New Fiction: Reunion (Chapter 3)
March 4, 2002
I completed seven ALTERCATIONS pages in February. The book is now 50% completed. Tonight, in need of white colored pencil and yellow markers and having neither, I decided to complete this long-overdue story arc...
“Where are we going?” Peppersmith asked. Shelley did not reply. The men became aware of the whisper-like noise Blythe had noted earlier in the evening. The sound gained prominence as the music from the floor above diminished in intensity. The basement contained several rooms, the first of which was only slightly larger than a row-home laundry room. A polished, metal table, waist-high and approximately 3’ square, was in the center of the room.
“There are things we believe to be true, and there are things we know to be true,” Shelley said. She opened the center drawer of the table and removed three objects, placing each on the table’s surface.
“Tell me what you see.”
The objects were easily identifiable, and Peppersmith said to Shelley, “a pocket watch, a fountain pen, and a silver dollar.”
“Yes…and no,” Shelley replied. “You—each of you—have been remembering a series of lies—a series of…partial untruths. You have been, and remain, under hypnosis—under my control.”
“This is preposterous,” Blythe shouted.
“You were easiest of the three, Blythe. As the Never Mind, you believed yourself to be above any outside mind control. In truth, I did not need to hypnotize any of you—my ability is that of mind manipulation to the Nth degree. However, I felt that, for a long-term effect, traditional hypnosis would best serve my needs.”
Peppersmith looked at the pocket watch and his mind flashed back several hours to the Howard Miller grandfather clock he’d seen in the living room. Again there was a voice inside his head that seemed to speak remember.
“What’s this all about, Shelley?” he asked.
“Earlier tonight you recalled the events of the Hoover Dam and Canada and you are all in agreement of those events. I will now tell you what actually occurred and explain why it was necessary to implant in you the untruths that you’ve believed these last two decades. First, however, you may find my tale easier to believe if I offer to you a bit of, shall we say, physical evidence to corroborate the story I am about to tell.”
Shelley walked toward a panel on the wall and placed her palm against it. There was a momentary sound of metal clicking; tumblers turned slowly. Next to the panel a metal door clicked open. The room within was dimly lit. The source of the tinny sounds heard throughout the evening was contained within this room; that much was apparent. The Head and his craft were positioned in the room’s center and were surrounded by various machinery clearly inspired by the writings of H.G. Wells. The Head was very aged; wrinkled flesh covered him from head to neck. Fatty neck tissue hung over the metal edges of the flyer, which was badly damaged and rusted. Several wires were affixed to the corners of the craft. The opposite ends of the wires were secured to a tabletop. The craft’s engine strained against the wires but was unable to break free from the ensnarement. The Head seemed oblivious to the quartet’s presence and merely rested atop its craft like a terminal patient abandoned of all hope. The craft clumsily and noisily descended to the tabletop then rose once more; this action continued rhythmically.
“He’s been doing that for the past 20 years. Never stops. Floats up. Tries to break free. Floats down. Et cetera, so on, and so forth. All day, every day.”
“We saw him die,” Wellington said, aghast.
“You thought you saw him die. You were mistaken. I made you believe you saw something that did not actually occur.”
Shelley paused and breathed deeply over the electrical sounds of the Head’s vessel.
“Perhaps…perhaps it was selfishness on my behalf. I suppose it was. Quite possibly it was a combination of elements. For example, you believed us to be a ‘super-hero’ team and I suppose in a sense we were. However, least you think our altercations with so-called villains were mere happenstance. I’m afraid that’s simply not true. As XX-Y I had formerly worked independently within various covert government agencies. I was still in the employ of the CIA when the Catalysts were formed. One of their divisions was solely devoted to monitoring the activities of so called ‘super humans’—including us. Mostly, they were interested in the loose cannons and, although their surveillance abilities were commendable, they often needed individual manpower (i.e., the Catalysts) to curtail specific threats to civilization.
“What my agency constituents hadn’t realized was that, through self-mutations to my unique XX-Y structure, I’d become capable of detecting these potential rivals independent of the CIA. I’d long known about the Twin Engines, just as I knew about the Head (who I assure you was no rogue operative). He, too, was CIA.
Shelley walked slowly toward the Head, watching the restraining wires grow loose then taut again and again.
