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Archive-name: Fantasy/benders.txt

Archive-author: Mike Duncan

Archive-title: Benders

SINCERE WARNING: I promise the story that follows will deeply offend some

people. Think of the "more" prompt as a lottery of filth; if you don't want

to win, don't play. (Better yet, unsubscribe.) If you're a member of the

target audience, however, you might recognize these characters as The People

in Your Neighborhood, whom you meet each day. They're all figments of my

imagination, though. Not meant to resemble any persons living or dead, in any

way. Aaaaaall made up. Yessiree.

     I'm posting this in a.s.s because I can't think of any other place where

it would be tolerated as a matter of course. The actual sex comes late in the

story and is hopelessly consensual, nonviolent and character-oriented, hardly

standard fuck-book issue, so I expect a few flames from disappointed

masturbators. Feel free to re-post it somewhere else, or even to print out

copies and show it to your non-net friends, keeping the authorship and leader

intact, of course. Feedback is appreciated.

     _benders_ is a sort of pre-quel sequel to a much longer story of the

same name. The action here takes place about two months after the original

book ends. I'm posting this because I've lost my voice on chapter three and

I'd like to see if I'm even headed in the right direction. Yes, it's rough,

yes, it's a little cryptic...but can you dig it?

     Thanks to Rabbit, who was there; to Marisa, for familiarizing me with

Susan's condition; and to the Lady Herself, for making all this necessary.

Hope you enjoy the fairy tale.          22 May 1993


                 But ah! what good to mortal mind is sense,

                 What good to hearts is kindness, hands benevolence,

                 When through the state a fever runs and revels,

                 And evil hatches more and more of evils?

                 Who views the wide realm from this height supreme,

                 To him all seems like an oppressive dream,

                 Where in confusion is confusion reigning,

                 And lawlessness by law itself maintaining,

                 A world of error forever obtaining.

                                -- Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

benders.                    by Mike Duncan.                    Copyright 1993.

     In the barren front room of a Houston office they'd rented under a false

name, three sixteen-year-old boys sat huddled around a computer terminal,

busy stealing ten thousand dollars a day, the full limit of what Mentat

Security had authorized. Their plan, also approved and certified by the

Foundation as a potentially dangerous extracurricular activity, involved

shuffling borrowed money from one account to another in large amounts and in

a way that took advantage of the timing of electronic bank transfers. The

actual mechanics of the operation were terrifyingly complex; Tran navigated

the stealer with his left hand on the mouse and his right over the numeric

keypad, the data on the screen flowing directly into his consciousness, his

face sharply wrenched with the pain of a mental trance.

     Ruben ate from a bag of Doritos and shook his head in time to

Metallica's _Ride the Lightning_, while Josh occasionally glanced up from his

Terrible Ted's laptop interface to rub his eyes and yawn. It had cost a

pretty penny to rent a Ted from the Foundation, but as long as Josh watched

it, he knew there were no police around and no one in the outside world knew

or cared who the three thieves were.

     Looking up again, Josh said, "Wash your hands, man. You're next."

     "Patience, neat freak," Ruben said. "The time has not yet come."

     Tran made no outward sign he'd heard the exchange; in the thin gray

strip that represented external reality, his mind logged the activity, found

it insignificant, and disregarded it. Meanwhile, in his main field of

thought, the mental images of two separate computer networks superimposed and

flashed as he manipulated the harmonics of the systems' links, wringing a

tiny fraction of error from each transaction as funds sloshed from one bank

to another across the country. _Enough with North Carolina for now,_ he

thought. _Let's scrape out Manhattan._

     "Those are revolting," Josh said, gesturing to the Doritos, then,

speaking to his computer: "It's illogical to poison yourself with empty

calories." This last carried a hint of accusation; in the Foundation's

slippery rank classification, Josh scored somewhat above, and thus was

considered more powerful than, Ruben.

     "True enough. But to each his own poison, huh, Josh?" Josh flinched.

"Besides, it's good food for the munchies." Ruben stood and went to wash his


     "I don't know how you two can work on that shit."

     "Same way you work wired."

     The doorbell buzzed briefly. Before it stopped, Josh plucked his

silenced HK-93 from the floor and stepped out of the door's direct line of

sight, shouldering the weapon and preparing to flick the safety off. Ruben

glided from the bathroom to a position left of the door, his arms crossed

under his jacket, one hand on his P226, also silenced, in its special

shoulder holster. Tran didn't look up.

     Without taking the time to spin up, Josh concentrated on the space

beyond the closed suite door. Though blind to living tissue, his mentat's

talent revealed a lone figure standing in the hallway...probably a man,

judging by what the hang of his clothing revealed of his skeletal structure.

Changing focus, Josh picked up the compact metal mass of a loaded gun in a

belt holster. He tightened his finger on the safety and jerked his head twice

at Ruben, who bared his teeth in understanding and nodded back.

     "Who _is_ it?" Ruben called sweetly.

     Muffled by the door: "Harlan Jackson, Mentat Security. Put that thing

away before you kill somebody, for Christ's sake."

     Josh returned to Terrible Ted, again laying his rifle on the carpet

beside him.

     Ruben opened the door, and Harlan walked in, a tall, intense black man

in his early twenties. Stepping into the room, he pulled off his scarf to

reveal the silver scores and insignia pinned to his black jacket, identifying

himself, and scanned the room -- the setup, the young mutants and their

physical attitudes. He sniffed the air and added that to his observation.

Satisfied, his eyes returned to Ruben.

     By now Ruben had read and interpreted Harlan's scores, and he stood up

a little straighter and ran a hand through his hair. "Dude," he said by way

of salute.

     "Friendly neighborhood secret police, makin' a house call," Harlan said,

surveying the room again more closely. "We have to keep an eye on you

assholes to make sure your activities don't threaten the safety and security

of the Foundation and the blah, blah, blah." Again his eyes fell on Ruben.

"Nice decor."

     "Everything's been approved," Ruben said quickly.

     "Where's your Sally?" Harlan asked. It was common practice for mentat

crime cabals to retain a telepath or two for additional protection when

pitching their tent for an extended period. Depending on the crime, a Sweet

Sally could command quite a fee. Josh glanced up at the question, then

knotted his brows and returned to his screen.

