Blood, Light and Iron
The restoration work on the Morisot was done, and Walter Bourchier was beyond pleased.
"You are truly an artist, young woman, I am amazed!" he told me at the presentation - after a careful thirty minute examination. "I literally cannot tell the difference between the repaired and the undamaged sections."
"Thank you Mr. Bourchier," I answered. "I guess it is my gift, small as it is."
"Small!" he said, shaking his head.
"Well, I'm not knocking evil invaders out of the sky or flying faster than a speeding bullet..."
"There is more than a difference in degree between the 'gifts' that make Terana's super-powered beings and the gifts our artisan's and craftsmen possess. You shouldn't confuse the two, gifts such as yours are just as precious, and perhaps more vital to us as men."
This attitude, coming from the reclusive Mr. Bouchier, surprised me.
"You aren't fond of the super-powered?"
"Just like with all men, there are the good and the bad, only because it is so public does the good seem so much grander and the evil so much more heinous than normal men. I have been trifled with in the past by men wielding such power and by those without, and I found I didn't much care for it either way."
The honest conversation about the super-powered was interesting, but nowhere as profitable as our contract, and the bonus he paid on top of the contract was going to make for an upgrade in my lifestyle pretty soon. Especially as he promised to spread the word about the kind of work I did amongst the other serious collectors. When I confirmed the new total in my bank account the next day, I decided it was time to celebrate, and flew out to spend some time with Trey.
In the six months I'd been working on the Morisot, Trey had been busy, with intermittent help from me, in establishing his base. He'd finally picked a western facing cliff on Mount Mildred, just east of Lake Tahoe. It was easy enough for me to use my 'midnight field' to disintegrate a large enough space in the interior of the mountain, leaving Trey to build the framework for the infrastructure. He spent endless hours in his suit, lifting and welding beams and sheets of steel. The past few weeks had been spent pouring concrete in the main levels, and at last there were a few flat and dry floors. Enough space, Trey said, to allow him to move in.
The power source for his fortress was the ticklish part at first, but together we had reverse engineered the Cloud King power source. It was a variant on the fusion reactor technology that we used back on Meadow, and the materials needed would have been beyond most metallurgists, but mine was a genuine Teranan super-hero, so he didn't let that stop him. The prototype fusion generator he built was more than enough to power the fortress, and would have powered all of the Fort Richardson and Los Angeles as well if we'd let it. If the generator he had on the drawing boards was built — scratch that- when it was built, it would have the potential capacity to power every city on Terana!
I was so tempted to ask a crew to come in from Obsidian and get the construction phase of the fortress over, but I kept telling myself I needed to step back. This was Trey's future he was building, and I couldn't do it for him. He'd wind up resenting me for it if I did.
So I jumped out on weekends and some evenings to help with the heavy lifting and to get Trey in the sack. Trey treated both with equal enthusiasm, and I certainly couldn't complain about the results of either one.
Jack Pelham was still riding high on the big, fat check the museum had received from Walter Bourchier, and from the publicity of the restoration, as well as the coup of having a part of Bourchier's collection on display at the museum. I had begged off the PR part of things, and flush with this success, Jack had been more than willing to give me some extra time off. Time I was using on the trail of the mysterious Preston Miles.
The Slurr were still working on finding out more about the Praetor Corporation and Preston Miles, but even with their presence within the walls of the corporate headquarters, I kept drawing into dead ends everywhere I looked. Partly, it was a matter of ignorance. Very few people knew anything to begin with, and those who knew anything didn't know much, and they were hard to get to.
One interesting observation they were able to make was that it was never the chief of security or even the janitor who was the first one in and the last one out every day. No, those honors always seemed to go to a man named Jules Harker, an account executive whose office was on the third floor. The small, balding Mr. Harker spent inordinate amounts of time at his desk each day with his eyes closed and the fingers of his left hand on the bridge of his nose, as if to soothe the spot where his glasses rode.
I spent the two weeks Jack gave me slowly closing in on Jules Harker. I circled him, dipping in now and then, touching the edges of him, feeling the grain of him, the flow of his mind, and all without impinging on his consciousness. I was lucky to have the success I did.
Jules Harker was a first class telepath and mentalist. Perhaps as good as anyone on Terana, perhaps as good as anyone outside of the Spirit Masters trained by Eru Jehn. He sorted and categorized the minds he touched, and tagged those he found useful or potentially dangerous. But he was the web, not the spider in this trap. The Spider was Preston Miles, and during my brief little touches in Jules Harker's mind I caught my first real break in a long time. Jule's Harker knew where and when Preston Miles had been born. Merrimack Hospital, in Canterbury, New Hampshire. July 17th, 1992. By the Teranan calendar, that made him 43 years old.
Wing and I took off for home to get ready for a trip to Canterbury, and as we went, I could only wonder about what I might find. Preston Miles had been very careful to keep himself unknown, but would he go so far back in his efforts as to wipe out the very facts of his birth?
I checked in with Trey and let him know where I was going to spend the rest of my night, and told him I'd check back sometime tomorrow. I let Wing pull into her pod at the focus to refill and recharge the various things she might need, and while she was doing that I took a shower and cleaned my midnight costume. With the core of it being Legion armor, it didn't need much. I grabbed an apple and ate it, washing it down with a root beer, after which I did a bathroom pit stop, washed my hands and face and, with that accomplished, Wing and I were off.
Merrimack Hospital sits on a bluff overlooking the Merrimak river and serves several of the nearby communities besides Canterbury, especially Boscawen, just across the river. It was not a large place. Serious injuries or illnesses went to Concord, the state capitol ten or twelve miles to the south.
I had expected to have to work my way over to the Canterbury hall of records, or the nearest such repository to find the birth certificates, but I got lucky. Seems the small-town folk in Canterbury and the folks at Merrimack Hospital took pride in the new generations of New Hampshirites they helped bring into the world. They had kept photocopies of all their birth records since the photocopying technology had been available, and that had been well before 1992.
I found three old wooden filing cabinets full of photocopied birth records, each in a manilla folder with other hospital documents associated with the deliveries. The records were in immaculate order, and sorted by date!
July 17th, 1992 had been a busy day and night for the delivery room. They'd had three in one day, which was very busy indeed for them. Baby boy Umbridge, baby girl Wingate and baby boy Kittering.
Unfortunately the unofficial birth records the hospital kept didn't capture the first names of the babies if they weren't chosen early in the process. There was little chance I suppose that the nefarious Preston Miles was either actually Preston or Miles when he was born, but without the given names on the certificates, I had two candidates and no clues as to which one it was. The records did indicate that baby Kittering, father Wayne and mother Abilgail were a local Canterbury family and that the address for the Umbridge boy was in Gerrish, a few miles northeast. I took Wing to the address given and found a quiet, elegant rural street with very few homes sitting on what to me where rather large wooded estates. Canterbury wasn't large enough to have neighborhoods, just a small central business area with a general store, a pub, church and gas station. I decided it would be worthwhile to come back during the day and check around at the pub, and maybe the church. I pored over all three folders for as many details as I could remember, hoping some of it would be useful. The Maggie Wingate file was sadly complete, including details of her death.
I jumped back to the focus, let Wing settle into her pod and hit the sack, setting an internal alarm for six hours. That would get me up in time to have a chat with Trey before I returned to Canterbury.
Trey was amused the next morning, and expressed his disappointment that I hadn't thought to return to his new fortress to get my sleep. The fact that sleep wasn't all that I'd have gotten, I think he forgot to mention.That the time difference worked out better my way, I didn't mention. No need given him any clues.
The pub in Canterbury was old but clean. There was a radio playing in the background, something local — farm reports or something, I'm sure, I didn't pay that much attention. The bartender was an older gentlemen, and this time of day, before lunch but after breakfast, the patrons were what I was hoping for, older retirees with nothing to do all day but sit and gossip.
I sat between a couple of the older gentlemen who couldn't seem to take their eyes of my prominences, so to speak, and introduced myself as Maggie Wingate.
"You're not Maggie Wingate. Your too young and pretty and too alive," the first old man said. Just the kind of entry I'd been hoping for.
"Exactly, and that's what I've been trying to tell the damned government for months now, but somehow they've gotten me mixed up with another Maggie Wingate who was born around here some years back, and I'm trying to get some witnesses who'll testify I'm not her."
"Can't be her," the other man said. She died, five years back in a fire. Parents too."
Even better, for me at least, though I was saddened to have to use their misfortune to aid me.
"Exactly, and with her parents not able to back my claim, I'm left to scrape after other possibilities. There were two others born the same day I was, and I'm hoping to track them down. The hospital could only tell me last names though, and only one of the names is local. Kittering?
"Doc and Abbie's oldest?" the second man said. "I heard he was dead too..." he trailed off as he thought. "Peter or Paul or some such, wasn't he Reg?"
"Peter," the other man said. "Peter and Harvey Kittering were the two brothers, older and younger. Both run off to make their fortunes in the world, I heard, and neither heard from in years."
"Are the parents still living?" I asked.
"Abbie is... still pretty feisty too," the one called Reg replied.
"Doesn't get out much though," the other man added. "Haven't seen her out in a few years."
"She's got a live-in companion and nurse, does her shopping and running around for her. Mrs. Engleman, isn't it Vern?"
"Yup, think so. Gladys Engleman. Come up from Concord after the Mr. died in '03, if I remember."
"Do you think they'll be home now?" I asked.
"I suspect," Vern said.
"Yup," Reg agreed.
I bought the talkative pair of old gossips a round on me, and had one with them, giving them a few minutes to ogle the assets for free before I headed out the door and up the street.
It was a long walk, almost a mile, to the Kittering residence, but I was up to it. The house showed some neglect, but not too much, mostly the kind brought about by occasional maintenance-by-hire, rather than the daily care of a dedicated homeowner. The front gate was closed, but not locked and I walked through, closing it behind me and walked up the long walk to the front porch. Finding an old style hanging rope pull but no doorbell, I gave the rope a pull, and heard the sound of a bell tinkling faintly inside. An old woman and her nurse/companion could be a while getting to the door, so I waited patiently. I let my Light senses play out just enough to sense the locations of the minds inside the house but not read them. There were only the two I was expecting, which made me feel a little more comfortable. One of the minds approached the door and I pulled my senses back.
"Yes, may I help you?" the neatly dressed little woman who answered the door asked.
"Hello. I'm looking for Abigail Kittering. Is she at home?"
"May I say who is calling, please?" she asked.
"Maggie Wingate..." before I could add more the woman had closed the door, and I stood again, waiting. I had to grin at the curt manner with which I'd been treated, the nurse had been radiating intense waves of suspicion. Finally the door opened a crack again, and the nurse, with a scowl now, spat at me.
"Mrs. Kittering says Maggie Wingate is dead, and that you are to leave."
"Yes, well I'm not that Maggie Wingate, that is the problem!"
"Wait please," she had the grace to say this time before the door closed again. It remained closed for only a moment before it opened again. "Please come in ma'am."
The house showed its age at the same time it proclaimed the elegant era from which it came. The front parlor was a study in crystal and hardwood with delicate lace accents on almost every flat surface.
"May I take your coat ma'am?"
"Thank you," I said, pulling off the jacket I had been wearing. It was cooler here in New Hampshire than it had been back in California, but not so much that I needed the jacket, really.
"Please have a seat," the nurse said, with slightly less coldness in her voice. "Mrs. Kittering will be out to see you shortly."
I sat only a moment when an elderly woman, walking smoothly, but looking frail and tired entered the room. I stood, and we shook hands as we introduced ourselves.
"Good morning, I'm Maggie Wingate," I said with all the warm I could muster. It wasn't that difficult. Mrs. Kittering was an absolute pixie of an old woman, with still fiery blue eyes and done-up hair that seemed to want to fly off in stray strands here and there.
"Abigail Kittering. Welcome to my home. Please sit. Gladys will be bringing us tea."
I sat back down and Mrs. Kittering sat across from me in a padded straight-backed chair.
"So I understand you are suffering from a case of mistaken identity?"
"Just some sort of government records foul up," I said. "They've been telling me for the past few years that I died. I keep showing them I'm very much alive. I've finally tracked the source of the problem down to the death of another Maggie Kittering in the Canterbury area. When I checked the hospital records, I saw not only the notice of her death, but her birth record as well, along with two other babies born the same day, one said 'baby Kittering'.
"So you are hoping for an afadavit, or some other sworn statement saying you are not this Maggie Wingate?"
"I guess. I've got this other Maggie Wingate's birth record and death certificate. That alone should be enough, but since your son... Peter, was it?"
"Yes, Peter was my oldest, and he was born that day. There's a picture of him on that mantle, if you want to have a look, him and Harvey. Peter's twelve in that one."
I stood and walked over to the fireplace and stared at the picture. I stared for a long time. Was Peter Kittering the mysterious Preston Miles? It wasn't a proven thing, but it was close. Twelve year old Peter Kittering looked very much like a younger version of the Preston Miles I had only second hand images of. But it was Harvey Kittering that I stared at in the picture. The wild hair and the eyes, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind. Harvey Kittering was my Teranan mentor, Harvey Keaton.
"Mrs. Kittering, I'm sorry to trouble you," I said as I turned back to the elderly woman, taking her hand in mine. I needed to come here to find out some things, but having found some things, now I find I must go. My apologies for not staying for tea."
I practically flew, getting out the door. I wasn't going to wait for Wing to signal she was ready either, I wanted to be airborne as soon as possible.
Those plans were altered immediately. There was a man, dressed in black and standing with his arms loosely at his sides, waiting for me. I looked him over and considered what I knew, and what I could guess.
"Black Adder, I presume?" I offered, stepping down from the porch and moving away from the house, trying to get it out of the line of fire.
"He told me you were a clever lass," The black-clad figure said with a laugh.
"Did he tell you what your chances were?" I asked, letting my Legion armor flow back into its familiar look and shape. I had wing throw a field of 'Midnight black' around me, just long enough to get my usual gear on. I let the field fade as I finished adjusting the straps for Dream and Nightmare.
"He told me not to underestimate you. I never underestimate my targets, and I never miss," he bragged, almost sneering. Based on what Harvey had told me of him. He had cause to be cocky. I was going to change that, I hoped, starting now.
"Well, to underestimate someone, you first need to know them, and you do not know me, BA." My referring to him by the initials rather than the name annoyed him, I saw it.
I wondered if this was how the Black Adder had always approached his victims, or if it was a special wrinkle added just for me. The Black Adder in front of me looked as real as you could ask for, but was merely an illusion. A perfect illusion. Perfect to anyone who couldn't see the Light. This Black Adder didn't have a Light signature, and I confirmed immediately, wasn't really there.
The real Black Adder was perched on a platform in a tree a mile away, a long barreled rifle of a strange type aimed my direction.
"You can laugh at the fates and what they deliver, BA, but you can't hold back the tide, stop the sun from rising and you can't stop me."
I'd given him the goad. He fired his rifle, and I reached out and jumped Black Adder from his tree and into my arms, pulling him between me and the path of his poison needle. I kissed him and whispered in his ear as the needle struck. "Are you immune to your own bite, Adder?"
I let him drop, seeing the illusory copy of him fade as I watched him fade as well. The 'poison' he used was interesting, far more interesting than I had expected. It killed the Black Adder by sucking the Light right out of him. I scanned the man thoroughly as he died, and there was no talent for the Light within him. He had gotten his poison from someone else. I guess I could suspect who. I called for Wing and flew up to her, dumping the Black Adder's corpse in the holding tank. Yesterday I would have been thinking of returning to Harvey in triumph. Bear Crap! An hour ago I would have done the same. Now I wasn't sure. I'd been in Harvey's mind and not seen what I now knew to be there. Had he hidden it, or had I just not looked in the right places?
When I mentioned the name Preston Miles, he should have told me. He should have told me then. I didn't bother to get cleaned up, or stop at the Facet. I jumped straight to Fort Richardson and sent out a call for Harvey.
I got a faint trace, and a fading 'I'm sorry', and then the trace was gone. I immediately thought of Trey, out in the mountains alone, and I called for him. No answer. I left Wing to follow behind and jumped straight to the main level of the fortress. Trey wasn't there, but his armor was. The steel suit hung against a far wall, and it was covered in blood. A look at the Light level told me it was Trey's and there was a lot of it.
My eyes went blurry, and I screamed. I screamed with more than just my lungs and voice, perhaps. The mountain shook. I touched the armor. There was mostly Trey there, and some of me, but there was another trace, an almost familiar one, and I latched onto it and began to scan, in ever-widening circles, looking for its match.
I knew that Andy, on Arbor, had achieved the strength needed to sift through an entire world, and today, I decided I needed that kind of strength, and so I found it. I found nothing. Not a hint of it, anywhere.
I did find Jules Harkin again. I was in no mood to play anymore, I jumped into his office and picked him up with my mind and pinned him against the wall, holding him there with a little gravitic field, applied not-too-lovingly.
He was an immediate mental whirlwind, throwing probes, suggestions, coercive bolts and bits of confusion and chaos at my thoughts. I slapped the serious threats aside, and let the rest just bounce of my mental shields.
"We'll not be playing with my mind today, asshole," I snarled at him. "Today we're playing hide and seek, and you're it!"
And with that I dove into his mind, and the chase was on. The man knew his own mind, and he was truly adept, but I had spent my childhood playing this game in the mind of someone far more powerful than Jules Harker! I gave a silent nod to Andy and chased the man down in the warrens of his own hidden fears and nightmares, pinned him against an imaginary wall of his own devising and sucked him dry of everything he knew or thought he knew.
It was shit!
The man didn't know shit, and what he thought he'd known, the information I'd followed to find Abigail Kittering, had been planted there by Preston Miles. Jules Harker knew a lot of things about a lot of people, and I stored it away for later, but about the one man I needed to know something about, he knew nothing!
Two hours later, I hovered in Wing near the edges of the atmosphere, watching the night darkened surface of North Carolina below me. I had scoured the entire planet, with my mind and within the Light, and I could find no trace of Preston Miles or Harvey Keaton, and I should have been able to find Harvey. He had allowed me to put a little thought in his mind to make him easy to contact. We'd used it often. What I could do though, someone else could undo. Particularly someone who'd shown they could plant thoughts in a mind like Jules Harkers.
If they were still on Terana, and with the ability to alter Light as I'd seen done with the Black Adder's poison, they could be gone. If they were gone, it meant someone outside of the Legion of Light and the Guardians had the ability to jump between the facets.
Thinking about the facets and the Light made me think about what it might be I was facing, and in thinking of that, I realized I might have my answer, or at least the first clue leading to it. When I searched the world, Terana or any other, I did it using the Light, and the Light's reflection off of physical things. The Focus, the location of my headquarters on Terana, was where the Light that leaked through into the world collected, like a harmonic point.
If the world had a harmonic convergence node for light, maybe it had an anti-node. I stepped into the Light again, and this time, I looked not for the presence of something, but for the lack of it. Like trying to track the Slurr with your senses. The peculiar beings had such bright minds, but they had no Light signature whatsoever. It was yet another thing about them that made them so unique.
This was no time to go off half-prepared, so I made sure I did the things I needed to. I went to Temple and bathed my swords in holy oils and let the monks chant over them for the accepted amount of time. From there it was off to Smoke next. The Slurr responded to my arrival as they always did, and I sent a wave of Light out and into them, and they glowed in the joy of feeling it and feeding on it. I let the Slurr who had been my blade companions go, and as their replacements came forward, I made my new request, and a new wave came forward. I would be doubly protected, as the Slurr moved to coat my armor completely. I sent a second wave of Light out into my gathered worshippers and made the jump back to Terana — to Trey's fortress. To Iron Man's Fortress. Maybe there'd be another Iron Man some day. But I had to find Trey first, and I didn't expect to like what I was going to find.
How do you find a place that's not there? Find all the places that are there, and subtract them from the total. What's left is the 'isn't there'. Sounds confusing, but in a sense it was simple, once my mind was thinking in the right direction.
The anti-Focus was experiencing one of those dark and stormy days. We were high in the mountains somewhere, Wing, the Slurr and I. My senses told me somewhere between what was China and Kyrgyzstan in the world I knew best. There was no castle or tower, just a cave entrance. I left Wing to guard my back in the air above the entrance and I flew in at speed.