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Jessie whispered hoarsely to the shimmering floating head in front of her. "Darren?"
The green visage faded and crackled, bursts of alien static slicing through his trembling voice. "Yessshhhahhica, it's me. You can't queeee need to run, baby. Run, nhmmmmckisary will killbaaaaaaaaaa love you, and I forgive you."
Jessie's trembling hand reached out to stroke his cheek, just as he split apart and faded from sight.
by Stewart Brower.
"Oh, this is rich, Al. We come all this way, find the house where the Recharger used to be, but instead of finding Jessie, we just find some guy sliced in HALF, ruining the living room rug." Eric Summers was pacing on the deck in back of the house. "And now you decide to tell me that you can't track the Gauntlet? Why, Alwhy can't you track the Gauntlet?"
Al's holographic image had assumed full size for the discussion, looking for all the world like the great jazz singer for whom he was named. "I can track Rechargers because we are share a single mind. There is no Recharger left to track. Furthermore, the Seeder wipes the Gauntlet, leaving no active circuitry capable of transmitting a beacon." Al looked at him bemusedly. "This is another part of the reason you were chosen."
"To give me ulcers?"
"You were taught to track while you were with PRIME, and in Special Forces as well."
"Yeah," Eric grunted, "All my vaunted training. Still..." he vaulted the railing to drop to the earth a meter below, "let's take a look, eh?"
He crossed around to the front of the garage. The door was wide open, but no vehicles were inside. OK, Eric thought to himself, let's see what we've got to work with. No truck here, but this repair manual is for a Jeep Cherokee from ten years ago. No bike on the wall, but that's definitely what the rack is for, and judging by these thin tubes, I'd say it's a touring bike. If she plans on using it, she wouldn't go for the mountains, but would keep to the pavement. The cops haven't heard about this yet, but it wouldn't surprise me if she figures they're on their way. Jessie will want to put some mileage between herself and this place. Heading south would be bad, and she knows itnot just HiPoes, but also border patrol. Leaves a lot of territory, and it's hard to...
Eric's face brightened and he reached around into his pack. He pulled out a small radio and switched to the police band. "Oh, Al?" Al materialized immediately. "If this mission is important to you, you surely won't mind a little job."
"A Recharger is not to interfere..." Al began quickly.
"Shut up, Al. No one is asking you to interfere. You'd only get in my way, anyhow." Al's face dropped a little. "All I want you to do is monitor this frequency for me." He held up the radio.
"I can duplicate the frequency easily. What am I monitoring for?"
"Abandoned Jeep Cherokee on any of the roads near here. On a hunch, I'm betting on west, toward California."
"Why, may I ask, do you think she'll go west?"
"It's pretty thin, but this time of year a lot of bike tours head west for bed and breakfasts in southern California. I'm betting she'll try to blend in with one. It's a hunch, but I do remember Jessie being a really avid biker."
"Surely she would not try to elude the authorities by bicycle? It is too slow and exposed."
"No. She changes her hair color, gets it cut. She wears a helmet and glasses anywayno cop would recognize her in that kind of outfit."
"If you thought of it, surely the police..."
Eric looked grim. "I know. But I'm betting she just wants to give herself some space, some time to think. She'll go by bike, I'm sure of it.
"Let's get into the air and see what we can find."
She drove west, keeping just under the speed limit. The dye in her hair would take about twenty minutes to set, and she wanted to use the time to put her thoughts together.
OK, she began, what've I got to work with? Darren wasn't just killed by the Seeder on the Gauntletin fact, his personality was copied over to the blank memory of the device. Why? And what is keeping him alive? How did it fire off that huge energy burst that...killed Lewis? The thing works on broadcast powerwhere is it coming from?
Don't you know? I thought you were supposed to be pretty smart.
She paused, then spoke aloud. "You. The power is coming from you."
From my lord and master. And should you wish your husband's life to continue...
"I work for you as your agent," she said with dawning clarity. "I walked right into all of this."
"Darren controls the Gauntlet?"
And you control him. As you always did.
"Why though? Why are you doing all of this?" No answer came. "Oh, come onyou've got me. What can I do? Just tell me why!"
Pause. No. I don't think so.
"You're scared of me."
I'm cautious. You should learn the difference! A blinding burst of pain shot through Jessie's temples. She twisted the wheel to the side with arms that felt like lead, and the Jeep crashed sidelong into a ditch. As she began to slip into unconsciousness, she heard mocking laughter from all around her. And pain. You should learn pain.
Jessie awoke several minutes later. The van was buried in the ditch and she figured it was time to take to her bicycle. She unlatched it from the van's wall mounts and propped it up to one side. She checked her gear in her bag. She had swiped a couple of items from the office when she left Darren's body, and her laptop, which added a fair amount of weight. Hopefully, it would all be worth it.
She took off pedaling down the road, helmet and goggles strapped on. She wanted to show as little of her face as possible. The Emissary could reappear at any time, any where apparently. She did not want to have to face him again, but he obviously wasn't going to leave her alone. Confrontation, then, she thought. I'd better get prepared.
Eric was playing Lewis' videotape a second time in his head, looking for any kind of clue to help him out. Looked like Lewis was trying to blackmail Jessie, and that she killed him for it. He was no longer feeling so confident about talking her down from this power trip she was on.
"Eric, I think I've got it!" Al was noticeably excited.
"There is a vehicle matching your description on Highway 44, northwest of the city, near San Ysidro."
"OK, Al. Let's check it out." The large craft veered to the right, fishtailed for half a second, and then split the air with a deafening whine as it headed north.
Jessie smeared her left foot against the rock, and lifted up. Her right hand snaked into small hole, chalking its sides as it went. She then pushed down hard with both arms, leaned forward, kicked one leg up over the lip of the rock shelf, and then hoisted her body up and over. She rested here, taking a squirt of water from her bottle. She wasn't sure how wise this was, but one way or another, she was going to end it.
She anticipated the presence this time. She knew he was near.
Jessie, why are you doing this? I don't have to even assume a human form to affect your mind. You cannot beat mePatrollers have never been a match for the Enemy and his legion.
"The Enemy," she said to no one in particular. "What a stupid name." She took another sip of water.
I could kill you for insolence, you know.
"I know," she said blankly, "I just don't care."
"It's just as well, Jessie." Darren was now sitting beside her, wearing his climbing outfit. "You can't beat him, you know."
"I think you're wrong, Darren. I think we can beat himyou and me."
"Oh get real, Jessie!" Darren stood up and began his familiar pacing, heedless of the fact that he was pacing on the very air just off this face of rock. "What can we do, huh? There's no power for the Gauntlet. Even if there was, this guy has full knowledge of our abilities, and has access to all forms of advanced technologies."
"Darren, will you calm down?" she asked forcefully. "I've got a plan. There's a way for me to channel broadcast energy to you from a hot-wired jammer I swiped from the office." She smiled. "Then we gut that slimy sunovabitch!"
Darren stopped pacing and smiled back at her knowingly. She relaxed for just a moment.
Then Jessie saw something in Darren's eyes. Something vague.
"Did you hear all that, lord?"
Jessie's mouth fell open. "Darren?"
"Hey, Jessie, if you killing me taught me anything, it's to look out for number one." Darren's face hardened. "I hope you're happy, Jessica."
"Darren? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean for you to die, oh god please jesus forgive me Darren I didn't" Jessie's voice broke into a miserable cacophany of sounds.
Darren stood over her, his face darkening in shadow. "You get to be the Patroller now, Jessie. How do you feel, huh? Strong? In control? I put my life on the line, defending something real, something meaningfuland how am I finally brought down? By you, murderess. Jessica, Jezebel, betrayer. Your petty jealousies killed me, Jezebel! I hope you rot in hell. I hope this evil sunovabitch makes your life into a wretched mud pit! Wallow in it, you bitch, WALLOW!"
Her tears had begun falling softer. "Buh-but you...you forgave me, Darren."
"Like hell. I'll never forgive you."
She had a moment's doubt. "You did! You forgave me!" And that was all it took.
"Yeah, wellI take it back!" The Emissary felt his control slipping away.
"Darren did forgive me, you bastard." She pulled herself upright and screamed out at the top of her lungs, "GET...OUT...OF...MY...HEAD!!!" And the mountain, all the landscape, cracked and fell apart like so much glass.
She awoke in the van, slumped over the driver's wheel. Outside, a highway patrol car faced the van, but the patrolmen were face down on the ground with their guns barely out of the holsters. A Patroller, who seemed vaguely familiar, was down too, on his knees with his fists pushed hard against his temples.
Nearby, stood the Emissary. He turned to gaze at Jessie and flash his coal-black smile at her. Fine. New scenario. You will work for me or I shall kill not only your husband's "ghost," he pointed to Eric, but your ex-lover as well.
Jessie's head cleared. Eric Summers. God, could this get any worse? She opened the driver's side door, checking to make sure the Gauntlet was still on her hand, and stepped out. She walked slowly over to Eric, until she was within a couple of feet of him. "Eric?"
"Jessie?" Eric was weak from the pounding pain inside his head. He had suffered from migraines as a young boy, the kind of pain that makes grown men wish they could die just to end it. This psychic onslaught was a dozen times worse. He had accidentally bit his own tongue during the initial screaming, so some blood streaked the corner of his mouth. He had fallen ten feet or so to the pavementthe psi attack had instantly blocked out all his powers, and he was barely able to roll with the fall. He had badly twisted an ankle, and the pavement had torn all the skin from his left arm and left side of his face. All these minor pains were ignored in the brutal psychic assault.
"Stop it. Stop it now," Jessie said to the Emissary.
"You work for me now, yes?"
"What choice do I have?"
Deep inside the Gauntlet on Jessie's arm, a decision was reached. No, Emissary. It ends now.
A force field sprang to life around Eric, cutting off the psi attack. He slumped to the ground in relief. The Emissary wheeled on Jessie, who had her Gauntlet held away from her, pointing in Eric's direction. "Stay out of this, woman!" he hissed.
"No one else will be hurt because of me." Jessie looked him dead in the eye. "Not Eric, not Darren, not innocent copsno one."
"I'll kill you now. This experiment has become more trouble than you are worth." His fist lashed out and immediately recoiled. "What? What is wrong?"
"Gotcha!" Jessie smiled. "Your power. That's what you said. You might as well try cutting off your own arm."
"If I take the power away, your husband DIES!"
I'm dead already, asshole. This isn't LIFE! This is a simulationnothing like the real thing. I don't eat. I don't walk or talk or breathe or do any of the things we human beings take for granted every stinking day of our lives. You are such a twisted creature you'd think I actually prefer being a computer program to just being DEAD!?! Get real. Go on, Emissary. "Kill" me.
"With pleasure." The Emissary's eyes began to glow with green energy, and the Seeder on the Gauntlet grew bright and hot with green fire. Suddenly a bright light slipped between the green fiery eyes as Eric brought down a huge gleaming sword from behind the Emissary. He began screaming, and imploded in a bolt of emerald lightning.
Eric grinned briefly. Then his eyes rolled back into his head as he slumped to the ground. Jessie smiled at him, tears streaking her face.
Eric awoke in a motel room in San Ysidro. His wounds had been cleaned up, and he bore a makeshift splint on one ankle. His gear was in a bag near the side of the bed, and his Recharger was on the bedside table. He looked all over the room, and found no sign of Jessie at all. "Crap," he muttered.
"You are awake?"
"Yes, Al. What happened here?"
"Perhaps it would be best if Jessie explains"
Eric bolted upright. "She's still here? Where?"
"No, Eric. Jessie is gone. I have recorded a message she left for you, however. Would you like to hear it?"
Eric thought about this one for a while. He wasn't really sure he was ready to listen to anything right now. His body was still wracked with any unusual kinds of pain. Really, more than anything, he wanted a bath and a nice hot bowl of beans. Yeah, beans. With a little green tomato relish and maybe some cornbread. And a beer. A good strong wheat beer like he had at that place in Colorado. That'd be good.
Sigh. "Yeah, play the damned thing, Al."
Jessie's voice came back to him immediately, through years of forget. "Eric. First off, I need to thank you for getting me out of...well, the whole thing. You and the other Patrollers, I finally realize what you're up against, and while part of me understands and wishes you the best, another part of me wishes these damn Rechargers never existed.
"I won't pussyfoot around here, Ericneither one of us has much patience for that kind of crap." Eric smiled a bit. "Plainly put, don't come after me. I've got a lot to sort out, and I don't need you hounding me. While I love you for what you did to help me, I won't hesitate to put you down if you mess with me. This may sound harsh, but I need space right now. I need to devote some time to what is left of my husband, and try, in some small measure, to fix things.
"People have died because of this, true. But Darren forgave me for what I did to him. Lewis' death was self-defense. I could elaborate, but I won't. The HiPoes deaths were the Emissary's work. I won't let anyone else die because of me, but I won't be used again either. And that goes for the Patrol as well as the Enemy. I'll find another source of broadcast power to keep Darren alivecount on it."
She paused a second. "That's it, I guess. The room is paid formy treat. I hope to look you up in about a year. Don't come after me. When I'm ready..." Pause.
"When I'm ready, I'll find you. Goodbye, Eric. And thanks."
Al's voice cut the stillness. "Would you like to hear it again, Eric?"
"No, Al," came Eric's gravelly reply. "Just erase the message."
Al was a little put out. "Will you be pursuing her?" His voice indicated that he wanted a response to the affirmative. Eric got up and made his way back to the shower. "Eric?"
"No, Al. It's over." He turned on the shower and went back to his thoughts of dinner.
Continued in the pages of Paladin!
Copyright © 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower