<--Previous | Guardian of the Angel, Part III: An Angel Cycle Story

He awoke alone, in the darkness. A chill air touched his brow; he would have shivered but for the knowledge that once started the spasms would not stop until they had taken his control completely away. Sitting up, Mtubi sniffed the air to find the now familiar traces of burnt granite and unused hallways touched with the bright tang of unfinished metals that was the Web.

The Web was never this dark, however; at least, not to his knowledge. He stood carefully, the weakness in his limbs not surprising but still shocking. Once sure he was able to remain upright, he turned in a complete circle, listening. There were faint sounds, as if from a long way off; however, they were all around him and provided no answer. Mtubi tried to change his vision, but found that the effort left shaking and nauseous. Fright overcame him for a moment as he was unable to name his ailment; he fought it down and bent over, hands on knees, to ease the spinning of his head.

Hungry was perhaps the only word which could, in his experience to date, describe what he felt; however, his stomach offered none of the familiar clues of privation. No aches, no roiling. The emptiness, however, was familiar; the only difference was that it rested somewhere else within him, in a place to which he could not put his name.

With a sudden clarity unusual for memory, he recalled as a child trying solemnly to look in a mirror and point to the spot where his head hurt. Unable to touch it, he tried triangulating, using two fingers; where their imaginary lines crossed was the ache. It never worked to his satisfaction, though, for the ache was elusive and dynamic. No sooner had he worked out where it lay then suddenly the location would change, with no memory of it moving in between.

No memory of in between. Standing once more, the dizziness lessened, Mtubi forced a smile. That's how I came here. No memory of the in between. Still, regardless of how he had come to this place, there had to be a way out of it. Sighing, he began to slowly shuffle forward, his feet moving slowly and close to the surface to guard against imbalance were he to hit an obstacle.

This technique paid dividends some moments later when he barked his shin painfully (although not as bad as it would have been at a normal pace) against an unyielding barrier. Stopping instantly and windmilling his arms to stay balanced, Mtubi put out a questing hand to find a ridged metal surface. A grating. Pushing against it caused it to move slightly, with a squeak. The cart. He hadn't moved, then, at least in space. Sitting gently on the cart, he tried to remember from which direction they had come. After several moments thought, he realized that he had no idea of his orientation or position anyhow, so this information was useless.

The only thing he could think of to do was to lie down, so he did. Bunching up his coat into a poor pillow, he lay out on the cart's bed and drifted off to sleep, feeling he peculiar pattern of the bumps and ridges of the grating slowly impressing themselves in the skin of his back, legs and buttocks.

When he awoke again, there was light; dim and faint, it filtered down from above him. Looking up revealed a small glow; looking carefully revealed a bare fraction of a mil of visible grating above him, almost entirely hidden by pipes, conduits, concrete and steel. Climbing to it required perhaps half an hour and most of the loose objects in the room; when he reached the top of the last pipe, he found himself crouched beneath a grate which yielded to his shove. Climbing out, Mtubi found himself in the oubliette of a Web access manhole.

The ladder revealed the Planar world, and he rose slowly to join it, aches and fatigue toxins vying for place in his blood.

He was on the street in front of his block. Without bothering to ask himself or the nonexistent others why or how, Mtubi made his way upstairs to his own bed and promptly dropped off into deepest slumber.

Waking, now, was an entirely different experience. Mtubi rolled from his bed to walk shakily towards the kitchen in search of water. Finding a glass, he filled it and drank greedily, then refilled the glass and did it again. With his third cup, he wandered out into his living area, where he thought to look at the clock. The accusing hands told him that he was a half hour late; muttering, he finished his water and dressed hurriedly. He didn't realize until he was out the door, tying the belt on his second-best trenchcoat (the other rested, today, in his closet; he tried not to think of the rents and tears he'd found when deciding on this one) that he had donned his Circles without thinking of it, in between fastening his watch and shoving his Memory in its customary inside pocket. The thought brought a tight grin, smothered quickly as he moved downstairs and towards the Transit stop at the corner.

Descending the stairs brought no rush of memory- at least, not of any memory that was disturbing. Flashing his badge, Mtubi made his way through the turnstiles and on the platform. Leaning against a wall, he began trembling. Unable to determine the cause, he tried to wait it out; after a few minutes, however, he was hugging himself with both arms while trying not to slide down the pillar against which he was leaning to end up on the floor in a heap.

Something's wrong. The thought was insistent, and despite the rush of instant sarcasm it brought (No, no, I llike sitting on Transit floors, it's good for the hips) Mtubi stopped and slowly tucked himself deeper into his coat.

Oh. Of course. He bared one wrist, touched the Circle there with the fingers of his other hand. There was no reaction save a slight feeling of chill; Mtubi could see, dimly, flows of energy moving into the Steel. The damn thing's taking my…whatever, energy. I didn't realize this flow was two-way. Why the hell would it start that? I was just fine yesterday, until I-

Realization came with a twisting frown at his own slow brain. Damn it. Theole. Theole's phial. Mtubi forced a grin, thinking but I gave at the office! before slowly walking down the platform (nonchalantly) towards the far end, where this Capsules vanished into the tunnels once more.

There were things about this station that he noticed, now, that he hadn't before. The walls weren't even, for example; there was a distinct rough variance in the surface as whatever was beneath pushed outward against the duracrete with hydraulic pressure and the weight of the earth above.

The steps down to the floor of the Web were metal, even, regular; save the last, which left him to jolt the last (longer) step from the metal to the duracrete and earth. The impact made itself felt in his knee and ankle; a sudden sharp image of cartilege and bone deforming slightly to dissipate the energy blinked through his mind.

Walking down the Web was almost sexual; he could feel the anticipation of the Circles grow. Or was it his anticipation? Mtubi wasn't sure. He wasn't sure if the demanding need from the Circles was normal, either; just figuring things out as he went along.

Some two or three hundred yards from the station, he ascended a Ring and waited. Moments later, the song starting up again in his head, he watched the bright cone of bluish arc brilliance from the Capsule's headlamps light the tunnel wall as it rounded a curve back beyond the station platform; then, with only a slight delay, the song rushed to the forefront of his mind, emerging from the depths of his foramen magnum to sizzle into his frontal lobes and pulse just behind his forehead-

Mtubi dropped, his second-best coat flaring about him in a perfect weightless parabolic shell.

SLAM

-the ride came again, it came again, it brought him in and up and down and in, his arms and shoulders aching with the laughing joys of Mag and Vector. Circles, Circlerider, drink drink drink, it said; have have have. Drink he/they did, greedily pulling in the colored tendrils of dreamstuff that swam about him in the web, and as he did so Mtubi realized his thinking was clearing slightly, and although still present the normal hazy everlong dreaming wordless shout that was there during the Ride was lessened, somehow; not in volume, but he could now ignore it to some degree allowing some measure of reasoned thought to return. It cost effort, to resist the laughing pull, but Mtubi glanced forward through the lessened but still fierce slipstream as it pushed its way back past Vectorfields behind the capsule just in time to catch him traveling behind.

There was, he realized, a station ahead of him on the course, and while he could simply drop to the floor, he found that he didn't wish to, for his weakened state left him still able to absorb the power he was drifting in; but what to do? The Angel itself would slow, then stop, then drop as commuters boarded and debarked, what else could he-

Answers, sometimes, come in a flash; at times, they happen so smoothly that you cannot honestly remember, later, when it was that your conscious brain recognized the concept being insistently kicked up the mental staircase by a frustrated subconscious. Looking up again at the back of the Angel in all its stroboscopic glory, Mtubi–

–reached and drew and pulled and turned and the Circle grew in space ahead of him, black and silver-edged. As he brought the Circle back down around his body, Mtubi wondered for a brief panicked moment where he was going, but it was too late for that as he slipped through it, flicked out–

–to blaze into a crystalline and quicksilver landscape of smoothly mirrored panes and infinitely darkened sky, move gently down (he might still be moving forward but the surfaces were too smooth to see any motion) and then bump gently on the surface with no force whatsoever.

Experimentally, he settled down onto the surface, and pressed the palm of one hand flat down, hard, against it; there was a small pale flickering glow of blue around his palm, and a slight intimation of rushing energies, moving surfaces, sliding floors, below his palm, beneath a layer of frictionless oil that he was in danger of displacing. Hurriedly, he drew his hand back, to stand as best he was able and look about him. Nothing was familiar; nothing was threatening, and he was mildly amazed to discover a total lack of fear despite his intrusion into a place or dream that only a few days before he would have classed as grounds for complete psycheval.

They had been here before, he realized; the details of the previous trip, although fuzzy in this newfound world of rational dream, were nevertheless present and clearing. Moving experimentally with a skating motion, Mtubi drew a circle in the air.

Nothing happened.

A panic welled up in him, the thought of forever living on the mirrored cold surface-

Then he tried again, visualizing the Webline as it approached the Plaza stop; a faint shimmering- again, with calmer mind, and this time a Circle opened into a vision of blasting dust light and noise, the barely-recognizable view of the Angel's stern holding steady in the flickering light of the Magfields. Mtubi stepped forward, into the circle, felt himself snap forward ninety degrees until his arms were once more outstretched ahead. Before he could shout in surprise at the wrenching motion, the flush of Dreams flowed into his head and out his pores and pooled in his shoes in whorls of iridescent color and joy, and then the lights were slowing, slowing, and he dropped from the cradling paw of Mag to touch the smooth floor and scrape along before momentum transformed his motion into a painful roll. He had just time to think now I see why Shan wears those ridiculous-looking studs before he crunched to a stop against a ring. He could see the Capsule, now several hundred meters ahead, settling into a station.

Wincing at the pain, he stood and began to walk towards the light.

Oh, hell. The thought came unbidden and unwanted. I'm an hour late.

As if it mattered.

Climbing from the tracks, Mtubi found that he'd ripped his second-best coat in the small of the back and inside the left breast.

* * *

The message light was blinking on his com when he came into the office. Whoever it was hadn't been forwarded to his phone, which was (he checked) still in its holster, so either it wasn't an internal call or it wasn't important. Despite wanting to sit and look at things without moving for perhaps two or three hours while his muscle aches receded and his vision settled back towards normal after the Ride, Mtubi sighed, hung his coat and sank into his chair. "Com, messages."

The com voice, a smooth contralto, responded quickly as always. "Two messages, Sergeant. First message is…from a Mr. Raul Phaesos at Regulus Small Arms. Second message is…from Detective Harris."

They'd never gotten the thing to list messages without that little pause which reminded you of its mechanical nature. Of course, maybe that was the point. Mtubi dug on his desk for a notepad and pen while talking to the machine. "Okay, play first message."

"Sergeant, my name is Raul Phaesos. I'm calling you in response to a message left for me be a Detective Harris from your department…I have some information here he had requested." A slight pause; the rustling of paper on the line. "Ah. Yes, the photos he sent us show a standard Nine/Five Personal CEP. There is not enough information to resolve lot or serial number – we checked the two other locations for possible recovery of serial number data- and there were around fifty thousand of the units made. All were sold to military buyers; mostly the Army and Air Force as officer's sidearms, I believe."

There was a pause, allowing Mtubi time to swear feelingly at the lack of specific information. There was no chime indicating end of message, however, and he refrained from hitting 'delete' long enough to hear Phaesos continue, as if he'd been talking to another person in the room with his hand over the receiver and just now resumed his call.

"There is a small chance, however, that if the weapon is returned to our labs we may be able to give you more information. For technical reasons which aren't worth discussing here, the diamond flashguides can sometimes be traced to lot numbers through a careful analysis of the trace minerals in that particular 'guide. That will sometimes allow us to determine which manufactured lot of diamonds produced it, and that would give us a pool of at most five hundred weapons to examine. In any case, please call me if you have any further questions; my contact is appended to this message."

The recording stopped. Ignoring the machine's query of what to do with the message, Mtubi snatched up the small stack of offprints in the com's bay and sorted through them until he found Phaesos' business card. Putting messages on hold, he ordered the com to dial the number. After answering, a secretary put him through, and Phaesos picked up the phone.

"Detective Mtubi?"

"Yes, Mr. Phaesos. Thank you for your message."

"No problem, Detective. I presume you're interested in having the weapon examined."

"We definitely are. What would you need us to do?"

"Well, let me see. There's the standard lab fee– don't worry, it's not going to break budgets, it's only about twice a standard ballistics test fee– and the gun would need to be returned to our facility here."

"I can have it routed up there in a few hours. How long will the test take?"

"Oh, the tests are fairly quick, perhaps by tomorrow if we get the gun before the shift ends. However, you should be aware that extracting a sample from the flashguide is a destructive process. The weapon's geometry will be irrevocably changed. Any attempt to match the weapon to a plasma frequency spectrum later would be futile; we can take records of the flash pattern before testing, but they will be a weaker legal exhibit."

Mtubi shifted a bit, finally relaxing into his chair. "I'm impressed with your knowledge of our procedures, Mr. Phaesos. Not all contractors are as up-front as this."

The other chuckled. "The others probably aren't trying to sell your department another lot of twenty thousand sidearms. No, really, I've been through the legal testing loops before; the regional D.A.s will occasionally call my office for this test. Should I expect the gun today?"

"There are two of them, and yes, I'll have them sent out now. Maybe two hours. Will that be in time for results tomorrow?"

"Oh, sure. No problem. Should they be sent to your office? And do you want the guns back?"

"Yes to both counts. Thank you very much for your help, Mr. Phaesos."

"Raul, please, Detective. My pleasure. I'll look for the shipment."

Mtubi rang off, and remembered the second message. It turned out to be Harris looking for a time to come chat about the muggings; Mtubi told the com to schedule him for that afternoon and page both of them. The com agreed, and Mtubi was left to hunt through his desk for the forms required for Evidence to ship the powerguns to Regulus.

As he was making the last call necessary to complete that task, Harris stuck his head in the door quizzically. Mtubi waved him in to a seat while he finished. Hanging up, he turned to his subordinate. "What's up?"

"Oh, I heard that you'd sent the guns north."

"Yes, just now, in fact."

Harris nodded once, then looked around almost –Mtubi couldn't find a better word – furtively. Getting up, he closed the door and returned to his chair with a somber face. Mtubi waited silently, and after some seconds of obvious hesitation Harris cleared his throat and looked up.

"Boss, I've been finding some strange stuff in the Transit system."

Mtubi sat back slowly. "Strange? Strange how?"

"Oh, I don't know…just strange. Usually you get one or two crazy stories about any case where there's anything odd, and I know I did come to you originally with a pretty weird story…" He trailed off. Mtubi nodded at him and waited again until he continued.

"Boss, remember I told you about that woman, Marren Kindart? The missing persons case? How someone saw her flying through a Transit station?"

"Yes, I do."

"I've been talking to a bunch of the Transit maintenance crews. Some of them spend most of their time in the system anyhow, I thought I'd check and see if anyone had heard or seen anything. Well, they have. At least, I think they have. They tell these stories…stuff that sounds absolutely like some bored guys making up fairy tales to lighten the job. There's just one problem."

"And the problem is…" Mtubi prompted.

"The problem, Boss, is that I ran a couple of them under the verifier. Informal, you know, in the tunnels while we were talking-"

"You ran a verifier on them? With their knowledge?"

Harris looked sheepish, flushed slightly. "Well, no, but I figured that since I wasn't actually taking this stuff down as a legal interrogation, just checking around, you know, that it wouldn't matter."

Mtubi hung his face in his hands for a moment, then looked up. "Harris, damn it, you are not to use that thing without informed consent. Do you have any idea how hard we had to fight to get the courts to let us carry them? Do you know what kind of thin strand we're holding on to them with? If this gets back to an officer of the court, they'll yank that permission so fast you won't be able to say 'Miranda.' And we won't have a leg to stand on."

"Boss, I'm sorry. It won't happen again. Look, I'll leave mine in the station if you want. I just had to know, 'cause the stories were all so weird and they all matched up so well, even among guys from different sectors and crews and shifts. So either there's some sort of group mythos going here, or these guys have actually seen some of this stuff."

"All right, I'll bite. What stuff?"

"All kinds. Flying people. Magic. Monks running around underground. A weird bunch of homeless guys that seem to follow them around all the time when they're making repairs, and just watch them. They never interfere, they never follow them out; the just always appear when something's being done to the Web systems themselves, and they watch, and don't blink, until you go."

"I think they're brewing something down there out of industrial lubricants that they shouldn't be drinking. And I think you've had a shot too."

"Come on, Boss, that's not fair," Harris returned angrily, sitting up straight. "You sent me out on this damn chase, remember? After you saw something during the bombing! So don't tell me there's nothing there, damn it, 'cause I've been down there looking, and you haven't." He ran down, then looked a bit embarrassed and sat back in his chair. "Sorry, Boss."

"That's okay, Harris." Mtubi swiveled his chair to look at his comunit for a moment, since he didn't' have a window. Then he swiveled back and leaned forward. "Okay. Here's the drill. I believe you. I've been doing some work on this as well, but not in this direction. Here's what I want you to do. Take all the time you have allotted to this case, and use it to develop a clear picture of what these guys say is going on down there. I want to know exactly what each of these people they're seeing looks like, what they do, where they are, and when they come out. Don't use the verifier, just get their stories. And don't go over your case hours on this, 'cause if I have to fill out an overage request we're going to get cut off at the knees. Take an hour here, an hour there. Let me know when you have some concrete stuff written up. If you have a problem doing this, tell me now, okay?"

Harris grinned. "No problems, Boss. Beats looking at dead people." He took Mtubi's nod for a dismissal, and swung from the office. Mtubi watched through the glasstic partitions as Harris slung his verifier into his desk drawer and headed out the door, then turned to his own work.

He had on his wall what veterans of the department called a Detective's Brain - a large whiteboard and a wallmount holding both tape and whiteboard markers. On it he had placed notecards with the names of the various Transit mugging victims in a group; on each card, below the name, were listed the individual job titles, dates and time of incident, and department they worked for. Another group held the four arrests that had actually been made in the series of attacks, including his own; multiply-erased trails bore mute testimony to various attempts to link the arrestees to the victims in ways other than the attacks they had been apprehended for. At the top Mtubi had placed a large card reading simply 'TRANSIT.' To the right, Regulus Arms showed up, with three cards for the three Regulus powerguns that had popped up in the case so far - the two he was about to send back for testing, and one other that had been destroyed during the arrest. Surrounding these was a cloud of small paper notes bearing trivia, hypotheses, notes to himself and Harris, and other minutiae.

He stared at it for several minutes, as was his habit. Nothing came to him in a flash of insight, but he had long ago learned that the deeper the picture was impressed into his head, the more likely he was to make connections when more data came up - which wasn't usually within reach of the Brain, and usually time-critical.

There was more, but he couldn't put it up there. The men who had attacked Theole, and Varien. Mtubi still didn't know what Varien and Thelo did in the Web most times, but he knew Varien was dead and Theole had been attacked, and that made it his problem as a police officer, even if not as– whatever he'd become. Absently he fingered one of the Circles, opened the hand it whose wrist it encircled, and popped the stylus in it up into the air ten or twelve centimeters on a silver fountain. He stared at it expressionlessly, then dropped it back into his palm and looked around, contrasting his surroundings with his actions. I'm at work. I just did that. Either I'm hallucinating at work, or it was real. I know which I'd rather was true.

The rest of the day brought no peace.

* * *

Guardian?

Mmmph.

Guardian? Please-

Mmhmmph. What-

Guardian, it's Theole.

Mtubi rose from the depths in a wash of blue alertness. Theole?

Yes, Guardian. The relief was palpable. Please, we need your aid.

Mtubik started to look at the clock, then swung his feet to the floor instead. He was reaching for the Circles on his bedside table with a practiced ease when he was jolted by the fact that he was in fact used to reaching for his gun and badge.

Theole, where are you, and what's the problem?

Master, there are more of the Planars here. I don't think they have seen us, but they mean to harm the Angel, we are sure. We are- there was a frustrated pause, as Theole groped for words, and then a crystal image of a Transit map sprang into Mtubi's head. There was a blue star shining on it, midway between the Orange River One and Orange Retail Two stations.

Okay, Mtubi said. I'm on my way. Dropping Theole from his mind, he finished pulling the anklets and wristbands on. He was searching for his pants when a scream lashed through his head, and cursing in frustration he grabbed his overcoat and belted it over his boxer shorts. He was halfway to the elevator when he remembered what he was doing, and stopped to check that the hallway was empty. It was. With only one pass, Mtubi cut a Circle in the hallway and stepped through it.

-shock of silver and of change-

The smell of hot metal in enclosed spaces mixed with dry rot and ozone was a familiar one, but usually came on gradually as he descended into Transit. The sudden shock of it almost made him gag, but he stumbled forward into the darkened space before him. There were shouts ringing out nearby, and the sharp sound of gunfire mixed with sudden clangs. Mtubi reached for his holster before remembering that it was on the other side of the bed, and he charged forward down the tunnel as his eyes adjusted. As he ran, he was reaching down inside, listening to the Angel, and it told him that he'd ridden recently enough; the touch of Dreams laughed back gently to him from within as he reached an intersection in the Web. The shouts came suddenly much clearer, from the right; turning, he saw a light some ways down the tunnel.

The light contained several figures, flickering in and out. Mtubi realized that their flickering was due to the fact that they and the holder of the light (a coldgas lantern) were running pell-mell down the tunnel, pausing occasionally to fire weapons behind them or to throw detritus from the tunnel floor. Mtubi couldn't see what was chasing them, and it took him a moment to realize that they were, in fact, running towards him, and were only a few dozen feet away. He dropped his center of mass through reflex, sliding a foot back to provide balance, and froze as he fought for an idea of what to do.

There appeared to be perhaps eight or ten of the others, too many for him to take on by hand even if they weren't armed, which they most certainly were. He was still working on it when the first man in the group caught sight of him and shouted a warning as he slid to a halt. The others turned, bringing weapons and eyes to bear, and there was a pause until they realized that he was alone. The one who'd seen him snarled at Mtubi's defensive stance, and charged. Mtubi didn't even had time to think whoops before the other was on him, and Mtubi blocked a nasty blow towards his head. He was reflexvely continuing through the reflexive move into the matching throw when there was a flash of silver light, centered around his hands; when it cleared, he was standing in the tunnel center. His assailant was sliding down the wall to his right, apparently unconscious from the boneless manner in which he fell.

There was a long pause while everyone concerned tried to make some sense of what had just happened.

It was interrupted by the sudden appearance of three Watermen, Theole in the lead, who came running into the light in pursuit of the interlopers, who were looking wild-eyed and (Mtubi now noticed) distinctly terrified. One of them swung his weapon towards the Watermen, and without thinking about it Mtubi shouted "STOP!"

They did.

His voice echoed and rolled off the tunnel walls and the structure of the web. It was far louder than it had any right to be, and one of the invaders flinched and actually dropped his weapon (a powergun, Mtubi noted) while clapping his hands to his ears. They all turned to face him. He looked back at each of them in turn. "Drop them and leave," he rumbled.

For a moment, he thought they were about to refuse, but then one of them (the one who had already dropped his weapon) began to sidle past him, away from the Watermen. Mtubi realized that Theole was looking as fierce as his gentle face would allow, and one of his companions was crying. "Master!" Theole moved forward. "Master, they have killed one of us."

Mtubi raised a hand. All movement, he marveled to note, stopped. "Which one?"

Theole pointed to the wall. "The one you struck, Master."

Mtubi nodded to the others. "Leave him." The words broke the moment; dropping various items, the others ran past Mtubi into the tunnels. When they had gone, Mtubi breathed out heavily and sagged to a crouch. Theole and his companions approached him. Theole placed his hands on Mtubi's shoulders and looked carefully at him; when Mtubi grinned at him, he grinned back and they stood together.

They all looked at the crumpled form on the floor. "Now what?" Mtubi said, more to himself than anyone, but Theole answered.

"Now we Judge him." The capitals were audible. Thinking with some pangs about his oaths as a police officer, Mtubi raised his eyebrows quizzically. Theole hastened on, "Not us, Master; not the wronged ones. The Riders do. You do."

Mtubi rubbed his face reflectively. "Not to seem as if I'm ducking responsibility, Theole, but I have no idea what you mean. I think I need to call Shan."

Theole nodded, as if he'd been expecting this all along. Mtubi turned his attention within and called to Shan. He tried three times before he reached the other, and realized from the crackling hard-edged glory of the touch that Shan was in the Angel's grasp; yet when he recounted his need, there was a flare of assent which was followed quickly by a flare of silver light some fifty feet down the tunnel. Shan shot out of the Circle in the air, tucking into a perfect shoulder roll as he hit the floor. He came up to one knee in a shower of sparks (the jacket and trouser studs, realized Mtubi) and as he approached, gracefully gained his feet. He smiled at Theole, and grinned at Mtubi, then looked doubtfully at the form still crumpled on the ground. Theole offered Shan his Water, and Shan grinned again as he bled the remaining scintillations and coruscations of the Dreams, still dripping from him in skeins of parti-colored wonder. First Theole, then the others, all proffering their vials; powerful pulses of Blue and Indigo and Yellow briefly lighting the tunnel.

Mtubi watched Shan, amazed, remembering how once such session had drained him to near fainting. Shan finished the third vial, then turned to quirk an eyebrow at Mtubi. He appeared none the worse for wear, save for looking slightly washed-out. Mtubi realized that this was most likely the absence of the whorls of pale and violent color that he had somehow become completely used to seeing around other people, especially Riders. He'll need to Ride out of here, then, he said to himself.

Shan knelt before the man on the ground and lifted his chin gently. A silver flicker illuminated the other's face, and Mtubi saw his eyes flutter slowly open. They focused on Shan (or, most likely, on the enormous hard-edged mirrorshades the boy wore) and he immediately tried to scuttle away. Shan held his chin between two fingers, however, and that was enough to hold him fast.

"This one and his friends, Rider." Theole was standing over the two of them, and Shan turned to nod at him. Theole collected the other Watermen and they moved quietly to the side of the tunnel. Shan looked over and beckoned Mtubi, who joined him. Together, they helped the intruder to his feet. He remained leaning against the wall, shaky, and Shan pulled Mtubi aside a few feet. Mtubi waited for him to explain, miming his readiness, but Shan just grasped his wrist tightly and stared into his eyes-

SSSSSSSTING of vibrato and tremolo, modulo Mtubi's nerves, before the sudden song of Shan's thoughts slides in to disturb the acoustics of the inside of Mtubi's head, and he can see them taking shape and form in colored, pulsing waveforms that stretch from ear to ear, hanging there in cerebral space, slowly aligning themselves with the background pulsing frequency of Mtubi's thoughts. As they close in on the correct phase, he hears/thinks/feels a sudden strange duality of thought, more a form of static, but then the frequency twiddles again and with a sudden shock (as of an enormous bass tone larger than his soul) the thoughts LOCK and he knows Shan's intent, to see what occurred, and how. He nods, and the two of them move back to the intruder. He simply watches them come, a terrified expression on his face; Mtubi is troubled by that, not wishing justice of any sort to terrify before guilt is established, but then they had his wrists (one each) and he had frozen rock hard solid in their grip.

Blank

Color

Light

Sound

Action

...those damn rats, big 'uns, heehee, manrats, yeah, manrats, that's it. Look, they're crouching down there in the muck, Christ, a favor to them really, can't they see what they've become down here, remember the Homeless of the pre-Transit days, this is worse, cleaner, sure, but weirder, never coming up, nothing to eat down here, maybe rats? Must be, or something even more vile, heehee.

Mtubi almost retches at the strangeness of the other's memories, but forces his gorge back down and stares into the man's eyes, which are open and sightlessly staring, his mouth working slowly as he is forced to remember.

There. There. Three of 'em? Four? No, three, and some rags, I guess, and that's where we need to put the thing, right on that one, Ring...right, Orange seven-seven-five-alpha-six-four. Right at the bottom. Put the notepaper away, you found it...Christ, Barry's screamin' at em and they still ain't moving...idiots. Who cares, anyway, damn rats. Manrats.

There is a silent feeling of engineering and alloy as the powergun slides into his hand-

Hmm, which one, the others'll rabbit, maybe the blue one? Nah, he's too small...who's the biggest...there, the other one, just getting to his feet, wait until he's up, no one in the way, still all this shouting Christ I wish they'd shut up already, this'll take care of it, no need to shout-

DISCONTINUITY

Mtubi's brain blazed light pale blue with the remembered explosion, the powergun bolt striking the rising Waterman near his midsection and a fountain of pale blue and Gold light spilling into the room as the Waterman fell backwards, a small cascade of blood drowned by the crystalline splendor of the escape of his Water and the slam of Dreams rushing past the occupants of the room-

...whatever that was, oh, shit, I've pissed myself, the others'll laugh now, fuck, did I get him-

With a jolt, Mtubi found himself back in the tunnel, releasing the man's wrist, a powerful urge forcing him to turn away and vomit onto the tunnel's smooth maintenance floor, Shan's landing strip sullied with the remnants of his last meal. A hand touches his shoulder; without looking, he reaches up and clasps it. Strength holds his arm and waits for his stomach to finish. As he is wiping his mouth and turning to face his companion, he is mildly surprised to see Theole. One of the other watermen is holding Shan's shoulders nearby, and Mtubi is more surprised to realize that Shan, too, is ill. Theole looks carefully at him, then touches him on the forehead; a blue so deep and powerful slides through him that his sickness runs before it, and he stands and stretches involuntarily, blue energy holding him upright and tensed. He forces himself to relax, muscles still singing a lapis harmony, and grins at Theole. They clap each other on the shoulder and turn to Shan, who by this time is glowing slightly Yellow and looking much better.

"So what do we do?" Mtubi asked the group. Shan waved at Theole, who explained.

"If what you saw satisfies you as to his guilt, then he must be punished."

"How? And didn't you see it?"

"Yes, we saw it, both times. This is why our seeing it now is not relevant. Only those who were not there or touched by the act may See for us. Now, Guardian, you and master Shan must deal with him."

Mtubi turned to Shan, a sudden sick feeling. "We don't-"

But Shan shook his head no. Another grab at Mtubi's wrist, and Mtubi understood. He nodded. Together, they hauled the man - Chuck, thought Mtubi, his name is Chuck - to his feet. He wobbled but remained upright, cringing against the wall before them. Mtubi glanced at Shan, who nodded, his face grim around the impermeable mirrors. Without waiting for thought, Mtubi and Shan both grabbed the man by a wrist. Mtubi felt a massive hoom shudder his marrow, although no-one else seemed to be shaking, and found himself struggling to remain on his feet. A surge of color passed through him, Silver, Silver, Silver, and ran down his arm in liquid whorls of mercury and chrome. Shan was shaking as well, Mtubi could see through the multichrome whirlwind, but his gaze was fixed on the man they were holding.

Slowly, Mtubi turned back to face their victim, who had gone absolutely rigid. The Silver crawled from them both, up their chests and down their arms, and slid into the man's wrists and veins. Mtubi could feel it worming its way towards his brain up the myriad ways of his capillaries, racing itself in a multithreaded flood of metallic power.

The scene he had just witnessed with Shan began to play itself back in his head, but in small quick bursts, sped up and bright, as the Silver began to eat its way through the man's memories. Shockingly brief and violent episodes began to flood back through Mtubi as the Silver sought out the deeper parts of the man's -Chuck's - persona. Mtubi had time to be sickened at what he was witnessing and doing:

A closed store, the glass shattering under his gun butt in a shower of crystalline cubes colored red as the storeowner's forehead fell under the metal-

Time in the night, dark and quiet, the sudden scream and the shudder of excitement that it woke before the sharp pain of chemicals seared his face. Screaming as he fell back, he struck out blindly with the knife to ward her off, not expecting the shock up his arm as the knife met and tore, nor the hot rush of blood when she fell away; there was only the pain then, burning, and the peculiar jolts of the pavement against his heels that he could feel in his hips and spine as he staggered away unable to see the ground. The balls of his feet wouldn't lead, no matter how he tried, and the jolting walk that awakened the pain in his knees was the only result-

Feeling of warm flesh against his knuckles, the fear in the eyes of the man palpable as the belt stopped upraised. His mother screaming, not this time, the man who insisted he be called Dad was down and bleeding-

Mtubi retched again. Shan steadied him. He looked up to find them both sitting against the wall; Chuck was standing now with a clear but confused expression on his face. Theole and the other Waterman approached him, and Mtubi struggled to reach his feet, but Shan held him back. Before Mtubi could exclaim in warning, he saw Theole take the man's hands and move them to the floor of the tunnel, clasped between his own. The other didn't resist, looking curiously at Theole. He recoiled slightly as his fingers touched cold water, but Theole forced his hands to cup it with effortless strength. A blackness fell across Mtubi's vision - Shan's hand, he realized as it settled warm against his face. Before he could raise his own hand to move it away, there was a blaze of light felt against all surfaces of his exposed skin. Although he could not see it, he could feel it - Gold, to his surprise, Gold Gold Gold. When Shan lowered his hands, Chuck was staring in wonder at his cupped hands, now glowing softly gold from the shape that lay within them, and Theole was holding his shoulders. Slowly, he looked up at Theole, and Theole nodded firmly and said, "Scytale."

His - companion? - had a husky voice. "Scytale?" Theole nodded again, and a smile split the man's bruised face. "Scytale." Theole looked into his eyes, and Mtubi felt a flash of peripheral imagery - a blank cylinder, hiding all through separation. Scytale's eyes lit up from within; Mtubi was not surprised to see tears on his cheeks. With care, the other Waterman draped a robe about his torso.

Where'd he get that? Mtubi wondered, then laughed at himself. Theole turned to face Mtubi and Shan, and he grinned widely. Moving over, he grasped first Shan's hand, then Mtubi's, and then he and the other two Watermen moved off down the tunnel, the middle one succumbing to the assistance of his two new colleagues.

Shan helped Mtubi to his feet. His glasses shone with more than reflected light. Mtubi realized suddenly that they didn't have any temples to them, as the particular scintillation of the surface triggered a recognition. He slowly reached out to Shan's face; Shan didn't move, only grinned, as Mtubi's fingers reached the silver and skittered sideways across the frictionless surface and tiny ripples spread quickly, silently across the lens he had touched - and across the other, although they were separated by the bridge of Shan's nose.

Mtubi grinned back, and thought for a moment, then looked down at his bare torso under his robes. Without thinking, he touched his right fingers to his heart and released the Silver; before he could even realize what he had done, there was another enormous shock of the power which drove him to his knees. When Shan helped him up again, his grin was if possible even wider. He reached over and closed Mtubi's robe, to the other's confusion, and they walked back to the Web.

Together, they climbed atop the nearest Ring. They hadn't long to wait; as the subharmonics heralded the arrival of their subterranean Sidhe, Mtubi just had time to wonder if in fact the riders never seemed to wait for a Capsule for a reason, and then Shan laughed. He did as well, and Shan punched him lightly on the shoulder as they fell from the Ring-

Slippery metal conduits of power and of vector that took Shan swiftly from his side with a wave more felt than seen as Mtubi let the Dreams pour into him and fill him from toes forward. When the inside of his skull tingled with the power that saturated his frame, he called the Circle, which flared around him with astonishing swiftness as he sailed into it-

...just in time to really wish he'd taken the lesson of Shan's leather jacket more to heart as he slammed into the wall of his bedroom with a painful jolt, realizing that the sudden slight pain and crackling noise below was his bedstead cracking as he fell back onto his bed. He massaged his face gingerly, allowing just a bit of Silver through his fingers, and felt his skin and bones go slightly numb as they succumbed to the healing suggestion.

Mtubi wasn't sure how long he sat there thinking, but eventually his memory caught up with him and he rose, crossing to his closet door, and spread his robe before the full height mirror that was mounted there.

Over his heart was a glare of silver. It was just a hint of reflection until he looked directly at it, which was like looking at a silver laser; his vision blurred out from the brilliance.

It took a second mirror, held up to the first, to show him the outlines of the shield over his heart, etched in lines of Silver and flesh, with a gleaming ∞ where the badge number should be.

Guardian.

It was some time before Mtubi could stop laughing.

It was even longer before he remembered the instructions that Chuck - Scytale - had been going over when he was caught.

<--Previous | Guardian of the Angel, Part III: An Angel Cycle Story

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