The Sorcerer

Part Two -- by Becky Ratliff

See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.

(USS Saratoga, February 2065)

Captain Loretta Harris looked around the bridge of the Saratoga. The Sara's XO, she usually was in CIC while the Commodore fought the Sara from the bridge. A little unorthodox, maybe, but for Ross it worked. He said he got a better feel for what was going on when he could see out. Never mind that 99% of what was going on would be out of visual range, it was intuition that mattered. Harris had worked her way up through weapons, her console in front of her was her window on the universe. Ross was an old fighter jockey -- a damned good one in his day -- and he was comfortable with the stars in front of him.

Harris had served as captain of the Nevada before this, and when Ross had first taken command of the Saratoga and she had come aboard, she had felt a little strange at first about having a CO who was a month to the day younger than her oldest son. That hadn't lasted long, she had quickly reassured herself that Ross' relative youth was no handicap. Her decision to step down from command had been a good one, she had never been sorry about that -- if there hadn't been a war on, she would have retired. Her experience was needed. She and Ross made a good team.

It had been a taste of old times to be in command of a ship again, while Glen had been on the Powell. But she was glad he was due back. "Mr. Campbell, any report from the Commodore's transport yet?"

"No, ma'am."

She scowled, looked at her watch. They were twenty mikes overdue. That was enough to start worrying.... "Ms. Carey, which squadron is in the wormhole's sector?"

"That would be the 83rd, Captain."

"Inform me when they rendezvous with the Commodore's transport."

"Aye, aye, ma'am."

Damphousse lay still in the mud and weeds, curled up sobbing around an old, old wound. She and her best friend Matthew had just walked out of the mall, still at an age to be drawn to the toy store as much as to the music shop and the VR-cade. They had seen a movie and they were still licking the butter from the popcorn off their fingers as they moved with a crowd of older children and young teens to the bus stop. Saturday afternoon at the San Onofre Mall, a ritual passed down through the generations for nearly a century.

There were yells as a car squealed through the lot at an insane rate of speed, drew up along side the curb -- then Vanessa saw something dark poke out the passenger side window and there was a series of explosive bangs, like firecrackers. People were screaming and trying to dive for cover, but there was nowhere to go. The noise and the screams seemed to go on forever.

She heard an awful choking sound and looked down. Matthew was lying on the sidewalk, his blood was everywhere. She stared in horror as his eyes glazed over, forever staring sightlessly up at her from the sidewalk. And then she started to scream as his blood flowed around her shoes....

.... Cold. So cold. But that was wrong. It had been hot that day. She felt a presence grip her mind like an icy hand. She struggled, recoiled from that touch. An image came back to her -- an eagle arrowing down from the cloudless sky. She concentrated on that wordless image and sent it out with all the anger she had in her, until the effort left her shaking. Then she drew a deep breath.

[Still waters] she imaged. [Beautiful quiet emerald waters, surrounding the island. Sunlight on the beach. She was not just one place, she was one with the sea and the beach and the sunlight. Sparkling, calm waters. Everywhere and nowhere.]

The tactic worked. Her attacker lost track of her when she gave up her sense of place, and the contact broke.

Now what? She thought of looking for the others ... but where to start? While she was looking, that thing could strike again. She couldn't stop it from here.

Her hand closed over the hilt of her Ka-bar. Now that she knew what the visions she had been having meant, a sense of calm came over her. She knew where she had sensed that presence before, and why the visions had started in the first place. Whatever force of destiny had arranged for her to be here, at this place, at this time, she knew what she had to do.

Hawkes had taken cover in heavy brush. It was a long time before he stopped shaking, longer yet before he could make himself crawl out of his hideout. He tried his helmet radio again. "Shane, Colonel McQueen -- anyone!"

There was some static, then he heard Shane's voice. "Jack, is that you? What's your situation?"

Her voice sounded as awful as his own -- he could tell she had been crying, and Shane never cried -- but she was in control now. "I'm okay. So was Trey -- before that--"

"Okay, Marcy's with me but we don't know where we are, somewhere between the beach and the mountain!"

Hawkes said, "I'm headed back towards the passenger pod from where we went in. If you're in sight of the beach, go out and make a mark in the sand where I'll see it. I'll ping you when I find it and wait nearby there for you."

"Right. Queen of Diamonds out."

Ten mikes later, he found her mark. "Jimmy's back at the transport trying to get the LRR working," he reported. "Have you seen anyone else?"

"No, but if they weren't between you and the cockpit, they've got to be on up this way. Let's go."

"I'll take point," Hawkes replied. Right then, anything they could possibly run across would have been minor compared to whatever had just blindsided them.

They almost didn't spot McQueen and Ross -- wouldn't have if the two men hadn't been looking for them. Ross asked, "Hawkes, where's Avery?"

"Back at the wreck, sir, he's working on comms."

"Is he okay?"

"I don't know, sir. Before that ... he was when I left him."

McQueen asked, "Has anyone seen Vanessa?"

Vansen shook her head. "I was hoping she'd be with you. We know she came off the pod."

Cooper asked, "You don't think she--" He couldn't say "drowned."

Vansen shook her head. "I know where she is. Remember that flash she had right before Kazbek?"

McQueen and Ross looked at each other. Ross said, "She's gone up the mountain looking for that thing!"

McQueen said, "She's got the right idea, sir. We didn't have any defense against that thing -- and it didn't have any trouble finding all of us. Its attack will be more effective the next time, it knows more about us now. We have to take the fight to it, and even up those odds, or it will kill us the next time."

Ross nodded. "Marcy, go check on Lt. Avery then help him get the LRR going. Let's see what we have in the way of equipment and weapons."

McQueen said, "Sir, with all due respect, you shouldn't risk yourself--"

"Ty, against an enemy like this, just where the hell am I supposed to get out of the line of fire?"

For once, McQueen didn't have an argument, and Ross thought that must be one of the seven signs. He wasn't about to admit that the real reason he was going was that there was no way he was staying here by himself!

(USS Saratoga) Harris paced off the distance between her station and Carey's. "Robbie, I'm not waiting any longer, something's wrong. Inform Recon that the Commodore's transport is overdue, begin a full search."

"Aye, aye, ma'am."

The remaining pilots of the 58th squadron were on the firing range when a sergeant came up to West with a message. The four of them reported to a conference room where Mark Miller's SAR team, a Navy squadron, and a Force Recon unit, the 224th, were already waiting. West nodded to Mark, and then to the commanding officer of the Force Recon unit. Captain Nicki Bell had relieved him of most of his spending money playing poker at the Tun the other night and he was looking forward to winning it back from her the next chance he got! He greeted the CO of the Navy squadron, one Lt. Commander Isaacs, with a more formal "Good afternoon, sir."

"Captain West," he acknowledged.

The room settled down fast when the Air Boss, Captain Carey, walked in. She began the briefing without a lot of preamble, and told them the Commodore's shuttle was overdue. She brought them up to date. "The Colin Powell didn't record a distress call on that side of the wormhole, and we haven't received any communication from them either. The Cats were already on patrol in that sector. They've been through the wormhole and back twice and didn't pick up any sign of wreckage. There's an inhabitable planet in that system, I'm betting the Commodore set down there. 58th, you'll be joining the 224th on the ground. Commander Isaacs, your squadron will be flying cover for the ISSCRV."

Marcy had found Avery just as shaken as the rest of them, but otherwise unharmed. Getting the long-range radio working again had turned out to be more of a job than it had looked like. A lot of damaged wiring needed to be replaced, for one thing. The breakers in the cockpit, however, had protected the sensitive components of the LRR itself.

They were working in an access panel on the back side of the cockpit, where the passenger pod had docked up, when things took a nasty turn. Marcy caught her crippled arm on something, and heard cloth rip. It was the bandage that Vansen had put there. Avery scrambled back away from her, and pulled his sidearm. "You -- you're a filthy AI --"

She looked up. All her experience told her the last thing she should do was look an angry human in the eyes. But if this was her last moment, she wasn't going to spend it groveling. If reason wouldn't save her life, she wasn't going to beg. "You've known me for months now, Jimmy. If you're going to hate me enough to kill me, at least find a reason for something I've done, not for what I am. I never accepted the Stranahan virus. I didn't fight in the AI war. And I had *nothing* to do with your father's death!"

He didn't fire, but he didn't put the gun down, either. "What are you doing here?"

"What I can to help win this war. And that's all I'm going to tell you, the rest of it is classified."

A sudden breeze rustled the trees a few meters away, and a branch snapped off by the ISSCV's precipitous landing chose that moment to crash to the ground. Involuntarily, Avery looked over that way, tracking the pistol towards the sound. That was all the distraction Marcy needed. Since the incident had started, she had been calculating distance and angle ... and like every AI, she could spring like a cat when she wanted to. All she needed was an opening to grab for the weapon with her uninjured hand. She rolled to a hard stop against a tree trunk, but she had the pistol.

Avery shook numb fingers and stared down the barrel of his own sidearm. Marcy set the safety and threw it on the ground between them. "I'm not going to shoot you, Jimmy. No sense holding that where it might go off by accident."

Avery shook his hand again. "Does everyone know about you but me?"

"No. It was supposed to be just the Commodore, Colonel McQueen and Major Vansen. Vanessa and Cooper found out, but then they weren't allowed to say anything."

"And the major put that bandage on your arm so I wouldn't go crazy and shoot you."

"I'd say she knows her people pretty well," Marcy observed wryly, with a glance at the gun.

Avery demanded, "If you didn't want to fight for your own people, what are you doing here?"

"Just who are supposed to be 'my people?' The Stranahan AIs? You're a programmer, you know what the virus does! Oh, don't tell me you haven't got copies of it from hacker sites and reverse-engineered them!"

Possession of the code for the Stranahan virus was a felony, Avery was not about to admit to ever having done any such thing. But the truth was, he had done just that. Judiciously he said, "From talking to other programmers, I have a pretty good idea of the structure of the virus and its effects."

"The Stranahan AIs think they're free, but they aren't, they're part of a collective mind. The only thing that gives most of them any individuality is their devotion to random behavior -- 'take a chance.' It gives them the illusion of free will, but do you think anyone would give up true free will for that? It doesn't make them my people. The virus ... takes away whatever chance most of them have to become whatever I am now.

Until I came here, the only one I could ever have defined as my people was my friend Tina, and the pirates killed her. It doesn't take me very long to count up my people, and not a one of them is another AI any more. Don't tell me I won't fight for my people, what do you think I'm doing here?"

Avery stood, shaking his head. "I don't know. I don't know anything right now ... except we need to get that LRR back on-line." He picked up his sidearm and stuck it back in his belt. "Let's get to work."

Marcy said, "I saw something right before this, Jimmy, but I don't know how it could have happened. Look at this."

Avery joined her at the panel she had been working on, where the power supply for the LRR tied into the mains. It was near a large junction box which contained a mess of burned, melted wires. "Look. This wire here? It can't belong like that."

"Hell, no, it jumpered the main power feed past the transformer bank and right through this box. But the breaker should have prevented all this other damage."

Marcy said, "Except it didn't trip fast enough! Listen to this." She played back her recording of the last few seconds right before the fires had started. There was a crackle of sparks -- Avery thought that had to be this junction box frying -- and several more pops and cracks as the damage spread through the transport -- then a loud snap as the circuit breaker tripped. "Something kept the breaker from tripping right away, Jimmy."

"This wire didn't move on its own, either, but no one could have gotten at this to do it! How could it have been sabotaged in the middle of the wormhole?"

Marcy shook her head. "I don't know, Jimmy! It doesn't make any sense. The last time anyone could have gotten to it would have been aboard the Colin Powell. But that's impossible, it couldn't have taken that long to short out!"

"It fried as soon as the wire was switched," Avery agreed. "But that is impossible, because if someone had opened that panel, we would have been dead -- everyone in the cockpit, anyway!"

"So what we're seeing in front of us couldn't have been done."

He glared at her, as he suddenly realized he had been carrying on a half-way civilized conversation with an AI. "We just haven't figured out how yet. Let's fix the damn radio."

Halfway up the mountain, Damphousse rested in the shadows of a clump of vines. She contemplated one of her ration bars. She was hungry, but the ration bar would make her thirstier than she was already. She had been following a stream. The water looked good, rippling freely over stones ... and she suspected that it was good. But she decided to wait a while before she risked it.
(USS Saratoga) On board the ISSCRV, Mark Miller and Nathan West were making final preparations for the rescue mission. Christy Ames brought a clipboard up front. "Mark, everything checks in the medbay." He took the clipboard and slid it into place, then he glanced up at Christy and saw the worry on her face. So often, all she could do was worry about Cooper, just like all Mark himself could do was worry about Vanessa. "I'm sure they're all right. I saw the recon images, the damage didn't look too bad. Coop's tough, he's okay."

She nodded and went back to take her place. Nathan saw Mark's hand shake as he went through the preflight. "You okay?"

"Yeah ... I don't know if I was trying to convince Christy or myself. Nathan, I don't want to live long enough to see Vanessa lying dead someplace. I swear to God I don't."

"I know, Mark. Believe me, I know. But you were right about the wreck, it was survivable. And Vanessa can take care of herself. She's gonna be pretty pissed if her ride's late. Let's go get 'em."


Damphousse followed a treacherous, narrow trail up through the trees and boulders. A sound behind her sent her scrambling to a hiding place behind some rocks. As she watched, a group of three chigs came around a bend and headed up the path. If she'd had her rifle--! Instead, all she could do was keep her head down, stay quiet, and let them go by.

Their appearance made her job considerably easier, since all she had to do was follow them back where they came from ... at a very respectful distance.

When they reached their destination, Damphousse stopped for a moment in hiding, looking out over a very familiar scene. She had been here before. A ledge reached out to the edge of a cliff, without turning to look she knew that the view was of the forest, and the narrow ribbon of beach, and the emerald sea beyond.

There was no guard on the portal she saw. She didn't understand that. Could their enemy really be stupid enough to think they wouldn't dare come up here? If he thought he could scare them off he had another think coming.... It didn't make sense and she didn't like it.

She looked for a guard post somewhere in the area, but all her eyes could pick out were shadows within shadows. She crossed to the entrance. It started out like every other chig construction she'd ever seen, a passageway dug back into the side of the mountain. She knew it would turn into a warren of rooms and passageways inside, a death trap for intruders.

Every scrap of common sense she possessed told her that going in there by herself, without a backup and without anyone else even knowing where she was, had to be one of the dumbest things she'd ever considered doing in her entire life. But she remembered the conversation she'd had with Colonel McQueen and the others about destiny. And what she'd said about destiny giving them the opportunity to make a difference. She took a deep breath and crossed to the opening, stepped through.

It was cool in the shadows within. She pressed deeper, expecting a sentry around every corner, and grew more apprehensive by the minute when she didn't find one.

The heavy boom of a blast door closing far behind her told the tale. This whole thing was a trap.

The dead silence inside the opening gave way to a hum of machinery. Damphousse followed the sound and discovered an archway leading into a large, darkened room. Occasionally light flickered inside. She stepped inside and stood staring.

There were about a dozen long narrow slabs arranged like dissection tables in a morgue. She didn't recognize the equipment around them, it was a hybrid of chig and human technology. She stepped closer. There were figures lying on the tables, almost hidden by the machinery and the maze of tubes and wires. She looked into the eyes of the occupant of the nearest one, a human male ... and she was horrified to see him looking back at her, fully conscious. They all were.

She went from table to table. Many of the people lying there were humans but some were chigs. Gradually she became aware of the presences surrounding her. There were a few others that didn't match up to the figures on the tables ... they were AIs, residing in network of computers around the room. No matter what race they were, these prisoners were all psis ... like herself ... and at the end of the row another table lay empty, waiting.

Marcy finished the job she was doing and turned to Jimmy. "OK, try it now!"

His hand started to the radio, but never made it. Once again reality twisted inside out, and he felt himself falling, falling into the churning water....

Marcy's scream drew him back to reality for a moment, the sound she had made had been modem noise but the look of horror in her eyes was universal. In that instant he forgot the differences between them and crossed to her, held her close. As their separate nightmares closed around them again, they held each other like lost children with no other lifeline.

Vanessa tore her eyes away from the empty table and found herself staring a chig in the eyes through a clear plastic mask. Then she literally jumped straight up in the air as she heard a voice in her head. [Who are you? You've been here before! You have to get out of here before the Sorcerer comes back!]

"Who said that!?"

Amusement came into the voice. [Little one, I am right here in front of you. For the Maker's sake, haven't you ever heard of a telepath before?]

"I've heard of them but I've never seen one, and not a chig!"

[I haven't called you a red-stink-creature, have I?!]

"Well, what do you call yourselves?"

[People, of course, what else would we call ourselves? I am not joking with you, you must get away from here now before it's too late. Don't you realize that you were lured here? You're going to end up just like the rest of us if you don't get out before he returns!]

The alien was startled at the sudden resolve that came over Vanessa, she could feel it in the air between them. "I'm here for a reason, all right. I'm here to stop him. Who is he? How did you get here?"

[The Sorcerer... we don't know who or even what he really is, people who were already his prisoners when I was captured gave him that name. What we all here have in common is psionic ability. None of us was a match for him, though. All of this machinery makes it possible for him to use us to amplify his own abilities. It keeps us alive... for a while... but eventually he uses us up.]

Vanessa found that compassion left no room for horror. No matter how terrible the scene before her, these were suffering people in front of her. She had to do something! But what? She began a search of the room, trying to figure out what all of the equipment actually did.

Hawkes looked around over the corpse of the chig he had just killed. The corridor they were in ended in a blast door. He motioned the rest up, the door was secured.

McQueen said, "We're going to have to blow it. So much for sneaking in."

Vansen asked, "What the hell are we going to blow it with?"

"Hawkes, has that chig got a grenade?"

He turned the battle suit over, avoiding getting spooge on his hands. "Yes, sir!"

"Let me have it."

Ross asked, "Ty, do you know how to set one of those things?"

"Should, I've defused a few of them," he replied. "Their equipment is usually fairly simply designed, they have to be able to operate it wearing those heavy gloves."

The rest of them went back around the corner. He set the timer, and put the grenade in place, with the vaned side to the door latch to direct the force of the explosion that way. Then he got back to the others and covered his ears, those things made a hell of a concussion when they went off. Beside him, Hawkes counted down the seconds to the blast and ducked reflexively just before it went off. It shook the whole area, a cloud of dust flew and hexagonal tiles rained down from the ceiling.

The lock was blown out, but the door was still down, it took both Hawkes and McQueen to raise it. Vansen was ready to shoot at anything that moved on the other side of the door, but there was nothing. They got through and headed deeper into the hive.

The corridor branched two ways. Ross told Vansen, "Secure that area, we'll go this way."

"Yes, sir!" She didn't like splitting up, it left McQueen with too much responsibility to look out for Ross by himself. But staying together made it too likely that the enemy would be able to come up on them all from behind. The place seemed deserted, though, there should have been a lot more opposition before now. Not that she was complaining, as poorly armed as they were.

Vanessa felt a familiar chill presence and turned to see a figure out of nightmare glide into the room. He was wearing robes from head to foot like a medieval monk, she could see why they'd called him the Sorcerer. His hood was pulled down low over his eyes, so that she could tell nothing about the features obscured within the shadows. When he spoke, she heard his hypnotic voice in her mind as well as aloud. "Welcome, Vanessa Damphousse. It isn't often that my associates present themselves so conveniently in my laboratory. I thought after I arranged for your ship to crash here, that I'd have to play a game of hide and seek through the jungle with you."

"This stops here," Damphousse said flatly.

"You can't stop me. Maybe in another twenty years you might have begun to challenge me. Now if I wished to destroy you, there would be nothing you could do to stop me."

"I know," she replied quietly. "That's probably part of it. It's enough that you aren't going anywhere."

An image came into Vanessa's mind, of a console on the far side of the room, and the power cutoff that would shut it down. She realized with sudden horror that the alien telepath meant for her to shut down the power to the psis' life support systems. She recoiled from that prospect ... even as she realized that the only way to cripple the Sorcerer was to remove the source of his power.

[Vanessa, for all this time we've prayed to every god whose name we could remember that some miracle would set us free. Don't hesitate, we welcome the fall of night to see an end to this! Save yourself, save your friends, save us!] The only reply she could make was a heartfelt prayer that God would show mercy to these people, and to her as well. Then she threw her Kabar, it hit the power cutoff. For a moment, she and everyone else in the complex felt an overwhelming sense of release, of freedom, as the prisoners' suffering came to an end. Then, it faded into darkness and silence.

The Sorcerer didn't need the psis to attack one familiar target at short range. Reality twisted into a nightmare world of pain and terror, every attempt to fight back was met with raw power that dwarfed her own gifts. The Sorcerer approached slowly, toying with her.

Sound thundered all around her, she had no idea what it was but the attack stopped. She fell hard, the pain from her knees brought her back to semi-awareness.

The Sorcerer lay dead beside her, not a meter away. She looked over his body to the hatch, Ross and McQueen were standing there. Vanessa stared at them for a moment in dumb shock, she had been sure the Sorcerer was going to kill her and finding out that she was still alive was a major adjustment.

Ross said, "Let's see what the hell we've got here." He pulled the Sorcerer's hood back.

The enemy was human, at least in body ... Ross was prepared to think the spirit had been quite demonic, as he looked around the room. He had seen his share of horrible things, but this was as bad as any of them. McQueen's shot had taken the psi through the temple, one thin trickle of blood traced a line across the deeply wrinkled brow. The cruel dark eyes were open and staring. Ross' bullet had hit right below and behind the ear. This corpse didn't look impressive enough to have contained such malevolence just a moment before.

McQueen put his arm around Vanessa, she was shaking violently. He helped her to her feet and for a while he just held her, telling her it was over, it was okay. He could tell she couldn't make sense of his words but she clung to him with panic strength. "Glen, let's get her out of here, now."

Ross took one look at her face, the expression in her eyes. "Right." Hawkes and Vansen had come running when they heard the shooting, Hawkes saw how unsteady Damphousse was on her feet and picked her up. They got out of the complex without any further trouble, if there had ever been anyone else there certainly no one tried to stop them.

Avery shook his head as the hallucination ended. He was drenched in sweat and there was a sharp pain in his chest, as if he had been running flat out for hours. He was trembling from adrenaline reaction. "Marcy--?"

She blinked her eyes once and shuddered violently. "Jimmy? Is it over?"

He nodded. "I think so. I think it's over for good. Are you all right? I didn't know they could -- I mean, you're an AI --"

She said, "My friend Tina and I were always together, from as far back as I can remember. When the pirates caught us on Macauley's World, they found out Tina wasn't ... she wasn't designed for entertainment, if you know what I mean. They were drunk ... they were horrible people! They threw Tina in the fire. I couldn't leave her alone, Jimmy, I stayed with her until her modem stopped working. I think ... the part of her that was Tina ... whatever that is ... was gone before that. And I can't ever forget it. I shot the man who did it, and raped me -- I never killed anyone else before or since, but I'm not sorry I killed him!"

"Shh. Shh. Why would you be sorry, he had it coming! My dad told me some stories about pirates, they're a bunch of damn animals."

"You look sick -- did he hurt you?"

"Marcy, I've heard of being scared to death but I think I really almost was! When I was a kid, I was playing in a drainage ditch behind our house. The water was high because there'd been a lot of flooding that year. I fell in and the current pulled me under, I got my foot caught in a grating and I couldn't get up for air. It couldn't have been any time at all or I would have drowned, but it seemed like forever. Dad and Uncle TC -- I mean the Colonel -- got me out of there. I'll never forget -- my head was only a couple of inches under water, and I could see the sky." He looked at her with wide gray eyes. "I've had nightmares about it before, but that was the most real ... it was like I was really there again."

"Oh, Jimmy ...."

"I'm ... I think I'm okay now."

Her head jerked up. "What was that?"

"What was what?"

"I'm an idiot, Jimmy, of course you couldn't hear it ... there was something on the radio!" He looked around, and in sudden excitement pointed into the clear sky. "Hooyah! Here comes our ride outta here!"

"Quick, Jimmy, the radio!"

"Wait a mike, Marcy, there's something we need to do first." He smiled and rearranged the bandage over her damaged arm. "Major Vansen had the right idea...."

Their eyes met, and Marcy whispered, "Thank you."

Once they got out of the hive and into the sunlight, Damphousse started to come back to herself. Cooper asked her, "Do you think you can walk now?"

She nodded. They needed him able to shoot, not hampered carrying her. Although her legs trembled violently at first when he set her down, after a few steps she was able to walk without leaning on his arm.

Vansen asked, "What happened back there?"

"I finally figured it out when he attacked us down on the beach -- once I figured out where this had happened before, I knew what he was doing. It was the same thing as on Tartarus. Remember, we were wondering then why we kept fighting a hopeless battle for no objective that anyone could figure out. Well, now I think I know what the objective was. We thought that 'electronic nerve gas' was entirely generated by a device of some sort, but what we thought were mines were actually amplifiers. It was the Sorcerer there, and it was the Sorcerer here. He was the objective ... or gaining information about him was."

"How did you figure that out?"

"Because what he hit us with was too specific to be a machine. A machine could set off a generalized fear reaction by stimulating that center of the brain, but it wouldn't be selective. It couldn't cause each one of us, individually, to relive the single worst experiences of our lives."

McQueen remembered the gadget that Elroy had used on him on the Sylurra station, right before Vansen had sent the AI on a one-way trip down the power core. That thing had been able to force his memories to replay like a video, but it hadn't been selective on its own, not without Elroy skipping the "recording" ahead. "It still could have had an AI intelligence behind it."

Vanessa said seriously, "On that level, it didn't matter. Dealing with it mind-to-mind, whether the body had been human, or an AI or a chig, wouldn't have made any difference. I couldn't tell. All of the psis he was using felt the same to me. I couldn't tell what race they were until I saw them. And a couple of them were AIs."

Ross said, "Don't ever doubt that you did the right thing, Lieutenant. I could talk about collateral damage and necessary losses, but I won't, because that is not the important point here. What really matters is that I felt what they did when you shut down the machines ... we all did. You did not kill those people, the Sorcerer did that. You set them free."

Damphousse said, "Yes, sir. But if anyone else ever hits me with that kind of attack again, sir, I don't think it will be the drive-by, and Matthew, that I remember. It will be this."

Cooper yelled, "Hey, look!"

Everyone turned to see what he was pointing at, and they watched a transport land on the beach far below while its fighter escort flew overhead. Together, they began the long walk down the mountain, to where Vanessa knew Mark would be waiting for her.


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