WARNING: This chapter involves some rather implied nastiness to small water fowl if you're squeemish... let me know and I'll post a more nebulous version
What are you doing here cub?
"I died," Bear answered evenly. "At least I think I did."
What makes you so sure?
"Nobody could have survived that collapse," Bear answered as he tried to think. "I was exhausted."
So you’re just going off now? That’s it? I’m dead, might as well pack it in?
Bear looked at the spirit that had been his guide since he first began his training as a shaman. "What else is there for me to do?" he asked. "You can’t just decide not to die after something like that."
Why not? You seem able to decide to die after what happened.
"But that’s different," he objected. None of this was making any sense what so ever.
You really think so cub? This thing has attacked your friends, hurt them badly. It has taken your woman and you’re just going to roll over and play dead. Is that anyway for one of my children to act?
Bear started to object and then the spirit’s words hit him. ‘Attacked your friends, hurt them badly...taken your woman. Taken my woman? Duck? It has Duck?’
"What have they done?" he demanded.
I thought you were dead. Deceased. Beyond caring
Bear felt the sting in the spirit’s words. "I spoke hastily," he answered quietly.
That could be cub. But you’ve got a hard road if you go back.
"What’s wrong?" Bear asked.
Well cub, you didn’t exactly walk away unscathed from this one. You’ve lost more than you know, and there’s nothing I can do...
"Father," Bear stated evenly. "I’m too hurt and too tired for riddles. Please speak plainly."
Aw cub, you nearly drained yourself dry to save those people. You’re alive, barely and what you did, what that man did to you... I can’t reach you. You’re going to need help out of this one, and I can’t be the one to help you.
"Then why give me hope," Bear growled. "Why tell me I can’t leave, only to tell me that you can’t help me.
One is coming who can. He is looking for you. But you have to hold on, the same way you held on until they could rescue your friends.
Think of your lady. She needs you now more than ever. Think of her.
‘Duck,’ Bear thought as he drifted between worlds.
Kai walked through the streets, unsure where to begin. It had been so clear when he talked to Minh and told her he was going. But now he was on his way, and he had no idea where he should go.
As he listened to the night sounds of the city he found himself drawn to an old church. As he sat listening to the music within, a man approached him.
"Why are you here," the man asked.
Kai looked at him and realized that he could taste the fear and distrust. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax.
"I heard the music," he answered simply.
"It is not for you," the man told him. "Leave."
Kai shook his head, unsure he understood the man. Was not music meant to be shared by all? "I am sorry," Kai answered with a short bow. "I did not mean to intrude."
As he turned to leave, the man called to him, "Wait."
Kai turned again. Humans had a way of confusing him. The man was watching him intently as he turned and cocked his head questioningly.
"Why are you here?"
Kai saw the real meaning behind the man’s question and again, his curiosity got the better of him. "Why do you stare at me so?"
"I’ve not seen your kind walking the streets before," the man answered. "Yet here you are."
"My good sir, I am sure I don’t know what you are talking about."
"I’m sure you don’t," the man stated in a tone that said he knew better.
Kai felt his pulse rate increase as he forced himself to remain calm, remain...human. "I am sorry to have troubled you," he stated as he again turned away.
"Go safely my son," the man urged. "Tread carefully along your way."
Kai shook his head as he continued his search. ‘Humans,’ he thought to himself. ‘If I live to be a million, I will never understand them.’
As he headed down the street, he heard the last strains of the song.
Seek the meaning where you may
and take it where it goes,
these are the words of wisdom
from the one who knows...,
The answer is everywhere,
if you know what its.
‘Very strange indeed.’
Are you there little one?
Duck recoiled from the voice. It sounded friendly enough, but she knew better. It had taken everything that mattered to her, now it wanted her soul. She tried to close her mind to it, but it was everywhere.
Visions of Whisper, his face expressionless as he betrayed her, filled her mind. It didn’t matter now. The others were gone. Nothing mattered now.
Yes, little one, nothing matters.
‘Nothing matters except making you pay for what you’ve had done! The lives you’ve ruined.’ The thought filled her mind until the rage and pain pushed it away from her.
She could still feel it in the recesses of her mind, looking for a way in, but it was no longer in control. ‘Bear give me your strength, Tracker, your perseverance... ‘ Images of her friends stood watch over her in her mind.
They are gone because of you.
She realized he was trying a different tact now: guilt. But it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t even Whisper’s, but it was hard not to blame him. ‘NO,’ she thought. ‘It is your fault! You took them from me and so help me, you will be made to pay!’
Give me your pain child.
‘Gladly,’ she thought as she turned her rage completely on the voice, pushing it further away. ‘Give me my arms and I will strangle you,’ she promised.
‘You will change your mind,’ the voice promised. ‘They always do.’
Then it was gone. As she sat raging against it, Duck realized she was alone. ‘I will not give in,’ she chanted to herself. ‘Bear, Tracker, Davy, Boomer, Rabbit, Kenny, Whisper... my friends, lives you’ve destroyed. You will pay. I will not give in. I will not forget. You have taken them from me.’
But in the end, she was completely alone.
Mindbender tried to clear his mind as he stared at the woman in disbelief. She had kicked him out of her mind. He restrained himself as the urge to hit her passed.
Easy my friend. She will take time, but it will be well worth it.
"But her mind is closed to me," MindBender countered. "How can I serve you if I cannot get inside her mind?"
You will have to do it the ‘old fashioned way. She is helpless. Maximize on that my child. You must break the will but not the mind on this one.
She is alone right now. She cannot move, she cannot see. She will come around for company if nothing else.
MindBender tried to understand, and then he saw the fly crawl across her skin. A smile played across his face.
Very good my child, a fine start.
Sable looked up at the others as he felt his "brother's" thoughts.
"He grows stronger," Sable stated evenly. "Soon he will take another host, and his power will grow exponentially."
Wulf shuddered. He'd seen what Briar's men were capable of, the last thing they needed was more power. "We have to level the playing field, before he levels us."
"If he succeeds in turning the one he now holds, he will have gained the technology he craves," Sable turned to face Wulf. The look of sorrow filled the man's eyes. "If he gets the one he seeks, he will have killed the spirit that drives us all on."
"Bender," Wulf growled. "MindBender, we have to take him out of the equation. He's Briar's source when it comes to controlling people right?"
"It will slow him down," Sable admitted. "But it's a long way from stopping Briar. We can't allow him a second host."
Wulf nodded. "We'll handle it," he assured the man. "We'll be in touch once we're sure it's clear."
Sable nodded. "Tread safely."
Wulf nodded. Finally, there was something he could do. He owed MindBender for Felix, and he planned on paying in kind.
"Be careful that your hate does not consume you," Sable warned. "It can blind you to what you are facing."
"I know," Wulf answered. "But sometimes, hate is all you have."
Sable sighed. So much had been lost already.
Wulf looked at Meri as she went over her findings then turned towards him. She'd started her matrix run almost four hours earlier and it seemed they were no closer to a solution.
"Merc's alive," she announced as she looked up from her deck. "However, he's now on Aerocom's most wanted list. Along with one each: Wilson, Wayne 'Boomer'; Wilson, Kenneth 'Clearwater'; Michaels , Robert A 'Finagle'; Wilson, Derrick 'Rabbit','MadRabbit'; Allison, Mark; Wjowski,Katya 'Duck' ; and one Richardson, John 'Tracker'."
"Murder, felony flight, and creating a nuisance," Meri answered plainly. "Aerocom's been a busy bunch of boys too, from the looks of things. Two arson investigations last night: a shoot out that afternoon. This is interesting, first bombing took place at the Wilson family clinic."
"Any mention of Sable-Briar?" he asked tersely.
"Those records were triple encoded, behind three layers of IC. Black, Blacker; Blackest." she answered cheerfully.
"Did you get them?"
"Did I get them?" she asked in disbelief. "Did you not hire me for my prowess with the keyboard, oh fearless leader?"
"What did you find?"
"The original database that was used to create the first entity," she answered.
It was hard to think of Sable as an 'entity' but ultimately that was what he was. He had told him as much the night before.
"Get a copy of the spells to Jade and Gris," he told her. "They're going to need to brush up on their spell work. What else?"
"Aerocom seems to be at odds over the whole thing. One faction has come out backing one 'Von Hicks, Maxwell.' Seems Mr. Von Hicks has wrested control of Security from one Masters, Dwight."
She paused as she read over more of the file and raised an eyebrow. "Hmm... seems Masters hired Wjowski and Richardson to investigate some mysterious black IC. Assigned Allison to work with them. Now suddenly they're on the lam from Aerocom. Doesn't exactly add up."
"Has any of this?" Wulf asked sourly.
"Not really," Meri answered. "That's why I just deal in information, not facts, just info."
Wulf shook his head sometimes Meri's humor escaped him. Most of the time, Meri's humor escaped everybody.
"Anything on MindBender?"
"A few possible leads," she admitted. "Man's pretty much a ghost as far as the system's concerned."
"See what you can find," he told her. "According the Sable, he's going after techs now."
He was not ready for the snarl that escaped Meri's lips.
Insects. A blanket of insects crawled over her skin until she wanted to scream: a scream she was entirely incapable of making. He had shown her the tub where she now lay, made sure she saw what would be sharing the space with her.
As if that wasn't enough, before placing her in the tub, he had shaved her head. She could feel him savoring every minute of her discomfort. And now that 'discomfort' was slowly driving her insane.
All you have to do is open yourself to me, and all this will go away.
'Will Bear's death go away? Will Trackers? You cannot give me what I want.'
'To the last!' Duck swore. 'To the last!'
Again he left her mind. He left her alone, paralyzed in a bath of crawling horror. As something crawled under the tank top she wore, she felt something else crawling into her mouth. Duck felt her sanity slipping away.
Reiger shook his head as Allison finished filling him in. Now the mystery of Briar finally had some background. Up until that point, Briar had been a group of people wreaking havoc in the city. Now he knew it as something much more sinister.
"Do you have any record of Briar bombing a building before?"
"Buildings, no: a few cars, a couple of fire elementals. Nothing this big."
"And Von Hicks thinks he can contain it?"
"He wants to recapture it, use it for his own end," Allison answered. "And he's willing to sacrifice anybody to get to it. To him it represents unlimited power."
"Uncontrollable power more like it."
Allison merely nodded.
"What do you suggest we do now?"
Allison thought for a moment then shook his head. "I don't know."
Duck concentrated on her breathing until nothing else seemed to exist. Whisper would have been proud of her, if he had been himself. She had achieved the state he'd tried to teach her. In her mind she stood, her feet rooted in the earth her head reaching for the sky. She was aware of nothing and everything at the same time. Her mind, for once, was perfectly still.
In the stillness, there was peace. For a few moments, she was able to escape the terror that MindBender would keep pulling her back into, but one moment's respite was enough to keep her going, for now.
Pain called her back as MindBender resorted to physical violence. If she had been able to, Duck would have smiled.
Tracker looked at his watch for the third time as he tried to calculate how long Duck had been missing: Six hours. What had she been put through in those six hours? How long until she was like Whisper?
Then another thought crossed his mind. If MindBender couldn't break her, she would be turned over to Ellingsworth and turned into a zombie. 'We can't let that happen,' he swore.
Rabbit looked at him as he clenched his fist. "She will resist," he told Tracker sadly. "Can't see her handling this any other way."
Tracker nodded. "We have to find her before it comes to that."
Rabbit nodded. "Let me check a few connections."
Tracker looked at Rabbit and shook his head. "Not alone. Not after everything that's happened."
"I won't be alone," Rabbit promised him as he patted his rifle.
"That's not the kind of company I meant," Tracker told him as he looked around at the others. "Look, we've got Briar, the police and Aerocom out looking for us, for you."
"Tracker," Rabbit stated soberly. "I may have a few screws loose, but this is the sort of thing I was trained to handle."
"It's the sort of thing we're all trained to handle," Tracker reminded him. "But we need to stick together." He didn't say it, but Rabbit understood. It was harder to compromise two people. Still there had been no indication that Whisper had been compromised until he turned on Duck.
"I don't know anymore," Tracker stated then shook his head. He was letting them control the situation. They had been dictating the terms of engagement and he had almost let them.
Rabbit nodded. Second guesses were what got you killed. Tracker knew that better than most.
MindBender was losing and he knew it. Even with everything he had put her through, she resisted. Even paralyzed by the drugs, she refused to be a victim. When he pushed her, she yielded like water, only to reform away from him.
He forced himself to remain calm. She would break given time, and when she did her pain would be so sweet. He tried convincing himself, but something told him that even death would not break this one.
She will come around. Have faith
MindBender nodded. In the eight hours he had her, he had been in her mind for less than an hour. Each time, she would drive him away with her rage.
But how long can she rage against you? How long can she withstand?
MindBender smiled. 'How long indeed?'
'How long?' Duck asked herself as she activated the display on her retinal timer. According to the display, it had been almost nine hours. She could feel the insects as they moved around her, fighting, probing, biting, stinging. She watched the timer as the seconds flashed by. Each second taking forever to change to the next.
She forced herself to think of anything but what was happening. She thought back to the plans for the remote she'd been working on. It seemed like an eternity ago. She began contemplating the power source. A thousand crawling bugs. The microcells she used were only good for 15 minutes of flight. Crawling all over her. If she could replace the microcells with something more efficient. Crawling. Something that was rechargeable. Crawling.
She checked the timer: Ten seconds had passed. She was losing it. 'Think dammit Duck, think!' she told herself.
Think ...crawling... Activate timer ...crawling...Activate.
If she had enough control to activate the timer, she should be able to activate the transmitter. 'Then what?' She stopped, forced herself to think, to control, to activate, deactivate. Click.
Activate, deactivate, one. Activate, deactivate, two. Activate, deactivate, three. Activate...deactivate. Activate...deactivate. Activate...deactivate... 'S.O...' It was taking too long. 'You have nothing but time.'
There wasn't enough control to call out, or to activate the 'device.' It didn't matter now, for now she would be satisfied with the clicking in her head.
Kai stretched out his senses. There were so many voices in the city, so many thoughts. He had never noticed it before. Despair. Hope. Laughter. Tears. They washed over him as he tried to find one he recognized. Despair. Anger. Hope. He recognized the mind that formed the thoughts.
The one Duck called 'Eclipse.'
'He is alive,' Kai thought as he raised his head and tried to pinpoint the location. 'Below?'
That did not make sense. How could Eclipse be below the city? Was he trapped beneath the ruins that once housed the Wilsons?
It was well into daylight, yet there was a darkness to the thoughts. None of it made sense, but then the musician's words came back to him.
Seek the meaning where you may
and take it where it goes.
'Below it was still dark.' When he let his mind grow still the thought came to him.
Eclipse could feel his arms ache with each compression. "Bear," he growled. "Dammit I can't keep this up forever."
It was getting harder for him to breathe for himself, let alone Bear. To have gotten this far and to have failed was too much. "NO!" he yelled again. 'Keep compressions even, Keep compressions even.'
It became almost a chant, but he knew time was running out. 'How long?' It didn't matter. 'He would keep on until he too succumbed. His leg muscles were starting to shake from exhaustion and his vision was starting to blur.
"Come on BEAR!" he screamed. "Don't you DARE die on me!"
He could hear the thought; feel the stress as if they were his own. Bear was dying. Eclipse was fighting to keep his blood flowing.
"Don't you dare this to her!"
Then he heard another's thoughts. Weak, almost unheard beneath the turmoil of Eclipse's mind. Pain. A knot of pain with only one thought. The image of a woman: Duck.
Hold on my friends, I am coming.
Kai filled his mind with the thought as he sent it on to the others. He had to find them. Suddenly he understood the feeling of urgency, for as he reached out for them, he saw the image of Bear as he stood watching over Eclipse as he fought to save him. The form was barely visible and weakening all the time.
NO! STAY! Don't leave. Hold on. Please.
The thoughts filled his mind as he rushed towards the images. He cursed the need to travel in the shell of a human. The frailty, the slowness, it weighed him down as he struggled to reach his friends. He knew that at this rate, he would never make it in time. He had to find a place to CHANGE.