Visions

The Beneficiaries
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The Beneficiaries

(This is a sample. October, 2005)

 

(---Prologue---)

The Trails Inn at Cadget was like something out of an old film, but the people inside were as real and faulted as could have been expected.

I could hardly feel my numb and tired steps as I passed through the wooden arch leading into the loud and dusty atmosphere provided by the guests of Cadget Trails. It was late, and this looked like the spot where all of the night’s dancing bandits would gather for a drink or a spoken lie. This, I thought like a true Daunan.

In all reality, Cadget was not known to the outside world as being particularly active. The average man would state he was aware of the Trails Inn, a very popular spot for the weary vacationer, but probably did not have kin or friend anywhere near the town’s housing. Even I had only a vague idea of what it might be like, and snapped my eyes open in disbelief at the crowds bustling outside the Inn. Each man present had either a female on his arm or a mug in his hand, and those who had both were the loudest and happiest of guests. I made my way further inside, looking for an empty seat...preferably in a dark corner somewhere where I would not be noticed.

The tavern was a chamber of floating smoke and the sweet scent of unpolished wood. On the walls, which held the melted grains of years of tobacco smoke, were dozens of tiny framed prints, crude and dirty in their existence. In a smoky haze, a split-wood chair appeared like a savior next to an empty table and potted plant near the back of the room. The gentlemen nearest to it were clad in suits and neatly polished shoes, which presented no threat to my first impression. Sitting down, the room began to look different to me: comfortable almost....for the time being.

I had defeated the first gnawing beast, but my headache was ringing worse and worse. The bartender was finally noticing my lonely presence, and through the hanging dust I could feel my mind crawling on his...wondering if he would recognize me from across the sticky bar. In a while, he waddled over and offered me a mug of bubbling shark, which I took from his calloused hand with strange and quite unintentional wonder.

As his every supposed thought of me appeared behind my eyes like ink type, I shut off my eyes and listened to only the crackle of my mind’s paper. My mug was empty within the length of the trance, and I stared at it quizzically while the volume of the room entered my head again. A rapid and excited conversation had brewed between the men next to me, and each had risen from their chairs in unrest. Whatever they were arguing about, it was a fiery topic close to both their hearts....a woman probably. Yes, it had been a woman. Maybe even one man’s wife. I chose to ignore the energy sweeping around them, as I already had information I didn’t care for. Some time passed, and as things quieted down I knew I had best be on my way again if I planned to make any miles.

A lovely woman with a makeshift counter set up in the street outside the Trails Inn talked me into buying some items for my journey. I almost wished I had eaten at the Inn, seeing all too late that there were no food merchants on the streets. I would be on my own tonight, but it was a fact I had come to face. From here, I would proceed to walk across the grassy fields in the direction of Capitan, and as fate would likely have it....my charade at the Inn wouldn’t be the first time I would pretend to be someone I wasn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

A word from the author:

 

In our present day society of readers, we have established a new and beautiful idea about what fiction is. In an exceptional book, we find ourselves believing every detail, and letting it become a part of our "real" world, no matter the extent of it’s imagination. The story of Cameron Bennington and the Beneficiaries is to be no exception.

There are elements of our existence as human beings that are challenged by poets and dreamers, and inside this exploration, unique and frightening answers are often found. The possibilities of human ability are ever widening, and the most mundane circumstances of life are no longer fully accepted.

Cameron Bennington goes from his pleasing, yet peaceful life as a Daunan police officer to the World’s Most Wanted man in a matter of hours. He discovers a world he hardly knew existed on the frontiers of a world he knew quite well. The only thing guiding him through this new life are the people he shares it with, the memories from his days of old, and his new purpose. It sounds realistic, and even a common scenario. So why not believe it?

 

 

 

 

Upon my grave, I would swear I had never seen anything quite as brilliant and enthralling:

The view I partook from the bluff overlooking Capitan was like a reflection of the heavens, something both bright and dreamy....the recessive dome of the silver city. To the northwest, Thor’s Canyons outlined what looked to be the only waterway passage into the city walls, while the remainder of it’s circumference shone stark with the emerald green of perfect grass plains. It was as if a diamond god had placed his footprint here, leaving a shapely crust of dazzling chrome. A gift to the very eyes of man, it surely was. For me, in particular.

I stole off on this maniacal journey but days ago...in search of this fabulous city. I sulked heavily through the deep marshes below Cadget, only to find the land continued in harsh deserts. How water lands and deserts can be neighbors is beyond me. Perhaps there are lots of things I still have yet to learn about my world.

Of course, the deserts were an easy task. There were plenty of dead grasses to burn for warmth, which was necessary in the latest hours. For food, a man need only to pluck the sweet petal of the Shora Flower, which grew in cracks and corners everywhere. It is said that the nectar in one petal can put a man’s hunger to rest entirely. How long it was healthy to do this is something I failed to research.

But now...gazing down on the ville of mirrors below me, the hunger returned like a spider weaving blankets across my desert nausea . This city would provide me with food and answers, and possibly a calm hour or two of sleep. The very thought of this nearly drove me right down on the rocky floor beneath me. If I had had it sooner, it most likely would have driven me straight back home. I would have smiling, concerned faces greeting me, welcoming me back into the world I know. The most pleasant thing about the thought was that it was nothing like this empty landscape where I stood alone like a wandering lunatic.

"I am so close now." I found myself whispering to no one. And this was the truth, regardless of the fact that I had no idea why I was here.

I started down the canyon path, my eyes never leaving the crystal eye of the hills.

Before I had come closer than a mile from the city limits, I was squinting dryly against the direct ray of the sun. I had ventured far enough down into the bowl to be caught up in the spinning reflections of light from everywhere, but not far enough to lose all sense of difference. The closer I got, the more narrow stone walkways appeared out of nowhere to tame the harsh, slanting hills. There were homes here, and to my great happiness they seemed to be inhabited by seemingly normal people. Of course, when one goes to a capital city, he must expect to see the most average of people that region has to offer. The problem with that comes with the delirium of walking a hundred and fifty miles to find it. It makes a man expect the worst. A village of dragon-people, or the black fields of hell. Not this lovely, quaint little green suburb with it’s straight fences and open windows.

At one point, I stopped along a trellis lined with pink roses to drink from a fountain spitting water as clear as the sky, only to receive a unified reproachful look from a cluster of nearby plainswomen clutching baskets. I was pleased to see my fellow people, in any sort of manner. However, it was quite obvious that the Daunan considerations were not respected in the plains. This only raised my admiration of home, which I still believed was the mightiest of all places, and something to be vainglorious about. As I drank the sweet biting cold of the water, my favorite images of my world flashed in my head.

It had been my home since birth, and I hadn’t even stepped outside city limits until the age of ten or eleven. It just wasn’t necessary, because Dauna had everything. In fact, if anyone had given me the option, I would have stayed there forever, never once wanting anything more. It may sound a bit insular to someone who has probably been everywhere, but I guarantee you I am no weakling. Dauna was, in all respects, the best place which had ever come to be.

It started as a mutineer burg dominated by a group called the Daunans, whose main goal in life was to cleanse the world of its ignorant waste. From here, it grew on leaps and bounds to house the world’s finest idealists and philosophers, marking it as the most intense and idea-driven city of our time (and anyone else’s for that matter).

I suppose it’s best not to stray from the point too much, seeing as this is only a means of justifying my extreme love for my home. Perhaps in a certain sense, it is not my job to judge a city for its lacking that of another, but only to keep this pride I have inside me in a place where it will not disrupt my meaning in life. There will always be time for vanity, said the mirror.

Looking down into the perfect glassy surface of the water, I saw a mirror of my own, reflecting a face which seemed not rugged and well-traveled, but one truly homesick.

My pack had grown considerably lighter since I left Cadget; I had used the contents along my journey. The last of my matches had been the first thing to go, lighting the fires for every night I spent in the desert. I couldn’t remember exactly how many it had been, only that I had never really intended to count. At any other time in my life, I could always depend on logic and numbers to give me back the sense of reality I might have lost. At this point, however, I don’t think any kind of fact could take that image from my mind: The image of my beloved city in flames.

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Just as the red-purple sun of dawn was rolling up and over the crest of the earth, the city of Dauna was awaking from one in a million slumbers. The west end was the first to wake up, being the homes and churches of the newest Daunans. In their squared-off neighborhoods they sipped their morning tea and watched through their windows as the first few electric boxes of potential traffic began to draw into the wide streets. Above their roofs, the sky was brightening from bold to pastel, and the stars were disappearing by the thousands.

Fredric Harnom, The Chief of Police in the West End, just happened to witness the blinking out of one star as he walked from his car to the front door of the station. This was just another fantastic morning in the life of a happy Daunan, and his job would be no more stress today than ever. You see, Police work in the "Peace City" was no challenge, and sometimes even entirely uneventful. The average day for Fred might consist of a morning coffee shared with his favorite comrades, a newspaper which told him all the stirring, yet amusing horror stories of other cities, and an afternoon jog to keep his cholesterol from...well...jogging. From there, he would see an occasional interviewer for the Daily Intel, or have radio conversations with officers on the roads.

It would be wrong to say that there was never crime in Dauna. To claim that human nature was simply deleted from the equation to create this little Utopia would be utter lunacy. The fact is, the people would always handle their own problems through each other. When a store was robbed, a series of changes were made to make the store less vulnerable to future robbery. With every event, a new idea. With every change, new technology. This was the city of Dauna and all it’s splendor. It would have been the envy of every other place on earth, had anyone else even known it existed.

Dauna was run entirely on its own source of electricity. One huge generator behind the city hall and West End police station was connected to millions of tiny cables underground that created an electric field within the city. Vehicles, usually consisting of boxes and brags, could run endlessly inside the city on the designated tracks. Not only was the electric field a great leap in technology, it also helped to ward off the unwelcome who wished to enter the city. A person who was not born and raised in the field did not have the anatomic tolerance for such a thing, and as they would wander close to the gates, they would become sick, sometimes seriously. This was a side effect not expected by the original patrons of the idea, but after a while it became accepted as the inevitable. There was no need for newcomers anyhow.

Cameron Bennington woke up at around his usual time: 7:30 a.m. After giving his cat Peach one long goodbye cuddle , he made the brisk walk to the station, which was only a few blocks away. Once inside the doors, he was greeted by almost everyone, congratulating him on the events of the past night. It seems, something strange had happened which had put the authorities in a spin. An unfamiliar person had managed to enter the city in the early evening and found his way into the West End, where he was spotted and reported for strange behavior. Blithe, Officer Bennington had volunteered to check out the situation.

He had arrived in the neighborhood which the city people had come to call Rosemary Square, named after a lovable dog who had been hit by a car over five years ago. The suspect had been walking through the back alleys, looking for something, the reports said. He was clad in a denim jacket and dark colored pants. The only truly offensive thing about his appearance had been the tattoo high on his cheekbone, next to his right eye. But of course, tattoos were not forbidden in Dauna. Many of the area teenagers desired them for their 18th birthdays, and they were just as common as one might expect in a city with a population of nearly 500,000. Just the same, the report had been called in by an elderly lady from a clean little ranch apartment. It would surprise few that she might find it offensive.

Even after Cameron had spotted the alley-walker, no hint of fear had crept into him. There was a certain lack of comfort for any Daunan who sees a foreigner for the first time, and in this case, that discomfort was justified by the frightening appearance of this strangeling. Besides the dark clothes and tattooed face, there was a sort of stealthy slip in his step which made Cameron think of the tigers he had seen many times at the zoo. Not until after the stranger had realized he was being followed and turned to face Cameron with eyes as wild as a hungry shark did any thoughts of doubt or fear cross the mind of the brave and pacific officer. And then, the stranger spoke a single word, never losing his expression.

"Bennington."

The rest of what happened that night was the topic of conversation on this lovely morning, where Cameron stood amidst the Department of Police near his very own desk on the first floor. The officers could not contain their admiration for him, scuffing him lightly with their fists and offering their own portrayal of what must have been crossing his mind. Throughout the entire scene, Cameron returned their laughs and gentle smiles, while inside his head was spinning with memories.

After the morning coffee and joyous celebration of Cameron’s achievement, he found his way out of the room and into the brightly lit stairway of the station. The neon bulbs buzzed overhead the painted stone stairway and blank gray-brown walls, where few unofficial men had walked. At the top of the stairs there would be a hallway which lead into the upper cells, with doors that rarely needed to be locked and a guard’s desk which rarely had anyone seated behind it. Today, however, there was noise and unrest on the second floor, where the prisoner from the previous night had been contained. As Cameron entered the room, the racket quieted. He closed his eyes, and the room almost seemed as it had so many days before: empty and vacant. When he opened them, the prisoner was staring at him with eyes so calm and thoughtful, they were almost intimidating.

"Well hello, Officer. I was waiting for you."

Cameron could only speak to this man as he had every other man he knew; with politeness and courtesy. It was what he was used to, and was not trained for sharp conversation with prisoners. Besides, until the prisoner initiated a fight, there was no reason for Cameron to.

"Your breakfast will be brought up any minute now. I’m sure that’s what you’re really waiting for." He managed a pleasant smile and turned to the guard who was presently on duty. "How have things been up here, Witt?"

"Pretty bizarre, actually." Carl Wittacker responded with a twisted sort of half-grimace. "This guy is either completely harmless or very good at acting like it."

"No, sir." Cameron commented without looking at the prisoner. "If a man is involved with a surreptitious government rebellion, he is not harmless." Now his dark blue gaze shifted back to the tattooed face behind bars. "So now we find out why anyone would travel three hundred miles on foot just to find me....unless of course, he heard about the great meals Dauna Prison had to offer."

The foreigner only smiled, his eyes burning through the spaces between bars like fiery volcanoes in the bruises of the last night‘s struggles. He had answered few questions by the police throughout the night, and the entire force was perplexed by his willingness to speak to only Cameron Bennington. It seemed he was only in this town for Cameron, in every way, shape, and form. His hands shifted upward on the bars he was holding lightly, and a new expression took over his slightly battered face.

"I hope you’re prepared to become involved yourself, Mr. Bennington. It will happen. Just as sure as your sneaky little machines collect the foreign papers every morning."

Slightly frantic at this unlikely remark, Officer Wittacker picked up his desk phone and began dialing the downstairs main office. This was quite understandable: No outsider would know about their interest in the happenings of other worlds, because the other worlds shouldn’t know about Dauna.

Cameron set his hand on the hanging lever, cutting off the impending connection. He stared at Witt softly as if to say Just wait one more minute. The council has a plan. Carl’s hand shook slightly as he replaced the receiver and walked out from behind his desk, while Cameron returned to the face of his captive, managing a thoughtful look of his own.

"So, what motive would someone like you have, other than putting yourself in prison for one night under the guard of the kindest officers in all existence? There would have been no mercy for you any place else."

"MERCY?" The tattooed man spat in surprise and what looked like humor, his previously motionless feet doing a fidgety little dance. "We’re all going to die anyway, don’t you see? Mercy means nothing to the man who would kill and be killed."

"And what has made you feel this way, Mr.......?" He paused briefly, waiting for the captive to provide his name. The bruised prisoner only glared cleverly through his two favorite bars.

"How can a prisoner’s name be important to the likes of Cameron Ulysses Bennington the Third?"

"Well, you’ve obviously taken some pains to find out what mine was."

"I was told who you were and where to find you....among other things. I know more about you than anyone you know."

Carl picked his coffee cup back up with a very shaky hand as all the courtesy drained from Cameron‘s face and voice, making him look plenty older. "I can’t be impressed without proof."

For a moment it seemed that the prisoner had been outdone, and would probably go back to his former refusal to talk to an officer of any name or rank. Under the circumstances, this would have pleased Cameron, and he would have looked on this straight-spoken captive as an ignorant child throwing a temper tantrum.

Carl circled the room, trying to remember every word that had just been said, for future reference. The yellow legal pad in his left hand was shaking at an incredible rate as he tried to write what he would likely forget. The prisoner watched him as he passed, and returned to Cameron’s gaze. What he saw in those eyes was nothing close to a child’s whining fit. There was a bizarre kind of knowledge there twisting into tornadoes small enough to fit inside the prisoner’s head.

"You won’t escape us, Spectran. Hiding in the Invisible City was a supreme plan, but you should know we can find your kind anywhere. There’s proof in that, seeing as there’s only scatters left. Now are you impressed?" With that, the prisoner turned away and walked to the back of his cell, where he sat on his cot and stared blankly on, as if his plug had been pulled. Cameron’s expression had now turned similar. Carl looked back and forth between them, obviously uncomfortable. Something had happened just now that he was not quite aware of. Something that connected the two men with him in the room in an understanding of minds. Carl picked up the phone and began dialing again, this time to alert the downstairs office that Tattoo Face had spoken.

 

At some point later in the afternoon, as Cameron sat at his shiny oaken desk in the East corner of the First floor, his mind wandered swiftly off to his dreams. This was not an uncommon thing for him to think about at work, but today it was different. Today, thoughts of a mysterious woman were mingled with thoughts of the new stranger. The prisoner had called him Spectran. It was a bizarre thing. He remembered no event where he had been called that by anyone else. But a stranger had given him that name. One that had intentions of track-down and murder, it seemed. This was a thought-worthy criminal.

Just when he was about to get up to go talk to the prisoner again, a gesture that might have ended in catastrophe, his personal secretary entered the room and asked if he would take a phone call.

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Looking back, it almost pains me to think that there was such a chance of a changed outcome. If I had gotten up five minutes sooner and returned to the upper floor in search of more answers, I probably would have missed that call. Diana would have asked the caller’s name, and taken a brief message which would have mocked its importance. I would have been upstairs when the prisoner went crazy, clawing at the bars like a rabid cat and screaming obscenities most Daunans only used in their own minds.

As it was, I followed Diana back into her open-air work area and took the phone from her delicate hand which housed a wedding ring- her fourth one, in fact. I answered with a half-hearted "yeah?" and hoped my lack of civility would not be regarded.

Then the world turned over, slowly but surely dumping me on the edge of Capitan.

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The thing that frightens me most about the Invisible City is that it is perfectly evident against the backdrop of golden mountains and a stone-washed sky. The city wants no one new, and does all it can to keep what it has. If no one leaves the city to tell its tale, then who hears about the glorious city where all dreams are real and sorrows fade to nothing? The occasional lonely traveler may wander by, in the direction of the hills of Locke, which must be passed through to enter Dauna. Like I said, the city wants no one new. The corruptions of the outer world are not welcome there in its dreamy confines. I’m not sure I can explain so that you’ll understand. Maybe time will tell.

I approached the gates of Capitan, bending beneath a branch and trying to stay on the trail. The scrape I had just received from a Thorn tree in the village had begun to bleed through my thin summer sleeves, and a dark cloud of blood had formed around the tear on my shoulder. I had looked up slowly, feeling that cliche vibe that a thousand eyes were on me, something particularly common after insult or injury. I had found only a yellow bird directly in front of me, staring with its beady black eyes into what felt like my very soul. Once again, paranoia. He had been sitting there on the branch that cut me, and hadn’t moved an inch when I flung the weak limb away from me in pain. He was planted there, twitching his feathers and favoring me with a bird’s blank expression.

After my heart quieted and the soft rain began to fall against my tired skin, birdie lifted off and flew to the East, probably to join in the mad dive for someone’s newly cleaned window. Yellow birds always seemed prone to such activities.

Climbing the gate was no easy task with a sore and bleeding shoulder which stung with each raindrop. With it, a weakness brought on only by hunger and exhaustion. I managed to clear the ancient gate with what was left of me, and collapsed on the other side in a pile of pulled weeds. As I lay under the quickly darkening sky, I let all sense of urgency drain from my bloodstream. I allowed the rain to fall on my face, instead, feeling the agony of its final fall. It must be so strange to fall for hours with no other purpose but to be splattered on the earth and separated into a thousand microscopic pieces in the moonlight, while poor bastards like me look on in wonder with comments of beauty. How artistic such a cruel death must be. How very intriguing.

Mercy means nothing, said Tattoo Face to the tape recorder in my mind. Once again I swallowed hard at his blatant reality, and in the deep spell of my coming dreams, the night disappeared.

 

-----

In my dream world it happened again, just like a playback in perfect accuracy. At first, I turned around on the edge of the rocky hill and saw only my beloved city in all of its lighted wonder. As I turned, the pebbles lining the canyon’s edge skittered off and down the hillside, creating a mini-landslide. The guy who claimed little guys could accomplish big things had some sense, I supposed.

I had been thinking about Fred, and what he would say when he found out I had left for a few days. What will I do without my best man? he would say. What in sam-hill will I do without Bennington? Only an egotist’s mind could create such drama, but here I was wanting to turn back just the same. Whether being for the logical reasons or the ones I had invented, I wanted to go home. I was frowning in longing unsurity when it happened.

The darkness behind the distant generator towers of Dauna stirred, as if a brief tornado had brewed in the sky and pushed the air around a bit. Then it was bigger, and the composite color of fire. I blinked many times, focusing on confirming the image in my mind. Only when the smoke began rising did I realize that there had been an explosion, and a good portion of the city had been clouded with burning embers of a thousand colors. There was no sound.

As I nearly choked myself in the difficult task of swallowing, the embers disappeared. For many moments I looked on, seeing light after light go out in the canyon. I had almost convinced myself that I had imagined the whole thing, until the embers rose up the canyon wall to where I was standing, and took flight in the air above me with a deafening roar.

They twirled for a while beneath the silvery moon, a clashing combination of shining metals in the sky. Now my dream began to fabricate new details into the event....and the embers sprouted wings and became a rainbow of birds....flying all around me and smashing into rocks and trees like kamikaze pilots . Some of them came to me, whistling sweet nothings which sounded like psalms in the arrogant nightmare. I sat down hard on the stony cliff, my head whipping around to avoid the crash and burn of suicidal birds. A yellow one coasted to the ground by my feet, its feathers ruffling in intimidation.

"You," I said slowly and meaninglessly to the yellow ember. "Why don’t you move?"

As if in response, the little guy spread his wings and backed up step by step, showing the world the prize he held under his span....a slimy black liquid which soaked his feathers and clumped on the underside of his guiding wing-joints. I reached out to touch him, curious as all humans become in their dreams, and birdie tittered backward over the cliff, never once making any attempt to save itself with flight. I grasped the edge, still dodging the walloping aviary of fire, and looked into the canyon. There were eyes in the darkness. Eyes too large and too knowing for a tiny yellow bird’s.

A sharkish grin cut through the terrifying image, splitting the screen of my mind into two. They began to blur together, and through the floating mess I saw his face, like a cannibal’s in the rain. His eyes pushed off his bones and seemed to dangle out at me in the dark, his mouth sneering in what almost looked like laughter. My hands moved restlessly around on the weeds, and I clutched a handful to wake myself up.

When the two scenes became one, the Tattooed Stranger was smiling at me only inches from my face, with a cold, wet blade lain on my chin. Behind him, the mirrors of Capitan had dulled to eerie water-streaked shadows, and my eyes were drawn to the strange brightness of the tattoo. Its shape was clearer in the hazy morning light. It was the charcoal shape of a spider in attack stance, as if the monster’s right eye had been a quivering captured delicacy for its feasting. I had no guarantee I wouldn’t be feasted on by something much worse if I didn’t move.

"Don’t they teach you anything in those academies?" The voice of the knife-handler rasped hot against the midmorning air.

I choked out an arrangement of vowels which reminded me sadly of something babies would consider intelligent language. Before I had finished by gibbered sentence, I sensed a movement above and behind me. I began kicking wildly, hoping I wouldn’t jump right in to the knife’s path, and the predator grunted in surprise. His neck was all I could see now as he looked on, pressing the knife on further and further towards my bottom lip, where it would do its damage. That will keep you from smartin off from now on, sonny, I heard my mind dictate in a nun’s sharp no-nonsense tongue. What nun would carry a pitknife and tattoo her cheekbones, I could not imagine.

My captor’s chest expanded against mine, indicating a rapid gasp. Before I could say Yes, Sister Mary, the weight was off of me and the knife slipped across my jawbone, missing a cut by a millionth of an inch. I was damned lucky he hadn’t cut my throat, and this was no luck to take for granted.

I rolled over at once, seizing the pack that had fallen from my better shoulder. A black boot stomped on the straps, and even after I saw it, I continued pulling in a daze which carried my eyes up to the face which had saved my jugular. I was indeed delirious, but through the dust kicked up in the dawnlight, I could see the purplish silhouette of my savior.

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Hero wasted no time, dragging me through the polished morning paths of Capitan without a glance back. Few times, I protested, wanting to stop and catch my breath, or inquire about some strange sight, but to no avail. He seemed to be very eager to get us both somewhere, and fast. All I could do was dangle behind him, taking in the scene as quickly as possible and hoping I would someday know what it was all about.

At some point we passed an intersection, where the adjacent path rolled off towards something that looked like an open area. I wondered if it was the center of Capitan, where all the lofty buildings with their reflective sides would back off to some kind of town square. All that could be seen from where I was, deep in the tall "grass" of city sky-scrapers, was the colorful spray of water and children running back and forth through the tiny open view-hole between mirrored towers.

I suppose it was not an important place in the fun and games of his mission, which was not apparent. Like the puppy I had to be, I continued to follow as he walked right on down the straight path, which grew darker and colder with every yard. The buildings were growing closer together, and there were odd shadows on the path which eventually lost its silver luster and turned to cobbled stone. It was as if someone had meant to discourage anyone from ever venturing into this part of town. Good work, I thought. Very, very convincing.

I was once again noticing the pain in my shoulder when he stopped. Turning towards me, I noticed his green eyes were dancing in a circle around where we stood. I opened my mouth, wanting to ask questions infinite, but he spoke first.

"There are answers at the center of this city."

His smiling gaze snapped to meet mine, and an expression of companionship shined in them which I could only answer with silence. At first I had only thought this was the man from the telephone out of pure default- the one who had told me a story no one else could have. Now I was certain it was. After I realized this...a chilling distrust has spread through me, and I had almost regretted following this man so far into the darkness. So, could I trust a stranger? Even one who knew what I had seen and didn‘t think I was crazy?

"Now, you may think the square we just passed was it," his voice broke through my thoughts, "but you must remember the shape of the city." He held up his hands in a bowl-shape, simulating his description. "The bottom of the dome is the center of the city, where the old market was. The sun from the west reflects into the hole, but just enough to prove it is day....it‘s actually quite...."

"It‘s dark down there and you don‘t want to go.....but you have to...." I heard myself saying these things and stopped abruptly , not sure what I had based such comments on, or why I had even spoken at all. It seemed to be the first time I had spoken aloud to my new acquaintance.

I was surprised that he took no judgment to anything I said. He only motioned deeper into the shade. "Alright....,’’ he said. "I’ll show you what you ask to know....if you just follow me a little further."

He was doing what he could for me, so I could do little but follow him. My days of challenging the every-day human were long and gone into my history, and if I would ever need a peaceful companion, it was now. I was confused, tired, hungry, and very, very angry. "Yes..." I spoke to his turned back as we walked into the shadows, "..let‘s go."

 

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Hero had been there when I was inches from my ending, and his bare hands had thrown aside the nasty creature which hungered for my death. Little had I known at the time that there were more than one of those little tattooed mongrels. Hundreds, even, he had said. Also, they were all looking for trouble with one thought on their minds. There was no real reason for me to trust anything I heard from a stranger....

But it turns out, he had shown me the birds.

The two of us now stood in a giant clearing at the center of the city, while the sun was finally breaching overhead from its cold abandon where it could finally reach my chilled skin. My hand was on the frigid wall of a stone archway, trembling wildly. In front of us, a giant fountain flowed and gurgled like a geyser from the cobblestone ground, dumping what looked like liquid tar into a fountain-bowl the size of a racetrack. Above it, a multihued swirl of birds flew and danced in front of the gray backdrop of stone and sky. Unlike the fake birds from my dream, this variety seemed to have their lives under control, flying in circles, but never smashing into each other or the stone that surrounded them.

On their bodies were streaks of the black liquid below them, and their songs were a depressing racket of mourning and loneliness. I searched the sky, almost hoping to see my little yellow friend who had made his final fall. Just like the rain, I thought with a new kind of understanding.

Before I could find any real relief, a deep rumbling came from underfoot, where the rock shook like an undying quake. Hero made no move to continue through the stone yard, which was fortunate for my already flying heartbeat.

All around us I could see the tops of the buildings, poking inches above the stone circle we were encased in. Their shine had dulled with the strange angle of the sun on their faces, but they were still stark against the head-on shine of the bottom of the dome, and the blunt black spray of the fountain.

"The birds." Hero whispered, after several moments. "They were brought here long ago by migrants who traveled together from the old Spectran world." He paused only slightly as I jerked at the mention of the word. "Some called them scientists, but most of the Capitan people just saw them as foreigners. No one comes down here these days.....which is precisely why were here."

I stared feverishly, trying to understand the peculiarity of this reality. Of course no one would come down here. Who likes to be scared blind by the impossible right in their own city? I could understand completely why the Capitan people would want to try to forget this place.

I might have met him only a few hours ago, but I was aware that Hero knew far more about my situation than I did. Even with months and years more of the helpless roving I had first pursued, I would never find all the pointless connections that he was giving me. I would be forever surrounded in questions in their entirety and my dreams would be only nightmares.

"So they just flew to me, and then back here again?" I asked, my eyes never leaving their colorful swarm. He stifled a laugh, much to my great resentment, eventually clutching at the wall while the quake knocked him back and forth in agony. All the while I stared at his tanned face and large, white teeth, giving no questioning or disgusted face; not even turning to face the man who seemed to find bizarre amusement in this luridity of earth. When he finished, the aura of oddity which had previously surrounded him was gone, and anger once again joined the confusion in my simmering brain.

"Well, of course Cameron." He waited calmly for a break in the tremors, then walked casually up to the edge of the fountain, dipping his hand in the dark liquid.

"I‘m surprised you didn‘t ask about your city first." His sounds had died down to a raspy uneven breathing, but those unavoidable teeth shone from his square features like a mirror in the black lamp.

What came out of my mouth was a strange combination of consonants forming no words, but sounding slightly less like infant jabbering and more like billy-goat grumbling. I‘m sure whatever I meant it to be...it had to be some kind of a question. I could manage nothing else. Hero seemed to be calmed by my confusion. I hated him then for his calm. There was really no way around it.

"I’m sorry Cameron....I didn’t mean to alarm you. I guess there’s just a lot of things I know that you might not know yet. I promise I will tell you everything I can when we get to the String."....and after a long, staring silence, he placed his hand on the nape of my neck... "I know its hard, but you need to trust me."

Migrant rebels...colored birds...black, sticky water, and The String. I put every muscle I had into making my tongue form the words, "What‘s happening to me?" before my entire face fell numb. Next, my eyes fell to white-hot pain, and the booming rhythm of exhaustion began in my ears. Now the psalm voices were inside my head again, clawing at my attention and making my eyes water. I slipped down to my knees and began to take deep breaths, waiting for them to pass as I hoped they planned to.

When I stood, Hero was looking down upon me with his hand on the top of my head. I felt a sickening sensation of liquid sliding down my face and realized that some of the black tar had dripped from Hero‘s hand. I just let it drip, knowing that he would take me somewhere where I would find out just what was going on, and what was and would be happening to me.

Every word that was coming from his mouth was like being reborn into a world I didn’t recognize; one where I was supposedly meant to do what other people couldn’t, and sometimes know what people were thinking. Of course I had had a few instances where certain thoughts came painfully to mind which I associated with the thoughts of others and dictated for myself and my own amusement. There were also other times where I got so embellished that my head filled up with ideas which almost made me dizzy, like a Muse had landed and whispered in my ear. I had never taken any of it beyond its minor gravity, but I could admit to myself that it had occurred, and in the strangest of cases. I could not deny for a second that it physically hurt me. So why had I never needed to know about all this until now? Were the first 25 years of my life just too peaceful for the vitality gods to tolerate?

On the other side of the spectrum, the explosive headaches I’d had frequently since my departure from Dauna were anything but music. They were loud, unyielding, and seemed to come from right behind my eyes. It took me whenever it pleased, and threw me into an echoing mess of voices I neither recognized nor claimed. Thought-music...from the mind of someone else......but why were the thoughts so damn painful? And why, I thought over and over that day, was it so special? Why should I be the one to suffer inside the cramping mind of another? This day was of a thousand questions, it seemed. And the brightest question of all was Why didn’t I ever figure this out before I left the city?..and the immediate answer my own mind provided...Because in Utopia no one can read minds. It would just screw up the system, now wouldn’t it.

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The "String" was hardly what I would have imagined, if I would have had time to imagine anything at all. When Hero and I got there, it was nearly dark, and a billion new stars were finding homes in the oblivion above the mirrors where the moon floated. I had been searching through my pack for the small knife I had brought along, and had found with little surprise that it was gone. I had looked up to his ever-smiling face, and known in an instant that my favorite little knife was sticking in the back of Tattoo Face’s head by the Capitan gate. I didn’t know how he had done it, or why he had been waiting for me. The voice on the phone had been desperate and frustrated and weak, like a very old morphine addict. He had asked me if I was afraid. He had ignored my annoyed reply. He had started to speak of other things....I froze. He had asked me not to hang up, and I almost had. In the florescent glow of the police station, a man on my secretary’s telephone had asked me questions...about my mother. When I sarcastically stated I hadn’t talked with her much since her death, he asked me who had killed her.

Now I might not know everything about conversational skills, and how to handle when I am the victim of a wrong number, but I know enough to be shocked when someone asks about a relative who has been dead for over 20 years. Especially someone who doesn’t provide a name or any kind of connection. I thought it was okay for me to wonder why someone would assume that my dead mother had been murdered, when just the night before she had been mentioned by another stranger....and we had told no one.

Tattoo Face #1 had talked about her too.

Her death hadn’t been easy on any of us. My father had been working at a laboratory on the South end of Dauna at the time, and I was taking my daily nap at 1:30. I always spent my youngest of days in my father’s office, playing with one of his many computers or building elaborate cities with my huge set of blocks he kept under his desk. He would come in and out of the room all day, collecting stacks of paper or pulling microchips out of a small box on a high shelf, then go scurrying out as if the world‘s finest discovery was in his grasp. Even with his obvious amount of work ethic, there would always be time to share lunch with me. We brought our lunch to the lab every day, unlike most of the other scientists who went to the diners for their meals. I remember my father sighing one day when I asked him about those other scientists. He had said, "Cameron...most of those men eat at diners for every meal." I hadn’t really understood what he meant, but on the day before it happened, something had prompted him to explain it.

"Cameron," he said with a mouth-full of crumbs from the sandwich he was eating. "There are very few scientists here that have families to go home to. Most of them just sit here and work, day and night." He scratched the place above his eyebrows, which were trimmed neatly, like the rest of him. He swiped half-heartedly at the crumbs which had fallen on his lab coat, and put a hand on my shoulder.

"When they get hungry, they don’t go to the kitchen and yank on their mom’s pant leg. They go to the diner, to eat with all the other lonely folks. We’re lucky to have your mom to make lunches and dinners for us, aren’t we?"

I looked at him over the top of my juice tumbler and nodded, giggling at the thought of some old man going to the diner kitchen and tugging on one of the cooks’ pant legs. My father smiled back and went on eating his sandwich, his eyes relaxed and full of sweet contentment. That was the last lunch we had together at the lab, and also the last time I ever used a juice tumbler.

Now the mirrors all faded together, like a reflection in the water that spins and swirls when you touch it. I slid my hand along the surface of the shining black liquid, seeing my face as I hadn’t seen it in days. Smiling again. I only wish it had been from something more than just my saccharine memory of my father and tumble-cup. Instead, reality brought me to sadness and confusion I could see a thousand times as I looked around me.

Hero opened one of the mirrors at the center of the fountain and motioned inside to a pleasantly lit corridor. On the way in ahead of him, I inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of the evening. If not happiness, I had safety. Safety from being entirely alone as I had been in my vicious nightmares. I had seen the birds, and they had been real...but they had not hurt me. Would they have if he hadn’t been there? Part of me thought so, and the other part was too tired to think. I found the first half-way comfortable object in the room at the end of the hall- an over-stuffed dark blue couch- and lay on it immediately, slipping away into sleep like a hand into a liquid glove. For the first time that week, there were no dreams to haunt my rest.

I slept like a rock until the sun was directly overhead again, and the street was on fire with the red and white stripes of a bustling megalopolis. I had been contemplating on opening my eyes for a few minutes, wondering what I might see....or if I would see anything at all. When I finally did, my body filled with wakened energy and I was staring at the blue flowered pattern of an ordinary sofa. I lifted my head and waited for a headache to wake up with me. None did. I was alone in a quaintly furnished room with light blue walls and a huge skylight that showed a myriad of birds still flying in huge circles. Near my feet was a wooden door with an old fashioned door knob and blue piping at its edges. Through this door I could hear the muffled chatter of voices and the clanking of glass dishes. Suddenly, and without warning, I felt overly embarrassed for walking into the room and immediately falling asleep. I didn’t even know where I was or whose home it was, for that matter. What kind of Daunan native was I?

To combat my embarrassment, I knew the only thing to do was to apologize to whomever and attempt to build myself back up. If I was lucky, he or she would understand that I had been dead tired and completely wiped out from all the new knowledge he had forced me to accept the day before. It turned out not mattering much.

We sat around a rectangular table that morning, surrounded with maps and computers which all looked like they were operating in a different world. Someone they called Sentinel, a young, haughty man with bright blue eyes like my own who seemed to know the least about the equipment , was dealing out cards to an entire table of uninterested people. He spoke with a quick, sure tone which reminded me of some of my fellow officers, and of course that brought me thoughts of home.

As he dealt the cards with flickering cheater’s eyes, the game progressed no further. Hero spoke to the woman next to him about where he had taken me the day before, while I sat vacantly like a child who tagged along to a parent-teacher conference. Numerous times, the new woman studied my face through her shapely glasses like a chemist might study a tiny molecule of a miracle drug, shutting out whomever was speaking to her. From conversation, I gathered that her name was Angel, and she was indeed a scientist of some sort. It felt obscure to have so many people interested in my presence. For one thing, I had wandered in the room only minutes ago and everyone already knew who I was and where I came from. I had the paranoid sensation that they had at some point been watching me as I slept. Hero broke the paralysis before it became too much for me.

"Now, there’s several things we need to discuss as a team," he spoke while scanning the room and all its wonder. "Even more so, there’s lots of things we need to fill Mr. Bennington in on." I thought I noticed a sort of guilt in his eyes...and understood now more than ever that he wished I didn’t have to be a part of it. I nodded at him and waited for him to continue.

"He knows almost nothing about our operation, only that he is involved." Yes..just like Tattoo Face said I would be.

The eyes of two others passed over me in recognition, and they both smiled as if to say Welcome aboard, buddy. How calm and directed they were! Even the card shark seemed to know what was up. Hero kept his steady focus and spoke in the tone of a true business man, never once looking around at the other people, only the computers. All the while, his face was stern.

"First, I should make some things clear. I do my best to head this operation now, but many years ago, I was an aid to the government.... Certain situations led me to realize I needed a career change."

He nodded off to the woman on his left, his eyes meeting my own. It was quite obvious that he spared no time in detailed introductions.

"This is Angel," he continued in monotone. "Until recently, she was working as head scientist at the Doba Home, studying important aspects of the Spectran War...something we’ll discuss in great detail as this day progresses. It’s valuable to our group to have someone around who knows anything and everything there is to know about the Furies...and well, the Spectrans."

Of course there was a list of words from his dialogue which I neither understood or had ever heard of before, and I glanced around the table, most likely making it palpable. Angel and Sentinel were still looking at me with the same pallid, welcoming expressions, and Hero rambled on despite of his lack of audience.

"Sent here used to be a traveling salesman...but we wont hold that against him. He has a very special ability and can contribute nicely to the group....besides...he knows quite a bit about the land and towns surrounding this city. He will provide as a nice tour guide."

The afternoon progressed deeper and deeper into my own anesthesia. All of the talking and explaining really wasn’t doing anything for my crazy exhaustion. I hadn’t felt sure of myself in days, and the food that Hero placed in front of me that morning looked horrible to me, despite my raging hunger. From the misplaced words I had only gathered two things: Someone was after me, and I was in trouble. Yeah...thanks...already knew that.

The other three members of the nameless group had not been present, and after Sentinel’s elite coronation, the conversation had drifted away from introductions of those who were here and those who were not. It didn’t really matter...I wasn’t all that curious about them to begin with. A vast curtain of selfishness had formed over my mind.

I spent the night sleeping in a troubled ocean of unconsciousness in a hammock behind a heavy curtain while the others sat in a unific circle, most likely discussing reality. Before drifting off, I heard Hero enter the room with uncomfortable speed, and inform the others that someone they knew had died. I had no way of knowing then that the person who had died had formerly been part of their elite operation. Just the same, by morning, I was terrified beyond all bounds.

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If it hadn’t been such a beautiful evening, Zael would have most likely headed home for an early sleep in his dormitory. He would, in fact, have to wake-up early for research if he planned on finishing his term paper by the end of the week, which was an inevitable task. Instead, the purple sky welcomed him down the front steps of Montgomery Hall and onto the campus sidewalks, where the last signs of the morning’s picnics swirled around in the half-hearted breezes.

The presentation hadn’t been quite what he expected, or what any student with an interest more than "Hell, why not?" really expected. On the posters hanging around Gemton Dimes, the big spectacle had been described as "Every Student’s Biggest Question." No one had known for sure what it meant, or who was going to be speaking, and the biggest question of all was "What’s the big question?"

As it turns out, the presentation was given by various past students of the major dimes around Coverie, who were there to talk about their successes at Post-Dime Spectra. The crowd was a mere fifty for the six-hundred posters that were put up, but the speech was inclusive and thought-provoking for the few that stayed until the end. They had talked about Spectra, mostly, calling it "The Magic Lands of Higher Learning," in an attempt to convince us that the old legends of Spectra Magicians were history, not tales. At this point, about half of the spectators had gone.

Zael’s interest in magic wasn’t any higher than the average Gemtonite, but it was mid-evening on Sunday, which limited the access of the campus gates. There hadn’t really been anything else to do, except maybe to wonder what the speech had been about. So in conclusion, it hadn’t been too much of a waste of time....it had made him think.

 

The huge campus clock bonged its 8 o’clock hour as the last of the audience crossed the Quad back to their dorms (or a friend’s, or a girlfriend’s) and the Speakers took off through the heavily-guarded Gemton gates and down the only rock road in Coverie. The nearest hotel was probably two dozen miles away, and it would be quite a journey through the mountains tomorrow.

Zael, the conservative bad apple in eleven generations of liberal-minded Abernathys, doubted that anyone preaching for the Magicians would dare stay in Locke. With the Radical Furies wandering around with their guns, it was a risk for anyone who happened to step over the town line, Spectra-supporter or not. Locke was a scary place without the Furies- but with them it was anguish. More politicians angry at their own shadows...and yours, you might say.

The campus had cleared except for two young girls sitting on a park bench about 300 yards away, silent and staring into a single paperback novel in the cool white light of the street lamps. Above them, the silhouette of the Caughey Girls’ Dorm stuck itself starkly out against the top of the trees, protecting its little women from the dubbed dangerous, heart-breaking boys of the dorm across the Quad. Equally arrogant, the Lanster Boy’s Dorm curved around the Quad’s Crystal Fountain, its front arch doorway in a straight line from the place where the girls read congruously. The stars were dimming with some loose night-clouds, but Zael’s mind was on his term paper, and the horribly controversial subject he was about to pursue.

Zael’s feet found first the Crystal sidewalk, and eventually the Canterbury Bridge over the swirling "Crystal Stream." If he knew of any place to start his dreaded work, it was the Canterbury Building, also referred to as Gemton Dimes’ History Wing. He stopped only once to pick up a bit of trash which blew in front of his feet.....a Gemton Dimes brochure. Sarcasm stole his mind as he flipped through it’s wrinkled pages....oh how fancy the names on the Quad were! The much advertised "Crystal Stream" was hardly more than a creek running through the middle of campus, with high rouge-grass around it and sparkly fish-tank rocks poured into the bottom. At the same time, he realized that the creativity of the names in the brochures is probably what brought most people to Gemton Dimes, regardless of what they could afford. Even if it was just a school, this was the one element that held it above the others. Just as the mood had raised itself, it was gone in the chilling air...setting the scene for another uneventful night of fierce studying. Put that in your brochure, Zael thought without a smile. After a while, the fancy words and the glamour are all that keeps you here....and a man can only write so many papers in a world where words are simply graded.

With a tired little sigh, Zael marched on towards the Canturbury Building, tossing the wadded brochure into the tripping stream, making it a little less perfect.

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A hand was on my shoulder before I could turn into the light, but what I saw was more than enough to stop my heart.

When I opened my eyes, they had surrounded me. Their eyes were huge with revulsion against the sharp colorless blade of light cast on the wall behind them...from a sun which seemed to exist if only to shine in my eyes. They were saying something to each other, alarmed and spouting panic. I could see their mouths forming shapes and vowels, but could hear nothing. All there was around me was a spinning, incoherent mass of pain which concentrated right in the center of my forehead. I was still in that place between sleep and consciousness...and like a lobster stuck in the tide, I squirmed against a much more powerful force. I swatted at the light for what seemed like an eternity, bringing myself up higher and higher on the beach of my psyche. At last, Angel’s full lips spoke logical words, and the faces and eyes of the others receded to normality.

"They didn’t get him.....but...how?" Her voice was caringly soft and bemused, encased in a set of vocal chords connected to a mind which hardly knew me at all. One of the other men said something about my headache, in a mumble not meant to be analyzed.

Yes, and some headache indeed! If what Hero had said, offhandedly, about my brain-pains was true, then there was something very strong and very dangerous less than one hundred yards away. A semi-conscious museum display on the floor under a spilled hammock could do nothing against a stealthy predator. I got up on my elbows and stared them each in the eye, proving I was alert.

As if on cue, Hero’s booted feet planted beside my tired body from god knows where. Always those boots, I thought. They’re always there right after I should have died.

He stared down at me with eyes both calm and frantic....if any such combination has ever been brewed in one’s eyes. His lips curved into a questioning line, and he bent down to help me to my feet. His moves were swift, without the tired lack of valor I couldn’t help but expect. I swayed to catch my balance, and nearly went toppling over again on to the dusty floor. My eyes had finally adjusted to the light, and I could see through the window into the shimmering oblivion of Capitan. The vibrant-looking card man spoke carefully, as if he were speaking to a man with a loaded gun.

"How in the....?."

After moments of silence and my blatant misunderstanding, he continued.

"They walked right by a few minutes ago.....a whole crowd of them. Not the slaves, either....the, the real ones!"

Before he had finished, Hero had stepped in front of the window, casting an odd silver lining around his silhouette. He held up his hand in patient delay, and his eyes fixed on Angel, who responded with a simplicity.

"You’re planning on taking him away from here, aren’t you?" After another colorless moment, she shifted her gaze back to me. My, but her lips were full.

"You know...before we go scampering off, we need a plan."

I felt the whole group nodding simultaneously around me as Hero began to pace again, sending the beams of light from the mirrored city dancing around the room in an eerie strobe.

