Prologue

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From out of the mist an androgynous form appeared on gossamer wings.  Another ethereal form soared among the clouds manipulating water vapor with his mind as he idly waited.  He had gathered several clouds together, condensing them into a single globule of water the size of a grapefruit.  The water wielder arced over to the new arrival drifting to a halt.  He silently contemplated the sphere of water before letting it go to vanish into the mist below his feet.  He briefly wondered where it would fall before he faced the newcomer.

You took long enough. The soaring one’s thoughts carried a soft echo as if he’d spoken in a great cathedral, but no air had passed over his vocal cords.  Voices were for husks.

Insolence does not become you, replied the winged companion.

No but it’s fun, he said soaring higher and twirling impossibly fast.

We are not about fun.  We are about duty, the companion said stoically.

Yes, yes, duty.  What duty have you brought me this time? he asked.

An adversary.  You will find him here. The companion waved his hand and an image of a park in a city with a distinctive skyline appeared in the soaring one’s head.

I know this place, the soaring one said. He waved his hands in front of his face and a picture formed of a downtown intersection with cars idling in the street, street vendors peddling imitation brand-name goods to tourists, news stand vendors hawking the daily news, and people walking about.

Is that a problem? The gossamer wings moved back and forth without the faintest hint of movement in the cloud vapor as they went.

What is the task, punishment or retrieval? the soaring one asked adding a note of sarcasm to the descriptive words as he spoke them.

Neither.  Witness.  Go down and destroy all that he loves no matter what he does or says.

Wait a minute, that’s not how the game is played. The image before his face vanished in a pop and the cloud vapor around the two moved back as if an invisible sphere were rushing away from them.

This isn’t a game and we aren’t playing, not anymore.  We’re tired of their tactics and want to make, the companion paused, an impression.

Well you can bloody well make your impression without killing a bunch of people innocently going about their business, the soaring one said settling a short distance in front his superior. The cloud vapor nearest the two beings suddenly chilled and formed into thousands of sleet pellets that fell away.

Why so squeamish?  Just last week eight city blocks were brought down by their agents searching for one of our bases.  Did they care that our people just going about their business? The winged being waved a casual hand and cloud vapor hissed into steam.

That doesn’t make it right, the soaring one said reforming the picture of the city intersection.

You need only concern yourself with your duty and today your duty is to provide your adversary with an object lesson, said his superior.

Adversary, feh.  Why don’t you call them what they are, the enemy.  You say adversary as if you really don’t want to dislike them.  Is that because you don’t agree with this war?

How dare you question my motives!  I am just as much under assault as you are here.  My commitment to the organization is just as deep as yours.  Don’t ever forget that.

But you don’t deny you disagreed then and still do with the decision to go to war with them? It really wasn’t a question.

My feelings on this are of no consequence.  I have a duty just as you do, which is to provide the object lesson as you’ve been instructed.

Then why don’t you call them what they are, the enemy?  Why soften it with words like adversary, opponent, or insurgent? The scene between his hands changed to reveal a scene of destruction and devastation.  Bodies and parts of bodies lay on the ground amidst burning rubble. The vision showed in some places only arms or legs visible, the rest of the body buried beneath the smoking ruins that had once been the buildings of a great city.

We could have talked through this, worked out a solution, a peace.  We could have reconciled and avoided all this conflict and bloodshed.  Neither they nor we deserve that. Please, remove it.  I do not wish to remember that day, responded the gossamer-winged superior visibly moved by the scene displayed before him.

We should never forget that day.  They attacked us first.  Did these people deserve this?  Will our ‘adversaries’ stop with this?  Do you think if we weren’t willing to strike back they would have stopped there? His arms flew up and down as he spoke and the clouds roiled around the pair with flashes of heat lightning surging forth from where they floated.

Your thirst for vengeance has blinded you to the truth of our situation.  Only those with more level heads will be able to resolve this.  Just do your duty as you’ve done in the past and we will speak of this no more, the superior stated flatly.

That’s your problem, you don’t want to speak of this, or remember this, or think on this.  You and your ilk want to try and placate them until we no longer have the freedoms to do as we please.  Have you forgotten how they rule their peoples and lands, with persecution and fear?  They hate us because we do not persecute and show no fear. They hate us because we live with kindness and tolerance to others instead of hatred and conformity.  They see us, how the world loves us, how the whole world wants to live in our lands and have the freedoms we have. They despise us for that love.  You can include them all you want but in the end they will still hate you for no other reason than who you are.

Are you going to do your duty or must I find another?  The superior obviously had not been listening or if he had he hadn’t really heard what was said.

Why do I bother with you and your kind? the soaring one said pausing a moment.  He considered telling him he wasn’t going to tear down block after block of city just to show his enemy how it felt.  He knew the enemy.  Knew how they thought.  They’d just try to use it as propaganda to fuel their recruiting.  He knew he’d be going to his death but if his grand plan were to work it would only be achieved through his sacrifice.  I’ll go.  You want him to witness, to report an object lesson?  So be it.  I will give them an object lesson they won’t soon forget.

Good.

*****

The overhead windows looked down on the converted operating theater and the sole occupant who reclined in the chair there.  Two people in uniform, a man and a woman, looked through the window and down on the form that lay in the chair.  An atmosphere of near reverence hung in the room that seemed to stifle the very thought of speech.  The two figures looked at each other then moved to the door behind them and exited the room.  The sound of the door latching behind them echoed loudly down the empty hallway shattering the feeling.

“I don’t understand.  Why always cripples, ma’am?” asked the man.

“The eggheads are always publishing papers on that very subject.  I think it’s because they’ve learned to live more in their minds than here,” said the woman as they turned and strode down the hall together.  “I hate how we have to coddle them.”

“It’s a small price to pay for access to their abilities.  Wouldn’t you say?” he said as memories of loyal service with the crippled man below flooded his mind.  He shoved them roughly back into the dark corner where he kept them.  He’d do well not to let on he knew the ‘asset’ or his career would be over.

He’d been told his friend had died in a training accident many years ago.  When he first saw him he almost mentioned that he knew him, but he wasn’t a man anymore.  Now he was a weapon, an asset without a name, just a number stenciled on the reclining chair that was his permanent home.  This program was the fast track to promotion and he didn’t want to jeopardize that.

“Sometimes I wonder about their abilities.”  She wore the classic green dress uniform covered with colorful ribbons, braid, badges and a gold bordered name tag that read Pontius.  On her epaulets she wore the four stars of a general.

His uniform was of the same cut and cloth but bore less color and no gold on his name tag.  His tag read Peters.  His epaulets had the silver eagles of a colonel on them.

“Will he do it, ma’am?” Colonel Peters asked.

“I’m told he will.  This is a foolish plan, Peters,” General Pontius replied.  “It’ll never have the effect they think it will”

“Then why go along with it.  All we’re doing is sacrificing a valuable asset for nothing more than…” he didn’t finish.  She abruptly stopped, looked up and down the hall to make sure they were alone, then turned to him and spoke in a hushed tone.

“Look, you’re on my staff because someone believes you have what it takes to be someone someday,” General Pontius said as she tapped her stars.  “They play a game up here and if you want to get somewhere you have to learn to play that game.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Colonel Peters said.

“I understand you like this guy,” the General said pointing back over her shoulder to the door they’d come out of.

“No ma’am, I never met him,” Colonel Peters responded defensively.

They walked in uncomfortable silence for a bit until they came to a conference room and entered.  Where they sat the table top was covered with files, note pads, and papers.  General Pontius picked up a pen and flipped open one of her brown folders marked personnel.

“My information says you knew him before his accident, that he was a member of your unit?” It wasn’t really a question.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but your information must be mistaken.  I’ve never met him before,” Colonel Peters replied.

“It even says you’re from the same home town,” the General stated looking directly at her subordinate.

“I don’t know anything about that ma’am,” Colonel Peters said.  Just then an alarm went off on his personal data assistant.

“Whether you know him or not won’t matter after today.  The mission he’s on has a very low survival probability, so your career is safe,” The General paused and leaned toward Colonel Peters stopping him as he reached for the conference phone.  “Provided you never lie to me again.”

“Yes ma’am.  Shall I dial them up,” the Colonel asked grateful to turn the probing to another subject.  General Pontius nodded.  Peters began dialing and a few moments later the screen at the end of the meeting room came to life focusing on the head and shoulders of an elderly man with too many chins.

“Ah, General Pontius.  How goes the operation?’ asked the overweight head.

“He’s received his instructions and agreed to the operation,” she said.

“Good, good.  No problems?” asked the head.

“None, though he was reluctant.”

“That was expected.  I’m sure he knows he’s not expected to survive.”

“I do not know sir.”

“It doesn’t matter.  He’s been a problem in the program from the start.  Many of us wanted him out but weren’t sure how to do it.  They’re all so damn powerful.  Well, it’s done now.  Call me when you have the damage report.”  The head didn’t wait for a reply cutting the connection from his end.

“What now?” asked Peters.

“We wait.”

*****

His descent was instantaneous.  One moment he was in the clouds watching his winged companion fade and the next he was several hundred feet over the very intersection that had been conjured before him moments ago.  He wondered how many times the speed of sound he would have been traveling had he been corporeal but it made no matter.  His husk would never have survived anyway.

He needed to act quickly.  They would find him soon.  His adversary would be dispatched and he’d be attacked.  He had to be ready when that happened.

He positioned himself high over the city.  He focused his mind on his eyes.  He concentrated on the people.  The city teemed with them.  Millions upon millions of people lived in this cramped space.  Slowly he felt each and every one of them.  As he began to feel them he shot out a small thread of energy to each mind and established a connection.  It was easy.  He’d done this hundreds of times before to eavesdrop on enemy conversations.  This time it was different, and so was the scale.

As he added connections he could feel the strain.  It was like rolling a snowball up hill.  The hill never got steeper, but the size and weight of the snowball grew as it was pushed.  So too the strain built on his mind as he connected to more and more people.  He knew this would be his last mission so burning out didn’t matter he just needed to make an impression.  More and more, the connections grew and then something strange happened.

Just when he thought he wouldn’t be able to add another or the strain would snap his mind, it got easier.  First by the hundreds, then the thousands, then he couldn’t control it.  Connection after connection shot forth.  Mind after mind began to connect to his.  All their thoughts and voices filled his head.  From his vantage point he could see the threads reach the outskirts of the city but they didn’t stop spreading there, and they were picking up speed at a geometric pace.  In minutes he’d have a connection to every soul on the planet and they’d never know it, if he didn’t burn out first of course.  But it felt so easy, so good.  If this was burning out he wanted it, craved it.

Suddenly the air around him erupted in blinding red light.  For a brief moment his vision swam and he knew his enemy was there.  It would be over soon, but it didn’t matter anymore.

You should have been more careful to hide your presence.  I felt you halfway round the world, the adversary said

I meant for you to feel me, the soaring one said

I can see you’re taxed, his opponent said, observing the millions of tiny threads.  In fact, the flows are drawing from you on their own now, aren’t they?  You’ll be consumed and you haven’t struck a blow.  I don’t even need to do anything and you’ll be dead won’t you?

He made no reply.

Nothing to say?  How are you going to beat me if you never strike a blow?

I won’t beat you, you’ll beat yourself.

Ha! Not today!  With you out of the way we’ve won.  Your command doesn’t even know how powerful you’ve become do they?  They’ve totally overlooked the opportunity and potential they’ve had in their midst.  In fact, they sent you here to die today didn’t they?  Now why would they do that if their way is worth fighting for?

I knew they’d do this.  I planned it, I orchestrated it, I set things in motion.  I knew this was the only way from the moment I realized who and what I was.  From that moment I knew how to defeat you and your kind.  He nodded to the people below.  Soon, so will they.

Them? the adversary said pointing to the people. They can’t even see us or touch us.  Most don’t believe we exist, you and I.  How are they even going to understand me let alone defeat me?

Look.

Down below the threads now reached from horizon to horizon obscuring the view for the two beings though they could still make out the people they connected.  Directly below some of the threads began to connect between people.  As one person spoke to another or touched someone else a thread connected those two people.  No matter where they went the thread remained connected.  In some cases the threads spontaneously branched and connected to others.  In all cases everyone the threads connected seemed happier than the people who were not connected.  The threads connecting the people began to multiply the same way they had initially.  Shock registered on the adversary’s face as his head snapped around.

No! he screamed drawing the word out as his arms shot forward, red energy streaking forth to strike the soaring one.

It is done, he said, as the red energy struck him.  The blow flung his arms wide, shooting the threads into the sky as his incorporeal energy released into the atmosphere and dispersed.

*****

“General Pontius, how could this have happened?  He never did a thing.  Nothing!” shouted the man with too many chins.

“Senator, I assure you we are investigating the mission and will have a report soon,” said General Pontius stiffly.

“You assured me we would bloody the nose of our adversary and he would think twice before attacking again.”

“In point of fact sir, your office drew up these plans against our advice.  I never wanted to squander the man in such a fashion.”

“Don’t try to shift the blame for this General.  Just because you have your stars doesn’t mean we can’t find someone else to do your job,” and the line was cut.

“Are we really in trouble ma’am?” asked Colonel Peters.

“No.  I’m on record as opposing this in the last meeting.  I told them I thought it would fail and they didn’t listen.  When you write up the report include a copy of the minutes from that meeting and state, flatly, that we did not support the operation.  That will wash our hands clean of this mess once and for all,” General Pontius said turning off her data pad.

“I don’t think that will be the end of it ma’am.  Somehow I think this is just the beginning,” Peters said.