by C. D. Lee
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"I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
In long reverberations reach our own. "
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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Instead of getting myself tied up in another ground fight, I sprang aloft to take another bird's eye view of the campgrounds, checking for broken doors and other developing crises.
I saw dozens of wolves and knew I had to take them out fast if I were going to save lives. While freezing the aliens had worked before, I guessed that as soon as they thawed out they'd be back in action. Fortunately, now that I was in the open, I'd be able to use tactics I couldn't indoors with innocent bystanders looking on.
Just then, I spotted two of the varmints close together on barren ground and threw a fireball at them. As the blaze engulfed the pair, I glanced around for more of the creatures when a flash of motion within the conflagration caught my eye. I turned to check on my fallen opponents.
Suddenly not so fallen.
The wolves' hair flamed and their hides crisped, blackened, shrank, and their skins burst like overcooked sausages. Their resultant screech was ear piercing and utterly inhuman -- even un-lupine. But even more startling was the fact that my targets seemed to be restoring themselves almost as quickly as I could incinerate them. I piled on more magic yet, watched as the pair eventually started losing their canine shapes, and dissolved into twin wads of boiling gelatin. I maintained the heat until I had what looked like a couple scorched eggs on a skillet.
They were dead, I supposed, but the effort expended had exceeded anything I had imagined necessary! I suddenly doubted that even my powers would suffice to dispatch forty to fifty attackers that way!
Getting desperate and needing to conserve my strength, I changed tactics and settled for harassing as many of the assailants as possible, breaking up any concerted attack still going with my power blasts. Buzzing about overhead, I managed to draw the attention of the group as a whole from their attack without taxing my strength overmuch. But I was no closer than ever to sending them scattering in terror, much less eliminating them.
While still airborne, I noticed two wolves fighting each other in front of Erica's cabin. My first impulse was to leave them alone to work mayhem upon one another. But suddenly it struck me as odd that two of the Elite would be fighting each other at the height of an enemy assault. Acting on a hunch, I landed on the roof above the two and used a force bolt to daze both long enough to imprison them in individual magical cages.
"Kohler?!" I shouted, and in reply, one looked up at me and said in a deep, throaty growl: "Mantra!"
"I didn't realize how hard these devils would be to kill," I admitted to the talking wolf. "What should I do?"
She hesitated and looked sidelong at the other wolf, which was single-mindedly battering at the wall of his cage. "We don't have much time," I prompted testily. "In case you hadn't noticed, your friends here are about to so just what you said they would, and there's not a hell of a lot I can do to stop them!"
"Air pressure," the mock-wolf growled. "Low," she added, breaking off the attempt at speech there; the effort to talk through a wolf's throat and jaws was apparently too straining.
"Got it!" I said, more than satisfied, and turned my attention toward the other trapped lupine. I say "lupine" with qualification, for it wasn't a wolf any longer, but a gelatinous shape congealing into a man -- one of the teachers.
Well, no surprise there.
By now, other wolves have rushed to the scene, tried to leap to the cabin's roof and nip my shins. I risked ignoring them while I drained the air out of the teacher's force-cage. The being's human shape distorted and he went into contortions of agony when the pressure got low. If he didn't cry out, it was probably because the air was too thin.
In seconds, the figure had passed through the stage of a pale jelly, and then into a lifeless-looking gray liquid. Was I seeing the way that these aliens died? I sure hoped so.
Looking up just then, I saw a mob of naked men, women, wolves, and gelatinous rats running away, one of them yelling: "Fall back! Bring up the weapons!" I guess it had rattled them to see that I had found the means to inflict an easy kill. But I'd be damned if I was going to give them a chance to rearm!
I didn't have much choice except to kill as many as possible, since they apparently couldn't be disabled for long. Those that escaped from me would just go do the same thing elsewhere -- killing whomever they pleased, children even, with as much cruelty and suffering as possible. They'd been at it since ancient Egypt and didn't give any sign of stopping.
Zipping amid the treetops, I cut my quarry from the pack one or two at a time, systematically cutting their numbers by exploiting their newfound Achilles' heel. The chase went on for miles, and since I had to stop and lose time whenever I performed a kill, I fell farther and farther behind. Many more of the aliens would have gotten away, I'm sure, except for my life-sensing power -- which was now attuned to the Elites' peculiar bio-signature.
Just when I was wearying of the foxhunt, I detected yet another tainted aura and I zeroed in on its hiding place. A man flushed from the brush like a ruffed grouse. Suddenly, he stumbled, fell on his face, rolled over, and I recognized him.
It was Decker, my son's English teacher! Our eyes met; even though he knew I held his life in his hands, there was no appeal for mercy in those bitter, blazing orbs -- only a raw hatred directed toward me with blistering intensity.
My teeth gritted. I thought of the countless hours that this monster had been planning this very outing with his kind. He and his compatriots had cynically lured us out here, planning to kill a score of innocent children and their parents. Death by vacuum suddenly seemed too easy for this character. This man -- this thing -- had to burn!
"You son of a bitch!" I yelled as my hands flared with blue flame. The Decker-creature shrieked inhumanly when the holocaust engulfed him. As before, it was a slow, hard kill, but I'd expected it to be. I knew I was overtaxing myself and being inefficient, but I was pouring out the volcanic rage inside me.
In a couple minutes, the monster's ravaged body was gruesome to behold, its face looking like a burnt match head, its limbs mere stubs. Even so, its dying shrill still echoed chillingly through the foothills. Wanting to silence it, I poured on even more heat, until finally I thought he was ready for the coup de grace. I yelled: "And this one is for not teaching my boy how to read!"
The blue-white jet I used could have reduced a steel girder to slag.
I looked up just then. Continued pursuit didn't look promising and I knew I had something else to do before my magic reached the exhaustion point. I'd deliberately saved just enough energy to go after the local leadership back in the command station. My anger already rekindling, I set off for the bunker that, by now, would probably be in a flurry of evacuation. As I felt the fatigue settling in, I knew I would be outnumbered and outgunned. They'd be desperate, angry, and vicious, anxious to settle the score for their fallen comrades, providing they already knew what had happened. And here I was, just a single parent at the edge of exhaustion, one who they had pushed a little too far.
They never even knew what hit them.
Afterwards, used-up, I made a wobbly flight back to camp and noticed upon my arrival that Kohler had changed back to human form. Wrapped in a picnic blanket, she was standing alone in a camp of strangers -- most of them running around trying to find out if anyone had been hurt.
I alighted beside her just out of sight of the others and I told the girl what I'd been doing. The young alien nodded grimly at the conclusion of my brief. "My people make terrible soldiers," she said, "unless gulag guards and secret policemen can be called `soldiers.''' The scornful way she'd said it suggested how little she identified with the members of her own race.
"Look, Kohler," I said, "some of them got away and you know better than I how many of them there are in the world. I know this is difficult, but I need to know more about the Elite and what they're planning."
Slowly, deliberately, she told me what she knew. It seemed that the Elites' plan for America was to work behind the scenes to move into positions of leadership, especially in the federal government. When they were ready, they'd effectively suspend the Constitution and rule America by decree, using human traitors as occupation troops and house servants.
"A stroke of the pen, the law of the land."
Kohler seemed to think that her kind were working especially hard to get a handpicked man as President, and were going to throw out all stops come next election.
"That'll have to do it for now; I don't have much time," I told her after a quarter hour of hurried talk. By now, I had been noticed by some of the other campers, who were still agitated from the attack and glad to see an ultra on the scene. People were impinging upon us, and that made me feel conspicuous. "I want to know everything you're willing to tell me," I whispered in conclusion. "When can we meet again?"
"I don't know," the teen replied haltingly. "It may be better if I just vanish and let the Elite think you killed me. I don't have anything to go back to anyway."
Except a place to live, I thought. She seemed all-alone, which seemed all the more poignant because she looked like a kid. I wanted to offer my help, but short of Eden Blake taking in a teenaged alien, there wasn't much I could do.
"You're a very dangerous woman to be around," I told her as I wrote something on a piece of paper. "But there are people who make a career out of handling trouble." I handed her the napkin inscribed with a phone number. "This is a special contact number for the UltraForce. It's a secure line, or so they tell me. One of the members can get you in touch with me whenever you're ready. If you want to see me, I'll come flying. Also, the U.F. member called Contrary has a school for young people with special talents like yours. If you want to join the human race, that might be a good way to start. I have to admit, though, that I don't know Contrary well enough to give her a reference.
"And, by the way," I asked off-handedly, "is `Kohler' your last name or your only name?"
My companion gave a wan smile. "My name is Eugenia. Genie."
It was Greek, a language that I spoke; the name seemed very apt. "I wish I could do more," I told her.
"You helped me save my self-respect, Mantra, but you'll have to be careful. When the media reports that you helped these people, the Elite will consider you one of their special enemies."
I shrugged. "They'll have to stand in line. I collect enemies the way some kids collect Burger King ultra glasses."
It seems to be the price I pay for trying to do what's right once in a while.
With that, Genie Kohler walked away. I figured that once out of sight, she'd cast off her blanket, metamorphose into a wolf, and lope into the forest. Poor kid. I hoped that members of the Elite didn't mind sleeping on the wet, cold ground.
Erica approached now and greeted me as a stranger. I found out from her some of what had happened, and I assured her that I'd taken Mrs. Blake safely into Braddock and that transportation would soon be on the way.
Erica suddenly said, worriedly: "My girl insists she saw one of those wolves turn into a person outside our door."
"I didn't see anything like that," I lied. "My guess is that is was a pack infected with rabies." I needed to be coy for her own sake; the more Erica knew, the more trouble she could get into.
But my new friend was only one of an eager crowd. Some of the kids were holding up scraps of paper and yammering for my autograph. I obliged; positive publicity is one way to counter all that anti-ultra propaganda coming out of Washington.
"I'm going to get your glass at Burger King!" one of Gus' friends exclaimed excitedly.
"What? Don't you have one already?" I teased. The lad looked guiltily down at his sneakers.
Just then, I noticed Gus lurking in the background and walked toward him. He stiffened at my approach.
"I guess it's time to say goodbye," I said with a smile. "I know your sister Evie quite well. She told me so much about her big brother that I've been looking forward to meeting him." He looked surprised. "Mrs. Shelton told me how good a detective you were today. You must be very smart and very brave. Is it all right to shake your hand?" I asked, holding out my own.
He took it with a feeble squeeze and I felt the tremble in his arm. I hoped I was doing the right thing by encouraging him that way. From my experience, it's not the conceited kids who get ahead in life, but the picked-on youngsters who grow up with few friends. The former are complacent; the latter take control of their lives because they have something to prove. But I guess it's a parent's weakness to want a child to feel good about himself occasionally.
"Well, I'm sure I'll see you again sometime," I suggested. "I hope you're home when I next visit Evie."
"Mantra!" he muttered, tongue-tied.
"You won't tell Mom or Evie what I did, will you?"
"Why, Gus? What exactly did you do?"
"It must have looked like -- almost like -- I was hiding under the bed. I wasn't, you know!"
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "We'll have to keep it a secret, just between the two of us," I offered. "Oh, yes, I almost forgot, Gus; there was something that your mother asked me to give you."
His brows went up. "What?"
Before he could dodge away, I placed a kiss on his cheek. The boy gasped, too startled to pull away.
"You won't tell anyone I kissed you?" I asked, drawing back and putting a little anxiety into my tone.
"N-No! No, I won't. Not ever!" he swore fervently.
"That's good," I said gratefully, and then stepped into the clear for lift-off.
Once I got back to Canoga Park, I wasted no time checking for more of the Elite in the public school system. Few teachers were around now that summer vacation had started, and among those few I detected none with alien auras. That left me at a loss for what to do next.
I thought the disappearance of so many teachers in the mountains would start a media sensation, but though the state police investigated, the press barely mentioned the incident. That made no sense, unless someone very influential had told the editors to kill the story, so as not to draw the attention of the curious.
Worse, instead of getting good press for the rescue, Mantra received a media lynching for killing wolves. But the thunderous indignation of the talking heads quickly died away when state wildlife managers recovered no wolf bodies. The incident left me wondering how many alien auras I'd find at CNN.
Damn, Lukasz, you're too old to start getting this paranoid!
I'd made a powerful new enemy, I realized, but was less concerned about the vengeance of the Elite than what effect Gus' big fright would have on him. After about a week, I still could detect no change in his demeanor at all. I guessed then that it would take more than a gory double murder and an attack by bloodthirsty werewolves to shake a boy weaned on Street Assassin I, II, and III. I was absolutely sure, though, that the experience had given him his fill of Mother Nature.
Live and learn.
In mid-June, things got hairy and I didn't have much time to think about either Gus or the Elite for the next couple weeks. Warstrike and I had gotten ourselves mixed up in an Aladdin project up in Washington and had to spend the rest of the month shutting it down. That's a long story, though, and is best saved for when it can be more fully told.
The day before Independence Day, I was in the kitchen trying hard to decipher a recipe in preparation for the holiday bash I was planning for Mom, Lila and Jim, Erica's family, and a couple office friends. The directions read like a cantrip of eldritch lore and I felt tempted to cut corners magically. But the last time I'd tried that, a batch of cookies had blown up in my face! Magic and cuisine don't mix, it seemed.
"Mom," someone behind me said.
I glanced back at Gus. "What is it, Hon?"
"Can I still join the Boy Scouts?"
I turned full about, incredulous. "Who are you and what have you done with my son?"
"Mo-ommm," he said, rolling his eyes.
"What made you interested all of a sudden?"
"I just saw Prime on television. He was talking about all the fun that Scouts have."
"Well, they do have a lot of fun," I agreed. "But are you sure you'll like camping after all that's happened?"
Gus sent me a pooh-poohing grimace. "Aw, Mom, it was just a mangy old pack of wolves!"
Should I be surprised, considering the way that he can fall fast asleep after watching a grisly horror movie on the late show? "Well, fine," I said, "I'm glad you didn't get as scared as I did. We'll see about finding you a nearby troop right after the holiday. Okay?"
"Thanks, Mom!" he said offhandedly, then raced back to the television, the commercial break being over.
I leaned back against the kitchen counter, thinking. My son the Boy Scout! Hard to conceive; it just seems so normal, so respectable...so unlike Gus. Did this mean I'd set him on the road to a good and productive life? It sure sounded like decent a first step.
But it was so much like Gus to ignore my advice and respond only when his hero Prime got him excited about scouting. Of course, I'd been the one who had originally asked Kevin Green to offer himself as a spokesman for the L.A.-region Boy Scouts.
I wondered if I wasn't on to a good thing.
What if Kevin were willing to publicly extol the virtues of a clean room and wiping your feet when you come from outside?
The whole process of getting Gus to do something right had been just in a day's work, really. It certainly had to be easier than whipping together this blasted recipe for chocolate brownies!
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