by Ron McClung
Part 1: Dawn On Dwindlelight
She sat on a hilltop on a remote world, in the western forest of the northeastern continent, in the far reaches of the galaxy, alone and scared. She sat in peace, however, for the first time in a long time. The pre-dawn wind ran through her once-beautiful, now-soiled blonde hair, waving in the air like yellow flame from a raging solar flare. They called this world Dwindlelight because at certain times of the year the star at sunrise had a strange flickering property like none other. The rising sun at those times appeared as if it were a dwindling candle, flickering rapidly then returning to its original state.
Maronim Galactic Researchers had an automated research station in orbit monitoring this phenomenon. She had just come from that automated station. Yet, another grungy job, in a long line of rag-tag jobs, she thought. It was the best she could do while she ran and hid from whatever wanted her dead. In all her travels, all her hitching rides on dilapidated freighters, stowing away on space-liners and a series of other horrid and unspeakable things she had to do to stay on the run, she escaped death many times… too many to count. Others weren’t so lucky. Sometimes they were simply victims in the way of a stray blast, while others who got too close to her became victims of circumstance. She shed a tear at those memories. She remembered the odd and sad feelings she felt as she watched them die, as if she could feel their soul drain away. Some people just wouldn’t turn away, no matter how hard she pushed.
For every tree in this forest below her, she could come up with a face or a name of a bounty hunter or assassin that had tried to kill or take her. Or a face of an innocent that got in the way.
She only knew that she was different. She had never shared just how different to anyone, and it only manifested at points of high trauma or stress. But that wasn’t reason enough to put so much effort into killing her. Who wanted her dead THAT badly?
She raised her hand and extended her index finger. It flared with fiery light. She wrote her name in the night air with that light: Diara Lynwyn Lightwind. It hung in midair for several minutes like a neon sign, before she waved it away.
Diara looked at her hands—greasy and calloused from hard labor, her dirty and tattered coveralls that of a remote system service person—and grimaced. To think, she had been a noblewoman at one time. She thought of all the other disguises she had worn and the skills she had to learn. Her special talents didn’t seem so special then. From an evening gown at a royal gala, to a stolen police uniform, to a male Corvanian’s envi-suit, to full-combat powered armor on a mercenary ship. Now she wore the coveralls of a deep space technician. At least she had a ship. She looked through the trees in the direction she had come, where she had landed her small one-man repair/scout vessel. She couldn’t see it because it was still at least four kilometers away, but she knew it was there, safe and sound. It was no bigger than a shuttle, but it got her from jump-point A to jump-point B. And as long as B was farther away from the Core, she had no problems.
Diara had stopped crying and wondering why years ago. At least she thought she had. She wiped away a tear. She was a tired 28-standard-year-old woman, tired of running, tired of not having a normal life. She began to cry again…
“SEVEN YEARS!” she screamed.
The sorrow turned to fury quickly, which welled up deep inside of her, powerful and uncontrollable. Diara closed her eyes, and all she heard was a thunderous clap. When she reopened her eyes, there was nothing around her but scorched ground… for a three-kilometer radius.
Damn, I knew that would happen… she thought. She was glad she parked her ship far enough away this time. Why me?
She had heard the authorities sometimes hunted down people with Psi abilities because of what they could do, but she had never heard of anyone with abilities like hers. The most she had heard of was a person who could move a pen across a table or start a small fire. Nothing like what she could do. She looked at the devastation around her. Nothing like this! With all the technology in the galaxy—matter transference, terraforming reactors, sentient machines and hundreds upon thousands of ways to kill one another—she had not heard of anything being able to do what she could do.
Something flickered in the smoke and the darkness of the night. Cloak field. She reached for her tool bag where she kept her blaster pistol. How did they find me this time?
“You shouldn’t leave such an easy trail, Lady Lightwind,” came a voice.
The cloak field dropped to reveal an armored figure walking towards her through the flame and smoke. It lifted from the ground, obviously using an anti-G belt, and produced an assault rifle. The figure drew closer, landing only meters away on a scorched and smoldering tree trunk. There was no place to hide, thanks to her outburst, so she knew he could see her plainly.
This was where some wavered.
She watched as his rifle dropped ever so slightly. He too found her irresistibly attractive. Yet another part of her power, a power she didn’t understand.
The figure, obviously male and human, tried to stay strong, “You are a threat to someone very important.” Another waver. “I am here… to kill you.”
Diara stared into his faceplate intently, seeing beyond it, seeing his face—a blonde young human male, probably younger than she. He was weak and very easily manipulated.
“Who wants me dead? Who wants you to kill me?” she asked as she stood up. The commanding voice was yet another power of hers. But something was resisting her.
Diara could not count the number of times she asked the question, or the number of times she felt the same resistance when she asked it. But this time, she hoped she was far enough away from the source that perhaps she could make this one crack.
The resistance was strong, but not as strong as in the past. The weapon dropped even further as he felt his mind being probed.
“I… can’t tell you, that, pretty lady…” Blood started to drip from the boy’s nose behind his mask. The resistance wavered at that moment. She lashed out with her power and suddenly the rifle was gone.
It was weaker this time.
The bounty hunter grabbed for his pistol, “Oh, no you don’t, bitch…”
She heard an unfamiliar voice within his mind—one that had similar command powers to hers. Who was he?
“You don’t want to die, do you?” she said to the boy. “Look around you, you think you can kill me?”
He could only stutter and step back, pistol wavering in his hand as he felt the power of others surging through him. “No… I can’t… You must die…”
“I feel doubt in you, strong doubt.”
“But she is so beauti… aaaaaaaahhhh!” With a blood-curdling scream the boy grabbed his helmet and fell limp to the ground.
“So, that’s how it ends now?! Your power is not strong enough to control your minions out here, so you kill them?! Show yourself!” Her voice boomed like thunder, boosted by her powers.
The bounty hunter lurched one more time and rolled over. Maybe this one carried a clue. He looked over-confident, perhaps to the point of ignorance. Diara began to strip his clothing and search his body. She looked at the armor, it was just her size. She smiled. He must have a ship nearby.
On the horizon she could see the flicker of the morning light… Well, at least I got to see it.
Part 2: The Cyber-Mutant Underground of Kara’Kresh
Gadaron Port Authority believed her to be the bounty hunter easily enough, with the help of her powers. The boy was too over-confident. He had left a data trail light years long, leading to this backwater world, where he was hired in the first place. And what a world it was…
Gadaron Space Port, on Kara’Kresh, was a seething city on a hot world that had seen way too much corporate development in its time. Over-industrialized, over-populated at one time, it was finally forgotten after the Second Karian War. It had now become a wet, polluted, hopeless world where the rejects of Expanse came to hide, to make a living or to scavenge the ruins of industrial plants of old. It was a pinnacle of technology at one time but was now a wasteland of obsolescence.
However, there was one thing that thrived on Kara’Kresh: the techno-underground, where anyone could get anything for almost any ruinous price. From illegal cyber-ware or enhancement drugs, to hard-to-get experimental bio-ware or booster-nanites, anything was there.
The young dead bounty hunter, Harming Ellos—former soldier from the cyber-brigade turned AWOL, now dead—turned out to be heavily modified himself. With bio-ware implants for strength and agility, and cyber-implants for just about everything else, he would have been formidable if he hadn’t been so weak minded. The problem with having that many implants was that it weakened the mind and the soul. One needed both to be able to resist her powers.
It was raining. A stinging rain, with a slight chemical smell to it. Diara was glad for the armor suit. It helped her avoid any skin burns. Damn acid rain. In the mist caused by the rain, hover-skiffs and repulse-bikes flew by above, while ground vehicles battled their way through traffic below. This was the busiest city on the planet because it had the spaceport.
Diara spotted what she was looking for. It’s always a bar. Why is it always a bar? One of the drawbacks of her physical assets was the harassment she constantly received when she walked into places like this. Thankfully, she was wearing the bounty hunter’s armor and helmet this time. But there was no telling how popular this guy was here either. Standing a block away from the bar, she took a deep breath and reviewed the facts in her mind.
She had a name: Jarus Nell. He was the contact person the boy dealt with. Nell was a cyber-demon—a street term for a heavily mutated human with cyber-ware. Mutations were another problem on worlds like this. Over the last several centuries—since the Terran Expanse discovered FTL flight and started colonizing and terraforming worlds—mutations had grown worse and more radical. Kara’Kresh seemed to have been the extreme of that, perhaps because of the terraforming and re-terraforming that had occurred throughout its colonial history.
Nell paid Ellos half up-front, and would pay half on proof that Diara was dead. Diara knew from Ellos’s logs that Nell had four bodyguards at all times, all cyber-demons of one kind or another. Most members of his entourage were addicts to tree’deshian spice also known as Tree-Dew, including Nell himself. She had heard of the degenerative effects it had on its addicts, from the addicts that existed in the noble courts back home. Initially, the buzz is a slow one, but as time goes on and the user becomes an addict, the buzz is instantaneous, and debilitating. Tree-Dew normally comes in liquid form, to be injected intravenously or dropped under one’s eyelids. However, a very rare and potent powder form existed, and that is what she had.
Very few people knew the effects it had on the mind’s eye and on the internal defenses most sentients had against her power—their sense of reality and unreality, their willpower and their soul. This, coupled with the amount of cyber she hoped Nell had, would make him an easy source of information.
The bar was called the Grinding Stone, a hole-in-the-wall place set near a dark alley lit by neon light and a single street light. Several beings stood outside. One was a bouncer/guard-type. He was Untharian, a huge multi-limbed hulk of a beast with a carapace-like skin and a head somewhat reminiscent of a rhino merged with an insect. Perfect for his job. And there was no telling how much cyber this one had, or if he was a mutant.
Diara had to play it cool, in hopes that Mr. Ellos didn’t frequent this place as often as she suspected.
“Not you again, hot shot!” came the reverberating voice of the Untharian.
Damn. Diara disguised her voice the best she could. “I have to see Nell. I have what he needs.”
“Oh, really? Hmmmm…” the creature scanned her with it’s antennae. “Leave your cannon at the door as usual and keep the rest holstered this time. We’ll be watching you, hot shot. No funny business.”
Diara removed the assault rifle from her shoulder and handed it off at the check-counter by the door. She then walked into the smoke-infested room and was assaulted by the collage of smells, sounds and sights of the Grinding Stone. It was a haven for cyber-demons, nitro-geeks, transients and addicts of the area. It lay in the midst of what was once the industrial zone. The overall industrial theme of the bar cast a dark and dreary tone.
It was pretty crowded, with assorted aliens from all corners of the region, some she didn’t recognize. Who she didn’t see was Nell. She had seen a picture on Ellos’s logs, so she had an idea what she was looking for—short, slouched, grayish skin and cybered with second clone-tech. Her first instinct was to go to the bartender.
“You again? I thought Nell said not to allow you back until you had what he was looking for…” the gruff towering beast of a bartender grumbled.
“Maybe I have what he was looking for…” disguising her voice again. The bartender stopped and raised an eyebrow… or what would pass for one if he were human.
In a matter of minutes the word had spread around fast. She was soon accosted by two large thugs and escorted to where Nell resided on busy nights. They took her upstairs and across noisy catwalks to his office, hidden in the latticework of girders, catwalks and ladders.
Nell hated crowds; some said he even feared them. His “office” was indicative of that. The smoke seemed to get thicker as she was brought into the office area. The smells became even worse. Her distinguished nose was never meant to come this close to any of the sights and smells she was experiencing here. How things change for a noble woman.
Nell’s room was as attractive as the rest of the place, with a little more leather and fewer steel girders. It was a small room with a barred back door she spied in the shadows. Nell was surrounded by four female “beings” behind an old office desk and his bodyguards were spread out around the room. Assorted old furniture was littered around the room, a pool table in the far corner.
“Well, if it isn’t little Ellos himself, already back from his adventures… She scare you away, boy? She is said to be rather persuasive.” Nell blew a cloud of smoke from his gor’an-weed cigar. Yet another vice.
Diara scanned the room with her inner senses and detected others behind a wall, listening in—two others, armed and anxious. She focused on them for a short minute while she spoke in her Ellos-impression. “I have what you want…” She held up a leather satchel. Inside was something she wished she hadn’t had to bring, but the bounty hunter’s data insisted that the evidence of the kill was her severed head. Thank the gods that the bounty hunter was blonde. It might buy her more time.
Diara heard the quiet thud that told her that the hidden two had fallen asleep, just as she wanted.
Nell dismissed the females, who reluctantly left. He looked intrigued, but disgusted. She knew his type couldn’t stomach a severed head. He probably won’t even take it out of the bag. He opened the bag slightly and peered in. He made a face as he saw the bloodied blonde hair, “Did you have to be so messy?” As she suspected, he didn’t pull the head out, only saw the hair.
“I’m changing the deal,” Diara said abruptly. This drew the attention of the bodyguards. She instinctively moved her hand closer to her holstered blaster pistol. That move was followed up by the sound of a sword being unsheathed, the mechanical hum signifying a slight modification to the blade—vibro-sword. Probably mono-edged as well. That thing would cut through this armor like hot Ow’oonga fat.
“Easy now, gentlemen. Let’s hear the whelp out.” Nell eased back in his desk chair as if it was his throne.
Diara’s senses told her that the one with the sword was inches from taking her out. Adrenaline surging in her veins, she found new levels of control and strength in her ability. She conjured up a little surprise for the swordsman and stored it in the back of her mind, just in case things got nasty.
“I want to take it to your benefactor myself. In return, you can keep half the bounty.” She figured he was already keeping half, but now he’d be getting three-quarters of it.
That got his attention. He leaned forward in his chair. “And all you require of me is the identity and location of my benefactor, is that it?” She couldn’t glean it from his mind that easily. That part of her powers was not completely developed. But she did sense he knew something she could use.
She also got the feeling he wasn’t giving it up so easily.
“Well, to be honest, boy, I am not authorized to give you that information…” His cybered left eye gleamed at her. She knew he had that information somewhere in those extra data-chips he had installed in his left lobe. She just had to get in there, past his natural defenses. She gripped the small bag of Tree-Dew powder in her hand. She just needed a moment.
He leaned closer. “Did you hear me? Hand over the head and walk away. You can pick up your pay at the door.”
Diara had to make the move now. He was close enough that the powder would lower his defenses just long enough for her to pick his brain. It was a complicated invocation, but she learned that non-organics were easier than organics to pull information from, if you knew how to read it.
Diara leaned closer and sensed the bodyguards’ heightened awareness. She had the closest one covered; the rest would probably get one shot off, at most. She took her chances.
The cloud of reddish dust exploded from her hand with a thought, and Nell was suddenly thrown in a daze. She searched hard and as soon as she knew she had found it, she triggered her next surprise.
The blade in the hand of the bodyguard suddenly vanished. The bodyguard then abruptly went rigid. Blood began to pour from his mouth. The bodyguard then grotesquely split in half, vertically, and the sword fell out from between the pieces. The sword had re-materialized inside him.
Nell slouched over in his chair, blood seeping from his nose. The cloud was probably too potent for him. He would probably OD before she even left the room. Diara was not hanging around to find out. One blast struck near her as she dove over the desk. She lashed out with her power, again.
Two bodyguards had moved in and were in close proximity to each other. Big mistake. In a flash, the still-hot blaster in the one guard’s hand exploded. The fiery eruption engulfed them both, killing at least one of them and incapacitating the other. That was going to attract attention from the outside, she thought, picturing the lumbering Untharian already running from the door to the back.
Another blast struck her in the shoulder, knocking her back. The armor absorbed most of it. Diara lifted her blaster and fired back. Two quick blasts felled the oncoming guard. She looked at her blaster. Conventional means are not beneath me, she thought and smiled for a moment.
Diara got up, the burn from the shoulder wound telling her the armor didn’t absorb as much as she thought. Nell was still in his chair, twitching and drooling, as the powder wreaked havoc on his neural system. She removed the helmet to show Nell her face. She knew some part of him could register the sight. She saw in his eyes that it had.
“Sorry, partner… Deal’s off.” Diara searched his body and his desk for any credits. She found his half of the bounty. “You can pick up your share at the door…”
Before the Untharian came bursting into the room, she was out and through the back. She left a small surprise for the Untharian however—in the form of a small detonator in Nell’s hands. As soon as his neural systems shut down, which she guessed would be soon, the device would drop out of his hand, the spoon would be released and BOOM.
She was a block away when she heard the explosion.
Damn, that was some potent stuff.
Part 3: The Psychotic Psi-Casters of Bedlam
The data she had taken from Nell’s neural pathways was encrypted. It took her three days sitting in Ellos’s ship while in orbit around Kara’Kresh’s second moon to translate it. All she got was what she liked to call an “astral image” of the data, which she had to translate into real data and let a machine decrypt it. It turned out the ugly cyber-demon could only afford a cheap operating system and encryption algorithm for his implants, making her work only slightly easier.
But now she wished she wasn’t able to decrypt it so easily.
The data gave the name of Gram Bellington as the person that had contacted Nell. That transmission was heavily encoded, but with some work was traced back to a relay-sat orbiting a planet called Bedlam. The transmission itself originated from Bedlam.
Of all places in the region, it had to be Bedlam.
Bedlam was claimed by the Expanse Fleet at the end of the First Karian War and set up as a special military training facility. Its existence was said to be one of the causes of the Second Karian War. It seemed the Karian apes didn’t like the humans experimenting with the psionic sciences. It scared them.
And Fleet didn’t think of the drawbacks to all their experimenting either. Now it had become a special asylum for the Fleet’s special projects and “prototypes”—projects that revolved around the powers of the mind. Psi-Casters. It was rumored that the military spent considerable time studying the sciences surrounding psionic powers, attempting to boost them, find new powers, and discover new ways to use them. They found that overuse tended to fray the human mind. Hundreds upon thousands of sentients that had enrolled in the program had gone insane. They and their children and their children’s children now resided on Bedlam and were watched over by a special division of Fleet.
Bedlam was a harsh world. Fleet attempted to terraform it once and regretted it. The storms only got worse. Now, the eight cities on Bedlam existed only because of transparent-steel bubbles over them or, as in two cases, because they were underground. There were roughly twenty other cities, built on the gamble that the terraforming would hold, but all those were abandoned.
All eight cities were guarded asylums for some faction of the Bedlam-Psi society. Without special Fleet permission no one was getting into any of the cities of Bedlam.
However, Diara had her own way in. Her mother had died there when she was a young girl—admitted just after Diara was born. She still had her free passage codes to visit her mother’s grave. All she had to do was cover her trail once she was in. She had developed her hacking ability over the past seven years to be able to crack even the best Fleet security systems.
No one ever explained to Diara why her mother was admitted into Bedlam. She remembered very little of her mother, being raised by her aunt and uncle in the Noble Courts of New Avalon. She was told the circumstances of her conception when she was eighteen. A Terran soldier had raped her mother during the Second Karian War. That’s all she was told.
But what did that have to do with anyone wanting her dead… and this badly. This Mr. Bellington had better know.
A few more hours of hacking into a local Expanse Fleet node found that Bellington was not an inmate, but a member of the Fleet “Psi”-chiatric Staff on Bedlam. Dr. Bellington, actually. To find him, she had to go to the city of New Arkham—one of the smaller ones, underground and near the coast.
The trip to Bedlam would take three weeks in void-space. Diara had time to rest. She climbed into the sleeper pod, after engaging the void-engines.
* * * *
In her dreams, she heard her mother’s voice, saw her mother’s face. So kind, so gentle… And then it was gone, replaced by a demon. Diara felt her body being ripped to shreds, her organs thrown to the four winds. Sounds of a horrid battle could be heard behind the scene. A single man standing at the top of thousands of bodies, holding a sword in one hand, her mother’s head in the other.
That’s the biggest problem with sleep pods. No matter how badly your psyche wants you to wake up, you can’t. People had been known to go insane while under pod-induced sleep.
She awoke on the edges of the Bedlam System. Instead of locking onto the guidance beacons of the system, she took the ship in herself. The beacons would log her presence. She would be expected, however she didn’t want to knock on the front door quite yet.
The flight from the system’s outer edge to orbit took another three and a half weeks, at full thrust. Fortunately, it was a small system.
* * * *
The city of New Arkham was a dark and morbid place. Attempts to make it look like a normal city, with normal citizenry, were corrupted by the occasional mad scream or pointless babble from a wandering passerby.
It was a twisted place that she didn’t want to be in for very long.
As Diara walked the streets, she felt something strange, like she was being watched. More than watched… scanned. But from where?
Something else made her nervous. Diara thought that maybe it was because she had never been to this city, her mother’s grave residing in New Providence. However, it seemed to her that there was a deficiency in regular personnel.
Diara walked to the place where the transmission originated—an Expanse Fleet office complex. She could see its tower from a distance and, as she turned a corner, saw the entrance.
The entrance was ransacked. Expanse Fleet symbols were defaced, the front gate and door destroyed, the front foyer burned out by fire. This happened a while ago. Diara drew her pistol. It appeared that the staff was no longer in charge of the asylum. At least not this one. No telling how many others had been taken over.
She looked around nervously as more faces appeared out of the darkness of alleyways, street corners and windows, all looking at her. She turned on the night vision visor on her helmet and saw more faces in the darkness.
Diara started to run. A shower of debris came from upper level windows of buildings as citizens of New Arkham started screaming and howling. She turned down an alleyway that had fewer windows and found a “bunker” of garbage to hide behind, taking aim down one direction of the alleyway. She kept one eye on the other direction, not really sure where it ended. All she saw was darkness.
The screaming and the howling stopped. If the city could get any more ominous, it did in that moment.
Diara suddenly heard a chorus of hums coming from down the other end of the alleyway. She shifted her aim. She saw movement but waited to see what it was. Four figures, all dressed the same, came into the light, followed by four more, followed by four more. All in formation, dressed in black and brown leather tunics and pants with eyeless leather masks straight out of a bad S&M vid. They were all humming the same monotonous note, never changing it. She felt the pressure on her mind, as if the chorus was penetrating it. She fought back, pushed against them.
The chorus and the formation stopped. Oh? No one has ever done that before, have they? she thought as she sensed the bewilderment in their minds.
Diara lowered her pistol in their direction and fired. The blast struck just in front of the left-most lead man and deflected. Damn, Psi-shield… these guys are good.
The man looked in her direction—first one to do that—and lifted his hand. A blast of force hit her and, in an explosion of garbage and debris, sent her sliding down the alleyway. The blow nearly knocked the wind out of her but her armor absorbed most of the force.
She fired again as she got up. The blast was deflected and went wild. The chorus of hums started again as they began to march towards her. She needed more time than she had to drum something up with her power. She thought of something small and released it.
A ball of flame launched from her hands and exploded at their feet. Diara gambled that, with all the garbage in this alleyway, there had to be something flammable on the floor. There was. Flames engulfed the formation of leather-bound men, obscuring them from her vision.
Diara smiled at her minor victory.
Movement from within the flames told her just how minor it was. The formation marched on, in full force, despite a few charred members. They released another telekinetic ball of force, which she dodged. It went across the street, toppling the small building there in a cloud of dust and smoke.
The humming continued.
She ran down the street, across it, not looking behind her. In her rush, she attempted to conjure up some of her own defenses, which deflected a few of their attacks. Diara turned a corner, down another alleyway, just as the walls of the building she passed erupted. She was covered in a shower of brick dust.
She stopped only for a moment to catch her breath when she saw a figure in the alleyway, dressed in what looked like a lab coat, waving to her. She wasted no time heading in that direction. Anyone not wearing leather had to be better than these goons.
The figure was gone before she could reach it, but a door stood open. She went into the door and closed it. Inside was darkness. She moved to switch on her night vision but a whisper stopped her. “They will sense that if you turn it on. We have your essence covered as long as nothing else gives us away.”
She heard the humming approaching. She also heard the whimper of someone else as they got closer, someone in the room with her. She sensed that there were several people here, but did not reach out with her power to find out. The leather boys could probably sense that too. The humming soon faded.
A few minutes afterwards, a candle was lit.
In the small cramped room, no bigger than a broom closet, were a dozen ragged figures and a single male in a lab coat, with the letters “GB” stenciled on the pocket. Any Fleet symbols that might have been on the coat were gone. “Gram Bellington?” she asked.
He looked shocked. “You know who I am? How?” He looked suddenly suspicious, reaching into his pocket. The group of people in the room suddenly cowered.
“Whoooah, wait. I’m a newcomer here. I got a transmission from here that had your name on it and I have a few questions for you.” Being careful not to reveal too much of herself, Diara removed her helmet. Her blonde hair fell loose over her shoulders, sweat beading from her forehead.
Bellington’s twelve “disciples” all gasped at her sight. Bellington removed his hand from his pocket and produced a handful of medicine bottles. He opened one and began passing them around to each of his disciples. They devoured the substance as if it were food.
“The only way to keep the upper hand around here—take advantage of their addictions. It’s one of the few things he can’t seem to overcome.” Bellington said as he passed out the last of the meds. Bellington looked as though he could use some of the therapy that he was handing out.
“What? What’s going on here?”
He paused a moment and gestured to the group around him… “These kind folks are what’s left of Ward 19. They were in isolation before he took over. He killed most of them, but I was able to save these twelve. They are my only defense against him and everyone else he controls, like those guys out there—the Hummers.” He gestured back to his group of addicts. “Meet the Maskers.” The group of twelve grimy faces smiled and snickered as they saw the look of approval from Bellington. He snickered back. “They don’t talk much though.”
“He? He who? What the hell is going on?”
Bellington looked shocked. “You mean you don’t know? I thought you got my distress signal. You’re not Fleet here to save us? Oh god, who are you?”
She was tired of the games. She put her blaster to his head. “What the hell is going on?!”
Bellington froze. “I don’t know what transmission you received, but whatever it was, I didn’t send it. I only sent a distress signal a few months ago. Could he… Is he that powerful?”
“Patient 991-09-1009…We call him the Sovereign. We have no other name. His records were lost in the fires. He took control a few years ago… about seven, I would say. He keeps the other administrators out by controlling everyone, somehow, and making them believe New Arkham is operating normally. New Arkham is one of the least visited cities here on Bedlam because of the strange cases it gets.
“Since then, I’ve survived. I was only recently able to get into the offices and find that transmitter. Oh god, what did he do? Did he change the transmission? How could he? His power must be getting greater. No one has been able to manipulate EM waves at that level, let alone hyper-EM transmissions… Oh god, help us.”
“The Sovereign?” Who was he? Is this who wanted me dead? Why? Was I a threat to him while he was here in this asylum? Why?
Her only choice was to find him, to go to him and present herself to him and ask why. And if possible, kill him. “Take me to him.”
The entire group cowered at the suggestion. “What? We can’t. You must be crazy.”
“I am Fleet and I am here to kill him. You must take me to him.” A slight glint of hope flared up inside Bellington’s mind. But he was hiding something also, and she sensed it, even past the psi-shield the other twelve were still forming.
“But it’s suicide. He is all-powerful. There are rumors that he even controls parts of New Providence. You can’t possibly go alone.”
She stared sternly into the doctor’s eyes, one of which was obviously cybered as a medical scanner. “Let me worry about the dangers. Debrief me on what you know of the threat on the way and I will deal with the rest,” she said in her best gung-ho-military tone. She had learned that from the mercenaries.
The doctor sighed. “We’ll have to take the tunnels. There are only a few citizens there, and we can hide from them.” He looked at the twelve of Ward 19. They all nodded that they would go along and help. “The Hummers are just some of his minions, and they are the least dangerous.”
Great. She rolled her eyes. Who was this guy?
* * * * *
The tunnels turned out to be old service tunnels used by the staff to avoid the regular population. It seemed to Diara that the staff was more imprisoned than the regular population.
The doctor continued to speak as they walked down the hallway. “The Sovereign took over by first controlling some staff, then some inmates. No one knows how he did it. Unlike most of the population, Fleet didn’t make him… well, not entirely.”
“How long has he been here?”
“Too long. Before I started, that’s for sure. They say he’s been here since the Second War. That’s at least thirty years or so, isn’t it?”
“And he wasn’t one of the Fleet’s toys?”
“Not in the paranormal sense, at least at first. He was a regular soldier who lost it on the battlefield during the Second War.” He paused. “I can’t remember much else, other than that when he was brought in he showed signs of paranormal abilities beyond anything anyone had ever seen.” His thought was interrupted by a sound down the hallway. “Damn…” The twelve disappeared in corners, cowering in fear. “I should have seen where we were. Ward 32 – Pyrokinetics.” Bellington hid in another dark corner near his twelve.
Diara stood alone in the dim light of the hallway. She heard the noise again, like something being dragged across the floor. She smelled something burnt, like scorched meat. Her mind raced to conjure something up. She tapped deep into her reservoirs to find the right ability.
A hulking beast of a man turned a corner as Bellington spoke, “They’re very powerful. I would be careful. Oh, and they’re cannibals.”
The beast-man, muscular and dark skinned dressed in tattered and charred clothing, pulled an inert body, presumably lifeless, along with it—a young female, with one leg gnawed on already. Diara’s senses told her it was dead, but not totally useless to her.
The pyrokinetic beast-man roared as he saw Diara. The air around her warmed as his rage built. She felt his fire building up inside him. She prepared a defense as she looked at Bellington. “Find cover. This is going to get a little hot.”
The man roared again, as flame built up around his mouth. Oh, he likes to breathe fire, does he? Probably the only way he knows how to use his powers. How one-dimensional.
The beast bellowed as a fireball launched forward from his mouth, striking Diara dead center. Steam erupted around her as she withstood the blast. The fire cleared and she stood unmarked. Her defenses held. She summoned up her own attack, while at the same time attempting to conceal her power from Bellington. She pointed her gun at the pyro-beast and manipulated its power with her own to create a much more powerful blast. Diara fired. The blast was met with another blast of flame, deflecting it.
Going to have to try another tactic. Diara thought as she prepared another defense. She started to feel fatigued from over-use of her powers. She couldn’t let this next strike hit her. She waited, shifted to the side behind a pillar just as the second attack came.
She had just enough strength to try one more thing. The body. She left her defenses up and concentrated on the body, attempting something she had never tried but had a gut feeling she could do. She felt its limpness, its empty shell. She then separated her own self from her physical body. Part of her filled the emptiness, and soon it had life again.
The beast was lumbering forward to get a better angle on Diara’s body. Diara, now giving the corpse temporary life, caused it to stand. She waited for her moment. As the beast angled closer to Diara’s body she waited until she knew another fireball was welling up. When it did, the corpse moved.
As the beast was about to release the fireball, the body of the young girl grabbed the beast’s head and kissed him, blocking the flame. Her last action was to blow back into the beast’s mouth. Then Diara was out, and back in her own body.
She ducked as both heads exploded in a ball of flame. The smell of burned flesh filled the hallway.
Bellington came out of the room amazed. “She must have not been completely dead. Pretty crazy sacrificing her life like that.”
“Yeah, well, this is a crazy place.”
* * * * *
They crawled out of tunnels into what Bellington said was Ward 99, the special cases ward.
“He was one of five that stayed here. He killed the other four in the first few weeks of his takeover.”
“What else happened here? What did they do to the special cases?”
They walked into an atrium, where they could see multiple levels of hallways, like the central area of a prison. “Well, I’m not really at liberty to say. It’s all top secret.”
Diara turned and grabbed him. His twelve disciples, already scared to be there, turned and ran. Her power welling up inside, she roared at him, “What happened here!?” He shriveled in her grip in fear.
“That voice… I know that voice, that power… you’re one…. You have that power…” the doctor cowered in fear. He scanned her with his cyber-eye. “Yes, I see it now, surging through you. You do have his power. You are another one…”
With her voice again, Diara flared, “Tell me!”
“They experimented. Did everything to him, short of killing him, to determine his power.” They tortured the special cases, beyond any being’s imagination, with test after test, she realized.
Suddenly Diara doubled over in pain. Flashes came to her mind. Imagery of a battlefield. Dying soldiers. Horrid scenes of death and destruction. Screaming Karian ape-men being slaughtered by an unknown force. Tortured soldiers on pikes. Heinous war crimes beyond anything anyone had seen. A voice calling to her. Come to me, child.
And another voice pushing her away. NO! Run, Diara, run away and never return! She recognized this voice. It was her mother’s.
She still gripped the cowering doctor. A roar of thunder came from above. They were showered with debris from an already faltering ceiling. “Take me to him!”
* * * * *
The Sovereign resided at the top level of the tower of Ward 99, overlooking the underground waterway that led out to sea. The room at the top was a dark and dank one, solid cement walls, with restraints lining them. When Diara saw it, she could only think it looked like a dungeon. But what shocked her the most was the Sovereign himself.
He lay upside-down, suspended in the air by chains and steel cable, spread eagle, in the center of the room. His body was wrapped in leather restraints and connected to electrodes that were long dead. His face was covered in a horrid clinical mask. Only the rise and fall of his chest told her he was alive. He was a big man, a warrior, with a lot of rage and anger inside of him.
She could tell he was insane. Insane from all that he saw in battle and the nightmares that haunted him afterwards. Insane from the torture and pain the scientists put him through. So insane that his body was nothing more than a shell and all that was left was his power, small fragments of memory and his insanity.
But she could tell something else. This was her father.
This was something she had suspected since she arrived, but something she denied as well. She had felt her mother’s spirit pushing her away, but she knew she had to face him. This was where she got her power, the originator of it all. And the one that wanted her dead so badly.
How can I be a threat to you like this? This is hell. Why would you want to protect this? Are you controlling more than I know? Maybe you have your own little empire already. Is that what I threaten? She realized he wasn’t protecting anything.
She sensed something else in him. An implant left in his brain by Fleet. A small array of memory, enough for him to use as a journal. They never saw it, but she did. She captured that data image and stored it away. Then turned to the doctor.
Diara could hear her father talking to her now, and she understood why. She looked at the doctor. In an instant he was dead on the floor, a twisted ball of flesh and bone. Her rage continued to flare up. Anger not toward her father, he who had chased her down and tried to kill her uncountable times. Not at him for all those that died trying to kill her or trying to protect her. She had lost friends, family and lovers to this, but that didn’t make her angry anymore.
She was angry with those that did this to her father and would have done it to her.
The anger was at a boiling point, higher than it had ever been. She walked away, not tapping it until she was well outside Ward 99. She was twenty blocks away before she finally focused it.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it, Father?”
In a flash, the Ward and all twenty blocks around it suddenly disintegrated to dust.
A final release.
* * * * *
She decrypted the journal on her way back to New Avalon. Most of it she had guessed. Her father considered himself not of this universe, but from another with different laws of physics. He had powers beyond what this universe would allow, and it drove him insane. His life was a living paradox. What he brought into this universe of technology and science was what some people would call magic. The forces that rule what was right and wrong, what was real and unreal, battled against him, even as he battled against the Karian enemy during the Second War. It drove him insane but never destroyed his inner compassion. Even though he had no control over his own actions, deep down he knew what was right and wrong. When he raped her mother in one of his fits of rage, he knew that a child would be conceived. When they put him in Ward 99, his inner self could only hope that his child would be nothing like him.
As they experimented, he sensed that the child was different. Through the years, he worked hard at his powers, even as they poked and prodded him. No matter what happened, he never wanted another person to live through what he had—the insanity and the experiments. When her mother was admitted he got a name and a location. It turned out that her mother was a psi-talent Fleet had been watching. She too went insane.
So his quest to kill her was to save her from a life of insanity and a life of Fleet experiments. But what he didn’t realize was that she was a child of this universe. The axioms had reformed to fit her into this universe. She belonged to this universe. And she had made sure no Fleet doctors knew of her existence. She was no longer wanted and she could lead a normal life again.
It was over…