Emby Quinn (email@example.com)
Chapter 2: Never Afraid to Burn
We danced in graveyards with vampires till dawn
We laughed in the faces of kings never afraid to burn
and I hate disintegration
Watching us wither
Black winged roses can't safely change their color
* * *
It was just past midnight, and the desert air was bitterly cold. The sands were stark and empty, the color of bone in the moonlight, and the stars glinted like chips of ice in the blue-black sky.
A battered pickup truck rattled off the seldom-used road and stopped alongside it. The driver cut the engine but left the headlights on. The door creaked open and a man stepped out. He was young, a bit seedy-looking but almost handsome, dressed in jeans and a faded T-shirt with BORN TO RAISE HELL stenciled on the front.
He lit a cigarette and walked around to the back of the truck. He lowered the tailgate and reached across it to grab hold of what he'd come to drop off in the desert.
The body of the woman was dead weight--not surprising, since the woman was, in fact, quite dead. The rope was still wound around her neck, and her eyes stared up at the black sky, bulging out of their sockets. She looked almost comically surprised, as though astonished at her own fate.
Whistling merrily, the killer heaved the body over his shoulder in a fireman's carry and walked away from the truck, looking for a good place to dump the body out of sight of the road. Since the interstate connector had been built several miles to the south, almost no one used this particular stretch of road. It would most likely be months, even years, before anyone found the body. By then the desert animals and the elements would have had their way with the remains.
He was an old hand at this; five years now, sixteen women--mostly prostitutes and runaways--and still the police had no clue that a serial killer was living in the area. Not that he committed any of the murders in his own town; he always went across the border, to Fianis or Leplace, picked up a random girl from the red-light strip, and did his business with her. Then he brought them to the desert to drop them off. So far, none of them had been found.
He mused over his peculiar situation as he wandered around a mesa, trying to find a spot that looked right. He wasn't an idiot. He knew his luck would run out eventually. He was hooked on killing the way junkies got hooked on their drug of choice, and he was starting to get careless. Sloppy. This one had fought like hell--the scratches were fresh on his face--and she'd almost gotten away from him in the parking lot. Somebody could have heard her screaming before he shut her up for good. If so, he could be in trouble. It might be time to think about moving again.
He crested the gentle slope of a dune and stopped. Black fragments littered the sand in front of him--parts of an abandoned car, maybe. It looked like bits of metal and such. A junk heap, here in the middle of nowhere.
He strolled down the dune and slung the body off his shoulders. He stretched her out, her head pointed towards the west, so she could watch the sun rise. He folded her white hands neatly over her breasts and made sure her legs were primly together. Finally he pressed a kiss to her cold bluish forehead.
"Thank you," he whispered, and straightened up. He was still a bit cross with her for scratching him and screaming, but in the end he'd gotten what he wanted from her, and it would have been impolite not to show his gratitude.
As he was walking off, his foot snagged on something in the sand, and he sprawled forward on his face. With a muttered curse he sat up and looked around. He'd stumbled on one of the pieces of junk--funny, he could have sworn it hadn't been in his path a second ago.
It was an odd shape, about the size of a bowling ball, roughly spherical in shape, and it seemed to be...humming.
He reached out to pick it up. The metal was smooth under his hand, vibrating softly.
As he grasped the object, a shock of sudden pain, like an electric jolt, ran up his arm. He tried to pull his hand away, but it wouldn't let go of the thing. He couldn't open his fingers or move his arm at all. White fire invaded his mind, and he screamed. He knew a single instant of intense panic, then the fire consumed his mind and he knew nothing at all.
* * *
Ken opened his eyes, blinking against the sunlight which streamed in through the open window. He yawned and stretched languidly, then smiled at the woman perched on the edge of the bed. "Good morning yourself, Mrs. Washio."
Jun returned his smile--she was positively glowing. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes." For the first time in weeks, he added silently. He sat up, running a hand through his hair. "What time is it?"
"Time for breakfast." Jun reached behind her and produced a bed tray, placing it across Ken's lap. The tantalizing scents of fresh shiramiso and grilled fish made Ken's stomach growl in anticipation. The various portions were presented in blue-and-white china bowls arranged in a seemingly careless yet cheerily harmonious mixture of patterns and shapes.
Ken picked up the polished black chopsticks and tucked in with a will. He was halfway through the miso and rice when he paused and looked at her. "You didn't..."
Jun beamed. "I did."
She giggled. "I've spent the month or so practicing. I figured the least I could do was make a decent honeymoon breaktast for my husband. Jinpei was surprisingly patient with me, and over the past few days Miya helped me learn how to get the miso just right."
"Miyae? But she can't cook either."
"She can't cook to Joe's liking, but she does all right with miso and gohan. Night before last we even made sushi rolls together." Jun sat up proudly and stole a morsel of the grilled salmon off his plate. "Mind you, I'm never going to be Martha Stewart, but I've got breakfast sussed."
Ken set his chopsticks down and regarded his wife with new eyes. Jun hated cooking, she'd never been good at it, and it had always been a bit of a sore spot with her. "And you did all this for me...?"
"Well..." Jun looked down, her cheeks coloring a bit. But she was still smiling. "You're worth it, Ken."
He took her small white hands in his and pulled her forward for a kiss. "It's delicious," he told her, and meant it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She'd brought the grilled salmon in a cold-pack sealed container, secreted away in her luggage and warmed in the suite's microwave, and the shiramiso was from a Kikkoman powdered mix, but Jun didn't see the need to tell Ken those details. After all, a wife had to keep some things secret from her husband, for his own good. And anyway, she had made the rice and tamago herself.
"Now finish eating," she said, in such a prim little no-nonsense voice that Ken laughed and picked up his chopsticks with a "yes-ma'am" smile. "Remember, we're going diving at the reefs today, and we're supposed to pick up the scuba gear when the shop opens at ten."
* * *
The sun felt good on his face. Joe lay on his back in the meadow, listening to the soft buzz of dragonflies and bumblebees, inhaling the sun-warmed scent of the grass and wildflowers, managing successfully, for the moment at least, to think about nothing at all.
He heard a soft footfall behind him, but he didn't open his eyes, not even when the new arrival settled down beside him in the grass. He knew who had come looking for him--it had to be one of the only two people around for miles, and it certainly wasn't Jinpei beside him right now. He wasn't ignoring her--not exactly--but he sensed why she'd come looking for him, and although she would do her best not to pry, sooner or later he'd end up telling her what he'd spent all morning and half the afternoon not trying to think about.
After all, she was Ken's sister, and fact-finding and problem-solving was encoded in the Washios' DNA. Along with talking too much and carrying the weight of the world around on their respective shoulders.
With an inaudible sigh, he finally opened his eyes. Miya wasn't even looking in his direction; she sat beside him with her arms wrapped loosely around her knees, looking downhill to the wide, placid blue lake near the lodge. In winter, the lake invariably froze over and was frequented by visitors who enjoyed ice skating; now, in early summer, its softly rippling surface was home only to the graceful white waterbirds that gave the Cygnus Lodge its name.
"Hi," Joe rumbled, sitting up.
Her blue eyes cut over to him and she smiled a bit. "Hi yourself, Condor."
He moved closer to her and dropped his arm around her shoulders. "It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"Mm. It might rain tonight, though."
"If it does, it does. Not much we can do about it."
This is ridiculous, Joe thought in a flash of heated frustration. We're talking about the damned weather like a couple of old men. "So...?"
"Mm? Oh." She looked directly at him, meeting his eyes. "Jun just called. She and Ken went snorkeling today--they got a nice collection of seashells to bring home."
"How are they getting along?"
Joe snorted. "Nice choice of words."
"Jun asked about you. I told her you were fine. When she asked where you were, I told her you'd gone into town to pick up a few things."
He groaned. "You shouldn't have lied to her."
"If I'd told her you were out here brooding, it might have worried her. It doesn't matter, since she knew I was lying anyway." She shrugged. "But she didn't press the matter. She just wants you to call her when you get back in."
Joe shook his head and leaned forward to rest his forehead against Miya's. "I don't want this to end," he said.
"Well, it is nice up here, but Ken and Jun will be back at the end of the week, and you've got that big race in Independence next month--"
"That's not what I mean and you know it." He drew back and looked at her.
"So tell me what you're talking about. I can't help if I don't know what's wrong."
"There's nothing to be done. It's just..." He looked away, down to the lake, watching the swans go about whatever business swans were usually about on a sunny day in June.
Miya rested her head on his shoulder. "Joe. Talk to me."
I'm trying. The silence spun out around them--not the comfortable silence they usually shared, but a bleak and empty void that no amount of closeness could fill. Finally he put his cheek on top of her head, still watching the lake. "I had a dream last night."
She put her hand on his chest. "The same one?"
"No. This one was new and different." He shut his eyes and forced the next words out. "I dreamed Z was back and he...he killed everyone."
The knowing tone of her voice made him open his eyes, sit up and look down at her. "What?"
Miya gave a brief chuckle and looked up at him. "It sounds like everyone's favorite gunner is suffering from a bad case of 'it's too good to be true' syndrome."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
She kissed his shoulder. "Don't you see? Ken and Jun are happily married and off on their honeymoon; Jinpei's getting ready to go to college in the fall; Ryu has gone home to start that family he's wanted forever; and you're doing what you always loved best, out on the racing circuit. There's no more Galactor, no more Katze, no more Gel Sadra, no more Egobossler, and no more X or Z or any other letter of the alphabet from space to worry about." She straightened up and gave him that direct, uncompromising look of hers. "You've been living on the edge since you were eight years old, Joe. It's not surprising that, now that there's peace, you're having a hard time accepting that it's real--that it's going to last."
"Mm...maybe. You think that's all it is?" What she was saying made sense, perfect sense. And yet...
"Let me tell you something--something I never even told Ken about." Her eyes dropped and she folded her hands in her lap. "For about a month after you guys yanked me off Petal Island, I would wake up in a cold sweat almost every night. I was sure that Katze, or Anastasia, or someone else from Galactor was going to come after me. Not to kill me--to take me back. By the time you and I got together, I stopped having those dreams, but while it was going on, it wasn't exactly a little slice of heaven--and because of those dreams, I spent almost every day looking over my shoulder. I was terrified. That was why I never wanted to go out in public by myself. That was why I was so scared of big crowds of people I didn't know. I never knew whether one of those people were with the Syndicate, and might know me for what I was, and report back to Katze that 'Poppy' wasn't dead after all."
"Cara..." Joe put his arms around her and gathered her to his chest. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"What could be done? It was something I had to deal with myself. I knew my fears were irrational, but that didn't make them go away. I had to face them and get over them on my own. And--finally--that's what I did." She kissed his chest, just over his heart. "That's how I know what you're going through now. I'm no psychologist, but it sure sounds like the same deal to me."
Joe found himself nodding. It was true; he did sometimes think things were going too well, that it was too peaceful, that it was, in fact, too good to be true. Was he doomed to spend the rest of his life waiting for the blow to fall? Was he going to be tormenting himself, fully expecting everything and everything he loved to be snatched away from him, for the rest of his life--to the point where he could never let himself relax and enjoy the good things he and the others had fought so hard to preserve?
No, damn it. To hell with that.
"You're right." He tilted her chin up and gave her a soft, lingering kiss. "Old habits--old fears--die hard, I guess. It's really over, isn't it?"
"You're damned right it is. No more war, no more killing, no more living day to day wondering if tomorrow's going to come. We're living happily ever after, Giorgio. Get used to it."
"I think I can do that--if I have the right woman to spend 'happily ever after' with." He lay down again, pulling her with him, and proceeded to demonstrate precisely who he thought that right woman was.
"Joe--if Jinpei comes looking for us--"
"He's going to get one hell of an education. Now hold still so I can do this..."
* * *
Sherrie hitched her backpack up as she walked along the side of the road. It was almost dark, and she wasn't looking forward to spending another night sleeping outside--especially since it looked like it was going to rain.
Oh, well--she'd manage. It wasn't like she hadn't done this before. She'd struck out on her own six times in the last four years, and this time she wasn't going to stop till she got to Utoland City. The goth scene there would welcome her in--she had plenty of friends she'd made on the Internet--and she wouldn't have to be bossed around by her drunk mother anymore or yelled at for coming home too late or having the "wrong" kind of friends. It wasn't like she was a child anymore--she was almost fourteen, for Christ's sake.
She heard the rumble of an engine behind her. She stopped, turned around, and flashed her best smile, holding out a thumb. It wasn't exactly the ride of her dreams--a beat-up old Ford pick-up, no less--but it would get her to the next town before full dark.
The truck slowed and parked on the shoulder. She ran to it and yanked open the creaking side door. "Thanks, mister!" she chirped as she tossed her pack inside and climbed in after it. "It's awful hot out there."
The driver--an old man, he looked about fifty or so--nodded once and pulled back out onto the road.
"I'm really glad you stopped," Sherrie said. For some reason, the man's silence made her nervous. "I need to get to Utoland as quick as I can. My grandma's sick. She's in the hospital, and I don't have any money to get there. I know you can't be going that far--" Not in this old wreck, she thought-- "but any ride's a help right now. I really appreciate it."
The old man still said nothing, and she fell silent. God, it stank in here--like sweat and machine oil and a weird coppery-sweet smell she couldn't quite identify. She settled against the torn cushion of the front seat and watched the road ahead. She was still uneasy, but what the hell--you took your chances hitching these days, and she could take care of herself if she had to. She always had. The sound of the engine and the motion of the truck gradually lulled her into a fitful doze.
She didn't see the driver finally turn to look at her. She didn't see the feral, unnaturally broad grin on his sallow face, and she didn't see the hellish red glow where his eyes should have been.
* * *
Arashi Shinya was a well-known appraiser on the Ameris East Coast. He was known for his sharp eye, his quick wit, and his uncanny ability to pick out forgeries that would deceive the most learned art and antique experts. He was young, not yet thirty, but his reputation was unquestioned and his opinions highly respected.
For the past few years, Shinya had become associated with a young couple, a brother and sister purportedly from somewhere in Germany. Berke and Valka Castille were seldom, if ever, seen together, but one or the other was usually in the company of the handsome young appraiser. Most often it was the young man, his long blond hair neatly held in a ponytail, who stood at Arashi's right hand while his sister stayed at home, "minding the shop" as he put it. It was gathered that Valka was something of a recluse, extremely shy around strangers and preferring the company of her cat and a good book to that of other people.
No one save Arashi knew that there was a very good reason for Berke and Valka never to be seen together. Yet, in an odd way, they were always together. Berke and Valka were one and the same person.
Arashi never asked questions about Berke's past. He didn't want to know. He didn't care. He knew that Berke had lived his life in fear of others discovering his (her) secret, but Arashi didn't care about that. He had loved Berke from the moment they'd met at a cocktail party, and they had been inseparable now for nearly four years.
Berke always slept deeply, without dreams (or so he said), so when he woke Arashi screaming in a language he didn't understand or recognize it seemed sufficient cause for alarm.
Arashi switched on the light and took hold of Berke's shoulders. He was shaking, vibrating almost, his head tossing back and forth in a constant show of denial. "Berke! Berke, it's only a dream. Wake up!"
"Dame da yo!" Japanese now, and Berke's voice was somehow different--higher, more nasal, almost a falsetto. "Sosai, onegai, urusai yo!"
"Berke!" Arashi shook his lover. "Berke, it's Arashi, wake up!"
The vivid blue eyes snapped open, filled with terror and darting from side to side as though looking for some oncoming attack. Finally they focused on Arashi's face. "What...what...?" Berke's voice was normal again, a shade or two below tenor. "Arashi...?"
"It's all right, Berke. You're safe. I'm here." Arashi put his arms around Berke, alarmed at how badly he was still shaking. "Everything's all right."
"No." Berke swallowed hard, still tense in Arashi's embrace. "Nothing's all right. Nowhere is safe. He's coming after me. Somehow he knows I'm alive and sooner or later he's going to find me."
"It doesn't matter." Arashi stroked the length of soft blond hair down Berke's back. "If anyone tries to hurt you, I'll protect you."
"You can't...you can't...not from him..."
Arashi chuckled darkly. "Oh, yes I can. I've done it before. I'm not just an art appraiser, remember, koibito?"
"You don't understand. He's--he's not human. He'll kill you."
"He can try."
Berke sobbed and pressed his face into Arashi's shoulder. "Oh, gods..."
* * *
Another night, another dream. Different this time. Familiar.
Joe was walking down a long, slightly curved corridor. He recognized it as a passageway in the long-lost Crescent Coral base. It was eerily silent; the scientists and security workers who had always been in transit from one place to another were nowhere to be seen. He was alone.
I'm dreaming, he thought, and he knew it was true, but it felt so real. He put his hand to one of the walls, and the metal felt cold and smooth under his touch.
He looked at his reflection in a glass door; he was wearing his old civvies, the dark blue shirt with red sleeves emblazoned with a golden-hued "2" and long, snug-fitting faded jeans. He felt for the hidden pocket along his right thigh, and it opened under his touch. He reached in and pulled out his first team weapon--the cable gun.
This is damned weird.
A few more steps, and he saw a door he remembered all too well. It wasn't marked, but it didn't have to be. It led to the briefing room, where Dr. Nambu had assembled them before so many assignments.
He stopped in front of it, and of its own accord, the door opened. Everything was as he remembered it: the world map on the wall, Nambu's desk, the circular window that looked out on the coral reef that gave the base its name, teeming with life--
A figure in a grey suit stood with his back to the door, watching the colorful variety of deep sea fish dart past the window. The familiarity of the silhouette made Joe's heart wrench. He wanted to run to the man, and at the same time he wanted to turn on his heel and run back into the hallway and never look back. Torn with indecision, he stayed where he was.
The man in the briefing room turned around. "I'm glad you're finally here. I--" Nambu stopped, frowned a bit in puzzlement. "Joe? What the hell are you doing here?"
"Good question." Joe stepped into the room, kicking the door shut behind him out of long habit. "Then again, it's my dream, so I guess I have a right to be in it."
Nambu shook his head. "I was...I was expecting Ken, actually. I've been trying to reach him for months."
"Uh-huh. Right. Have you tried dialing 1-800-CALL-ATT? I hear it's more reliable than MCI."
"Joe. This is serious."
"Please. At least this is better than the last dream I had."
"What? Oh. That was meant to get Ken's attention. A bit unsubtle, perhaps, but I was losing patience with him. He wouldn't listen to reason, so I tried shock tactics. You mean...you had the dream instead? The one where Z had destroyed the Earth?"
Joe scowled. "This is getting creepy. I don't think I like this dream anymore. I want to wake up now." He turned to the door and pushed at it.
It refused to open.
"Joe. Please, listen to me." Nambu's voice was urgent. "I don't understand why I'm talking to you and not Ken, but that's not important now. What's important is that you realize this is more than just a dream. I'm really here, it's me, and I need to warn you about what's going on."
"Shut up." Joe pushed on the door. It wouldn't budge. "The real Kozaburo Nambu is dead. You're just a ghost cobbled up out of my memory. All that's left of you is the pendant Ken gave me after the wedding. You're nothing but smoke."
"That isn't true, and part of you knows it." Footsteps behind him. "So you have the pendant now...? Well, that certainly explains why you're here instead of Ken."
"Shut up." Joe shoved against the door with all his considerable strength. He might as well have been pushing against the side of a mountain. Actually, the mountainside might be giving way by now. "Leave me alone. The war's over, the enemy's dead, and dammit I'm sick of all the drama. I just want my life--"
A hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. The next instant, the same hand cracked across his face.
It hurt. He felt his cheek throbbing and put his hand up to touch the side of his face where Nambu had slapped him. He looked at the older man, whose dark eyes were blazing with barely controlled rage.
"I expected this behavior from Ken, but not from you, Joe. You've always been the practical one. You've never been one to back down from a fight or turn your back on your duty. And you still have a duty, have no doubt of that."
Joe was still rubbing his aching jaw. "But...this isn't--"
"Real? Of course it is. Not real as you might understand it, but it's certainly not a fantasy."
"But...Crescent Coral's gone. You're gone. How...?"
"I created this environment because it was familiar to us both. As for me being gone--yes, I died, but my consciousness still exists. For how much longer, I have no idea. That's why it's so urgent that you stop and listen to what I have to tell you."
Joe realized he was still holding his cable gun. It was hard and smooth and fit perfectly in his hand, the way no other weapon he'd ever used did. Slowly he returned it to the pocket of his jeans and he leaned back against the hard metal wall of the briefing room. "All right, Hakase," he said. "I'm listening."
* * *
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