     "We don't have one."

     "You don't _have_ one! What are you going to do if some lowlife

Flatlander kicks in your door, blow him away in front of God and everybody?

This isn't Foundation soil, man, you can't just sweep that shit under the rug

so easily out here."

     "It was approved," Ruben said, gaining confidence. "There shouldn't be

any local law trouble, and if things go RCF" -- randomly, catastrophically

fuckola, as in a robbery attempt or demon attack -- "we can defend ourselves

with small arms, yes."

     "And they approved that." Harlan tilted his head back.

     "They did."

     "Aw, I don't fuckin' believe this." Harlan shook his head, then examined

Tran's screen.

     "Speaking of our friends in MS, a courier dropped off an eight-ball of

mighty fine powder this morning," Josh said without looking at Harlan. "Want


     "No thanks," said Harlan, also without making eye contact.

     "Oops, okay, sorry. 'Master of Puppets' and all that."

     "Nah, I don't give a shit." Harlan squinted. "Bank wank, huh? First time


     "Second," Ruben admitted.

     Harlan stared at Tran. "Gets into his work, doesn't he?"

     Now Josh did look at Harlan. "Hey, man, you're in the short lance with

Pelcher and Guile the Antichrist, aren't you?"

     "Indeed I am," Harlan replied. "He's not much of an antichrist off-duty,

though. And I wouldn't call him that around Goblin. We all call him 'A.C.'"

     "I thought you weren't supposed to like your code name."

     "He's not the one who gets pissed."

     "Is he really as good as everybody says?"

     Harlan snorted. "Better, if we're hearing the same stories."

     "What's he like?" the boy asked.

     "He sleeps with my ex-girlfriend," Harlan said resentfully, meaning

Susan Pelcher. With his face turned away from Jackson, Ruben pursed his lips

with desire. Though only nineteen, Goblin had already distinguished herself

in Foundation North America's Q5 program, racking up a hundred and fifty-

seven flags against the demons, helping to keep the world somewhat safe for

mutantkind, and in MS, where her skill at brain-raping Senators and captains

of industry had earned her the grudging but well-deserved admiration of

operatives twice her age. And she was fine, too.

     "That sucks," said Josh without much conviction.

     "Yeah. Well, I can see you guys are running a tiptop Boy Scout operation

here, and although it pains me somewhat to say it, I don't think I can cite

you on any Code violations, except perhaps being cheap bastards...and denying

some indolent girl a little pocket money. Provided you get this fucking rifle

off the floor, that is." Harlan nudged Josh's Heckler & Koch with his foot.

"They let you carry field arms around on the street. Inside of the barrel

looks filthy, too. What's the world coming to. Okay, well, have fun."

     Ruben showed Harlan the door. The older mentat draped his scarf over his

jacket again, scanned the hallway, and left.

     "I wonder what's like to work with Guile Edwards," Josh said


     Or to ride his woman like a wild stallion, Ruben thought. "I hear he's

real normal." 

     "What the fuck is normal?" Tran said, making the others jump.

     Recovering, Ruben said, "Not like Custer Triumphant or something, like

so many snappers. Imposing. You know."

     Josh did know. All mentats knew. It was tough, in certain ways, not to

have direct mental influence over the outside world. Bad enough that some

women could read minds and imprint their bad trips on others at will; worse

that the rest of the mutant men and women, the snappers, enjoyed a sort of

exoskeletal telekinesis, allowing them to behave like cartoons in the face of

physical danger. If you were Chosen, all you could do was rely on the Great

Curve and try to aim for their fillings.

     So he said, with a little bitterness, "What does he have to feel

threatened by? Susan the Felcher sleeps on the end of his bed, it is rumored,

ready to spring to awakening and murder with buckshot any who would _dare_

to --"

     "Better shut up. She can probably hear you from wherever she is."


     "Hey, fat boy," Tran said, still scowling. "You wanna come give me a


     "Yeah, balance it."

     Soon Ruben was angry, Tran messaged his temples and tweezed one of Ted's

controls, and Josh knelt over a low table, carefully scooping sifted cocaine

onto a polished mirror, anticipating the crispness of it.

     "You got the easy job," Tran said.

     "I think my cut reflects that fact, thank you. I've worked with Pelcher,

by the way. How anyone can stay so stoned and still be such a bitch is beyond

me." Still, that petite body, that auburn hair, those reddish-brown

eyes...just thinking of what she could do to your pleasure centers in five

_minutes_ if she were really trying...the thought turned Josh's dork into

cement. He pushed the fantasy away, saving it for later, when he was alone.

     Tran mimicked their Criminal Science instructor. "'Based on your

temperament and past experiences, sir, logic suggests you're speaking out of

jealousy.' You friggin' breeder."

     "Perhaps. Excuse me a second." With two strong sniffs, Josh improved his

world. "Does it matter?" He sat back to wait for the ride.

     "Been back to Mendel recently?"

     "No, I try to stay away. Until -- ah." It had begun. "Until next

quarter, when I join Q5 and become a bender like whiny boy out there, there's

no reason to leave the Security safehouse." He felt the rising urge to grow

expansive on Harlan's shortcomings as one-time concubine to the Mentat Ideal,

but squashed it.

     "Pelcher's trying to kick."

     "Really?" Josh grinned evilly. "What fun."

     Sobriety was coming hard for the Goblin Queen. It had been six days --

well, okay, five and a very long half -- since Susan's last joint, and word

had already gotten around the compound that she wasn't losing her mind or

having an early mid-life crisis, she was merely kicking her trademark monkey

off her back. Mendel being what it was, nobody harassed her, and she even

received offers of support from some unexpected places, but none of it helped

very much; no more so than, say, gritting her teeth, which she was getting

good at.

     It also didn't help that she had to walk past the drug dispensary every

afternoon on the way to work. It was located in the Mentat Security building,

and because the dickheads were touchy about people wandering around in there,

they'd placed the long glass Soma Counter just inside the east entrance,

where long rays of evening sun could filter through the East Texas pines and

caress the panoply of mind-warping delights displayed there. If you elbowed

your way through the perpetual scum of window-shopping Family members with

their beads and tie-dye saying DUDE and DIG IT and handed the dickhead on

duty your ID and credit chip, he'd smirk at you and then bring you whatever

you wanted: Foundation Gold Bud, Byrd's Best Red, Smash Hash...ahh. Or

ecstasy, PK25, CN8, coke, even horse tranquilizers, if that's what you really

wanted. For Susan, for the past two years, it had always been grass. But not

any more.

