erniewhiting@centurylink.net

 

 

 

 

 

"Outlaws And Allies"

by Ernie Whiting

Chapter Seventeen

At sunrise the next morning, Keller and Valerie were getting ready to go gun shopping. They were going alone, much against Valerie’s wishes, and after hitching the wagon to one of the horses Valerie had been reluctant to leave--but no one would listen to her pleas that they all go together.

"Go!" Jasmine finally told her. She and Sierra had been standing with her next to the wagon as Keller finished checking the reins and straps. "You need the vacation, and we need to have you out of our hair for a while. Now git."

Slightly stung, and then reluctantly admitting that perhaps she was over-reacting just a bit, she finally acquiesced. She climbed into the wagon and settled on the bench seat, but as they moved off toward the woods she continued to cast worried looks over her shoulder even after they had rounded the bend in the path and had disappeared into the forest.

"Quit lookin’ over your shoulder all the time," he told her, "they’re fine. They’ll be okay without you for a couple of days."

"I’m just worried that--"

"Yeah, I know. You worry too much."

From behind her pale blue aviator-style sunglasses, she looked at him with an Arctic scowl.

He looked back at her, and was almost satisfied with her expression--so he decided to rub it in a little. "I’d tell you to chill, but I don’t think you could get much colder."

She turned away from him to take in the scenery, and to fight the impulse to smile. Sometimes Keller’s puns were pretty good, and sometimes they reeked.

As they rode, Keller encouraged her to talk about old times. Valerie had inquired about Dutch, and learned that he and Nancy were both quite well and still living in Allied territory; and eventually she brought Keller up to date concerning her own life with Jasmine and Sierra. They talked about the child’s amazing progress with her reading, and later they talked about Tony and Jeff, and they talked about themselves. They even talked about Colonel Elias Warren; as they jounced and rattled along, those seven long years seemed to melt away as though they had never passed. They even talked about that day when Keller, while driving Matthew Gordon’s stolen van, had nearly run them off the road while trying to sneak a peek at Valerie in the rear-view mirror when she was changing from her shirt to that black leather vest.

"You were watching me?" She didn’t know whether to be shocked, outraged, or flattered. She must have been quite a sight, she figured, to distract him from his driving. "You pig!" she said at last, pretending to be offended. She gave him a hearty and good-natured shove. "You male sexist oinker!"

"Just a normal young boy with a healthy interest in the fairer sex," he said with a grin of his own.

This time she laughed. "You swine! You walking slab of bacon!" And then she realized that she was laughing, and that she hadn’t laughed since...Jesus, how long had it been? Not until Keller had arrived. Having him around was having a therapeutic effect on her; now she understood why Jasmine had been so adamant about getting her out of the house, and she vowed to remember her in her meditations tonight.

"Now that’s the ol’ Valerie that I know," he said.

Just for the hell of it, she said with a playful grin, "Oink! Oink!"

With a grin of his own, Keller countered with, "Yap, yap."

***

By noon the next day they arrived at one of the many Allies’ cavernous weapons depots. This place was old news to Keller; it was where he and Dutch had delivered the van full of weapons that they had ripped off from Erskine, after dropping Tom Hawkes off at his cousin Miriam’s place. Standing guard with a belt-fed .50 caliber machine gun that stood on a tripod at the cave’s entrance, and wearing a miniature microphone and radio headset so he could monitor communications, a middle-aged man with graying hair and a friendly smile waved to them. "Hey, Keller," he said. "How’s it going?"

"Not bad at all, Brad," he replied as they stepped down from the wagon. "How’s it goin’ with you?"

"Boring as hell," he said, and he motioned slightly with the machine gun’s barrel. "I hope it stays that way."

"I know what you mean," Keller said as they led the horse to a large corral after unhitching it from the wagon.

"Is he the only guard they have for this place?" Valerie wondered. To her, one man with a machine gun was hardly adequate to guard all this valuable and illegal equipment.

"Naw," Keller replied. "We passed a couple dozen others on the trail up."

She looked at him with eyebrows raised in mild surprise. "A couple dozen? I didn’t see anyone."

"Good; you weren’t supposed to."

When they entered the cave the walls seemed to suddenly fall away from them, and Valerie--stunned by the vast selection of massive firepower--started to wander around on her own as though in a trance.

It was like a gun dealers’ emporium. Weapons were hanging on display from pegboard walls all over the place, and even more were in crates, ready to be sealed and shipped. There were German-made Heckler & Koch MP5s and Israeli-made Uzis, American-made Colt AR-15s and M-16s, Beretta rifles from Italy and Fabrique Nationales from Belgium; there were Springfields and Steyr Augs, Valmet semiautomatics and full autos, Sigarms rifles with fixed- and folding-stocks, M.A.C. 10s and M.A.C. 15s, and a wide variety of Intratecs. Set up on a number of tables were several more belt-fed .50 caliber machine guns standing on tripods, just like the one at the cave’s entrance, along with mortars, shoulder-held rocket launchers, bazookas, stinger missiles, antipersonnel mines, packages of plastique and C-4 explosives, and electronic detonators. Scattered across three more tables were handguns of just about every make and model: Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers and semiautomatics, ranging from the .22 caliber to the .44 magnum; Beretta semi-autos, Walthers, Springfields and Tauruses, Ruger semiautomatics and revolvers, and Austrian-made Glocks ranging from the 9mm to the .40 S&W; there were shotguns of every gauge made by Benelli and Stoeger, Mossberg and Remington, Browning and Savage & Stevens, Ruger and Bernardelli. And above them all was a computer printout, some thirty pages long, with huge letters proclaiming New Hampshire’s official state motto: "Live Free Or Die."

In stunned awe, and barely above a whisper--and with a sudden chill running down her spine--Valerie said, "Holy shit."

Keller came up behind her and lay an arm around her shoulders, causing her to jump slightly. He could understand her shocked reaction; after all, about the only people she ever dealt with in her forest neighborhood were peaceful friends and neighbors, all throwbacks to the days of Haight-Ashbury and the pacifist hippies of 1967's Summer of Love.

"Yeah," he said softly. "And that’s just the small arms stuff."

She turned to him with an incredulous look. "There’s more?"

"Rumor has it there’s a couple of portable nukes lyin’ around here somewhere."

Nukes?

Jesus.

The thought of it sent a shiver of terror through her soul.

He guided her toward the display of rifles. "Come on," he said. "I hope you remembered to bring your reusable canvas grocery bag; it’s good for five cents off, y’know."

***

Over the next two days they decided on a pair of carbines: a .223 Colt M-16 with a collapsing butt stock for Valerie, and a nine millimeter Uzi with a folding metal stock for Jasmine. They also picked up a pair of handguns: a nine millimeter Glock 19 Compact semi-auto pistol, and a Colt 1991A1 .45 semi-auto that was identical to Keller’s. They also picked up five spare magazines for each weapon. They acquired only five, because if they could not hit their targets with over four hundred rounds fired, either they--Valerie and Jasmine (and Sierra, for that matter)--would already be dead, or their attackers would be close enough to be taken out with swords or in hand-to-hand combat. Not only that, but it also seemed a little impractical to Valerie to load themselves down with weighty pouches stuffed full of loaded magazines; one had to draw the line somewhere. They also picked up a thousand hollow-point rounds for each weapon, and safety glasses and ear protectors for all concerned. Then, almost as an afterthought, they also picked up a matte-black, 12-gauge Frianchi Spas-12 semiautomatic shotgun with a swing-down stock, and ten boxes of ammunition for it. And the neat thing about it all was that it didn’t cost them a cent. These weapons hadn’t been stolen and dealt out for profit; they had all been smuggled out of Guardian weapons depots and distributed freely among the Allies’ Militia.

Wearing ear guards and shooting glasses, they were standing behind a low counter in an underground firing range. Valerie was holding an AK-47 at her shoulder, and sighting on a target fifty yards away; leaning forward slightly with her feet firmly planted, she squeezed the trigger. In spite of the ear guards, the gunshot was still loud. "Yow!" she said in surprise, and then she smiled appreciatively at the weapon. "This fucker kicks like a mule!"

"Aah, you shoot like a girl..."

"Oh, yeah?" She brought the rifle back to her shoulder and sighted on the target. She took a deep breath and let it out, and relaxed. She paused only a moment longer, and then snapped off three quick bull’s-eyes. She lowered the weapon once more, set the safety, and they pulled off their ear guards. "Not bad for a woman, huh?" she asked smugly as she laid the rifle on the counter. She saw no reason to tell him that she had trained extensively with her hunting rifle.

"Well hey there, stud-muffin!"

They both turned toward the source of the bright and cheery Southern voice. Keller immediately recognized it, and he looked more surprised than Valerie had ever seen. Removing his shooting glasses, he found his current flame sauntering toward them with her hands slipped into her back pockets. "Randi?" he asked in astonishment, and then they came together in an enthusiastic embrace--and then in an equally enthusiastic kiss.

This time it was Valerie’s turn to control her surprise. Quickly appraising the newcomer, she thought, Damn, she’s a cute little thing! If she hadn’t already been committed to Jasmine, she might try moving in on Keller’s girl herself.

And then an idea occurred to her. Just for fun...

"What are you doing here?" Keller finally asked. "I thought you were still in Flagstaff."

"I was gettin’ bored," Randi replied. "I mean, Tom’s at Miriam’s place, Dutch is back home with Nancy, and I didn’t have anything to do--so I came out here to look y’all up." More quietly, she added, "And besides, I was gettin’ lonely; I missed you."

Keller smiled warmly. "Yeah, well, I missed you, too."

They were quiet for a moment, just holding each other and swaying slightly, as though to music that only they could hear.

All right, that’s enough of that, Valerie thought dryly. She picked up the Kalashnikov and racked its bolt with a loud rack! and snap! to clear its chamber--and to deliberately startle them from their silent reverie. She felt a tiny, warm glow of satisfaction when she saw them jump. "Hi," she said with a friendly smile as she laid the weapon down again. "I’m Valerie." Gently yet firmly, she nudged Keller out of the way and extended a hand. "I’m very pleased to meet you."

Keller had momentarily forgotten about her, and Randi hadn’t even noticed her until now. "I’m sorry," he said, slightly flustered. "Valerie, this is Miranda Knight. Randi--Valerie Ryan."

"Hi," Randi said, recovering from Valerie’s greeting and then shaking her hand. "Glad to meet you."

Hardly, Valerie thought, still smiling and taking her time in releasing Randi’s hand. She could feel Randi vacillating between jealousy and uncertainty, so she decided to prove to her that she really had nothing to be jealous about; she would rather give her something else to ponder. She was, however, a little surprised to find that she was going to be competing with another woman for Keller’s attention--even if it was for a different reason--and in that she felt a slight twinge of possessiveness herself.

"So what’re y’all doin’ here?" Randi asked. Challenging ripples of hostility alternately emanated from her and then faded, like a distant radio signal in the dead of night.

"Just doing a little shopping," Valerie replied, brushing off Randi’s antagonism and wearing just a hint of that sly smile of hers as she gazed into her green eyes. "Things in our neighborhood"--she really did mean hers and Jasmine’s, and not hers and Keller’s, but she could tell Randi was beginning to believe the latter--"have been getting kind of crazy, so we decided to get a couple of extra weapons." She finally slung the Kalashnikov over a shoulder. "Listen, you’ve got to come home with us and meet the rest of the family; I won’t take no for an answer." She turned to Keller. "I’m going to take this back"--she motioned slightly with the AK-47--"and pick up the other weapons. I’ll be back in a few minutes; I can tell you guys got things to talk about." She turned and started off. Keller had always given her such a hard time; now it was his turn to sweat a little.

Randi couldn’t help taking notice of Valerie’s dazzling smile, her pale, clear amber eyes, her midnight hair, and her strong and athletic physique. "Cute girl," she finally said, her voice indifferent, as Valerie continued to move off into the distance.

And then she smacked his shoulder with the back of one fist. Hard.

"Oww!" He glared at her with mixed expressions of surprise, hurt, and a little anger as he rubbed at his painful shoulder. "What the hell was that for?"

"You bastard! You didn’t tell me you had a family out here!"

"What!?"

"What the hell am I, just some little piece of Southern fluff that you’re usin’--"

"Randi, I--"

"I mean, after seein’ her I guess I can tell why you never said you were married or involved with someone."

"Married? Randi, if you’d--"

"I mean, I’m an adult, okay? And I could have taken that kind of news if you had decided to tell me."

"Randi--"

"And if you’re usin’ me to cheat on her, then buster have I got news for--"

He gently seized her face between his hands and kissed her. She resisted, at first, but then she quickly began to melt.

She was silent for a moment, and then she asked dreamily, "You always know how to shut me up, don’t you?"

"The extent of my involvement with her is that she’s a friend in trouble. I came to help."

She watched him for a moment. Deep down inside, Randi knew what kind of a man Garrett Keller was; she knew that he had a strong sense of honor and that he was always off to help a friend in need. Sometimes it drove her nuts--particularly when he would take off in the middle of the night for days or even weeks at a time--but it was also why she was so totally head-over-heels in love with him. One rarely--if ever--saw that kind of friendship and loyalty these days, and rather than awaiting his return to their home in Flagstaff she would with increasing frequency accompany him on these missions.

Life with Garrett Keller was interesting, to say the least.

And now she was beginning to feel guilty for having doubted him; her problem was her hair-trigger temper, which she couldn’t always control.

"Besides, about the only thing she and I have in common is that we both like girls."

She looked at him with a puzzled "Huh?" And then a moment later the light went on. The expression in her face changed to one of realization and almost comical discomfort as one corner of her mouth twisted slightly. "Oh..." And then it quickly shifted to skepticism. "Oh, yeah... sure..."

Valerie returned a moment later with the Spas-12 shotgun slung over one shoulder and her dark blue Kelty backpack over the other. Inside it were the M-16, the Uzi, the Glock 19 and all of the spare magazines. Nestled in a black leather holster at her right hip was a Colt 1991A1 .45 semiautomatic. For the ammunition, she was going to need an extra pair of arms.

Ignoring Keller and smiling suggestively at Randi, she asked, "Ready?"

"Uh...yeah..." Suddenly a little nervous about the possibility of Valerie being one of those people--and wondering whether or not Valerie was giving her one of those looks--Randi said, "I’m gonna get my horse and meet y’all outside." She began to back off a bit too quickly. "See y’all in a few." She moved off rapidly.

Watching her as she moved off into the crowd, Valerie openly admired her auburn hair, tawny skin and green eyes. "Wow!" she said. "She’s cute!"

"Yeah, she sure is," Keller agreed with a sigh.

She continued to watch her as Randi moved away from them to eventually get lost among the people and the tables. "Nice ass," she added.

Yeah, Keller thought...and then he glanced at her suspiciously.

She folded her arms and sighed with slightly exaggerated wistfulness; she knew he was watching her. "Well, c’mon, ‘stud-muffin,’" she said at last, "I need a hand with the ammo cans." With another sly smile, she turned and started off ahead of him.

Keller’s suspicious look turned into a dark scowl. Muttering something under his breath about her keeping her damn hands off of his girlfriend, he slowly started after her.

***

Twilight was settling gently over the forest like a purple cloak of velvet. A cool breeze whispered through the treetops, and the sounds of the river could be heard off in the distance. Other than that, the land was quiet. Inside, however, lights blazed and the stereo played softly; Outlaw Radio was playing, in its entirety, Jefferson Airplane’s "Surrealistic Pillow" compact disc. Keller was sitting on one futon sofa with Randi’s arm linked through his while Valerie reclined on one elbow on a pile of large pillows with Sierra in front of her. Jasmine was checking out the weapons, and all but Sierra had a glass of rich red Cabernet Sauvignon in front of them.

Randi couldn’t help but smile. She was watching this family closely without seeming to watch them, and kept thinking to herself, They seem so normal. For the most part, anyway, she amended. She was still having a little trouble getting over the way Valerie and Jasmine had shared that long deep kiss upon returning home, and it still seemed a little weird to her that these two women were almost always touching in one way or another, whether they were lounging against each other or holding hands, or reclining with an arm slung around the other’s shoulders, but she was enjoying their company nonetheless.

And Sierra was an absolute delight. The seven-year-old had insisted on taking Randi by the hand and giving her a tour of the house and grounds before it had gotten too dark; she showed her the vegetable garden (which she had personally helped to plant, she had explained with childish boastfulness), she guided her around the solar panels and explained how they powered the house by converting sunlight directly into electricity, she showed off the small windmill that helped to supplement that power, and she pointed out the cables that ran out to the river and were hooked into the water wheel at the top of the waterfall. "Did you know," she asked Randi in wide-eyed seriousness, "that in the cities people have to pay money for their ‘lectricity?" She shook her head and shrugged. "I can’t believe it!" And then later she showed Randi her small library of books; "Calvin & Hobbes," her "Far Side" collection, and her small collection of books by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Edward Abbey.

Jasmine took a long gaping look at the firepower that was spread out on the living room floor. "Holy shit," she said with quiet, stunned awe.

"Yeah," Valerie said. "And that’s just the small arms stuff."

Jasmine stared at her with wide eyes. "There’s more?"

Keller glanced at Valerie and said, "Why don’t you write your own material?"

Valerie ignored him. What she was interested in was the look on Jasmine’s face. "So waddaya think, baby cakes?" she asked as she moved to join her. She picked up the shotgun and struck a model’s pose with it; flipping her dark hair over one shoulder with a toss of her head, and suddenly fixing her amber eyes on her with smoldering lust, she asked, "You think this’ll get me in a centerfold of ‘Soldier of Fortune’ magazine?"

Jasmine thought that over for a moment, and suddenly remembered there was still half a roll of film left in the camera that she wanted to shoot up. In her mind’s eye she could see Valerie in one of those posters at the Stagger On Inn, and she began working on a number of scenarios.

Then she looked over the weaponry with uncertain eyes. "Don’t you think this is just a little bit of over-kill?" she asked.

Valerie put the shotgun down and surveyed the weapons. Maybe she’s got a point there, she thought. But on the other hand...

At last Jasmine hefted the Glock that had been chosen for her, and she regarded it the way most would a dead tarantula. "Can’t really make an informed decision without trying these things out first," she said, with one corner of her mouth twisted just slightly in disdain. "But I don’t know..." She knew how necessary firearms could be for some to defend themselves, but she still didn’t like the damn things. As a matter of fact, one time when she had been discussing firearms with a couple of friends--and after helping to knock off two or three bottles of some very good wine--she had declared somewhat drunkenly, "Guns are for pussies. If I’m going to kill someone, I’m gonna do it up close and personal." On the other hand, she also knew that swords were inadequate against threats like, say, a rogue bear attacking you from the woods. She would just have to try these things out first, and go from there.

It was much too late to start shooting, and the weapons needed to be checked out and cleaned first anyway. They had been tested twice already--once when they had been brought to the Allies’ base, and then again when Keller and Valerie had selected them--but when it came to firearms, Keller was a fanatic for safety and proper procedure. So the rest of the evening was spent stripping the weapons down and running patches through the barrels, and cleaning old oil and burned gunpowder from the firing chambers. Then they practiced stripping them and reassembling them. Jasmine was a little slow to begin with, but was learning quickly under Randi’s patient tutelage; Valerie, on the other hand, had surprised herself with how quickly she was getting into all this. Although the weapons had not been extensively handled by very many people, and therefore there had been little psychic energy of previous owners that she could extract and use, she had discovered that she had quite a proficiency for firearms. Before long, she was stripping and reassembling the M-16 blindfolded. By midnight, according to Keller’s watch, they finally called it a night and headed off to bed.

***

It was quiet in the small cabin. Sierra slept in her own room, and Keller and Randi shared a pair of sleeping bags that had been zipped together on the convertible futon sofa. There were only the sounds of soft breathing and of the crackling of the fire as it slowly burned itself out, and of the wind as it gently sighed through the treetops.

She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. With all these weapons around the house--the swords, the knives, and now all these firearms--Valerie felt considerably more secure. But she still did not feel totally safe. Sure, they could repel any attack from any gang of thieves or rapists or rabid neo-Nazis or whatever, but these miscreants weren’t the problem. Such firepower could give even a platoon of Foundation soldiers something serious to think about, but they weren’t the problem, either.

She turned on her side and sighed heavily, and waited for sleep to claim her. Instead, it eluded her. She turned on her other side, hoping she wouldn’t awaken Jasmine, and mashed her pillow into an amorphous mass. She lay quietly and sighed again, but still her eyes would not close; she could not fall asleep. In quiet exasperation, she finally rose and swung her legs out of bed. Dressed in her "Red Power!" nightshirt and a pair of black-and-green plaid boxer shorts, she rose silently and carefully made her way on bare feet around the sleeping couple to her thickly padded pillow, which was still resting near the fireplace. She lifted it once again and slung it over a shoulder, and carried it over to the wide window, and settled into it.

She suddenly sat up straight. Her heart pounded hard in her chest for a moment, and her eyes darted nervously around the house as it shook slightly, checking for cracks or other damage. The windows rattled gently along with the kitchenware and some of the taller pieces of furniture, but no one was disturbed from their sleep. Damn earthquakes, she thought. That was stronger than the last one; maybe a two-five, possibly even a three. At least it was over quickly; it lasted only a couple of seconds.

With a slowing heart and a sigh of relief, she leaned back into the futon and spent the rest of the night facing the Betatron nuclear power plant, with her assault rifle lying across her knees.

 

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

They were outside with their weapons, wearing ear-guards and tinted shooting glasses. They had just finished firing off two magazines’ worth of ammunition from each weapon, and at the moment they were examining their targets. Jasmine had put thirty rounds through her paper target with her Glock with little consistency, punching a few holes in the black center range and the majority of them in the white outer ranges. Not that the Glock was not an accurate weapon; it’s just that each time she fired she would instinctively squeeze her eyes shut and flinch, and it jumped in her hands more than she had expected. With the Uzi she had done a little better; it had a longer barrel, which provided greater accuracy, and a folding stock and a greater mass that she could snug up against her shoulder and therefore control more effectively.

Firing with the M-16, with which she had no trouble since she was already familiar with her hunting rifle--and which, to her surprise and delight, produced much less of a recoil than the Sauer 200--Valerie’s targets were all blasted through in center mass. Even with the .45, after clearing her mind and letting the previous owners’ knowledge and energies flow into her, she had consistently hit one bull’s eye after another.

He could not believe what he had just heard. Staring incredulously at her, he asked, "You want to do what?"

"I want to blow up Betatron."

"Atta girl!" Randi cheered. "I’ll help!"

Keller cast her a sharp look, as though to say, "No you won’t."

"Hey, now hold on a second there, sweetheart," Jasmine told her. "What you’re talking about isn’t just a simple case of monkey-wrenching. Blowing up Betatron--hell, even just talking about it, as we are now--is a federal crime, punishable by death under the Foundation’s anti-terrorism laws." She and Valerie had both done their share of monkey-wrenching; the rearranging and removal of survey stakes, the slicing of sidewalls and the pulling of valve stems from the tires of off-road vehicles, the puncturing of radiators on construction equipment (or destruction equipment, as the two Witches called it) by repeatedly jamming a screwdriver through them, and the partial blockading of roads to allow only horse-and-wagon or motorcycle traffic--among other bits of mischief--had always been seen by them as harmless pranks that helped to protect their corner of the wilderness. But the destruction of a Corporate Government-owned nuclear fission reactor was not just a harmless prank; it was a major action against the State. "They’ll hunt you down for the rest of your life," Jasmine continued, "and when they find you they’ll kill you."

Yeah, well, witchcraft is punishable by death, too, Valerie thought. But terrorists were seen as a much bigger threat, and what Valerie was considering would most assuredly bring the wrath of the entire Foundation for Law and Morality down on her head.

"Yeah, well..." she said, and then sighed. "Hell, there are so many people who want that thing destroyed the Foundation won’t even know who did it." She removed the magazine from her M-16 and cleared its chamber. "Look," she said as she slung its strap over her right shoulder, "the impressions I got from that bastard when I was fighting with him were that he’d been hired by the Foundation to remove my spell. He couldn’t do it--so he tried to force me do it for him by kidnaping Sierra. He failed. So that means they’re going to try again. They’ll do anything to reopen that fucking place, and as long as it’s still standing none of us are safe. And arming my family to the teeth just isn’t good enough."

"Jasmine’s right," Keller said. "I don’t think you ought to do it. Blowin’ up a federal installation ain’t for fun. You know anything about explosives?"

Valerie didn’t say anything, but her heavy sigh--an exasperated lupine growl of concession--spoke volumes.

"Just as I thought," Keller said. "If you don’t know what you’re doin’, you stay away from that shit." Then he turned toward his girlfriend and said, "And that goes for you, too, darlin’. I don’t want you ladies blowin’ yourselves up messin’ with stuff you don’t know anything about. Besides," he added a moment later, "it’s too damn big to blow up; the best you can do is damage it enough to make it not worthwhile to fix." He looked from one to the other. "Do Jasmine and I have your word that neither of you will try it?"

It was silent for a long moment. As they stood in the brilliant sunlight, with their weapons slung over their shoulders and the barrels pointed downward, all that could be heard was the singing of birds, the wind as it teased the tree-tops, and the gentle rushing of the river in the distance.

"Well?"

"Okay, alright!" Valerie said irascibly. "I promise I won’t try to blow up Betatron." She folded her arms and scowled, and for a moment she looked very much like her daughter after having been denied her "Xena" privileges. "There. You happy?"

"Incoherently. Randi?"

"Same here," she sighed dejectedly. "But damn, it sounded like it’d be fun..."

Assured of their cooperation--reluctant though it was--he relaxed a little. "Good," he said. "Now let’s not have any more talk about blowin’ stuff up." Then silently he added, You leave demolitions up to us professionals.

***

James Logan was one of the best EOD--Explosive Ordinance Disposal (or, as Logan liked to call it, Equal Opportunity Destruction)--men that the Resistance had. It was ironic that he had also been the first soldier to find Valerie when she was being pursued by Colonel Elias Warren, which had resulted in her arrest. But it had also been during that night when he had experienced a kind of epiphany; after personally witnessing the consequences of that arrest--the torture and her near rape by Corporal Anton Willis which, through his lack of action, his commanding officer almost seemed to condone, and her near-execution at the hands of Colonel Warren--Jim Logan, at that time a naive nineteen-year-old private serving his first tour of duty, had been left with no other alternative but to desert from the Holy Guards and to join with the Resistance. That had been seven long years ago. And while he missed seeing his family--his parents, his sister and both brothers, aunts and uncles and numerous cousins, had all condemned his desertion once the FLM had informed them of it--his regrets were few. He had not had the opportunity to tell them the truth about what had happened, nor had he abandoned his religion, as his superiors had told them. Even with these strikes against him, he still retained not only his own religious beliefs, but also a strong hope of someday reuniting with his family and telling them about the Foundation and its military police force. Once they knew the truth, he believed, they would understand his actions.

In the meantime, he had also become one of the Allies’ most loyal members. No longer did he wear the uniform of the FLM’s army; he was now dressed in brown, loose-fitting corduroy jeans, a blue chambray work shirt and brown hiking boots, and instead of wearing a short military haircut his hair now reached almost to his shoulders--and his moustache could have been called anything but "regulation." Not only did he like the new style, it also provided him with a natural disguise. His old buddies in the Guard--not to mention his own family--never would have recognized him.

Keller, however, had no trouble whatsoever in finding him when he returned to the weapons depot a couple of days later. Mostly that was because there were so few people here, and far less equipment than there had been when he and Valerie had stopped in; it looked as though they were clearing out.

He spotted Logan transferring a wooden crate of dynamite from a high bench to the back of a truck not far away. He approached him quickly, deliberately not announcing himself, so he could suddenly drop a heavy hand on his shoulder with a startlingly loud, "Hey, son! How’s it goin’?" right in his ear.

Startled, Logan gasped and spun around so quickly that he nearly dropped the box of explosives. "Jesus, Keller!" he exclaimed. "Don’t do that!"

"What’re you so worried about?" he asked with a grin. "Your sticks won’t go off without the caps an’ primers. You need to learn to relax."

"Hey, this stuff is old and kind of unstable, y’know?" He indicated the contents of the box with a slight movement of his head. "See the sweat?"

Keller dropped his grin as though it were a hot coal, and his eyes darted to the contents of the crate as his heart suddenly seemed to skip a couple of beats. But he saw no seepage of nitroglycerine coming through the red paper of the dynamite sticks. He looked up at Logan again, and found him to be grinning back at him. The former private had his revenge in the look on Keller’s face, and he laughed softly.

Keller chuckled along with him. Nervously. Then he asked, "What’s goin’ on around here? They goin’ out of business or something?"

"We’re bugging out," Logan replied as Keller followed him to the back of the truck. "There’s been a lot of choppers flying around here lately, and we don’t want to take any chances." He dropped the crate in the back of the truck and gave it a hard shove to send it sliding back to the next man, who picked it up and stacked it on top of several others. "Sentries haven’t spotted any ground forces--at least not yet, anyway--so we’re getting loaded up and we’re moving out as soon as it’s dark." He started back for the table for another crate.

"Damn," Keller said softly as he followed him.

A slightly echoing voice in the back called out, "Spence!"

Logan looked at him as he hefted another box. "So are you gonna help move this stuff, or are you just going to follow me around and watch?"

"Actually, I was kind of hopin’ you’d be able to help me," he replied.

"Yeah?" He paused for a moment, holding the box. "How’s that?"

"I need some help taking out Betatron."

Logan grinned. "Sounds like you’ve got quite a little project ahead of you." He started for the truck again.

"Yeah, well, I was kind of expecting to see a few more people around here," Keller said, following him. "I thought they might like to lend a hand."

"I’d like to help you out, but you’re going to need more than just me and thee--and that’s about all that’s left. The rest of these guys aren’t going to hang around; we’ve got to get this shit moved out of here."

"Spence!" the voice called out again, only this time it was a little louder and a little closer. And it make Keller suddenly pause for a moment with an exceptionally distasteful feeling.

Spence...

It was one of his many aliases, but he couldn’t remember the last time he had used it. And the really bad thing about this was that the voice sounded unpleasantly familiar. Maybe if he ignored it, it would go away...

He went to the table and quickly lifted a box. Maybe if he kept his back to the source of the voice he wouldn’t be recognized. "I didn’t know Christian folk were allowed to talk that way," he said, mildly surprised at Logan’s use of such an expletive. "Ain’t that a sin or somethin’?"

Logan regarded him with a crooked smile. "With all the shit that’s going on in the world and with all the other stuff on His mind, I don’t think God’s about to take time out of His busy schedule to come down and smack me across the back of the head for saying ‘shit’."

"Yeah, well, I guess you got a point there," Keller agreed with a smile.

"Hey, Spence!" the voice said again, this time right behind him. Only it sounded like it had said "Spedce."

Damn, Keller thought. He was caught, and there was no way out. He turned, and the face he found himself looking into was as unpleasantly familiar as the voice. The greasy black hair, the droopy moustache, the lanky swagger--they all brought back memories that he had hoped to forget. The only new addition to his appearance was the bruising beneath his eyes and a white peaked bandage covering his nose; it looked kind of like a beak, making him resemble a cartoon bird.

Keller forced a smile, and suddenly he remembered this man’s name. "Hey, Spike. What’s going...on?" And then, genuinely curious about the recent damage done to his face, he quickly added, "What the hell happened to you, man?"

"Aw," he waved it off as though there were nothing much to tell, "I got idto a fight with a couple of Hell’s Aid-gels." Then he grinned like a junkyard guard dog and continued, "You ought to see what I did to theb!"

"Yeah, I can imagine," Keller said softly, subtly trying to back out of the range of his breath. He hadn’t spent much time with Spike, but he knew him well enough to know that he would never take on even a single Hell’s Angel--at least, not without considerable back-up. "So what are you doing here?"

"Bee add sub of the boys heard we could get sub guds here," he replied. "I bead, there’s a rubor goig aroud that they’re passig theb out for free. Cad you ibagid adywuhd dewid subthig like that--hadid out free guds? What a budch of stupid assholes."

"Yeah, just imagine..." Keller fought down the urge to cause a little more damage to Spike’s nose. The Allies were trying to supply the means of defense to those who needed them, and there were low-lifes like Spike who were trying to take advantage of it.

"Looks like it’s true, too," Spike added as he looked around. "There doedt seeb to be ady left."

"Yeah," Keller said, "that’s a real shame..." While he despised the idea of a disarmed populace, he also despised the idea of jerks like this getting their hands on fully automatic firearms. He wasn’t sure of which concept frightened him more—a disarmed and defenseless nation in the face of a tyrannical government or a bunch of armed and depraved degenerates like Spike. He knew what people like the lanky biker would do with these weapons.

And then another idea came to him. Not only could he satisfy Spike’s destructive urges, but he would also be putting those destructive urges to a good use--and he could even supervise Spike and his buddies, and make certain that they didn’t steal any desperately needed supplies for themselves. "Hey, listen. D’you think you and your buddies might be talked into blowin’ up a Foundation installation instead?"

Beneath the white bandage, Spike grinned like a pit bull. "Souds like fud," he said. "Tell be bore..."

Keller turned to Logan and slowly grinned. It looked as though they had found their assault team to take out Betatron.

***

Lying in bed, four nights after Keller had left, Valerie was thinking about Betatron and the curse she had placed on it seven years ago. After considerable reflection, she concluded that in reality what she had placed on Betatron had been more of a strong hex rather than an actual curse. After all, she had been practicing her craft for only a couple of days before taking on the nuclear power station, and what had she known about any difference between hexes and curses? A hex was much milder, she later learned, and was used more to cause inconvenience and to harass someone--to piss them off and drive them so utterly batshit that they’d wind up screwing themselves with everything they tried to accomplish. A hex on a person was temporary. A curse, however, was different; it was permanent, and was used to cause severe damage or even death.

She remembered that during her ritual she had told the Goddess she wanted no one to be killed, but the people in there had to be stopped. What had apparently happened, she concluded, was that her spell had used the personal fears and negative energies of Betatron’s own workers--and anyone else who entered that place, for that matter--against themselves, so that these intruders would be solely responsible for whatever happened to them. It had been a perfect use of karma, she told herself with a slight and self-congratulatory smile. At least, at that time it had. Sierra had told her and Jasmine that when Murphy had been dragging her through the complex, every time he touched something in there he would wipe his hands off on his jeans with a groan of disgust, as though he were wiping some kind of foul and putrid snot from his hands. "He said there was stinky fucking slime all over everything, but I didn’t see anything," she had told her parents with her innocent child’s voice. And here the two adults had grinned and shaken their heads in good-natured disapproval over her use of the word "fucking." They had mildly admonished her not to use that word again, but they could not really blame her for it. After all, she had merely been quoting her kidnapper. Besides, she had frequently heard them use the same phrase.

But while such a hex had been effective in keeping most people out of the nuclear plant--the saner ones, anyway, as Jasmine had put it--there were still some individuals out there who were determined to have Betatron re-opened, and they didn’t care who got in their way or what they had to do. Some had greater control over their fear than others did; Murphy immediately came to Valerie’s mind again. "They must have made him one hell of an offer, for him to go in there and face all that negativity being reflected back at him."

"Either that or one hell of a threat," Jasmine had added.

Others evidently had no fear at all. Those who worked for the FLM had convinced themselves that it was their manifest destiny to bring Betatron back on-line; in their minds, it was simply the way things were supposed to be. And since the FLM spoke for God, there was absolutely no room for discussion on the subject.

There was only one solution to this problem, Valerie concluded: Betatron had to come down. And this time, she didn’t care how many of its supporters were forced to pay the ultimate price for their own audacity. The place would have to be completely destroyed, and perhaps even the grounds on which it stood might have to be contaminated to prevent any possible rebuilding efforts.

While she didn’t know anything about explosives, she did know a thing or two about black magic.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

The house of Viktor and Sonja Belzac resembled a loft apartment. It looked much like the one in which Valerie and Jasmine lived; it was basically one large room, but unlike Valerie and Jasmine’s house it was divided by low walls and counters. Four round logs, perhaps eight inches in diameter, served as posts that supported the roof, and instead of having one massive skylight of clear insulated glass there were four smaller skylights with translucent white domes of plastic that let in the daylight to illuminate the house. There were also far more indoor plants than Jasmine and Valerie had; winding around the roof supports were wild and rich strands of dark green grape ivy that crept toward the skylights and provided homes for a multitude of spiders that helped to keep down the population of annoying and flying insects, and from the cross-beams there hung bright green golden pothos vines, lush Boston and Dallas ferns, Nephrolepis ferns, and chlorophytum spider plants. Perpendicular to the fireplace, which stood in the west wall and opposite the heavy wooden and black-iron-bound door, were two sofas that faced each other, and at the far end of these, opposite the fireplace, was a deep chair; this part of the house looked like a conversation pit, like one would find in a ski lodge or a college dormitory. Across from the pit was the kitchen, which was separated from the main room by a three-and-a-half-foot high counter that contained a well-fed sink and storage space for plates, silverware and cooking utensils, and at the other side of the room was the sleeping area, which was cordoned off by opaque Japanese-styled paper screens that were decorated with pheasants, peacocks, sea gulls and lush green trees.

Outside, near the door, were two picnic benches and a long matching table of redwood. Next to them was a large brick barbecue, on which there were sizzling venison steaks and burgers, all coated with rich, red barbecue sauce. The smell of meat, barbecue sauce and mesquite that rode the breeze was incredibly delicious, and had attracted the attention of about half a dozen wolves that all stayed at the edge of the woods. Although they could see Valerie, Jasmine and Sierra quite easily, they still did not feel quite bold enough to approach the Belzac house.

"Are you sure we can’t get you to stay for dinner?" Viktor asked Valerie. "You really shouldn’t go out cursing nuke plants on an empty stomach."

Dressed in black denim jeans and a matching leotard top, and a dark, olive-green tunic, Valerie noticed the lateness of the afternoon as she made some minor adjustments on the bit in the horse’s mouth. "I won’t be long," she replied.

Jasmine, Sierra and Randi were also there. Valerie had brought her family here because she had not liked the idea of leaving them and their new friend at home while she went off on her mission; not only had she felt they needed a little moral support while she was gone, but she would feel more comfortable herself if they stayed with friends rather than sat at home alone waiting for her.

"You promise you won’t be long?" Sierra asked, looking up at her with round, apprehensive eyes.

Valerie knelt on one knee and drew her daughter close. "Sweetheart, I absolutely swear I’ll be back just as soon as I can. I’m just going to run back home real quick and pick up some stuff, and then I’m going over to the nuke plant to put a curse on it, and then I’ll come right back. I won’t be long."

Sierra’s voice was small and worried. "Cross your heart?"

She smiled affectionately at her as she drew a cross on her chest with one index finger. "Cross my heart and hope to die, and stick a needle in my eye if I tell you any lie." Noting the reluctant little smile that began to tease at one corner of Sierra’s mouth, she gave her a quick kiss. "You behave yourself, okay?"

She nodded slightly in acceptance. "Okay."

She straightened and then hugged Jasmine. "And you behave yourself, too."

"You just bring your ass home quick and don’t make me come out there looking for you." Despite her attempt at a nonchalant attitude, she was a little worried herself.

Valerie replied with an obedient and amused, "Yes, ma’am." Then she turned and started to approach the wolves.

Viktor and Sonja watched with both amazement and apprehension as she boldly advanced on them, but Randi’s reaction was somewhat stronger. She had heard Keller’s stories of Valerie and the wolves, but she had never believed any of them; she knew how much he liked to spin a good yarn, and the story of the fight at the Ryan ranch seven years ago had been a real whopper. But now she was watching this woman approach an entire pack of wolves with no more concern than one would have while approaching a playground full of children. Her eyes grew wide as she softly said to herself, "Holy shit!"

As Valerie drew near, the wolves suddenly bounded forward in a swarm. Randi reached for her .45 with another "Shit!!", convinced that she was being attacked, and then felt Jasmine’s gentle yet restraining hand on her arm.

Valerie went down on one knee, and the wolves circled around her, all competing for her attention. "Okay, okay, settle down," she told them. "You guys listen to me." She found the alpha male--the leader of this pack--and gently took its massive, tan-and-gray head between her hands. Gazing directly into its amber eyes and stoking one side of its face, she spoke softly yet imperatively. "You watch out for my girls, okay?"

Returning her gaze, the wolf whined once in acceptance of her charge.

She smiled at him, then rubbed the side of her face against the wolf’s. She released him and headed for her horse, mounted up, and took off.

***

The house was so quiet with them gone. It was too quiet, too barren; too empty. She could not imagine what it would be like to live here alone. There had been times, of course, when Jasmine and Sierra had been gone for a couple or three days, or for even a week at a time, and leaving her with the house all to herself. She didn’t mind the solitude on those occasions because she had always known they would be back, and in eager anticipation she had always taken the opportunity to fill the house with wonderful cooking smells as she prepared a special welcome-home surprise for them. But it was different this time; for a moment she felt a sharp pang of loneliness, and it made her love and miss her family so much more.

But she couldn’t think about that right now; she had a job to do. And the sooner she got it done, the sooner her home would be filled with the voices of those whom she loved.

Murphy’s black bag was still sitting near the wood pile, where Jasmine had left it. She had originally intended to burn the thing, but now Valerie was glad that she hadn’t; instead, she decided to put the Satanist’s own tools to good use by using them to cast her curse on Betatron. The FLM had paid for these supplies; now their equipment would be used to defeat their own objective.

She slipped from her horse and tied its reins to the porch rail, and went to retrieve the bag. With a corner of her upper lip twisted in disgust, she hefted it by its top loop and held it at arm’s length, and carried it over to the horse to hang it from the saddle’s pommel. Then, with one hand on the pommel and the other on the back edge of the saddle, she slipped a booted foot into a stirrup...

She paused for a moment. She looked back over her shoulder at the house, and her eyes narrowed slightly. She stared at the house for a moment, and then, slowly, she slipped her foot from the stirrup and lowered it to the dusty ground. She turned to face the small house and continued to stare at it, scowling in thought. She was forgetting something. But what? She looked at the bag for a moment, as though it might tell her. All she needed was already here.

She looked at the house again. Something was teasing her at the back of her mind, just out of reach.

She tied the reins to the porch rail once more and went into the house. Standing just inside the door, she scanned the room. She didn’t need any more candles. She didn’t need any more incense or chalk, or anything else she might use in casting a Circle. Her own athame already hung at her right hip. But still something was holding her here. What was it?

She strode over to the fireplace and took down her katana. She didn’t think she would need it--it was not what she had come back for--but she was also determined not to go out unarmed.

She went over to the raised platform bed and reached beneath it, and pulled out the weapons locker. She withdrew a small key from her pocket--a short piece of leather lace was looped through it (after seven years of living in the woods, she never thought she would ever need keys or a key chain again)--and unlocked the padlock that hung on its hasp. She opened the lid and gazed inside. She didn’t think she would need the M-16 or Jasmine’s Uzi, but after a moment’s thought she concluded that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to at least take the Colt with her. It nestled snugly in its black leather holster, next to Jasmine’s Glock. She peeled off her tunic and picked it up, and slipped its clip onto her belt at her right hip. She slipped a magazine into the butt and racked the slide to chamber a round, then set the safety and slipped the weapon into the holster, cocked and locked. Two spare magazines went into each back pocket. She closed the lid and locked it shut, and pushed the locker back under the bed. But she didn’t feel satisfied; the sleek, black, semi-auto handgun was not what she had come back for, either.

Still on her hands and knees, next to the bed and with the katana still in its black scabbard and clutched in one hand, she turned and slowly scanned the room again.

Across the room, in the small space between the bookcase and the fireplace, something sparkled.

She rose to her feet and went over to it, and went down on one knee. She peered into the small crevice with one eye, and smiled slightly. Flattening her hand, she reached into the small space and used the tips of her index and second fingers to pull out the wolf’s tooth earring. She held it for a moment, watching the white enamel and silver casing and chain catch and reflect the sunlight, and thought about Marlowe. She thought about Betatron and Murphy, and about the way she had snapped at her family when she had still been possessed by the spirit of the Wolf. When her daughter’s life had been at stake, she had temporarily abandoned her humanness by welcoming the Wolf spirit’s possession; to protect her young, she had given in to the wildest and most savage urges to rend and to kill. ("Nobody touches my kid," she remembered telling herself on that cold and windswept night that seemed so long ago. "Nobody.") But later, at home and after that moment of snarling and snapping at her family beyond any sense of rationality, she had realized that there was a definite line of distinction between using the Wolf spirit to attain a goal and letting the Wolf spirit use her; from now on, she was going to be far more careful.

She hung the tooth at her right earlobe once more. She rose from her knees and went back to the bed to slip into her tunic once more, then slung the sword across her back. As an afterthought, she went and got a few supplies of her own; crossing incense, a glazed clay chalice, and a canteen of water. Sufficiently equipped, she headed for the door. Outside once again, she mounted up and started off for Betatron.

***

It was dark by the time she reached her destination. She stopped the horse and sat there for a moment, and gazed with cold eyes at the concrete buildings. The lights were still on inside. "I hope this is the last fuckin’ time I have to come out here," she growled softly.

Concealed at the southern edge of the woods, she dismounted and tied its reins to a low-hanging branch of a nearby tree. She slipped Murphy’s bag from the saddle pommel, and then started toward the silent reactor.

***

Jasmine was staring out the window as night settled over the woods. Despite her outward calm, which she maintained for Sierra’s sake, inside she was worried. She had no idea of what kind of a ritual Valerie would be performing, or how long it would take; and this standing around and waiting was getting to her.

She turned from the window. Sierra and Randi were sitting on the sofa with Sonja, engaged in light conversation, and Viktor was at the kitchen counter, whipping together a mixture of crushed ice, pineapple juice and orange juice in a blender. Every once in a while he would glance quickly at Jasmine and take note of her subtle yet concerned demeanor. Catching his eye, Jasmine would smile back at him, and then return her attention to the woods.

A moment later he softly asked, "You’re worried, aren’t you?"

Slightly startled, Jasmine turned and found him standing beside her. She hadn’t seen or heard him approach. "Nah," she quickly said with a forced smile.

"Ah." He was silent for a moment, then said, "Well, just as a precaution, while you guys were on your way here, I took the liberty of calling up the rest of the gang on the C.B. I thought it might help a little if we cast a Circle and sent her some energy."

This time, Jasmine’s smile was less forced. "That could be quite helpful," she said.

"I figured it would be. I won’t tell you not to worry; so instead, come on over and have a drink. The coven will be here soon."

***

Inside the fence, she immediately started for the eastern perimeter to begin casting her Circle. Once there, she went to one knee and reached into the bag. To Valerie, it felt as though she were reaching into a bucket of cold, congealed blood. From it, she withdrew a tall, fat black candle, and stuck it into the ground. Next, she reached into a hip pocket and withdrew a small box of wooden matches. She struck one and, cupping her hands around the delicate flame, she lit the wick of the candle and shook the match out. She held it until it was cool, and then tossed it away as she watched the candle burn. It was big enough so that she didn’t have to worry about it burning down and out before she managed to light the rest of them. She straightened, and started off to her left, heading counter-clockwise and toward the northern perimeter to finish casting her Circle.

***

"What’s this stuff about a Circle?" Randi asked. She was unfamiliar with the Craft and its workings, but the more she observed these people the more she wanted to learn about it.

"It’s a way of raising power," Jasmine told her. She sat in the wide stuffed chair, and Sierra moved to curl up on her lap. "The casting of a Circle, with all the candles, the incense, the pentagrams and the athames, and all the other mood-setting accouterments, is basically just a way of putting one in a different state of consciousness. The tools themselves have no power of their own, they’re just props; but the use of these props--when one goes out of their way to put out that extra effort to set everything up just right--I think pulls just a little more energy out of the person who is performing the ritual. The power doesn’t come from the inanimate trappings; it comes from one’s living environment, and from within."

"So that means," Randi said, hoping she was getting all this right as she eyed the glittering, five-pointed star-within-a-circle that Jasmine was wearing, "wearing a--a whatzit, a pinnacle? pennacle? pentacle?--wearing a pentacle doesn’t really protect a person..."

"It serves as a reminder that protective forces have been invoked," Jasmine replied. "Some believe that a protective talisman works particularly well if it’s received as a gift. Personally, I can’t see any reason why a home-made--or even a store-bought--talisman wouldn’t work any less. If someone truly believes in it’s protective power, he or she will either consciously or unconsciously draw more energy from the environment and generate more of one’s own power for self-protection." She glanced at Sierra, who was looking up at her, and gave her a quick hug and a kiss on one temple. "So what do you think of all this Witchcraft stuff?" she asked her daughter. "You getting confused yet?"

Puzzled, Sierra withdrew the pentacle from beneath her shirt and looked at it. It was still pulsating with that bright, ethereal blue-white glow. She didn’t know if anyone else could see it or not. She dropped it to rest against her chest, outside of her shirt. As far as she was concerned, she knew the truth.

There was a knock at the door.

"That’s probably the first of the coven," Sonja said. She rose from the sofa and headed for the door.

Five people stood before the porch: Gloria Hansen and Mark Freeman, Randy Delaney, and Pam and Paula Curtis. "Whoa--you’re all here! Come on in."

Including Sierra, there were only ten members of this coven. Some practitioners of Wicca thought this was an ideal size, while others thought it better to stick with tradition and try for thirteen members. While this particular coven believed the latter, and while striving to achieve an even balance between male and female members with one reigning Priestess, they had not yet been able to find the full thirteen they wanted.

Gloria Hansen and Mark Freeman were dressed in black robes and cloaks while Pam and Paula Curtis wore white; Randy Delaney, being the newest member, still wore regular street clothes. After shedding their jackets and cloaks, they moved at Sonja’s direction to help move the furniture out of the way for the casting of the Circle. Soon, the sofas and chair and coffee table were pushed back against the walls, and Randi watched as the candles were placed in a large circle and as the altar was set in its center. Soon, the lights were extinguished and the smell of dragon’s blood incense rode the air. The only light came from the burning candles.

The ritual was about to begin.

***

"God dab it, I cad’t see a dab thig out here."

Jim Logan held the flashlight as he led the way through the trees, riding slowly toward Betatron. "Quit your whining," he growled at Spike, "we’re just about...ah." Through the trees and in the dim star light, he spotted the concrete building.

The rag-tag strike team of ten men had silently arrived on horseback at the western perimeter. Still sitting astride their horses, they stopped and gazed at the nuclear plant.

"Oh my," Keller drawled to himself with a sudden sinking in the pit of his stomach. The lights in the damn place were still on. "My, my, my...this isn’t gonna be as easy as I thought it would be." He turned to the others. "Keep these boys here, Jim, I’m going to go check things out."

"Wait up, Keller, we--"

But he was too late. Before Logan could protest further, Keller had slipped from his horse and disappeared into the darkness.

Logan sighed in exasperation. "I hate it when he does this," he grumbled.

***

In spite of it being a moonless night, Keller kept to the edge of the woods as he made his way toward the entrance of the operations center and containment building. He stopped frequently, and listened for any voices that might be coming from inside; hearing nothing, he would approach with a few more sliding steps as he now kept his back to the wall with the Colt in one hand, and he would listen again. Still, there was nothing. Alongside the door, ready to either run or drop and fire, he stopped and crouched, and listened again.

Nothing.

They wouldn’t be lying in wait, would they? he wondered. He didn’t think so. They couldn’t possibly know that he or anyone else was here. These must be the quietest damn workers known to mankind, he thought as he continued to listen at the door.

He decided to take a chance. Down on one knee, he took a deep breath and then chanced a fast peek around the door. His head darted around the corner and then back again, and in that quick instant he had seen no one. He waited a moment and took another glance, and still saw nothing. He clicked off the Colt’s safety and took another look, only this time he did not withdraw; instead, he thrust his arm forward, gun in hand, and sought out a target. Luckily, there was none. The cavernous and well-lit room seemed to be deserted.

He straightened slowly, and cautiously stepped inside. He took a couple of minutes to survey the room, and then smiled to himself as he set the safety on the Colt once more, concluding that this place was completely deserted. And the lights were on--and had been burning for seven years without failure--so they could more easily see where to put the explosives. "Huh!" he said to himself, and then smiled. "This is gonna be easier than I thought." He holstered his gun and started back outside.

