VOLUME SEVEN NUMBER TWO FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

1 +-+ +-+ +-+ +-+--+-+--+-+ VOLUME SEVEN NUMBER TWO | | ========================================== +___________+ FFFFF SSS FFFFF N N EEEEE TTTTT | ++ | F S F NN N E T | ++ | FFF SSS FFF N N N EEE T | | F S F N NN E T |_________| F SSS F N N EEEEE T /___________\ ========================================== | | BITNET Fantasy-Science Fiction Fanzine ___|___________|___ X-Edited by 'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> CONTENTS X-Editorial 'Orny' Liscomb Leaving on Vacation Jim Owens *Spirit of the Wood: 5 Rich Jervis Ceda the Executioner: 4 Joel Slatis Choice of Heart Jim Owens Date: 020387 Dist: 259 An "*" indicates story is part of the Dargon Project All original materials copyrighted by the author(s) <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> X-Editorial Well, I know you've all been anxiously waiting for VOL7N02, and here you are. Inside you'll find two shorts from Jim Owens as well as continuations of the Spirit of the Wood and Ceda series. I'm sure you'll be entertained. In VOL7N03 watch for the next (and very significant) installment in the Atros tale, as well as the beginning of another round of Dargon stories. Also, I'd like to welcome the large number of new readers who have signed up since Christmas. For those of you interested in back issues, several file servers maintain copies. SILMARIL at FINHUTC and TCSSERVE at TCSVM both maintain complete collections, CSNEWS at MAINE maintains several recent editions, as SERVER at TAMCBA maintains some of the most ancient issues. Thank you all, and enjoy! -'Orny' Liscomb <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Leaving on Vacation "What!?" Tom stared down at his screen, his jaw hanging slack. "Was ist?" Jim looked over from his screen. "Problems?" "This thing just ate my files!" "Oh. That happens. Maybe Kitty got hungry. Every now and then it decides that you don't really exist, and that your whole processor is a boogum made by a rat to fool the operating system. So it eats it. Neat, huh?" Jim turned back to his screen. He was one of those types that read the specification manuals for the fun of it. "Wait! What about my files?" "Guess you'll just have to rewrite them." "Auuuggh!" Tom leaned back, rubbing his forehead. "I'm glad I'm leaving on vacation tomorrow. Maybe they'll have this fixed before I'm back." "What? And kill Kitty? They'd never do that! It'd cost money." House Kitty was the nickname the programmers had given to the operating system. Its real name was HOS/CTI, short for Heuristic Operating System / Collective Terminal Interface. Although most programmers still used rather choppy sentence structure, it was able to understand normal English, if there was such a thing. It was usually a very friendly system to work with, but the last update had a special addition. It was designed to deal with the problem of unauthorized system programs, or rats as they had been recently tagged. These were programs that crept into the system on communication lines. Kitty would hunt them, and delete them whenever it found them. It had a bug in it, however. It occasionally ate real programs. Fortunately the unintentional victims could usually be recovered. Tom typed in the commands to recover his. >cti recover last system deletion CTI: YOU HAVE INSUFFICIENT AUTHORITY.PLEASE NOTIFY SYSTEM OPERATOR He growled. Stupid machine. Of course he had sufficient authority. >cti restart virtual processor CTI: ARE YOU SURE? THE PRESENT PROGRAM STATE WILL BE LOST >cti yes, stupid A moment passed. CTI: THE WARM START IS COMPLETE >cti recover last system deletion CTI: THE LAST SYSTEM DELETION HAS BEEN RECOVERED Tom's screen cleared and then displayed the lost files. Tom sighed and went back to work. Later that day the group leader mailed Tom some last minute instructions concerning the project. The group was currently working on a payroll monitor, and Tom had been assigned to the protection schemes. Tom read the instructions, which mostly concerned error checks on the maintenance password, or back door. He then saved them. When he left the browse mode, however, and looked at his list of files, he was in for a nasty surprise. If one discounted the profanity, however, he didn't have much to say about the matter. Jim came over, wondering about the cause of this burst of loquacity. "All gone, eh? Guess Kitty got hungry again. Here let me try something. Maybe I can get it to stop eating your files." >cti purge processor state totally CTI: ARE YOU SURE? ALL DATA WILL BE LOST >cti yes CTI: THE PURGE IS COMPLETE >cti restart virtual processor CTI: ARE YOU SURE? THE PRESENT PROGRAM STATE WILL BE LOST >cti yes They waited. CTI: THE WARM START IS COMPLETE. NO FILES FOUND. ERROR IN LOGON Jim frowned. Sometimes these systems could get obstinate. Jim was stubborn himself, however. >cti hos vpg * 0000:0 0001<0000/FFFF "Take that!" Jim rapped the ENTER key viciously. The machine gave the visual equivalent of a convulsion. HOS: ACTIVE "You killed my Kitty!" Tom sounded almost hurt. "That'll teach 'er! Now we bring in a clone." >load cti HOS: LOAD COMPLETE >run CTI: GOOD AFTERNOON, TOM. HERE ARE YOUR FILES A list of all Tom's files spread across the screen. >cti set garbage collection on cont CTI: CONTINUOUS GARBAGE COLLECTION NOW ON "There. Now you shouldn't have any problems. That'll curb Kitty's hunger pains. That lets her come in and clear out the garbage regularly. That way she'll keep a current record of you at all times, and she won't mistake you for a rat." The next day Tom started off for Florida. His replacement sat down at Tom's usual terminal, and typed in the password off the card Tom had left him. He looked at the instructions Tom had left him, and a look of puzzlement entered his expression. Seeing this Jim came to the rescue. After reading the note, however, Jim merely walked off, chuckling. The temporary watched him, and then reread the message to see if he might understand. THE PASSKEY IS IN MY MAIL FILES. IF YOU HAVE ANY PROBLEMS GETTING IN, SEE MY NEIGHBOR JIM. HE'LL HELP YOU. CHECK THE BACK DOOR, EMPTY THE GARBAGE, AND DON'T FORGET TO FEED MY KITTY! -Jim Owens <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Spirit of the Wood: Chapter 5 The sound of prowling animals awoke Loric the morning after his sister left. They scratched the bark around the base of the trees and called up to him. "Loric where is your song?" "Do you fear the dawn?" "Fear it more than others for today you die!" Shivers ran through him as he crouched on the wide limb that his home sat on. The time of his death had come! Perhaps they won't see me,I can stay here all day. But then Loric remembered who he was . He straightened up and looked down into the half-dark below him. "Go find another's bones to chew 'Speaker-for-animals', Loric Tolorion will die when his song is done and not a note sooner. Kha-vanth Tolos Andartha!" He spoke the ritual words of warding and shook loose some shelf- fungus, "Go eat your tails and gnaw on this!" he cried as he pitched the hard shell-like fungus down into the dark. His effort was rewarded with a snarl of outrage. "A special death for you, Tolorion-son, a slow, painful one." Then silence. Still shaking, Loric smiled grimly to himself. There will be no skins drying on Cid'shaa's Tree this morning. None of the Tolorion, that is. I wonder how I WILL die today? Stretched across a wasp's bole no doubt, after taunting the 'Speaker-for-animals' so boldly. There was no use in avoiding it, so he shook off his fears and went to meet the day. He said his prayer to the Spirit and just to prove himself added a new line that just occured to him; Spirit of the Wood, Spirit of the Wood I'd come be with you, If I could. The sun's a-risen and today I die, My spirit's awakened to you It flies. He leaped out to a vine nearby and absent-mindedly descended to the ground . I wonder if any of the others will die today, I've been so wrapped up in my own ordeals that I've forgotten that I'm not the only one trying to become a man this day. Jakul perhaps, Yione surely. He's never had a hard time doing anything. Loric walked the hard packed clearing in silence and wondered where the Downlander's were. He caught a movement on a path that led to the clearing where he and the other boys were tested for their knowledge of bush-craft. That's right! He thought to himself, there was still time to recover