     A couple of glasses of wine before bed, wrapped up in Guile's arms while

they watched the sun rise, weren't the same as getting really baked. Neither

were the long walks in the woods, the hours spent meditating and wandering

the Frontier under the faceless onyx benediction of the Black Goddess, or the

time spent screwing the pants off Edwards when they could both find a hole in

their schedules. Together, though, these things formed a sort of composite

crutch, and by day five-and-a-half she began to think she might actually make


     That afternoon, two U.S. Marshals met her across from the Soma Counter,

beneath the huge Mentat Security emblem, a silver skeletal winged serpent on

a field of black. They were both low-power snappers; the younger one wore a

government suit with a faux-boring tie, and the other wore cowboy clothes,

boots, and the wrinkled-in perpetual frown of a hardass. They seemed to be

representatives of different contingents, and when they had to be in the same

room together they stayed at opposite ends.

     The suit, whose name was Wagner, briefed her at the back of the upstairs

teaching theater. Down front, on the podium, a naked man helped a woman with

blue hair dissect the guidance system from a thousand-pound laser bomb.

Wagner tried not to appear disoriented and failed.

     "Is that everything you need?" Wagner asked at last.

     "I think so," Susan said. "You've been pretty thorough. Assuming your op

in Kansas City places her marker properly, and assuming Michaud stays put

until morning, it shouldn't be any trouble finding him."

     "She'll be fifty miles away, though."

     Susan shrugged. "And I'm a thousand miles away. It doesn't matter."

     "I don't understand how this shit works, to be honest with you. What

does 'screed 24B' mean?"

     In this case, it meant that Michaud, her target, could be identified in

part by his sexual preference for violence with young children, which left a

musty, stinking cloud in the Frontier if you were looking for it. The

question itself also meant that Wagner was new at this, and if she mentioned

it to Molly, he wouldn't be returning to Mendel. The Goblin Queen smiled and

shrugged again.

     Wagner closed his leather folder. "Don't you want to know what this guy


     Susan stopped smiling. "I really don't."

     You learned not to ask. They came to you with a mandate -- a spec-sheet,

they called it in the Temple -- and you knew better than to probe, no matter

what they paid you by the minute. A spec-sheet, a time line, and they asked

you no questions and usually expected the same courtesy in return.

Professionalism. When her pager lit up BLACK STAR Q2 -- REPORT, it meant that

the Foundation brass had collectively decided someone out there was better

off dead, and the Foundation's say-so was good enough for Susan. It kept her

sane, anyway, and watching Uma coo and sing to her bomb while she picked

little bits of it apart and handed them to Jerry made Susan appreciate little

things like her sanity. What was left of it, anyway.

     An hour later, she was sitting Indian-style on the floor of an isolation

room in the Temple of Darkness, robed in gray wool, her human senses

extinguished, surrounded by deadspace and the Frontier. During preliminary

calisthenics, she was amazed at how much more fluid her astral body had

become since the last black star -- maybe this sobriety thing actually had

benefits. One could hope. She shredded the intruding throught and launched

herself straight up until the unimaginable enormity of WorldWatch swayed

beneath her like billions of angry, passionate diamonds.

     She cued in on Myung's signal in Kansas and followed it down. Squinting

at the screed-marks she'd pressed into the Frontier, Susan took flight again

and queried WorldWatch more specifically. Michaud's signal flared in response

at the corner of her astral vision; with a thought, she locked on, appeared

beside him...inside him.

     Goblin ripped through her target's superego, looking for his Primary

Motivator, trying to hold her breath against the sickness and perversion that

threatened to overwhelm her. The two times she'd disobeyed orders and combed

out her targets before dispatching them, Susan had immediately wished she

hadn't. It wasn't necessary to high-comb Michaud to understand what kind of

person he was. The man's followers burned incense and chanted in the next

room, but they wouldn't be able to help him escape tonight.

     She perforated his PM and separated it from the rest of his central

cluster, hitting her retros quickly and digging in as the feedback agony

washed over her. For a timeless instant (the coin of the realm in deadspace)

she chanted her own mantra and wondered if this one would be it, if Edwards

would be sleeping alone tonight. When the tide broke, she actually smiled --

not at the pain, but at her mastery over it. Just like back home. 

     As Michaud's spark of humanity began its long slide downward into the

Well of Souls, Goblin was dimly surprised at how much more smoothly than

normal things had gone. She hung back until Michaud

     (gary -- that was his name. the first one, there in the park, under the

sodium lamp. what purity and potential, a shame to lose it forever to the

random forces of an uncaring world. children must be saved from the sullying

power of the world. they must experience the magnificence of purity of

essence and then be extinguished before their inner beauty could be

contaminated. michaud kept them all safe, every one that he touched, all

serve michaud the messiah)

     gave up his Animal Mother and disintegrated into nothingness. Then she

retreated homeward with Myung's _day-o_ confirmation ringing in her ears.

     Susan found herself flat on her back in the Temple once more, surrounded

by the familiar muted smells of incense, marijuana, and sex. Someone was in

the room with her, but she couldn't tell who, not immediately. She'd been in

deadspace for seven minutes, and it felt as if every cell of her body had

been scrubbed with a ton of ashes, half of which she'd then swallowed. She

tried to stretch, vaguely aware of the fresh tears on her cheeks.

     "Goblin? Hey, take it easy," a young girl said. Susan felt the presence

bending over her. "It's Beaker, Goblin. Are you okay? Are you all right?"

     Still blind, Susan gasped, "...give me a level, would you...."

     Beaker held up her left index finger, flaring hard. The isolation room

lit up from the younger girl's perspective, and Susan felt the coarseness of

her purple Acolyte's robe, the sign of a holy Temple prostitute. She was only

fifteen, Susan realized; all this must be so foreign to her. She caught the

echoes of confusion, a cacophony of dissenting voices within Beaker. She was

uncertain and afraid, unsure of what came next. So was Susan, but you had to

be careful around the low-powers. Couldn't let them think you weren't in


     Before she knew what was happening, Susan felt Beaker's arms around her,

clutching for her warmth. Goblin, not Susan, responded, and she wiped her

tears against the girl's blonde hair, grateful for human warmth in this

moment of weakness.

     "Perfect, Beaker," she whispered. Trina liked women as well as men, but

Susan didn't care at the moment. "Thank you."

     "They left me in here by myself," Beaker murmured against Susan's neck.

"What am I supposed to do? Seriously?"

     "Do you have any juice? My blood sugar...."

     "Oh, yeah," Beaker said, and held the tumbler for Susan.    

     "Thanks," Susan said again. Her Flat senses were beginning to reassert


     "This is your first star sober, isn't it?" Beaker said.

     "Dark Lady bless the rumor mill."

     "Jessica said that when you were growing up, you couldn't even drink.

She said you weren't even allowed to drink tea or coffee. Is that true?"

     Susan tried to laugh. "That's probably all Jessica knows about how I was

raised, but at least she got that right. Yes, it's true."

     "Did you do it?"

     "I followed the rules, just like I do here."

     "God, if I had to spend a week not drinking or jerking off or even

swearing, I would kill myself."

     "Hmm, done some research on your own, I see. Cool."

     "So what happened?"

     "What ever happens? I joined the Foundation, shed innocent blood and

turned my back on the Holy Ghost. I saved lives. I followed the rules. I lost

my worthiness. So what?"

     "I got real depressed when my dad ran off," Beaker said quickly. "I took

Benedyct every day. Sometimes I'd drink a bunch of TranQuil, too. It helps."

     Susan pulled herself together, pressing her knees against her breasts.

"You're _way_ too young to have a history like that, you know it, Beaker?"

     "Yeah, well, so are you."

     They grinned at each other.

     "Are you okay?" Beaker asked again.

     "Getting better. Is that fed still hanging around out front?"

     Beaker covered her mouth. "He's trying to quit smoking cigarettes, you

know. Every time the guards light up, he cringes. Poor guy. Keeps pacing."

     "I have good news for him. That should cheer him up."

     Beaker's eyes grew wide. "You did it?"

     "Yes, I did. Get used to it."

     "I thought --" Beaker shut up, which cemented Susan's good opinion of

her more than anything she could have said. "I'll go post it on the Wet

Board. Your clothes are -- you know."

     "I know."

     Susan dressed and reapplied her makeup before leaving the isolation

room. Her hundred-dollar sundress struck her as banal and malevolent; she

held her hand under the room's sole lamp and checked her nail beds, squinting

for the faces of dead friends, hoping she hadn't become smacked out there,

but she was okay. Just a little twitchy. She shrugged. She snagged one nude

stocking pulling it back on, producing a run near the top, but Guile wouldn't

mind. With a few deep breaths, she opened the door and made her way back out

of the Temple, down the corridors of closed doors and dimly lit group

consciousnesses, to the Celestial Room, a score of hairstyles apparent

through the gloom of either nave. She knelt for the required period before

the statue of the Black Goddess, blew out her prayer candle and progressed to

the antechamber, where she surrendered her robe and blessing. After a little

obligatory kibitzing with the Acolytes, she pushed open the outside doors,

squinting against the last of the evening sun. She'd left her Wayfarers in

Guile's room that morning. Mistake. 

     Wagner stood facing away from the Temple, surreptitiously checking out

the tide of weirdness as Mendel's population drifted to evening duties. Not

all were benders or full-time Foundation employees, and Wagner's attention

lingered on the visitors, looking for a touch of familiarity. Bracing her

rifle against her hip with one hand, Horowitz blew a lungful of smoke in

Susan's direction, then pointed at Wagner's back and made a circular motion

at her temple. Susan nodded and cleared her throat.

     "Mr. Wagner?"

     He'd clipped his shield to his suit pocket, she saw. Now he brushed his

thumb against the strip of green tape that covered its face -- regulations --

and said, "How'd it go?"

     "Day-o." When his that's-very-nice expression failed to change, she

remembered and said, "I got him. Brain hemorrhage. Happens all the time, no

one knows why."


     Crap, he asked a lot of questions. She pointed at his badge. "We green-

tape people hold all the guns. As far as the Flat world knows, he just

dropped dead."


     "You don't have to thank me. I'll file my report this evening. I just

wanted you to know. You don't happen to know where Guile Edwards is, do you?"

     "They said you'd ask." He fumbled in his pocket for a yellow sheet of

paper. "He's in Sheol, room fourteen. Makes sense?"

     "It does." Susan shook hands. "Take it easy."

     Susan stepped into the crowd and dissolved into welcome anonymity,

heading for the MS Clubhouse. This would traditionally be stay-in-the-

abattoir-and-get-wasted time, and though the cravings had indeed tapered off,

Susan was a creature of habit. It was no coincidence that Guile was the first

thing she'd asked for, and if he was goofing off in Sheol, he was probably

interruptible. With a little persuasion, of course.

     Crossing the Commons, she passed by Speaker's Corner and saw a dickhead

in uniform, including the ubiquitous utility belt but minus insignia,

standing on a stepladder marked with an inverted crucifix. He'd gathered a

small crowd beneath the cluster of green and Flat flags, and was haranguing

them in a surprisingly well-modulated voice: "What is the answer to Suchuk's

Dilemma, sisters and brothers? I say God hasn't turned his back on our kind;

He never existed for humanity at all! Satan is our spiritual Father! Examine

the world as it exists, logically, and you will realize that the most single

most destructive force, even before the demons came, has always been...."

     _What_an_idiot,_ Susan thought, and tuned him out. She peered into the

crowd, looking for Harlan, then remembered he was in Houston today, playing

Gestapo with his new scores. Well, good for him. It beat his sulking around,

and it was about time he got a little respect from the people he grew up


     The guard at the Clubhouse door waved Susan in. "If you're looking for

the Antichrist, I think he's melting his brain in the virtual reality room."

     "Thank you, Brad," she said evenly.

     "That is his name, right?" Brad called as she walked away. "Creepies,"

he told his boyfriend with a shrug, when she was out of earshot. "Can you --

Hey, hold it there, pardner. I need to see your I.D."

     Susan's flats clicked against the tile as she passed by rows of gung-ho

dickhead posters, culminating in a recognizable watercolor of Damon Suchuk

himself. She entered Sheol's hushed computer room, nodded to a man dressed as

a clown when he pointed at chamber fourteen and mimed dilating pupils, and

quietly let herself in.

     Guile lay motionless in the chamber's deep sofa, a VR helmet completely

covering his head. A color-cycling Mandelbrot set slowly changed shape on the

console's monitor -- This is Your Brain on Drugs, with a little help from

modern computer technology. Newbies loved this kind of stuff, especially on

psychedelics. Susan smiled affectionately.

     A young guy in college clothes stood before Guile, partially blocking

Susan's view. As she closed the door, he half-turned, startled. He was

stirring something in a glass bowl, and he moved it away from his body,

flaring guilt and embarrassment. He knew he was caught. He was planning to

_do_ something to Guile. 

     Susan had been working herself up to a general love-the-world feeling,

trying to combat her own guilt for having performed the black star, but all

that fell away in an instant. Her reflexes took over and she churned the deep

waters within her, raising her left hand, palm out. She locked on to the

intruder and targeted as he opened his mouth to speak. Grimacing, she planted

her feet and fired a single inhibitor bolt, just enough to let him feel the

roots of all his teeth.

     Her target dropped the bowl as his whole body convulsed, and he fell to

the floor in a semisolid heap, cracking his head against the tile, his signal

diminishing as he passed out. Screw him. If he was in Mendel, he was a

mutant, which meant he'd heal. Depending on what she found in the bowl, that


     Shaking off the feedback pain, Susan spat on his body and took a closer

look at Guile, making sure he was okay. He'd fallen in love with expensive

Italian suits and silk ties from hanging around Susan at work, a taste she'd

encouraged, initially by gently reminding him he could afford it. Lying there

as he was, head covered, hands folded on his suited chest, he looked like he

was waiting in state, and _more_ death thoughts were not the dressing for

Susan's salad at that moment. She wanted to rush to him and put her hands on

him, to prove to herself that he was alive, to wake him up and sink herself

into the reassuring warmth of his presence.

     Because, of course, the Foundation didn't give out code names like

Antichrist without good reason. Lying there, lost in his acid-warped inner

landscape, Guile was making that damned "little humming noise" that caused

his shadow to vanish from Frontier space. No one in the world could lock on

to him or even see him, not even the mighty Trees in their underground

bunkers. To Susan, mildly telepathic since birth, he completely failed to

register on the most important sense in her existence, and reclined on the

couch in a straight, taut mass like a puppet of meat, like a dream.

     Worst of all, if he slammed the door while you were in his mind, it hurt

in proportion to the strength of your lock. His talent was absolute and

unique. Guile was to other telepaths what Susan was to mentats; she'd had to

fight to keep him to herself.

     He was switched off, though, so he must be okay. She ran her play-by

back and reassured herself she'd caught this asshole _before_ the act. Waking

her baby right now would only confuse him at an already confusing time.

     Her target had "beanie" written all over him: a student working his way

through college on a Foundation scholarship, which entitled MS to burn him

like cordwood on their local operations. He'd one day be a moneyman or a

paper-face, from the look of his casual wear, but at the moment he was a pain

in the ass. Susan pitoned her way into his skull and, staring at the bowl of

muck on the floor, remembered the beanie mixing its reagents in the lab

upstairs. It was itchy paste.

     She pulled up a chair and rested one hand on Guile's knee, pretending

she was a little girl, the way she sometimes did when they were alone.

Gradually, the frat-boy stirred and pushed himself to a sitting position.

     "The fuck, head...."

     "What's your name?" Susan said briskly, sitting up as well.

     "My name's Matt, and you're a bitch. I can't --"  

     "Matt, I want you to imagine feeling even worse than you do right now.

...Can't do it? Too bad, I love a challenge. Now listen carefully. What kind

of idiot stunt did you have planned, exactly, with that itchy paste? Has

anyone explained the rules of this place to you?" 

     "I don't know who the hell you think you are, but --"

     The door slammed open and a soldier leaped into the room, a dark-skinned

snapper in full MS uniform...minus flak armor, of course. She held a

beautiful double-edged Norse battle ax at the ready, and her submachine gun

bounced off her hip as she fell into a crouch.

     "All right, goddamn it...." She trailed off, taking the situation in,

and dejectedly dropped her spirit weapon. It flashed blue and disintegrated

in sections as it touched the floor. Touching her headset, the soldier said,

"Twenty-five fourteen to Dad. -- Forget it, guys, it's just Pelcher going

into withdrawal again. I'll clean up here."

     "Pelcher?" the beanie said, recognition dawning. He craned his neck to

look at Guile. "You're -- so he must be --" Color drained from his face and

he assumed an expression of horror, much like a newbie after his first flag.

Perfect, really; just the effect Susan was hoping for. She checked; Guile was

still in la-la land.

     "Poonam," she began.

     "Don't Poonam me, I'm working. What's the problem here, Pelcher?"

     "Prankster," Susan said simply.

     Poonam's whole manner changed. "Oh really."

     "Itchy paste."

     "Well." Poonam crossed the room and hauled the beanie to his feet with

one hand. "Where's your visitor's tag, bud?"

     "What about her fucking I.D.?"

     "One, she doesn't need I.D.; she lives here. Two, she has access to

places I don't know about, so it's kinda useless checking it anyway. Here's

yours, tucked in your little condom pocket. Hold still for the scanner. You

taken any brain-killing chemicals I should know about?"

     "What -- Of _course_ not! Who --"

     "Three, I'm starting to see why she hit you with her magic club, and I'm

gonna do the same with my own if you don't stand still and shut your

dickheaded beanie ass _up._"

     "Why do these assholes call us that?" Sure enough, Poonam tapped him on

the head with her hardpointed palm. She missed the bruise Susan gave him, but

started a pretty good one of her own.

     Poonam peered at her clipboard. "Because these assholes, and I used to

be one, are a little resentful of your, oh, _mainstream_ glory and success in

Flatland, while we combatants have to do a dirty job and spend all the time

hiding. Also, we don't fuck with each other, and whenever someone does

something like _that_ --" She turned his head toward the smashed bowl. "It's

always some snotty outsider like you, Matthew A. Reed. Aren't you supposed to

be somewhere else, like down the hall with your group?"

     "Thanks, Poonam," Susan said.

     "Thanks? I should probably write you up for poleaxing him, but it would

take too long. You can go."

     The beanie started for the door, but Poonam jerked him back.

     "Did I say, 'You can go, asshole?' No. You're under arrest." She cuffed

him. "Jeez, you know...I _think_ somebody named Reed is in trouble up at the

desk. Can't quite remember; you know hammerheads aren't too bright. No

offense to Edwards," she told Susan with a wink. "Better march you up there


     Poonam glanced at the Mandelbrot design on Guile's screen while she

squared her gear away. She considered hanging around on some pretext --

Guile's time on the VR machine was almost up, and it was still considered

high humor in the Foundation ranks to watch Pelcher act all gooshy over her

pet snapper. She decided against it; she'd just given this propeller-head a

lecture on privacy, after all. "Up and at 'em, buttsmack. You can come back

and clean up later."

     As the door clicked shut, the VR monitor flashed and filled with

lowercase text. Guile's trip was over -- at least, the computer-generated

portion of it. His breathing changed, and he shifted on his couch. At last he

bounced into view, and his WorldWatch tag reappeared between frames. He sat

up and pulled off his helmet.

     He was huge and gorgeous. He was built tall and broad-shouldered, on

paper the ideal killing size, but when he wasn't actually fighting he carried

himself with the self-conscious gravity of the protagonist in a child's

picture book. If he kept wrinkling his face in the same places when he was

confused, he would one day look exactly like Harrison Ford. He had brown-and-

green eyes, a common secondary mutation and one that gave Susan impure

thoughts, and platinum-brown hair, which didn't make sense until you saw it.

He was scrumptious, and he even thought she was attractive, which she decided

was probably fortunate, considering.

     When he _was_ pushed into a fight, his presence became compelling, even

overpowering, and naturally he never lost. He never picked fights and

suffered a sort of Jeckyl-and-Hyde relationship with himself when he was

among Foundation society. He destroyed every challenger from above and

beneath him when he was sucked into the Arena, but refused to advance his

score by initiating combat. Snapper society polarized around the issue of

whether he was brilliant or an idiot for doing this; whichever, Susan (with

help from Guile's other admirers) had made it graphically clear that multiple

ambushes would not be the sporting way to go about things.

     Mutant eyes didn't actually dilate, but when he turned to her and

smiled, his echo made it clear that he was indeed twisted.

     "Susie! What a surprise."

     Without answering, she leaned down and pressed herself into his arms,

the way Beaker had tried to do to her earlier. He responded, threading his

fingers into her hair and cradling her against him, and she was grateful.

     "Are you okay?" he asked as she straightened.

     "Unpleasantness at the Temple. It's over now."

     "I'm sorry, honey. " He stood up and straightened out his clothes. "My

coping mechanisms are a little scattered at the moment."

     "That's okay. I can cope. I just wanted to go someplace and be alone,

and you're the best person to be alone with. What do you say?"

     "Ooh, I say 'neat line.' Let's go."

     "The biggest asshole I ever met used that on me when I was at Bacon,"

Susan said, taking his arm. "I almost went for it. How'd you get in here?

You're not technically cleared for it."

     "There was a creepy on duty earlier." Guile grinned, remembering.

     "Don't say 'creepy,' Edwards."

     "Well, except for you, most of them _are_ creepy."

     "I know. It's still impolite."

     Leaving the Clubhouse, they were the cute couple walking arm in arm.

Guile tried to keep a straight face while Susan threw brightly colored

elephants and bell towers in his eyes.

     He burst out laughing outside, then sucked in a good lungful of the

sweet April air, that final brisk snap that precedes six months of Dante's

Inferno in Houston.

     "Nirvana," he said, and slipped his arm around her waist. "God, you're

beautiful. Just so you won't think I've been goofing off all day, I spent the

afternoon giving a the old-timers a demonstration on how to smash Plexiglas."

He laughed again. "I was straight then. See, you have to use your esper to

feel out the area, and then you section it off and give each part a different

nerve channel to follow...."

     She waved at a lance of mounted guards headed for the outer perimeter,

and patiently tried to keep up with his incomprehensible telekinetic

gibberish. She'd tried to read their textbooks, and some of the theory made

sense, but the advanced stuff sounded like a P.E. coach wired and trying to

sell a Unified Theory of physics. Guile's life wasn't the Arena, though.

     "...and then give it a whack with the blunt end of the old teardrop, and

kee-rash!" He flipped up his free arm without warning, firing a long blue

bullet that streaked across the path and through a section of trees, dimpling

the side of a nearby metal building with a profound bang. "Hey!" an

inhabitant yelled, irritated.

     "Shit," Guile said. "Hey, isn't that the Family warren? Let's stop in."

     "I'm not comfortable going in there, baby," Susan said, and mimed toking

a roach.

     "Of course." A wash of self-pity and remorse. "What a good influence

I --"

     "That's right, you are. That's why I came looking for you when I was


     "But I --"

     "Only for the fifth time in two months, and the first one didn't count.

That's not what I'm craving, anyway. Calm down."

     Guile grinned a stupid acid grin and pulled Susan closer, reveling in

the sweet fragrance of her hair. He was happy. Back home in White Plains, the

most he'd had to look forward to was an increasingly serious involvement with

low-level Mafia types, stealing Porches and setting warehouse fires for a cut

of the insurance money, relying on his green blood to keep him just out of

harm's way, thinking he was going crazy as the power grew stronger.

     Now, here in Houston (and every place the Global Research Foundation

discreetly stamped its silver rings on a field of black), he was respected

and appreciated for what he was. True, he had to fly all over the country

"clearing" those poor random Flat bastards who woke up one morning with a

little extra brain tissue they didn't have the night before, but he was

directly saving others' lives by doing so. Besides, Goblin and Zulu were

there to help him, and, to be honest, even the demons were better than

feeling as alone as he did before he joined the Foundation.

     "Do me a favor," he said.

     "Name it."

     "If you grok somebody sneaking up behind me, sing out, would you? I

don't want to get sneak-attacked; I'm still pretty scattered. Just give me a

little warning, you know?"

     "Always, Edwards."

     They emerged onto a circular plain before the extravagant, misnamed

Barracks. You could only stack psychotics, adolescents and drug addicts three

or four high, especially if you were located somewhere near the airport and

had to do a hell of a lot of greasing to keep people looking somewhere else

anyway. Three high it was; the Barracks sprawled, and they advised you to

stay out of the building altogether when they handed you your visitor's pass

at Mendel's front desk.

     "The Presidents are doing the Lord's work in Schenectady tonight," Susan

said, checking her watch in the elevator. Someone had painted I'M PSYCHIC on

the back wall. "Connors, Lee and Zapata are up next, and then it's us. Say,

eighteen hours. You ready?"

     Clouds covered Edwards' face. "Jesus, I'm never ready."

     "You've never let me down, either." She pecked his cheek, sorry she'd

brought it up. "Next week we get a cycle free. What do you say to Paris?"

     "'Give Athena the apple.'"

     "What -- Very funny. Really, it's old and historic and dirtier than

Chicago and they don't pick up the garbage as often. Plus I can guarantee you

won't like the French people. Want to go?"

     "How can I say no?"

     Arriving at her quarters, Susan checked her mailbox and then turned to

examine the note on her door. The main body of it was a piece of a poem by


                       Never shall a young man

                       Thrown into despair

                       By those honey-colored

                       Ramparts at your ear,

                       Love you for yourself alone

                       And not your yellow hair.

     A second admirer had crossed out "honey" and "yellow" and written

"reddish-brown, like a smoldering fire viewed through amber, idiot"; the

first had returned, crossed out all references to hair and drawn arrows to

three characters of Syllabus, the non-mathematical script used for recording


     Susan squinted at the bad mentat calligraphy, then snatched the note off

her door and made a great show of crumpling it up.

     "That looked cool," Guile said. "What did it say?"

     "It said that some scammers don't know when a lady's out of the market.

And most of them are a little too disgustingly direct, anyway. Don't feel

threatened." Susan pressed her I.D. chip into the doorknob, and it turned


     "Why feel threatened?" Guile said, entering.

     Susan's quarters looked like the inside of her head. Someone had

originally filled it with elegant, feminine furniture and fixtures, all of it

functional and quite sturdy, and then they'd gone back around spreading

weapons and evidence of worldliness and iniquity throughout. Guile's eye

immediately went for the H&K Model Z on its wall pegs, longing to switch the

laser sight to visible red and pretend he was a mentat on Mendel's outer

perimeter, waiting for another sea-tide of demons to try to break through the

line. He was in a game-playing mood.

     Instead, Susan turned and pushed the door closed over Guile's shoulder,

then backed him up against it, urging him to silence with her eyes. She

stepped out of her shoes and raised her dress far enough to press the inside

of her thigh against his hip, then stood on her toes and pulled his face down

to hers. Susan kissed him deeply, drinking him in at last. Suddenly

remembering that they were home, Guile responded, both emotionally and


     She broke the kiss and lowered her body somewhat, raising the front of

her dress so she could press herself against the growing bulge in his

trousers. "Lucky thing you're not threatened, or this might come as a big

surprise, huh, baby. Mmhh, that feels good."

     He dropped his hands to her buttocks and pulled her hips forward at a

familiar angle, and Susan remembered. Damn it. "Sweetheart, I don't think we

should make love right now."

     Immediately he took a half-step backwards, confused. "What's wrong?"

     "I performed a black star an hour ago, so I'm likely to be dead in bed.

Sorry, baby, I was recovering so fast that I almost forgot."

     "Well why didn't you say --"

     "Oh come on, Edwards, I'm not crippled, I just won't be having any

orgasms for a while. That doesn't mean I can't be nice to you in the

meantime." She dropped her voice a major third and stroked the firm pouch

between his legs with her fingertips. "What do you say to Susan?"

     "If you're having a hard time with sex, we could just --"

     "I think you're hungry, darling. I can feel your hunger, you know. It

feels hot, and hard, and very powerful." She stroked him more insistently,

tilting her head up toward him. She stepped inside his Shield radius again,

pressing his back against the door. "I could satisfy your hunger for you, if

you'd like. Would you like that?"

     "Yes, I would." Guile fumbled with his belt and zipper, releasing

himself from the prison of his shorts. Susan's fingers played over his bare

skin, and he arched his back and closed his eyes. Susan dropped to her knees

and kissed the head of Guile's cock. "Susan...."

     "Yes, Guile?" she said, turning her face to him.

     "Thank you."

     "For what?"

     "You don't have to do this."

     "Of course not. Like this morning, when I woke up out of the Nightmare,

screaming and crying. You didn't have to sit up with me and hold me until I

went back to sleep, but you did."

     He furrowed his brow. "But I wanted to do that."

     "And I want to do this." Susan gently tickled the hair on his balls, and

slipped his head into her mouth, rubbing it with her tongue. "Do you need

this, Guile?"

     "Oh God, yes, I do." Locking his fingers into her thick hair, Guile

pressed himself upwards into her mouth. After a few clicking noises, she

accepted him into her throat, and Guile passed beyond the cares of this

world. All he could feel was warmth and softness, an unbearable moist

pressure sliding along his length, and the lubrication of his lover's saliva

as it leaked out of her mouth and covered his testicles. She toyed with him

with both hands, bringing a low shudder of animalistic passion to Guile's

lips, which Susan loved. She tried harder.

     "Wait, honey, wait," he said, letting go of her hair. She got to her

feet, still sliding her palms and fingers up and down his manhood, and gave

him a smeared-lipstick kiss. He kissed her back with feeling, but grabbed her

wrists and pulled her away. "I'm about to come."

     "Good, sweetheart. Make me all messy. That's right, just let go."

     He tried to speak, but she kissed him again and cheated just a little,

stroking him long and slow while victimizing him with a sensuous expression

from Guile's subconscious. Suddenly Guile stiffened and flared his fourth and

fifth registers, and Susan, realizing that multiple false starts were not

Guile's strong suit, leaned in close to her man, pressed her lips against the

side of his neck, and wrapped her hands around his genitals while the

pleasure wracked his body.

     She couldn't tell if he whispered her name or just thought it really

loud, but she gave his penis a final squeeze and said, "I love you, Edwards,

and I'm glad I did that."

     "Oh, Susan. I can't believe you'd take advantage of your poor, drugged

boyfriend like that," he said, kissing her forehead.

     "I think acid is your _force_majeure,_ baby," Susan said, handing him a

towel. "I always thought it would be the Arena, but there are worse things

than genuinely peaceful men. Mind if I --?"

     Guile shrugged. Susan hit the bathroom, cleaned the debris off her

hands, unloaded a bunch of herbal tea and diluted CN5, and repaired her face.

Deciding that the role of seductress was over, she took off her sundress; she

liked this one, and it was just a matter of time before it got ruined at work


     Reentering the main room in flesh-colored bra, panties and garter belt,

she saw Guile lying naked on the bed, trying not to look too pleased with


     "Peaking?" she asked.

     "I think so."

     "As long as you don't go all timid and paranoid like last time,

everything should work out," Susan said, turning on the sound system.

Pressing RANDOM produced "Body and Soul" by Billie Holliday. "It isn't

logical to be afraid of me, not for any reason."

     "I can feel my skin crawling," he said, scratching his chest.

     Susan faced him and struck a pose to let him know she wasn't through

with him yet, then said, "That's your healing factor. It means you're

healthy...very, very healthy. It's a good sign."

     "Feels weird. Hey, would you hand me your HK-Z?"

     "It's loaded with boltcutters, and it's not a toy," she said, lying down

on the bed beside him. "If you want to play with something, how about my


     She closed her eyes and stretched out languorously, crossing one ankle

over the other, pleased that Guile was already becoming aroused again. She

felt his strong hands brushing lightly against her stomach, and her muscles

quivered in response. He dropped lower, caressing the soft skin of her thighs

with the back of his fingers, amusing himself. He really couldn't help

himself when he was in an altered state like this. Well, why not; he had a

right to use her flesh for whatever he wanted.

     She wondered if he'd explore her legs next, and her calves, and feet. He

had a thing about nylon stockings, an obsession she indulged whenever

possible. Growing up, she'd been expected to look and act the feminine part

when she wasn't actually sick in bed, and it was easier to stick with

something that worked than to look for a new gender-role definition. Along

came Guile, and suddenly she was Betty Page. Again, why not? It beat

dickheads thinking she was quaint because she didn't say "fuck" every other

sentence and getting all hot and bothered because her Disneyland screed was


     Instead, he propped himself up on one elbow and gently kissed her lips,

then rested his palm against her cheek and traced the line of her nose with

his thumb. With the greatest fighter in the world lying beside her, exploring

the curves of her face with his fingertips, Susan sighed in contentment and

completely relaxed for the first time all day.

     "That feels good, honey." She wrinkled her brow, making Guile try to

straighten it out again. "At this rate, I'll be good for something before

evening duties after all. I've never recovered from deadburn this quickly

before. That does it: no more dope."

     "Now that you're sure, can I ask why?"

     "I haven't said, have I? Because of you. No, don't frown, I'm not trying

to guilt-trip you. Remember that time I went off on a long spiel about how

the only time I could ever scrape all the fog away, could really feel my

emotions and the world around me, was when I was stoned?"

     Guile unhooked her bra with one hand and kissed her breast. "I


     "Mmm. You made this really horrible face when I said that, baby. I blew

it off at the time, but last week, before the Marble Falls run, it was all I

could think about." She shifted. "In retrospect, I think grass was impairing

my effectiveness, on the job and everywhere else."

     "Does the CN5 help?"

     "Unfortunately. Vanderhoff says I'll probably always have to take it to

keep my head in balance. Another reason I can never leave the Foundation."

Guile's mouth dropped open. "I mean, my womb is already screwed up, why not

throw my brain onto the fire. Hurray for Mr. Green Genes."


     Her entire face suddenly froze, then smoothed out. She didn't relax;

rather, the muscles around her eyes and mouth settled into a low idle.

"You're right, it's not healthy to dwell on that." She squeezed his hand

between her thighs.

     "Instead of Paris, how about Atlanta?" Guile said brightly. "I met this

guy today, some mentat who watched me do my thing from the observation deck,

and we really hit it off afterwards. We ended up having a couple of beers in

Valhalla while I waited for the acid to come on, and he invited both of us to

his place in Georgia. Nice guy, Blaise something -- Blaise Mapplethorpe."

     "You had a _beer_ with Blaise Mapplethorpe?" Susan said, sitting

straight up and opening her eyes.

     "Yeah. So what?"

     "Do you know who he is, sweetheart?"

     "No, but I figure anyone who complains that much about Mentat Security

can't be all bad."

     "Mapplethorpe is the heir apparent to Atlanta."

     "You mean his dad is the mayor?"

     "Not the city itself, the banking industry. His family owns -- oh,

forget it. I'll show you his dossier later. Wow, beer with Douse. He's a good

guy to chuck on the arm, baby."

     "So you want to go?"

     "I want to feel you inside me," Susan said.

     "Are you sure?" Guile said, pressing her down on the bed with one hand.

     "Positive. If worse comes to worst, I'll fake it, but I don't think I'll

have to. Fill me up, darling, make me a woman. Ohh, yes. Yes, that's just


     As Guile labored to bring Susan to pleasure, Bruce Madison lost the

fight in Schenectady. As his Navigator mourned, Bruce lay dead on the empty

Little League diamond, his spirit joining the infinite multitude as the demon

fled into the night.


                 You think that Helena is summoned here

                 As quickly as the paper spectres were.

                 With witches' witchery and ghostly ghost,

                 With changeling dwarfs I'm ready at my post;

                 But devils' darlings, though one may not flout them,

                 As heroines no one goes mad about them.

                                          -- Goethe (again)


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