***

"So what’s the story?" Logan asked.

"There’s nobody home," Keller reported. "They must’ve been in one hell of a hurry to clear out way back when Valerie first put a curse on this joint; they bugged out so fast they left all the lights on."

"So that’s why electric bills in the city are always so high," Logan said. "They tell us to conserve energy while they get to leave all the lights on with no one here."

"Come on," Keller said with a relaxed grin, "let’s blow this fucker so we can all go home."

 

 

Chapter Twenty

Keller finished wiring in the detonator’s radio receiver and raised its thin telescoping antenna, then slowly straightened. Both of his knees popped. With a slight groan, he told himself, I’m gettin’ too old for this nonsense. He stood with his back against the thick concrete wall of the containment building, enjoying the fresh air and the night’s chill. He shook out a cigarette, stuck it between his lips and lit it, then reached for the small microphone that was clipped to the left shoulder of his jacket near his collar. The mike’s cord was plugged into the small walkie-talkie that hung on his left hip. He hadn’t heard from Logan yet, so he figured that the young Rebel was not quite finished with his team’s placement of their charges. That meant it was still safe to use the radio because the remote-detonator’s receivers, which operated via a radio signal, had not yet been activated.

He thumbed the button twice to alert Logan with a couple of soft bursts of static, then spoke. "Hey, Jim? How’s it going?"

There was a short pause before Logan replied. "Pretty slow. These good ol’ boys sure are enthusiastic, but they don’t know a hell of a lot about explosives. We’ve still got four more charges to set on the northern section, and then we’re out of here."

"Let me know when you’re finished. Once we activate the receivers, it’s radio silence. We meet up back at the horses. You copy that?"

"With a big ten-four," Logan replied.

"Cool." He released the mike, hooked his thumb in his belt, and leaned with his back against the wall as he dragged on his cigarette again.

Northern California is a whole lot different from Arizona, he thought. While he spent much of his time in what used to be the Prescott National Forest, just outside of Flagstaff, he also liked spending time in the deserts near the Hopi Indian Reservation and traveling around the San Carlos Apache Reservation. He liked the desert as much as he liked the forest. And if it came down to only one of two possible choices for a permanent home, now that he thought it over a little more, he would probably opt for the desert. He liked the hot and arid air, which felt so much better than the damp cold of northern California winters that settled into the long-healed breaks in some of his bones, and he liked the openness--the huge sky, the flat land, the distant mountains, the ease in spotting anyone approaching due to the lack of anything to hide behind...

He heard the howl of a single wolf, not far away, and it made him think about Valerie and her wolves. He thought it odd that there should be just one lone voice calling out in the wilderness; wolves, after all, were pack animals. Good thing she’s at home where she belongs, he thought, and not messing around with any of this stuff.

Call it a feeling, call it a hunch, or call it a premonition--or, as Keller preferred to call it, his "smuggler’s instinct"--whatever it was, it abruptly startled him out of his thoughts with a sense of nearby danger. He dropped his cigarette as he straightened, and crushed it out under the toe of his boot. He listened carefully to the whispering forest. A moment later, he could hear the faint and unnatural sounds. "Aw, Christ," he drawled softly. He reached for the microphone once more and thumbed the button, and spoke softly. "Houston, we have a problem."

***

Watching the stars as they guided her to true north, Valerie followed alongside the fence and thought about how much she wanted to get this job done; just get it finished, get the hell out of here, and get her butt back home to her family. Not only was she sick of this place, she was also sick of dragging this rucksack full of hateful artifacts around with her, she was sick of dipping her hand into it as though the bag were a bucket of cold, putrid viscera, and she was shivering to death. She knew well, after living in northern California for seven years, how this area had some cold nights; but this was August, for God’s sake, and still it was unusually cold out here. Running around on a night such as this, dressed in jeans, boots, a leotard top and a lightweight tunic, was not a good idea; and she found herself wishing she had worn her jacket.

At last, she reached the northern perimeter of the plant. Once more she went to one knee as she placed the bag on the ground, and reached inside. Yeucchh, she thought for the second time tonight as the repulsive chill ran up her arm. She withdrew another black candle and stuck it into the ground, lit it, and shook the match out.

Suddenly, that cold and dreadful and all-too-familiar feeling washed over her; her psychic early-warning system had just clicked on. It reminded her of the night of the Tarot card reading so long ago, just before the soldiers had shown up at her home and killed Jeff Hastings and Tony Nichols. It reminded her of when she and Keller had been racing across that Utah desert just before the FLM helicopter had come up behind them, firing rockets and strafing them with machine gun fire. As near as she could remember, that had been the last time she had felt that warning system activate itself.

She looked up into the black night sky and saw nothing, yet...yet she knew something was up there. Slowly, she reached up and fingered the wolf’s tooth earring that hung at her right ear lobe--Wolf Spirit, she invoked, Guardian of the North, be with me now in my time of need--and a small, electrical blue-white flash of energy softly crackled from it to envelope her. Suddenly she could feel it in the air; an almost imperceptible change in the air’s density due to its displacement by the approach of something massive. Listening intently and watching the skies with narrowed eyes, she waited for a long moment--and then, off in the distance, she could hear the faint, distinctive staccato thudding of blades that belonged to a military helicopter as they beat at the sky. And then another long moment later she saw the two pairs of red and green running lights, seemingly as distant as stars but moving.

Coming closer.

She couldn’t tell what kind of aircraft was approaching, but the way the lights stayed in such close proximity to each other she judged that they had to belong to one helicopter--a big one. Most likely it was a CH-47 Chinook, a behemoth of a helicopter that had two huge rotors, one fore and one aft, and had enough cargo room to carry thirty well-armed troops and all of their equipment--with enough room left over for a jeep or two.

"Bastards," she said softly in a low, menacing lupine growl that reverberated deep in her chest. After seven years of leaving her undisturbed--to live in peace in her sylvan home with her small family and her modest yet tightly knit group of friends--the Foundation for Law and Morality had decided to intrude on her life once more.

You filthy, stinking bastards, she thought.

The first time they had come for her, she had been just a transplanted city girl, running and hiding like a rabbit in fear for her life. She had been caught, too, and tortured and almost executed, so she knew what these people were. In her mind, they were no different from the witch-hunters of the Spanish Inquisition or of Salem, Massachusetts, or from Hitler’s SS or from Stalin’s KGB. Throughout all of history, there were people on one side who simply wanted to live their lives in peace--and on the other side there were those self-appointed authorities who would not allow them to, in the name of either God or law and order, or Manifest Destiny.

She was no city girl now.

And she was definitely no terrified rabbit running through the woods.

She was a survivalist--armed with knowledge, skills and weapons that she had never even dreamed that she would someday own. So it wasn’t with fear that her heart raced; nor was it apprehension or fright that immediately sent adrenalin rushing in a massive surge throughout her system. It was indescribable fury. She didn’t want to just kill these invaders; she wanted to tear them limb from limb, split their chests open with a battle-axe, and feast on their warm, dripping hearts as they watched with still and glassy eyes.

Easy there, girl, she told herself. She could feel the Wolf spirit rising in her, straining against its chains and demanding release.

She continued to watch the approaching helicopter. She was one more forest animal now, among thousands of others who were observing this alien thing as it floated across the sky. Unlike her wild cousins, however, she knew who these invaders were. That reincarnated soldier Murphy had been the first, sent ahead to remove her curse from Betatron and to clear the way for the main invasion. Now it looked as though the rest of those Colorado Volunteers had all come back to life once more. It was a modern-day repeat of her vision with Sarah Two Knives; a flashback to Sand Creek itself. The approaching thudding sound was almost identical to that which she had heard one hundred and fifty years ago. Only instead of the pounding of horses’ hooves that had once announced the arrival of Christ’s army, now it was the thudding of helicopter blades that reverberated through her soul. Air cavalry rather than equine. And instead of coming to massacre a village of peaceful pagan Cheyenne, this time they wanted to re-open this fission reactor that would threaten the lives of this forest and the community that lived in it.

She remembered the rage she had felt toward the invading soldiers and the anguish of witnessing the slaughter at Sand Creek during her vision. She could also remember the feelings of helplessness and undeserved guilt of being unable to prevent it. They had killed her and her sister, and had stolen her unborn daughter--and now they were coming back to do it again.

Losing to these people again was out of the question. For her family, for her Home, and for her life, defeat was not an option. But neither was uncontrolled rage, no matter how justifiable it might be. She could not afford to let her fury control her, as it had once; she would not let it get the better of her and make her lash out in blind rage without thought, as when she killed Murphy and when she had gone for a week without sleep, obsessed with security and snapping at her family like a rabid wolf for not sharing that obsession.

She soothed the heat of her fury by tempering it with the coldness of determination.

Then she began to formulate a plan of action.

She had three advantages, and she would make the best of them. One was prior warning, however slight that warning might have been; she could see them coming, and they didn’t know that she was down here, watching them. The second was that this was her forest. Her Home. After having lived out here for nearly a decade, she was as familiar with these woods as she was with her own name, whether they were lit by day or enveloped by night. She knew every trail, every tree, every fallen log, every stream, boulder, hollow in the ground, every blade of grass, every twig.

The third advantage--and by far the most important one--was that she wasn’t alone.

They had their army, and she had hers.

She took a deep breath and cupped her hands around her mouth, then tilted her head back and howled a long, ululating howl that drained her lungs. She took another breath and howled again, at a slightly higher and more urgent pitch, and let it trail off into silence.

Her cold, sharp, amber eyes returned once more to the now hovering helicopter, and as they did its huge spotlight suddenly blinked on. It began to sweep the grounds around the power station with a beam that was as bright as daylight, looking for any suspicious movement. Finding none, the helicopter proceeded to off-load four dark figures, two on each side, that quickly rappelled some fifty feet to the ground.

Once more her fury began to rise, and with it rose that of the Wolf spirit--and this time she didn’t try to stop it. She would cut its leash and let it loose, just one more time.

She glanced back at the candle and hoped its tiny flame wouldn’t be noticed; with all the surrounding underbrush, she doubted that anyone would spot it or the one she had left earlier.

Without realizing it, she growled again--louder and more menacingly this time--as she looked up once more with deadly eyes at the hovering Chinook. You miserable little rectal polyps, she thought. You think you’re hot stuff? Then come on and get me, you shitheads.

Let’s rock.

***

The wolves that surrounded the Belzac home appeared to be quite relaxed. Every once in a while one would scratch at its ribs or behind an ear with one hind foot, or lazily scratch its back against the ground with a pleasurable groan or chew at a flea with a nasal snarl. Most of the time they seemed to be merely lying around and dozing, with their heads up and their eyes closed--but in reality they were ever vigilant. Earlier, they had grouped together and watched with great interest when the coven members had arrived; but once they had gone inside, the wolves judged them to be no threat to the occupants of the cabin, and therefore were of no further interest to them. They had returned to their masquerade of laziness and indifference.

Abruptly, all six of them sat up with sharpened eyes and erect ears. Fully awake and instantly on guard, they listened intently. Very faintly, they heard a single, distant howl that came from the southeast; from where their human pack-member had gone. They glanced uncertainly at each other, and then they heard the second howl, slightly higher-pitched and more desperate. This time they rose to their feet, but still they were seized in a grip of uncertainty. They were supposed to stay here and guard Jasmine and Sierra, yet Valerie also needed their help.

They glanced at the cabin, then back at the woods, then at each other. And then the pack leader raised its muzzle and let loose with a long howl. Following the alpha male’s lead, the rest of the pack raised their own muzzles to the night sky, and their half-dozen voices chorused with their leader’s, echoing through the night.

Their calls were answered by more howls--many, many more howls--that came from the north.

***

The interior of the cabin was shadowy, lit only by the flickering orange light of candles and filled with lazy, wispy tendrils of incense smoke. Sitting almost shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of this Witches’ coven, inside the circle of candles with her boots off and her legs folded beneath her, Randi wasn’t quite sure of what to make of this dark and admittedly eerie atmosphere. As she watched the proceedings, she wondered about all that stuff concerning black sabbaths, the calling up of demons, and human sacrifices; and then she had to remind herself once more that everything she had ever heard about Witchcraft and covens in the popular media had been written by Foundation adherents, by ancient and equally superstitious suppressors of competing religions, and by Hollywood horror writers. Not once, during the casting of this Circle, had anyone invoked the devil or any demons, or any "dark powers"; instead, they had appealed to the spirits of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Also frequently heard was the phrase "in perfect love and perfect trust"--which, to Randi, hardly sounded like anything inspired by any evil deity. But most of all, Jasmine and the rest of the coven had invoked the aid of the Goddess, which had really caught her off-guard. A female deity? she thought. For a moment, Randi rejected the idea; it went against all of the current and popular beliefs she had ever heard about God and religion--and then she had to remind herself that just about everything she had ever heard about God and religion had come from the FLM and its followers.

And then another moment later she began to smile to herself. The more she thought about it, the more she kind of liked the idea. Ancient history was full of gods and goddesses, although they were not thought of in what she considered to be a traditionally religious sense. To her, they had merely been stories, fairy tales, folklore. Look at Greek mythology, for example, she told herself. She suddenly remembered once hearing a long time ago about Hera and Zeus, Artemis and Apollo, Aphrodite and Athena. Had Greek mythology actually been a religion--one that had been eventually displaced by Christianity? She found herself wondering. And would Christianity, in turn, soon be displaced by the rise of other religions and spiritual beliefs, and soon be considered nothing more than just another branch of mythology? Was that why the Christian extremists denied and castigated all other religions so vehemently--so that they could try to maintain their weakening stranglehold on people’s lives and beliefs?

She would have to remember all this later. She was eager to learn more, and there were a thousand questions she wanted to ask.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Team One, which belonged to Vance, and Teams Two and Three--each team consisting of four men--had rappelled from the Chinook to land outside of the plant’s entrance at the southern perimeter. Team Four had been dropped off near the northern perimeter, and Team Five had landed at the east; the western perimeter was too heavily wooded for anyone to rappel down, with the trees providing a thick green canopy almost right up against the fence. The flight crew then took the helicopter to land in the middle of an abandoned logging camp a mile and a half south of Betatron--there was no room near the plant to land this massive machine--and stayed in their seats to monitor radio chatter and to await further orders from Vance. Team One stayed with Vance to begin searching inside the containment building, and Team Two’s mission was to search the administration building. Teams Three, Four and Five were each split up to take off in opposite directions and search the grounds. Should they meet again in the course of their searches without incident, the outside area would be considered secured.

"Team Three-Alpha to Team Leader."

They were all wearing miniature radio headsets and microphones. Vance adjusted his mike a little higher before he spoke. "Team Leader. Go ahead."

"Sir, we’ve found a team of horses tied up just at the edge of the woods. We’ve got civilians around here somewhere."

Three-Alpha, he thought. That was the team sweeping up from the southern perimeter toward the west. "Understood," he said. "Keep searching the grounds; you should be meeting up with Four-Bravo before long. Keep me informed." He motioned for his own team--Team One--to start inside the containment building while Team Two started for the administration building.

He had heard nothing from Murphy during the last week, and he was determined to find out what had happened to him. An all-points-bulletin had already been released, and once captured he would be interrogated and then shot. Vance would shoot him personally for making him look incompetent. There had been no reports from the Satanist for a week; how could he have let him go for so long without leaving word? Vance’s superiors would be wondering.

Of course, even if Murphy had been successful in his attempts at removing Valerie’s curse, Vance’s orders were to shoot him anyway. The Law of Exodus 22:18 could not be ignored: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

"God, it stinks in here," Corporal Marquez said softly, almost under his breath. The air was thick with uneasiness, and it showed not only on his face but on the faces of the rest of his team. His voice echoed slightly from the curved, continuous wall, sounding not at all like his own. For one brief, bizarre moment, he thought there might be something in here with them, mimicking his voice. He quickly and nervously surveyed the area above as the five of them proceeded inside, keeping one hand over his nose and mouth, as though such a futile action might do any good to cut the smell. But in spite of the lights being on, he could not see anything out of the ordinary.

Still, he felt uneasy.

"That it does," Vance replied. The only evidence that showed he was affected by the smell was a slight wrinkling of his nose; it reminded him of the smell of a mass grave. After being exposed to so many mass graves, as a team member of numerous special black operations both foreign and domestic, he knew what one smelled like.

"Team Four-Alpha leader to Team Leader," said another tiny voice inside his ear.

Vance was still craning his neck and scanning the curved ceiling with sharpened eyes, searching for any possible threats. He found none.

He waited a short moment before answering. "Team Leader--go ahead."

"Sir, we’ve met up with Team Five-Alpha; we haven’t found anything but a black candle burning out here. It looks as though our subject is still in the area. From north to east, the area is secure. You want us to do anything about this candle?"

"Negative," Vance said. "If Murphy is still here, he might be in the middle of removing the curse--leave that candle alone. You and Five-Alpha sweep back to the north and stand by; Three-Alpha is swinging north and should be meeting with Four-Bravo any time now. Hold that position and await further orders. Team Leader out."

"We copy that, sir. Four-Alpha out."

***

Baxter and Dalton--Team Four-Bravo--had descended from the chopper at the northern perimeter, and were making their way west along the fence while the other half of their team headed east. They were hoping to find nothing more than Team Three-A, coming toward them from the west; neither Baxter nor Dalton cared much for being out here, alone and in the dark, and Dalton kept reminding Baxter of his opposition to this plan.

"It’s too dark out here," he said again as he swept the beam of his flashlight from side to side. "I can’t see for shit. I wish I was back in San Jose, where they got 24-hour coffee shops."

"I hear ya," Baxter agreed.

"I could sure go for some coffee right now. It’s too cold out here, too," Dalton said.

"I heard that, too," Baxter agreed. Only now his voice was a little subdued, and it just might have held a hint of irritation.

"I wish I was back in San Jose," Dalton said, his voice almost a whine.

I wish you were back in San Jose, Baxter thought silently, and away from me. He was sick of Dalton and his goddamned constant complaining.

"Damn," Dalton said.

"Now what?" Baxter was no longer concerned with concealing his impatience.

"Thinking about coffee has just given me a sincere need to take a whiz."

"Well, go ahead," Baxter said. "Meet me up ahead."

"Aren’t you gonna wait for me?"

"What for?"

Dalton surveyed the darkness with nervous eyes, and one shoulder moved in what might have been a half-shrug. "You know..."

Baxter slowly grinned in disbelief. "Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark? You afwaid to take a whiz by you widdow wonesome?"

Dalton gave him a cold, dark scowl.

"Good. Then meet me up ahead." He started off into the darkness, following the fence and shaking his head with a grin.

"Shit," Dalton said. He turned and tucked his flashlight under one arm, then unzipped and took a few moments as he splashed some tall weeds. When he was finished, he shook it off and zipped up again, and then turned to follow his partner. It was hard to see anything out here; even though the flashlight’s beam was bright and the underbrush was clear of the fence (although the upper branches of the tall trees hung over the fence, giving the area an almost cavernous look), and he had been following the fence, Baxter had been swallowed by the night. "Chris?" he said.

He waited in the darkness for a moment, expecting a quick reply, and there was none.

Well, maybe he had gotten a little farther ahead than he thought; hell, he couldn’t even see the beam of his partner’s light. A little louder, he said, "Hey, Chris?"

There was still no answer.

"Baxter?" he called out even louder, this time in exasperation. "You’d better not be fuckin’ around, man..." After working with him as a partner for two years, Dalton knew that Chris Baxter had a weird little sense of humor. "C’mon, you’d better not be--"

He froze as the bright circle of his light fell on his partner, lying face down on the ground. "Shit!" He dropped to one knee to check him. "Chris?" He rolled him over to check for a carotid pulse, and discovered to his horror that his face was turned the wrong way. Then he saw a vertebra trying to poke its way through the muscle and skin on one side of his neck; his partner’s neck had been savagely broken. "Oh my God," he said to himself as he slowly straightened. What in God’s name could have come from out of the darkness of the woods and killed him like this--and without making even the slightest of sounds? Suddenly his thoughts were filled with dark visions of murderous and supernatural things that lived in the forest, just beyond the range of his vision yet close enough to reach out of the shadows and touch him.

As he started to reach for his radio, something did.

It tapped him lightly on the shoulder with a soft, whispered "Hey Skippy..." that startled the bejesus out of him. He jumped as though someone had zapped him with a live wire, and spun with a racing heart, and he reached for the Heckler & Koch MP-5 that hung from his shoulder--

--and found himself facing the sexiest and most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She could have been an actress, or a model; or perhaps she was a dark angel that lived in the night-shrouded woods. She had long, luxurious hair that blended with the darkness, and she was dressed in the colors of a woodland night; all that could be seen of her were her tanned face and throat. She had a fine white scar that diagonally bisected one eyebrow, and her eyes were a pale shade of bright clear amber--but their expression was as cold and dark as an Arctic night.

All of this went through Dalton’s mind in a flash. And in that same instant, a fist the size of Mars came streaking from out of the night to slam into his face. An explosion to rival that of the Tunguska Event went off inside of his head, and his lights went out.

***

Keller’s radio signaled him with two soft bursts of static, and then Logan’s voice came on. "We got soldiers crawling all over the place out here, too," he reported. "We can’t set the rest of the charges; hell, we didn’t even get a chance to switch on the receivers. How was your luck?"

Crouching in concealment at the southwestern edge of the woods, Keller reached for his own microphone. "Same story; I got troops all around here, too. I’m done inside, but without activating the receivers it was just a wasted effort. Listen, did you guys by any chance move the horses? I’m back at our arrival point, and they aren’t here."

"No, we haven’t been there yet."

He gritted his teeth and cursed silently. Into the microphone he said, "Soldiers must have found them." He thought for another moment. "Listen, there’s an old logging camp about a mile or two south of here; you have your people keep their heads down and bug out, and meet me there. We’re going to have to try this some other time."

"We’ll be waiting for you. Just don’t take too long, okay?"

"Got it."

***

The four men of Team Two--Corporal Harris, and privates Matheson, Harper and Lattimer--proceeded cautiously down the well-lit corridor of the administration building, holding their assault rifles ready and sighting down the barrels. Visibility was good, their confidence was high for the most part, and there were no sounds; there was nothing to indicate the presence of any terrorists or of the Satanist they were looking for. They had the advantages of surprise and superior firepower, and nothing could stop them.

They reached the end of the corridor without incident. None of them felt any of that creeping sense of dread that Murphy had felt; as a matter of fact, they all felt pretty good. Tense and ready for action, but still pretty good.

Still, everyone had their own private fears.

Take those of Corporal Harris, for example. He was in command of this team, and he had taken great pride in being bestowed with this responsibility. He felt obligated to prove himself, either to himself or to his commanding officers. One of his private fears was that he was not made of command material. He had lain awake many a night, wondering what he would do if he had been placed in charge of a team and his team had decided to mutiny. How would he handle it? Would he later merely fill out a disciplinary report on the insurrectionist, or would he have to place the offender--or offenders--under arrest? Or would he have to take even more drastic measures?

He hoped the situation would never arise, but he had to be prepared for it.

"Haunted, huh?" Lattimer said, his voice barely above a whisper. "You see any ghosts? I don’t see any ghosts."

"I don’t even see any spiders around here," Harper said. "I hate spiders, man; I absolutely hate ‘em." And then he wondered why he didn’t see any. What would prevent even a spider, he asked himself, from building a web inside this place after seven long years of neglect and silence?

"I don’t think there’s anybody here," Corporal Harris said. He glanced down the corridor to their left, and then to the right; there was no one there. He wasn’t sure of which way to go now. When in doubt, he said to himself, check with the boss. He lowered his weapon and adjusted his microphone slightly, and spoke. "Team Two to Team Leader."

Only silence answered him.

"Team Two to Team Leader," he repeated. "Do you copy? Over."

No answer.

"He must be on another channel," he told his troops, "or all this concrete is interfering with the signal." He sighed. "Well guys, which way do we go?"

"You’re team leader, ol’ buddy," said Private Lattimer. "It’s your call."

Corporal Harris knew full well that he was team leader, and that it was his call; he didn’t need to be reminded. He wondered if there was just a hint of sarcasm in Lattimer’s voice. He hoped not; he wanted things to go smoothly, without conflict. He also hoped that his asking for advice was not seen as a sign of indecision; he was in command, and he couldn’t afford to appear indecisive. It might be seen as a sign of weakness, and one of the others might leap on that small opportunity to wrest control away from him.

And then he pushed the thought out of his mind. It was just this place that was making him think that way; this damn place was getting to him. He had to make certain that it didn’t show.

"Why don’t we split up?" asked Private Harper. "That way we can cover twice as much ground and get this god awful job finished in half the time."

Harris briefly squinted one eye thoughtfully as he considered it for a quick moment. Not a good idea. He wanted to keep the team together under his command. The last thing he wanted was people wandering around on their own with no supervision. He didn’t want them making decisions on their own.

On the other hand, the idea was tempting. The sooner they could get out of here, the better.

"I don’t think so," he finally said. "It may look pretty safe and secure in here, but I still don’t want any of us wandering around with no one to watch their backs." With a deep breath, he took on a more assertive tone. "We stick together." Then he indicated the corridor to his right with the barrel of his H & K. "And we go down that way."

Harper and Lattimer shared a quick look.

Harris noticed it. "Something?"

"No," Lattimer said quickly. "Nothing."

"Fine," Harris said. "You can take the point." And then, just to show that he was still cool, he added, "And let Harper know if you spot any spiders."

***

Vance and Team One found Murphy’s body in the control room of the containment building. Rather than carrying him out, two men had taken a hold of the back of his collar with one hand, and they were now dragging his body toward the exit. Watching the corpse-bearers with only mild interest, Vance was monitoring reports between the different search teams and directing their searches. He still had not heard anything from Baxter and Dalton, and he was wondering if perhaps they had gone to another channel for some reason. He switched from channel to channel, trying to raise them. "Baxter?" he said again. "Dalton? This is Vance. Respond immediately." He twisted the small knob again, and then he froze as he heard a mysterious voice say, "Soldiers must have found them..." The rest of the transmission was broken off by a sudden burst of static.

He switched channels. "Team Leader to Three Alpha. Edmonds--Rafferty--you copy?"

"Got you loud and clear, sir," Edmonds replied.

"Whoever left those horses in your area is still there; I want them brought in for questioning. Keep your eyes sharp."

"We roger that, sir," Edmonds replied. "We’re ready for them." He signed off.

***

"You bet your ass we’re ready for them," Rafferty said. "I’m ready to nail somebody, man, I’m tired of this--"

Edmonds raised a hand to silence him as he gazed intently into the darkness. He pointed with the muzzle of his machine gun. "We got movement," he whispered softly.

Rafferty followed his gaze. He saw it, too. A slight rustling in the bushes that was not caused by any breeze. "I see it," he whispered. "I’ll head off around to the left and cut ‘em off."

"Right."

"No, I said left."

"Yeah, I know--I meant I roger that."

"Oh..." Silently, Rafferty headed off into the darkness.

Edmonds got on the radio again. "Three-Alpha to Team Leader," he said softly, just barely above a whisper.

"Team Leader. Go ahead, Three-Alpha."

"Sir, we’ve got some stealthy movement going on here; we’re checking it out. We’re splitting up to catch them between us."

"No!" Vance shouted, nearly bursting Edmonds’s ear drum. "Stay together, damn it--stay together!"

But it was too late.

"Halt!" a distant voice shouted in Vance’ earpiece. "Halt, goddamnitt--Holy Guards!"

And then there was a burst of machine gun fire.

"Freeze, damn it!" Rafferty could be heard shouting.

Vance could hear the tinny voices and the gunfire in his earpiece, but there was nothing he could do right now except to listen in on what was happening; it made him feel impotent. Without realizing it, he started off toward Three-Alpha’s search area. "Edmonds!" he shouted uselessly as he stormed through the underbrush, brushing aside branches and leaves and bushes. "Edmonds! Rafferty! What the hell is going on out there? God damn it, report!"

"Edmonds, sir!" his voice said in Vance’s earpiece. "I’m trying to head around to cut them off..." He breathed heavily in his microphone as he ran, his forced exhalations in time with his running footsteps. "I’ve got a visual, sir! Hang on, I’ve got...oh, God!"

"What the fuck are you people doing out there?" Vance demanded. "God damn it, answer me!"

"God!" Edmonds said again, and his voice was quavering in terror. "Oh, God--look at all the blood!"

"Edmonds!!" Vance shouted into his mike. "Answer me!"

"Dear Jesus, so much blood--!"

Something cut him off in mid-sentence.

"Edmonds!"

No answer.

"EDMONDS!!"

Nothing.

What the hell is going on out there? his mind raged. What the fucking hell is going on? Had the radio been damaged, cutting Edmonds off from the rest of the strike force? If so, damaged by whom? Or what? That second thought suddenly ignited a spark of apprehension; the last thing he needed was to have anything go wrong with this operation. He had to answer to the President himself if this mission turned out to be a failure, and President Slogan could be extremely unforgiving. In the back of his mind, Vance remembered his instructions concerning Murphy once the Satanist had accomplished his job. Were there similar orders put out on Vance if he should fail in his?

And then he heard movement, as though the radio was being readjusted. At last, he was getting a response from one of his team members. He relaxed a little bit, and breathed a soft sigh of relief.

"Edmonds can’t come to the phone right now."

His stomach froze, and for a moment he was stunned into silence. The voice had been low and soft, and unquestionably feminine. He stared off in Three-Alpha’s direction, concentrating on listening to the radio. "Who the hell is this?" he demanded. "What’s happening out there? Where’s Edmonds?

The radio was silent for another long pause, as though the party at the other end was carefully considering the question. At last, the smoky voice replied, "Edmonds has had himself a little accident. As for who I am...you may call me Hella."

Vance scowled in rage and puzzlement. What in the hell was going on out here? Who was this goddamned civilian who was playing games with the military? When he found out, he would personally execute this...

"Hella, huh?" he asked coldly. "And just who the hell are you, ‘Hella’?"

There was another short pause before she replied. "I’m the Goddess of Death."

A chill ran down his spine, like the soft and gentle caress of a corpse’s finger that ran all the way from the back of his neck to the bottom of his tailbone. He glanced quickly at the darkened woods around him, and suddenly they seemed to move in a little more closely, rustling gently and enveloping him a little more tightly in their cold, unwelcome embrace. When he spoke into the radio, he had to force the tremor out of his voice. "Really?" he finally asked with forced sarcasm.

"Yes, really."

He could hear the mocking smile in her voice, contemptuously pushing him closer and closer to the edge. "Well, I’ve got some news for you, ‘Hella’," he said angrily, fighting for control. "Once I find you, I will personally beat you to death."

"Don’t bother looking for me, lover," the mysterious voice whispered from the radio, with silky venom and breathy seduction. "I’ll find you."

Then the radio went dead.

Staring hard, trying to see into the darkness ahead of him, he growled, "Goddamned bitch. God-fucking-damned bitch!" He was going to personally tear her apart.

He turned and started back for the clearing in front of the reactor. He took a couple of steps, and suddenly something flew from out of the darkness and landed in front of him. He stopped abruptly and switched on his flashlight, and swept it before him--and found what had landed only a few feet in front of him.

It was Edmonds’s twisted radio set.

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