The Outlaw God


By Dolores J. Nurss

Volume 1: In the Shadow of Til

Chapter 24
Never and Nowhere Safe

Saturday, March 11, 2705, continued.
 

Lisa felt every step up the stairs to her apartment. They thudded up through her arches, settled for awhile into a pool of pain at the small of her back, then crept up to ache somewhere in the vicinity of her shoulderblades. She'd had that sort of day.
 
Missions paid well and her first had impressed the authorities enough to set her up far more nicely than most rookies dreamed of, but she'd lived off of it for several years now. Unfortunately since that one involved betraying her vet for the good of Til, and since the mission after it required her to destroy a stupid militaristic movement by telepathically-enhanced gossip, through no fault of her own the excellence of her work had made principal people in Til mistrust her, so that new missions went to others. The first wouldn't have looked nearly so bad on her record, all the same, had that fool of a vet not proposed to her shortly before he died.
 
So it came down to this. She'd spent the day job-hunting. Til had casual work a-plenty, much appreciated and remunerated in proportion to its distastefulness, but, well, if sweeping streets and cleaning bathrooms could provide longterm satisfaction for the national temperament of Til, well, they wouldn't have the filthiest public facilities in the civilized world, now would they? And they could stay that way, for all that Lisa cared.
 
Three more flights to go. Til culture reserved elevators for retirement homes and disabled housing. Just this once, though, Lisa yearned for the decadence of a good Naugren escalator, so that she could go sailing up like a queen. Not that they'd soon let her back into Naugren, the way things had gone.
 
Before she even laid a hand on her doorknob she heard the commotion within. It sounded like Deirdre rearranged the furniture. She almost went in to bawl the woman out for deciding this without her, then she stopped.
 
Everyone has their own rhythm; Deirdre had two. She usually moved in flurries of impulse with startled-deer pauses, or else, in hiking, slipped into a striding regularity that nothing could break. The sounds within kept some pace between the two, a sort of reckless punctuation to the movements over easygoing brutality. Lisa heard an object crash to the floor, the sound of many tiny things cascading across the boards; it sounded like her bead collection. She heard no corresponding cry of dismay in Deirdre's voice. Whoever ransacked her apartment didn't care.
 
Yes. Ransacked.
 
She knew all this in the twitch of a breath. She waited, listening, till she heard the invader rummage through the pile of shoes and purses that Deirdre always dumped on entering, that mound that hindered the door from opening the whole way.
 
Lisa slammed the door open. The whole way. Curses railed from between it and the wall in a distinctly male voice. The door immediately buckled toward her. No, it didn't.
 
"Illusionist, huh?" she cried as she grabbed the gargoyle figure behind the door by the throat. "A talented guy like you can't make an honest living, you have to steal?" Her hands closed on nothing. Montalban tackled her knees.
 
"Very clever," she said as she kneed him in the chin, straight through the nonexistent spikes and fangs. He reared up with a howl and threw her into a wall. She landed on Deirdre's hiking boots and came up wielding cleats. "Come no closer," she shouted, "or you really will look like a gargoyle!"
 
For a minute they stared at each other as the invader's face melted back to a handsome humanity, then Montalban began to chuckle richly, even as he rubbed his chin. "All of this," he said, "for a single pendant." Lisa's face concealed her puzzlement. "What's it to you, Tilana? I heard your people hold property in common."
 
"You overgeneralize, like most stupid people."
 
He lunged before she finished, so she nailed him on the shoulder. As the blood sprang into his shirt he shouted in pain and grabbed her with his other hand, hurling her into her console. The whole thing, cabinet and all, crashed to the floor with a bang of wood and a tinkle of broken parts. She came at him with the boot, but he grabbed the shelves of her tropical glassware collection and shoved it onto her; she barely rolled free in time. All of the most beautiful things that she possessed shattered before her.
 
Incensed beyond reason, she barreled into him, flailing with fists, knees, teeth and toes, pummeled him back till they rolled across the broken glass. She stopped when he held a big sliver across her throat.
 
"Daughter of hyenas!" he cursed. "You live only if you tell me where the satyr pendant lies."
 
"With your mother!" she shrieked as she shoved both fists back into his stomach. He nicked her jaw, bad, but as she'd hoped he hadn't a chance to slit her throat before pain made him drop the glass. She stuffed her hand into one of Deirdre's pouches to protect it, then scooped up a handful of glass to grind into him at need, but he remained curled up, glaring in all the blood and wreakage, on guard against all approaches.
 
She circled him cautiously, wondering how to immobilize him long enough to call Policia–without the console. Would her neighbors do it, hearing the commotion? Or would they chalk the noise up to her famous temper? He made a grab for her, but she swiped at his hand and more blood hit the floor. She had too much adrenalin in her to feel her own cuts, yet. The room had grown dim, but she dared not move towards a light.
 
"Listen, lady," Montalban said at last. "If you just tell me where I can find the pendant you'll get rid of me and we can finish this business, no hard feelings. It's not as if it were valuable."
 
"Oh, obviously not," she sneered, wondering what Deirdre'd brought home this time and where she'd stashed it. "But you're in no position to bargain, anyway."
 
He seemed to dodge to the right, but she grabbed him as he tried to escape to the left.
 
"You're weakening," she crowed. "I can see right through your illusions."
 
He said nothing, just gritted his teeth and slid from her grasp to flee out the open door. Neighbors saw him, shouted aghast (At last! she thought) and called Policia.
 
She stared at the carnage of her home. Suddenly she realized that she'd grabbed him in the purse-protected hand. She looked into its palm, saw a sliver of flesh on the glass in the last bit of light, and just screamed and screamed as the room grew blacker and blacker.

* * *
 

"I still don't like this idea," Merrill said as Don put down the bottle. "Julie said..."
 
"I know what Julie said," Don interrupted. "And that has t'do with telepaths. Whoever heard of psycho, uh,...psychometric possession?"
 
Jake looked up at that. A vision came to him then, of a dark, big-boned face, lit with fanaticism and the glow of a console screen. "Whatever became of Bram Valdez, does anyone remember?" he asked, and felt stupid in the asking, masking uncertainty with another swallow.
 
Randy grunted, "He died a hero in some brush war.” Then he turned sadly to Jake. “Right after the mind-change, when you'd caught pneumonia so bad, weakened as you were, and couldn’t go to the funeral. I thought we’d told you.”
 
“I can’t remember much of anything of that month,” Jake admitted.
 
“What's that got to do with the business at hand?" Randy asked.
 
"I don't know...I guess I don't know." Jake's head swam; he decided he should stick to beer in the future. "Something just tells me...."
 
Randy stood up. "Jake? Don' doubt yourself, man." He swayed slightly, then leaned back against a bookshelf. "Not at a time like this."
 
Jake closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I dunno...just something about Bram. He was possessed in the end, you know."
 
Merrill's fighting-muscles tensed unconsciously. "No, I don't know," he said in a studied, casual voice. "Tell me more."
 
"I don't follow it...don't follow it at all." Jake's normally heavy-lidded eyes opened wide at nothing as he shook his head in helplessness.
 
Randy coaxed, "You were talking about Bram..."
 
"Wait a minute," Merrill said. "Bram was a psychometrist! I remember now."
 
"I can't think straight." Jake's voice grew huskier, more remote. "I just can't think at all."
 
Merrill struck the couch. "Whose idiot idea was it, anyway, to turn this into a drinking party?"
 
"You're just jealous," Don said, as though nothing had happened, "Because you can't taste alcohol without puking." Then he reached...
 
"Don, put that pendant down!" But Merrill shouted too late. Don's face had flushed, but his movements carried a curious precision, a sort of grace as he held up the pendant and caressed its edge.
 
"I can touch it safely, now," Don said. "It doesn't hurt me anymore."
 
"Oh Don..." Merrill groaned. He watched his best friend make a fist of his left hand to mesh the four magentine rings together along the fissure-lines of the original crystal that they’d been hewn from, watched the fingers uncurl slowly with the fingers still pressed together, watched the amulet move from the right hand towards the left...
 
He leaped to stop him, but without even rising, long-legged Don lashed out with his foot straight for Merrill's crotch, still gazing at nothing but the pendant. Merrill saw, heard, felt nothing but explosions of pain for the longest time. At last he came to enough to realize that he curled upon the floor. He gasped, "What's going on? Have you all gone mad?" But by then Don had already begun talking.
 
"...very old, in fact. A century at least. And Alroy made it with his own hands, his own beautiful hands. It carries the sense of an heirloom."
 
"Who's Alroy?" Randy asked like a child hearing a bedtime story, settling onto the couch beside Don.
 
"Something's not right," Jake muttered.
 
"You bet something's not right," Merrill spat out in pain. "You've all gone crazy on me!" They all lounged around like it meant nothing that their dear friend writhed in agony on the rug.
 
Jake looked without focus in his direction and said, "I can't think."
 
Crying and cursing, Merrill tried to crawl towards Don. His best friend gazed on the pendant like it hypnotized him.
 
Randy bent for his glass on the coffeetable, missed, and barely caught himself on the wood. It brought his face near Merrill's. "You don't look so hot," he said, his words flowing into each other. "Didja bump into something?"
 
"Don kicked me in the groin," Merrill wheezed. "Didn't you see?"
 
"What?"
 
Merrill couldn't reply; he lay in a sweat against the tiles beyond the rug, defeated before he'd made it a yard.
 
"Ohhh dear God," Jake moaned. “Something is surely wrong."
 
Merrill's thoughts whirled around his injury and he couldn't make sense of them. His friends rarely went in for heavy drinking; they all liked their senses too much for that. He closed his eyes, face against the coolness of the floor. Nothing shocked him so much, though, as the pull he'd felt, himself--a dozen times tonight he'd almost poured himself a drink, only to remember, just in time, the nauseating effect that it would have on him. How could a man forget a thing like that? Wine he could barely tolerate, but nothing so potent as Primera--so what made him want it so badly?
 
Randy's high giggle lanced through his pain like a slap to his distress. "Oh my," the redhead exclaimed. "I can't see straight. Not a blame thing. This early in the evening. S'funny."
 
Merrill summoned enough sheer will to speak again. "We're under a psi-spell," he rasped. "Tempting us...someone wants whoever finds the amulet..." he had to pause; the pain worsened by the minute and he couldn't breathe too deeply. "...to strip their minds of all defense. Someone's pouring a lot of energy our way."
 
Don's voice sounded almost musical when he said, "Alroy loves to intoxicate his followers." Then, to Merrill's horror, he brought the pendant to his lips and whispered, "Remember me. Remember me. Remember me."
 
"Jake! Stop him!" He tried to shout but his voice came out a husk. Desperately he raked his brains for something that'd break through to the young giant. "Oracle, by the Cave of Changes, heed your Gift--something is wrong." Jake stirred as one struggling from a trance. "Jake, friend, by Fireheart Friendclan, which you founded, save Don's life!" Merrill choked on suffering; he'd spent his air on words. He lapsed back to the floor in despair.
 
But Jake arose. He came up behind Don, the only member of their friendclan stronger than the mariner. Suddenly his hand snaked out, twisted the pendant from Don's grasp, punched the man back when he would've resisted and flung the thing across the room. Don shrieked like Jake had wrenched his heart from his breast, then slumped in his chair, white and trembling.
 
"But it was so beautiful," he said at last.
 
Merrill sobbed with relief on the floor. He grew aware of a shadow between him and the lamp. He looked up to see Jake tower over him, wavering but sane-faced and grave.
 
"Thank God you don't drink," Jake said. "And thank God you have no Gift!"
 
"Wonderful," Merrill groaned before he passed out from pain. "The only sober one among us, and I'm a mind-cripple."

* * *
 

Alroy cursed the game-board when he realized the outcome. "They shouldn't injure that one, not the beautiful one." He stroked his own fingers in vexation as he swiveled away from the console. "I want him kept perfect, the favored of Alroy." The one who'd most leap at the chance for adventure, the one who loved martyrdom like an unattainable lady. "It makes for an intriguing desire, this will to cosset, to protect every black curl on his head. I like the feel of that." But not the feel of the game.
 
Abruptly he leaped from his chair, kicked it across the room. "I should cause him to beg for pain! I should take the dearest care of him while his friends fall, one by one, till every comfort should weigh on him like a ball of lead upon a hook snagged into his soul." He found himself shaking; his miracle had cost him more than he realized.
 
He mulled over the scenario as he envisioned it, while he paced his chamber, fingering the curtains here and there, occasionally jerking them down in a clinical sort of spite. Kindhearted Don would've done the worst damage--that made up the juice and substance of the plan. Don would've understood his best friend and try (futilely) to hide the pity that would scald Merrill like disgrace. Don would've given him the pendant to deliver up to Deirdre as a way of involving him in the events in which he had no part. And Merrill would feel like a messenger-boy.
 
But the plan had mutated. Alroy went to a drawer and rummaged through various arcanely carved jars. He made his selection, poured out a spill of capsules into a hand shaking with rage and exhaustion, then he made a different selection, took only three capsules from this, swallowed them, too. It took a delicate balance to simultaneously calm him and counteract the ravages of his recent psychic exertions.
 
He took a deep breath. He would seek out a certain flunky, the one set to meditate on the satyr amulet while Alroy worked his wonders elsewhere. He would question this one as to his incompetence. And he would deal accordingly with him, not delegating this particular poignant duty to anybody else. With his own fingers he would do this, his long, lovely fingers that had a touch like an angel's.
 
He knew it only a consolation prize. He should never have entrusted so delicate a duty to another. What was he thinking?
 
Never mind thinking, just now; relief rippled through him like the delightful distortions in old glass. "Ah, but wait," he whispered to himself. "Have I lived so long on the spare bread and murky waters of consolation? I'm forgetting who I am!"
 
Uncharacteristic abstinence, he decided, had alienated himself from himself. Bolstered by the remedy in his bloodstream, he returned to the gameboard and set up the pieces once more, this time changing the position of the Don-doll. The trembling hadn't subsided, but it had become that nervous energy which the fatigued can draw on, devouring themselves for the sake of a passion. It intoxicated him with its extremity.
 
"Of course the original plan was exquisite, and its shattering as tragically lovely as the death of a child who held the key to all the world's hopes. I should savor this. But from the fertile young corpse..." he shifted some shadows across the board's green lights, "...shall spring a rose, a new thing planted in the ruin of the old." He smiled, a curl of the lips fit to drive to suicide any artist who attempted it. "And how sweet, upon that rose, the wine-red tips of thorns."
 

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