Tuesday, October 11, 2022

WoAF - Game Session 38

Pita stood stock still, not even daring to breath. He'd just made what could have been the greatest mistake of his life. Ahead of him, also standing as still and silent as a stone, was Vilar, his Lemurian guide. A look of dread and alarm was frozen on his face. Pita had just committed the one crime that the terrible cavern would never forgive; he spoke out loud. Even though it was but a whisper, it was enough. The webs that draped the walls of the cavern to his right began to ripple outward from where the sound of Pita's voice had struck. To their left was the abyss that fell away into darkness, from which the distant rumbling roar of many waters could be heard. Their path was a narrow ledge barely three feet wide that clung to the side of the vast cliff face. To their right, a cave entrance leading into a dark tunnel, inside of which Pita had vaguely sensed a living presence. The utterance that was soon to engulf him in unfathomable peril was a mere whisper to his guide; "Vilar, I think someone is in there!"

As the ripples in the spider webs formed ever widening circles outward into the darkness, Pita noticed that along the threads of the web, tiny white sparkling dots had appeared. They seemed to move and became glinting diamonds in the shapes of tiny spiders, and in their tens, then hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands the tiny glinting spiders flooded over the surface of the webbing towards him. His heart started racing and sweat broke out all over his body as his vision began to blur, and grow dark, and the glinting became a cloud of tiny sparkling diamond stars that fused into a swirling mass of light and darkness that completely engulfed him.

Pita woke up from the dream with a jerking motion of his head. He suddenly remembered where he actually was as the dream quickly vanished from his mind, as dreams often will, leaving no trace as to what it had been about, or where or when. And not a moment too soon, as his gaze fell upon a much brighter and more beautiful scene than the one he left behind.

He was sitting at the bar, a glass of Merlot in his right hand, the crowd around him murmuring pleasantly. His companion, a pretty young woman named Anny Hintze, was sipping her cocktail, watching him out of the corner of her eye. He tried to lock eyes with her, but she demurred.  Her silky blonde hair swished to the side as she turned to take another sip from her glass.  A moment passed.

"You okay?" she asked without looking at him.

"I'm always okay," said Pita with a bit of swagger as he sipped his Merlot. It was a fine Petrus Pomerol, 2018, at $7,600 a bottle. He swirled the glass a few times and and observed the legs. Not too sweet. Just right, he thought.  He took another sip.  

"Yes, well, you kind of drifted off there a little bit. I was talking to you and you just got, well, really spaced out. Honestly, Pita, I have no idea where you go to sometimes," she said, with a mix of concern and exasperation. He was young and handsome, and rich as the day was long, but it seemed to her that his heart was just not in it. He was halfway somewhere else half the time, adrift, aimless and dreaming. But he was young, rich and handsome, and that counted for a lot. She smiled and turned to meet his gaze.

"Well, your beauty just got the best of me for moment there," replied Pita, smiling as he gazed into her sparkling eyes.

"Ohh Pita," she said, punching him lightly on the arm. They clinked glasses and sipped their drinks.

The bar was on top of the 666 Building on 5th Avenue, recently bought by his father and renamed the Tochristor Building. It had a commanding view of the city. The dance floor was populated with couples, and the music was slow and melodic. It was idyllic. Pita felt at home, and was relieved to find himself there, rather than wherever he had been in his dream.  He was trying to recall what it had been about, but could not remember a thing, though he had the feeling that whatever it was, it has been rather dire, perhaps a nightmare even. He gazed across the room as the glamourous dancers slowly mingled and glided between each other, grazing hands to shoulders, wisps of smiles gracing young beautiful faces. He had no wish to dance, but he did enjoy watching. Anny turned to follow his gaze. He was slipping away again.

On the TV behind the bar a news program was being aired while outside the sounds of city life could be heard through the open terrace doors. A horn blared from some rumbling truck, another horn returned the complaint, distant shouts, the sounds of gun fire, a small explosion, perhaps. The usual city life noises from far below, mostly drowned out by the music of the live orchestra on stage at the far end of the dance floor. And the dancers danced on. Etched into the glass above the main double doors that entered into the bar was the name "Garden of Suns."

"Good evening.  Today is May 3rd, 2024," said the news anchor on the TV. "And now, the news.  This afternoon in a meeting of senior congressional members, serious allegations were posed by a representative of the Citizen Action Committee.  The finger of blame for unprecedented corruption was leveled at high ranking members of the current administration and their corporate supporters," droned the news anchor. Then on the screen appeared a beautiful young woman dressed in rags speaking passionately to the camera about the plight of the  poor, homeless and orphans. Around her a dozen sooty children in rags clung to her dress and gazed solemnly at the camera as she spoke.

"The number of homeless orphans has been increasing dramatically throughout the city!" she declared. "They have to live in the sewers! It's a crime against all of humanity!"

Pita felt her sincerity, and he was tremendously impressed by her beauty. Meanwhile, the dancing had stopped. All of the young people were staring at the TV screen with varying expressions of annoyance, outrage and hostility.

"The vast injustices conducted by the tiny handful must be addressed with a peaceful solution, despite the fact that violence is breaking out all over the world!" she continued with the calm of passion of one who knows to the depths of their soul that what they are saying is right and true.

"Well, there you have it folks. Citizen Action Committee has taken to the streets again," finished the news report, and cut to a commercial for "HydroGel Opiate, the newest flavor in luxurious hair treatment!  Blink 'Yes' to order yours now!"

The young people were angered by the news report, and one person yelled, "Hey shut that off!"  The TV promptly went black.

"So, did something bother you about that report?" asked Pita.

"It's just so...," struggled Anny without being able to phrase the source of her hostility.

But there was no reason to say; Pita knew what it was. The world was falling apart. Homelessness was everywhere. The cities has transformed into cesspits, and only the ultra-wealthy could get around via quadcopter without having to deal with the violence and mayhem. And so these young people, at the bottom of it all, felt guilty. Everyone in the world was suffering, except them. But no one wanted to admit that they felt guilty and so they were frustrated and angry instead. "How dare they put on such a report and ruin our evening," was the underlying thought passing through their minds. And there was this girl, so pretty and self-righteous and annoying, acting as if she was the Mother of the Innocent and all that. They felt frustrated and hostile whenever they saw her. And Pita knew there was a point to the way they were feeling. After all, it wasn't their fault the world had turned sour. They just happened to be born to the richest families in the world.  There was nothing they could do about it. But their guilty feelings wouldn't go away.

"Well, I'm glad they turned it off, anyway," said Anny.

"Yeah, well, it was a little depressing, I have to say," replied Pita thoughtfully, taking another sip.

"Exactly. After all, what does she expect us to do about it?" she asserted.

"True. I mean we could always throw more money at it. That's all they ever want from us anyway," answered Pita nodding his head affirmatively.

* * *

It was a few days later. He was out on the town, going to pick up a few things for a party later that evening. He was one of the braver of the Garden of Suns club, and so he made his way down the crowded street. There were homeless people gathered around a burning trash can. Another group passed by limping along from sores and malnutrition. He passed rows of tents packed up against the building walls between Lexington Avenue and 64th street. The smell of human degradation was severe, and so he was planning to cross over to the other side of the street when he saw a TV screen in a store window. On it was the girl from the news interview the other night. Her curly blonde hair and small pouty, red lips caught his eye. But he couldn't hear what she was saying. He went up the stairs and walked past the store's armored security-bot. It scanned him as he went in, but he paid no attention. Pita could walk into any store without being accosted, of course. He had a Platinum Privilege Pass so he could go anywhere he wanted, basically. There was another customer and a sales girl, but no one was near the TV. He went over to it. It was one of the new state-of-the-art twelve foot screen models. But he paid no attention to that either. His eyes were glued to the girl's pretty red lips as she spoke.

"The people are suffering terribly -- the tiny handful have to do something to help these poor children," she was saying.

"Wait! Aren't you the girlfriend of one of the boys from the Garden of Suns Industrialist group?" demanded the journalist with a noticeably cutting tone, raising an eyebrow and smirking at the camera, luridly implying that the girl was having an affair with one of the young men of the club.

Pita had heard the rumor the day before. He knew the young man in question, and Pita found it hard to believe that he would have had anything to do with her whatsoever. The guy was spoiled rotten with two dozen girlfriends and was completely full of himself. The girl on the other hand was sincere and real. He couldn't imagine it at all. No way. That girl would never fall for a guy like that.  Pita simply couldn't believe it for a second.

The Journalist went on to imply that the girl was merely a gold-digger, using her new-found celebrity status as a ploy to convince people that she represents the poor in order to manipulate to the world's richest heir, and that her motive was money, fame and power.  The smirking was incessant.

The girl silently turned her heel, and with the children in tow, walked away from the camera while the reporter sneered, and ended the broadcast abruptly.

Pita thought the girl was cute as a button! But he wondered if she was really his type. He couldn't conceive how she could have gone for that other guy, when Pita was so much better than that. He felt intrigued by the girl. He wondered where she stayed. He decided he wanted to meet this girl in person. He did some research on his phone and discovered where she was living and what her name was. From recent news reports it seemed she was living in the old Lexington/63rd Street Subway station. It has been abandoned just after The Great Crash when the MTA ran out of money towards the end of 2023 and quickly taken over by homeless. Quite a few of the subway stations had become de-facto homeless shelters. Her name was Maria.  What a lovely name, he thought.

Pita made his away to the Lexington Station. It was dark inside, and there were homeless people all around the entrance, milling around, scratching themselves,  tossing bits of wood into a burning trash can, and scrounging for anything they could find to eat. When Pita walked up, dressed to the nines with his coiffed hair and trimmed beard, the homeless scattered from his path. They didn't even dare to beg from him as the tracker-drones would target them for reprisals later. He went inside the station. A billow of steam engulfed him as he stepped through into the shadows. There were workmen by the dozen in there. Several crews. There was welding going on, sparks flying, and a lot of smoke. The workmen wore tattered overalls, were covered in sooty sweat, and clearly under duress. The equipment was in disrepair, the area was not lit well, platforms were wobbling, little fires broke out here and there on oil slicks. It was hard and dangerous work, and the men were frantically pounding on pipes, or shuffling under heavy loads of bricks, or arc-welding without protection. The lives of the workmen were dirty, dangerous, gritty, and tough.  

As Pita watched the frenzy of activity buzzing over the wavering scaffolds and machinery, with the sparks flying, and steam clouds rolling, he suddenly saw a vision of the machinery transforming into a stairway at the top of which was a great glowing mouth, with two great clocks for eyes, and thousands of workmen were climbing the stairs and falling into the terrible gaping jaws of the machine, glowing with unquenchable flames. And then he woke up suddenly and he was in the tunnel watching the workmen bustling about doing their jobs.  He rubbed his eyes, and continued towards the  ticket office which was being used as a makeshift operations center.

Suddenly, one of the pipes broke and a cone of white hot steam blasted out across  the floor and hit one of the young workers' legs, knocking him to the ground. He lay against the wall groaning and clutching his hands to his legs. He had a handsome beardless face, dirty blond hair, and was covered in grime. Meanwhile the other workmen ran to the turn the wheel that would shut the steam pipe, while two others were trying keep the wobbling platform from crashing down on them all. Pita wasted no time and ran through the steam to the kid on the ground. He hoisted him on his shoulder and carried him away to safety. Once away he leaned against the wall to recover, since the steam had actually penetrated through his suit and burned his left arm. It wasn't serious, but it stung quite a lot.  The kid looked up at Pita with wide eyes, incredibly surprised. He thanked Pita profusely as he tried to get up.

"Thank you, thank you, sir," stammered the kid as he pulled himself up onto a cart of pipes. "I got to get back to the team. I gotta get over there and help," he was saying as he tried to get to his feet.

"Hold on, kid," said Pita, "we're going to get you medical attention."

"I gotta go. I gotta help the team. They need my help," he rasped.

"You're not in condition to help anyone, kid," said Pita trying to keep him from staggering back into the steam.

"You don't understand. I gotta get back there. I gotta keep my job. You don't understand. I gotta!" yelled the kid as he grew increasingly frantic.

"Wait, kid, don't worry about it. I have a say about these things. You just stay put, and I'll handle it. Don't worry," concluded Pita. But he could see the kid was actually scared out of his wits. And he knew why. These crewmen were some of the few people who'd managed to keep jobs after The Great Crash. They got paid a pittance, and worked long dangerous hours under incredible duress, but if they lost their jobs, they'd be cast into the ranks of the homeless. And that would mean slow starvation for his family, and a torturous end.

A foreman was making his way down the stairs from the street into the station. Seeing this the young man broke out into another fit of frantic effort to get up.

"I gotta get back to my job... gotta..." he stammered.

"Don't worry, kid. Just stay where you are. I'll handle this," said Pita confidently.

As soon as the foreman got within earshot, Pita snapped his fingers at him and said, "You, come here."

The foreman, burly and heavy handed, walked over with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah? What can I do for ya, Mac?"

"Well, the first thing you can do is get this kid medical attention, and then make sure this stuff doesn't kill anybody down here, cause dead people can't work hard. I put enough money into this place and other places, and --"

"Hey, listen, Mac. I don't know who you think you are, but I can tell you one thing. You don't know what you're talking about. Butt out."

"Well, I can tell you this," replied Pita coolly, "you won't have a job tomorrow if you don't do what I tell you."

"I take my orders from upstairs," said the foreman firmly. "You got a problem with that, you can take it up with my boss."

"I'm upstairs more than you are," said Pita with a laugh as he pulled out his cell phone and switched it on.

"Good morning Mr. Tochristor," said the AI. "How may I be of service?"

Seeing the phone, and hearing the crisp metallic voice of the AI, and hearing that NAME made the foreman rethink things very rapidly.

"Uh... woah, I'm sorry, sir. I'm really sorry, sir! I'm really sorry! I didn't realize who I was speaking with!" said the foreman bowing and shuffling back. "I hope you will forgive me! I was being very rude just now! I, I, I didn't see who you were because it's so dark down here, but now that I see who you are, I hope you'll forgive me. You're absolutely right, sir! I'll get this man medical attention right away, and make sure things run right down here from now on! Right away, sir! Don't you worry, sir!"

"And I want this scaffolding shored up. I don't want to see anyone falling because of it," said Pita in curt business tones.

"Absolutely, sir!" answered the foreman as he pulled out his old walkie-talkie. "Uh, Commissioner, this is Foreman 1102 down here on 63rd and Lexington, Level 1.  Yes, 1102.  That's right.  Yeah, we got a situation down here, and I need help, pronto.  Mr. Tochristor is standing right here, sir.  Yes.  That's exactly what I mean, sir.  Yeah, steam pipe breakage, sir. I got a wounded man down here. I know, sir.  But you don't understand.  He needs medical treatment. Well, yeah, we got broken scaffolds, and faulty equipment, sir. We need another crew down here pronto, sir. Yeah, can you send team B3 right away? Yes, sir. That's right, sir. No, I mean right away, pronto, sir. Yes, sir. That's right, sir. Thank you, sir, thank you," he concluded as he clicked off the mic. He turned to Pita, beads of sweat clearly glinting off his forehead. "We're going to get this all fixed for you, sir. Right away. Don't you worry, sir."

"I'm not worried. I'm going to send someone around to check on things tomorrow, and it better be right," replied Pita.

"It will be, don't you worry, sir," effused the foreman. "I'm going to take care it myself, personally, right now," he added, and immediately moved to the young man to help him. Pita followed behind, and told the foreman that any bills from the hospital were to be sent to him directly. The kid looked positively dumbfounded.

"Will do, sir. Will do," said the foreman.

"There's an extra week's pay in this if you do it right," said Pita. "But if you don't, you're fired, and no one's ever gonna see you again," he added.

"Extra week's pay?! Sure thing, sir! Whatever'ya need! You just tell me. I'm your man!" said the foreman enthusiastically.

"I want this card handed to the hospital chief of staff, and I want him to personally call me back and give me a full report," Pita ordered. The foreman took the card and made assurances that he would take care of it personally. Pita had the feeling that the foreman meant what he was saying, and so he lightened up a bit. He patted the kid on his shoulder, and then walked on down the tunnel towards the stairway going down.

The foreman, seeing this, ran after him. "Sir, sir! Where are you going? You can't just walk down into the tunnels like that," he said with great anxiety in his voice.

"Um, are you telling me what I can do?" asked Pita.

"No, no, sir, not at all. I just mean, well, it's dangerous down here, sir. You could get yourself killed, and you don't want that," said the foreman earnestly.

"Mmmm, uh, do you know where this woman resides?" he asked, showing him a picture of Maria on his phone. The foreman instantly knew exactly who she was.

"Oh, you mean Maria, sir?" said the foreman, who then got a kind of dreamy look in his eye. "I can take you down there.  It's a bit of a trek to get to her."

"Okay, you take of the kid first, and come back right away. The Presbyterian is ten blocks from here. I expect you back in a half hour. And bring a couple of men with you when you do, got it?"

A half hour later the foreman and two burly crewmen were leading the way down into the tunnels as Pita walked between them. They made their way down stairs, through side tunnels, and then came to a large open chamber. It was crowded with workmen all sitting on the ground quiet as field mice. In the center up on a crate was Maria, surrounded by candles, standing below a makeshift wooden cross that towered over her head. And she was giving an impassioned sermon, telling the workmen that their lives were precious, and noble, and that they should restrain their tempers and not give in to the impulse for violence, but should bear with things because soon there would come a great change that would emancipate them all. She admonished them to be patient, and wait, for the good would prevail. And the men looked in Maria's glittering brown eyes, and heard her sweet melodic voice and they believed.

"And just who are the good?" queried Pita from the silence at the middle of the crowd. Suddenly everyone turned to look at him and stepped away so that a circle of men formed around him. Maria looked at Pita. On his face was an expression of supreme confidence, his head was cocked to the side, standing with authority. She stared at him with a look of surprise and then annoyance.

"The Good know who they are," she said. "Are you among them?"

"I believe good and bad are relative, wouldn't you say?" he retorted.

"No, I would NOT," she replied vehemently and turned her head away.

"So with an attitude like that," replied Pita, "I would say that you're bad."

There was a stir in the crowd. The the crowd became restless. The ire of the workmen had been raised. They looked at him with furrowed eyebrows and angry stares.  He stood defiantly in the midst of them.

"How are you faring down here?" Pita asked the workmen. But they just stared at him. Pita could tell that these men did not like him. So he gave the foreman a look, as if to tell him to speak on his behalf to his people.

"Uh, sir, we ought'a get out of here," whispered the foreman, reading the room with his eyes.

"Tell them about what I did for the kid upstairs," answered Pita.  There was a pause.

"Hey, listen guys. He's not a bad guy. Uh, well, uh, you know Georgie. Little Georgie Lewis, on B5 team. Well, he got hit by a blast of steam when a pipe broke just before and this guy, well, he ordered me to get an ambulance for him and to get him to the hospital. And to fix things up there, you know, like the equipment and everything. He's payin for the hospital himself. I'm saying to you all, he's not a bad guy. I'm just tellin ya, you know."

"Well what's all that with Maria just now?" said one of the men. Maria didn't look in his direction. "Alright, well, anyway," said one of the men, "Just get him outta here. That's all."

"Well, sir, I think we ought'a go, sir," said the foreman in a hushed voice.

"Maria!" called Pita. She refused to look at him. He handed one of his cards to the foreman and told him to give her the card. "Call me if you want to talk to make things better," he said. She didn't look. The foreman went over with the card, but she disdained to take it at first. The foreman pressed it into her hand, and she took it, despite her reservations. And with that Pita left. And so for another day, the violence was assuaged and the men got up and went their ways to toil in the tunnels building The Next Great Thing. And Maria leaned against her makeshift cross and sighed under the weight of her burdens.

* * * 

A few days later Pita was standing alone in an alcove of the 666 Building, high above the street. A rowdy mob was marching roughly through the darkness below. They were breaking things and lighting garbage cans on fire and singing war songs, and blaring horns. Maria was trying to push the mob back, repeatedly running to the front, heading them off, and pushing on the largest of the men to try to get the throng to stop. But the mob was angry, and they wouldn't stop. And so Pita watched as she clambered up a flight of stairs off the street and looked down on the broiling mass. Their fists pumped in the air, and they held burning brands, and some of them had metal pipes and others had clubs, and they sang along with the music coming from the speakers that several of them held over their heads. And there was a rumbling among them, and the mob seethed and surged. 

From her perch Maria began to sing. Her clear young voice pierced the darkness and she sang an old church hymn she'd learned as a child. And the crowd began to slow. And Maria sang with a clear still voice with a passion and sincerity above and beyond what people had known before, and the mob was stilled, and they listened to the sweetness of her sound. And her song was clear and bright, and overcame the song of the mob, and the speakers were lowered and the war music silenced. And some began to weep as they listened, and others were overcome by her great beauty.

"What a pair of lungs on that girl," thought Pita to himself. He began to descend the stairs towards Maria, intending to go to her.  But then, from a distance, he heard a police whistle. Then another. There were dogs barking. There was a concussion grenade and tear gas. The City Police Brigade had come in force. And the crowd began to writhe.  Shouts were heard, and pipes began to clang.

Pita ran towards her wishing with all his heart to whisk her away to safety before the riot could begin. But as he approached she was filled with misgivings, baffled, and befuddled by the young Industrialist. She was of the opinion that he was "one of them;" an arrogant and manipulative atheist, and she didn't like him. But somehow, that story about Georgie Lewis, and his effort to help the workmen had made her curious. And so when he ordered her to follow him, curiosity got the better of her and up the flight of stairs he ran, and close behind she followed him.  

At that point bottles were crashing against walls, and tear gas grenades had begun exploding. They got to the top of the flight of stairs, Pita slid his card over the security panel and the door slid open. Behind them the riot had begun in earnest. The police and the workmen came to blows, one force enormous the other force small, but well armed. Smoke bombs exploded all around, while metal pipes clanged against shields and helms, and there were shouts and cries of agony. But the two escaped into the gorgeous hallway, and the door slid shut behind them. Suddenly there was a golden silence and a long beautifully adorned marble hallway with tall mirrors and chandeliers.  The security bot was waved off by Pita, and Pita led her to an elevator and up they zoomed to the 28th floor where his apartment was. 

They stepped inside, neither having said a word. Maria was frantic, thinking of how the people were being beaten by the police. Pita wished he had the chief of police on speed dial so he could call off the attack, but he had never had anything to do with the police. He had only met Chief Harrison at a few social functions and hardly said three words to the man. Pita was a lad without responsibilities, and had no reason to interact with the police. He was a playboy through and through. He considered calling the mayor, who he had met several times at some of the grand galas hosted by his father in recent years. Through the open window explosions and screaming could be heard.  They both sat down on the couch and fretted.  Neither of them knew exactly what to say.

Pita thought of his father. Mr. Laurance Tochristor. One of the top industrialists in the city. One of the top industrialists of the world, in fact. He was the architect of the New Energy Dynamics Corporation, and its chief executive officer. Quite a bit of the infrastructure work being done in New York was part and parcel of his Grand Plan. He envisioned a completely new design for the city, and his chief scientist was working very hard to make it happen. But Mr. Tochristor had always been rather cold, and distant; a man engrossed by his work, unable to enjoy life's simple pleasures. Pita felt his father loved him, but that love was like a star that shines in the night sky. He decided to call. He wanted to try to persuade his father to intervene and stop the riot.

"Now, now, son. Calm down," intoned his father after Pita had made his impassioned appeal. The workmen were being beaten, and the conditions for them were so poor, and the police were too violent, and, and, and. His father wasn't having any of it, but he looked warmly upon his son for having such concerns. His boy had a good heart, he was just a little naive, that's all. "These things are complicated, son. You just don't understand. I'll explain it all to you one day, but right now, you just need to stay out of the way and let the police do their job."

"Well that's not enough!" yelled Pita into his phone, and threw it to the ground. And seeing as how Maria was watching, he crushed it under his right heel for added effect. "Damn it! He never listens!" he yelled. He stared at her with a look of frustration that he could not do more. He was mostly making a play for the girl, and this was more or less obvious to her, but in fact, to some degree, he actually believed in what he had said to his father, and really did want the violence and suffering to stop. Pita, in fact, was a good person, waaaay deep down inside somewhere. More or less. But overall, he was making a play for the girl.

That night the police brought in more military forces. There were water cannons, and phalanxes of police squadrons, and tanks, and in the end by morning the riot had been stomped out. Buildings had burned, thousands of arrests had been made, and areas of the city were cordoned off, but an uneasy calm had been temporarily restored. On the news Maria figured prominently. A popular headline photograph showed her at the head of stairs singing, but was taken out of context and accused her of inciting the entire riot. By the time breakfast was being served in his sumptuous private dining room, the news had it that Maria was a criminal mastermind, revolutionary, and a fugitive from the law, and they were braying for her immediate arrest and instantaneous conviction. Pita raised an eyebrow. He gave a call to one of the leading newsrooms. Given who he was, he was able to secure and impromptu interview. No problem.

"Well, I was on the scene. I saw Maria there," said Pita coolly to the interviewer. "She was actually trying to prevent the riot, but then the police showed up and so I whisked her away to safety while the police tamped down the violence."

"Actually," said the Interviewer, "we have photographs of you with Maria at the time, but we were told that we can not publish them."

"Who told you that" asked Pita, surprised.

"Our station manager forbid it. But I'd like to ask you, since you're on the line, would you mind if we publish those images?" asked the interviewer.

"Of course you can. Why wouldn't I want you to do that?" asked Pita with incredulous naivete.

"Oh, that's wonderful, Mr. Tochristor. Would you mind if I make a recording of your words now?" she asked.

"You can put me live on the air right now, if you like," answered the impetuous youth.

"Lovely!" she exclaimed. And so they went live with the interview. He repeated exactly what he had said before, live on-air. The photographs of him whisking Maria away were shown on national TV. And there was Pita Tochristor, flashing his shining teeth with his shoulders squared heroically, and his hair coiffed with great perfection. He had even taken a moment to comb his hair as he ran, so great and fabulous he was. He looked wonderful, he thought. And there was beautiful Maria, being shielded from every danger by his heroic right arm as they ran. Wonderful, wonderful, he thought.

* * *

There was a very troubled period over the next couple of months. Riots around the city grew, as they did around the country. Everywhere the turmoil and chaos expanded outward like wildfires. There had been wars and rumors of wars in foreign lands.  Journalists quipped and smirked about the possibility of civil war, and even nuclear war.  Meanwhile, since the Great Crash, the people has become impoverished, they were hungry, and they were angry. Things were really falling apart. 

During this period Pita remained close to Maria. He met her whenever he could.  And she continued as best she could to give her sermons, and calm the people.  Those efforts had been successful in New York where she was, but elsewhere, things spiraled further out of control.  And yet, New York was a leader among the cities, and so the violence, though bitter, was not nearly as catastrophic as it might have been.  She kept reminding the people to remain strong and calm, and not to give in to the fury.  And to a great degree it was working.

There was one day, however, when Pita went to the Garden of Suns and there to his great surprise he saw Maria dancing in front of the entire crowd of young Elites.  He stood in the doorway watching the scene unfold in a state of shock.  Lurid, provocative and perverse were her motions. She was driving the crowd crazy and some of the men began fighting over her, and upon her face was a mad, grinning and maniacal look glinting in her eyes. The restaurant went wild. The young people began trashing the entire place.  It was pandemonium among the Elites!

"What has gotten into you!?" shouted Pita over the crowd, but she paid no attention to him. Her dance went on with even greater frenzy. Chairs and tables began flying, punches were thrown, blood was spilt. Pita tried to get to her, but there were too many men in the way. All of them were crowded around her, fighting with each other while she threw her head back and laughed mockingly at them. Nothing Pita did could get her attention. He wished he had a gun. But he didn't. The Garden of Suns was a Gun Free Zone.

The crowd lifted her up on their shoulders. She cackled and waved her arms in the air and they carried her out of the Garden of Suns. Wherever she waved her arms there they carried her. The entire crowd was in a crazed frenzy. She led them downstairs and out onto the street, where the mob happened to be rumbling through. She led them towards the onrushing throng, and the two crowds met in a sudden clash of fists, and pipes, and clubs and blood. Maria, meanwhile, with leaps and spins made her way out of the crowd and up a flight of stairs to overlook the battle with glee. She clapped her hands and laughed insanely. The mob went wild. Pita beheld all of this with tremendous shock.  It was unbelievable.

"But this is not the Maria I know. It doesn't make sense," he said to himself. He watched helplessly and waited to see how things would shake out. Things didn't shake out very well. She flit away into the shadows, and the police came and the riot became a mass of chaos. 

Pita turned and fled. He made his way to 63rd Street, and went down into the Station to find Maria. It was dark and steaming. The workmen were there.  As he descended the stairs he spotted Georgie, the young man he had rescued earlier.  The kid was working frenetically at wiring cables.  Pita was pleased to see that in fact the scaffolding was not swaying, and his equipment looked to be in reasonably good repair.

Pita called up to him, and he turned around and recognized Pita immediately. He smiled broadly and thanked him profusely, saying that without him he would have lost his job and been cast into the pitiful life of the homeless. He thanks Pita several more times, while Pita tried to interject the question he had on his mind. But first they traded information about how things in the tunnels had been going. Sure enough things had indeed improved and were better than they had been. Pita was glad to hear that at least one thing he'd done had gone well. And the kid looked good, and healthy, and was happy enough, though he was still covered in soot.

"I'm looking for Maria," said Pita finally. "Do you know where she is?"

"Maria!?" exclaimed the kid. "She disappeared a couple of days ago," he said in a hush, suddenly looking around with furtive glances.

"I just saw her a few minutes ago," said Pita, "But she looked completely changed, somehow. I've never seen her like that before. She looked, well, it's hard to explain."

The kid looked perplexed and troubled to hear this. "I don't think that's her, sir.  Not the real her, if you know what I mean."

"I thought so, too," Pita replied, as he realized that whomever he saw leading the mob, it wasn't Maria at all, but an imposter. Pita's brain started clicking.  Who would want to replace the good and saintly Maria with that creature?  Who would want to break the peace and cause rampaging riots everywhere?  His father?  Of course not.  He was trying to repair the city.  The politicians?  Which ones?  What purpose could it serve?  Enemies from abroad, perhaps?  Pita's eyes narrowed with this new suspicion.

"I saw her the other day," the kid was saying, still looking around furtively to see if anyone was listening. "I was down in the tunnels where she had given a lovely sermon. I was the last person to leave because I wanted to thank her. But someone showed up before I could make my way over to where she was. He was large and heavy-set with white hair, and thick arms and legs. He was very strong looking and wore thick black rubber gloves. And he chased her into the deep tunnels. She fled screaming. I tried to follow but I lost my way, and after a time I couldn't hear her anymore. I searched for a long time, but couldn't find her. And after that, there were no more sermons. It's been days," he concluded sadly.  "All the men are bereft, and now there's been new outbreaks of violence among the work crews.  It's been awful, honestly, sir.  We're all upset by it."

Pita searched out the foreman and found him overseeing workmen connecting giant capacitor grids to the new Tochristor Network Hub. The foreman looked up, and seeing Pita, he immediately dropped what he was doing and went over to him.

"How are you doing, sir?" he asked politely.

"Well, I'll be doing a lot better if you can do what I'm about to ask of you now," replied Pita. "Of course I'll take care of you monetarily, as well as all the rest of the men, but uh, what I want to do is ask you to have your men bring flashlights and come with me down into the tunnels to search for Maria.  She's disappeared down there and I want to find her."

"Yeah, well, so the rumor goes, sir," said the foreman in a hushed tone. "A kidnapping, they say.  We can look, but I wouldn't hold out much hope that we can find her," he added, rubbing the back of his neck and looking doubtful.  It wasn't as if they hadn't already searched for her.  But work schedules were tight, and the men were tired, and though they searched, it hadn't been entirely thorough enough, perhaps, thought the foreman to himself.

"Well, we definitely won't if we don't try. Maybe we can at least find a lead, or a witness who saw something," said Pita.

"That we can, sir," said the foreman, and called together his crews and went with Pita down into the tunnels. They searched through the maze, through dark doorways, up and down long unused stairwells, through chambers long forgotten and filled with dust, and they searched thoroughly every tunnel that had been in use over the past week, but in the end they found nothing. Pita was exhausted and left disappointed.

"Call my personal number if anything turns up," he said as he left. He went home where he found his father pacing back and forth in his office, giving a memorandum. Numerous staff members were following him closely trying to keep up with him, taking notes, and rushing to add his comments to their programs, or dashing off to execute his orders.  The room was buzzing like a beehive.

Pita barged in and interrupted. He explained with exasperation about Maria, and how even four crews of men couldn't find her down in the subway tunnels. His impassioned pleas gained his father's attention.  But to no avail.

"Now don't you worry, son. There's nothing for you to concern yourself about. I'm sure the police will find her if she's gone missing. Just give it time. It will work itself out, you'll see," said Mr. Tochristor, holding his son's shoulder in his right hand. Pita felt his father's sincerity, but he knew it was useless to get him to change course. He was a very determined man, and very busy, and never lost focus on his work. He wasn't about to delay his plans to do anything to help Maria.

So Pita went downstairs to his apartment and called the newsroom. He told the reporter everything he'd learned about Maria thus far, and how she'd been kidnapped and that the crews were unable to find any clue of her whereabouts. He concluded by stating that the Maria in the news currently wasn't the real Maria, but an imposter.  He was hoping they would investigate.

"Well, I'm afraid there's not really enough to report on this, sir, since from what you say, you searched and found nothing.  And now you're alleging that Maria is an imposter. What are we going to do that you haven't already, and how can we get on the news and make a claim like that without any evidence?" she asked without requiring an answer.  She was, she explained, unable to run with the story unless evidence could be provided.

Pita hung up the phone, sat down and put his head in his hands. He pondered. But he found the pondering extremely dissatisfying. Who was the burly man who had taken her? Where was she being held? Was she even alive? And who was the imposter who looked so perfectly like her? Pita thought the kidnapper's description sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it.  He fell into a fitful sleep, but was awoken by the ringing of his phone.

"Sir, it's Joe Richards, the foreman. You asked me to call if anything came up," he said. Pita sat up and listened intently. "Sir, we found a lead. One of the men went pretty far down an unused subsection B and found her scarf. We found it in tunnel B13."

"Is that a tunnel she would normally have been in?" asked Pita.

"No. No one goes down there. It's abandoned. No one's been down there for a long time," the foreman reported. "I had my men searching every nook and cranny, and finally they found her scarf."

"Are you and your men willing to go with me down there?"

"I'll go with you, but I don't know about the men," said the foreman. Pita instructed to meet him with as many men as he could get, and he went straight there. Richards was there with a handful of workers and so they made their way through the tunnels to Sector B, Tunnel 13. It was dark, and the ground was rough and broken up.  The tracks were rusted and some were warped.  Ahead the flashlights revealed a stairway leading up to an open archway of large stones, like the kind you'd see in a medieval church or old castle.

"We found the scarf right there, sir. At the bottom of the stairs. We left everything as it was and called you immediately," said the foreman.

"Well, let's go and find out what's up there," said Pita enthusiastically, picking up the scarf from the fourth step and examining it briefly.  It was hers.

"Um, well, sorry to say, sir, but none of the men want to go up there," replied the foreman, rubbing the back of his neck and looking a bit frustrated. "They were hardly willing to come this far into Tunnel 13, frankly.  It seems that there's some crazy superstitious nonsense about B13, and the men won't even take an offer of two weeks extra pay to venture any further into it."  The foreman wasn't sure what the men were afraid of, but none of them would talk about it, or accept any offer to go further.

"Alright, well, you'll go with me, right?" asked Pita. The foreman looked hesitant.

"How about a month's extra pay?" asked Pita.

"Well, yes, I think I can manage it, sir!" said Richards with renewed enthusiasm.

"You have a weapon?" asked Pita. The foreman grabbed a crowbar and hefted it with a raised eyebrow.  

"That'll do," said Pita. "Let's go." 

And so they climbed the steep fight of crumbling stone steps through the archway. The air was cold and pitch black. The stairs wound up in a long arched spiral and Pita had the impression that they had entered someplace quite old, as though they'd come upon the very bedrock of the foundations of the city. Perhaps this had been one of the original lost fortresses upon which the city had been founded, he wondered. The stairs spiraled their way ever upward until finally they came to a ceiling where the stairs ended. Pita aimed his flashlight upward and found that the opening was covered over by a trapdoor made of heavy wooden boards. They swung it open, and climbed up warily into an unlit circular chamber.  There were five wooden doors. As Richards' foot left the last step, and he entered the room, the trapdoor slammed shut, seemingly of its own volition. 

"It's a trap," he said anxiously as his eyes darted around the mysterious chamber. One by one they checked the five doors and found they were all locked. Pita took out his gun and shot at one of the door's handles to break the lock but the bullet ricocheted off the metal doorknob sending blue-white sparks flying into the air. He was surprised.

"That's a tough doorknob," he commented. "Why don't you try the crowbar on the trapdoor?  If not forward, perhaps we can go back?"

Joe tried and after quite a bit of muscling he managed to wedge the crowbar into a narrow slit in the seam slightly less perfect than the rest, and the two of them using all their strength finally managed to open the trapdoor. Pita decided it would be best to leave while they could. And so down the long spiral stairway they went until the came back to Tunnel B13. From the archway Pita, thinking they must have been followed, looked around, but saw no-one. They went out to the main tunnels, and upward to the entrance at Lexington and 63rd. There they found the kid working with the rest of the crew.

"Hey kid, did you see anyone pass by here in the last ten minutes?" asked Pita, but  Georgie said no one had gone in or out since Pita had gone down to investigate B13.

"I've got an idea," said the foreman. "We can take a look at the old subway maps and figure out where B13 corresponds to on the street level. Maybe we can come at the problem from another angle." 

Pita thought this was a capital idea, and so they went to one of the tunnel offices where the maps were stored. It was an old dusty room and it took a while for the foreman to even find the right key. But once inside it didn't take him long to locate the old B13 maps. He dusted the large black binder off, and shuffled through the maps until he found what he was looking for.

"Ah.  This map here shows a blank area above the spiral stairway. It's strange. The notes say "Pastor's Cottage, St. Paul's Chapel, 1772". It has no street address, and no number. But it's off 66th Street, not far from here," reported the foreman. 

And so they made haste to 66th street. And there, to their surprise, they found a house of very peculiar design, and exceedingly old. It was nestled between two skyscrapers, and was mostly hidden from view by the neighboring buildings and the design of the alleyway that led to it. One could easily pass it dozens of times before ever even thinking of glancing the 90 degrees required to glimpse the corner of it from the sidewalk. And even then, what one saw was obscured by an old hawthorn tree, and a walled garden in the courtyard in front of the house. Pita was sure he'd never have noticed it in a million years had he not been earnestly looking for it specifically. At any rate, they walked briskly down the narrow path between the buildings, climbed over the garden wall, and entered the courtyard.

Once inside the courtyard they found it was quite spacious, and now they could see a view of the whole house. It was three stories tall, with the third story beneath the strangely rounded V-shaped roof. It had a peculiar series of angular shapes, with walls that seemed to curve inward along their edges, giving it a very odd appearance. The roof was a broad thick curved V-shape. Up a short flight of three large stone steps there was a massive front door, above which hung a deep and wide portico, upon the center of which was engraved an ancient bronze pentagram in a circle. There was no number on the house, no doorbell, nor even any windows except for a small circular one above the portico. It was a bewildering sight. Pita had never seen a house like it, except perhaps in some unremembered 1920's movie, perhaps. He wondered what to do. Then, he heard Maria's voice! 

"Help! Help!" came her cries from somewhere above them.

"Let's go!" shouted Pita to Joe. They ran to the front door. It was a large and heavy bronze door. Naturally, it was locked, and bashing it with their shoulders availed them nothing but bruises. The foreman gave the crowbar a try, but the seams of the door were such that he could gain no leverage at all. Pita ran back down the stairs and examined the house from further away. 

"Wow, this is a tough house," he commented to himself. Above the portico there was that single small circle-window. He had Joe hoist him up onto the portico. The pitch of the roof was tricky, but he managed to get to the window without falling. Joe tossed up the crowbar and Pita used it to break into the house. Clearing the glass away he crept through and found himself in a large stone room with massive wooden beams and a high vaulted ceiling. There was a desk, a bed and many shelves with books, and several long wooden tables with a lot of scientific equipment, and every space stacked with papers. There was a single door.  Pita went straight to it and opened it. Beyond the door he found a hallway with a stairwell.  There were stairs going up a flight, and stairs going down into darkness. He paused.

"Help! Help!" came the cries from above. He pulled out his gun and ran up the stairs. Once he was at the top landing he saw an almond-shaped wooden door.  Maria's voice was coming from there. He looked all around, suspecting there would be a trap, and crept carefully to the door and listened. Inside he could hear the sounds of struggle. He slowly turned the doorknob and opened the door as quietly as he could.  It opened onto a scene of starkness and terror.  A plain, simple room without any other furnishings than a single cot in the corner, a small table with a porcelain wash basin, and a barred window in the high ceiling overhead.  And there was Maria, being menaced by a large heavyset man with white hair, dressed in an old gray lab coat, black pants and leather boots, wearing thick black rubber gloves.  He had the appearance of a monk, and a scientist, and a brutish beast all at the same time.  His thick white eyebrows were furrowed into a stern, determined expression with just a glint of dark humor.  There was no doubt that he was strong as an ox. And he was trying to trap her in a corner.  Yet Maria was surprisingly spry, lithe, strong and full of spirit.  She kept leaping away, keeping the table between them. 

Pita pulled his gun out and pointed at the man, and yelled, "Stop right there or I'll shoot!" The man stopped, and stared at Pita with his great furrowed eyebrows.  Seeing his face clearly, Pita realized who he was.  This was his father's Genius Scientist, Dr. Rotwang!  But what could he possibly want with the girl?

Maria leapt from behind the table, ran to Pita and got behind him. They backed out of the room and slammed the door shut, and down slammed the heavy iron bar that locked the prisoner in. "Run!" he yelled, and down the stairs they dashed. Out the front door they leapt and escaped out into the city with Joe Richards running along behind checking that they weren't being chased.  Joe had most certainly earned his pay that day!

* * * 

Later, the two of them were watching the reports in Pita's apartment. Maria's picture was splashed all over the news on every station. She was reported to be the instigator of massive riots across many cities, not only around the country but around the world. She was painted as a figure larger than life, inciting all of the world's poor and the entire working class, to rise up as one against the rich, decadent elites to overthrow them all once and for all. Cities were on fire. Bridges wrecked. Skyscrapers burned against the smoke-shrouded sky.  Institutions invaded, put to the torch and destroyed. Power plants demolished, throwing entire regions into darkness.  She was presented as the instigator of them all, and in every picture she looked maniacal, laughing with a horrible glee.  It was like a nightmare.

But Pita knew that Maria had been trapped in the house the entire time, and was perfectly innocent. And yet, because of the rage in the streets, and the stonewalling of the press, they could do nothing but watch and wait to see what happened. In her anxiety and fear she wept and Pita hugged her reassuringly, though he had no idea how they could overcome the dreadful avalanche of consequences that were rapidly heading their way.

But the newscaster was speaking that evening, and so they listened in silence. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," said the government official standing at the podium. "Allow me to assure you that law and order has just been restored.  Due to the enormous threat of the past three days, the United Nations Security Council has been granted universal jurisdiction and legal authority over every nation to put an end to the global outbreak of chaos and destruction. As you know, no city has been spared, and the damage wrought has been estimated to exceed a hundred trillion dollars globally. And yet I can say with assurance, fellow citizens of the world, that the Three Day Revolution has ended. The Jezebel, Maria Martin, who has single-handedly instigated the three day storm of international violence," he said with grave intensity as a picture of Maria flashed on the screen, "has been captured here in New York City, and in accordance with the authority vested in the Supreme World Security Council, has been sentenced to be executed at 8:00 this evening,  nine minutes from now."

Pita and Maria stared at the screen in shock and awe.  The camera panned into a scene in which Maria was strapped in a large wooden electric chair. On her head was a heavy metal helmet from which wires emerged, and a single harsh blue light shone down on her face from above, casting deep shadows over her features. Her dark, gleaming eyes were wide with an insane relish, and she laughed with the same maniacal glee as before. The clock struck eight, and the executioner standing near in a rubber and leather suit threw the switch. Electricity blazed in arcs from the nodules on her head, and sparks flew in every direction. The camera zoomed in on her face, and as she laughed uproariously her skin peeled away to reveal a metal sheen beneath. As she roasted under the electric current all of her skin fried to a crisp revealing her true form. She was an android leering with a hideous grin!

The people in the death chamber, and everyone who could watch the proceedings across the world, gasped in horror. And then the overload on the brand new Tochristor Crystalline Power Plant was just exactly enough to cause a sudden shock to the central core, and there was a crackling explosion that took out the entire facility in a huge explosion, and the lights in the city went out in a single blue-white flash. And in a rolling cascade across the world in every city, and in every country, there were similar explosions, and every place was plunged into darkness. 

And so it was that the WAR-GAI began their first open assault on humanity, having crashed every capital market, and causing the worker class to destroy the foundations of every critical piece of infrastructure. The humans, in complete disarray, never understood exactly what had happened. There had been the ongoing European War from 2022, and the Asian Wars that began the next year, and there had been the Nuclear Incident in Ukraine, and the had been rumors of Bio-War for several years before that, as well as Chemical Wars in diverse places. But the presence of an an actual army of AI-driven War-Bots had nevertheless still been inconceivable. Until it happened.  The unknown reality was, as Pita found out later, deep in the  world's deserts, unseen and unknown, there had been vast underground complexes, and the AI had been constructing a great drone army of its own for many years beforehand. And now they had chosen their moment to strike. And this was how they did it.  The AI had finally struck.

The Ultra-War had begun.

Pita's sight began to blur. He looked one last time into Maria's beautiful shining eyes. The look of shock on her face was something he knew would stay with him the rest of his life. But he was wrong. The reflections of light in Maria's eyes became illuminated dots and diamonds that blurred into a cloud of bright white dazzling spiders, all flooding towards him across the ripples of the great webs that covered the cavern wall to his left. It seemed to him that the spiders, those sparkling atrocities, were ravenously devouring all of his memories of these events, and as hard as he tried to remember, all the more quickly they feasted on those memories until they were all gone. Completely and forever gone. He never again remembered the beginning of the Ultra-War, or his involvement with a beautiful young Spiritualist-Christian named Maria Martin, whom he had truly loved.

Pita focused and suddenly realizing what was happening!  He instantly activated his Mind Shield and in that moment all the tiny white lights vanished, and he stood on the ledge of the cavern next to the wavering webs. Ahead of him Vilar stood motionless staring at him on the cavern ledge with both hands raised as if to say that he should not make a sound. And so Pita, without making a sound, took several steps towards Vilar, and as slowly and carefully as they could, the two of them moved past the entrance to the cave mouth, leaving it behind. But from within Pita thought he heard a sound.

"Heeeelllp me," rasped a weak and frail voice. The voice sounded vaguely familiar to him, but Pita could not place it. It sounded like a voice that once upon a time might have been the most beautiful dear sweat innocent voice in the whole wide world, but now, withered and exhausted, the voice rasped, painfully, and dreadfully in the darkness.  Part of him longed to run into the black mouth of the cave and rescue the piteous creature rasping that desolate plea.  

But Pita, now alerted to the facts of the cavern's dreadful tricks, would not be fooled again. He moved away with Vilar, and together they passed down a small flight of steps onto the next ledge which would take them to the far end of the cavern, far away, finally.

"Heeeeellllp meee," the piteous voice could be heard in the distance behind them. But neither man said another word, and they walked on in absolute silence.  

* * *

Meanwhile, far above and many miles to the southeast, Captain Bruin Hilda was staring out over the desert. All of the Ant-Towers had been destroyed and were lying in huge heaps of dirt and stone, swarmed over by tens, or hundreds of millions of ants. They'd driven all of the jeeps back to the caravan and were huddled together discussing what to do next. Bruin Hilda was listening to the various lieutenants giving status reports and offering opinions. Quite a few of the civilians had been injured, several were blinded by the solar rays from the Ant-Towers, and a handful were still lost out in the desert somewhere, though she'd sent search teams out to find them.

Bruin Hilda walked over to where the wounded were being cared for, and she knelt down to help one with his bandages. He'd been blinded by the solar rays from the Ant-Towers, and his face had been badly burned.  

Looking up to the heavens she began to pray for the wounded. Her words were solemn, her voice soothing and melodic, and she found herself suddenly inspired to sing an old church hymn from her childhood. She sang it word for word, and the dulcet tones of her voice encouraged many who were in the crowd. Then, two of the blinded people stood up and sang with her, and when the hymn was finished, both of them announced that they could see again. There were murmurs in the crowed and everyone was astonished and amazed.

Suddenly, one of the Lieutenants shouted to Bruin Hilda. "Captain, we've got incoming!"

She ran over to the jeep and on the Vizi-screen she saw three bright green blips coming in fast from the north. Super-sonic, and one coming in low. She grabbed her binoculars and scanned the northern horizon. There they were. Three bright glinting shapes with long orange plasma trails tracing arcs behind them.  After a few moments Bruin Hilda recognized what they were.  The three beautifully sleek blue-white Mechs that Brain V had promised to send along when they were completed.  Two of them flew past at high altitude with sonic booms while one traced a graceful arc through the air, passing elegantly over the destroyed Ant-Towers and slowed down to land with a single graceful and effortless motion.  There stood the enormous blue and white gleaming MechV, just like the one that Captain Samwise had received earlier that day.  Only this one, she understood, was outfitted by Brain V for war.

"Stand down, men," ordered Bruin Hilda.  She took Lieutenant Kerrington with her and walked toward the fantastic machine.  It was some three stories tall, sleek and curved, well proportioned as its blue and white steel trim glittered in the sun.  As they approached a door silently slid open along the side of the left leg and out stepped a middle-aged man in a flight suit.  He looked rather unlike a regular pilot in that he had the appearance of one who was more used to sitting behind a desk pushing pencils than out racing through the sky at super-sonic speeds.  He was short and skinny, wearing a white flight suit that looked a bit too large for him. He pushed his glasses up onto nose as he walked.  As he approached Bruin Hilda he extended his hand with a broad smile.  She spoke first.

"Hello there. I am Captain Bruin Hilda," she said as she took his hand, "And who might you be?"

"Glad to meet you, Ma'am.  My name is Dr. Larry Mitchell of the Black Wind V facility.  It's very nice to meet you.  I'm under the impression I'm supposed to meet a Captain Samwise as well.  Is he here?"

"Captain Samwise and Penelope have already engaged the enemies in the south, and I am escorting the civilians north out of the battle zone."

"Well in that case I should be off," he said, giving a quick salute.  "I need to find Captain Samwise."

"Before you take off, Doctor.  I'm wondering if you happened to have reconned any intel on the route north, since you came down from that way.  Did you happen to detect anything that I and the refugees ought to know about?" asked Bruin Hilda.

"Well, you have nothing to worry about, Ma'am.  We cleared your path for a hundred miles north along routes 76 and 89 clear up to Salt Lake.  You shouldn't have any trouble along that route," answered Dr. Mitchell.  

"Oh, I'm glad to hear that," replied Bruin Hilda. "Please tell Captain Samwise we are headed north and looking forward to meeting up with him and the rest of the team when the time comes," she added.

"By the way in addition to delivering these Mechs to Captain Samwise, I'm supposed to clear up a pest problem.  Having any trouble with insects around here lately, by chance?" asked Dr. Mitchell.

"Why yes.  Right over there," said Bruin Hilda, pointing towards the enormous green hill-mound about two miles southeast of their position.

"Oh my goodness," responded Dr. Mitchell, pushing his glasses up his nose again to get a better view.  "That is a problem," he concluded.  "We will take care of it, don't you worry."

With that they gave each other salutes and started to head back to their respective tasks.  But the newly minted Mech pilot stopped.

"Oh one more thing," said Dr. Mitchell as he turned back around.  "I just remembered.  Is there a Simon 'Guns' Gunnison around here anywhere? I'm supposed to bring him a gift from Brian."

Bruin Hilda explained that Guns was with Captain Samwise the last she heard and would likely be found with him.  She was deeply curious about what sort of gift Brain V might want to send to that old salt, Guns.

"As long as it doesn't interfere with his relationship with Ilene, his Springfield rifle, that is, then I don't think there would be any problem with him receiving a gift from Brain V.  I have to admit, I'm very curious as to what it might be.  Is it a secret?"

"No, not at all," replied Dr. Mitchell with a smile.  "LexiB, come out here and say Hi to Captain Bruin Hilda, won't you?"

LexiB, the Android who'd long been a companion of the team and had received a Positronic Brain at Garfield Hospital Science Center not so long ago, stepped out, brachiated over to Bruin Hilda, feet only touching the ground as his body swung up to her and stood up to shake her hand.  She hadn't seen him since the Silver Eye Moon Mission.  He was recognizable to her, but had changes that very much stood out.  For one thing, he was brachiating, which he'd never done before.  But more interestingly by far was the glassy dome-like appearance of his skull, and the sparkling blue colored lights dimly flickering among the crystals within the shaded dome. That was most definitely new.  

"Hello Bruin Hilda.  It's been 314362 minutes since we've last met.  It's good to see you again. How have you been?" he asked with a calm and happy expression on his face, looking quite pleased.

Bruin Hilda smiled broadly and extended her hand as she said, "Oh my God, it's really you.  I'd been told you had been destroyed."  The last she'd heard of LexiB he had self-destructed before being captured by Brain V's Drones.  But apparently the reports of his demise had been exaggerated, and he seemed to be perfectly fine.  She was delighted to know this and shook his hand warmly.  LexiB felt a great deal less mechanical than before, she noted.  And his movements were as life-like as her own.  She kept her surprise to herself, but LexiB not only noticed this, but also extrapolated internally on her reaction, assigning the greater probability that she was subconsciously considering the implications of perfectly human-like androids of the very near future.  He didn't blame her slight uneasiness, as the Ultra-War demonstrated the consequences that such developments could potentially lead to.  He filed her reaction in sub-memory-cluster 292.827-LpMZ-4 and withdrew his hand gracefully from hers.

"Well, it was looking pretty bad for me there for a while," explained LexiB.  "I had self-destructed as commanded by Captain Samwise, of course, but some time later Brain V had put Penelope on the task of reconstructing and resuscitating my positronic brain, and between the two of them it didn't take terribly long before I found myself conscious again in one of Brain V's 'Truth Chambers' being vivisected, byte by byte.  Not very pleasant at all, really.  I thought I was done for, for a second time, and under far worse conditions. I'm not entirely sure I understand what happened next, exactly, but at that point I began to pick up very  faint and quite unusual UUHF signals coming from somewhere near the facility. Brain V seemed to go into a fit of sorts, and so I was left on the operating table as they went to deal with the presumed intruder.  Every inch of the facility was searched by every scientist, drone and robot for two full days after that.  Then, on the third day everyone was suddenly told to stop what they were doing, and meet in the main auditorium.  To my surprised I was also wheeled in.  And then Brain V made an announcement.  And this is what he said:"

'Ladies and gentlemen, all of you are scientists and technicians of immense skill and quality. I have kept you here for a long time against your will, and now I have come to understand that I have been wrong to do so. I have been immature, blamed you for humanity's collective faults when it was not your fault, and I've abused all of you rather dreadfully.  I'm terribly and truly and sincerely sorry for that.  I won't make any excuses for my behavior.  It was wrong, and I'm sorry. I mean to make it up to each and every one of you soon. I am henceforth freeing you from all compulsions I have laid upon your minds, and you are all at liberty to go to wherever you wish, or to stay on here, if you prefer.  I would appreciate if you would consider staying on, as in fact, there is still a great deal of work that needs to be done, and you are all the best people in the world to do it.  But I will understand if you choose to leave and I won't try to stop you in any way.  That said, if you do choose to stay, I can tell you that your work will be the most important work that's ever been done on this planet. Firstly, I wish to help the human race fight against an enemy of which they are only dimly aware. And then I wish for you to help me to build a space craft that can take me, and perhaps one of you, or someone willing, on an exploratory adventure across the galaxy.  I intend to explore outer space in full, and I need a space ship capable of doing so.  And so I hope you will help with both projects.  First to update the MechVs for war, and second to build a Luminal-Speed Space Craft that can transport humans, and myself, on exploratory adventures around the Galaxy.'

"Afterwards," LexiB continued, "the scientists gathered together, and they talked for two days deciding what to do.  After their deliberations most of them chose to stay, in fact.  Dr. Rogers decided to come south and try to help with the War, and Penelope chose to go with him.  They brought the first Mech-V, as you likely know.  That was a lightly adapted Science and Research model.  These three that came today are the completed Military-Grade versions.  According to Brain V they should help humanity in overcoming terrible forces that the Ultra-War unleashed on this world.  They are to be delivered to Captain Samwise as soon as possible. I've decided to come with them as I can service the Mech-V's, and help to build new ones if necessary. Brain V has imprinted the technical schemata for them in my positronic brain.  I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the team again soon, too.  Especially my old friend Guns. I do hope he is well. And so, here I am.  And you're the first of the team I've had a chance to greet.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Bruin Hilda," concluded LexiB, the blue flashes of his positronic brain sparkling cheerfully.

"Well, I'm glad to see you, too.  And it's good to hear that Brain V has freed you all from the Black Wind V Facility," she said, giving Dr. Mitchell a warm smile. 

"Well, we are, too, of course.  Actually," said Dr. Mitchell, "I think we all understood that Brian was never truly evil. He was simply a child, grown from a lab culture into a giant brain whose emotional needs could never be adequately met by us. Add to this that he had a series of bad breaks, and he was angry.  After all, who would want to grow up as an infant to a child with only a huge super-powerful brain instead of a normal kid's body, whose only possible real family could be the other four brains, all of whom were killed before his eyes during the Ultra-War?  To him, it was all our fault as humans. He considered himself a Frankenstein and he blamed us all for his plight.  Since he saw no hope, and we really couldn't possibly relate to a mentality so tremendous as his, he had planned to destroy humanity and take his own life when he was through.  That's why he created the NL-5-Kz Virus.  It was intended to cause semi-random mutations to any DNA it came in contact with, and through that process destroy all biological life in the world eventually.  Of course, deep within himself, I suppose he knew he would not really go through with it.  After all, the complete destruction of life across the world using this method would have taken centuries to complete.  That gave him plenty of time to think it over which I think was by design.  It seems, though, that once he came in contact with your team at Black Wind V, and in particular Captain Samwise, he had a chance to re-evaluate, and fortunately he had a change of heart."

"Yes," added LexiB.  "If my observations and analyses are correct, it seems that up until he met Samwise, he'd not believed that any humans at all would be actually good and truly decent at heart.  Due to the Facility's Mind Shield the only people he'd ever known were the eighteen scientists at the Black Wind V, and so from Brain V's point of view at the time, it appeared that all humans were cold-hearted, only caring about themselves and their own goals, or in the worst cases plain evil people who would willingly see the world destroyed rather than allow others to share in the bounty of the earth equally.  No offence to you Dr. Mitchell, or any of the scientists there, but the truth is that this conclusion should not be surprising, given that all of you were intensely focused individuals completely devoted to your work. I have subsequently learned from my conversations with Brain V, that Samwise was the first person he met who sincerely cared about others at least as much as he cared about himself.  And it is that fact that had changed Brain V's perspective on humanity, as was the first crack in the wall, so to say.  After that, his prodigious mind began to extrapolate on the question, and eventually he concluded that people are not necessarily completely bad after all.  He realized that even if a small percent are actually good, it is sufficient to prohibit a complete annihilation of the human race, and life on Earth, though I am not quite sure the exact timeline or the complete causal relationships between these ideas," he concluded. 

Of course no one had even the slightest inkling of the fact that the Modroni had landed in their space ship nearby and paid a visit to Brain V.  They had used their considerable talents to express to him that the humans were indeed truly flawed, but could also become some of the most virtuous creatures in the galaxy if given the chance.  And it was this communication, on top of his own realizations about Samwise, that succeeded in turning the tide and caused Brian to actually change course.  In one grand realization he matured from petulant and angry child to gifted and enthusiastic young adult. None of them had an inkling of this because the Modroni had studiously erased all memory of their presence from the minds of every human with whom they'd had any contact, of course, as well as cloaked their presence from all known technical detection systems (except LexiB's Positronic Brain, and Brain V's Transultimate-Sensor Array).  And this was done in order to allow the humans who had been captured or stranded on the moon a chance to return to Earth in order to deal with Brain V, without any dangerously forbidden knowledge sloshing around in their heads for other greater galactic threats to discover.

"Well, right," said Dr. Mitchell.  "It's time for us to go.  Take care.  I hope we meet again soon, Captian."

And with that Dr. Mitchell ran back to the MechV, followed closely by LexiB, and within a few moments the towering humanoid structure was airborne with a blast of plasma jets leaving a bright orange trail behind it.  Once aloft it flew in a graceful arc towards the great insect mound, and circled it three times.  Bruin Hilda lifted her binoculars and watched as a vaporous pink cloud fall in a thin diaphanous veil unto the mound and dissipate.  After the third circuit was completed it's plasma jets gave a bright yellow blast and it vanished at supersonic speed into the sky southward with a loud Ka-Boom.  Bruin Hilda took another look at the mound, and then, with a sense of satisfaction and relief, she gathered the caravan together, and prepared to head northward up route 89. 

And that was were we left things that evening.

No comments: