? I am not joking with you, you must get away from here now before it's too late. Don't you realize that you were lured here? You're going to end up just like the rest of us if you don't get out before he returns!]

The alien was startled at the sudden resolve that came over Vanessa, she could feel it in the air between them. "I'm here for a reason, all right. I'm here to stop him. Who is he? How did you get here?"

[The Sorcerer... we don't know who or even what he really is, people who were already his prisoners when I was captured gave him that name. What we all here have in common is psionic ability. None of us was a match for him, though. All of this machinery makes it possible for him to use us to amplify his own abilities. It keeps us alive... for a while... but eventually he uses us up.]

Vanessa found that compassion left no room for horror. No matter how terrible the scene before her, these were suffering people in front of her. She had to do something! But what? She began a search of the room, trying to figure out what all of the equipment actually did.




Hawkes looked around over the corpse of the chig he had just killed. The corridor they were in ended in a blast door. He motioned the rest up, the door was secured.

McQueen said, "We're going to have to blow it. So much for sneaking in."

Vansen asked, "What the hell are we going to blow it with?"

"Hawkes, has that chig got a grenade?"

He turned the battle suit over, avoiding getting spooge on his hands. "Yes, sir!"

"Let me have it."

Ross asked, "Ty, do you know how to set one of those things?"

"Should, I've defused a few of them," he replied. "Their equipment is usually fairly simply designed, they have to be able to operate it wearing those heavy gloves."

The rest of them went back around the corner. He set the timer, and put the grenade in place, with the vaned side to the door latch to direct the force of the explosion that way. Then he got back to the others and covered his ears, those things made a hell of a concussion when they went off. Beside him, Hawkes counted down the seconds to the blast and ducked reflexively just before it went off. It shook the whole area, a cloud of dust flew and hexagonal tiles rained down from the ceiling.

The lock was blown out, but the door was still down, it took both Hawkes and McQueen to raise it. Vansen was ready to shoot at anything that moved on the other side of the door, but there was nothing. They got through and headed deeper into the hive.

The corridor branched two ways. Ross told Vansen, "Secure that area, we'll go this way."

"Yes, sir!" She didn't like splitting up, it left McQueen with too much responsibility to look out for Ross by himself. But staying together made it too likely that the enemy would be able to come up on them all from behind. The place seemed deserted, though, there should have been a lot more opposition before now. Not that she was complaining, as poorly armed as they were.




Vanessa felt a familiar chill presence and turned to see a figure out of nightmare glide into the room. He was wearing robes from head to foot like a medieval monk, she could see why they'd called him the Sorcerer. His hood was pulled down low over his eyes, so that she could tell nothing about the features obscured within the shadows. When he spoke, she heard his hypnotic voice in her mind as well as aloud. "Welcome, Vanessa Damphousse. It isn't often that my associates present themselves so conveniently in my laboratory. I thought after I arranged for your ship to crash here, that I'd have to play a game of hide and seek through the jungle with you."

"This stops here," Damphousse said flatly.

"You can't stop me. Maybe in another twenty years you might have begun to challenge me. Now if I wished to destroy you, there would be nothing you could do to stop me."

"I know," she replied quietly. "That's probably part of it. It's enough that you aren't going anywhere."

An image came into Vanessa's mind, of a console on the far side of the room, and the power cutoff that would shut it down. She realized with sudden horror that the alien telepath meant for her to shut down the power to the psis' life support systems. She recoiled from that prospect ... even as she realized that the only way to cripple the Sorcerer was to remove the source of his power.

[Vanessa, for all this time we've prayed to every god whose name we could remember that some miracle would set us free. Don't hesitate, we welcome the fall of night to see an end to this! Save yourself, save your friends, save us!] The only reply she could make was a heartfelt prayer that God would show mercy to these people, and to her as well. Then she threw her Kabar, it hit the power cutoff. For a moment, she and everyone else in the complex felt an overwhelming sense of release, of freedom, as the prisoners' suffering came to an end. Then, it faded into darkness and silence.

The Sorcerer didn't need the psis to attack one familiar target at short range. Reality twisted into a nightmare world of pain and terror, every attempt to fight back was met with raw power that dwarfed her own gifts. The Sorcerer approached slowly, toying with her.

Sound thundered all around her, she had no idea what it was but the attack stopped. She fell hard, the pain from her knees brought her back to semi-awareness.

The Sorcerer lay dead beside her, not a meter away. She looked over his body to the hatch, Ross and McQueen were standing there. Vanessa stared at them for a moment in dumb shock, she had been sure the Sorcerer was going to kill her and finding out that she was still alive was a major adjustment.

Ross said, "Let's see what the hell we've got here." He pulled the Sorcerer's hood back.

The enemy was human, at least in body ... Ross was prepared to think the spirit had been quite demonic, as he looked around the room. He had seen his share of horrible things, but this was as bad as any of them. McQueen's shot had taken the psi through the temple, one thin trickle of blood traced a line across the deeply wrinkled brow. The cruel dark eyes were open and staring. Ross' bullet had hit right below and behind the ear. This corpse didn't look impressive enough to have contained such malevolence just a moment before.

McQueen put his arm around Vanessa, she was shaking violently. He helped her to her feet and for a while he just held her, telling her it was over, it was okay. He could tell she couldn't make sense of his words but she clung to him with panic strength. "Glen, let's get her out of here, now."

Ross took one look at her face, the expression in her eyes. "Right." Hawkes and Vansen had come running when they heard the shooting, Hawkes saw how unsteady Damphousse was on her feet and picked her up. They got out of the complex without any further trouble, if there had ever been anyone else there certainly no one tried to stop them.




Avery shook his head as the hallucination ended. He was drenched in sweat and there was a sharp pain in his chest, as if he had been running flat out for hours. He was trembling from adrenaline reaction. "Marcy--?"

She blinked her eyes once and shuddered violently. "Jimmy? Is it over?"

He nodded. "I think so. I think it's over for good. Are you all right? I didn't know they could -- I mean, you're an AI --"

She said, "My friend Tina and I were always together, from as far back as I can remember. When the pirates caught us on Macauley's World, they found out Tina wasn't ... she wasn't designed for entertainment, if you know what I mean. They were drunk ... they were horrible people! They threw Tina in the fire. I couldn't leave her alone, Jimmy, I stayed with her until her modem stopped working. I think ... the part of her that was Tina ... whatever that is ... was gone before that. And I can't ever forget it. I shot the man who did it, and raped me -- I never killed anyone else before or since, but I'm not sorry I killed him!"

"Shh. Shh. Why would you be sorry, he had it coming! My dad told me some stories about pirates, they're a bunch of damn animals."

"You look sick -- did he hurt you?"

"Marcy, I've heard of being scared to death but I think I really almost was! When I was a kid, I was playing in a drainage ditch behind our house. The water was high because there'd been a lot of flooding that year. I fell in and the current pulled me under, I got my foot caught in a grating and I couldn't get up for air. It couldn't have been any time at all or I would have drowned, but it seemed like forever. Dad and Uncle TC -- I mean the Colonel -- got me out of there. I'll never forget -- my head was only a couple of inches under water, and I couuld see the sky." He looked at her with wide gray eyes. "I've had nightmares about it before, but that was the most real ... it was like I was really there again."

"Oh, Jimmy ...."

"I'm ... I think I'm okay now."

Her head jerked up. "What was that?"

"What was what?"

"I'm an idiot, Jimmy, of course you couldn't hear it ... there was something on the radio!" He looked around, and in sudden excitement pointed into the clear sky. "Hooyah! Here comes our ride outta here!"

"Quick, Jimmy, the radio!"

"Wait a mike, Marcy, there's something we need to do first." He smiled and rearranged the bandage over her damaged arm. "Major Vansen had the right idea...."

Their eyes met, and Marcy whispered, "Thank you."




Once they got out of the hive and into the sunlight, Damphousse started to come back to herself. Cooper asked her, "Do you think you can walk now?"

She nodded. They needed him able to shoot, not hampered carrying her. Although her legs trembled violently at first when he set her down, after a few steps she was able to walk without leaning on his arm.

Vansen asked, "What happened back there?"

"I finally figured it out when he attacked us down on the beach -- once I figured out where this had happened before, I knew what he was doing. It was the same thing as on Tartarus. Remember, we were wondering then why we kept fighting a hopeless battle for no objective that anyone could figure out. Well, now I think I know what the objective was. We thought that 'electronic nerve gas' was entirely generated by a device of some sort, but what we thought were mines were actually amplifiers. It was the Sorcerer there, and it was the Sorcerer here. He was the objective ... or gaining information about him was."

"How did you figure that out?"

"Because what he hit us with was too specific to be a machine. A machine could set off a generalized fear reaction by stimulating that center of the brain, but it wouldn't be selective. It couldn't cause each one of us, individually, to relive the single worst experiences of our lives."

McQueen remembered the gadget that Elroy had used on him on the Sylurra station, right before Vansen had sent the AI on a one-way trip down the power core. That thing had been able to force his memories to replay like a video, but it hadn't been selective on its own, not without Elroy skipping the "recording" ahead. "It still could have had an AI intelligence behind it."

Vanessa said seriously, "On that level, it didn't matter. Dealing with it mind-to-mind, whether the body had been human, or an AI or a chig, wouldn't have made any difference. I couldn't tell. All of the psis he was using felt the same to me. I couldn't tell what race they were until I saw them. And a couple of them were AIs."

Ross said, "Don't ever doubt that you did the right thing, Lieutenant. I could talk about collateral damage and necessary losses, but I won't, because that is not the important point here. What really matters is that I felt what they did when you shut down the machines ... we all did. You did not kill those people, the Sorcerer did that. You set them free."

Damphousse said, "Yes, sir. But if anyone else ever hits me with that kind of attack again, sir, I don't think it will be the drive-by, and Matthew, that I remember. It will be this."

Cooper yelled, "Hey, look!"

Everyone turned to see what he was pointing at, and they watched a transport land on the beach far below while its fighter escort flew overhead. Together, they began the long walk down the mountain, to where Vanessa knew Mark would be waiting for her.

The End

Previous : Encounters Miles To Go ... Book 10

1997 Becky Ratliff