"Yes, a plan. A Destination! We’ve been running in circles for so long, I almost forgot we needed one!" A humorless laugh escaped his last syllable. "Don’t you think its time we apprehended the relic?"

The faces around me drained of verve and there were no words for almost a minute. Inside the quiet, an odd feeling had bubbled into life below my heart. A relic. How familiar, and yet, how foreign. Why was everyone so bizarrely entranced, and yet so calm and staring at their Hero? If I stayed with these guardians, would I come to look at him the same way they did, with their sparkling eyes and motionless breathing? I hoped not. I had far too much to worry about.

I opened my mouth and started talking. It was something I had been saving up for over the last few days with my silence and misunderstanding. That would all end right now. I would take no more waking steps until I knew just what I was doing...and who I really was.

I rattled off every thought in my head without stopping. I asked question after question and waited for no answer. I let my tongue slip and slide over my lips and teeth in a frenzy while my mind emptied itself into the air around me. After several minutes of widening eyes and pursing lips, I fainted. It was the first time it had happened since that day 20 years ago.

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She had been taken away so her husband and son would not find her body, but the presence of death was all the same when I went kicking and screaming back into the house in my father’s arms. The ironing board was set up in the main hallway, dad’s shirts and a pair of my nicest dress pants that I loathed with a thousand hellfires dangling from hangers nearby. She had been taken in the middle of her ironing. The second I realized this, I decided I would never wear those pants again, and if Dad ever even touched those shirts....

Father hadn’t panicked like me, but I could feel his heart pounding through his large ribcage just the same. I wondered if he would lose it at any moment, but he never did. He just dropped to his knees and stared down the hallway, convulsions beginning to take over his eyelids. I was bawling like the kid I was, wishing I could have spoken to her one last time. As it went, Dad had been the last person to hear her voice, and her dying scream had cut across the phone line like a siren. I had heard it from across the room, and my block tower had tumbled.

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I woke up in the crook of Angel’s arm, her soft voice coaxing me back into reality, or what was serving as reality today. When she saw my eyes open, she immediately frowned and lifted me into a sitting position, rather abruptly and without her usual patience.

"We need to get moving. Can you get up? Do you think you can walk?"

I mustered all my strength and did just that, tears splitting the surface of my eyes as I rose those few feet. It might have been the pain, the unreality, or even the memory I had just revisited. It could have easily been any of those things that kept me crying like an electrocuted maternity doll, but what I came to realize after a few miles on foot is that whatever it was, it was combined with my absolutely reckless longing for tranquility. There were times at the start of the trip that I had lashed out at my companions, requesting that they just leave me behind if they were in such a damn hurry. I knew it was ridiculous, and that they were sacrificing a lot of things for me....and I still didn’t really know why. I thought sadly that I probably wouldn’t have done the same thing for anyone else had the roles been switched. Maybe Utopia hadn’t trained me like it was supposed to....but if I had never left? There’s something to think about: The possibility that I could have become one of those burning embers if I had stayed just a few more hours.

I didn’t even want to acknowledge the vision of what could have happened to all of those people.

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The clocks had all stopped in Dauna. The dogs had ceased their cheerful barking and the clouds had been thrust from the piece of sky overhead. The sun would have been clear and pleasant, had there been anyone to enjoy it. A spectacular, horrible phenomena had taken the lives of over a million people in a matter of milliseconds, and what was left of the Peace City burned in thousands of tiny fires with invisible blue centers. All that remained was stone and earth; everything else had been seared away into dust.

Cameron Bennington had taken work off a few hours early- not entirely a big deal in the eyes of his colleagues. He had needed to take a few blocks of walking for the good of his mind, and had then decided to head home and begin packing. On his way out of the station lobby, he had made sure to grab a copy of this week’s "foreign papers," barely giving the cover page a glance before tucking it under his arm in hiding. Even the calm surface of his surroundings could not still his sudden and unyielding paranoia.

He had walked home in a sort of daze, interrupted only momentarily by a small child nearly smacking into him with a tricycle. He had clutched the papers even more firmly and picked up his pace. He had spared no time gathering his travel needs- just the basics and enough money to suffice for details later. Then he had left a key and note under the neighbors’ door asking them to please feed Peach while he was gone with the food in his kitchen pantry, and stepped onto the city brag to be taken to the East End. The back of the bus was empty except for a bike and one small boy who was busy listening to music through his electric bicycle helmet, and seeing no threat, Cameron took out the papers and began to read.

About 9 hours later, as he peaked the Grand Summit, the electric generator powering Dauna exploded into a million pieces, showering the city and sky with white-hot fire. A small boy had been riding his bicycle on the pavement behind the police station and had noticed a figure scaling the wall on the second story, making its way over to the generator bridge. Frightened of this strange creature, he had ridden away towards home briskly, not even taking time to turn on his musical helmet.

--------------------------------

Zael stretched methodically, hearing the crackle and pop of his lower back as he did so. In his mind, he prepared for a night of sitting, staring, and writing. Such things needed to be conditioned for.

The lobby of the history wing was dark except for one green table lamp burning off against the back wall. The hallway leading from the back of the lobby to the library area was bright and welcoming, killing any sort of ominous look the darkness of the entrance might have had. Zael made his way through the shadowy high-ceilinged room, careful not to bump his shins on any chairs or tables. As he turned the corner into the bright hallway, a series of thuds and surprised breathing came from a stairway leading downstairs. Probably just the night-janitor, Mr. Truax, Zael thought comedially. Mr. Truax had been a legend of Gemton Dimes’ history...and the butt of many Gemton Dimes jokes. There was little else to say. With a quiet laugh, he continued on towards the library, remembering some of those jokes with a smile.

He had been reading and studying for nearly an hour..and had just begun to become really engrossed in the information, when the double doors to the library rattled open and Mr. Truax entered with a bucket and mop, spouting curse words at the heavy doors. He was a short, stocky man with a thick black beard and beady eyes. Many of the students had taken to calling him a gnome, or other such height-challenged fairy-tale creatures. He had strangely sunken cheek bones and some extra skin on his jowls, giving him a dead man’s stare that wasn’t quite scary enough to frighten anyone...only make them laugh behind his turned back. Upon noticing he was not alone, Mr. Truax turned and bowed his head in acknowledgement.

"Nice to see a young man studying."

Zael didn’t know what to say. Thank you? Nice to see a short guy mopping? Not to his face, anyway. But something about the situation and being alone caused him to reply politely, "Thank you, sir. How are things in this building tonight?"

The short janitor looked slightly surprised at the response, most likely expecting something far less cordial. Feeling comfortable, he began to talk to Zael while he mopped, oblivious to the fact that studying generally required quiet and lack of distraction. For now, though, it was alright.

As the evening progressed, Mr. Truax didn’t seem to be such a bad guy. A little windy at times, but not threatening or even jest-worthy anymore. He had talked about the smell of the floorwax being similar to the smell of new bullets....which prompted talk of his military experience. From there, he began to discuss all of the maintenance that needed to be done on this particular building- including replacing the obsolete air-tight door leading into the boiler room downstairs.

"Yep...you just don’t want old out of date stuff sitting around anymore. Likely the inspectors’ll come by some day and take away all our government money." He ranted as he picked up his mop and wrung it out into his bucket of now grimy water. "Speaking of which, I’d better get down there and start the heat up for the morning classes. Care to give an old man a hand?"

Once again, what could he say? No, sorry, I’m studying and you’ve already wasted enough of my time? Maybe just No. But what excuse did he really have...for he hadn’t really began writing his paper at all. He would just have to spare five minutes to help out the poor pitiful old janitor.

As he followed the gnomish man down the stairs into the utility area, Zael let his mind wander back to the brochure he had picked up on the lawn. How would Mr. Truax look posed invitingly in front of the crystal stream on the cover? Oh, the true life that goes covered. Maybe he’d make a reality suggestion for next year’s advertising....if he ever got out of this awful building.

-----------------

Carl Wittacker was only annoyed in a minor way, but he found himself panting in frustration when Harnom finally left him alone in the cell office. He was sure that if Bennington had been present during the recent argument, he would have stood by him with unyielding support. As it was, Cameron had spun off somewhere for the afternoon and Wittacker had been dealing with all of the details concerning the new prisoner- and whatever other mindless chores Harnom had to offer.

It had been a long time since that cell had even had to be used, and today it was holding a captive who seemed to be in the highest of extremes. When it rains, it pours, the old folks say.

Carl had been on the phone with a shopkeeper from the area of Dauna known as Silver Lake. There was no lake anywhere to be seen, but due to the sudden drop of the land past the streets named after trees, a person looking out their window into the slanting main intersection of the area could see an illusion which appeared to be a body of water simmering in the depths. Some called it a quick-silver…for it was a fleeting illusion that could only be seen during certain hours of the day, and never for more than a few seconds at a time. Most people scarcely recognized it anymore.

The shopkeeper was a man named Harold Deniss, who had a long-running deal with the officers of the West End. He was a self-proclaimed expert in military weaponry, though how could he possibly know such a thing in a city with no army? Deniss made sure the force always had a steady supply of whatever new gadget he had cooked up that week…things they rarely used in utility but often played around with for their own entertainment. Often times the new item was a piece of apparel designed for protection against some type of element, such as the waterproof body-suits he had designed that had ended up coming in handy at the force picnic when there had been an impromptu hose fight. Other claims to fame had been the anti-P vest that Harnom himself had complained about cutting off the circulation in his armpits, as well as the various small pyrotechnics that had been used on occasion to calm down an enthusiastic mob of teenagers circling some day-famous celebrity. Today, Harold Deniss was complaining about the amount of his newest product that the force had decided to use up carelessly.

"This one has a lot more potential than the others." He claimed for what might have been the third time in their conversation. "I really wish you guys would quit playing with my inventions and actually put them to good use."

"I rarely have anything to do with it, I assure you that," Wittacker responded with half a smile, remembering the hose incident and how easily he had crept up behind James Fordice. "Anyway, why do you care? You’re being paid handsomely for these knick-knacks."

Harold let out an audible sigh. "This is just terrible. I think you guys ate up my whole supply. I don’t even know if I have a single prototype."

Carl pulled a notepad from his desk drawer that was neatly filled with lines of documented transactions. At the top was the listing of products they had tested for Harold Deniss this month, followed by the notes that he had always hoped would serve as nice constructive criticism for Deniss’s practices.

"It says here…" he began thumbing through the notes and trailing off in his reading. There were a lot of products this month, but no ridiculous numbers in terms of quantity. "It says here that we turned down a test of your last product."

Deniss was becoming impatient, and clearly in despair over his lost invention.

"Someone picked up the full two-hundred and fifty lot yesterday morning. Can you double check with your chief? Please!"

"Alright, alright," Carl spoke softly in an attempt to calm the man down. He understood the uneasiness; it certainly wouldn’t hurt him to ask around a little. "I’ll call you back when I know something, alright?"

Just as he was replacing the receiver into its cradle, Harnom was entering the room with a bored look about him.

"Wittacker." He pulled up his pants absently and addressed Carl without really looking at him. "There’s something I need you to take care of."

"As long as it doesn’t have anything to do with this guy Deniss, I’m all ears. He’s so whiney it’s making my future grandchildren cringe."

Harnom smiled with good humor, his eyes finally meeting Carl’s in what seemed like genuine sympathy.

"Actually the job I have for you is pretty important, unlike anything that absent-minded inventor brings to life. Listen…" He trailed off unexpectedly, his attention caught by something the prisoner was doing. Carl turned to see the tattooed convict standing as close as he could to them, gripping the bars and smiling menacingly. Harnom shrugged it off after a moment and continued.

"I think we need to get him out of here. There is a lot of talk spreading around the West End about us having a prisoner. People are getting a little worked up. I need you and Fordice to escort him to the boundaries and give him a nice gentle shove back into the hills."

Carl couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was true that they knew very little about the man they were holding behind bars, but what they did know was that he had intended to somehow harm Cameron. He had even threatened murder. Murder was something that Dauna probably wouldn’t know what to do with, even if it poked them in the eye.