“Toward the late 1970s the Head had been trained in Guatemala and was subsequently placed in charge of a covert group of super-humans. By this time, the Catalysts were old news as far as the Agency was concerned. Even I had been officially dismissed from the Agency. They’d found that the Head and his team of subordinates were going to prove far more effective than us. But not even the agency intelligence could predict the mental abilities of the Head. It was an unfortunate occurrence that he, mad with mental and psychic power, chose to have himself dismembered, his head kept alive both artificially and through his own supernatural powers. And yes, so total was his control that his subordinates gladly sacrificed their own organs and life’s blood that he might grow more powerful—and he did. We saw the result of that devotion and he intended to add us to the mass of bodies in his Canadian stronghold.”
She looked at Blythe, who was busily trying to comprehend her words and spoke to him directly. “You thought you’d forced the Twins into a ballet of self-destruction. You thought you’d received information telepathically that informed you about the Head’s base in Canada. Both of these actions were implanted into you through me.”
“Why? For what purpose?” he asked.
“Knowing what I knew about the Head, I sought to use it—to gain control of it for my own, admittedly selfish personal gains. Thus, when we entered that surgical theatre and confronted the Head, the ensuing battle did not occur as you remember it. The Head was not destroyed; it was, however, subdued and brought back to our Catalysts headquarters. We placed the Head in artificial stasis. That evening, I “mind-walked” in the Head’s subconscious and began to fathom the depths to which he could advance my knowledge and skills. I realized that sharing these secrets with you could—would—jeopardize my chances of further study of the Head since my former CIA constituents would, no doubt, obtain knowledge of the Head’s whereabouts from you either directly or indirectly. Thus, the hypnotism. You could not reveal anything to the Agency about the Head if you believed the Head was no longer alive.
Shelley reached her hand out to the Head and slowly caressed its flesh.
“His name was Victor, you know. The name means nothing to him now. But once, long ago, he was a boy named Victor. The Agency learned of a latent psychic talent in the boy when he was six. His parents died shortly thereafter and Victor was taken into the Agency. Poor, poor Victor.” Her fingertips moved slowly down the back of his skull and rubbed softly against the neck.
“We had amazing struggles at first. When he initially regained consciousness he sought to sap my will, to control me as he had his underlings. But I’d anticipated this action and took safeguards. Mainly, I “stole” that part of his mind during my mind-walk. Doing so protected not merely myself but each of you as well.
“You each believe that I spoke publicly against the Catalysts following the confrontation at the Hoover Dam. That also is an untruth I’d planted in your minds. Our only official correspondence to the media was that the Catalysts were disbanding for personal reasons. You can check back-issue newspapers if you’d like—October 30, 1979. The story wasn’t front-page news, but it was picked up by the Associated Press and ran in most newspapers coast to coast.
“While I was concerned about your safety, in truth, I needed time alone to study the Head, to fully extract from it all that could be extracted. How do you think I’ve managed to remain young? Do you think I merely kept up the appearance of youth? No. I’ve stopped aging. Do you understand? I no longer age.”
Blythe’s patience had expired. “What is it you want, Shelley? We’ve stood here now the better part of a half-hour and listed to this…confession…of yours. So I’m asking you what is it that you want from us?”
She looked at him, stunned in disbelief that her intentions were less than crystal clear. “I…I want to help you—each of you—because I can.”
“You want to help us,” Bythe said condescendingly. “Exactly how might you do that?”
“You have cancer,” she said to him flatly and without hesitation.
He stood silently for a moment. “No one…knows about that. How did you--”
“I can see it. It’s there,” she said, pointing at an area near his right lung. “I can destroy it—make you well again.”
“Or plant a hypnotic suggestion that I’m well? Thanks anyway.” His face reddened and he spoke loudly. “I pity you, Shelley. You pathetic, manipulative bitch. Do you know how long I ached inside—believing it was me who had caused the Twin Eng—those children—to slaughter each other, and to believe I’d enjoyed watching it? And now you bring me to your home after I’ve lived with such guilt for 20 years and tell me you used me—my powers—against them. How often I’ve sat in a dark room with a gun in my hand wanting to kill myself—because of something I never did!”
“I’m sorry, Blythe. Please believe that.”
He shouted a string of obscenities at her, moved to the outer room, and ascended the stairs. Shelley walked after him. “Blythe. It’s bad. You’ve six months—maybe seven.”
“And I’ll spend them hating you,” he replied and was gone.
She returned to the room that housed the Head. Wellington and Peppersmith stared at the Head as it bobbed up and down tirelessly.
“Victor doesn’t say much,” Wellington noted.
“The Head hasn’t spoken in 14 years. I’m not sure it’s still capable of speech.”
“Is Blythe really going to die?” Peppersmith asked.
“June 7, 12:04 a.m. in the new year.”
“Why did you bring us here this evening?” he asked.
“I’ve had a good life. The last two decades have been extremely good. I don’t get sick. I don’t age. I’m financially independent. Yet, I have no one—no family, no real friends, and I’ve wanted to be honest with you all for many years. I just couldn’t bring myself to the task. But when I realized Blythe was dying…”
“You knew before tonight?”
“I’ve known since October. That was when I knew I had to see each of you and explain.”
“What about me? What about my future?” Peppersmith asked.
“What would you like to know?”
He considered the question and contemplated many thoughts before finally replying. “Nothing. I don’t want to know anything at all—how I’ll die, when I’ll die, where I’ll die. I don’t want to know if I’ll live to be 80, travel to Europe, or visit long-forgotten relatives.”
“I can keep you from aging,” she said.
“Can you make me young again?”
She hesitated. “No. I can’t do that. Would it have mattered?”
“Not really. Tell me something. The Head…Victor…if and when you’ve grown weary of immortality and ultimate mind power I hope you’ll have the decency to put that sorry son-of-a-bitch out of his misery—you owe him that much. Merry Christmas Shelley, Wellington. I’ll see myself out.”
Wellington walked toward the control console next to the Head. He began depressing various controls and one by one the lights on the panel darkened.
“Tell me something, Shelley,” he said, removing the lipstick-thin gloves he’d worn on his hands throughout the evening. “where does it all end--how does it all end for you?” You seem to be rather intelligent with regard to these matters. So how does it all end for you?”
“I don’t know. I’m unable to see into my own future. What are you doing?”
“Peppersmith is right. This…Head…used to be a person. He’s suffered enough and I doubt he’s of use to you any longer.”
Shelley did not attempt to stop Wellington though she could have done so with remarkable ease. He continued to disable the Head’s artificial life-support mechanisms. The hovercraft upon which the Head rested slowly descended to the tabletop as its engines ceased. The eyes of the Head, which had not opened in many years, creaked open slightly and locked onto Wellington’s eyes. The eyes of the Head were black but focused and there was a clear understanding in those eyes. The Head knew what Wellington was doing and he welcomed release from his pitiful existence. After he’d disabled the main console, Wellington reached across the table and began removing the half-dozen wires inserted into various areas of the Head. With each removed wire the Head lapsed further toward the void. As the final wire was removed the Head silently mouthed the words “thank you.” Its long-sought demise had finally been granted.
The Head’s death sent a series of tremors through Shelley’s mind, but where she anticipated the loss of mental prowess, she instead felt a surge as the last of the Head’s energy with which he’d functioned and tried to resist Shelley passed into her without compromise. She grasped her head with her hands and struggled to maintain her balance. Shelley stumbled to the floor as her equilibrium faltered. The moment passed and her coordination returned.
“Are you okay?” Wellington asked, offering a hand.
“I felt an energy surge in my mind when the Head died. I know what death feels like now—I know.” She grasped Wellington’s hand and regained her footing.
Tell me my future, Shelley. You told Blythe. You would have told Peppersmith. What does fate have in store for me?”
“Numbers,” she replied.
“I see…numbers. A woman—I cannot see her, but I hear her, and she’s reciting numbers to you and others—a series of numbers.”
“That certainly gives me a lot to look forward to. Anything else?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“Take my hands a moment or two. It might help.” She held his hands in hers.
“What’s that expression…a mind is a terrible thing to waste?” he asked. “Did you know I’m married? No. I guess you didn’t. I have a wife and two kids—ages six and eight. Cute as buttons. The younger one’s a bit slow, but they’re both as cute as buttons, Shelley.”
The numbness was coming on slowly like a slow intoxication that doesn’t hit but merely tap tap taps until the intoxicated party tries to stand from the bar stool and without warning kisses the dirty floor of the bar. It arrived surprisingly, unexpectedly, like a bully sneaking into a movie theatre through the fire exit door where it sat quietly waiting, waiting for the usher to depart and the lights to dim before becoming obnoxious and shouting through the entire film. By the time Shelley realized it, the drug was well into her central nervous system. She stood, unmoving, like Oz’s tin man after a heavy downpour. Her eyes burned but she could no longer close her eyelids. The skin above her lips itched but she was no longer able to undertake the steps necessary to scratch it—simple mental commands were now impossible to execute. A lone thought formed in her mind: Run. So simple a thought. See Jane run. Run Jane run. So remedial and unconscious an act. But her body did not—could not--obey the command.
“I’m sorry, you know,” Wellington said. “I mean, about the helplessness you’re now feeling. The chemicals that are, at present, slowing your neurological functions were transferred to you when our hands touched. The Agency’s been using this form of seizure on certain agents on a trial basis; so far it’s worked remarkably well. The drawback—for me and other agents like me—is that it’s a permanent condition. I can’t really have physical contact with anyone without wearing some type of glove or body suit. It’s like going through life wearing a full-body condom. Anyway, I’m sorry for having deceived you. You know, the Agency’s been monitoring you for years. I think they mostly did it out of habit.
“But, you know, after the election and the arrival of the new administration, people started going through the books. They wanted to start the Head campaign again and were going to put you in charge of it but—chauvinist that the old man is--it’s going to go to one of his sons or college buddies. But they’re concerned about you—about the possible dangers a person of your mental ability and probable immortality might pose to the security of the nation. Mostly, I guess they’re afraid that you’ll do to the new Head what you did to poor Victor.”
Shelley had become completely immobile. She could hear and comprehend all that was being said, but she was unable to defend herself in any way. She mounted a psychic attack that should have thrown him into the wall with a force violent enough to sever his spine. He felt nothing.
“They told me that if I helped bring you down they’d find a cure for this—death touch—that I have. I’ve got a family—a wife I haven’t made love to in years—children I can’t touch without wearing gloves. I’m only human. What choice did I have? So they implanted a psychic scrambler in my mind to render you incapable of reading my thoughts, and of attacking me psychically should you choose to do so. Well, I’m sorry as Hell about this, Shelley. I always liked you, and I thought the Catalysts were a pretty decent group of individuals—even after Colorado. But you know as well as I, when you’re in the Agency, you’re always in the Agency.”
Wellington depressed a button on his wrist watch and a van that had been parked 150 yards distant pulled slowly toward the house. Two women and one man emerged from the van’s cargo doors with a gurney and entered Shelley’s home. As Christmas eve became Christmas morn, the glow of the fire from Shelley’s house could be seen from far across the ocean.
Wellington said hello to each of the children in his classroom as they returned from the holiday break. The 12 youngsters in his class were rosy cheeked, their 5-year-old faces aglow with cheer and cold. He shook hands with several of the students because he could. Earlier that morning he’d made love to his wife, had felt her skin for the first time since—since longer than he cared to remember. The children took their seats. They were filled with stories of the holidays. They were special children—orphans mostly—hand-selected by the Agency because of their own inimitable abilities. Wellington thought of the life he had—it was a good life. Not great, but good. After listening to the children describe their holiday presents and goings on for the better part of an hour, Wellington began the day’s lesson plan.
Shortly after the lunch hour had ended, the children settled in for the afternoon instruction. Wellington had placed the object on a table next to his desk and it met with bemused expressions from the youngsters, several of whom frowned at it curiously.
“What is it?” one asked.
“It’s a lady, dummy,” another said amidst the laughter of several others.
“Well, it is and it isn’t,” Wellington declared. “While it looks like a woman it is actually a learning aid. Let me demonstrate.” He looked at Shelley’s head, which had been placed in a more modern preservation device than the one previously occupied by the Head known as Victor. He looked at Shelley’s head, now devoid of nearly all cognition. He looked at the head of his former colleague and swallowed. Wellington realized, with utter simplicity, that that this was how it had to be. Shelley stared back as devoid of soul as she was of body, and opened a pair of lifeless eyes.
“It looks very real,” Wellington told his class, “but it’s all plastic, paint, and wires.” He looked back at Shelley wondering why she’d chosen to live as she’d done. Why she’d kept her life secretive for so many years. She couldn’t answer him now even if he asked her the questions—they’d made certain of that.
“Twos,” he said flatly.
“Twos,” she repeated. “Two time two is four; two times three is six; two times for is eight; two times five is ten.”
The class listened and repeated her words, as they would do every day. Shelley continued her recital, as she would do every day. Wellington watched the interaction between Shelley and the students knowing that each of them would be formed into a special piece of the Agency’s puzzle, just as he and Shelley had been pieces of a larger puzzle. That evening in bed Wellington held his wife tightly and cried; he took comfort, at least, in knowing that he could. It was small consolation, but it was something.
NEXT: The City
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