his kesh-blade from the pit before he died. If he could work it loose then it would be much easier to survive the Shreaving. A man could do anything once he had his kesh-blade. The forest would clothe him, feed him, protect him and receive him when his song was done, the Spirit willing, that is. With no more hesitation Loric padded swiftly and silently down the path and round an ancient Liamas tree to where the Pit was. The log on which Minial had sat while witnessing Loric was still there. And the Liamas bark rope he had fashioned was coiled up neatly around one limb. The smell of Liamas was everywhere and its heady aroma made Loric smile in remembrance of the fever he had when only four years old, and of Eadie's potions of Liamas bark and pond-scum. Eadie's hut was set by the river,where it would be a short walk for her to gather water. Not that she ever did menial work on her own, she always seemed to have four or five downlanders aiding her and doing her work. It was there that she kept the roots and herbs, poultices and potions, and it was there that she kept the Teline. Loric decided that teline was the only way he could manage to pull the kesh blade from it's bonding. He had seen men using the Teline when the limbs of several ice-laden trees had given away and fallen on the Downlanders huts. They had chewed the green stemed plant and it gave them the ability to move the heavy limbs and to think like many hands on the same arm. Loric's father had been on the nets freeing ice when that happened, and no amount of Teline could help him when he fell, his song was sung. With a shiver he went to Eadie's hut and listened, when no one appeared he went in and searched the many hanging vines and drying strings for the Teline. Dimly he was aware that somewhere within the forest the Downlander's were preparing for his death, and that of the other boys who would chance the Shreaving this day. Pushing the thought aside, he continued his search with determination. After a bit of frantic searching he found several small pieces wrapped in a waxy leaf from the copo tree. Hurrying back he avoided taking the direct paths. There was nothing wrong in his taking the teline; everything was there for those who wanted it,he just didn't want to die before he recovered his knife. Taking up the rope, Loric breathed a quick prayer and solidly anchored the rope to a limb on the log. He leaned out as far as he could and looked down into the dark hole of his last trial. The bottom was hidden in the early morning shadows but he could see the hilt of the kesh blade sticking out of the side right where he had left it. "Blade of my father, have you been lonely here in the soft earth? Or have the roots of your brethren kept you warm with talk of leaf and burr, nut and thorn?" Loric 'walked' himself down the side until he was level with the knife and took from his belt a short green stem of the Teline plant. It was kinked and had tiny hairs along the length of it. He broke off a small piece and chewed it briefly. When he felt a burning in his throat he double-wrapped his grip on the rope and then looped it around the ornate hilt of the knife. PULL,he thought to himself, pull! It was always hard to think when he chewed Teline. What it gave in strength, it took in reason. Until later when it took strength too. Loric felt the muscles in his neck go taut and his heart raced so loud he was sure that everyone in the village could hear it. He took large gulping breaths and felt a tightness in his chest. When his arms and legs twitched their need to be used he growled and pulled on the rope. He ground his teeth and tasted blood, for a wild moment he thought of his position and wished he hadn't chewed so much. Then the knife began to give, it made a slow sucking noise, reluctant to leave its earthen sheath. Loric spat on the wall and pulled all the harder, too far gone to notice the green-red spittle that ran down his chin. There was a groaning noise, then the sound of the blade sucking free of the earth. With a cry of triumph Loric straightened his back and held aloft the newly freed blade. Its resin-coated length gleamed darkly in the sunlight. Loric leaped out of the pit and dropped his rope unnoticed on the ground. In a moment he had run around the Liamas tree and then kicked the log into the hole with one foot. He felt a rush as part of him realized that he couldn't have moved the log normally and that he would have a large dark bruise on his heel to remind him for many days to come. He did four backward flips and flicked his knife at the Liamas tree in mid-spin. It struck the rough bark with such force that bits of bark went flying in all directions. He laughed uncontrollably at the sight and walked on his hands over to the tree. When dark ropey tendrils dropped on him from above he showed no outward concern, allowing them to envelope him completely. The morning light was cut off abruptly and his breath began to be squeezed from him from all sides. There was a sharp pain in the top of his head where the hard bony beak of the creature was biting him but he could give no resistance. He welcomed pain and howled his pleasure to the Spirit. "I marvel that I know no fear Spirit, I have lived as a Tolorion, and I am dying as a Tolorion! Eee-yoooo, a-yay!" Loric's cry of defiance did not go unheard, Cid'shaa was at hand and replied in a loud voice of cracking bone and booming drums. "You WILL fear Tolorion-son for I have sent a Devathma to consume you! I promised you a slow painful death and this you shall have! But as your spirit flies to join the Spirit of the Wood, be at peace. I will tell your brethren that you died with honor, like a man. Thus you will be borne anew, like a man! Darkness began to take Loric and the Teline started to wear off. He could not have called out if he had wanted to, and he did not. With a glad heart he went into the darkness...dying like a man! -Rich Jervis <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Ceda the Executioner: Chapter 4 Cander peered nervously over the rail of the ship at the raging water. He had been sailing for over a weak and was not yet accustomed to the violent upheavals of the South Sea. He wore the special dark metal ring (that is commonly referred to as black gold) typical of Elven nobility on his pale hand which now held tightly to the railing. A light rain had manifested itself over the area that the ship was now sailing and was throwing the little vessel all over. Cander was a large strong bodied elf. He wore a dark cape that hung loosely about his stout figure effectively covering most parts of it. If it was possible, which at this point it wasn't, to see under the hood about his head, you would have seen signs of great sorrow. This elf was not at all pleased about something, and was on his way to let someone know about it. That someone was of course Ceda, who was at that very moment, half out of his wits in drunkenness about three hundred miles away in the remote city of Cramstrock. (This city lay up in the far North of No-Al Ben by the Icy Waters of Plime where Ceda was born.) It is then quite understandable, that after months of endless searching, and after finally finding Ceda who was at the time, numb from Cramstrockian wine, he was in an extremely bad mood. What had happened was this: Cander had found Ceda in the local tavern drinking with his father and the few friends that still remained loyal to him. He entered and demanded that Ceda come with him to the City of the Elves. One of Ceda's friends, who was not particularly fond of elves, let alone elven nobility (being a dwarf himself), remarked that the elf looked like his old grandmother. The elf, not very happy with the idea that he resembled the dwarf's grandmother, took it upon himself to teach the dwarf some manners. He picked up the jug of ale that sat in front of Ceda and dumped it all onto the head of the now very unhappy dwarf. Ceda, who did not like having his drink wasted, hit the dwarf in the stomach with a stool and the fight was on. Almost instantly after the first punch, everyone in the tavern was jumping in to help friend against friend; what a scene it was! Fortunately for the elf, all were drunk but he, so he waited until everyone had been beaten senseless by one another, and then he dragged Ceda off and hoisted him onto a horse, leaving for the Port City of Dhernis immediately. Ceda awoke the next morning to the sound of the market place in the heart of Caahah. He wasn't sure at all how he got there, for that matter, he wasn't even sure where 'there' was! The first thought that entered his mind was food, and lots of it. He got up and dressed and then looked around the room to see what he might find. All the elfs things were there, but he didn't remember that he had met anyone recently. Everything was strange to him. Many things were in the room, none his, and he didn't want whomever they belonged to to find him lying around their room. He opened the door and went into the tavern down stairs where Cander was sitting drinking a glass of wine. Cander turned and confronted him: "Good day, Ceda of No-Al Ben. You are a hearty sleeper! all the way from the shores of the Icy Waters of Plime!" The elf threw back his head in laughter. "I am Cander of Perstanie." Ceda walked over to the elf and grabbed him by the collar. "Who in Tavaar's name are you, and where might I be?" The elf choked, and his hand flew to Ceda's arm. The dark gold band upon the elf's finger caught Ceda's eye and he released his grip. "Rackins of the Elves has need of your presence," said the elf, as he fingered his neck. "It is a strange man that greets people in such a manner," joked the elf, trying to settle Ceda's temper. "And what is Rackin's wish with me after so many a month, for it has been since last October that I last lay eyes upon his noble face?" "And it is from November to March that I have sought your company. It is for the most part about evil tidings from the mountains in South. The dark creatures that dwell therein have gained control over the crown of Grobst D'arbo's and seek a way to destroy it." "About what crown do you speak? For that which I remember had since returned to the underworld. Be there two of these foul things?" said Ceda. "Nay, and you know this to be true," replied the elf. "For what purpose do you ask such foolish questions?" "If my memory does not fail yet, The demon that sought the crown had found the crown. You say that it has been won from him?" "The spell caster Merth has not revealed to me his thoughts, but he has summoned you to his palace in the City of the Elves, which in itself is an honor that rivals even the greatest of nonelven nobility. But as for now, haste is upon us, for I have wasted many months in searching and must not delay anymore with idle questions that will be answered in due time. Make haste now that you have awakened, for we ride for Dhernis!" "If it is Merth that seeks my presence, then I shall come, for it is probably of great importance if I am to be dragged from my home like a common thief. Let us make haste!" The elf disappeared for a moment through the doors that led to the upper rooms and returned with his things. Then they both left together and rode all that day for the port of Dhernis. They rode fairly quickly through the country of Ruirse, Ceda on a light brown horse supplied by the elf. "And what of your dragon mount, Melgon? I sought him before we left Cramstrock, but to no avail," said Cander. "Melgon has returned to Cergaan, though I know not how he did it without wings. He has been gone for fourteen days, and will remain gone for another moon," answer Ceda. "There comes a time each year that he departs without word nor warning, but he leaves message that it is to his home, far beyond the City of the Elves, that he goes." At that moment Ceda stopped his horse. He looked off to the far South Towards the high mountain peaks that rose in the distance as Cander rode up along side of him. From where they stood, the mountains were almost invisible being so far away. "We now ride for the Cliffs of Belos at the feet of the Sarshirian Mountains," he said at length. "Why?" cried the elf in dismay. "We must make the greatest of haste to the City of the Elves, and the Gate of Ploughdom that leads into the infested mountain and its dungeons and towers interests me not! I shiver at the thought of the foul stinking things that lie beyond the pass!" "And all the same, we will make for it and then for Dhernis. There is something afoot in those peaks. Methinks that it is best to look lest we miss the ranks of orcs marching foreword to war out of the Gate of Ploughdom unnoticed." "And if they are on the march," said Cander, "it is not this elf that wants to meet them on their way to whatever their destination. They have grown strong in numbers since the battle at the fortress of Num-deaon. And may Tavaar know what draws you to the borders of that deadly place?" "I know not what, but I sense that all is not well within the land of Gate. "I wish only to see if they have indeed passed through the border into Ruirse. It is not my motive to battle the entire orcish legions, or whatever other dark foes that Ileiruon may have brought forth from the abyss," said Ceda, "and it will lengthen our journey but a week." With that, he reared his horse to the South and rode down towards the Gate of Ploughdom. Further and further South they rode, passing the large forest of Carne to the East as the hours wore on. The mountains came up and met the sky in splendor with their snowy white peaks glittering in the sun. After five days of uneventful riding, they were only fifty miles from the closest of the Sarshirian mountains, called by the orcs and other evil creatures, Onibus, after the battle of Ploughdom 13,000 years before when Ileiruon's followers were lead to victory by a demon called Onibus. Men, Elves, Halflings, Dwarves and all other creatures in alliance with Sarve, had called the mountain Barnonoen, the name that was first given to it over 15,000 years before by the Old Folk that lived in the land before the first wave of evil swept over the continent from Cergaan. They passed the ruined castle of Nuum-Orron, brother fortress to Nuum-Deaon just visible against the Northwestern sky, and veered to the Southwest in order to meet the cliffs of Onibus (the cliffs were called Belos as a whole, but when referring to a certain area, they were called the cliffs of the mountain that they belonged to) a day's ride from the gate. The sky was growing steadily darker with clouds the closer they got, even though they were still a day's ride from the closest of the mountains. Clouds were coming up from the south and a cold wind was blowing harshly hampering their progress. They decided to return to the sheltered walls of Nuum-Orron for the night before they continued on to the gate. The castle was large and supposedly deserted for many years. They rode through the long open gate into the vast courtyard and to the far side where there was a door large enough to admit their horses. Ceda dropped from his mount and went to search the castle while Cander set up camp. When Ceda returned, Cander approached him. "I don't like this place, Ceda, It has a foul reek and the horses are uneasy about it." "The night air will offer no cover from the wind and the on coming rain clouds should they decide to spill on our heads, and it is foolish to risk camp outside so close the the threshold of Onibus and the Gate. I have looked around and have seen naught nor heard footfall, alas we may be safe the one night that we spend so close to the Dark Doorway!" answered Ceda, not at all pleased with the Elf for his timidness. "Then here we will stay, but I am against it all the same." And with that final word, Cander went to sleep leaving Ceda the guard. Early the next morning they were off, towards the dark figure of a mountain that loomed before them. The peaks now rose high above their heads into the clouds and out of sight. Every moment brought them closer to the dark opening that held so much terror for the Elf and wonder for Man. The nearer they got, the more the Elf seemed uneasy, but with good reason, the tales told of those that were held there, and by some luck escaped were horrifying. Tales told of the foul creatures that lived therein hewing off limbs of captives for pleasure. These thoughts did not comfort Ceda or his companion. Finally they reached the mountain's base and turned now toward the West to come to the gate riding in the shadows of the tall peaks to their left. All around the Borders of the Sarshirian mountains, steep overhanging cliffs towered up hundreds of feet. The only entrance was through the Gate of Ploughdom that the Dwarves of Psardon had made in centuries past. After another hour of riding, they approached the gate. It looked like any ordinary cave to them, a dark hole in the face of a large mountain side; but somehow, it seemed threatening, menacing almost. A pungent smell issued forth from the crack filling the air with an unholy odor of some vile creature or creatures. Ceda dropped from his horse and went forth. Cander started after and grabbed his shoulder. "Have you not seen enough? If they do not await your coming outside the Gate must you go forth and present yourself to them?" At that moment, four husky looking creatures dropped from a ledge in the cliff far above landing squarely on Ceda and Cander. Ceda was knocked to the ground under the weight of the beast and Cander fell from his mount with a heavy thud on the dry ground. Before any could draw their swords, they were both subdued and totally unable to move. Ceda saw one of the beasts strike Cander in the back of the head with a heavy club, and then he too felt a blow from behind and remembered nothing more about that day. Darkness followed in the days to come; wherever Ceda was, it was pitch dark and noisome. The smell was enough to drive a man to tears, and it took its toll on the prisoners. Ceda awoke to the same vile odor as before, but much nearer and stronger. His head hurt and he was very hungry. He was sprawled out on a flat surface in a pitch dark cave or room somewhere in the Sarshirians. And so he lay, bound in heavy chains at his heels and wrists and surrounded by total darkness; needless to say that he knew not for how long. Hour after hour dragged on and still he heard no sound. The smell grew in his nostrils to the point where he was screaming in agony, and still no one--or nothing came. After what seemed like years, a creaking noise was heard and a faint light shone in the room he was in. The walls were covered with a faint ooze like substance. He lay on a bed of solid rock against the far wall, and all around him dark shadows moved upon the ground. The light grew stronger and before Ceda knew it, there were four tall Orcs before him. The light hurt his eyes and he cowered back turning his weak head to the wall. They undid the clasps at his wrists and feet and lifted him up setting him on the floor. He fell over again was placed on his feet. Then they started out of the room and down a long corridor. Ceda fell to the floor many times and was dragged when this happened. They didn't speak. Not one word. And the smell was beyond imagination. The corridor seemed to go on far a long while, and frequently it would bend suddenly and resume itself in another direction altogether. Sometimes they passed other corridor entrances from which came the same vile smell, and sometimes great stone doors that were shut fast had a dim outline in the dark walls. At length, they came to a large door set at the end of that long passage. One of the Orcs entered and the remaining stayed outside with Ceda. After a while at the door, the door was thrown open and Ceda was lead into a great hall. It spanned far and wide, and in it were a great many foul smelling beasts like those that had captured Ceda to begin with. At the center of the far wall, raised high above the heads of all Orcs and other beasts, sat a mighty being, one that Ceda had never seen before in all his travels. He was lead before it and dropped by the Orcs to the ground, as he could not stand by himself in his weakened state. All he could think about was food, for he had not eaten since he was captured some days before, though he knew not how long ago. There was a onset of hideous laughter as he struggled to stand but could not, and finally was content to sit up in front of the great seat that loomed before him. "Well," it hissed. "We seem to have caught a spy. From Ruirse perhaps? or be it from New Grandydyr? Weuyrt? From whence do you ride, Elf tamer?" Ceda did not reply, his mind was too tired and he was far to hungry to even pay attention to the thing, but rather sat and gazed up past the throne into the darkness of the ceiling that stood far over head. The beast continued, "or be you from the weak realm of Pirintar in the north or Prass to the far east by the great water? Answer me!" it shouted. but Ceda still gazed at the ceiling high above with a partial smile on his pale lips. Then the beast signaled to one of the Orcs and it stepped foreword kicking Ceda in his back with all its might, its heavy studded boots digging deep into Ceda's flesh. Ceda screamed with agony and fell unconscious to the floor. "Remove him until later," said the Beast. And a smile crossed his lips, "and see that he is well fed!" When Ceda next awoke, he was back in his cell, now chained only at at one ankle. His mouth was dry and it pained him to swallow. He rolled over onto the floor just in time to see an Orc leaving his chamber. Before him on a dirty plate, lay a large piece of meat, freshly cooked and spiced. A feeling of wonder passed before his eyes accompanied by disbelief but there was the meat, steaming hot, its smell god-like to his nose. At once he grabbed at the food and began to eat as if it was long forgotten to him (and indeed it had been for some days), the fragrance of the spices overcoming the noisome stench of the stale dungeon air. When Ceda had finished, he sat back against the wall and rested, for after not eating a long time, the food sat heavily in his now full stomach. Some time later, the faint creaking of a door echoed though his chamber followed by foot steps. Before long, a beast much like the one on the throne appeared before him with a water pouch; until then, Ceda had not even been aware of the thirstiness that had long grown in his dry mouth until now and grabbed at the sack in desperation. The Beast let it fall and the precious liquid ran onto the floor. "That's all you'll get for today, scum," it said. "Better you learn to use your tongue or you'll not drink 'till the morrow," it laughed. "Lick, scum, lick from the floor as do the beggars!" and it left the cell, with one final word: "enjoy your meals while they last!" it said and choked with laughter. And then heart stricken, Ceda began to lick. Ceda sat back after a long and disgusting drink trying not to think about it. He thought for a moment about what the beast had said 'while they last,' he said to himself. 'While they last,' and coming to no conclusion, he forgot about it and went to sleep. And the days wore on in the same manner. The beast would bring him strange meat (for Ceda had never before tasted it) and Ceda would eat and drink his fill. Presently he became accustomed to the smell and it no longer troubled him. And he grew stronger. After what had seemed about a month (by Ceda's reckoning), once again the Orcs reappeared and took him down the long corridor the throne room. This time, Ceda entered with pride, for he was now fully healthy again, and as strong as ever before. He stood above all other beasts in the room with his head held high before the might of the ruler. "Now, scum," it started. "I trust you have eaten well?" It smiled. "Yes I have, Lord. From what beast is this meat, for it has strange virtues?" answered Ceda, thinking that he did not want to know the answer. "Elf," smiled the beast. Ceda was right: he really didn't want to have known what he had been eating thus far, a feeling of dread filled his face and he thought about Cander for the first time since being captured, and the terrible fate that had become of him. At last he knew what the other beast had meant by its remark about how long the food would last. The room was again full of hideous laughter and Ceda's confidence was wavering. To the end of his days, he never forgot that moment that he had been told of his meals, nor could he bear to be with elves for any length of time before guilt got the best of him. Anger welled up inside of him. He thought to smite the beast where it sat. His hand flew with lightning speed to his side, but his sword had long been taken away from him as had all other things save his cloths "From whence do you ride," it now asked in a grim voice. "And to what purpose do you dare approach the Passage of Ploughdom?" Ceda did not answer, but instead he stared in hatred at the face of the beast that loomed over him. It repeated its question but received no answer still. Then it lashed out bending foreword and with one great arm knocked Ceda from his feet to the floor. Still Ceda said nothing to the growing anger of the chieftain. Finally, after many strikes from the Orc guard and a few from the ruler himself, they gave up. "Take him back to his cell and we shall see how long he will remain quiet to the face of hunger!" It yelled as Ceda was led from the room. Down the long winding and twisting corridor was Ceda lead by his Orc escort until his own room was in sight. As they drew close to the door, Ceda leapt foreword pushing the two Orcs in front of him to either side as he sped off down into the darkness of the passage. Great was his speed as he outran the pursuing Orcs, but their cries brought still more terrible things forth from the surrounding openings and doors until the way behind was filled with angry creatures running fast and tireless after him. The corridor sloped down, then up and bore right, then left. Twisting and sloping the tunnel wore on in an almost never ending path. Finally, a faint glimmer of light could be seen ahead. presently The glimmer grew into a opening and without stopping, Ceda ran forth and out into the sunlight for the first time in well over a month. But the trouble was not over yet. Ceda was out, but he was alone, unarmed and without food. Still he continued down the rocky slope of the mountain side he had come out of at a fast pace. Pain welled up in his chest but still he ran on, pursued only now by the beasts like the one on the throne, for Orcs hate sun light. After a while, Ceda had to stop. Being faster than his pursuers, he had long since stopped hearing the sound of running feet behind, but that would not last long, for if the creatures behind him could not track, the Orcs could, and would soon be after him as the sunset drew near. Now almost at despair, he started out for the borders of Ruirse in the hope of finding a place in the steep cliff low enough to jump from. It was his only hope, and that in itself was small. He had been silently moving at a steady pace Eastward but was extremely tired. The sun had dropped behind the tips of the Western mountains and his shadow grew long. 'Time for a rest,' he thought to himself as he climbed up a tree and sat down among its branches far up out of sight. Then, breaking a few of the larger branches, he laid them out making a crude but safe bed among the loftier limbs. Soon it was pitch dark. The moon was hidden behind a rocky peek off to the north leaving Ceda stranded in the tree should trouble pursue. The air had a dank smell of burning flesh that came up from the East; the direction that he was now headed. During the night, all seemed to change. Even though Ceda was being pursued, he had noticed that the country was gradually becoming emptier of any and all things that usually dwell in those parts. Not a sound was heard all that night, and the only life he could see were the plants and trees. The quiet was discomforting, Ceda would have been more at ease were he attacked or something, weird though it was. Finally, sleep took him. The next morning, he woke up and to his surprise, he had not yet been found. He was so tired that last night, that it didn't even matter to him weather he was caught or not, and indeed Orcs could climb trees as well as they could track. Something wasn't right, but Ceda had not the time, food or energy to even care. He should have rightly been dead or captured by then. The morning was young, and the sun was just creeping over the eastern peaks. Ceda climbed higher and peered out through the branches over the trees Eastward. The land about a mile off dropped suddenly into a valley and all beyond, between the mountain that Ceda was on and the mountain bordering Ruirse was hidden from sight. That valley went for about thirty miles before Ceda could see the slope of the next mountain climbing steadily upwards. 'About 3 days journey on foot,' he thought to himself, 'if the valley is flat and straight'. Then, climbing down the tree, he set off. The valley was further than the trees had shown. After the mile of tree tops that Ceda had seen, the trees had suddenly stopped and a long barren field continued for another mile. The morning was waning and Ceda still had not eaten. After reaching the end of the field, he took digging up roots for food, much to his distaste. From the end of the fields, the valley descended acutely into more trees far below. A small winding path in bad upkeep led down the almost cliff like face into the valley. This he took. Walking all day, he finally reached the bottom of the mountain and ate more of the roots that he had found. After a little searching he found a stream that ran into a small lake. Drinking his fill, he swam the lake and continued walking on the other side. Upon reaching the valley, the trees began to reappear until the forest was like a dense wall all about him. Moving now would be slow and cautious. Before long, he realized that the smell of the burning flesh had returned and it was now growing stronger. The ground was now level and things were beginning to look as they should. Bats flew overhead, noises returned to the dismal mountains and in the distance, Ceda could hear the faint shouts of Orcs. He continued in the same general direction but away from the shouts. After a while longer of walking, the yells became unavoidable. They were all around him now, yet not to close, and to go back meant death by the other Orcs or a long journey around the valley that would take more time then Ceda had to spare. Cautiously he ventured foreword towards the sounds and at length to the edge of a clearing. Here shielded by the trees and shrubbery, Ceda could see many of the same creatures moving about in the sunlight where the trees had been quickly uprooted and burned. Some Orcs were about but not many; They were kept busy by the orders of the other beasts at whatever they were doing. Ceda could not see much, but it looked to him as if the beasts were preparing for war. Many of them were around going here and there with wagons full of tridents and axes, others were running all over the camp on errands of their own. Far off in the Center of the clearing, a large hole had been dug and many Orcs went in and out. They all wore mail armor and carried the axes that were made in the fields. They also carried bucklers with a golden crown painted on it. The crown was richly inlaid with Malthoogian gems. All the shields were new as were the axes and the armor, and in the distance, Ceda could see the faint glow of blacksmiths hard at work forging more. Ceda stayed and watched, not daring to move until the sun had long gone down and night was upon them. The moon was still hidden behind the mountains and it was totally dark except for the torches that were in and around the camp. Many of the beasts, Nuadrin, as Ceda began to call them, had gone into tents that were set up in the camp. Now many Orcs were about here and there shouting orders at one another and arguing amongst themselves in there own harsh tongue. The night drew on and presently Ceda fell asleep in the scrubs where he hid. Morning came and he was awakened by the sunlight as it rose above the far off mountains in the East. The burning was much closer now and he could finally see what it was: men. He sat and watched all day growing very disgusted at the ghastly sight, yet very hungry as well, until nightfall. Then, using all his talent, as a master assassin, he crept quietly from the edge of the clearing back into the forest where he found both food and water in a shallow stream that ran down the mountain slope from the West. After eating, he began the slow journey of encompassing the entire camp of about ten thousand troops of Orcs and two thousand troops of Nuadrin (as well as he could reckon). The night went slowly but at length Ceda had reached the other side of the enemy camp and had begun again his path toward the large mountain that towered above him. Leaving the bloody camp behind, he had travelled almost another ten miles from the Eastern edges of the camp when daybreak overtook him. He settled down and went to sleep among the branches of a tall pine tree out of the sight of all watching eyes of the mountains. That night after a long rest, he awoke to the tree's gentle swaying in the breeze leaving him with a slight chill. Tonight if all went well, he would reach the base of the next mountain, Psom, and would climb about half way to the point where he thought he could see a pass between it and an adjacent mountain that Ceda did not know the name of. The night drew onward. Walking very surely and quietly, Ceda slowly approached the mountain. Nuadrin were everywhere, walking about in heavy plate mail with long black tridents and small round bucklers; all with with the sign of the crown on them. They passed commonly on a road that Ceda now followed about twenty yards to the right so as not to be seen when troops passed. Now and again, ten or more Nuadrin would pass with about fifty men chained together in some heavy grey metal. Their faces were sad and they did not speak to one another. Sometimes, he could hear the crack of one of the long leather whips that the Nuadrin carried on some mans back, then a yell of agony, then silence. Orcs also trudged up and down the road, but not as frequently. They were usually led by one of the Nuadrin, who were larger and stronger looking. After an hour or two, Ceda left the road altogether and made his way towards the mountain pass. It was not long before he came upon the road again going in the same direction. 'Must have changed course,' he thought to himself and followed on. The road veered South as it came to foot of Psom and widened a little. He decided to follow it a little to see where it headed. Even on the mountain, the trees grew just as big and as thick. They may even have become denser, but because of the general incline, his way was hampered in many places. Now and again the road would turn and head either North or South as the slope became more acute but for the most part the road went up towards the pass. Then all of a sudden, the road ended. As it came up the slope it became so wide that it was not really a road any more. Then it just gradually disappeared out of sight. Ceda walked along the area for a while before a troop of Nuadrin came marching up the road. When they reached the end, they walked along south for a while until they came to the base of a small cliff. Then, the Nuadrin leader went foreword and pushed at the wall of rock. It opened into darkness and all the troop entered. Then the door closed swiftly leaving no trace in the side of the steep wall. Ceda ran to the door and put his ear to it. He could hear the Nuadrin singing until their voices vanished into the depths of the cave. Their deep voices echoed in the cavern as they sang: "Plunder we shall, and spill the blood of the enemy, until all their vast kingdoms lay dead at our feet. Kill their old Kings, and spill the blood of the enemy, until all their hearts beat at the sound of our feet. Pay them we shall, and spill the blood of the enemy, until all their men band together and meet. Fight them we shall, and spill the blood of the enemy, until all their great gold lay down under our feet. Drive them out, we shall we shall. KILL THEM and BEAT THEM until they all flee. Out we shall pour from the new gates of Psom and Dearn, continuing the work of our Lord Onibus. plunder we shall, and spill the blood of the enemy, until all their vast kingdoms lay dead at our feet." Then their voices were lost to the tunnels under the mountain. The sound however was replaced by feet coming up the path. He leapt from the opening into the cover of the trees just before around thirty Orcs came marching up the path. Then he went as quietly as he could up through a worn path away from the company. Soon he heard the voices of the Orcs below as he left. They spoke in common tongue so they must have had a Nuadri with them. (As do all other forms of speaking beings, Nuadrin have a unique tongue than most cannot comprehend, therefore, they are forced to use the Common Speech when talking to things of other races.) "Blyazax," hissed the leader to one of the Orcs in the first row of company. "I smell Men here. What tunnel do they march the Men from now?" "From the North opening, you know that. Let me smell." Replied the Orc coming foreword. Ceda froze and listened intently. Faint rustling among the ranks was heard and then a sniffing sound, long and loud. "You're right Aejr. There were men here, and his smell leads up from here. They've probably seen the entrance now! better take the troop up after him before Ifaduk finds out and throngs us all! Come on guys, after him! They can't be far from the smell of things!" There was another rustling among the men, and then many foot steps in Ceda's direction. He jumped up and ran with all his speed up the side of the mountain towards the pass high above him. The Orcs were making good speed up the mountain but were slowed by their heavy armor and weapons. Ceda was far stronger, faster and didn't have any armor to hamper him so it was not a problem to outrun them. Soon the sounds of pursuit were faint and the yelling between them was remote. He sat down against the trunk of a tree unable to run any longer without a brief break. The night was almost over and day would make him visible to all eyes. He got up and went on. The voices were much clearer now than they were before. They were tracking him well. Gradually the mountain's slope increased until continuing was only possible by crawling almost vertically. Trees grew all over the mountainside and made his way up easier, but there was still a long way to go before even reaching the pass, and after that it was not certain that he would find a way through and then down from the dangerous cliffs of Psom. After another hour of climbing, the pass was within sight but the sounds of feet were still close at hand. The going was slow for both Ceda and the Orcs, but they were making headway faster than he. The vile smell of the dungeon at Onibus was in the air as the Orcs gained on him up the slope. They would soon reach him at their current pace. The smell grew in his nostrils until the remembrance of the Elf, Cander, came to mind. That drove him on up the slope and finally to the pass with an outburst of hidden strength. Anger now drove him and welled up within him as he climbed up onto the narrow ledge that was formed by the merging of two lower parts of the adjacent mountains. The ledge was not altogether flat, but it was firm and narrow. Ceda decided to turn and face the enemy before all his strength was gone. He turned and leaned against the wall of the mountain on his left and rested until the first malformed head of a Nuadri soldier popped out of the trees below. Then it was only a matter of seconds before it was at the edge of the pass. It looked up and saw Ceda waiting for it. Then with a Cry in another tongue, it hastened up the remaining feet to the pass. Ceda was ready. He stood back letting the Nuadri up and then like lighting threw both his fists down on its large head knocking it down. Then he jumped on it catching its head in his hands and turning it until its neck it broke with a shuddering crack! Then he undid the small buckler from its back and took the trident from it where it lay at the Nuadri's side. Then finally he unfastened a pouch that hung about the beast's side and waited for the rest of the Orcs to catch up. It was not long before one, then three, then ten had poked their heads out of the trees underneath Ceda. Seeing their leader dead at his feet demoralized them a little, but seeing that there was only one man to deal with gave them the courage to approach. Then Ceda threw the body down at them knocking two of them off the side of the mountain into the trees far below. The rest climbed up towards the pass with malice in their eyes. Ceda stood his ground until they had gotten within reach of his trident. Then he slowly backed up through the ledge of the pass until they were all on the pass in a single file line before him. The one in front fell first. He had made a charge at Ceda which was easy enough to block with a simple thrust of his own driving his weapon deep into the belly of his opponent. The second came up the pass and tripped on his fallen comrade, he died quickly afterwards. The third and forth Orcs fell in the same way and the rest turned and fled over the side of the steep ledge in the direction that they had come. Some crashed into the the trees far below dying instantly, while two or three made it down without serious injuries. Gathering the things of the fallen Orcs and placing them with the things of the Nuadri leader, Ceda started down the Eastern face of the mountain. As soon as he left the Western side of the mountain, the climate changed as if by magic. What was calm and humid was now dry and cold. Nothing grew there and no water ran down in streams so frequent on the Western slope. The sun was shining down nearly overhead by the time Ceda found a place that he thought was safe to sleep without danger of pursuit. The Orcs were all underground by now and the Nuadrin would have to climb up through the pass in order to find his trail; so he went to sleep peacefully for the first time in nearly six weeks. That night when Ceda awoke, he found that nothing had changed. He looked at the things that he had gotten from the fallen Nuadri leader and Orcs. Finding one sack full of a strange kind of wine, he gladly quenched his growing thirst. Then rummaging through the remainder of the things he found some dried meat (that he threw away quickly), three more skins of the wine and a golden medallion (from the Nuadri) with the symbol of the crown painted on in dark grey and black colors. Then he started down the mountain. Going down was far more dangerous then going up. Below him about five hours away, were the cliffs of Belos that surrounded the entire Sarshirian mountain range. The way down was quite steep. This made five hours into ten and then twenty. The trees that had earlier helped Ceda up the other face of the mountain did not grow on the face he now tread. Trying to keep his feet in a sure place, he made his way slowly down stopping only to find food among the berries and to rest his legs. Day came quickly, but not without being wanted. Ceda's legs were tired and his back ached from the continual stooping. Finding a place to lie on one of the many jagged rocks that jutted out of the mountain face, Ceda fell into an uneasy sleep, for the next night, he would reach the cliffs. When he awoke, the sun had already set and the sky was full of clouds. Rain! Ceda jumped to his feet and looked down. He was closer to the cliffs than he had thought the previous night, but it was still a long way down, and with the rain, he could be washed off the face entirely. He opened a skin of wine and drank most of it. Replacing it at his side, he started down. It was about an hour before he had reached the tops of the Cliffs of Psom. He lay flat on his stomach and looked over the edge. About four hundred feet below him was the foot of the cliff. Looking in each direction showed that the same distance down was held all along the face as far as the eye could see. Then by the pale light that the moon cast down through the clouds, he saw it. To the North towards the border of Grobst D'arbo's desert, a tiny figure appeared out of the face of the cliff. Before long, about 20 of them had left the cliff base and Ceda could see that they were Orcs. They wore the same armor and had the same weapons as he had seen earlier. He watched the band until they were out of sight then he got up and started South along the head of the cliff, searching for a way down. The clouds were growing thicker and the night was drawing on and getting steadily cooler. He walked along for sometime wondering what would become of him. Then he found what he had been looking for: in the cliff, a deep gash ran up from the ground to the top of the cliff just wide enough for him to fit in. He sat down on the edge and inched himself into the ravine. Pushing on either side with his hands and feet, he held himself while he made his way down. The way was slow and tedious, but the rain did not fall and the ravine did not widen. About a third of the way down, he came upon an opening along the chasm. It was big enough for him to fit inside, indeed even room enough for him to stand and walk around in, and soon he was fast asleep on the rocky floor out of danger for the time being. The midmorning sun roused him as it shone through the hole into the cave upon his face. Drinking some of his wine and eating the rest of the berries he had collected along the way down the mountain, he soon started again. It had rained while he was asleep and the way was treacherously slippery, but he managed to find handholds and not to fall. By midafternoon he had made his way almost to the bottom and slid down the rest of the way to the ground. He was finally out of the Sarshirian mountains in the wilderness of Ruirse. -Joel Slatis <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<> Choice of Heart Phil stepped out of the mess hall just in time to hear the final call, and to hear the CRACK of the rifles. He and everyone around him just stopped for a moment, not quite looking at each other, and then continued with their business. Phil and four other men from his squad continued toward their barracks. As he walked towards the bunkhouse, Phil saw the door to the old warehouse open, and the soldiers filing out. He counted sixteen. That meant that four people had just been executed. Phil and his buddies joined their squad leader in their room. While the five soldiers strapped on their gear their leader read off their assignment. It was a typical one. Phil had been in Miami only four days, and already he had lost count of how many missions he had been on. He had no trouble remembering how many deaths he had seen, however, nor how many he had caused. An image of a young, pleading face hung before his mind's eye, and only when one of his buddies nudged him did he realize that his assignment was being read off. Phil and the other men in his squad marched out of the building to where their plane was waiting. They climbed in, the squad leader going in first, Phil going in last. Phil dogged the door shut, and then the plane was rolling. It lifted off quickly, it's fat wings using the airstream to best advantage. The plane climbed steadily, pushing the soldiers against the floor with extra weight. More than one wished for a window to look out of. There was no talking. Phil checked his rifle carefully. He counted his rounds, he made sure that the chamber and flues were clear, and that the generator operational. There would be no chance to do that later. As he checked his equipment, Phil had a chance to think about what he was about to do. He had joined the military out of financial need, but when the President had declared a national emergency because of the drug problem, he had welcomed the action he saw as a result. Finally he had a moral reason to be carrying a weapon. It was only when he was transfered into a domestic area that he started to have doubts. They had been in the air for about ten minutes when the leader started giving last minute instructions to the men. Phil listened intently, as did all the others, being especially careful not to misunderstand their role. The squad leader spoke until the light above the door came on. He then gave one last encouragement, then shuffled over to the door. He pushed the door open, and tumbled out. One by one the others followed, with Phil pausing to push the ALL CLEAR button before jumping. The squad leader struck the roof of the building with the force of a small car. Unfortunately the roof was sound enough that it did not break, removing some of the element of surprise. The next two soldiers landed on the pavement in front of and behind the building, however, effectively blocking escape. The next soldier, and Phil, also landed on the roof. Phil managed to hit an air conditioning unit, which broke through the roof, providing quick access. The other two on the roof quickly followed Phil through the hole. Phil and the other soldier, John, immediately secured the room. It was a large studio, which hadn't been cleaned for quite some time. While they were doing that, the squad leader pulled a thermal scanner from his pocket and quickly searched for all the heat sources in the building. The nearest one appeared to be directly below them. John took point, and Phil took up the rear, as the trio quickly but quietly left the studio, and started down the hallway. They froze when sounds could be heard from below, but the scanner did not show any of the sources to be moving, so they continued. At the end of the hallway they found dozens of brown paper boxes. While Phil and John watched, as witnesses, the leader quietly opened one. It was no surprise to Phil when the squad leader pulled out a plastic bag full of white powder. The squad leader pulled a small probe out of his belt, and sank it into the bag, but it was more of a formality than anything else. Phil could recognize Slam when he saw it. The drug was responsible for more death than any other illegal drug since heroin, and much of it to innocent people. Mere possesion of it was a capital crime under martial law. Four people had been shot that morning