"Are you sure that’s such a good idea, Chief? I mean…if he was harmless, Cameron wouldn’t have brought him in. Speaking of which, where is Bennington?"

Harnom sighed and sat heavily in the only empty chair in the room.

"He left earlier this afternoon and hasn’t checked in. I can only assume he’s resting… but I was just about to have Lana give him a ring at home before she heads out for the night."

"Probably a good idea." He turned to take another glance at the prisoner, who hadn’t moved an inch. The smile seemed to be frozen on his ink-laden face; drawn on by some strangely disturbed carnival artist. "Is that all you need, Sir?"

"For now, Carl. You know me...just as impulsive as ever with my requests." He tipped Carl a strange wink that seemed to say I know what you kids say about me behind my back. It seemed good-humored enough. Harnom had always been fairly pleasant to deal with, which is only to be expected in a job as ridiculously easy as his. He was rising from the faded chair across the desk, pulling up his pants once more. Carl figured now would be as good a time as any.

"Sir? Harold Deniss was complaining about our use of his latest."

Harnom huffed out a chuckle that turned into a cough, thanks to his good friends Pall and Mall. He shook his head when it subsided and cleared his throat matter-of-factly.

"You tell that mad scientist that I wouldn't let the force play with his circuit-balls to save their lives. I'm used to being the target of pranks around here and I don't want the boys putting a bunch of those things in my office fridge...or my car, for god sake!"

"Circuit-balls, Sir?"

"Well, the way Harry described them, they were supposed to use the electricity in a field and short-circuit it in a way that doubles its efficiency...or something loony like that. It sounds to me like a good way to lose your pulse. Don't let him bother you about that anymore tonight...you have real police work to be doing."

With that, he turned on his heavy heel and strolled, whistling, out of the room. As the light-gray industrial door snapped closed behind him, Carl turned back to the prisoner slowly, being sure to act as if he just happened to be in his line of sight. The truth of the matter was that he was checking on him; needing to be sure that terrible silly smile wasn't still on his face. He was relieved to see that it was not so. The man they had all become used to calling Tattoo Face was leaning nonchalantly against the outer wall of the cell on his right shoulder, which was just flush with the lower edge of the barred window.

"Gazing out at the stars, buddy?" Carl asked with what he hoped would appear as a mocking smile. Intimidation had never been his forte, but he was no quitter.

"Something like that." The Inked man replied without redirecting his attention, the spider highlighted in one beam of neon light.

--

 

The village of Jau had been in complete ruin, as a mass of burning brush and broken stone. Behind it’s surface, a sunset more beautiful than anything I had seen since home rose to a curtain of clouds. A grove of trees off to the east at the base of the Locke Mountain gorge caught the last glitters of the sun as it sunk below their tops, casting its pink-yellow blanket over what would soon be a shining moon. What an irony that such beauty should come out of such horrible destruction.

To my new comrade, Picket, it was just another illustration to the tragic story of his life, and he was for once, bitter. The sunset held no splendor for his eyes, nor his heart, just as no lovely thing could at this point. If time were on its way for healing him, it would have to spare a few hundred more of its gorgeous twilights to his horrible feelings, and time would be lost just the same. He had used up his last drop of optimism on my good result, and I had hoped that somewhere there wasn’t a burning resentment for me in his psyche even before he saw my face.

The others were wandering about the village, searching through the torn remains for this so-called relic, or Picket himself. All there seemed to be were flames, and their odd solidarity with the colored sky. When I found him, I could only sit on a stone and try to meet his dazed stare, waiting patiently for something new to happen; something to break the strange, silent and indignant mood. There was only the sound of crackling fire and the crunch of few footsteps ahead, where Angel and Sentinel walked.

"Something strange about this little village." I commented from a face which was turned away. "You’d think there’d at least be a motive."

To my new acquaintance, it was apparent that I was only concerned with the ruin of this peaceful village, and not the big picture, which was much worse.

He stared into a small fire catching the brush at his feet, and kicked it away almost nonchalantly. "And would it matter to you...stranger...if I told you that whoever did this was looking for the relic?"

"Perhaps not....," I answered quickly, "but you might say my curiosity has overcome my feelings of complete desperation." I could not meet his eyes. "I wish it were the same with you, friend."

As if on command, the dark cloud covering the moon diminished. I could see all I needed to know about my new comrade, without even looking at his thoughts. His lighted face showed a drastic change, and his eyes shifted to find mine with a painful glower.

"Friend, sir?" He got to his feet and stepped back to face me, his companion. "And why on earth would you refer to me as friend? You think I can just forget about what is going to happen to us....to all of us?!"

I opened my mouth to speak, and shut it under the anger I would be speaking against. Of course he had every right to be afraid, and I imagined I would probably handle it much worse if it was me in his place, but didn’t we all have our own misery? Did he not understand that I had escaped death by an inchgrip, over and over, only to lose my entire life, along with an entire city? And Angel....a complete refugee, running from the very people she had spent her life learning about, while Sentinel had come upon his involvement simply be defending himself against a theif? If one man’s agony could kill a human spirit, what could the agony of five accomplish?

He saw the consideration in my moves, but it did not cool his eyes.

"I see you finally understand me....friend."

"Yes...but you must learn to understand us all, as a whole."

"You think you're a part of US? You've only caused us problems." His faced turned away, almost in fear of the reaction to such a strong remark.

Not knowing what to say, I let my eyes leave the village, to gaze across to the nearby gorge. Picket had a right to be upset. His partner, Armor they called him, had been killed only two days ago on the outskirts of Capitan, defending Picket and himself against a grou of tattooed men. He had been surrounded and taken instantly, leaving Picket only the option to flee, and word had spread fast back to the String of what had happened. Picket had nearly been crushed by what he had seen. We had found him on our way through the brush lining the path to Jau, crouched in hiding and obviously a bit out of his mind. He had sworn to sever himself from the group until Hero finally convinced him with talk of the relic.

 

Back in reality again, I shivered against a soft breeze.

If we could walk through the valley tomorrow, we would reach the high road by late afternoon...and that meant onward and upward to Locke. Hero wouldn’t like it, and Angel would scold my priorities, but a future plan was just as important to the party as finding this relic was now. One more day, and they would have their feet on the ground.

Picket snorted with disgust, which was probably, in turn, his admittance to symbolic defeat. He sat back down on the stone and locked his hands together in his lap, his gold ring reflecting the firelight.

"Yes." He said simply. "I suppose what you say is true....and I should learn to move on to a challenge."

"Until it’s over. If we do what we’re out to do.....," I paused, watching a flock of bright hued birds fly above the village and off towards the gorge. "you can grieve when it’s over."

That night, Picket and I sat together and watched the shadows of the firelight dance on the ruined lives before us, thinking of anything and everything which seemed like hope. When the others had finished their rounds and decided that I must have found Picket, they arrived together, surprised by our silence. When Hero had stepped up and noticed the empty look on Picket’s face...he had called a palaver. Then, to my surprise, he had asked me to please leave them alone to their meeting. For the first time since my arrival in Capitan two weeks ago, I felt truly shut out. I walked down the side of a nearby grassy slant and kicked at a cluster of bright-colored mushrooms with tops stained by fire, taking my anger out on my own simmering mind and wondering how long it would be before they decided to ditch me permanently. Two words floated down the slant from their lofty meeting place, highlighted by the leaping flames of the controlled fire we had built- "Stolen" and "Locke."

 

 

 

 

 

The city was in ruins, just as Cameron had seen, but the willow trees that marked the entrance to the rubbled metropolis were swaying softly in the morning’s calm breezes, oblivious to the destruction.

The wire gates of town were mangled and thrown aside like tornado debris over a black, twisted pile of rags that could have been a man at some time. All of these things were high on a mass of metal, hanging off of one side. The crushed metallica appeared to be a smashed meter-box.

"Ohhh..," Picket’s eyes turned simultaneously away with Angel’s as they documented it’s matching meter-attendant. Sentinel scuffed up behind them, his eyes wide with something like half-astonishment and half-plain interest.

"This is your perfect city?" he reached out into a grand gesture that was almost comical, like a showcase in a lottery with rock-salt hands, his face a stark red. "It’s....it’s a landfill!"

From somewhere ahead of the others, Cameron’s voice drifted back in the stretching ruin, not in words, but in shaky, strange sounds, like under-oiled wheels turning against an antagonist of rust and steel.

"My home." he whispered, now speaking clearly. His stomach felt like fire, but it would do no good to let it affect his brain. He had crossed through the gates where the others now stood, through a hole in a jagged fence where he had seen a small child’s Spring-horse, black and melted. Oddly, this had brought him more sorrow than the dead meter-man, and he was afraid of what might happen if he passed by Spring Street or the park. He was afraid of what he might look like to the others. He turned back to them, seeing only the rubble around them and not their shocked faces.

"I can’t call it home anymore." There was no desperation or anger in his voice, only blank disbelief, parch as autumn sand. His eyes never left the town’s face, and he thought for one strange moment that he might stand here forever, staring, if he didn’t move now.

So...was there anything else to do but keep going? Maybe, if they walked another twelve or so miles before dark, they would reach the summit where Cameron spent his first night on the run. Maybe they would reach Locke by morning, or possibly early tomorrow afternoon. That would still be good time...but as it goes, the low-spirited five- now including their solemn fellow groupie, Picket- spent their night in Dauna, the Shattered Citadel.

Cameron’s insides were a knot of nervosa and melancholy as they wandered the first streets, looking about themselves like birds. The park where he had picnicked with Peach was a brown, dead graveyard, full of silent children and their burned toys and games. The others were terrified with the death surrounding them, their wide-eyes flicking back and forth across the landscape and their mouths opening to say words they could not come up with, but Cub could only sigh. All of his friends and neighbors were dead, most likely laying in their beds or at their kitchen tables, with rocks on their floors and dust in their hair. The other officers were probably blown apart like rag dolls against the outer city limits...for they were the closest. He found himself thinking....if only I had been there with them, this strange sort of remorse would not be replacing my necessity for depression. He considered turning back toward the city gate to lead the others away from the cavernous pain.

And then he heard a head-voice.

He wasn’t really sure if it was the way the others looked at him as he clutched his aching head in agony, his feet walking directionlessly as he squinted in pain, or the way they seemed to not look at him at all that convinced him to abandon them. When he heard the screams and felt his hands reach out toward a barred window that really was not there, they had shifted nervously on their feet and glanced at each other. They hadn’t been interested, or even concerned. They had been uncomfortable, and they had literally turned and walked away from him.

Cameron had no doubt that if his head hadn’t been filled with the thoughts of some strange Daunan survivor, he would have heard each of theirs brains speaking loud and clear in the deathly air. The only dialogue he heard over the screaming tone behind his eyes was that of Picket, the man who had lost his "partner" to the furies. The mistrusting looks that has circulated after his comment were enough to send Cameron running, still clutching his temples. The sun had settled 20 degrees on the distant Arons by the time he heard footsteps behind him. They seemed to be only a block or so back, but it would no doubt dent his bubble of pride to turn around, with hope flashing in his dark eyes. Perhaps he was taking it all too seriously, but that didn’t matter. All that was important now was making it to the jail before dark, and finding the origin of this head-voice. It had to be Tattoo Face! Who else would be giving him this awful brain pain?

If he was going to find this creature, he had best find it alone.

He had passed his old apartment a while back, and had stood sullenly in front of it like it were some strange mosaic he couldn’t quite figure out. It’s front was black and full of pointed metal which had stabbed into it through flight, with shattered windows and dark, menacing innards. He had lost about ten minutes gain on the others by stopping to ogle, but what did it matter. At the time, there was no guarantee that anyone was even coming after him. The sight of the old place had shut all doors to his mind anyway, so what was the use batting it around anymore?

As the echoing steps grew closer, they clarified themselves into a single set of feet. For one moment, he walked faster, thinking that it might be the wrong kind of follower. Why would one of his group come alone? To wish him off with the best of cheery luck so he could die on his own? At least they wouldn’t have lost another comrade to death by Fury. Picket would be pleased.

He turned back on his path and saw Angel, shuffling at three-quarter pace after him. Angel’s face had sunk almost down to her neck, and she looked seconds from tears. Her canvas shoes, which were shockingly spotless above the cold, cracked, and muddy sidewalk, were slowing their pace to a sad walk which made him go weak with guilt. If anyone would have come after him, it was Angel...and here she was, but would he give in?

"Did you all decide to let me take the grand tour alone, Angel, or are you staying with me?" His tone was shorter than he would have liked, but once it was out, it was out for good. The voice of dignity blared out in contempt.

If these people are ignorant enough to abandon a situation as vital as this, they may as well go off and die together, without my interference. Why would they come after ME when I’m the only reason they’re in this mess to begin with?

Angel was gesturing in admitted defeat, panting.

"I‘m so sorry about what happened in Jau last night!"

He couldn't help but think that what had happened in Jau was beyond explanation and apology.

"There’s no way you could have every Fury in existence after you if you weren’t....and...well..why shouldn’t I believe you?" She had been talking in one breath, and when she got no immediate reply, she let it out in one long, voiced sigh.

Even with Angel‘s lowered defenses and her complete gesture of belief, there was something about her timing that displeased Cameron. His hard, sarcastic reflex had not dimmed enough for politeness just yet, and a distant part of his mind was hoping it soon would.

"Is this your stab of conscience, or did it come from the whole team? I’d hate to think I had split the audience."

"Don’t say it like that, Cameron. You know it’s hard to believe for people who have never seen anything like it before." For everyone...and not everyone’s ignorant. Does he think I'm ignorant?

Cameron caught her last thought like a pop fly, realizing that this may be the best moment to prove to her that he was, in fact, on the level.

"Well, if it means anything," he began, flipping his hand in a pass-off gesture, "I’m just glad you’re not ignorant."

Her cheeks flushed lightly, and whatever normally resided behind her eyes was, for the time being, going on a little trip. Her face was as blank as a child’s at the mention of something complicated and adult.

"And you can read thoughts?" her slow lips questioned still half-skeptically, and he still thought he heard a click of disbelief in them. There are live roses in the library.

"Yes, I can....sometimes. What color are they?"

Just as he had not expected, but hoped would happen just the same, Angel’s face lit up like a dark photograph under candle light.

"I have never been more sorry, Cameron."

The thought of roses in the library had given him a warm feeling, like maybe this journey was getting him somewhere. If there were live roses in a destroyed building, there could be other diamonds in other roughs. In time, maybe the other objects that represented the sudden twist in his existence would bloom, too.

Angel was shaking her head and presenting an off-center, senile smile. She was happy to be proved wrong, as it seemed. It was like revelation for the scientist who didn’t believe in them. Cameron’s callousness had left him while he thought, upon gazing at Angel, that nothing about his life was quite rational. Not even the twisted trees that circled the block where they now stood.

So, he said nothing, only offered his arm. Angel took it, and they walked forward on his intended path, glancing at each other quizzically. Angel’s face crumpled slightly, and she looked like she might cry. Cameron brushed her hair away from her welling eyes and tried to find the words to ask what would happen next. None came for a while, and that was enough time for the others to start looking for them.

There was something to be found in Demolished Dauna...that was obvious. That alone was something to hold on to with an iron grip.

He was lost in thought, but she was looking up at him, puzzled at his lack of words. After a few blocks of walking without a sound, she began to stare at the cracked cement appearing and disappearing below her feet and the rutted, soft layer of mud. What had she gotten herself into? She just hadn’t thought about that. She also didn’t think about whether or not "psychic" meant anything. He could read her thoughts, but he hadn’t read them all. If he had, he would drop her arm this instant and go running off into his long lost Dauna sunset. He wouldn’t be standing there staring ahead with his feet in perfect sync with her own, and her long hair lying on his shoulder. There were so many things he should not know.

He had never seen the bloody battlefield in his mind. He had only heard about the war where the Spectrans swirled their magic bodies through the air, fighting with only their souls on their side. He hadn’t read the thousands of stories about the day it all happened, and about the bodies laying everywhere, in every crack and crevice. And about the Furies...and their strange new tactics. But he would, if he could hear her painful thoughts, and know that she WAS keeping something from him. It was something that she couldn’t bear to watch him understand. That, and she thought she might have a secret that would shock them all.

He turned to face her now, his silver chain glittering against the almost vacant sunny streaks. At first, she was sure he had "heard", and that she would have a lot of explaining to do. How would she say it and how could she avoid his dark, stabbing eyes? Instead, he stared into her blue ones with them, gripped her tiny hand and squeezed it affectionately.

"I think I do need you....all of you. Where are they now, Angel?"

"We were all going to meet at the center of the city....where those chrome figures are."

Behind the Police Station.

There weren’t many corpses, but of course, it was a gigantic explosion. The only people that could have been recognized would be the ones at the outer limits, but the odds for them were also quite low. The people of Dauna had been fried to a airy crisp in the electric field, and there was nothing artistic about the way the pieces of past existence had been strewn about.

That little Head-Voice was speaking to him constantly now. It had transformed into a howling little frantic thought that became clearer and clearer as they walked. He did not overlook Angel’s hidden-happy glances at him every once and while, and he thought by now she must at least take him seriously. Would that really be so bad in a world so torn apart? Even if any connection he allowed to form with anyone else had every intention of getting in the way of what HAD to be done on this mission? He had little choice, for now the voice was demanding his full attention.

At first, it had been a memory-thought. One about the explosion. Now he could see the inside of one of his own jail cells perfectly, and the eyes which looked around its close, stony walls were now looking through a window from about seven feet away. They were thinking about an elderly man, possibly a family member, who they very badly needed to see. They were also incredibly quick in thought. Whoever it was, it would be an experience and a half when he finally reached the owner of this mind. If only he could depend on such a hope with his whole life...and isn’t that what all of this really came down to?

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Zael handed the man a wrench to turn the heavy knob on the boiler, and stood back to watch the spectacle. The boiler was huge and overwhelmingly barbaric. It was made of dark steel and stone and connected to pipes and passageways going all directions. At its core was a blazing fire so large it made both of them sweat immediately. Mr. Truax handed Zael his heavy tool belt and turned the knob, causing a metal bar to move up and down in the blaze, redirecting its path a little further out and into the main pipes.

The cloudy heat of the room was beginning to sting Zael’s eyes and ears, and through the rumbling of furnace parts, he asked the custodian politely if he could step out for a moment. After several moments of no response, Zael set down the belt on a nearby stool, turned on his heels, and stepped into the dark landing beneath the stairs. On the way through, he stubbed his toe painfully on the doorstop, bringing an unpremeditated curse word from his lips. What a night, he thought to himself. What a night indeed.

The cool breeze from the upper hallway greeted his stinging face as he turned towards its wonder. It wasn’t until the soft creaking of the metal door turned into a blurry hum that Zael realized he had removed the doorstop. He reached a quick hand out to catch the door, but it had been swinging shut while he absorbed the upstairs oxygen, and it slammed loudly cutting off all sound from the boiler.

Sound-proof, he thought proudly, what does the government have against this marvel?

The peace and quiet was riveting, but he knew a shut door with the fires raging inside would suck up available air pretty fast. He grasped the stone handle and pulled the door towards him. His automatic mind pictured the door swinging slowly open towards him, requiring him to step back out of its way to go back inside.....but reality was telling him the door wasn’t moving.

Annoyed with the stuck door, Zael kicked at it comically, ready to administer all of his strength, but once again, the door didn’t even tremor. It was locked tight.

He knocked, wondering if Mr. Truax would be kind enough to let him back in. Once again, no answer.

Good, he mused. Studying is a better idea anyway.

With a light heart, Zael made his way back into the thick, fabulous cool air coming in through the open windows of the ground floor. Thinking back on his paper topic, he was fascinated at not being interested by it before. It was now completely and utterly popular to his psyche! Especially after being in the hot basement where there certainly wasn’t enough air for a brain to appreciate much of anything.

He picked up the book at the bottom of his stack and flipped open to the title page. The Lore of Spectra. With a smile, his eyes began tracing the type.

A story and a half below him in the boiler room, former Sgt. Truax of the East Footmen battalion fumbled slowly on his oversized metal ring for the key to unlock the airtight door, breathing in short, heavy wind. After several moments of trying to remember whether it was the round or oval-shaped gold key that did the trick, he decided to go ahead and try one. Reaching up to the door handle, he gasped in ironic shock. There was no keyhole on this side of the door....only the pale gray surface of the cruel metal.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In the dark entryway of the library lobby, a slender, shirtless man leaned against the secretary’s desk with a restful slump. He had wound his way through the glittering walkways of this ridiculous place, the blackness eventually rubbing off of his feet and onto the newly-cut grass. Now he was taking a little breather and helping himself to a peppermint courtesy of Miss Nora Canterbury, according to the name plate. His back stiffened slightly at the sight of the framed portraits surrounding the desk- Isaac Canterbury, first college President, Carl Canterbury, chief patron, David Canterbury, first Dean of the College. All Canterburys holding large wads of cash and a political tie to the governor. Oh how he would have loved to be alive in their time, when money was all that mattered.

After his little rest he would start searching for this so-called clue that was said to lie in this particular library. The one that would lead him straight to the relic, wherever it may hide. The others were close on his tail, and they, like him, had found the relic stolen from its official place of rest. While they moved slightly east towards Locke, he had gone straight North to Coverie, tipped off by the traveling lecturers he had overheard while excavating at Post-Dime Spectra.

The speakers had come and gone, but the clue would be here, he was sure. And what easier way to retract it than in the middle of the night when the building was empty? He wouldn’t even have to make a scene. Perfect. In the breezy entry-way, he slung his sash over his bare shoulder so the black seal fell just below his bulging right deltoid, showcasing the intricate spider design embroidered in silver thread.

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The light silhouetting the charred carcass of Dauna was beginning to fade now, the shadows reaching their fingerless hands further toward the east. The team of explorers was split, slowly making their way through different parts of the city, both sure they were looking for the most important part of the mission.

Picket slowed his pace a little; a necessary move to enhance his inner thought. Hero looked on, assuming his friend’s quiet pensiveness had something to do with Armor. They had all been dealing with the strains and silent mourning that was inevitable, but Picket was by far the closest to the man that had given himself to save the group. That part, Hero hoped Picket would never have to know.

The two had been partners for an eternity. Long before the String had ever even been established to fight the corruption in the government, Picket and Armor had been "partners in crime"- meeting up on the weekends in special places all over the hills to discuss their vast plan for the overturn of the capital city. As teenagers, it was all fun and games- a conspiracy plan that involved impossible steps and a certain lack of realistic knowledge. They had both joined the String months later, a rebel group which had started with two members and grown to one hundred, only to dissipate again when the government put a warrant on the members. As things wound down, only twelve members remained, but they were twelve incredibly dedicated people who the leader said could make up for the other 80-some traitors. One night while Picket and Armor stole away into the plains to continue their ritual of secret meetings, Armor had told him he had to go back home for a while.

"Why?" Picket had asked with an almost amused disbelieving tone. "You’ve been on your own for years now, and the String is finally beginning to come through! Why now?"

Armor had brushed away the bright, golden strands of hair that always feel annoyingly in front of his eyes. He sighed heavily, not wanting to say anything that would annoy his friend further.

"It’s a very long story."

It had been, but when it was done, both boys were completely sure that going home was just what Armor needed to do. Out there once again on the grassy slope where they met time and time again, Picket had relaxed into a sad puddle of acceptance. Still, he felt righteous, knowing he would have done the same had he been given the choice.

Hero squinted against the harsh, striking colors that were settling in the West. All he could see of Picket now was the soft glow of light around his silhouette....but he could see plainly that the man was carrying slumped shoulders and a drooping head. He did not appear to be at all concerned with his healing arm, which hung limply at his side like a rag. Hero thought it might be better to let him sort things out for himself, but something was clawing at his heart that he eventually came to recognize as the desire to set things right...everything! As if he had the power. There were still things he had best not know, and talking to him would only tempt them to slip from his own lips.

The night Armor was killed had started off with a fabulous homecoming. Picket had walked quickly up the stone path leading between the last two houses on the outskirts of town. He had stopped for only a moment in the shadow of the larger house to pet a fluffy white cat that had been watching him arrive from a windowsill. As the shadows grew darker, he knew he should hurry along. On a day like today, he could spare time only to share his joy with his fellow creatures, and no more. He must get to the rock top before the sun set completely, or he might end up waiting yet another day for what he had already waited so long for.

When he circled the boxy remains of an underground well, he listened to the water gurgling in the deep. It sounded a million miles away, like a whisper from another world. He did not stop to look down inside...just began jogging, hoping to make up for lost time. He felt glad to have such a slender, light-weight body as he climbed the small overhang leading to the landing of "the rock," and once again as he leapt over the 6-foot recess between boulders. He conquered another boulder, and then another, until finally he could see Armor’s athletic frame crouching at the top, waiting. His heart jumped into the heavens.

It had been just like old times. Armor had told him of home, the town that’s name Picket had never heard of. He spared many details that Picket hoped would come out later...but right now it didn’t matter. He just wanted to get them both back into the city and settled down for an autumn like it used to be. In the morning, they would take the underground pathway to the center of the city and Picket would share the fabulous news with the others- Armor was back in action, and they could begin Project Jau as soon as possible. His limbs tingled with the thought of how they would all light up...and how he and Armor might even be the ones the group picked to lead the mission.

As they walked back toward town, the air grew steadily darker around them until only the town lanterns lit their steps. It was a good hour’s trek across the hills, plains...small villages whose inhabitants didn’t like them being referred to as "suburbs." Nothing mattered, though, besides the fantastic feeling that he was finally back. That feeling alone could get him to Locke and back, if that was ever, God forbid, necessary.

As they came to the stony gap between outer homes, a soft meowing echoed in the dark. Armor knelt immediately to collect the snowy animal into his arms, recognizing her from his last walk through his grassy tunnel. She cuddled her face into his neck, eventually swatting at the long strands of golden hair that fell even farther down behind the young man’s ears. Picket was not surprised that every creature they should come across would be enthusiastic about Armor’s arrival....for nothing else in the world could touch the feeling of having one’s best friend back after so long.

One moment the cat was purring heavily, nuzzling at every crevasse of his face, the next, she squirmed and jumped out of his arms without a decent goodbye. Both boys grunted in surprise, Armor chuckling as he rose to his feet. A soft blackness was passing over the stone path below the lanterns, ominously cutting off light from the grass at their feet. Whatever it was seemed to be fast and mobile, like a bird. Picket looked up and towards the street just as the first loop of rope caught his staggered ankles and turned his body up-side-down. A small, strange sound escaped his throat, and he was suddenly staring directly into Armor’s blue-green eyes, which were wide with shock and confusion beyond any the cat could have given them. They had both been flipped and hung by invisible ropes sitting in the tall grass- the ropes now trailing from their feet all the way up to the peaked roof of the South house.

"A....p...prank?!" Picket managed to speak out as their bodies slowed their swinging arcs.

Armor was wildly trying to pull the pitknife from his ankle pocket, but the gravity and angle of this body prevented his arm to reach far enough.

"Personally, I could have come up with something better." he mused, finally managing to knock the knife out of his pocket into thin air. Picket caught it with a very coincidental dangling hand.

The ropes cut easily, and Picket felt the noose release his ankles. The half-second of falling gave him time to be thankful once again for his light body, but it was short lived. He landed on the ground with a sickening crack from his left arm, which was now twisted beneath him. Armor let out a grunt and grabbed at the putknife which had sailed back upward on contact. He caught it by the blade, wincing against the slight pain, and switched it to his other hand where it was used to being. He cut the ropes and was careful to grab a hold of the dangling line before securing his feet above the ground. He landed, and immediately when to Picket’s side, helping him off the ground.

No sooner than equilibrium had been found again, a harsh blast sent the two flying to the ground again. Fire exploded on all sides, like four walls, sending an overpowering heat straight to the center. Picket lifted his injured arm to shield his face, noticing with slight concern that the arm was mostly numb. He could hear Armor cursing and the crackle of momentary flames that the two could feel and hear more than see. The brightness in the night air had given them temporary blindness, just as it always does, and created a moment of opportunity for four hooded figures to enter the room of fire. When the shapes of men became clear and Picket could see their features, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. The men standing before him were hunched, tightly wound and ugly...more like mythical elves that had been living underground for centuries than men roaming the suburbs. Their eyes were drawn painfully close together with a rough looking patch of flesh in between them, jutting forward and giving them permanent scowls, despite their wide, pointed grins. Armor had grown silent. In the background crackle of dying flames and the quiet hum of something unseen, one of the men pulled back his dark hood and spoke, drawing obvious attention to his tattooed face.

"Is this the one? I feel not a thing."

One of the others stepped closer, practically standing on Armor at this point, shaking free of his own hood. "It's this one. Just as I said, after all of our searching."

"So this one is worthless?" The first speaker drew a twisted hand downward, indicating Picket. Worthless?

"Not entirely. Without him we wouldn't have collected this one." A quick flick of his yellow, firelit eyes indicated Armor, who had begun to squirm up onto his elbows to look the attackers in the eyes. His voice was like iron.

"Who the hell are you?"

The two men who had not yet spoken exchanged surprised glances, obviously not the leaders of the crew. The other two smiled their sharp smiles as the first speaker licked his lips in amusement. "You cannot be serious," he spoke in a patronizing tone. "Could a person so involved as our enemy really not know of us?"

Picket could not speak. He was still in shock from being branded as the one that was used to find Armor. Whoever these things were, they were acting dangerous, and directing most or all of it to his friend. Not only that, but they were arrogant...at least arrogant enough to think that they should be well-known, or well-feared at least. Finally, he spoke the only words he could think.

"Tell us who you are, since we obviously don't know." He felt the air cooling slowly as the fires disappeared. Now the only light came from the moon and the few lamps placed along the street, casting an odd back-lighting to the hooded men surrounding him. They appeared to glow while their faces were still partially hidden by the dark and the black shapes drawn onto their temples. They looked like large spiders leeched onto their skin, clinging. In that moment there appeared an imagine in his mind, and he turned to face Armor, who was breathing heavily with irritation. There were spiders tattooed on these men, and they had been looking for Armor, not Picket. After all of our searching.

"Are you sure you don't know?" One of the silent, back-row assailants piped up in a shrill and scratchy voice, "Your eyes tell a different story."

Armor suddenly stood, causing the hooded men to flinch and take a step back. He placed his finger firmly against the nearest man's sunken chest and glared into his yellowed eyes, ready for trouble. "You don't need to play games with us. If you are Furies, and you're here for me, the least you can do is tell us why." Picket tried to move, perhaps to stand himself, but couldn't. He was transfixed by the scene in front of him. Armor was intensely calm, and the eyes of the strangers were wide and such a strange color, fixed on Armor and motionless. The rough-voiced Fury reached up and wrapped a long, vein-ridden hand firmly around Armor's upper arm, his eyes piercing and angry. When Armor tried to break away, he dug in his nails and closed his eyes, his gravelly voice speaking soft, inaudible words. The fourth Fury, who had not yet spoken, sprang forward and clamped his own hand on the hand gripping Armor's bicep, pulling himself past the two to come at Picket.

"Get the other one!" He boomed in a voice that would frighten an angry lion: "Hold him down".

Armor's intense face had gone slack, and there was a moment of confusion that blurred into slow motion. Picket was struggling to get up but the hands of the remaining Fury were holding him down by the shoulders. He could feel the thing's hot breath on the back of his neck, and no matter how much he struggled, the grip was like a vice. Armor's head was twisted sideways now...his face turned toward Picket and his mouth open in a silent plea. The scratchy-voiced Fury was still chanting, and the deep-voiced one was moving slowly between the others. Whatever was going on was hurting Armor in some way, paralyzing him in the hold of a man much weaker than himself. He wanted desperately to help his friend, and better yet, to get rid of these things that had ruined such a wonderful and sweet evening. With a hot click of anger, his hands flew up to the hands on his shoulders and found them suddenly easy to remove. The Fury behind him was pushed backwards and off-balance, collapsing into the white light of a moonlit patch of earth. When the deep-voiced Fury caught a glimpse of Picket taking his feet, coming toward the others, he released his comrade and sprang at Picket, hands spread in a warding gesture.

"Let go of him." Picket's hands were raised too, ready to push the Fury out of the way, knock him down, or claw his way through. He could now hear voices behind and around him...voices that belonged to the townspeople who were awakened by the sounds of struggle and the loud voices. They floated in the background, unimportant and dim in the contact. All at once the world grew dark and one shining object lit the ground, attracting Picket's eyes like a magnet. It was Armor's pitknife, glistening on the green grass, still half-open. In a split-second it was in Picket's hand, being driven into the robed gut of the Fury, who's eyes went instantly empty with regret at a failed task. Picket could feel the cold, frigidness of the Fury's body as his fist holding the knife pressed against the man's belly. If it had been any normal person, he would have felt moist warmth indicating life and vital organs. Instead, he yanked the knife free and watched the Fury stagger sideways, falling over with surprise in addition to pain. Once it was free, the knife was moving again instantly towards the Fury holding Armor.

In a flash of silver and the toss of one loose-fitting sleeve, the Fury spun behind Armor, clamping a hand around his neck and his other at his gut. Picket froze, following the flash of silver as it split in half and fell on the two destinations. Crescent-shaped, terrible blades were held in both of the gnarly hands, positioned at Armor's neck and belly as he hung in midair, entranced into paralysis. A door slammed behind him, and running footsteps echoed through the pass. The Fury spoke with eyes turned upward, avoiding Picket's enraged face.

"Be glad it is us, Son, and not the others. This will be quick and merciful." He smiled almost Fatherly, and quickly pulled his knives in opposite directions as his own eyes rolled upward into their sockets. Picket was already moving. As his knife darted forward, he could feel the air moving swiftly around him as Armor exhaled, his slack face opening into one of realization and pain. Something shifted strangely underfoot, and the whole world turned aside, dumping Picket down to the ground where he would meet Armor face to face. His friend was breathing, irregularly, his last. His mouth had fallen open, but his lips were pulling together, ready to form words. Picket was pulled backward and flipped over, missing them in their most important moment.

--

It was now, almost two weeks later, under the slanting red light of a failing day, that Picket realized how much that simple fact hurt him. Of the years of conversations the two had shared and the endless arguments, schemes, and words of trust and concern, he had never once put so much value on a set of words. They were anonymous in nature-the simple movement of a mouth and voice that Picket he could not see or hear. Somehow, still, he knew they had happened and were important.

He could feel Hero's steps several feet behind him, cautious and deep in thought. The two had split from some of the others to separate and locate the wandering, angry Cameron Bennington in his own element. He was, in fact, the reason they had stolen into this desolate city to begin with. The original plan had been to round the hills into the bluffs that held the high road, which would quickly take them to the city of Locke. Instead, they had walked four miles out of the way so Cameron could have a glimpse of his origin, which he claimed had been entirely destroyed in the wake of his leave. No one was sure whether to believe his rantings, or whether a huge city could have been completely wiped out without anyone in the land knowing about it but him.

As they had climbed the grassy slope to a cliff overlooking the city, he had become antsy and talkative in a nervous tone. He had flinched away from a small bird that had been no closer than fifteen feet away, and jumped considerably when Sentinel had coughed. The bluff became rocky and difficult as they ascended, but Cameron seemed to have quick footing that was far too masterful. He had told them some stories about his life as a police officer, but from what Picket could gather, it hadn't been a difficult job and had never taken him outside the city limits. Still, it was obvious that the man knew this rocky piece of land quite well. Sentinel, being without shame as always, had even commented on Cameron's easy navigation of the rocks.

"I dream about this place almost every night," he replied, as if that was the most normal answer he could have given.