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I have eaten your bread and salt.
I have drunk your water and wine.
The deaths ye died I have watched beside,
And the lives ye led were mine.
-- Rudyard Kipling
"The Face in the Frame"
"This corn popper is designed to pop popcorn without the use of oil. If oil is used, it could damage the corn popper," the instruction pamphlet said.
It didn't surprise me that the popper didn't take oil; that was the exact reason I'd bought it, to get some of the excess fat out of the kids' diet. Also, when wearing my Mantra costume in public I can't afford to be in less than perfect physical shape. That magic armor is too useful to abandon, but Archimage had originally made it for his harem girls. Every time some curbside cretin ogles Mantra, I find myself wishing that Arch hadn't been such a dirty old man.
Never add more than one half cup of corn to the popping chamber.
Finally ready to rock -- or, rather, to pop -- I poured the carefully measured Orville Rickenbacker kernels into the drum, replaced the transparent plastic top, and then plugged in the cord. Because the machine had no automatic turn-off, I had to stand around and wait until the action ended. These little inconveniences don't faze me much; I'm just grateful to have survived into in the Machine Age. When I was the kids' age, the most advanced technology around was the water wheel. Maturing in the pre-Industrial era nurtured the quality of patience in me, though, something sadly lacking among my present-day contemporaries.
Unfortunately, the lull time gave me a couple minutes' time to brood, an exercise where I particularly excel. For some reason, I just didn't feel at ease. The mood was a hard one to describe -- not exactly irritation, frustration, fear, nor loneliness, but a pea soup of simmering emotions. It was all very low-intensity -- like when one is carrying a load on his back and gradually gets worn down as the day progresses.
It's not that I haven't experienced similar moods previously, but up to now a little Mantra-type action had always put me back in the pink. I shouldn't be feeling this way, I thought, since less than two weeks earlier I had cut loose and saved about forty people in the Sierra Nevadas, including my own son Gus. I'd even had to kill a lot of bad guys, which has always been a big boost for me I'm almost sorry to say. I really ought to change my habits, especially now that so many young people have started looking up to Mantra as a role model.
Oops! The popping had already stopped, leaving just the whirring motor sound. I pulled the plug quickly. It was no use burning out the appliance on the first day; the Blakes aren't made of money.
I then sprayed the hot, fragrant corn puffs with no-fat "Mazola No Stick Butter Flavor Cooking Spray," before adding a sprinkle of salt for seasoning. Who says this cooking stuff is hard?
"Mom," Gus Jr. called from the living room. "Is the popcorn done?"
Sensing a food riot in the making, I took the pan out to the living room and offered a bowl of popcorn to Evie, who was lying on the carpet putting a puzzle together. The pan I placed on the coffee table in front of Gus, the bottomless pit of Canoga Park. The eleven-year-old was bunched up on the sofa surrounded by comic books, but he bestirred himself enough to fill both hands with popcorn and devour it greedily before taking another breath.
"No caramel?" he mumbled.
"Gotta watch out for old Mr. Tooth Decay," I said, sitting down beside him. "And that reminds me, don't try to sneak off to bed tonight without brushing."
"Oh, Mom, brushing takes too long when I'm tired."
Gotcha this time, Junior! "Why, Gus, if you're so tired at night, why are you always asking me to let you stay up late to watch horror movies? Anyway, you'd better take time to brush now, or else you'll be stuck with a lot of dentist appointments later on."
"Uhhgg," he moaned theatrically and hid his face under a comic.
"Don't be such a wimp! Back in pioneer days, dentists didn't use Novocain and their tooth drills were the size of eggbeaters. And most people weren't even lucky enough to have a dentist. Out here in California, a kid like you would have had to make due with some fishing line and a doorknob."
Instead of doing more pantomime, he asked, "Mom, are we done reading?"
"Not quite. Another fifteen minutes. And don't talk with your mouth full."
Gus sighed and slumped back into the pillows, leaving me to wonder what he found so onerous about sitting around the living room, eating popcorn, drinking sugar-free cola, and reading comic books.
By the way, the comic books were my idea.
Admittedly, most parents don't push comics on their youngsters, but in our house they were educational material. Canoga Park Elementary had left Gus quasi-illiterate, so I was giving him some remedial reading myself before school opened again in the fall.
In choosing suitable "illustrated adventure literature," I hadn't just plucked the first 'zines I came to out of the rack, or even let Gus choose for himself those issues with the most ghoulish covers, as he inevitably would do. Instead, I'd done a little research and found that parents' groups had rated some of the most popular hero magazines very low as literature. Malibu Comics received the highest recommendation. Especially good was the new line they called "the Ultraverse," which featured the fictionalized adventures of real-life ultras. I actually knew some of the heroes in these magazines, such as Gus' favorites, Hardcase and Prime, and while the magazines were well-written and well-characterized, some of the details that comic writers got wrong were hilarious -- like saddling Warstrike with the secret identity of "Sam Lomax, Private Eye."
Wanting to recommence our reading lesson, I peered over his bony little shoulder at the page of Mantra Magazine that he was holding open. Whenever we read comics together, I take the girl parts and leave the males for Gus. He gets embarrassed reading for females, I'd found out. I might have, too, at his age, except that I had to die a few times before I ever got around to learning to read. In my day, reading was something for priests and poets only. And when the poets gave up on it, that left only the priests and the Dark Ages began. Of course, back then we didn't call them the Dark...
"You don't have a chance, Mantra," Gus said.
"Hmmm?" I muttered, my thoughts having strayed.
"Mantra's talking now, Mom. That's you." Off to the side, Evie giggled.
"What's wrong with the shrimp?" Gus asked, suspecting that his sister was laughing at him, though he couldn't think why.
If only he knew, I thought wistfully. "She's just having fun with her puzzle," I assured him, a little disingenuously. It was better that Gus didn't know that his mother was Mantra. It was even better that he didn't know that his mother was an imposter -- sort of. Eden's death had broken poor little Evie's heart and I didn't want Gus to suffer the same. Boys felt things as sharply as girls; I knew that from personal experience. Besides, I couldn't trust him to keep my secret.
We went on reading alternately for a while, until Gus asked, "Mom, you said Mantra's identity was a secret, so how do the comic book people know it?"
"They don't," I explained "It's all make-believe. We know that there's a Mantra; we've all met her, but she's certainly not any person called `Madame Minerva.' Nobody knows who most of the ultras are, including Mantra."
Actually, the life of the Gypsy princess Madame Minerva in Mantra Magazine sometimes seemed more believable than the one I'm experiencing as Eden Blake. At least she wasn't living a sitcom life in the suburbs, trying to learn a living at an evil organization while keeping two growing latchkey kids from feeling neglected. But one thing about Minerva that wasn't quite so realistic was the way that she seemed to really get off on flying around as Mantra and patrolling the city looking for robberies, muggings, and highjackings. She probably clocked more time as Mantra each month, comic-book time, than I've cared to do up to this point over my entire career. Foiling villain plots and fighting for her life were apparently the spice of life for her.
As for me, I was ready for to try a new hobby after fifteen centuries.
"I bet Mantra's really a lifeguard like on Baywatch," suggested Gus with a lurch of excitement that made the springs squeak. I don't know why kids put so much energy into every move they make.
"She could be," I agreed with a nod, wondering if my little pipsqueak was getting interested in the Baywatch babes. Eleven seemed a little early for that, though with all the hormones they put in poultry these days one can never be sure. He did seem to be more interested in Mantra than earlier. Maybe it wasn't her Baywatch looks, though. Maybe getting his life saved by the so-called "Golden Sorceress," had something to do with it. I couldn't help but smile. When I had met Gus as Mantra, I had mischievously kissed him just to see how he would take it. He seemed to be keeping it a deep, dark secret. He hadn't said a word about it to his family, though I knew he would have bragged for a week if he had so much as caught sight of Prime flying by.
Just then, the phone rang.
"I'll get it, Mommy!" Evie shouted, springing to her feet. She was going through a phase when answering the phone made her feel grown up. I doubted that anyone was actually calling Evie, so I waited for the tot's inevitable yell of, Mommy, it's for you!
"Mommy, it's for you!"
I brushed the sprinkle of popcorn and hulls off my lap and accepted the phone from Evie, who rushed back to her puzzle. I noticed Gus slowly edging from the sofa, apparently trying to take advantage of the distraction to duck out a few minutes early. As I lifted the receiver, I made eye contact with him and tapped my watch, causing him to slink back to his seat. "Hello?" I said.
"Eden! Were you listening to the news?"
I recognized the voice of Erica Shelton, one of the people I'd hit if off with up in the Sierra Nevadas. I'd already invited her family over for the Independence Day bash I was planning. "No, I haven't heard anything today. What happened?" I asked.
"Russell Lingaard was shot!"
Russell Lingaard was the Conservative radio show host that Erica liked so well. She'd been encouraging me to listen to his program, but the mid-day broadcast conflicted with my work schedule and listening to the radio on the job was frowned upon.
"Who did it?" I asked, interested but not agitated.
Now I got agitated.
After Erica said goodbye, I just stood there with the receiver in my hand until the line started making that obnoxious warning sound. Had Warstrike actually done the hit? It seemed possible. After all, he had assassinated me first time I'd met him -- the jerk!
How well did I really know the guy? We'd fought side by side several times and he'd taken some big risks to get me out of Boneyard's clutches that one time. Even though the man's sense of humor made me want to strangle him, we did have some sort of rapport that was hard to understand. Maybe it was just that he reminded me of myself when I was a knight of Archimage.
I never knew what to make of Warstrike, but I had never thought of him as a criminal. He had killed me, like I've said, but that was because my enemy Notch had tricked him into believing that my fellow knights and me were terrorists. The Lingaard shooting didn't make any sense at all. What would make him go after a non-violent news commentator?
The frame just didn't fit the face. I knew that Warstrike was secretly multi-millionaire Brandon Tark. He had gone from ROTC training in college directly into the service, and then resigned after a few years to make his fortune. Once financially secure, he had spent millions on the wetware-implant surgery that had turned him into an ultra-class being. He probably thought of himself as a hero, too, but he was really more of a mercenary. His style was so wild and reckless that in action he was sometimes indistinguishable from a wrecking ball.
Like I said, he reminded me of me in the good old days.
Even though I wouldn't give myself any prizes for mental health, I'd long sensed that Tark had some kind of monkey on his back. Sometimes his antics seemed almost suicidal. He'd also had a strange episode on the Godwheel following his donning of an ancient artifact, the Crystal Crown. It had caused him to have a seizure and suffer some sort of prescient vision that had made him delirious. He wouldn't describe what he'd seen afterwards, but when we were leaving the Godwheel, he was still jittery and despondent. Then, out of the blue, Warstrike had told me that he was giving up his ultra career and, apparently, he really meant it. When I'd called his home last winter to find out how he was, I learned that he had gone on a long ocean cruise that his doctor had prescribed "for health reasons." I hadn't known if he'd ever come back, and certainly there had been no subsequent reports of Warstrike in the news -- until now.
Why the murder attempt? Had he gone mad? Worse, had he gone bad? Or was it all some kind of mistake or frame-up? I remembered how Aladdin had once tried to smear him with a phony assault charge.
I wondered what -- if anything -- I should do about it. If indeed Warstrike was being sought for attempted murder, arguably it was my responsibility to help bring him in...or at least tell the authorities where he could be found. But no, I couldn't stomach that. One ultra never outs another ultra's secret identity, unless he knows beyond a doubt that the man is a lawbreaker. What would I have thought if Warstrike had exposed me as Eden Blake, or had come after me himself just because I'd been wrongly accused of robbing a museum?
Well, half-wrongly. I didn't actually get away with the loot.
I considered phoning Brandon at once and having it out with him, but decided to wait instead. I wanted to see if the breaking story would provide a few more details, either confirming Warstrike's involvement or exonerating him. On the other hand, if Tark wanted to ask me for help or advice, he knew where to reach me.
In the meantime, I thought I should find out what Aladdin knew about this affair.
Aladdin is one of those secret government agencies that seem as common as pizza-restaurant franchises. It's secretly funded through the CIA; its employees are listed as CIA personnel, but the CIA connection is an accounting blind only. Aladdin has its own mission statement and its command structure is kept under close wraps.
To a lowly employee like me, the agency always seems like an onion; the more layers one peels away, the stronger the smell gets, but all one finds is another layer hiding something worse under it. I've used my powers to break the into Aladdin's data bank on a number of occasions and found where a few bodies were buried -- figuratively speaking -- but I've always had to be deucedly careful. You don't get a trial if you cross Aladdin; you get an unmarked grave.
I vaguely knew that Aladdin didn't actually take its orders from the CIA, but from the National Security Council; that is, out of the White House itself. Ostensibly, its purpose was to gather information about ultras and investigate ultra criminal and subversive activity, which is probably the greatest lie I've ever heard. When there actually is an ultra villain on the prowl, you won't see hide or hair of Aladdin. They're just not interested in combating crime; their goal is to make everybody with super powers into good little Aladdin agents. They've also created a few ultras of their own, such as Wrath and Patriot. Their methods are unabashedly police state and I suspected that ultras were being arrested without cause and imprisoned without trial.
Aladdin's dossier on Warstrike was, by the way, one that I'd already consulted several times before. There wasn't much to it, but I'm always interested in seeing the occasional updates that the division chiefs add to the existing files, especially Mantra's. Warstrike's file had been stagnant for months and so I'd stopped consulting it. But now I again called up the document on my screen and started reading the familiar passages:
Reports indicate that the subject possesses above-average strength and agility. His combat skills are excellent, indicating a high possibility of combat training -- possibly Navy Seals or other specialized force.
Close. Tark had mentioned being in the 321st Special Tactics Squadron. It was there that he'd first started "going on the wire" -- as he called his violent precognitive episodes.
I sat back in my swivel chair, contemplating the strange power that Brandon Tark was apparently born with, and not for the first time. It was an incongruously intuitive ability for a man who came off as so hard and unimaginative. When Warstrike's power kicked in, he could instantaneously predict the immediate outcome of every possible action that he could conceivably undertake in an emergency. He generally used his psychic talents to outwit and outmaneuver his foes and to save lives -- most usually his own.
Much of Aladdin's data amounted to mere rumor and trashy speculation. Skimming ahead over some of the stuff that I had read many times before, I came to the part where the agency correctly cited Warstrike's healing power and speculated on his possession of some type of precognitive ability. Interestingly, when the man started his ultra career -- and that was about a year before I met him -- he had called himself "The Strike."
At the time of the name-change, the subject's mode of operations also changed. Related jobs became increasing dangerous in nature. Parallel to this span, the subject's behavior became noticeably more erratic and unpredictable. The last and only known affiliation was with the ultra Mantra. It is still unclear what link exists between the two. "Romantic" involvement has been suggested.
Romance? Me and Warstrike? Talk about trashy speculations!
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