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Hunger. Terrible hunger crept up from his bowels, clawing at his gut like a scared wildcat. He doubled over from the ravenous pain, afraid he would black out in a minute if he could not satisfy the craving. Suddenly, his head cleared. The pain subsided in his gut and he began to realize it was not his own hunger he felt. It was that of another. His master. His Enemy.
The great star yearned for some special prize, and his Emissary felt that craving, even though they were light years apart. Something special. Tasty. Hors d'oeuvres to whet his appetite for the Great Feast to come.
The Emissary began to salivate. He whispered, "The misery. Betrayal. Suffering." A spot of drool fell away from his chin. He smiled with coal-black teeth. "Something special."
His mind fell away from the pain, and he began to think...
by Stewart Brower
Seven months later.
"Jessie, would you just put the work down for one night and come to bed?" Darren Cochran sat at the edge of the bed and called out down a darkened hall. Jessica was in the den, soft clicks and keystrokes from her computer echoing throughout the house. "Please, baby. I hardly see you at all these days." The keystrokes stopped abruptly followed by quick, hard footfalls on the carpet.
Jessica, silhouetted by the light from the den, stood in the doorway, arms crossed and lips pursed. "What, Darren? What?" She took a draw off her cigarette. "Seeing me eleven or twelve hours a day at work isn't enough for you?"
"You work too hard."
"One of us has to. This house isn't going to pay for itself."
Darren stood up. "I know. But the money isn't going to stop coming in if you just knock off early for one night."
"Really," Jessie mused. "What if I can't come up with the breakthrough, huh? What if there are no frickin' codes advanced enough for this kind of gear, huh? What'll we do thenpay for the house on your techie salary? Or can that Recharger of yours just make money out of the thin air?"
"Unfair, Jessie! Unfair!" Darren paced over toward the glowing silver tetrahedron. "I know this eats up a lot of my time, and that it can't make us moneybut it's so important..."
"More important than your career, obviously enough."
"Yes!" said Darren, not missing a beat. "More important than your career, too. Most important thing on the planet, sitting here in our bedroom."
"More important," Jessie said, "than me. Than us."
Darren dropped his head, his gaze hesitantly moving toward the Recharger.
"Go on," she said. "Take the power and go. Do what you have to do. But don't you dare try to tell me what's supposed to be important to me," she turned her back to him, "when you still haven't figured out what should be most important to you."
And as she walked back down the hall, she heard the faint whisper of her husband.
Two days later.
"Recorder on. This is trial number...uh..."
"Right. Trial one twenty-six. We will be testing code zero one dot four alpha. This strain of wetware possesses the new spatial dynamic subroutines and the base AI program, Ganymede."
Jessie finished tying her auburn hair back behind her head, crushed out her cigarette in the nearest of sixteen ashtrays strategically located around the small lab, and slumped down over her terminal. "Liz, monitor the diagnostics closely on acoustics this time. My ears still haven't recovered from the last test. Darren, are we hooked up?"
"Yeah, but I will need a new roll of twisted pair if we hook up anything new this afternoon."
"Alright, then." Her voice dropped as she typed the execute command. "Work, dammit."
In the center of the lab, a foot-wide oval platform stood atop a small tower of tubes and wires. It began to glow and hum with power.
"Liz, is the sound going to stay constant?" Jessie asked.
"Um...yeah...holding steady at 12.6 decibels."
A bright orange sphere suddenly popped into existence directly over the platform. "Yes," whispered Jessie. "Yes. OK, guys, I'm booting up the geometrics sub. Watch the broadcast signal closely, Taylorany fluctuation and we shut it down...last thing we need is an exploding force field in a crowded computer lab..."
Two keystrokes later and the sphere began to change. Starting with six equidistant points, the sphere began to "flatten" out sides, merrily on its way to becoming a cube.
"Power is constant," shouted Taylor. "Waitaminute. Crap! Something's up with the dynamics...we're folding..."
Jessie watched in frustration as the protocube formed three small funnels at random points and began to pull itself apart. "No you don't!" she yelled, and whipped around to her console, her fingering furiously trying to compensate for the breakdown.
"Jessie..." Darren began. He only had her name past his lips when he heard the familiar snarl:
"BACK OFF! I'M PULLING IT BACK TOGETHER!"
Darren turned away from his wife, and watched helplessly as the sphere reformed itself, twisted back, flattened to a solid circle, cascaded to a fragment, and finally disappeared as the safety overrides kicked in, forty-five seconds after it first appeared.
Everyone shuffled slowly out of the room, except for Jessie, who just sat and stared at her terminal for the next twenty minutes.
Two hours, twenty minutes later.
Lewis Wilcox's office was lavishly decorated. Thick grey carpet covered the floor, and the walls were paneled with mahogany. Lewis' desk had been recently refinished, the antique wood now sporting a rich new sheen. Lewis was CEO of Veertech, and Jessie's boss for this particular project.
"It's alright, Jessica. This sort of thing is to be expected with research this advanced." Lewis made the hair on Jessie's neck stand up. His adenoids worked overtime, and his skinny, pale face was hard to read. "I just need something more of a time frame, ya know? For the board."
Jessie fidgeted in her chair while Lewis paced behind his desk. "I really can't say. We still need that breakthrough."
"Jessica, I know this is trying your patience. The shouting from the lab today...well, it even reached my office, ya know?" Lewis sat down. "Can't you even guess? Just give me something, for the board. Ya know?"
"Lewis," she began, "I can't give you a guess, because we have too many unknown factors at work. You want an AI capable of mimicking the powers of a Patroller's Gauntlet. There is no prototype. There is nothing like it on this planet, save the Gauntlets themselves, and we have no specimen for examination. Never mind the fact that broadcast power is still a new field and that the major expert on it recently died. So believe me please when I tell you that I have NO idea when the damn breakthrough will come to me."
Lewis' ordinarily pale features were growing bright red. He leaned over his desk, coming within inches of Jessie's face. His eyes narrowed and he spoke in low even tones.
"I'm sure you'll let me know. I won't keep you from your work any longer."
Jessica hesitantly got up to leave. Lewis stood up again, arms akimbo. "The board meets in two weeks, Jessica. I'd really like to hear from you again before then."
An hour later.
Jessica came home to an empty house. Darren had left a note on the refrigerator.
I figured the meeting with Wilcox was a bad one and that you'd want some time alone. I'm out patrollingwill be home in time for a late dinner and to talk, if you want. I know the last couple of weeks have been really bad for you, and I just want you to know that I'm here for you. Your loving Darren.
"No you're not, Darren. You're not here for me at all." She stood near the glass doors opening onto the deck, and stared wistfully at the setting sun.
Three hours later.
Jessie wore a light windbreaker to protect against the cold New Mexico night. Even in Albuquerque, the old deserted streets of the plaza offered enough escape for Jessie to relax a bit, to be quiet with her thoughts. She stopped to sit on a park bench in the plaza square.
She loved Darren. She was sure of that. But the Rechargerthe damn Gauntletbeing a Patroller ate up so much of his life, that whenever he wasn't at work, he was out on patrol. But, to be fair to Darren, she knew she was no better. Worse, in fact, because all her concerns were at work.
She had a secret agenda. No onenot Taylor, not Liz, not Lewis, not the whole stinking board of Veertech, not even Darrenknew what she had planned. To be her own Patroller, by perfecting the technology and seizing it for herself. Then she and Darren would have that in common, and could start mending the fences.
That's why I push so hard, she thought. I need to be with Darren, to be a part of his life. And if his Recharger won't allow him to make material gain from it, then mine will. He and I will want for nothing, and we can still make a difference, lead the planet toward Civilization. I'll have all the powers he has, with none of the restrictions.
It was something else she often thought ofthe danger.
Darren can't act against anyone, she thought, even to save his own life. But I can cover his back. My Gauntlet won't have any Patroller's code restricting its use. Just my own best judgement. It could be so...good. She could even fix his Gauntlet...strip it of the damn code...she could take the power...the companies shouldn't control such things...she would control the broadcast power...Veertech just wants to compete with Magnum... what is in room fifteen, anyway...she just needed a breakthrough...something for alien technology...something alien...
She jumped up. Something was wrongshe could feel it. Some of these thoughts, familiar as they seemed...
Some of these thoughts were not her own. Really? Something alien...
She turned Hunger her eyes searching the dark Seeds finding only Something alien two rows of perfectly black teeth.
"It's me, baby, I'm home." He landed quietly on the deck in the back of their new home. "I'm sorry I was gone so long" He paused as his eyes focused on his wife.
"Uh, wow! That's a great teddy you almost have on, Jessie." He looked down at the champagne glass in her hand. "Have you been drinking?"
"Just a little, darling. We're celebrating."
"I found it." Jessica said. "I have my breakthrough."
"Are you sure?" Darren asked quietly.
"Oh, yes. Just one little test to be sure, but I know I've got it."
Darren began to smile, and stepped closer to his wife, arms open. "Oh, geez. Baby, I'm so...It's just great, isn't it?" He drew her close against his chest.
And felt something crawl onto his Gauntlet-bearing hand. The image of a face suddenly appeared in the air near his hand. "Warning!" it cried out. "Warning! A foreign object has been placed on the Gauntlet! The Seeder is capabllllllllll..." An explosion of mind-searing pain followed, and his body began to jerk violently. He heard Jessie screaming, crying out his name over and over again. Her cries grew quieter, his world became dark. Silence. Inky blackness.
At that same moment.
The Recharger at Eric Summers bedside rang out with an alarm that sounded like peacocks in a wood chipper. He shot up immediately out of bed.
"What?! What!?!" he screamed over the din.
The Recharger quieted in a heartbeat, and a face sprung to ghostly life above it.
"Patroller Summers," it said, "there has been a breach of security. You will investigate. You will leave immediately for Albuquerque, New Mexico..."
At that same moment.
The Emissary began to taste the terror of his workings.
Next issue: Jessie on the run, Eric in hot pursuit, the Emissary's plan revealed!
Copyright © 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower