erniewhiting@centurylink.net

 

"Outlaws & Allies"

by Ernie Whiting

Chapter Twenty-Two

"I'm telling you, the damn door was right over there! " Private Matheson insisted. "I distinctly remember coming down this hall!"

"And I'm telling you, you remember it wrong!" Corporal Harris snapped back. "Do you see any fuckin' door over there? I don't see any fuckin' door!"

"Hey, guys, c'mon," Lattimer said, "let's settle down a little here, shall we?"

"Don't you fuckin' tell me to settle down, goddamnitt!" Corporal Harris shouted at him. "I'm in command here!"

Lattimer noticed the way the corporal's finger had moved off from the side of the trigger guard and was now resting gently on the trigger itself. And it also looked as though the Heckler & Koch MP-5 was beginning to rise. He raised his hands reassuringly and spoke softly. "Hey, okay!" he said, trying to console him. "No one's disputing that."

Harris watched him quietly and dangerously for a moment. "They'd better not be," he grumbled at last, backing off a little. God damn slackers, he thought, this is my fucking team, and I'm in command of it. If they think they can get away with insubordination... He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and forced himself to relax. This place was getting to him. He knew what it must feel like to be a rat in a maze; they had gone down one corridor after another, and each time they had run into another dead-end. It was starting to drive all four of them buggy.

Harper, who was thinking about how he hadn't seen any signs pointing toward the nearest exit in the last hour--it was as if they had all mysteriously disappeared somehow--was scrutinizing the walls and the floor. To anyone else it would have looked as though he was uncomfortable with this situation, and was trying to stay out of the argument; in reality, he could not have cared less. Instead, he was looking for signs that they might have been there before.

He found one. "We have been here before," he said softly.

Corporal Harris whirled on him. "Now don't you start in on me, too!"

Harper gave him a cool look. "I'm not 'starting in' on you," he said with quiet conviction. "I'm telling you, we've been here before."

"And how the hell do you know that?" Harris demanded.

Harper sighed reluctantly. "I kind of marked it."

Relieved to focus his attention on someone other than Harris, Lattimer looked at him. "Yeah?" he asked. "How'd you mark it?"

Harper was silent for a moment, and then he looked at the other two men. They, too, were expecting an answer, so he decided to plunge forward. After all, he was certain that they had done things that were far more repulsive than what he had done to mark this corner. At last he said, "I wiped a booger right here." He motioned with the barrel of his Heckler & Koch.

Harris looked at him with an expression that was a combination of doubt and revulsion. In a single, terse syllable, he said, "What?"

He stepped forward and indicated with the barrel of his weapon, near the corner. "It's right there, man, right where I left it." And, surely enough, there it was--a greenish-gray crusty smear, about a centimeter long.

Lattimer fixed on him with a disgusted look. "Remind me not to go to your house anymore!" he said. "There's probably boogers all over everything."

Matheson couldn't help laughing out loud, and then Lattimer and Harper joined in--the latter somewhat embarrassedly.

Corporal Harris didn't think it was funny. He was convinced that they were questioning his ability to command, and therefore they were also questioning his authority.

He took out his bayonet. Tightly gripping its hilt in one fist, ready to strike downward into the back of an unsuspecting enemy, he proceeded to carve a large "X" in the wall. "Okay," he said. "This definitely shows that we've been here before, okay? Are we all agreed on that?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Good. Now can we get on with trying to find a way out of this place?"

***

Randi was staring in wide-eyed wonder at the blue-white circle of light that surrounded them, and for once in her life she was at a complete loss for words. With a thousand questions swirling in her mind, at the moment she was so astounded that didn't think she would be able to ask even the simplest one intelligibly. She could not take her eyes off of the glowing circle of power; gazing at it in rapt fascination, she slowly reached a hand toward it to experimentally pass one finger through, just to see what would happen. She was startled by a slight crackling of energy that was accompanied by a faint and continuous sparking, like an incessant discharge of static. The tiny lightning bolt followed her finger to wherever she traced it, as though it were an electrical current inside a plasma ball--one of those hands-on displays people used to see so frequently in science museums before the Foundation had closed them all down, allegedly due to a lack of public interest.

Sitting next to her, Sonja leaned toward her and gently touched her arm. "If you reach or pass through a Circle without first opening a doorway," she whispered softly, "you'll dissipate its power."

Randi nodded once in understanding, and folded her hands before her. "Where's it all coming from?" she asked.

"From all living things," Sonja told her. "From the ground, the sky, from the forest...everywhere. The Goddess created the Earth and all of life, and its energy. What we try to do when we're working magic is to combine all those energies with our own, and use it to obtain a specific goal, whether it's for healing or blessing or protection, or whatever. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't."

"What if it doesn't work?"

Sonja shrugged. "Then we just try harder. If it still doesn't work--if the Goddess's answer is still no--then I guess She wants us to do it on our own, and take a more mundane route."

Not certain of what else to do, and not wanting to disrupt the ceremony with any more questions, Randi returned her attention to the Circle's priestess.

Jasmine had been listening to them while casting the Circle. I hope this does work, she silently said to herself. Please, dear Lady, let this work.

And then she remembered the invocations that Valerie had used not long ago. Clutching her athame in both hands and raising its point to the sky, she stood and faced east, and called out, "Eagle Spirit! Guardian of the East, and all the powers of Air and of all things winged! We invoke and petition you to protect our sister who is away from us this night, fighting to close down Betatron."

The Circle grew brighter. The light that surrounded them was no longer just a circle; now it was becoming a faint, pulsating, blue-white cone of Power that seemed to swirl and spiral above them, twisting clockwise and reaching above their heads. It created a faint draft that gently breathed against them, and suddenly Randi's fascination of a few moments ago was nothing compared to what she felt now. She slowly--and somewhat nervously--gazed up at the cone's peak, and her jaw fell open slightly as her eyes widened. Holy shit! she thought.

Jasmine turned and stepped around the other coven members until she was standing at the south, and she called out, "Cougar Spirit! Guardian of the South and all the powers of Fire! We call upon you to protect our sister, who is fighting to shut down that poisonous nuke plant that now threatens all of our lives!"

Thunder rumbled gently in the distance. Randi's eyes returned to the surrounding cone of light, and she saw that it had grown even stronger and brighter; it had become thicker, more substantial. She could still see through it, but not as easily as before; the Power was building up, increasing. The soft draft of a moment ago had become a steady, noticeable wind that swirled around them. The flames of the burning candles that surrounded them danced madly but did not go out, and the incense smoke blew about them, enveloping them in its embrace. Nothing else inside the room moved; that was all outside, in the physical world. But inside this Circle, they were in another dimension.

Still holding the black-hilted and double-edged dagger toward the sky, Jasmine went around to the west. "Whale Spirit! " she called out, speaking loudly over the wind. "Guardian of the West, and all the powers of Water! We petition you to protect our sister Valerie while she casts her Circle to neutralize Betatron!"

Thunder rumbled again, still distant but closer than before. The wind inside the Circle picked up even more, blowing through their hair and snapping at their clothes. As it did, the Cone of Power intensified once more; now it was completely opaque, blocking out the rest of the room and crackling with energy. The only thing Randi could think was, Oh my God! as the look in her eyes went far beyond fascination; now it bordered on fear.

Jasmine waited a moment, as still and as silent as a statue, and then she approached the northern quadrant of the Circle. "Wolf Spirit! " she called out, shouting over the nearly gale-force winds. "Guardian of the North, and all powers of Earth! We implore you to protect our sister Valerie as she fights to shut down Betatron!" Then she turned to face the rest of the coven. Still holding the athame in both upraised hands, point upward, she called out, "As we will--"

And the rest of the coven, holding hands to share and increase their power, finished with a resounding "--So mote it be! "

A triple blast of thunder exploded directly overhead, shaking the house, the forest, the night. The Cone of Power flared with almost painful brilliance, and then suddenly it seemed to shrink and collapse, imploding into itself. Jasmine was absorbing its energy into herself and becoming a radiant, blue-white orb of pure power that was nearly blinding in its brilliance. Like a nuclear device, the energy compressed itself inside of her until it reached critical mass-and then it suddenly exploded outward, streaking out through her raised athame and seeking its destination like a heat-seeking missile locked onto its target.

And then it was gone...and everything inside the house was quiet and peaceful once again.

***

Ass-warts, Valerie thought. Crouching in the shadows of the bushes, she was watching the enemy with cold eyes. Goose-stepping little white zits on the fuzzy white ass of humanity, that's what they are, she thought again. Who the fuck do these shit-holes think they are to come into my home and--

She stopped as a sudden wave of psychic energy hit her. It seemed to come from within her, and at the same time it felt as though the entire front of her body had been hit with a huge pillow. It flowed through her and enveloped her in a brief flash of blue-white light that only she could see; it was so strong that for a moment it literally rocked her. And in that brief moment she could see Jasmine leading the rest of the Coven in a ritual. She could see her and Sierra--dear Goddess, how she wanted to be with them right now!--and Randi and the coven, circled together and surrounded by candles, raising the Cone of Power.

She had not anticipated having to deal with FLM shock troops. She had originally planned on coming out here and taking her time, invoking all the powers she could, and placing a curse on Betatron. But with the arrival of the soldiers, she might not have the time to raise that kind of power by herself--so she decided to get out of here as quickly as possibly by using that which had been sent to her. She knew that this energy had been raised specifically for her protection, and she sincerely thanked the coven for it; but she could not use it for herself. She would not. Instead, she now had another use for that energy--a far more important one. She would hang onto it and store it away somewhere, and then use it at the right time.

***

"I'm going to head on out there and see how Mom's coming along," Jasmine told Sierra. It was getting late, and she thought Valerie ought to have been back by now. "Why don't you hang out here with Sonja and the guys, and we'll be back in a little while. Okay?"

Sierra didn't like the idea.

"I promise, I won't be long," Jasmine added.

"Yeah, that's what Valerie Mom said, too," Sierra said with a slight pout.

Jasmine could understand her reluctance to let her go, but she couldn't just sit here and wait along with everyone else. She was filled with nervous energy, and she had to burn it off. "I know," she said. "But we have to find out what she's doing out there, don't we?"

Sierra frowned in opposition.

"Don't worry, I'll be back soon."

Once outside, she mounted up and started off for Betatron at a slow, casual pace. And then she couldn't help but wonder...what if there was trouble out there? What if something should happen to her or to Valerie, or to both of them? As the horse sauntered on down the trail, she cast a quick glance over her shoulder at the Belzac house. Sierra would be safe with Sonja and Viktor, and even Keller and Randi would take care of her; but they were not replacements for real parents. Jasmine was beginning to feel that in a way she was being an irresponsible parent by abandoning her own daughter to go charging off on some damn personal crusade. How could she--and Valerie, for that matter--justify such an abandonment of their only child?

But it isn't a personal crusade, she reminded herself. Betatron had to be neutralized, not only for themselves and their family and friends, but for the preservation of this land, this forest, and for the people who lived in it and made their homes here. To preserve it for the countless generations to come. She suddenly thought that this might get her a mention in some Allied history book, which would be kind of nice, but her main concern was for the preservation of this precious corner of the world, this delicate ecosystem, this forest that the Goddess had created for them. It had to be saved, whether she was recognized for her efforts or not. Recognition was not important to her.

But she also wanted so much to stay with her daughter, to watch her grow and start a family of her own, to see if she and Valerie had raised her right. She wanted to be able to go to the Goddess someday, knowing that she had done right.

Selfishness and integrity battled within her, both struggling for dominance within her.

And then she reminded herself that there was no one out there anyway. There was just Valerie, casting a Circle and planting candles and burning incense. Besides, the coven had just cast a protection spell for her, hadn't they? All Jasmine was going to do was to just go out and see what was up, and then she would throw her woman over her shoulder and bring her back.

Since their house was on the way, she decided to stop there for a moment. There was something that she thought she ought to pick up. She didn't believe she would need it, but...well, it was better to be safe than sorry.

She quickly dismounted from the horse and went inside, half expecting to find Valerie flopped on the sofa with a wine glass in her hand and a video disc in the player. Of course, she wasn't there. And then she began thinking about the personal demons that she had once mentioned to Valerie; personal demons that we all try to keep chained securely in the dungeons of our psyches. She hoped sincerely that she wouldn't have to release her own, but in case she did she wanted to be ready for it.

She went to the dresser. Bending on one knee, she reluctantly opened the bottom drawer and reached inside.

***

"This is impossible, man, it's fucking impossible! "

Corporal Harris was beginning to lose i t.Hewastryingtodisguise his trepidation with anger as he and his team stared at the X that had been carved into the wall, but it wasn't working. The X was easily recognizable as having been done by Harris's own hand. "This is just plain bullshit! "

"I know goddamn well we haven't been walking in circles," Lattimer agreed in quiet apprehension. "How the hell could we have wound up here again?"

Harper slowly strode down the corridor to the next corner. He stopped and examined it. "You think that's something," he said softly, trying hard to stay calm, "get a load of this." He indicated with the barrel of his machine gun, and the rest of the team approached him.

Carved deeply into the wall was another large X.

They had carved only one.

"What the fuck is going on here?" he demanded as Harper began to approach yet another corner. "What the fuck's going on here? "

At the next corner there were four more X's, carved deeply and identically into each wall, making it thoroughly impossible for Team Two to tell where they had come from or where they should be going.

"Oh God," Matheson said. "Oh Jesus, this can't be happening. This place really is haunted!"

Corporal Harris whirled on him. "You can that!" he shouted, his own fear now plain on his face. "You secure that shit right now! There's no such thing as hauntings!"

"Well how the hell else do you explain this?" Matheson demanded. "You tell me where all these other marks came from!"

"Shut your mouth, Private! " Harris shouted. "If I hear one more goddamn peep out of you about hauntings, you're going on report!"

Matheson was about to lash back at him with derisive comments about filing reports as a solution to everything when all of a sudden the lights went out.

With shouts of anger and despair, they fumbled with their weapons to switch on the small but powerful flashlights that were strapped to the underside of the barrels. Bright beams of white light scissored and flashed against the pitch blackness.

Suddenly illuminated in the beam of Harper's flashlight was a thick white tapestry of cobwebs that stretched from wall to wall, and from floor to ceiling. The entire corridor was filled with billowing, tattered white silk. "Shit! " he shouted in surprise. He fell back a step, then raised the barrel of his submachine gun to tear at the webs. When he did, he discovered thousands of spiders that were skittering across the ceiling right above him, rapidly spinning even more webs. They fell on him in a billowing, decomposing white shroud. "Fucking spiders! " They were all over him, big and fat, gray and brown, skittering madly all over his face, trying to get into his eyes, his nose and his mouth with those hungry and snapping little horizontal mandibles.

"What's the matter with you, man?" Lattimer said, his voice loud and echoing. "What spiders?"

"Get 'em offa me, man!" Harper screamed hysterically, brushing them from his face and then slapping at himself, trying to kill the voracious, palm-sized arachnids. "Get 'em off!! "

Lattimer turned to Harris first, and then to Matheson. He was scared and puzzled, and he didn't see any spiders. He wondered if the other two men saw anything.

Matheson didn't see any spiders. He didn't see Lattimer or Harris, either. All he saw were three corpses with rotted flesh and glaring yellow eyes, all staring at him. With terror in his eyes, he took a step backward as he raised the muzzle of his weapon and aimed at them.The way they glared at him, with those baleful yellow eyes, they looked more like...

"Demons!" he screamed.

"Matheson!" one of the corpses shouted, sounding very much like Lattimer. "What the hell are you doing?" It started to approach him, reaching toward him with a skeletal hand that was dotted with decayed flesh. "Put that weapon d--"

A burst of machine gun fire cut him off, spraying what Matheson thought was his rotted flesh and yellow pus all over the walls.

Mutiny! The single word exploded in Harris's mind. They were turning on him, ready to fire. He knew they would rise up against him; it had just been a matter of time, and now they were rebelling. In response, he raised his own weapon and fired, spraying the corridor. The sound of automatic weapons fire blasted at his ears and echoed down the corridor, and the walls amplified the sounds. Spent casings fell to the floor and tinkled musically.

What the fuck!? Lattimer thought, even as he was hit with three slugs. He spun and hit the floor, but he was able to straighten himself into a sitting position. Instinctively, he brought his own weapon up and he returned fire, catching Harris with only a single slug that hit him in the shoulder.

Harris spun and slammed with his wounded shoulder against the wall, and began to slide to the floor. As he did, though, he managed to raise his weapon once more and squeeze the trigger, firing off his entire magazine. It was only a matter of seconds; the last of the casings tinkled against the floor as the gunfire suddenly stopped, and the abrupt silence was almost as deafening as the roar of the machine gun fire. The air was filled with the smell and smoke of burned gunpowder, and the silence was absolute. So was the darkness, except for the unmoving beams of light from the flashlights.

And then the lights came back on.

Jesus! Harris thought, glancing quickly around in terror at the carnage and in bewilderment at the lights coming back on so suddenly. Then he regarded the bodies again. The mutinous bastards had tried to kill him! They had actually tried to kill him! He had known they would try it sooner or later, but they had still caught him off guard. They had distracted him with shouts of spiders and webs and demons, yet he had reacted quickly and had saved himself. He was still alive, and they were all either dead or dying.

"Bastards," he groaned as he slowly rose, pushing himself against the wall and upward with his legs. There was a wide smear of blood on the wall behind him. He staggered, using the wall to support him, and then fell again, landing painfully on his knees. His weapon fell to the floor with a clatter, but he didn't care. All he could think about now was getting out of this place and calling for help.

He reached the next corner and turned, and fell again. He was losing blood fast, and it dawned on him that he just might not make it out of here alive.

"Yes I will," he told himself with a strained voice. "By God, I'm not going to die in here."

***

Walking in a semi-crouch and following the edge of the woods, he carefully made his way from the southwest to the west, where the team had originally arrived. He thought about turning on a flashlight so he could see where he was going--it was a moonless night, so he didn't have even a faint lunar glow to help him out--but he decided not to. Unsure of how many soldiers were out here, he didn't want to take a chance on alerting any of them to his presence. He knew that Logan had enough sense to see things the same way, but he wasn't so sure about Spike and the others.

Something small and fairly close by flickered at him; it's source was just behind a tree some twenty feet away. Drawing his .45, Keller cautiously approached it, wondering what it might be. It flickered like a camp fire, but it was far too small.

He tripped over something, and as the gun went flying from his hand he fell with a soft grunt. It was big and yielded only slightly, rolling slightly and then back into position as he fell over it. The flickering light had been too weak to illuminate it, so he had not seen it until it was too late. He rose slowly to his knees, cursing softly, and examined what he had fallen over.

It was a body, dressed in black fatigues and matching body armor, with the helmet and weapons missing. It looked as though the neck had been broken.

"Holy shit," Keller muttered softly as he slowly rose to his feet. His senses immediately went on full alert, and without having to turn and look he suddenly knew that there was something lurking in the nearly pitch-black woods just behind him. He spun around to face the attacker, but he was a fraction of a second too late as something big came flying from out of the darkness to slam into him in a full body block. They fell to the ground with a loud thud, rolling in the dust and dry needles, cursing and grappling. He landed on his back, and his attacker rolled on top of him with a knee in his stomach. He grabbed the wrist just in time to avoid having a bloodied steel blade slammed into his throat as his other hand found his attacker's throat and squeezed; his attacker's other hand found his wrist, and seized it in an incredibly strong grip, trying to break his hold.

And then both combatants froze.

Looking up into the face of his assailant, Keller's voice came out in a harsh stage whisper of surprise. "Valerie? "

"Keller? "

"What the fuck are you doing here?" they asked together.

"It'll be a lot easier to explain if you'd get your knee out of my guts."

"Huh? Oh! Sorry..." She rose and grabbed his wrist in an acrobat's grip, and pulled him to his feet. "What are you doing out here?" she asked again. "I thought you wanted everyone to stay away from here."

"I managed to get some guys together so we could blow this place to shitaree," Keller replied as he looked around for his gun. Taking a chance, he switched on his flashlight and scanned the area. "And then surprise, surprise: soldiers decided to show up." He spotted his gun, and went for it.

"What, you came out here after telling me to stay away?" Valerie said. "You didn't think a mere woman could handle working with explosives, so you came out here to do it yourself, right? Typical male macho bullshit."

"Oh, give it a rest, will you?" he groused sourly. He wasn't sure if she was serious or not about her nearly constant female sexist attitude; but, damn it, it was really beginning to piss him off, and he'd just about had enough of it. "You don't know jack-shit about explosives; I do. " He holstered the weapon, and then took a deep, calming breath that he released in a long, soft sigh. "So what the hell are you doing out here?" he asked at last.

"I came to put a curse on this place," she replied as she started for the black rucksack that she had left stashed behind a nearby tree. "You don't know jack-shit about black magic; I do."

He looked at her with a scowl. Was she making fun of his Southern drawl, or was it really that infectious? After a moment, he shook the thought off. "A curse?" he asked, truly perplexed. "I thought you already did that."

She was quiet for a moment as she bent and picked up the bag. Warily, she softly said, "It was only a hex." She noticed how his puzzled scowl deepened, just as she thought it might. Slinging the bag's strap over her shoulder, she quickly went on to ask, "Hey, what the hell did I know about the difference between the two back then?"

Keller shook his head in dubious resignation. "Can we talk about this later?" he asked. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to get the hell out of here."

"Go ahead," she told him as she started off toward the south. "I got a job to finish, and it'll be easier if I don't have to worry about looking out for you. I've got three more bodies out there, and I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself by tripping over them."

He started after her, following closely. "What, and leave you out here by yourself? Forget it." Then he smiled smugly at her back as he remembered an old line that never failed to get under her skin. "Hell, you don't even know which way to point an M-16."

She stopped abruptly. Slowly, she turned to face him...and then she returned his smug smile with a wry one of her own. "With you as a teacher, I'm not that surprised."

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Spirits of the Four Directions were powerful, and could take on many forms. The Spirit of Air and of the East, for example, did not necessarily have to manifest the power of the conscious mind by taking on the form of an eagle, as Valerie--and, more recently, as Jasmine--had once invoked; it could take the form of other, more nocturnal things with leathery wings. As for the Spirit of Fire and of the South, Valerie herself had once mentioned that she thought of the power of fire and of one's brightly burning will and determination as being best represented by something with a powerful will of its own--that of the lion. Or, as in the case with North America, the mountain lion. The cougar. And the Spirit of Water and of the West, that quiet yet incredibly powerful force of the subconscious, did not necessarily have to demonstrate its strength by taking on the form of a whale, or a shark; it, too, could just as easily make its strength known by assuming other forceful and commanding forms. But the Spirit of Earth and of the North--the relentless strength and solidity of the physical being and of the Home planet--still chose to reveal itself through the Spirit of the Wolf.

And it was from the cold, dark North that its manifold voices echoed.

***

The CH-47 Chinook helicopter sat silently in the middle of the abandoned logging camp. The chain saws, which had once cut down scores of redwoods each day, were silent now; so were the sawmills, which had dismembered and processed those redwood corpses into refined lumber. So, too, were the office trailers and workers' bungalows, where the execution orders for this forest and all the shipping forms had been prepared in order to send that lumber overseas, and where the saw and mill operators--executioners, as some saw them--rested each night after a long and exhausting day of heedless clear-cutting. Everything in this decimated section of forest was silent now; the field of tree stumps, as quiet as a graveyard at midnight, looked more like randomly scattered headstones in a cemetery. Had it not been for the bio-war, the rest of this forest would probably have been long gone by now, which had led many Plague survivors to believe that there were indeed worse things than a biological war that could drastically reduce human populations. At least the natural environment had been left intact, in which a balanced human population could eventually thrive once more.

While the vast majority of environmental activists were also strident opponents of the FLM, it was rather ironic that many of them--like many of the FLM's staunchest adherents--had seen the Plagues as an act of a Supreme Being; the only difference between these two groups was in their response. While the Foundation's disciples wailed and moaned, and cried over how such a horrible disease--how God's curse! --had destroyed so many human lives, the radical environmentalists had seen it as a blessing. Gaia knows what She's doing, many of them had declared; the population occasionally needed to be weeded out.

Boone and Irwin--the pilot and co-pilot of the Chinook--weren't thinking about any of that. Had such an ironic line of thought even occurred to them, they would not have spent a moment reflecting on it. Instead, they were sitting in their respective seats, relaxing and monitoring the radio chatter of the assault teams, listening to the distant howls and swapping lies. They were both glad that they were sitting here, where it was nice and safe and comfortable, and not out there, dealing with God only knew what.

Not that there was much to deal with. The only reports they had heard were the negative search results of each sector. After all, it wasn't as though there had been any unexplainable developments; while their monitoring of the radio waves had been constant, they had heard nothing of the disappearances of Baxter and Dalton. Neither of them had heard anything about the exchange between Edmonds and Vance, either, after the former had found nothing of his partner except for the huge stains of fresh blood all over the ground. Nor had they heard any mention of the whereabouts of the Satanist they had come to find. As a matter of fact, the last message directed at them had been Vance's last report for the chopper to stand by; the team leader wanted to further search the grounds to see if they could turn Murphy up somewhere.

So they sat and smoked, and luxuriated in their boredom. Each had their hatch open, and Boone had gone aft to open the massive rear hatch so the air could circulate more efficiently. They enjoyed the soft breeze that occasionally wafted by their faces; the smell of rain was in the air.

Boone craned his neck and looked up at the night sky. Not a star was in sight. "Looks like rain," he said.

Irwin reached for the radio and turned up the volume slightly. More idle, slightly distorted chatter. A ten dollar speaker in a twenty million dollar helicopter, he thought. He leaned back with a sigh, and said, "Easy money."

Boone grinned in agreement. Then he sat up straight as he suddenly spied something through the chopper's Plexiglas windshield, creeping in the darkness at the edge of the woods. "Whoa!" he said with quiet excitement, straining his eyes against the night and not wanting to startle what he thought he had just seen. "Check it out!"

Irwin saw it, too. "Is that a bobcat?" he asked softly. "I think it's a bobcat!" He switched on one of the outside floodlights, and a round pool of midnight forest illuminated into high noon. Startled by the sudden bright light, the animal froze and stared back at them, as though by becoming motionless and by watching them carefully it might render itself invisible.

"Shit, that's a bobcat!" Irwin exclaimed softly. "I've never seen one in the wild before!"

Boone grinned at his partner. "It'd make a nice trophy, wouldn't it?" he asked.

"Hell yeah," he replied with a growing smile. Then he snatched at his Heckler & Koch MP-5. "Bet I can nail him before you do!" He quickly moved to lean out of the hatch, and Boone grabbed at his own weapon and started to get out on the other side.

"Easy target," Irwin told himself. He extended the stock on his submachine gun and quickly jumped from his seat, and dropped to the ground. He braced the weapon against his shoulder, sighted quickly, and fired a burst.

The cat's hindquarters swung to the left, as though hit with a baseball bat, and with a scream it scrambled off into the woods, dragging one hind leg.

"Got 'im!" Irwin exclaimed. He started off toward the woods. "That little bastard is mine!"

"Irwin!" Boone shouted. "Wait up! We're supposed to stay together!"

But Irwin either didn't hear him or chose to ignore him. Either way, he followed the dancing beam of his flashlight and quickly disappeared into the woods in search of his trophy.

"Damn it," Boone muttered. Should he stay here, and continue monitoring the radio chatter? Or should he take a chance on missing an important message by temporarily leaving his post? He knew what kind of trouble he could get into if he chose the latter; on the other hand, that was his partner out there, and as he had just reminded him, they weren't supposed to split up.

"Shit." Reluctantly, he went around the nose of the chopper and started off after him.

Just before reaching the edge of the woods, he stopped. He squatted and examined the dry ground where the bobcat had been standing, then ran his hand over it. There were a couple or three gouges in the dust and dry needles, but there was no blood. The cat had been acting as though it had been hit--Boone could tell that clearly enough--but judging by what he could tell from the evidence here it didn't look as though it had been hit.

He wasn't sure of what was going on, but he figured he had better go after his partner.

***

The bobcat shook its hind leg as though it were shaking water from its foot, working the pain out. None of the bullets had struck the animal; instead, one of the rounds had struck a small stone. The bullet had ricocheted in one direction to lodge safely in a tree trunk, and the stone had spat off in another to strike the cat in the thigh. Not hard enough to cause any damage, but it had startled the animal to flight and it had certainly hurt like a son of a bitch--which was probably what the cat, in its own feline terms, was calling this noisy human right now as it blundered through the woods in pursuit of its intended victim.

***

"God!" Among the deep-throated roars and screams of something savage, Irwin's voice was a high-pitched, agonized scream of terror. "Jesus, help me! "

"Irwin!" Following the narrow beam of his own miniature flashlight and heedless of the dangers of the shadows, Boone dashed around a couple of tall fir trees and leaped over a fallen log, and came to an abrupt stop. Some thirty feet ahead of him, partially illuminated against the backdrop of the darkened forest, lay Irwin's mangled body. Sweeping the beam over it, Boone could see that his partner's throat had been torn open. He could also see that one leg had been nearly torn from the hip and one of his arms lying several feet away. Blood glistened everywhere.

Bending over Irwin's body, leisurely chewing at his face, was the bobcat.

Boone stared at them in disbelief. There was no way in hell that this animal could have killed Irwin; it just wasn't possible. The damn cat didn't look as though it weighed much more than twenty pounds; how could it have caused such damage?

He raised his machine gun and sighted. "You little shit," he muttered. He began to gently lay his finger on the trigger--

--and from the darkness behind him there came a soft, deep growl.

Boone froze. A cold sweat broke out on his brow, and just as suddenly his heart began pounding hard in his chest as adrenalin surged through him like a shot of amphetamines. With his eyes widened in terror, and hoping it wouldn't notice his movements, he slowly turned his head to see what was behind him...and found himself staring at a pair of the biggest mountain lions he had ever seen. Not that he had seen very many; in reality, the only mountain lion he had ever seen had been a sick and emaciated one, safely confined behind steel bars in a zoo that was about to be closed down. Perhaps these two healthy specimens looked so damn big because they were so close to him; not more than fifteen feet away. One of them glared at him with bright and alert amber eyes while the other bared long, yellowed fangs and screamed. They both had bloodied muzzles.

He swung the machine gun around and fired a wild burst, missing the cats and scattering them, and then ran for all he was worth. A moment later the two cougars gave chase. Without turning to look back, he held the weapon upside down over his shoulder and fired another short burst, then took a chance to glance over his shoulder. He saw no cats, but that didn't mean anything. Finding new strength and speed from somewhere, he turned to face forward again and tripped over a root. He fell sprawling to the ground with a loud grunt and an even louder thud, and in almost a split-second he regained his footing and kept on running, not bothering to pick up the machine gun that had fallen from his grip. He wasn't going to take the time to pick it up; the hell with it. He had to get back to the chopper, where he would be safe. Besides, he still had his sidearm and three spare clips. He didn't even want to stop for the flashlight that was strapped to the underside of the barrel; instead, he rushed pell-mell toward the glow of the helicopter's floodlight that was broken like a light behind the slats of a picket fence, dodging frantically between the trees.

He reached the clearing. One of the cats screamed again, close behind him. Pouring on the speed like never before, he ran like hell for the open hatch of the Chinook. He reached it and leaped inside just as one of the cats lunged for him and missed. Scrambling for the hatch, he could see the cat through the open doorway as it skidded to an abrupt stop and spun to face him, only a few feet away. Boone didn't know if he had enough time to reach for the door's latch or not, but he had to chance it. He frantically reached forward and pulled at it. The hatch started to swing shut just as the cat lunged for him again, slamming its face against the edge of the door and almost tearing it from Boone's hand. He pulled again, with the huge fangs just inches away from him--he could feel the heat of its breath on his hand--and this time he managed to slam the hatch securely shut and twist its locking mechanism.

Without stopping for breath, he scrambled across the co-pilot's seat and reached for the other door just as the second cat thudded against it. He stretched and grappled for the latch, and missed. He pulled himself forward and tried again, and this time his fingers grazed against the cold metal just as the cougar reached inside with one huge paw, claws extended. They ripped at the black material on his arm and tore into his flesh, but he didn't dare stop to reach for his sidearm so he could shoot the cat--he didn't have the time. He had to get that hatch shut. He struck at the tan paw with his fist, and in response the cat reached for his hand, almost like a kitten reaching under a door at some imaginary prey, as it continued trying to pull the hatch open. Trying desperately to keep his hand out of the cougar's reach, he finally managed to stretch his arm that extra centimeter and grasp the latch, and he pulled at it. The cougar screamed as its toes were pinched in the door, and it yanked its paw back, pulling the latch from Boone's hand and momentarily yanking the hatch partially open again. Boone reached again, grappled with the latch, got a hold of it, and pulled the hatch shut, and locked it. The cougar screamed in frustration.

Safe!

The cats screamed at him in rage as they paced back and forth before him. They raised up on their hind legs and tried to jump up and in through the windshield, but they could not get at him through the invisible barrier. They clawed at the fuselage, scratching the paint and etching long deep grooves that exposed the silvery metal beneath it, but they could not tear their way in.

He was safe.

Boone fell back into his seat, panting heavily as the sweat poured from him. God, he thought as he wiped the perspiration from his face with a trembling hand. Oh shit, how the hell do I explain this to Vance? He had no idea of what he would tell the SS guard. Maybe he would just blame it all on Irwin. "I told him not to shoot at the bobcat, I told him not to go out after it, I told him not to...but he went anyway."

Slowly, his breath returned. He sat up in the seat and looked out the windshield.

The cats were nowhere to be seen.

Had they gone back into the woods? Maybe. Perhaps they were hiding underneath the helicopter, trying to wait him out. Fat chance of that, Boone told himself. All he would have to do is just take off and land somewhere else.

No, shit, can't do that, he told himself. He had to stay and wait for the call from the team when they were ready to meet up with them and fly out--whenever that was. Once they had finished their mission and were safely boarded, then they could take off and--

"Shit! "

He vaulted from his seat and spun to face the rear of the chopper. When the team came back, they would have to board through the rear hatch--the hatch that was still open.

***

The CH-47 Chinook, painted in the patterns of forest camouflage, sat unmoving in the darkened middle of the logging camp with its bright floodlight trying to penetrate the forest, and the high-pitched screams of human terror and the guttural screams of savage feline satisfaction that came from inside echoed through the woods.

***

She lit the final black candle, this one at the southern perimeter of Betatron, as Keller stood guard a short distance away. She shook the match out and tossed it away, then began to pour some incense from a plastic sandwich bag that she had brought from her own altar and transported inside of Murphy's black bag. She lit it with another wooden match and let the soft breath of wind carry its fragrant smoke.

"Okay," Keller said as he noticed a faint blue-white line of energy that seemed to come from nowhere and race off to encircle the reactor. "What's all this supposed to do?"

"Just watch and learn, son," she replied, suddenly sounding very much like him. "Watch and learn."

She rose to her feet once more and faced north. She slipped the athame from its black leather sheath at her hip and held it high in both hands with its flashing steel blade pointing at the sky. She took a deep breath and grounded herself, absorbing the energy as it rose from the earth and descended from the sky.

"Great Goddess Diana!" she invoked in a loud, clear voice. "I implored you once to shut down this nuclear plant. Out of concern for all human life, I once asked that no one be killed... but those who would have this plant reopened have refused to learn. They care nothing about the people who make their lives in these woods! They made their choice; now let the bastards pay for it with their blood."

The winds started to pick up, and a cold, stinging rain began to fall.

She remembered what she had once told her daughter about the difference between spiritual and religious people. And knowing full well what she was about to do, she was thoroughly aware of what kind of negative karma she would undoubtedly heap upon herself. It wasn't that she didn't care; rather, she saw this as something that had to be done. Without expecting any kind of forgiveness from anyone, she was wholly prepared to take full responsibility for the consequences.

On this night of the new moon, the darkest and strongest night of the month for working dark magic, she held her athame in one hand and thrust it toward the night sky. Lightning crackled, and the increasing winds whipped her long dark hair about her face and shoulders, and snapped at her clothing. With her other hand she unsheathed her katana, and plunged its blade into the ground to complete the psychic circuit, causing thunder to rumble distantly. "I summon Hecate, the most powerful Goddess of Witches!" she roared, and the winds began to howl. Lightning crackled across the sky again, and thunder exploded once more as the winds grew to hurricane force. "Dark Lady of the Hunt, great Goddess of Nature, and Queen of the Night, I invoke you--bury this fucker! " With a wild scream, she threw her athame, sending it end-over-end toward the dormant reactor--and with it she hurled the coven's protective energy that she had been saving. Combined with the energies of the Four Elements that she had invoked, every bit of rage that she had been carrying since the night she had encountered Murphy, and the fury that had flared inside of her once again with the arrival of the FLM troops all struck the reactor in a single, massive surge of pure, black, raging power. "Die, God damn you! " she screamed at the top of her voice. "BURN IN HELL!! "

A triple blast of thunder exploded over them, sounding like the sudden eruption of a mammoth volcano, and the accompanying gale-force wind hit them like a massive and unending shock wave. Lightning split and shattered the starry night sky, and reached for the ground with a dozen jagged tridents of quicksilver. But instead of touching the ground, it found something much higher and far more attractive to lure its attention: Betatron's containment dome.

Keller stared at the reactor with a combination of astonishment and a little alarm as the entire complex was quickly enveloped in a massive, spiraling cone of opaque, blue-white power. He had never seen anything like it in his entire life. "God," he said softly. "Oh my God." He slowly turned toward Valerie and was about to say something, but he stopped when he saw the look in her eyes.

***

"What the hell is this?" Vance silently asked himself. As still as a statue, and with a tornado of uncomprehending terror twisting in his belly, he was staring wide-eyed at the growing envelope of energy that surrounded him, his team and the plant. A moment later he turned to the remaining men who surrounded him. "Stay here," he told them with quiet authority, "I'll be right back." He strode deliberately off toward the woods, letting his men use their imaginations as to what his mission might be--and trying hard not to look as though he was rushing off.

He had no intention of coming back.

***

The wind quickly slowed and then died, leaving the forest in deathly silence. Nothing else happened. Valerie took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she gazed with eyes that were filled with cold rage, yet were also troubled. She was beginning to wonder what she had just unleashed.

"Holy shit," Keller said softly as he turned his eyes back toward the sky. The lightning was gone now, but the biting rain continued to fall on his face and sting at his eyes. He'd had quite enough of this. "C'mon, darlin', it's time for us to get out of here." He took her arm.

Moving nothing but her arm, she swiftly twisted out of his grip and seized his wrist. "Hold on," she told him, her voice so soft that he could barely hear her. But it was commanding nonetheless.

He had a bad feeling about all this. "You expecting something else?"

"I don't know," she said. "But this isn't over yet--"

The ground began to shake.

***

The explosion from the sky sounded like the sudden and violent death of a planet. The energy came from the sky in a dozen jagged blue-white bolts, and it spread from the ground in a pulsating glow that spread upward to permeate the containment dome, the office building and the cooling stacks. The shaking intensified, and as the entire complex seemed to rock from side to side, like a miniature model on a flimsy folding table, one could see the huge craggy fractures that began to form at the top and bottom of the cooling stacks and quickly move to meet in the middle, splitting the dull gray concrete with stark black jagged fissures. Massive chunks of it, weighing tens of thousands of pounds each, cracked and fell, thudding to the earth and raising huge gouts of mud, water and rock that sprayed outward like a shock-wave to momentarily conceal the entire area, and to envelope anyone who might be foolish enough to be standing too close to the monumental wave of destruction.

***

Clutching at his wounded and bleeding shoulder, Corporal Harris fell against the wall and slid to his knees as the ground shook wildly beneath his feet. The lights flickered alarmingly overhead as dust began floating downward into his eyes, and when he squinted upward he saw the jagged black cracks racing across the cement ceiling. He didn't even have time to cry out to his God; huge chunks of concrete separated from themselves and came crashing down. One of them pounded against his shoulder, shattering it, and the pain from the bullet wound was intensified a thousand-fold. He fell to his knees beneath its weight, and a second smaller one came down, glancing from his helmet and hammering him to the floor. Another chunk came down, and then another and another, crushing his pelvis, his legs and his chest, squeezing the air from his lungs. He couldn't even scream.

As the light faded from his eyes, he saw the small and brightly lit green arrow at the end of the corridor only twenty feet away, and the sign beneath it that read, "Exit."

***

The power of Mother Nature is truly awesome. She can destroy an entire species with something so small as to be invisible to the naked eye, or bring billions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art NASA technology to a screeching, grinding halt with just a tiny woodpecker, pecking a little hole in the protective casing of a space shuttle's fuel tank.

Imagine what She can do with a well-placed earthquake.

Just when it seemed that the shaking could not get any worse, the rumbling and the quaking intensified until the very ground beneath the reactor suddenly split into a mammoth, jagged crevasse. Shattered like cheap, tourist-stand pottery, the Betatron Nuclear Power Station--the pride of the Alpha & Omega Nuclear Research Facilities--crumbled and collapsed on top of itself in a thousand concrete shards, and was swallowed by the Earth. Huge clouds of dust billowed from the fissure almost like geysers of radioactive steam from a meltdown as the remnants fell in, and then it closed again like a huge pair of jaws, crunching down on them like huge jagged teeth.

The quaking gradually slowed and subsided, and with the rumbling through the air and the woods it finally died, and at last--except for the wind and the rain--the forest was quiet once again. There was nothing left of Betatron, nothing but the domed top of the containment building. And imbedded in it, like a dark, miniature version of Excalibur, was the blade of Valerie's athame. The ebony hilt was sticking straight up from its center, and the single jewel that was set in the end of it sparkled like a glaring red eye of warning to anyone who might be foolish enough to trespass here.

***

The remaining members of teams 4A and 5A, who had been searching at the northeastern quadrant, slowly rose to their feet when the shaking had finally stopped. They cautiously looked around, wondering if it was finally over or if more after shocks were on the way, and listened carefully as they slowly wiped the mud from their faces and fatigues. When there were none, they told themselves in relief that it was over, thank God, the earthquake was over. They had made it.

One of them looked up into the night sky and observed the arrival of more low and massive black clouds that were rapidly moving in from the east, apparently on a collision course with those that came in from the west. "Did you hear that?" he asked. "What the hell was that?"

"Dear Jesus," groaned another, "what's next?"

"It's just the wind in the leaves," a third replied, trying to soothe everyone's nerves and not succeeding very well.

The first soldier noticed that the clouds from the east were considerably lower than those from the west, and were moving in more quickly. He slowly shook his head. "Huh uh," he told them, "ain't no wind. You feel any wind?"

"All I can feel is the shaking in my knees," the fourth member of the team replied. "Come on, let's get the fuck out of here."

"I'll roger that," the first soldier agreed.

The clouds from the east swept down from the sky in a massive black cloud of bats and owls, screaming in a thousand high-pitched shrieks of rage. The soldiers swatted at them in a mad frenzy and screamed in terror as the multitude of chiroptera beat at their faces with leathery wings and shrieked in their ears like vicious rats, while the nocturnal raptors tore at their faces and eyes with razor-sharp talons. Two of the soldiers unslung their weapons and tried shooting at them, but the animals moved so quickly and erratically that no one could get a bead on any of them.

And while their attention was focused on the aerial attackers, ground forces in the form of wolves suddenly swept down from the north, quickly and silently approaching from behind. The soldiers never even saw them, not until it was too late. The first wave dashed from out of the woods and slammed into them, knocking their feet from under them and slamming them to the forest floor. Firearms flew from their hands and landed in the darkness and the mud, and then the second wave of wolves attacked, tearing at their exposed limbs and ripping into their equally vulnerable crotches and throats.

Blinded by the night and completely defenseless, the soldiers didn't last a minute.

***

The rain that came from the west slowed the remaining eight men from Vance's assault team as they made their way, as rapidly as they could, for the safety of the Chinook. They had not debated long as to whether or not they ought to obey Vance's last order; the decision had been pretty much made for them when the ground had begun to shake shortly after he had taken off. After the quaking had finally stopped, they had tried calling Irwin and Boone over the radio to have them fly in and pull them out, but there had been no answer. As they slogged southward through the mud and brush toward the lumber camp and the safety of the Chinook, they slipped and slid, and fell and prayed fervently as the rain continued to hammer at them from above.

They hurried and prayed because they were being chased, and their fanged and four-legged pursuers were not hampered at all by the slippery mud.

Wolves and cougars do not hunt together. Under normal circumstances, they are natural enemies, competitors for the prey that each seemed to claim exclusively as their own. But these were not normal circumstances, the eight remaining soldiers reminded themselves and each other as they continued plodding as quickly as possible through the mud that sucked at their feet and stripped them of their footing. While facing all sides and trying to watch each others' backs, they stopped for a moment to rest, and prayed to their God for deliverance and cursed all of Nature.

A pair of glowing yellow eyes peered at them from the darkness behind them, and one of the soldiers raised his weapon. They disappeared just before he fired a long burst.

"Short bursts, damn it!" one of the others shouted. "Short, controlled bursts--conserve that ammo!"

Two more pairs of eyes, to the left and to the right, winked to life. The soldiers fired at them, and they disappeared.

"Where's the chopper?" another soldier asked as his terrified eyes frantically searched the darkness. "Where's the goddamned chopper? "

"Irwin! Boone!" another shouted into his microphone. "Where the hell are you?"

"They're gone, man, they're gone!" a fourth man shouted in near panic. Another pair of glowing yellow eyes appeared just ahead of him, and he sprayed a long burst at them. "The fuckers bailed out on us!"

"We gotta go find 'em, man! We gotta find 'em!"

"Where's the logging camp? That's where they are, at the lumber camp!"

"I don't know where the fucking lumber camp is," the new team leader shouted. "Hell, I don't even know where the fuck we are!"

They spent so much time and effort searching the woods before, behind and all around them, none of them thought to look up, and that was where the first two cougars came from. Leaping from their perches in the lower, stout limbs of the trees under which the soldiers had stopped, they slammed two men to the ground. Without pause, and with their ears pulled back, their fangs bared and their claws extended, they turned and leapt at two more men.

The other soldiers could not shoot them; they were all in each other's line of fire. Swept up in a storm of indecision, some backed off and prepared to dash off for the woods while others thought they had to do something to save their colleagues, but they didn't know what to do.

Two more cougars came from out of the trees, screaming in rage, and attacked two more soldiers. The two left standing turned to run for the woods, and were promptly attacked by half a dozen wolves that came seemingly from nowhere. Sharp and steel-hard fangs and molars, backed up with over a hundred pounds of pressure per square inch, sank into the back of one soldier's thigh and tore out a mouthful of muscle while another soldier went down under two more wolves. Random, out-of-control automatic weapons fire thudded into the trees and ground around them, missing every target.

By the time it was over, the wolves had decided to let the cougars have these kills; they weren't really in any mood to fight them over the scraps.

***

"Remind me not to piss you off anymore," Keller told Valerie as they made their way south toward the logging camp. "If I'da known you could cause earthquakes an' shit, I never would have made that crack about the M-16."

Valerie grinned wryly and shook her head slightly. "Relax, amigo," she told him. "I didn't cause any earthquake; I just asked Hecate for some help, and she gave it." She took a deep breath, and then added softly, "And I'm going to owe her big-time for it."

The rains had let up. However, they were still cold and wet, and anxious to get in front of a comforting fire and into some dry clothes.

Peering out from the edge of the woods, they saw a collection of people standing around a quiet Chinook helicopter. Keller's stomach sank for a moment at the thought that they were going to have to shoot their way out of this encounter with more soldiers, but after listening carefully for a moment he recognized the voices. "Hey, Jim," he said as they approached. "Where'd you find this?"

"It was just sitting here, deserted and waiting for us," Logan replied. "It'd make a nice addition to the Allied arsenal." He looked around at the others, and then at Keller. "Anybody know how to fly this fuckin' thing?"

Valerie stared at him for a moment, scrutinizing his features. "Jimmy?" she said in surprise as a grin spread across her face. "Is that Jimmy Logan behind that cookie-duster and under all that hair?"

Logan grinned back at her. "Valerie?"

She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly. "By the Gods!" she exclaimed. "How are you? What are you doing out here?"

Returning her embrace, he replied, "I could only stand so much of military discipline. Your little bunch of outlaws here are a lot more fun to hang around with."

Two of them came out of the chopper at the sound of the voices. One of them had a white bandage on his nose.

Valerie's eyebrows went up in surprise; in spite of the bandage on his face--or perhaps because of it--she recognized him immediately.

He recognized her, too. He backed away.

"And who have we here?" she asked.

"That's Billy Austin," Keller said by way of introduction, "and that's Spike."

Valerie smiled her warmest and most charming smile. "And what happened to you, Spike?" she asked, forcing mild curiosity into her voice. "Been tangling with Foundation troops?"

"Actually, he says he had a run-in with some Hell's Angels," Keller told her. Then he leaned in closer to her and added softly--and skeptically--"But you ought to see what he did to them. "

With an amused twinkle in her eyes and a tight pursing of her lips against the grin that threatened to take over, she folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Hell's Angels, huh?" She nodded knowingly. "They can be some pretty tough hombres," she finally said in a smoky and sympathetic voice.

"Uh...yeah..." Spike reluctantly agreed.

She stepped toward him. "Well, let me see if I can help you with that," she told him.

Spike took another small step backward. He didn't want to hide behind anyone. "Uh...doh, that's okay..."

"Nonsense," she said with a motherly scowl.

"Doh, really...I'b fide. Oddest."

She quickly approached him, and his back hit the side of the helicopter. Before he could raise his hands to protect himself, she reached forward and snatched the bandage from his nose. At first he thought she was coming at him with a pair of karate chops; instead, she pressed her index fingers on each side of his nose, pressed them together, and pulled. The crunching of his nose sounded like a cracking walnut, and the intense pain flared through the middle of his face. But before he could cry out, it was gone.

She stepped away and slipped her thumbs into her pockets. "How's that?" she asked.

He eyed her with both suspicion and fear. He hoped it didn't show. "I..." And then he took a breath. He took another one--through his nose--even deeper this time. "I can breathe," he said to himself, and his trepidation turned to surprise. "Wow, I can actually breathe." He grinned at her. "Hey, thanks!"

"No problem," she told him.

That was just one of the many things that Keller admired about Valerie; her philanthropic willingness to go out of her way to help a total stranger.

"Well gang," he said, "I could fly us out of here, but there's nowhere close by where I can set this puppy down again. Looks like we're going to have to walk it."

"I don't think so," Vance said from behind them.

They turned as one, and found the SS guard holding down on them with his own Heckler & Koch MP-5. He held its stock firmly against his shoulder. "Mighty tough talk over a radio, 'Hella,'" he said to her. "Not so tough now, are you?"

Her katana was sheathed behind her back, and her .45 hung on her hip. She couldn't reach either weapon before Vance fired. Nor could anyone else reach for theirs in time.

"Put that gun down, and I'll give you a taste," she told him.

He smiled a cold smile. "Not tonight, I'm afraid." He raised the weapon higher to sight on her. His finger touched the trigger.

A piece of the darkness separated itself from the greater mass behind him, and attached itself to his back like a huge black leech. His eyes bulged in shock as he dropped his weapon, and his hands flew to his throat. With strangling noises, he whipped his entire body back and forth in an effort to dislodge the huge parasite, but it hung on, choking off his air. He fell to his knees, struggling and gurgling, then fell on his side and rolled onto his back, but the black mass refused to relent. Rolling back and forth and thrashing wildly, he tried to crush it with his weight, but it was to no avail; it would not let go. A couple of cartilage rings in his trachea snapped and collapsed to cut off his air, and his vision began to fade as the blood flow to his brain was cut off, yet still he struggled. He tried to hammer at the thing's ribs with his elbows, but it did no good. His movements weakened and then finally ceased, but the black shape refused to let go. Instead, it tightened the cord around Vance's neck until it drew blood, straining to twist it through the muscle and into the bone. It finally relented when Vance became still and stopped breathing.

It stood up and reached toward its own head, and pulled the black ninja mask back to reveal Jasmine's face. Breathing heavily from exertion, she regarded the dead SS guard with cold eyes.

Up close and personal.

"I had a feeling he was going to lead me to you guys if I followed him long enough," she said between breaths.

"Jasmine? " Valerie said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Getting your ass out of trouble again," she replied. She turned her eyes from Vance's corpse to Valerie. "Can we go home now?"

She took a deep breath and forced her heart to slow down, and took a quick glance at the night sky to thank the Goddess Hecate. The clouds were breaking up and moving off, and they revealed a universe full of stars that sparkled above them. A fresh breath of forest-scented wind gently caressed her face. "Yeah," she said at last. She stepped forward and hugged Jasmine. "Yeah, I think we can all finally go home now."

Chapter Twenty-Four

October.

Their brand new redwood Jacuzzi was finally up and running, with the motor gently humming and the jets softly bubbling and hissing. It was rectangular in shape, and lined with smooth, molded fiberglass of pale blue to round the interior corners. Half of the porch roof had collapsed from the earthquake; the debris had been cleared away, and now the tub rested beneath the stars on the front porch--which had been expanded into a deck--to the left of the sliding glass door. Next to it, forming a corner into which the tub was tucked, was a wall of thick redwood planks that was decorated with a matching lattice that helped to protect it from the winter winds. Above the tub was a canvas awning that was currently rolled away to reveal a starry night sky, and hanging from a set of deer antlers on the wall between the tub and the sliding door were three thick, fluffy, black terry cloth bath towels.

The three of them were sitting in the night, talking and laughing, and enjoying a good, long, soothing soak as they discussed their plans for the upcoming Halloween festivities. Faint clouds of steam slowly rose like mist from the bubbling water, which glowed a soft, cool blue from the light in the bottom of the tub and flickering orange from the half-dozen burning citronella candles that surrounded them on the two open sides. Insect sounds of the night-shrouded forest kept them company, and there was an occasional cool breeze that breathed against them. Jefferson Starship's 1970 classic album Blows Against The Empire played softly through a pair of high-quality bookshelf speakers, and somewhere in the distance there was a soft chorus of howling wolves.

Sierra was delighted by the soft light and the vigorous bubbles. ("Y'know what's really great?" she had asked. "No one can tell when you fart!" Jasmine had thrown her head back and laughed uproariously, and Valerie had lunged for the kid with a wry grin to dunk her head underwater. Sierra shrieked and laughed, and had quickly slipped away to safety at the end of the tub). To her, the Jacuzzi was a lot more fun than sitting in the pool near the bottom of the waterfall, although it was much warmer. And unlike with unattended trips to the river at night, she had full permission to come out here for a soak whenever she wanted. They had shown her how to turn it on and off with just the push of a button and how to adjust the power of the jets with the simple up-or-down turn of a knob, and whenever she was done all she had to do was to just shut it off once more, climb from the raised tub and grab a towel to dry off, and hang it back on the rack next to the door; from there, it was straight into the house rather than picking her way through the woods and the chilly night air.

She had been making a game of trying to keep her hands over one of the powerful jets in order to increase the pressure coming from the others, but after a while she had given up. Now she was sitting in Valerie's lap with her eyes closed and one arm draped around her neck, and with her head resting against the hollow of her neck as Valerie's arms gently encircled her. The warmth and the comfort always conspired to make her drowsy.

Jasmine sat opposite them, up to her shoulders in bubbling warm water. Two wine glasses, one milk glass, a pitcher of iced lemonade, and an empty bottle of Merlot rested on a matching wooden ledge that bordered the tub on all four sides; behind Valerie there also rested an abalone shell which contained a pack of rolling papers and a butane lighter, a resin-stained alligator clip, half an ounce of homegrown sinsemilla in a plastic sandwich bag, and a few ashen remains.

At first, Valerie had thought that their house had suffered almost as much damage as had Betatron. "Karma," she had grumbled angrily. "Shit." She didn't think the backlash was justified, but what was she going to do about it? All she could do was grudgingly accept responsibility for her actions; but she didn't think the Goddess had any right to make her family pay for it, and for that she had been angry with Hecate. At least that anger had been tempered with the satisfaction of knowing that, thanks to Her, Betatron was gone. Broken windows and skylights had needed to be replaced and sealed, and the chimneys had needed repairs from the roof up. Holes in the roof, caused by falling stones from the chimneys, had also needed repair, along with a couple of panels of photovoltaic cells. Glassware and dinnerware, along with the TV monitor and the DVD player, had all needed to be replaced.

Newly added were three more PV panels that were now out in the front yard, supported by tracking devices with ball bearings that allowed the panels to swivel with the Earth's rotation, always facing the sun for optimum exposure. ("We needed the new stuff anyway," Jasmine had told her after listening to a straight half-hour of her grousing. "Maybe this was Hecate's way of giving us the opportunity and motivation to get it--so will you please give it a rest?" With a wry smile, she added, "Otherwise She might get pissed off and take it all away again.") They had all spent nearly two months working on repairs and additions, and while they had made considerable progress there was still a lot of work to be done. For one thing, the barn still needed repairs before the rains came.

Sierra didn't try to stifle her enormous yawn. "I'm tired," she finally announced as she sat up. "I'm going to bed."

Valerie looked into her pale, clear amber eyes. "You had a big day, too, didn't you?"

She shrugged languidly. "I guess so."

"I'm really proud of the way you got up on the roof and took care of the skylight." The adults had been against Sierra's going up, but the child had insisted on doing her fair share of the work. Unable to manage the weighty timbers, stones, and mortar buckets, she had placed a caulking gun and several tubes of clear latex-and-silicone sealant into a blue plastic bucket. Next, she had tied one end of a rope around the bucket's handle and the other end in a wide loop which she had slung across her shoulders. Then she had climbed up the ladder and onto the roof, and hauled the bucket up after her. Working by herself, under the watchful eyes of her parents while they worked on their own repair project nearby--and with a skill that had surprised the adults--she had neatly and efficiently sealed the skylight.

"You did a good job." She kissed her forehead.

Sierra smiled sleepily at the compliment. She gave them each a hug and a goodnight kiss, then climbed out of the tub, toweled off quickly, and went inside.

Valerie slid a little more deeply into the tub. She spread her legs and let her arms drift on the gentle current, and tilted her head back to gaze at the stars while the jets worked the stiffness out of her back. This really is an incredible view, she thought as a meteor etched its way across the black sky with a brief streak of emerald fire. "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight," from the Starship cd, began playing, and suddenly it wasn't a starry night sky above her; it was space. And for a moment the moonlit landscape before her wasn't their front yard; it was the surface of an alien planet, and she was a cosmic traveler, sitting in the watery control room of her spaceship and enjoying the view as she journeyed from one world to another.

These woods have looked just like this for thousands of years, she thought, and if the Goddess is willing they will for thousands more.

Jasmine slid across the tub to sit next to her. "What are you thinking about?" she asked.

"Nothing much." She slipped an arm around Jasmine's waist and pulled her closer as Jasmine's arm slid around her shoulders. "Just enjoying the view." She kissed the side of her face. "And thinking about how incredibly drunk and stoned I am right now, and what a hangover I'm going to have tomorrow."

"Then you'd better enjoy the buzz while you can." She watched her for a moment. "It's been a while since I've seen you this relaxed."

"I guess it's finally sunk in," Valerie replied. "Betatron is gone, that Satanist is gone, the soldiers are gone..." She sighed deeply and closed her eyes thankfully. "All gone, gone, gone..."

Jasmine regarded her with a smoky look in her emerald eyes. She turned and swung a leg across to straddle Valerie, and comfortably settled into her lap, with her high, proud breasts softly against Valerie's, and her arms around her neck. "So..." she began with a wanton grin as she began to slowly and sensuously grind against her, "what do you want to do next?"

Valerie luxuriated in the moment with a crooked grin, and then she softly replied, "I want to go to Disneyland!"

Jasmine grinned wickedly, and ground a little more enthusiastically against her. "You want a ride?" she asked, her soft and breathy voice shuddering with passion. "I'll give you the best in town, darlin'."

With an expanding grin, she slipped her arms around Jasmine's waist and let her hands roam over her before sliding them down to her soft, smooth and shapely derriere, and with soft moans the two women softly and sensuously melded together.

***

He sat behind the old wooden counter of Curtis's Bargain Books, a used bookstore in uptown Whittier, California, and tried to remain calm. The warnings had come over the phone by gruff-sounding voices that had been muffled slightly by handkerchiefs and hands placed over and around the mouthpiece to disguise them; and they had come in the mail, warnings made of typing paper, clipped words from magazines, and paste, all demanding that the owner of this store--forty-five-year-old Bob Curtis--get rid of the subversive and Satanist trash that he was carrying. No doubt these warnings had come from the same gang of book store burners that had terrorized so many other small, independent bookstores within the surrounding cities of Los Angeles and Orange Counties for the last seven years. Most of the stores had their windows smashed in and their books torn and scattered up and down the aisles, and then had been set on fire without regard for the safety of the surrounding shops. These bookstores sold unpatriotic trash and anti-Christian filth, the warnings had said, and their owners would suffer for it. One such owner, who had owned a store on Greenleaf Avenue (just down the street from Curtis's own shop), had been burned to death along with his heretical books, and now Curtis had been warned that the same thing could happen to him.

But he wouldn't back down. He would not be intimidated by these rabid zealots. Instead of complying with their demands, he had reported these threats to his life and business to the authorities, but their response had been chilly at best; when he had mentioned the name of his store, the soldier he had spoken with had replied, "Yeah, I know which store; I've been there. I can't say that I blame your anonymous letter-writer." And with that he had hung up.

So that made it official. He couldn't expect any help from the authorities; it was up to him to see to his own safety and protection.

He waited nervously. They may not come tonight, but they would come. Soon. And they would be dealt with. As an honest and law-abiding civilian, he was forbidden by law to own a firearm of any kind; so nowadays he kept a Louisville Slugger under the counter.

He was about to turn away from the large front window through which he had been gazing at the darkened street when a dark brown Pontiac with tinted windows came to a screeching halt at the curb. Five men, all dressed in ski masks and dark clothes, bolted from the doors as they were flung open and dashed toward the door, and in an imitation of the Carol Ann character from the Tobe Hooper film "Poltergeist," Curtis softly said into a small, concealed microphone, "They're heeere..."

They were carrying gas cans and side-handled batons, identical to the ones that the police carry, and they bolted their way through the door just as Curtis reached under the counter for the baseball bat. One of the men pulled a .38 revolver and pointed it at Curtis. "Hold it right there, motherfucker!" he shouted. "You freeze right there!"

Curtis raised his hands and backed away, trapped behind the counter. "Hey, hold on, man!" he said with fear in his eyes and voice. "I--"

"Shut up!" the gunman shouted. "Shut your fucking mouth, you fucking commie bastard!"

Two of them quickly came around the corner of the counter. One of them picked up the telephone and viciously yanked its cord from the wall, and threw the instrument at Curtis. It barely missed his head and smashed against the wall of books that stood behind him, tearing the leather spines of several antique and priceless volumes. They grabbed him by his gray denim jacket as the gunman came around the counter, and they held him pinned to his desk, struggling. An arm was held against his throat like a lead pipe. "Gotcha, you commie bastard," one of them said as the remaining two took off for the rear of the store, gas cans banging against the book shelves as they dashed down the narrow aisles.

"This is what you get for sellin' commie filth to our kids," said one of the men who was holding Curtis down. "We tried to warn you, but no--you had to be a smart-ass and report us to the cops, didn't you?"

"Hey look, guys," Curtis began, "it's not too late to--"

"Bullshit," said the man with the gun. "It's too late for you."

"Don't you boys think you've had about enough fun for one evening?"

All four of them looked toward the door. This new voice was tinged with a slight Texan accent, and for a moment it sounded an awful lot like that of the actor Tommy Lee Jones. Standing there, casually locking the door's dead-bolt with a twist of its latch, was a tall man with dark brown hair under a rugged Western-style hat of dark brown suede, and a neatly trimmed beard. He was dressed in dark jeans, black boots, and a long black coat; he looked like a stylish, early twenty-first century version of Wyatt Earp--or, more appropriately, Jesse James.

"Who the fuck--" the gunman began as he turned away from Curtis. The other two eased up on their intended victim, and all three stepped away from him as they wondered who this intruder was. But now they were ready to attack the newcomer, and as the gunman began to raise his .38 revolver toward this new threat the stranger suddenly whipped from concealment not a stainless steel six-shooter, but a modern, matte-black, Government model Colt 45.

The ski-masked gunman froze for a moment as his eyes fell on the sleek black semi-auto handgun. Then he spluttered, "You can't have that! That's illegal! "

The Texan held the weapon in his right hand with his arm fully extended, and aimed at the gunman's chest. "Well, slap my wrist," he growled. He nodded once with a slight movement of his head. "Put it down, asshole."

Still spluttering angrily as he put the revolver on the floor, the gunman said, "We've got six more friends in back; and when we're finished with this scum, we're going to deal with you!"

"Wrong," the Texan said with a menacing drawl. "You've got two more friends in back--and here they come now."

The three Bookstore Burners turned to see their two friends coming their way, and saw that they were being escorted by two more men. The strangers were both dressed in dark clothes topped with long black coats and floppy Western hats--two more modern James Gang members--and they ushered the two remaining Bookstore Burners before them, hands on top of their heads and their ski masks gone. One of the outlaws--Tom Wolf Hawks--carried a Mossberg shotgun, a blued, pistol-gripped 12-gauge pump nicknamed "The Persuader," pointed at one head. The other stranger--Jim Logan--held an Intratec Tec-9 semi-auto pistol with a 36-round magazine firmly against the cheek of the other book-burner.

"Show 'n Tell time, kids," the Texan said. He stepped forward and kicked the .38 safely away, then reached forward and whipped off the first ski mask. "You know this guy, Bob?"

Curtis took a good, long look at him. "No," he said at last. "Never seen him before."

The Texan stepped in front of the second man--the gunman--and whipped off his blue wool ski mask. "What about this'n?"

Curtis's eyes widened in shock. "He's one of those two cops who's always hanging around Lori's doughnut shop just up the street," Curtis said. "The cop who's always hassling her."

The Texan stepped in front of the third man and pulled off his mask.

"That's his partner."

Still training the gun on the prisoners, Keller stepped back and settled down on the corner of the desk, and sighed wearily. He regarded the five captives for a long moment, his eyes moving from one to another. Finally, like a store-owner regarding a group of grade-school kids who had just been caught trying to steal cigarettes, he asked, "What are we gonna do with you? I mean, you must realize we can't just turn y'all loose."

"You're under arrest!" one of the cops suddenly declared. "You're assaulting two Holy Guards with an illegal firearm, and you're--"

Sitting on the desk's corner, Keller had been merely keeping a casual aim on them with the Colt, since his two partners were there and keeping their weapons trained on them. Now he shot to his feet, startling the captives, and thrust the gun toward the cop's face. "And what the fuckin' hell do you think you were doing?" he roared. He rarely raised his voice these days, but right now he was thoroughly disgusted with the hypocrisy of these people. He cocked the hammer back on the semi-auto and was silent for a long moment, struggling to contain his rage. Finally, he asked, "What do you want us to do with them, Bob?"

Curtis wasn't sure. "Maybe we can strip 'em naked and handcuff them together around a street lamp or something."

Keller wasn't that amused. "If they were just a bunch of punks, maybe," he said. "But we got us a couple of FLM cops here."

"I say we waste them," Wolf Hawks said. In reality, he was no more capable of cold-blooded murder that Keller was, but... "They killed your pal Mike, man; they burned him with his store. I say we waste these fuckers!"

Keller thought for a moment. "Come on over here for a second." He flicked the Colt's safety on and put it away, and rested an arm across Bob's shoulders as he led him a little ways away from the rest of the group. "We can't treat these guys like they were regular punks," he said in a soft voice that the others couldn't hear. "They've got friends in high places. And I understand how much you love this store; I don't blame you at all, man, you busted your ass getting it started. But I think you ought to think seriously about relocating. These guys might not come back, but friends of theirs will, and they're gonna come with a vengeance."

"Where?" Curtis asked. "Where can I go, man? This is home. This is where my life is, and where my friends are."

Keller sighed. "I understand. They're good friends, too, right?"

"None better."

Keller thought for a moment. "You think they like it here?"

Curtis shrugged. "They've all got their ups and downs about this place. Mostly downs..." he added, his voice trailing off.

"You think they might want to relocate?"

Curtis studied him for a moment. "Where to?"

A little bit of Keller's boyish smile crept into his features. "I know of a pretty nice area up north, with lots of clean air and friendly people. You ever hear of Allied Territory?"

"Yeah, a few rumors..."

Keller's smile widened. "They ain't just rumors, son. I'll tell you what: you get your buddies together and talk it over, and I'll get back to you later. Deal?"

Curtis was looking a little optimistic as he thought it over. Then he asked, "What are you going to do with those guys?"

"You let me worry about them. You just get your friends together and talk it over. We ain't in a major rush, but the sooner y'all can make a decision, the better."

"I still say we ought to waste them," Wolf Hawks said, terrorizing their prisoners even more, as Keller returned. "We take them out to the desert, and we waste them."

He knew that both Hawks and Logan were no more capable of heartless bloodshed than he was; but the Bookshop Burners didn't know that, and Keller saw no reason to let them know that. And Tommy was one hell of an actor. "That idea does have a certain amount of merit to it," he said at last. "Let's tie them up and toss them in the van."

The gunman's eyes bugged out as his jaw dropped. "You can't do this!" he said, suddenly very much afraid. "You can't just--"

Keller lost his cool. He approached the gunman in three quick steps and threw his weight into the punch as he swung and belted him square in the face. The gunman went down in a heap, and Keller stepped back to shake the pain out of his hand. "Let's take these fuckers to see Erskine," he said. "By the time they get back, they won't be in any shape to burn down any more book stores."

***

It was good to be on the road again, driving from one town to the next, to wherever he and his growing gang of outlaws and allies were needed. At times he grew weary of the traveling and the fighting and the shooting--God, so weary--but he knew he couldn't stop. Not yet. He allowed himself a break now and then in order to recoup--recesses between the battles to hunt down ammunition and supplies, and to take a little personal R & R to get his mind on other things for a while--but he was no more capable of giving up and quitting the war than he was of walking upside-down across a ceiling. As long as the war against the rights of free people went on, so would he. As long as this authoritarian and fundamentalist State continued to callously abuse its power and trample the rights of its citizens, Keller would always be there to incite those victims to unite and resist by provoking their consciences--and, when necessary, by supplying them with weapons.

Goddamned goose-stepping sons o' bitches, Keller thought. His granddaddy fought against them in Europe back in World War II; now they're back, calling themselves righteous and God-fearing, and seizing property under the federal asset forfeiture laws--not from convicted criminals, but from accused offenders--and by shooting an occasional resister in the name of their God and their "law and order." These people had proven themselves to be no different from the ancient Crusaders, from the blood-thirsty Spanish Inquisition, the maniacal religious authorities of Salem, or from the hysterical "communist" hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or from any of today's Satan-hunting radical religious organizations.

No more, goddamnitt, he said silently to himself, keenly aware of the weight and the significance of the .45 at his hip. No fuckin' more.

THE END

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