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BUILDING A MYSTERY
by Marc Singer
The clock radio crackled to loud, obnoxious life; when I recognized the song lyrics, I sprang up in bed like I'd heard a gunshot. My right arm snapped out towards the "off" button, and I jabbed it with more than a little rage. But instead of falling back to sleep, I sat up in bed, forcing myself to breathe slowly as the sweat cooled on my skin.
Next to me, my girlfriend Anne stirred awake. You know all about Anne. Everybody does. In fact, most people first heard of me through her: Anne Benson, Omega celebrity, granddaughter of Overman, all around super-hero, and by the way here's her boyfriend Tom. People used to wonder if her greater celebrity bothered me, and I suppose it did a little; I was a hero in my own right, agent Avatar of the Seekers, but Anne always overshadowed me. Now I have some celebrity of my own, though on mornings like this I sure as hell wish I didn't.
Anne probably could hardly see me, silhouetted against the dim gray pre-dawn light creeping through the blinds. She pulled a thin sheet back over her cold, curved body, and mumbled "Tom? What's wrong?"
"That song." I cradled my head in my hands and knees, and laughed. "That damn Sarah McLachlan song."
"Hey," Anne moaned softly, "I like her..."
"I know. But it's scary as hell to wake up and hear a line that nails you so completely... 'you woke up screaming aloud'..."
Her hand rose and caressed my back, I think even before she completely awakened. She traced one finger along my spine. "Oh, Tom. I didn't hear you screaming..."
"Not today. Not out loud."
Anne's blue eyes flickered, I suppose as memories half-buried by sleep worked up into her consciousness. "I had one of your dreams again." She spoke it with wonder at first, still enamored of the psychic bond developing between her telepathy and my astral-projection powers, between our two souls. That innocent pleasure made me fall in love with her all over again.
Then she shuddered as she fully recalled the dream. "The ships..."
"The ships I shot down."
Burning, falling, screaming, but there is no sound, falling, screaming, burning, but there is no air, falling, falling, falling
Anne rolled to her side and wrapped her other arm tightly around my waist. I'd shot those Harrakin ships for a lot of good reasons -- to stop the invasion, mostly -- but one of them was to spare Anne from doing it instead.
And yet she had killed during the Harrakin War anyway -- if not at Times Square then certainly in the Tisaridron. Anne didn't directly kill Kkyree of the Accursed, but only by the slimmest of distinctions. And even discounting that, Anne insisted that some Harrakin somewhere must have died by her hand. She'd had dreams of her own, and every night she did, some selfish and loathsome part of me wondered if my own sacrifice at the laser cannon had been in vain.
"We only did what we had to do," Anne said. "We had to save the planet."
I snorted; through my dry throat, it sounded like a dying rasp. "'Save the planet.' It doesn't even sound real anymore. The rest of the world can throw parades for us, but I can't --" I quivered -- "I can't even sleep --"
Suddenly cold, I sank trembling into Anne's arms. We curled tightly, skin to skin, her hands caressing me.
But I just couldn't get warm.
I did finally have to get up and leave Anne -- or maybe, now that I think about it, I was able to get up because of Anne -- and go to work. What little work I do nowadays.
You know all about the current situation at work, I'm sure. In the state of emergency during the invasion, the Seekers were temporarily elevated from a division of SIRECOM, the Omega security agency, to a full branch of the military. Even after the invasion, there's talk of keeping us in the military. That's angered plenty of SIRECOM officials, who'll suddenly be left without their Omega troops and media darlings if the plan goes through.
What you don't understand is that with these political squabbles reverberating all over the office, something else, some more important perspective, has been lost. I didn't realize it myself until I was asked to sign up for Basic Training, "just in case," and told to practice my rifle and grenade skills. I remembered the hum of the laser cannons, the flashes of light as ships disappeared, the psychic screams as hundreds of telepathic Harrakin were vaporized. And the thought of hefting an assault rifle in my hands sickened me.
I didn't have any qualms about shooting those ships when I did it. In fact, I was angry at Anne for having her qualms when five billion lives were at stake. Someone had to stop the Harrakin and I did and that was that. Only afterwards did I worry about what I'd done. Awake or asleep, I replayed that night again and again and I heard no heroism in those agonized screams, only brutal necessity.
I knew I had to kill those Harrakin, but that didn't matter -- because I killed those Harrakin. And the rest of the world kept praising me for it. The more I politely refused that honor in public, the more I got reminded of it, until I was seething with a guilt that I absolutely couldn't let anybody except Anne see. (I really understood when Sarah McLachlan sang about a lover who's so careful not to reveal himself; I feared she understood when she called him a beautiful, fucked-up man.)
So I took myself off active Seekers duty. The agency shrinks didn't exactly raise any objections. Wes Hickman was very understanding, and put me on "detached investigative service." The Seekers still need me -- I'm the only field telepath left since poor Karl died at Times Square -- and frankly, I need them. I need the work. I need something to do during the day, besides having TV reporters or appreciative strangers remind me exactly who and what I am.
I showed up at SIRECOM headquarters and hung around the chrome-and-steel underground lobby, scanning the morning news reports for any potential cases. There wasn't a whole lot I could immediately work on. Anne's little brother, Neil, was making headlines fighting a new Omega in College Park. More ominously, the French government offered formal asylum to Cornelius Owen. The old bastard was settling in a Riviera villa, and probably filling the place with guards and alarms. No political sanctuary would stop someone like Jean-Luc Steele from pursuing his personal vendetta.
Speaking of Steele, I caught a report that he'd been sighted in the area. Oddly enough, he was assaulting underlings of the local Culver mob. Culver's cartel was bad news -- it was even rumored to have some connection to the Paint Crew's botched heist -- but it was far beneath the scale of a world-renowned radical Omega terrorist. Of course, Steele didn't have the Cadre backing him up anymore; they were all dead except for Rift. After Steele's sacrifice and his service to the planet, the powers that be didn't consider him such a threat anymore.
I knew better. Trouble and Steele go hand in hand. Unless he's persuaded someone else to go walking hand in hand with him.
I decided to try a new approach to finding Steele -- the astral plane. A couple times during the invasion, I traveled through spatial warps and portals in my astral form. My psychic body passed through the little nips and tucks in space just as easily as physical ones did. And because I viewed these portals from the perspective of the astral plane, I saw them as nobody else could: a vast stone gate for the Vitalongae portal, a shimmering tower of light for Jimmy DeLeon's transmat beam, a mad unfolding of shadows and angles from poor Blackfriars. But each teleportation left the same traces, the same astral energies spilling pell- mell from one side of the portal to the other. Steele was probably moving around with his one surviving accomplice, Rift the teleporter, and I gambled he'd leave the traces too.
I reported to my office in SIRECOM HQ, the only office outfitted with a comfortable queen-size bed. I stepped inside, notified the security and medical watches that I'd be working, and locked the door behind me. My office is screened with dozens of alarms to make sure nobody trifles with my body while I'm out of it. I lay down on the bed, put on some trance techno music at a low volume, and let my mind wander... literally.
The first thing I saw, as my spirit slipped onto the astral plane, was my own body. Thin and tired, with deep circles around its eyes, it didn't seem to be enjoying the rest too much.
Then I floated through headquarters, ignoring walls as if they were the insubstantial dreams and not me. Every now and then I passed a familiar spirit. On this plane, Jay "Trax" Ortiz was a constant blur of motion, a thousand shaking bodies fixed on the same spot; Michelle "Armor" Thomas wore a full suit of plate mail, never lifting the visor from her face; Wes Hickman smoothly bore the burdens of a mind divided evenly between warm, soft carbon and silicon shot through with electricity. I passed the psych ward and saw Phase, still half-mad and trapped as a ghost made of steaming white ectoplasm. He saw me, held his arms out, and asked me to join him. I mumbled an excuse and flew the other way.
I circled D.C. at the speed of thought, looking for the telltale "astral spills" that would lead me to Steele. It seemed like a fool's errand, but I kept telling myself I was being a detective, just like Bogart or Stewart. And it paid off. One area had a high enough concentration of astral spillage that I could tell it had been visited by several portals in the last day or so. I visited the area, mostly manifesting on the physical plane although I did stay invisible; that secrecy cut down on my perceptions of the real world, dimming its colors and fuzzing its edges.
The scene was vivid enough without them. I was standing in the center of a warehouse in Northeast Washington, near the train tracks. And while nobody was present now, somebody had been: the floor was coated in dried blood. The stain must have covered sixty square feet.
You probably don't think spirits can retch. Perhaps we can't, really, but I poured my psychic ideas of my stomach's contents all over the astral plane there. Not because it was the first murder scene I'd seen, or even the grisliest; but something in that tide of blood reminded me of an exploding ship...
I was back in my body in a flash. I got up and called for an FBI forensics team to hit the warehouse. Then I hopped into an agency car and drove over there to do some investigating firsthand. The warehouse, it turned out, was abandoned -- the killers themselves had already broken the locks to get into it. That suggested Steele wasn't involved, somehow; he could've just teleported past the door. And yet Rift's trail led there.
Pacing around the bloodstain inside, I thought of another way to determine what was going on. Incidents of great emotion tend to leave impressions on the astral plane, as it reflects humanity's thoughts and feelings. And incidents of great violence tend to leave the worst impressions of all.
Trust me on that one.
I had noticed some residual tremors earlier, just observing the physical plane here. If I plunged all the way into the most abstract, iconic, and emotional levels of the astral plane, I might see a ripple or recording of the traumatic events that played out here -- a psychic fingerprint if you will -- and learn what happened. I glanced around the dusty warehouse; it was risky going astral here, but nobody was inside and the FBI team would be here soon. I walked behind some crates, then ditched my body and dove into the soul of the world.
Dove into a pool of water, calm blue water, calm red water red tide rushing over me tides of the moon red tide of blood rising to drown me
Ah. It was... rather intense. I saw the blood rising from the floor, rising all around me as my spirit dove into it, swimming upstream to its source, to the event that triggered it --
blood flayed everywhere, blood pulled out of him as the words are pulled out, his stomach spilling before his mouth, words running like blood, his fingerprints removed for safekeeping. Men in white suits, surgeons drenched in his blood, performing the operation to remove the words, and the fingerprints, and the blood, the blood everywhere, covering naked skin, an olive uniform stripped away.
an olive uniform for a hero, firing his missiles at the aliens, firing his laser until the ships full of people exploded into light and screamed, falling falling falling...
No. That was my mind. I shoved it aside and plunged further.
an olive uniform for a hero, shouldering the missile, shouldering the burden... no. shouldering the missile and the train, until the uniform stripped away, then the fingerprints, then the skin, all stripped away until blood words pleas screams blood blood
a screaming face. a train traveling by night. an explosion
And beyond that the pain was too much to bear. I reeled backwards, gasping for a breath even though ghosts don't need any. I shot away from the iconic levels, and the giant bloodstain that was like a wound across the city, and retreated to the safety of my body.
Or I thought it was safe, until I returned closer to the physical plane and saw another glowing spirit, another person crouched over me. I rocketed back into my body and reached my arm into my jacket for my gun. I didn't really know how to use it that well, but it hardly mattered, because when my hand reached the shoulder holster my gun was gone.
I opened my eyes and found the gun. Jean-Luc Steele was pointing it at me.
"Relax," Steele said. He still had an infuriating flippancy -- it accessorized well with his black leather spy-movie jacket and tres Gallic beret -- but it was undercut with more naked menace than I'd ever heard in him before. Maybe that was because instead of his traditional round- rimmed sunglasses, he wore a black eyepatch over his left eye. The missing eye, like the dead Cadre, was a little going-away present from some Harrakin.
He leveled my own gun at me, holding it better than I ever could. "I'm not here to kill you, Morgan," he said. "I just want some information on this murder. Who was killed, and what did they get out of him?"
"You can calm down and lower the gun, Steele." He was still an outlaw -- and I had my own personal objections to the man's modus operandi -- but he'd worked with Anne and the Seekers and me on so many occasions that I couldn't think of him as a true foe anymore. "We can work this out."
"You're a Seeker," he said, "and I'm most definitely not. So talk." He kept the gun in my face.
I tried to keep my cool, tried not to think about how Steele's combination of power and training made him one of the most dangerous men in the world. "Why do you care?" I asked. "What's a local gang to you?"
"It's something to you and me both," Steele hissed, "but I'm the one asking questions. Christ, Morgan, Wes was always more cooperative. So was your girlfriend."
I started to bolt up, until he pressed the gun to my forehead. Undaunted, I snarled, "You didn't hold them at gunpoint."
"I didn't have to. They understood the necessity of decisive action." He sneered at me. "Ms. Benson in particular."
I think Steele knew he was pushing my buttons -- he just didn't know which ones. As I looked up at his sneering, one-eyed face, I remembered how worried and upset and pissed off I was when Anne ran off with him last year during the Fix crisis. Just a few words from him, and she was off committing every crime in the book, even doing things she hated like springing Dan Carter from prison. All so our relationship could stay a secret -- like the prospect of the world knowing we were dating was even more horrible. All that welled up in me, but all Steele saw of it was me telling him, "Go to hell."
"I'm afraid you'll be waiting there for me if you don't --" Steele's head snapped up. I listened, and heard cars pulling up outside the warehouse, FBI agents entering the building.
"Very well, Morgan," Steele said, "a reprieve. But one word of advice: I'm looking out for all Omegas on this one. So stay out of my way." He tossed the gun in my lap, and before I could react he dove into a pile of crates. Instead of hitting any of them, he fell through a portal which instantly squeezed shut behind him.
I sat there on the floor, panting and looking stupid while the agents filed in around me.
The rest of the day was spent trying to piece together the mystery. There wasn't much to go on; the forensic team could only tell me that the warehouse killers had been professionals and left no trace of their identity. That left me with a face, a uniform, and a train, and I had to work backwards from them to figure out why Steele and the Culver mob cared. Working backwards; that was the essence of detective work. And, I thought ruefully, of psychoanalysis...
The first thing I did was give a sketch artist my impressions of the victim's face. Then I had SIRECOM circulate it to all the Armed Forces police and intelligence agencies -- hopefully one of them could identify the victim, but it would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. A very bloated haystack, since the military was swelling again in the wake of the invasion.
I spent the rest of the day following leads on the Culver mob. I'd already been beaten to the punch. Most of the people I could locate, the street-level thugs and enforcers, had already been visited by Steele. With no powers whatsoever -- since there were no Omega powers around for him to duplicate -- Steele put half of them in the hospital. And the man is in his forties.
Those criminals who were able to speak were happy to do so, once I hinted that SIRECOM might protect them from Steele. Unfortunately, they knew nothing about the murder and very little about why Steele came after them. He'd been interested in various errands they'd run: purchases of weapons and climbing equipment, hiring of extra hands, payments made to pilots and plastic surgeons. The last of them had pointed Steele to the warehouse, which was where my trail picked up; I didn't see what Steele could have learned in the interim. In fact, as I left the last criminal's room in the intensive care unit, a smug little smile crept across my face. Thanks to my astral investigations, I actually knew more than Steele.
Or I did.
I smacked myself in the forehead. Twice. Steele hadn't wanted me to tell him the information at all. He just wanted to meet me so he could copy my powers and learn for himself. He'd probably checked the warehouse astrally while I was sitting right there, wasting time with the forensics team. Hell, maybe he'd had Rift lead me to the warehouse in the first place. I went home dejected, the great detective able to work backward only to his own mistakes.
I wracked my brain fruitlessly over the case, until Anne came over. It was pretty late, as all her visits had been lately; she was involved in some impossible project of getting her Paint Crew kids to do a school play at Omega House. She came by exhausted, but I asked her opinion on the case anyway. After all, she knows Steele awfully well.
But she had no idea what Steele wanted either. Which was a relief, since it meant he hadn't asked her to join him once again. I think she could tell I was heading there, and she went to sleep very soon and very sullen.
I lay next to her, not quite ready for sleep again. I watched the muted TV screen, and stared at the open case file, as she fidgeted and drifted off to sleep beside me. She and Harvey appeared on the nightly news, in a clip of some fancy charity banquet they'd attended. I still find it fainly disturbing when I see her on TV while she's in the room; it's like some tiny piece of her spirit has left her body and gotten trapped in there.
But this time, I was fascinated by her grandfather Harvey. He stood at the podium, mouthing some noble words -- it didn't matter that I couldn't hear -- it was his poise that counted, his quiet dignity, his unspoken confidence that whatever he was saying or doing was right. This man had seen all the carnage I had in the Harrakin war, and more. He'd been seeing it since his army stint in World War II. How did he live knowing he'd killed those people? How did he know he'd done the right thing?
I leaned over to ask Anne, but she was already asleep. Wrapped in soft sheets and semi-consciousness, she tugged weakly at me to join her. And I lay down in her arms, doing it for the slight smile it raised on her sleeping face. But I just stared at the ceiling or the TV or the case file for hours.
Later that night, we came up on "Politically Incorrect." Tim Allen was arguing about Anne with Crossbar Mary, the Omega "performance artist" whose shows consisted of ramming weapons and kitchen utensils through her semipermeable body. As I turned up the sound, Allen was saying, "Don't give me her line about Omega-human interaction. Benson doesn't what she preaches!"
"She runs Omega House..." Crossbar Mary said, a barbed spike dangling precariously from one ear.
"That's never going to change the world," interrupted Marilyn Manson, who'd changed his look to incorporate Harrakin robes and hairstyles. "Violence is the Omega's greatest statement."
"How intelligent," Allen commented. "My point is, she says humans and Omegas should get along. Then what does she do? She dumps her human boyfriend, that guy who got kidnapped for her, and shacks up with one of the Seekers! An Omega! Where's the desegregation there, huh?"
"It's not that big a deal," Mary said. I waited, my face a motionless stone mask, for her to tell those bastards off.
"Anne Benson could have any guy she wants," Mary continued. "And let's face it, other than his fighting in the war, Avatar isn't that big of an Omega."
I turned the TV off and threw my head back on the pillow, craving an unattainable sleep no matter what dreams it might bring.
I must have gone to sleep sometime, though not for long, because the phone woke me up around three in the morning.
It was Wes, sounding awake and alert despite the hour. He's another one of those people who somehow keeps on marching down the road, past God knows how many bodies piled in the gutters. I didn't have time to ask him how he did it either, because the first words out of his mouth were, "I found your victim. Lieutenant Steve Ceschetti, Army ordinance specialist attached to the Office of Special Weapons. He matches your sketch and the blood type."
"That's great," I whispered.
"There's one catch," Wes said. "The Army doesn't think he's dead."
I stared dumbly at the telephone receiver. "What?"
"He reported to work today, apparently with a bad cough. Stuck around just long enough to finish a classified job."
"Shit!" I said, inadvertantly waking Anne. "The plastic surgeons! That was one of Culver's men!" My mind racing, I asked, "What was the job?"
"The Army was very reluctant to say so... particularly to me." Wes stressed those last words for some reason. "Said I wasn't cleared. So I... wrote my own clearance. Found out Ceschetti was setting up security for a shipment coming in by train tonight. Ultra-secret weaponry destined for storage at Fort Belvoir. A shipment of Slappers and beam-projection psi-suppressors."
I was too shocked to curse or even breathe. Psi-suppressors inhibited most Omega powers. "Slappers" used a suppressor to block an Omega's powers... and then hit him with a missile. The army had unveiled the things during the Harrakin invasion. And now organized crime had a plan to get them.
"The false Ceschetti has disappeared," Wes said, "but the train is coming into Belvoir in an hour. I can scramble a Seekers team down there..."
"No!" I shouted. "Steele is going to be there, too! If you send Omegas down there, you're just giving Steele a supply of powers. This could be our one chance to catch him!"
"That's a little risky," Wes said.
Anne was less diplomatic. "Why do we want to capture Steele?" she asked me.
"Because he's a vicious bastard!"
"What?" said Wes.
"No, I wasn't talking to you... Listen, I can intercept the train myself. Steele may not be able to copy my powers without my body around." And even if he is, I thought, all he could do is make his body collapse right in the middle of a fight. I took a deep breath and said, "I'll stop them. Steele and the criminals."
"That's final. No other Omegas or you lose Steele."
Wes sighed. "Okay. You have half an hour, and then I send in Michelle's team." I hung up the phone, not feeling much triumph; Wes had been the easy one.
I looked at Anne, who looked at me and the frantically-tossed sheets on my side of the bed. I didn't know if I could refuse those imploring blue eyes... but an understanding passed between us.
"We only do what we have to do," I said.
"Then I guess you'd better do it."
I kissed her. Then my body collapsed.
The Culver mob was good, I'll give them that. As my astral form swept towards the speeding northbound train, I could see how they'd executed the heist. They'd dropped onto two train cars from above, possibly from the undersides of highway overpasses. Then they got inside the cars, probably opening locks with Steve Ceshetti's stolen fingerprints, and disabled the guards in the front car with tear gas. The soldiers up at the engine kept driving, and were only now getting Wes's urgent message that the train had been boarded. Meanwhile the Culver men had opened the large side door on a car full of Slappers, and were preparing to transfer the crates to a hoist lowered from a waiting helicopter. The copter was doing its best to match speeds with the train, and the gangsters were ready to slide the first crate of anti-Omega weaponry over...
Stopping that was my first priority. Then I had to take out the mob and Steele with just my second-rate powers. Well, those and my wits.
I flew in front of the helicopter's cockpit, and manifested visibly in the physical plane. I assumed the most menacing appearance I could: swirling hair, raging eyes, flames flickering inside my mouth. I looked like the kind of guy who could shoot down whole ships full of people.
I passed through the window and screamed, and the pilot freaked. He threw the copter into a hard turn, jerking the hoist away just as the mobsters were about to place the first crate on it. That crate slipped down to the tracks and shattered, its contents crushed under the train's wheels.
With the helicopter diverted for the moment, I flew down to the train. I could see MPs heading down from the front of the train, their spirits shining brightly through inanimate walls that were translucent to me. I could also see the black-suited, gasmasked snipers set up in the first occupied car, ready to mow down the soldiers.
And I could see one more person on the train, his World War I gasmask clashing oddly with his black leather jacket and beret. Steele emerged from the gaseous mist behind the gunmen and started shooting them with his Walther PPK. The two snipers at the front of the car spun around to mow him down with their much more lethal Uzis.
I'd like to say that I moved to help Steele without even thinking about what a creep he was. The truth is, I knew full well what a creep he was, and acted just as quickly to save him anyway.
I have a sort of roundabout telepathy when I'm in astral form, since the astral plane gives me closer access to people's minds and spirits. Anne's actually taught me a lot of tactics with it. Reaching into the snipers' minds, I broadcast a tremendous fear of shooting Steele. It didn't take over their thoughts -- I know my limitations -- but it held them up long enough for Steele to attack. He shot the first thug, and when his gun was empty he dropped the second with a perfect stomach kick.
Then I dropped through the roof, manifesting as myself. "What do you say, Steele? Quick truce to take out the Culver boys?"
Steele, looking insectoid and alien behind the gasmask, nodded. We plunged forward into the mist.
I came out first, emerging in the second car. I changed the clothes around my astral form -- gave myself a black suit, a gasmask, and a big bloody gunshot wound. I came out right behind one of the gunmen, who'd escaped the first car and was warning the loaders that Steele was coming for them.
"No!" I screamed, pointing at the gunman. "He shot us!" Then I pointed at one of the loaders, a burly one trying to shove a crate onto the re-aligned helicoper hoist. "They want to double-cross us!" Then I fell to the floor, dead.
The loaders all dropped their crates and turned on each other. They would sort out the deception quickly, if given the time -- but they were too occupied to notice the dead body disappearing, or the extra man in a black suit and modern gasmask joining their group. They certainly couldn't notice me, invisibly sending telepathic suggestions to lower their weapons or mistrust each other. When I had them all vulnerable, Steele made his move.
The extra man in black lashed out, striking the younger men with his usual speed and style -- and also with a new ferocity. Steele punished the mobsters with a frightening array of kicks and strikes. Three men were knocked out of the open freight door in the first flurry. When the other mobsters tried to hit him, I telepathically confused them and they struck each other instead.
Surprise won most of the battle, but not all. The last two mobsters tackled Steele, pinning him to the floor right next to the freight door. They slid Steele out the door, his head dropping closer and closer to the metal tracks and the wheels rushing over them. Both men were too intent for me to distract or frighten them -- Steele was shoved out past his waist, barely holding onto the freight car with his fingertips --
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. For a couple years now, I've known about a certain application of astral powers. I'd been loathe to use it, considering the only person who had was that psychopath Astral, but the situation left me little choice. I popped my astral form into one of the unconscious guards, and used my telepathy to take over his body.
Neither of the two gangsters trying to kill Steele could see one of their fallen comrades lurch up behind them. The body moved slowly, clumsily at first, and Steele was pushed further out... But the body found its footing and charged the gangsters. It slammed the first one out the door, giving Steele a chance to grab onto a door handle. The second gangster grappled with his former ally, until the body pitched itself out the door, taking the gangster with it. I'm sure the impact hurt a lot; I wouldn't know for sure because I left the body before it hit the ground.
I landed in the car as Steele pulled himself back up into it. I manifested visibly, and the laughing Steele took off his gasmask. "Very nice, Mister Morgan! Very nice indeed!"
"Thanks, but I didn't come here for compliments." I towered over Steele in a wide fedora and a flapping trenchcoat. This time, I gave myself a badge. "Do you care to come along quietly?"
Steele rose and took off his stolen suit. "Be serious, Morgan. We just stopped these bastards from stealing some abominable anti- Omega weapons. What have I done wrong?"
"Don't play me, Steele. I know you didn't just come here to stop them."
"That's right." Steele stood proudly against the open freight door. Behind him, against the rushing night landscape, the helicopter hoist reappeared again, not knowing there was no longer anyone to load it. "I want to destroy the weapons. Make the world safer for all Omegas."
"There are better ways than violence, Steele. If you wanted, you could be the best damn Seeker of all."
He stepped closer to me, adopting a sort of intimacy even though he still had to shout to be heard over the train and copter. "I'm disappointed, Morgan. I thought you, of all people, would understand the necessity of force. You used it well enough during the invasion."
I said nothing.
"I was quite impressed with your actions on the flagship... shooting all those ships. I know your type, and it's killing you now, isn't it? But back then, you understood. Those alien filth had to be stopped by any means necessary."
I could feel his other eye, the bloody ruin under the patch, boring into me. But I said nothing.
"And here we are again. These weapons won't be used on the Harrakin next time. They'll be used on us. And much as it will hurt to break the law, you know the tough choice of destroying them has to be made. So let's do it, Morgan!"
"No." My astral face didn't blink, my mentally-projected voice didn't falter. "The tough choice this time is doing it without killing, Steele. Just like the tough choice was saving your ass instead of letting the Culver boys kill you for me." Only this time, I knew it was the right one.
"Then arrest me." He threw a perfect karate strike at my neck, and his hands passed through my illusory body. "You're a ghost! You can't stop me from destroying these weapons!"
"Rift slipped a time bomb into one of these crates," I said calmly. "You were going to wait and blow up the whole arsenal. Telepathy tells all, even with you." I folded insubstantial arms across an insubstantial chest. "So the game is over and you may as well come along quietly. You have no powers to copy here."
Steele frowned. "Yes... I'll need to see about getting some help if Wes continues to field such annoyingly high-caliber operatives." I inadvertently let my surprise at the flattery play across my face, but Steele was too lost in thought to notice. "I think I'll need a new Cadre... but for now, I'll make do with the one ally I've got." A glowing portal irised open beside Steele.
"I'll just follow you through," I said, though neither of us moved.
"But if you do that," Steele said, "then you won't be able to get back to the train and keep me from detonating the bomb by remote." He winked and moved his body towards the portal.
I started to fly through it, hoping I could mind-control him and stop the detonation. But I checked myself at the last instant; Steele wasn't moving through the portal, but falling through another one opening under his feet. I swerved and avoided flying through the decoy portal, but the real one closed shut behind Steele.
I had at most a few seconds before the crazy bastard blew up the bomb, the train, and everyone on it.
I didn't want any more explosions like that.
First I scanned the cars, and found Rift's telltale astral spillage inside one crate. That one had the bomb, but without hands I couldn't do a thing about it. So I possessed the burliest loader left on the train, and animated his body into action. He shoved the crate across the floor in a frenzy and hurled it onto the helicopter hoist. I fled his body, and gave the pilot a little telepathic nod towards cowardice being the better part of valor. He flew away, high and fast, with just the one crate.
A few seconds later, an explosion rocked the night sky. The shockwaves sent the copter spinning into a field, and the train and everyone on it was spared. I appeared above the train, pumping my fists and howling for joy with a breath that was unnecessary, but wholly deserved.
Wes and the other Seekers came by after that to sort out the whole mess. Some Army officials were there too, talking about a medal or even a promotion for me if the Seekers became a Services branch.
I had to respectfully decline, and explain that if the Seekers went military I wouldn't be going with them. I might have saved their precious weapons, weapons specially designed to kill me and my kind, but I only did it to protect the people in the train and the surrounding area. And to prove Steele wrong.
You see, he thought my killing those Harrakin was choosing murder as the only solution. But I finally unraveled that little mystery -- I was choosing life as the only goal. I did it on the flagship and I did it again today. True, there's now a shipment of Slappers that I'm responsible for, but they haven't killed anyone yet. As a law enforcement officer and a Seeker, it's part of my job to make sure they never need to. And if that means I can't support the system that created them, even by silent acceptance, then so be it.
That's just my choice; I know people like Wes and Harvey made other choices, and the Services are all the better for it. But don't ask me to cooperate as you turn a good peacekeeping program into another tool of martial force. I have to keep working in a place where death is a last resort and not a routine solution.
So that's my story; it should explain why I'm refusing your military bribes, though you can go ahead and honor me all you like.
Now if you'll excuse me, it's getting awfully early. I think I'm going to go home and get some sleep.
Next: We look at another cast member getting by after the Invasion. But Neil Benson seems to be doing just fine at the happiest bar in town... let me introduce you to the Cornerstone.
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