for owning it. Phil hated it. They reached the bottom of the stairs without making a sound, the force fields around their bodies supporting them millimeters off the concrete steps. The stair emptied into a hall, with two doors on the left and one on the right. The scanner showed one large heat source behind the first door to the left. Phil hugged the wall, just to the left of the door, facing in, with John hugging the wall to the right. The leader put away the scanner, readied his rifle, switched his field to assist, and kicked. The door was a cheap wooden one, and it gave way spectacularly. The remnants of the flimsy barrier bounced across the room, waking it's inhabitants. The man, probably the main pusher, yelled and rolled across the woman, who screamed and clutched the blanket. The squad leader covered them, and started to shout an order to freeze. The drug dealer grabbed a small automatic off the night stand as he fell from the bed. Just as Phil stepped into the room, the dealer sat up, and aimed the gun at the squad leader. The roar from the weapon blanked out all thought in the room. Phil stepped back and aside, to get a clearer field of fire. John did the same. Before either of them could really aim, however, the shooting was over. The squad leader stood with his legs apart, holding the railgun at his waist. The drug dealer was lying on the floor, his body almost bisected by two gaping wounds. The bed was lying in two pieces, the body of the woman mostly hidden in the bloody blanket. The three stood there, frozen for a moment. The woman's body slowly slid off the bed to the floor, on top of her dead lover. The leader carefully approached, and checked for any vital signs. There were none. It was probably just as well, thought Phil. Better a quick killing here than to have to take them in and have them shot. The leader headed for the door. Phil turned and followed him. The leader stepped into the hallway, and there was the sudden bang of a large caliber pistol. The squad leader was pushed aside by the force of the bullet encountering his force field. Phil stepped into the doorway, rifle up, back against the frame. The attacker was two doors down, on the right. He fired before Phil had a chance to aim. The slug hit Phil's breastplate like a well-thrown fastball. The man ducked back into the room. Phil didn't even really aim. He held the trigger down, and tracked with the muzzle. The incandescent rounds converted the cheap concrete of the walls into deadly shrapnel as they punched fist-sized holes in the cement. Phil stopped after six shots, and John scuttled down the hall, weapon ready, while Phil held his position. John's expression let Phil know that there was no longer any danger. Phil turned to the leader, who climbed to his feet, a little embarrassed at having been caught. While John checked the drug runner for life, Phil and the squad leader checked each other for wounds. Then the squad leader broke out the scanner again. It showed no definite targets. As they were on the fourth floor, however, they still could not relax. They reassumed their positions and started down again. Phil had just started down the next flight of stairs when the feeling he had dreaded hit him. It hit him after every successful mission, and sometimes during a mission. It was terrible feeling that he had just participated in someone's death. Sometimes it only happened afterward, as in this case. What was worse was when he got it beforehand, as he often did when testifying in the short, formalized trials that had been held daily for the last four days, where the soldiers were required to help convict the people who they brought in from the drug raids. Phil had watched a seemingly endless stream of people standing before that awful table, as he and his fellows had told of drugs and weapons found on premises, found on persons, found in cars. What was really awful was when they were young, say his age, and when they were female. The next floor was clear, as was the next. A heat source appeared when they reached the ground floor, however. It seemed to be coming from the basement. Cautiously John started down the stone steps, the leader and Phil right behind. At the bottom there was a locked door. John carefully picked it, and pushed it open. It opened on a panorama of chemistry. Tubing, stainless steel, and chemicals littered the large, well-lit room. As Slam was synthetic, it was possible to produce it almost anywhere, with the right knowledge. >From the looks of the setup, a little of the right knowledge was soaking into the rugs four stories up. The leader indicated a door on the other end of the room. It was open, and the three slid in. Phil could see that the signal on the scanner was a strong one. The hall they entered was short and narrow, with a door at the end, and one on the right. The leader indicated the far door, and John stepped up to it. He switched to assist, and was about to kick it in when the leader tapped him on the shoulder. As the leader waved John off, Phil could see that the signal was so strong as to be indeterminant. The leader turned to Phil, and motioned at the other door, which Phil was standing beside. Phil's heart started pumping. The squad leader motioned for Phil to do the honors. Phil switched on, readied his gun, and kicked. In the gloom it was a moment before he saw the stubby tank. He immediately recognized it as a water heater. The leader stared at it for a moment from the doorway, then gave a grim chuckle. He turned and started for the stairs, John behind him. Phil stood there for a moment, grateful for the reprieve. He started to turn to leave, and saw the foot. It was mostly hidden under a rag. It was bare, and dirty. Phil's heart started hammering. Suddenly everything seemed to become crystal clear. He could hear the gentle rustling of some papers as John knocked them to the floor on his way to the door. He could hear the soft, electric hum of the water heater. It was almost as if someone else was in his body, and he was just watching, as he leaned forward and looked around behind the tank. She couldn't have been more than nineteen. If the look on her face hadn't been so terrified, she might have been pretty. She had long blond hair, and blue eyes. And she was staring straight at him. He opened his mouth to call his companions, but as he did she silently mouthed a desperate "No", and the words froze in his mouth. It was then that he saw the patch on her arm. Slam is a strange drug. It has mild halucinogenic effects, as well as being a powerful stimulant. There were rumors that any sensation experienced while under it's influence was magnified a hundred times. It was also very volatile, making it possible to absorb the drug through the skin. The standard way to use it was to sprinkle some on gauze, and tape the gauze to the skin with plastic tape, allowing the user's body heat to evaporate the chemical. The usual place to put the patch if one was a solitary user was the arm. The girl was still staring at him, pleading. She knew her life was in his hands, Phil could tell. He stared at the patch, thoughts and images running through his head. The squad leader, knocked aside by the pistol slug. A young pleading face, blood sprinkled on the forehead, the eyes fixing, glazing. A friend, a comrade, lying on the sidewalk, eyes up, as if to look at the small hole punched in his forehead. The woman upstairs, her hair flying slightly upward as the leader's rounds sprayed her internal organs on the rug beneath her bed. Another pretty, young woman, crying beside her car, which held the body of her young husband, an innocent bystander killed in a drug war. "Please," Phil heard her whisper, "I'll do anything, anything..." Phil stared at her. He imagined her, handcuffed to the wooden pole, her back to the four soldiers, aiming their rifles. "Please, no..." He looked at her. She noticed the patch for the first time, pulled it off. "Phil?" John called from the stairs. Phil turned aside, startled, then looked back quickly. She hadn't even moved. She had her eyes closed. Phil realized that she could think of nothing she could offer Phil for her life. Indeed, Phil realized, there was nothing here, in her whole way of life, that was of value to anyone. "Lieutenant, John! I think you'd better come here." -Jim Owens <>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>X<>

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank