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June 17, 2024

Better Than The Alternative

By Mel Trent

The guard shoved his nightstick through the chain link fence and into Jack Runner's stomach. Jack was ready for the blow, but it still hurt. He stumbled away from the fence, tearing open his left thumb on a sharp edge.

"Stay back from the fence," the guard said.

Jack would have violated the directive if Sasha Killington hadn't grabbed his arm and held him back. He strained against her grip, his lips curled into a sneer. "What are you afraid of?" he asked. "You think I'll scramble your brain? You think I can infect you just by looking at you?"

"Jack, cut it out," Sasha said. She dug her heels into the ground, which was difficult in government issued rubber clogs, but she managed.

"Stay back from the fucking fence," the guard said.

"Make me," Jack said.

Sasha screamed when Jack surged out of her hands and towards the fence.

Jack thrust his left hand towards the gap he'd made in the fence before the guard had caught him at it. He couldn't get his arm all the way through, but he didn't need to. His hand was free of the barrier that shut down the powers of all the psychics in the internment camp.

The guard backed away, shouting for reinforcements and afraid to get too close to Jack. Jack had time to try to break the generator that kept the barrier in place.

Shikigami coiled like snakes around his hand, but the spirits' movements were painfully slow. He wasn't far enough outside the barrier, and if he pushed any harder, he would end up hurting himself.

Behind him, Sasha was doing her best to keep the guards at bay. He wished he could get her closer to the small breach in the barrier. If she could draw on even a fraction of her power, she might have a better chance against the four large, armed men. He looked over his shoulder in time to see a nightstick connect with her jaw, punching it out of true in a spray of blood and teeth.

More guards arrived on the outside. One of them slammed a nightstick down on Jack's wrist. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood as cold, razor sharp pain jolted up his arm. The shikigami vanished.

A guard grabbed Jack's hair and jerked him down to the ground. Jack didn't struggle. There was no point. He was outnumbered, injured, and completely inside the dampening barrier. The guards still took the opportunity to kick him while he was down.

Jack woke up in a small interrogation room. His right arm and both ankles were clamped into metal cuffs attached to the uncomfortable chair. His left arm, with the thumb bandaged and the wrist cocooned in an inflatable cast, was tied to the chair with a length of medical tubing.

Dr. Henry paused packing up his tools to look at Jack.

"Where's Sasha?" Jack asked.

"Infirmary," Dr. Henry said. "She'll be taking her meals through a straw for a while, but she'll be okay. You, on the other hand ..."


Dr. Henry shook his head. "They're sending an Agency official to interrogate you. My advice? Name names, kiddo. I know this isn't all you and Sasha. She can't talk, so you better if you wanna keep the both of you alive."

Jack grinned. "So I warrant an actual visit from the Agency now. Sweet. I can't wait."

"Don't be stupid, Jack."

"When's he coming?"

"In about an hour. You all right for now?"

"Hmm. Let's see. Locked up in a prison camp because I'm a bit different, treated like a rabid animal, beaten and shackled to chair. Yeah, doc, I'm fucking great."

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you."

"I appreciate it."

The lack of sarcasm in Jack's voice made Dr. Henry consider undoing the shackles and forgetting to lock the door. It was a fleeting consideration. He had known Jack since Jack was twelve. He had a great deal of affection for the kid, but outside the barrier, Jack was really no better than the ghosts and demons that terrorized the city.

Trying to get loose was a waste of time, but Jack did it anyway. It gave him something to do while he waited for the Agency prick to show up. He hadn't had the pleasure of seeing one of those bastards face-to-face since he was fifteen, when they'd finally given up poking at his brain and tossed him in the camp with the rest of the psychics. If he could get free and get his hands on the agent for just one minute, just long enough to let them know he knew what they'd done to Azrael, it would be worth whatever punishment they handed down.

As satisfying as it would be, there was no reason to take the risk. The Agency would kill him. They'd kill everyone he knew, everyone they thought he might have told. He would never be able to escape if he were dead. He'd never be able to change things.

Jack's head began to throb sharply. His face was hot and damp with sweat. When he closed his eyes, bolts of white light jittered through the darkness -- his poor, caged shikigami. They wanted out as much as he did. He felt tears dribble from his eyes. The pain in his head bore down harder, squeezing from the back of his skull to the back of his neck. Nausea rolled through his gut. He fought with it, but as usual, the nausea beat him. He vomited on his lap and screamed until the guards came to throw buckets of cold water on him and slap and sedate him into silence.

The sharp slap of a small, cellophane wrapped package on the table woke Jack up. He sat up straight with some difficult, but he didn't open his eyes. The light was too bright.

"Wake up, Jack," a man said. "We need to talk."

Jack disagreed, so he said nothing.

The harsh florescent light went out and was replaced by the soft glow of a candle. Jack opened his eyes. His vision blurred a bit, and he blinked until it cleared. The man sitting across from him was surprisingly handsome, especially when the flickering light of the candle shifted along the crinkles around his pretty green eyes. Jack turned his head away and closed his eyes again.

"Come on, Jack."

"Not tonight, dear. I have a headache."

"I know you do. But really, I just want to talk."

"Talk all you want. I have nothing to say."

Jack heard the cellophane slide across the table. "You want a cigarette?"

Jack looked from the pack of cigarettes to the Agency man.

"I'll even untie your left arm so you can smoke it."

"What's next? Coffee, whiskey?"

"I'm not prepared to go that far."

"What do you want from me?"

"To talk."

"You already said that. About what?"

The Agency man stood up and came around the table to Jack's left. He undid the knot in the tubing, and it fell to the floor with a wet smack. He leaned across Jack to grab the cigarettes. Jack saw the gun in the shoulder holster under the agent's arm. He could have reached for it, but he didn't.

"My name's Sam, by the way," the man said as he opened the pack of cigarettes. "Sam Winston."

Jack watched Sam's fingers as Sam pulled a cigarette out of the pack. Jack took the cigarette and put it to his lips. Sam flicked a lighter, and Jack touched the tip of cigarette to the flame. He took a deep drag, filling his lungs up as much as possible. He held the smoke for as long as he could and then let it out slowly. His head buzzed lightly and pleasantly, vibrating away the pain and nausea.

Sam leaned back against the edge of the table and folded his arms across his chest. "I wanna talk about Project Icarus."

It was difficult to keep from reacting to those words. Jack made himself hold Sam's gaze steady, but in his head, he was screaming. His heart started hammering at his ribs the way Azrael had pounded on the walls of his cell while in another room, an Agency neurosurgeon had tried to take Jack's brain apart.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jack said.

Sam went back to the other side of the table and picked up a briefcase. "You know exactly what I'm talking about," he said. He pulled a folder from the briefcase and dropped it on the table in front of Jack. Jack didn't look at it. "Maybe you don't know the project's official name, but you know what it is. Or was. You were the subject."

"I don't remember."

Sam shrugged. "If you say so."

"Why are you asking me about this?"

"Because a number of people involved with the project have been murdered in the last month."

Jack smoked his cigarette. He wasn't sure how he felt about that news or what Sam expected of him. They watched each other, waiting for reactions. Neither of them flinched. Jack decided that he liked Sam quite a bit.

"You're not a suspect, if that's what you're thinking," Sam said.

"Conversation is a game of chicken," Jack said. "You lose."

The corners of Sam's mouth started to twitch upward into a smirk, but he forced it away. He reached into the briefcase again, pointedly breaking eye contact. "We know who the murder is. Catching him is the problem," he said. He tossed a plastic evidence bag on top of the folder.

Jack dropped his cigarette on the floor and reached for the evidence bag. He couldn't make himself pick it up. He spread his fingers against the single object inside -- a white feather splotched with dried blood. Tears blurred his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, but no words would come out.

"Azrael is still alive, Jack," Sam said. "He's alive, he's pissed off, and he's murdering everyone involved with Project Icarus. I need your help to stop him."

It felt strange to be outside of the barrier and even stranger to have no desire to try to break the generator. Jack supposed the idea of freedom hadn't completely left him, but for the moment, freedom seemed trivial. He eyed the generator and the guards as Sam drove out of the camp. He waited to feel hate stirring in his gut, but he felt nothing. He was empty.

"Doing okay?" Sam asked once they were past the perimeter gate.

"No," Jack said.

"I know this is hard."

"You have no idea."

Sam sighed. "Okay, maybe I don't."

Jack lit a cigarette. The delicious buzz of the first cigarette was absent that time, and his head began to throb again.

"You're doing the right thing."

Jack said nothing, and Sam stopped trying.

Ten minutes later, Sam pulled into the parking deck at the Agency headquarters. "I'll try to make this as quick as possible," Sam said. "Come on." He started to get out of the car.

"I watched him die," Jack said.

Sam sat back and looked over at Jack.

"This doesn't make any sense. It's out of character. Az was never violent, even when he was pissed."

"It's been a long time. People change. And the emotional damage --"

"Bullshit. Damaged or not, he's not a killer. And if he is still alive and somehow free, what do you think he'd do first? Seriously. Think about it."

Sam didn't have to think about it for very long. "He'd have come for you. So what is this?"

Jack shook his head. "I have no idea." Which wasn't exactly true, but what Sam didn't know wouldn't hurt him. At least that was how Jack hoped it would work.

Jack didn't want to let the Agency physician anywhere near him. For her part, the doctor didn't seem to want to treat Jack any more than he wanted her treating him, but there was no way out of it for either of them. Jack kept quiet, and the doctor worked quickly. It helped a little that Sam stayed with Jack, even if it was only so he didn't try to overwhelm the doctor and escape.

Sam's cell phone rang as the doctor was finishing up. He looked at the display. "I gotta take this," he said. "I'll be right back."

"Okay," Jack said.

The doctor nodded and went back to adjusting the removable cast she'd put on Jack's wrist. "How's that feel?" she asked.


"Good. Don't take it off unless you have to, and be careful when you do. Do you think you'll need anything for pain?"

"A couple shots of whiskey maybe."

She gave him a reluctant, icy smile, but he got genuine amusement from her mind. "Detective Winston is more of a beer drinker," she said.

Jack said nothing, uncertain why she would tell him that or if she'd said it at all.

As soon as the doctor left, the sensation of being watched rushed over Jack so suddenly that he almost slipped off the examination table.

There you are, a voice in his head said.

The menace in the voice made Jack's skin crawl. He tried to push it out of his head. Concentrating was hard. He was still hurting and exhausted from his injuries, the migraine and the shock of Sam's visit.

Don't worry. I'm not coming for you yet, but I will come for you.

Not if I find you first, you son of a bitch, Jack thought.

Then the voice and sensation of being watched were gone. Jack couldn't tell if he'd succeeded in pushing it out or if it had left on its own. He would be better prepared next time.

Sam came back into the exam room. "That was Gina," he said. "She's got clothes for you. Ready?"

Jack didn't answer. A drop of blood fell from his nose and hit his knee. He watched it spread along the grey threads of the camp uniform.

"Jack? You okay?" Sam grabbed a paper towel and handed it to Jack.

Jack pressed the paper towel to his nose. "No," he said. "I thought I'd feel better once I was outside the barrier. I feel worse."

"We're almost done here. Proper clothes, a quick briefing, and then we'll get something to eat and you can rest."

Jack nodded, wiped his nose one last time and then tossed the paper towel in the trash can. When he turned towards the door, Sam was standing much closer than Jack had expected.

"You should consider a haircut, too," Sam said. He reached out and brushed Jack's hair off his shoulder. "This isn't regulation."

"I don't work for you."

"You're ..." Sam didn't finish, but Jack heard the rest of the sentence in Sam's head. Gorgeous.

"You didn't tell me proper clothes meant a fucking suit," Jack said.

Gina, the administrative assistant, giggled.

"Change," Sam said.


"Because I said so."

Gina giggled again and looped her arm around Jack's arm. "Come on, silly," she said. "You're gonna look stunning in a suit. I picked it out myself, and look at me."

Jack did. She was impeccably dressed in a tailored, plum colored pant suit. Her hair and makeup were equally impeccable. She was good at creating flawless facades. Too bad her personal life was so messed up. Jack looked down at the floor.

"It's temporary," Sam said. "Once this is over, you can go right back to the camp greys."

"Great," Jack said. "I look forward to that."

"Go change."

Jack grumbled and went into the bathroom. When he came back out in the suit, Gina burst into applause. Sam could only stare.

"I knew it," Gina said. "You are smokin' hot."

Jack grinned in spite of himself. "Thanks," he said. "I couldn't manage the tie, though."

"Do you not know how to tie a tie?" Sam asked.

"I know how. It's just kinda difficult with a broken wrist."

"Oh. Guess that would do it."

Gina started to step forward to take the tie from Jack's hand, but Sam beat her to it.

"Gina, go find something he can tie his hair back with," Sam said.

"Sure," Gina said and hurried off around the corner.

"No, this isn't awkward at all," Jack said as Sam slipped the tie around his neck.

Sam kept his eyes focused on the tie. "I'd much rather be taking this off you than putting it on."


Sam looked up, startled. "I didn't say anything."

They were both silent for a second.

"Shit," Jack said. "Sorry. I'm out of practice with the mind reading thing."

Sam finished knotting and straightening the tie without another word.

Jack felt almost normal. He wasn't as uncomfortable in the suit as he thought he would be, and once he got the hang of tuning out stray thoughts, he didn't even mind that people were staring at him. Once fed and well-rested, he might even begin to forget that just a few hours before, he had been in a prison camp.

What did bother him were the ten murders the Agency was convinced Azrael had committed.

Lieutenant Cathy Sanderson kept the briefing brief at Sam's request. Jack could read over the case file later to fill in details. An overview was more than enough.

"Any questions?" Cathy asked when she was done.

Jack was silent for a moment. He had plenty of questions, but Cathy wouldn't have answers. "When's dinner?" he asked.

Cathy ignored him and looked at Sam.

"Dinner's next on the agenda," Sam said. "We'll go over the case file then."

"Sounds good to me."



"Okay. Come on."

They stood up to leave.

"Detective, can I talk to you for a moment?" Cathy asked. "Alone?"

"Wait outside," Sam said to Jack.

Jack nodded and stepped out into the hallway, pulling the door shut behind him. He didn't plan to listen in. It was a spontaneous decision. He was pretty sure the conversation was about him, and he thought he had a right to know what they were saying. He let a single shikigami uncoil from his hand and directed it under the door.

"I don't like this at all," Cathy said.

"I'm not sure I do either," Sam said.

Jack didn't think they were talking about the same thing.

"But I think we need him here," Sam continued.

"And once the case is done?"

Sam remained silent.

"He's powerful, and we've never known exactly how powerful. There's no guarantee he won't turn on you."

"I don't think --"

"And whatever you do, stay out of his pants."

"I wasn't --"

"For god's sake, Sam, you're practically drooling on the boy, and unless I miss my guess, he doesn't seem to mind. Don't let him trick you into a vulnerable position."


Jack pulled his shikigami back. Sam stepped into the hall a few seconds later. He looked unhappy. "Everything okay?" Jack asked.

"Fine," Sam said. He didn't think Jack believed him, but Jack took the answer at face value.

The case file was spread out over Sam's kitchen table. Three of the autopsy reports were marked with empty beer bottles, but Sam wasn't sure why. Jack's method of studying the case file was hardly a method at all as far as Sam could tell. It seemed to work for Jack, and for the moment, Sam was content to let Jack do whatever he wanted.

"So what are you thinking?" Sam asked. They'd been silent for several minutes, both of them staring at the pages.

Jack frowned around the unlit cigarette in his mouth and then put the cigarette down on the table. "I'm thinking I chewed on that filter way too much. It's too soggy to smoke now," Jack said.

"About the case, Jack."

"Something doesn't make sense." Jack pointed to the beer bottle sentinels. "Those three list asphyxiation as the cause of death. All of the potentially fatal stab wounds were post-mortem. The rest are multiple stab wounds."

"What does that tell us?"

"Whoever did all the stabbing found those three already dead and stabbed them out of frustration. They were three of the four lead researchers on the project."

"So someone quietly smothers the bigwigs while someone else hacks up anyone who knew about the project?"

"No, they're not working together. Against each other maybe. Like she wanted to save them the trouble of getting hacked up."

"She who?"

"Dr. Carmichael. She's the only lead researcher who's still alive."

"We've questioned her multiple times. She doesn't know anything."

"She's lying."

Sam leaned back from the table and put his chin in his palm. "Interesting."

"That's not the word I'd use for it."

"What word would you use?"

"Fucked up."

"That's two words."

"Not if you say it fast enough."

Sam snickered. "You're either tired or drunk. I can't tell."

"Not drunk. Slightly buzzed maybe. And I passed tired a long time ago, went straight through exhausted, and I don't what comes after that. Complete system failure, I guess."

"Let's put this away for now. Will you be okay sleeping on the couch?"

"Um ... I guess. I thought you'd dump me a cheap motel."

"And give you the perfect opportunity to disappear? I don't think so."

Jack finished off the last sip of his beer and then went into the bathroom.

He took his time, struggling out of the suit and into the cotton pajama bottoms and tee-shirt that Gina had thoughtfully packed into an overnight bag for him, along with the necessary personal hygiene items. It was mostly the tie that gave him trouble. He couldn't get the fingers of his left hand to cooperate without sending bright flares of pain through his wrist, but he refused to ask Sam for help. As soon as he touched the tie, he could see what would happen. Sam would undo the tie, but he wouldn't stop there. He would unbutton the shirt next, push it open and run his fingers over Jack's chest. Then he'd slip the elastic band out of Jack's hair and grab a handful of it to pull Jack closer. Then they would kiss. And then --

Sam knocked on the bathroom door. "Hey," he said. "Are you okay in there?"

Jack snapped out of the vision. "Yeah, fine," he said. "Just thinking." He opened the door and stared at Sam for a minute. "I had a vision."

"About the case?"

"About us."

Sam grabbed the front of Jack's tee-shirt and reeled Jack into his arms. "You're not sleeping on the couch," he said.

Death was inevitable, and that fact had never bothered Jack. He had always been aware of the red light at the end of his path. The end was closer for him than it was for others, but that didn't worry him either. He couldn't change it, so why waste time thinking about it?

As he woke up, with more difficulty than he expected, from a dream of being smothered, he found himself standing on an empty, dark road with a traffic light so close that he could hear it buzzing as the red light glared at him.

Sam was still asleep when Jack woke up. The room was full of watery grey light, and rain flicked lazily at the window. It was just barely dawn. Jack closed his eyes and snuggled down into the bed again. He hadn't slept in a real bed in so long that he had forgotten how comfortable a bed could be.

But then he remembered why he wasn't on the hard, thin mattress in his cell at the camp. He was wide awake after that.

He slipped out of bed and crept into the kitchen. He sniffed out the coffee and went to the bathroom while a pot brewed. He'd been through one large mug and was halfway through a second when Sam shuffled out to the kitchen.

"Oh god, you found the coffee," Sam said.

"Coffee can't hide from me," Jack said.

"How long have you been up?"

"A while. I didn't sleep too well. Not that I ever do anyway."

Sam poured himself a cup of coffee. He had expected things to be awkward between them, but Jack was acting as if nothing had happened. Nothing had, really. Jack had fallen asleep almost as soon as they'd gotten into bed.

Sam sat down at the kitchen table. "Did anything about those autopsy reports change since last night?"

"No. But I was wondering about tox screens."

"Tox screens? Why?"

"Because if Dr. Carmichael did kill them, she probably had to subdue them first. She's not a big woman, and she's old now."

Sam shuffled through the pages still strewn across the table. He found what he was looking for and skimmed it. "No tox screens on the stabbing victims. The other three had lorazepam in their systems. Exactly the kind of thing a neurosurgeon would have access to. Shit." Sam tossed the pages on the table. "How did I miss that?"

"You weren't looking for it."

"Who stabbed them after they died, though?"

Jack took a long sip of his coffee. It had gotten cold, and he grimaced at the short, sharp ache in his teeth. He finished it off anyway. He needed to do something to keep from looking at Sam.

"Jack, if you know something, please tell me."

"I need a cigarette."

Jack got up and went out the front door. He realized he had left the cigarettes on the kitchen table after he had sat down on the steps, but he wasn't about to go back inside. He stared out at the damp street and wondered how far he could run before the Agency caught up to him.

Sam came out a few minutes later. He sat down beside Jack and handed him the pack of cigarettes. "You forgot these," he said.

Jack lit a cigarette and took a few drags.

"Look, Jack, whatever it is you're thinking or seeing or whatever, you've got to tell me. You aren't here so you can try to take care of this on your own. I know you want to, but you can't."

"Why not?"

"I won't let you."

"That's sweet, but I don't think you could stop me."

Sam reminded himself of Cathy's warning. Jack was too powerful to keep him on a leash for long, and Sam was dangerously close to losing what little control he had. "You know who's doing this," he said. "Tell me. If it's not Azrael, who is it?"

"Why did you think Azrael was the killer? You've got the Project Icarus file. There's no autopsy? They didn't cut him open after he died?"

"I have a heavily redacted version. I don't have that kind of clearance. But no, there was no autopsy. I assumed he was still alive because it didn't make sense that they'd have killed him. They didn't kill you."

Jack said nothing. He forced himself to remember watching Azrael die, forced himself to look for any sign that what he'd seen wasn't real. If anything, it was too real. He rubbed his eyes. "Am I bait?" he asked.

Sam cursed Cathy for ever thinking Jack wouldn't get wise to that plan. He cursed himself for going along with it. If they had told Jack that was the plan, he would have agreed. Sam didn't doubt that for a second, but lying to Jack had been a mistake.

"I am bait. Fuck."

"Jack, it's not --"

"Fuck you, Sam. I was starting to trust you, but you're just like the rest of them."

"So tell me what's going on, and we'll do this right."

Jack stood up and flicked his cigarette to the sidewalk. Even in the rain, it sparked and left a tiny, charred crater in the cement. He turned around to face Sam. He didn't know what he was going to do. He couldn't hurt Sam; that wasn't fair. Sam was trying to do his job. Jack had been stupid to think there could ever have been any acceptance there, physical attraction aside. So no, he wouldn't hurt Sam, but he would incapacitate him and finish this mess alone.

Sam's cell phone rang. "If I don't answer this, they'll be here to hunt you down before you make it halfway down the street," he said.

"They can't stop me."

"I don't want to find out what they're willing to try. Do you?"

Jack walked down to the end of the sidewalk and lit another cigarette. He had forgotten how angry he was and how hard that anger made it to control his abilities. He turned his face up towards the drizzle and closed his eyes. Maybe it was time to give in, obliterate Pale and everything and everyone inside the city. He would never be free otherwise because nothing was ever going to change. He took a deep breath and began to draw as much energy as he could. His skin erupted in tiny pricks of heat where the rain touched him and turned to steam. The sidewalk beneath his feet shook and cracked. Across the street, a power line snapped and sparked.

Sam grabbed Jack's arm, not expecting to burn himself on Jack's skin, but he didn't let go. "Jack, what are you doing?" he asked.

Jack didn't answer. Cracks began to open in the street.

Sam took a handful of Jack's hair and jerked him backwards. Jack barely moved, but the brief pain across his scalp was enough to break his trance. For a second, the rain seemed to pull back up into the sky, and then everything went back to normal. Sam loosened his grip on Jack's hair but didn't let go.


"Let go of me."

Sam didn't. "There's been another murder. It's Dr. Carmichael."

Jack didn't ask where they were going as Sam drove to the scene. He knew with lead-weight certainty that they were heading to Baymont Asylum. Where else would Dr. Carmichael be? And where better to end than where it all began? The red light was close, closer than it had been when he woke up, and it moved even closer as they drew nearer to the asylum.

"His name is Ramiel," Jack said when Sam stopped the car across from Baymont.

Sam looked at Jack.

"He's Azrael's brother. He doesn't care about Carmichael and the others. It's me he wants. He blames me for what happened to Az. He knew I'd have to get involved in this at some point. He couldn't get to me while I was in the camp. Now you've pushed me right into his trap."

"I'm sorry, Jack. It wasn't supposed to work out like this."

"How was it supposed to work out?"

Sam didn't know, so he didn't bother to answer. He kissed Jack instead, and, much to his surprise, Jack kissed him back.

As soon as Jack stepped out of the car, a fine, hot needle of power pierced his shields. He felt his body reeling with the urgency of the contact, but it was so far away, it was like watching someone else stumble.

Help me, a voice whispered. Jack, help me.

"Azrael," Jack said.

Jack --

Azrael's voice was cut off by the menacing voice Jack had heard the day before.

Come play with my little brother now, Ramiel said.

Sam forgot about the corpse of Dr. Marion Carmichael when Jack suddenly convulsed as if shot and fell back against the side of the car. He ran around the front of the car, but his reaction time felt too slow. He was convinced Jack would be dead before he could get to Jack's side.

Jack was on his knees when Sam got to him, holding his broken wrist to his chest. Blood dripped from his nose.

"Jack," Sam said. "What --"

"Stay away from me," Jack said.

Sam stepped back, not because he wanted to but because something pushed him. "I want to help you, damn it. Tell me what's going on."

Jack stood up. He wiped the blood from his nose with the back of his right hand, smearing his upper lip and his cheek. He didn't look at Sam but pointed to the old church next to Baymont. "They're in there," he said.


"Ramiel and Azrael."

"Okay. We'll --"

"No. He wants me."

Sam was never sure what happened after that. He felt something heavy pressing down on him, and then Jack was shoving in the doors of St. Gregory's Cathedral. Either Sam blacked out for a second, or Jack teleported.

It was neither of those. Jack could teleport, but it wasn't necessary to use such a flashy and energy-consuming trick just to cross the street. It had been easier, and much wiser, to simply hold time up for about half a minute.

"Ramiel!" Jack shouted as he threw the doors inward against their natural swing.

Ramiel was waiting in front of the altar. His face and wings were spattered with blood, and he had a knife in his right hand, its blade red and dripping. At his feet was Azrael's still form. "So good to see you again, Jack," he said, grinning.

Behind Jack, the doors slammed shut. Jack flinched. A moment later, Sam started pounding on the doors, shouting Jack's name and desperately trying to get inside the church. Ramiel laughed.

"Why did you wait fifteen years?" Jack asked.

"I was also hoping the Agency would finish you off for me." Ramiel shrugged and looked down at Azrael. "I ran out of patience, and as it turns out, the Agency aren't murderers. They're torturers."

Jack felt Ramiel's attack coming a fraction of a second before it hit him. He didn't have time to deflect all of it. It slammed him back against the doors and gouged deep furrows in the wood. The air left Jack's lungs, and he slumped to the floor as black spots opened in his eyes.

He shook his head and struggled to his feet only to be slammed sideways through the rotting pews towards one of the long stained glass windows that graced the sides of the cathedral. He held his hands up and unleashed his shikigami in time to cushion the impact. It still hurt, and shards of beautiful glass and shattered pews rained down on him.

He curled his shikigami around the debris and let it churn around him like a tornado. He wanted to just throw everything at Ramiel, but he didn't want to take the chance that he would hurt Azrael in the process. He would have to get up close and personal.

Or die trying, he thought.

The red light at the end of his road flared.

"Get the fucking doors down!" Sam shouted. No matter how hard he had tried, he could neither push nor pull the doors open.

"Something's blocking them, sir," one of the uniformed officers said. They had been trying a battering ram, but the doors weren't budging.

"Then find another fucking way inside that church, goddamn it!"

The cop looked momentarily amused by Sam's choice of words and then concerned by Sam's panic. He turned to the others. "Give it up!" he said. "Find another way in!"

They all heard Jack's voice in their heads. Stay out, he said. They were shoved away from the door and into the middle of the street.

A second later, all the stained glass windows imploded, and St. Gregory's shook hard enough to toll its ancient bell.

Jack ran at Ramiel, splintering the pews in his path and sucking their remains into the tornado. He fed every ounce of power he had into the dervish of impromptu blades, and when that seemed tapped out, he went deeper. White patches bloomed in his eyes, but he kept going. The shikigami were shrieking, and Ramiel had nowhere to go.

Above the din, Jack heard Azrael's voice. I love you, Jack, he said, and that was all. A thin tendril of fresh power threaded itself into Jack's mess, and then Azrael was gone.

Jack slammed into Ramiel at full speed. He lowered his shoulder and hit Ramiel in the chest, driving him back against the wall. The shikigami coiled tighter. Ramiel screamed as the wood and glass began to shred his flesh.

Jack felt the knife punch into his gut, felt the blade slide up and the burning pain of his flesh splitting open. Blood and viscera gushed from the slit. He staggered away from Ramiel with his hands around the knife. He tripped over Azrael's legs and went sprawling. He didn't try to get up. Ramiel was silent. There was no reason to get up. Jack reached for Azrael's hand, but he never made it.

Sam sat at the bar in Blinkie's and drank whiskey sours. He didn't like whiskey at all, but he was drinking for Jack, not himself, so he drank what Jack liked. He felt conflicted about the whole thing. On the one hand, the case was closed. On the other, Jack was dead, and that hardly seemed like a good trade off. He rubbed stinging tears out of his eyes and ordered his forth drink.

"That one's on me," said the man settling himself on the barstool next to Sam.

"Thanks but no thanks," Sam said. "I'm not in the mood for company."

"I'm not either, but I want to talk to you, Sam."

Sam looked up at the stranger. He was an older man, in his 60's probably, with silver hair and pale brown eyes, one of which was clouded by a cataract. He was well-dressed and smelled faintly of fresh dirt.

"What do you want?" Sam asked.

"I had to bury a friend today. I think you knew him. Jack Runner." The man picked up the glass the bartender had placed in front of him. There was dirt under his nails and embedded in the lines of his palms. "To Jack," he said and polished off the drink in one long gulp.

Sam sipped his drink and said nothing.

"I'm Zeke Temple," the man said. He slid a business card along the bar to Sam. Sam didn't look at it. "How much do you know about Project Icarus?"

"Only what I was allowed to see."

"Which wasn't much, I'm guessing."

"No, it wasn't."

"What did Jack tell you?"

"Nothing. I didn't ask, and he didn't trust me enough to tell me if I had asked."

"If he had told you anything, it would have contradicted just about everything in that file. They covered up what they did to him and Azrael and what they continued to do to Azrael after they put Jack in the camp. His involvement in this case is completely off-record, too, isn't it?"

"You still haven't told me what you want."

"I want you to switch sides." Zeke tapped the business card on the bar, which Sam finally looked at. "I'm the anti-Agency. Jack and Azrael were far from the only ones the Agency has fucked with. More than half the psychics in the camps have been subjected to similar experiments. They don't always survive. Normal humans get experimented on, too. To establish baseline readings. Jack and his friend Sasha Killington got the stories from their fellow prisoners and fed them to me so my agents could follow up. They're not my only insiders, but they were the best. Well, Sasha will be back on her feet before too long, but losing Jack ..." Zeke trailed off into silence and signaled for another drink. "Jack was a good kid. A bit crazy, a bit reckless, but good."

"You're asking me to turn my back on my whole career -- my whole life -- for one psychic?"

Zeke smirked. "One psychic who made one hell of an impression on you."

Sam drank.

"I'm asking you to take a good, hard look at your employer and at yourself. I'm asking you if you can live with what you help them do to innocent people. We won't change the world overnight, but we don't have to. We start by exposing things like Project Icarus."

"What makes you think people will care what the Agency does to psychics?"

"Nothing. They may never care, but they'll know the truth. That's better than the alternative."

Sam finished off his drink and picked up Zeke's business card. "Yes," he said. "Yes, it is."

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-04-12
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