The Mind Warrior

 
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Segment One--by Sandra Miller

It was a dark corner, barely big enough to accommodate the one slender person flattened against the wall behind the innumerable dusty boxes stacked up into the shadows.  She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing deeply and silently.  Her dark curly hair was pulled back from her face, and in the black jumpsuit that was the symbol of her trade she knew she could not be seen.  She also knew it didn't matter at all--those who sought to find her could do so without the use of something so archaic as sight.  Distance, she kept telling herself, sheer distance was the only thing that could help her now--she had to get far enough away that singling her from the mass of minds would be too overwhelming a task to succeed.  Distance.

She knew she would never make it as far as she needed to go off a concept so intangible as distance.  Clearing all the panic and stress from her mind, she concentrated on her concept of distance; what it meant and what it could do for her.  She summoned a mental image of the plane she would be taking out of this country, the plane which would carry her to safety.  She imagined every detail of it until it seemed real enough to touch.  She could her the muted rumbling of the jet engines, could smell the sterile cabin air, could feel the airplane seat beneath her.  She infused her concept of distance into the image of the plane, and, bracing herself with this image, began deftly scaling the wall of boxes in front of her.

And it was then that the attack she knew was inevitable hit her, wrenching at her mind, destroying her resolve and numbing her thoughts.  The intensity of it was overwhelming and she knew they had banded together in the hope of pushing her into unconsciousness.  Unconsciousness now.....enabling them to retrieve her and brainwash her into their ranks of assassins again. Later, when it became apparent they would not succeed, if she made it that far, their goal would be death.

If she made it that far.

It only took her a few seconds to recover herself, to marshal her mental resources against the onslaught, but they were the most agonizing seconds she had ever known.  She consciously resisted the push toward unconsciousness, she deliberately ignored the increasing pain and focused again on creating detailed mental images as her hands and feet continued to negotiate their way up the wall of boxes.  She pictured a wall building around her mind, a fortress to shield herself from the worst of the blows.  The pressure promptly eased somewhat, and she moved more quickly to the top of the boxes, where she sat cross-legged and considered the force opposing her.  She couldn't hold onto her mental fortress image forever, and their attack was not abating.  There were too many people for her to retaliate individually, but she was going to have to strike back somehow, and quickly.


Segment Two--by Travis Pullen

Miles away, in another dark room, in the basement of a forbidding mansion, a group of twelve individuals stood in a circle, all of them importantly silent.  Dressed in dark purple robes, they stood straight, arms held out as if in supplication, one person's hands almost touching the one next to it, but not quite.  Invisible daggers of mental energy flew from this one dark room, throwing themselves against the mind fortress hastily assembled by their prey. 

"Marlissa resists," intoned a female voice.  "She must learn that she cannot fight us."

"She will learn," responded the figure at the head of the circle.  "Now silence.  Concentrate."

"I apologize, Malon."  The woman said only this, then bowed her head and resumed her concentration.

Marlissa felt the daggers hit the walls of her fortress, and felt the walls being chipped away, slowly but inevitably.  She couldn't take all of them on, but if she could distract just one of them, perhaps they would let up in their attack long enough to hide herself better.  Marlissa had been in Malon's basement before for her initiation.  She knew what it looked like, knew that Malon stood at the head of the circle, on a small circular dais slightly higher than everybody else.  He was too powerful, but Carl was not.  And since Carl had taken a personal interest in her, he had been more involved with her lessons.  She knew his mental signature, and could spot his daggers as they struck against her.

"They say the best defense is a good offense, so here goes..." she muttered aloud to comfort herself, wincing at the pain of holding together her walls.  Marlissa concentrated fiercely, her brows furrowing as she focused.  Mental triangulation, with a return strike, she thought.  Marlissa had always been good at math.  She knew her own location, and she knew where Malon must be.  She took note of Malon's energy signature as he struck against her barrier again, and then watched for Carl's signature.  Ouch!  Hold on, she thought, trying to bear the combined weight of their attack.  There!  She felt the impact of a dagger from Carl, then performed the triangulation calculation in her head.  Distance equals velocity times time, she thought.  

Bingo!  

She hurled a dagger of her own, with a silver gray fishing line attached to it, which would hopefully be undetected in the commotion. 

In the basement room, Carl collapsed with a yell, clutching both hands to his head.  Malon stood directly to his left on the dais, and felt his concentration falter.  Carl kept whimpering, twitching back and forth on the floor.  Some of the other robed figures murmured amongst themselves.  "Silence!" he shouted, irritated at the break in his focus.  "Stay where you are, at the task at hand."

Carl slowly stopped twitching and stopped his cries, then stood up to regain his composure.  "Witch," he spit.  "You'll pay for that."

Marlissa hadn't been waiting around.  Her silvery gray line of sensitivity told her she had hit Carl.  Eureka! she rejoiced.  She now knew where Malon and Carl both were, and she could strike at others rather easily with some more quick triangulation.  But she couldn't last against all of them, and continued attack was not her goal.  Upon her successful attack, she released her line of sensitivity from the dagger and focused on a new concept.  Instead of distance, how about camouflage?  She laid down a blanket of black shadow, and added in a dose of quicksilver to make it hard to track her movements.  Then she added other colors, making a rainbow quilt in her mind, to match the plethora of colors available on the mental plane where they all struggled.  She was finished with her rainbow of concealment, hiding against the background of the mental plain, before Carl finished standing up.

I guess you were right, Carl, she thought.  I am a quick learner.

In the basement, Malon snarled as he realized everyone else was having the same problem he was.  "We've lost her!" he snarled.  "Find her!  Find her now!"


Segment Three--by Travis Pullen

Marlissa gave a sigh of relief and sagged to her knees.  If only I could afford to wait until I stop shaking, she thought.  Instead, she pushed herself to her feet again, and climbed down the crates in the dusty warehouse.  She brushed herself off and headed toward the back door of the building, where she had earlier gained entry.  She emerged from the building and found herself back in the rail yard, two hundred yards from the tracks.  Marlissa issued a silent thanks to the rail car in which she had stowed away, then turned towards the lights of civilization to start a long walk.  I hope I read the map right, and I'm at least near the D.C. area, she thought.  I can only last so much longer without help.

Malon's hands were clenched in barely-controlled fury, spittle falling from his lower lip.  Two of the others were herding Carl out of the dark room to remove one potential target of his anger.  Malon considered striking out, but instead worked to regain his composure.  He could find another outlet for his wrath in private later.  For now, control was important, at least for the sake of appearance.  "Chern, come here."

A slender, blonde-haired woman pulled up short from the room's one exit, and slowly turned back to her leader.  Her graceful frame was highlighted by the only light filtering into the room.  "Yes, Malon?" 

Good, he thought.  A trace of uncertainty attempting to mask an even greater sense of fear, but more importantly, unresisting compliance.  "Use your contacts in the airline industry.  If she slipped through that way, you can still track her.  Keep the awareness level up, so if she tries to go by air again, you'll know."

"Yes, Malon."  Chern turned quickly back to the door and hurried out, relieved that she had received only orders, and was not a subject of his wrath.

"I know where she'll go," an ordinary man said across the room. 

Malon turned to glare at the only person in the room who was comfortable enough to talk.  "Is that so, Tremain?"  Malon inquired.  He wanted to bite the words out, but Tremain usually made relevant contributions, even if not always in the most respectful way.

Tremain was flipping a knife over and over in his right hand, while resting a booted foot on a small crate in a corner of the room.  He was ordinary to anyone who didn't stop to look closely, but Malon knew better.  Tremain was built solid, with a handsome face and a full head of black hair, close-cropped and with a curl that women found strangely appealing whenever Tremain chose to impose that effect on them.  His only response to Malon was a sardonic smile.

Malon narrowed his eyes and stepped closer.  He brought up a black pressure and thrust it directly into Tremain's mind without warning.  Tremain grunted in surprise, but his defenses, always in place, held firm.  But your smile is gone, Malon noted warmly.

"Tell me, then," Malon ordered.

"She'll need help, that much is obvious," Tremain explained, pointing at the floor with his knife.  "She knows enough about our operations to know that there's only one possible source that could conceivably challenge us."

"The press?"  Oren inquired from behind Malon.  Oren was the tallest of the twelve, with shoulder-length flowing black hair, and the most powerful female in the Coven.

"Don't be silly," Tremain replied, moving his left arm across his right hand, where the knife he held suddenly disappeared.  "She won't be able to convince but one lousy reporter, and she won't be able to get much farther up the editorial chain of command.  Her talents are many, but Persuasion is not one of them."

Oren sniffed.  She let his manner slide, but only because she was sure she could fry his brain in two seconds should the mood ever move her to do so. "Then what?"

Tremain's smile came back.  "D.C."

Malon's eyes dilated in quick comprehension.  "She'll try for one of the intelligence agencies."

"Yes."  Tremain said in his matter-of-fact way.  Oren gave Malon a glance, asking permission to wipe the smugness off his face.  Malon shook his head.

"She'll have to start small, and work her way in with proof," Tremain continued.  "We can focus our efforts in the tri-state area, and narrow the possibilities down quickly.  There are only a handful of places she can go, and we know all of the ones that are more secretive than the CIA.  We can probably find her in less than two days."

"You can find her, you mean," Malon responded.  "You're going to D.C. yourself to clean up this mess.  Take Sloane and Marken with you."

"Are you sure you don't want me to take Carl instead?"  Tremain joked. "It's really his mess."

Malon turned away and headed towards the exit.  Oren moved closer to Tremain and watched as Malon left.  "I wouldn't mention Carl's name again for the next few of days, if I were you.  Malon might punish him, but he won't be kindly to anyone who reminds him of these events, either."

Tremain laughed.  "Oh, come on, Oren, what's life without a little risk?" He waved an arm again and swished another knife through the air, this one almost twice as long as his original weapon.  "Oh, I'll be away for the next day or two anyway now, so don't get your pentacle in a bunch.  Sloane!  Marken! Wait up.  We've got a road trip to take.  Marken, you're buying the beer."

Oren remained motionless, watching the powerful upstart depart.  The new order will come with your help, Tremain, she thought.  But that doesn't mean you have to stay around after it's here.

The door to the room closed with the rest of the group filing out, taking the only source of illumination away.  Oren stood alone in the room, in the dark, seeming to stare through the walls at something.  Or someone. The only light in the room now came from darkly burning red eyes.


Segment Four--by Travis Pullen

Marlissa was keeping to the bushes on the side of the freeway, trying not to attract attention.  Her black jumpsuit made her a little conspicuous, so whenever she thought someone was paying her too much attention, she shot a gray dart of confusion mixed in with white forgetfulness, and hoped that it would stick.  She was tired and her feet hurt, and she was still scared out of her mind.  Focus!  she told herself.  Worrying about it just eats away at your energy!

She then started to berate herself for wasting energy, and then yelled at her mind for berating herself.  Okay, this is ridiculous, she told herself.  The last thing I want is for Malon to be right about me.  She stopped walking and sat down behind a tall bush, exhaling slightly.  She crossed her legs and focused on the blueness of calm.  She controlled her breathing, making sure she was the ultimate arbiter of exactly when she took a breath, and when she released one.  Malon had chastised her shortly after her initiation, berating her for her over-energetic thoughts.  According to him, she was squandering her considerable potential because of a lack of control.  I wonder if he appreciates my attempt to gain control now, she thought, smirking.  Calmness flowed throughout her body now, and she rose from the ground, feeling refreshed, the pain in her feet forgotten.  She was sure from the road signs that she was in Maryland.  She was still a little nervous, since she had never been here before, and she didn't know her way around, but she took solace from the fact that she was getting closer to her goal.

Tremain sat back in a leather chair in the bus station, letting the elderly bald black man finish polishing his boots.  Chern had the airlines covered, so they were entering the city via another route, on the off chance they might be able to pick up their quarry's trail.  He ran his eyes over the milling crowd, keeping an idle lookout.  To his right, Sloane had interposed his body between everyone else and Marken, so no one could easily see what was happening.  Sloane was just over six feet tall, with a smattering of brown hair crowning his balding head.  His glowering visage alone discouraged people from standing too close.  The closest potential witness was what this politically-correct driven populace called a homeless person.

If the smelly bag lady had been a little closer to Marken, she might have noticed that his eyes glowed faintly yellow as he talked to the man behind the ticket window.  She also might have wondered why Marken seemed to be almost stroking the attendant's hand through the small window gap where people normally just passed money to pay for tickets.  The attendant was chatting in a friendly way, yet a little distracted at the same time.  The name tag on his uniform said Todd, and Marken said Todd's name aloud every time he asked him a question.  Todd smiled and wished his old, good friend goodbye.  Marken removed his right hand from Todd's, and waved his left swiftly past Todd's eyes, through the glass partition, whispering something softly under his breath.  Todd stared glassily for the space of a couple moments, and then shook his head, a look of confusion replacing the smile he had given his friend just seconds before.  A new person stepped up to purchase a ticket, and Todd shook his head once more, and punched up the appropriate ticket form his computer, his old friend already forgotten. 

Tremain tossed a couple of bills at the bald man, smirking a little as the man jumped to take possession of them.  Sloane was already heading for the exit as Marken approached Tremain.

"She didn't come in this way," Marken told his illustrious leader.  "Sloane couldn't detect any traces of lingering glamours, and if he had seen her, he would have told me."

Tremain was unconvinced.  "So if she came this way, she either didn't use her powers, or that numbskull didn't spot her.  She still could have come this way."

Marken glared a little.  Tremain was field leader of this expedition only; otherwise, he was an equal, of no greater rank than any of them.  But he always had to be right, even when he was pulling stuff out of his--

A loud noise cut off the choice words that Marken was going to use to describe his traveling companion.

"Was that a gunshot?"  Tremain asked.

They both darted towards the exit to the bus terminal.  Outside, a man was running hard down the street, away from the station.  They both saw Sloane standing just a few feet from another man, bleeding from a wound in his right side.  Tremain pulled him back from the assembling crowd.  "What are you doing?"  he hissed.

"What makes you think I had anything to do with it?"  Sloane muttered.

Tremain stared at Sloane until the stern man cracked a small smile.  "All right, yes.  It was a target of opportunity.  See the bleeding suit there?"  Sloane pointed at the dying man.

Tremain yanked the offending arm down.  "He's kind of hard to miss!  What's going on?"

Sloane stroked his chin, slowly, deliberately.  Sloane always did things deliberately.

"He's part of Amgenter, Incorporated.  The Operating Vice President, in fact.  I remembered him from the computer files Malon had us memorize."

"You actually memorized all of that?"  Marken asked incredulously.  "There were over five hundred names on that list!"

Tremain waved away Marken's question.  "So by taking out the key figure in their genetic labeling program, you delay the time when they might be able to track us by our gifts."

"Or, perhaps this death will mean that they will never gain that ability," Sloane answered.  "I thought it was worth the risk."

"Not when we're trying to find her," Tremain insisted.  "If she gets wind of this, she'll know we're already nearby.  I don't want her to bolt."

"You're still assuming she's in D.C."  Marken interjected.

"She's here.  She's here."

Marken turned back to the crowd, grumbling mentally about Tremain's arrogance.  He clutched a miniature statue in his pocket, and concentrated.  He channeled a yellow-white thought of communication into the mind of the dying man.  A doctor was working rapidly on the Operating Vice President of Amgenter, Incorporated, who had been at the bus station to pick up a visiting nephew, who was scheduled to arrive in only twenty more minutes.  Marken grunted, thinking of the odds of one of their targets just happening to come here on this day, at this time.  He could hear Sloane describing his manipulation of a pickpocket, who had also happened to be armed.

"I tweaked the guy's awareness just enough that he realized he had been robbed," Sloane told Tremain.  "Then I pumped up his anger, and pushed the thief's fear.  After that, it was only natural for the gun to come out."

"I don't care," Tremain said, almost hissing, trying to keep his voice down in public.  "This is not an acceptable risk."

Marken moved a little closer to the crowd surrounding the body.  The doctor actually knew what he was doing.  Just a few more seconds, and the man's life would be saved.  Marken could see the yellow threads of life-force seeping from the prone man's body.  He had a decision to make.  If the guy was saved, then it might not make a big news story.  Tremain might like that.  On the other hand, Amgenter, Incorporated was a cutting-edge genetics laboratory, and this guy was on the verge of discovering certain genetic traits that predisposed people towards having gifts of the type that Marken himself had.  Once they were discovered, this man had the resources to create a testing program, which could be used against the Coven at a later date.  This man was the linchpin to this new discovery, and one of many key individuals on Malon's hit list.  Getting first blood on Malon's hit list could certainly gain him points.

As he reviewed this in the space of a couple seconds, Marken made a decision.  Forget Tremain, he thought.  He threw a strong shot of white forgetfulness into the doctor kneeling by his patient.  The doctor froze in mid-sentence, stopping him from giving his next instruction to a fellow good Samaritan.  His brow furrowed, and he struggled to remember his next command, because it was very important, crucial in fact.  If he could only remember...

The Operating Vice President of Amgenter, Incorporated, gave one last gasp, and the last of his life-force also departed his body.  The doctor looked in despair at his emergency patient.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he suddenly remembered what he was going to say and do to save this man, too late.  Marken turned away, to see both Tremain and Sloane staring at him. 

"Did you do something?"  Tremain asked suspiciously.

Marken shrugged.  "Guy's dead.  The point's moot.  Let's get a move on."  He picked up his duffel bag and moved to the street corner to flag down a taxi.


Segment Five--by Travis Pullen

The orange-yellow flame wavered as Marlissa moved her hand back and forth over it. She had just gotten off the underground metro, and was standing with her back to the wall as the everyone else headed up an escalator into a mall. The good thing about scrying is that you can use almost any flame source if you're good enough, she thought. She was looking into the little fire of a lighter, trying to look for the closest official authority figure, someone who would give off a sense of confidence and knowledge. Without much more information, though, she wasn't having much luck. Probably because I haven't eaten in two days, she thought, as her stomach rumbled loud enough to draw the attention of a passing teenager. They traded a smile, and then she blew out the flame and marched towards the escalator.

At the top of the moving stairs, she ignored the movie theatre on her left, and marched straight towards a hot dog vendor in the middle of the food court. She felt less obtrusive than before, but only because she had taken a worn, abandoned green coat off a vacant seat on the subway. It was slightly too big, but that suited her just fine. Two hot dogs and a Mountain Dew later, Marlissa sat at one of the small tables, tapping her fingers repeatedly while trying to figure out her next move.

How about stopping the nervous tapping of your fingernails, she thought. Over-energetic thoughts, and over-energetic habits. Scrying was just too complicated without more knowledge, or personal information about the subject. She could, however, read the auras of people around her without too much difficulty. She 'read' a nearby mall security guard to get a basic template, and noted the overwhelming feeling about him at the moment was boredom. Mall guards had a relatively small sense of authority, even if some had too much a sense of their own importance. She skipped over a mother eating with her two kids right next to her, took in a group of four young teenagers finishing their meal and making crude sex jokes, and settled on a slender black man with glasses eating by himself. No authority, no confidence. The guy had a wedding ring on his finger, Marlissa noticed, and figured a domineering wife had probably crushed whatever ambition the man once had. Carl had showed her how to spot that about a person when reading auras. Thinking of Carl again made her nauseated, and also reminded her why she had to move fast.

As Marlissa got up to throw her food in the trash, she continued to scan the crowd for a hint of what she needed. She also considered hitting a clothing store to get a simpler pair of pants. Near the edge of the eating area of the food court, Marlissa almost dropped her food before getting it to the garbage can. An aura stood out, with purple authority coming off in waves. A man just twenty feet from her, finishing a sandwich, reading a financial newspaper. He could have been a number of things: the head of a company, an athlete, a police officer. But this guy was not quite six feet, he was dressed in a suit and tie, and he carried a briefcase. Most suits did not hang out in a mall at noon on a weekday. She did a quick surface probe to make sure, and got an answer in two ways. Her probe let her know the man's employing agency, which is usually hovering in the surface thoughts of a working man, and was exactly what she needed. But even more, the man sensed something, and looked up from his paper. Directly at Marlissa..


Segment Six--by Travis Pullen

Marlissa immediately turned away and increased her pace. Her shoulders were hunched together with tension, and she couldn't make them relax. The man had not only spotted her, he had sensed something of what she did. She was positive of that. But didn't you want to find him? Don't you need him? Why are you walking away? She couldn't find an answer, just a constant, unreasonable panic from the man's unexpected reaction of awareness. She circled around, behind the hot dog stand in the middle of the food court, and stopped to put her back against a pillar, leaning against it for support. She took a couple of breaths and waited for her legs to stop shaking. After a few moments passed, Marlissa felt calm enough to brave a look back at the table where the man was sitting. She peeked around the pillar, hoping she could find the courage to approach him again, whatever it meant; she needed help. He wasn't there.

"Pardon me," said a voice, and Marlissa felt a hand on her shoulder, making her jump straight up, shrieking. Marlissa whirled around and clutched a hand at her throat, trying to find her voice, all at once wishing to scream again and embarrassed that she did. She took another breath and slumped partially against the pillar. A couple of passing teenage mallrats pointed at her, snickering in delight at her reaction, but other than that, no one else paid much attention.

"I... did not mean to alarm you," the man said. He had withdrawn his right hand quickly, and was now using it to smooth an imaginary wrinkle in his suit jacket, while in his other hand he held onto his briefcase. "But I thought you might have wanted to speak to me, possibly?"

Marlissa noticed the slight questioning tone he used, but it was obvious to her that he seemed to know beyond all doubt that she wanted -- no, needed to talk to him. He was older than she had first thought, looking at him more closely now. Mid-fifties, if she had to guess, and rather skinny. She nodded slightly, and extended her hand in greeting. "Marlissa. I mean, hi, I'm Marlissa."

"Hello, Marlissa, I am Solomon," he said in an even tone. She wondered if he was purposely speaking calmly and slowly so she wouldn't bolt again.

"Solomon. It's nice to meet you. I do need to talk to you. Is there someplace a little more private we can go?"

Solomon looked around at the noisy atmosphere of the mall, and smiled slightly. "Oh, I'm sure we can find somewhere a little more quiet than this." He gestured with his right hand, and she accepted his invitation.

*****

Malon walked into the windowless business center in a striped business suit, walking with an ever-so-slight hunch, as he always did, Katherine noticed. Bill Renquist hadn't noticed him yet. Bill had both of his feet up on his desk, one leg crossed over the other, and his hands were actually occupied with some yarn, with which he was making a cat's cradle. He spoke into his headset, trying to explain away the fears of one of his brokers.

"Listen, Mark, all you need to do is convert the future options on sugar into Algerian Dinars at the Interbank rate plus three percent. Just wait until the Dow hits ninety-one hundred. Got it? No, you won't have to worry about the inflation index. Okay. Call me when it's done."

Bill destroyed his cat's cradle as he moved a hand to disconnect his call, and threw the string into a garbage can to his left. "I tell you Kitty, if Mark was any more of a dunce, he'd have trouble fetching a bone if I tossed it right at him. Oh, hello Malon."

Bill uncrossed his legs and stood up, almost as if at attention. Katherine smiled inwardly, all the while mentally filing away the fact that bill had called her "Kitty" yet again. It wasn't the worst nickname that Katherine Flashkow had ever been given, but she was from a long line of aristocratic wealth, a fact which precious few others seemed to appreciate or respect. But Malon's presence at this hour most likely meant something was not going right, and that would make Bill nervous. Her inward smile threatened to turn into a grin, but Katherine stifled her emotion, making sure not to reveal any reaction. In that way lay safety, especially where Malon was concerned. Katherine took pride in the fact that of all the members of the inner circle of the Coven, only she had never failed their leader.

Malon still had not broken the silence, simply pacing around Bill's desk, which faced away from the office entrance, and stopping to look at the blank white wall as if it held meaning.

"Um, is there something I can do for you, sir?" Bill made jokes occasionally behind Malon's back suggesting the older man's encroaching senility, but he started to wonder nervously if there might be a kernel of truth to his jokes. Or if Malon just paused for effect a lot. Or maybe he was just trying to control his anger.

Malon whirled suddenly, stabbing an accusing finger directly at Bill. "You can help me by performing your blasted function!" He withdrew a financial newspaper from inside his suit jacket and threw it on Bill's desk. With a twisting gesture, a small headline rose from the paper and floated in the air between Malon and Bill, the print turning from black to red, and growing in size.

"NCRO CORP EARNINGS LESS THAN EXPECTED," it read. The letters danced in front of Bill for a few seconds, then almost seemed to scream as they disintegrated, falling towards the floor, bleeding away into nothingness .

Malon even finds an imperious way to tell people to do their job, Katherine thought. The thoughts never reached her face, though. Her carefully-schooled instinct of non-reaction had served her more than once over the years, helping her to avoid notice. The others joked that she was the only member of the inner circle who had gained her position by doing absolutely nothing of merit whatsoever. In fact, she had done everything exactly right, with a minimum of flair and a cautious patience that allowed her to come to Malon's notice precisely when another Coven member failed. If anyone ever cared to examine the events surrounding her ascension in the ranks, one might have noticed that whenever someone of note failed, Katherine always seemed to be there to pick up the pieces. Whatever job had been fumbled, she would quietly take over, and succeed where others had failed. Her success rate was one hundred percent, and no matter how studiously unassuming she was in her endeavors, even Malon could not ignore her ability to get the job done.

"Well?" Malon demanded, moving back around the desk to stare at Bill. Even when angered, Malon still had the presence of mind to maintain his slight hunch, or he would have stood eye-to-eye with Bill.

"We missed quarterly earnings by a penny, Malon," Bill protested. "And that was only because the last three years have had such stellar growth, the analysts over-estimated our earnings potential. Do you want the books to be cooked upwards some more? Even Demetrius will tell you that we would gain some unwanted attention from that. The corporate scandals from the past few years have made the authorities nervous. Do you want them to start snooping around our earnings reports?" Bill kept a calm tone when addressing his leader, a reasonable almost good-natured tone. He was confident in his statements, and he was also sure Malon would come to see this, and calm down.

"Of course we don't want that kind of attention," Malon responded. "But if you have problems like this again, I want you to tell Marken. He can make contact with some of the analysts and persuade them to make... adjustments in their analysis."

"Well, I can do that, if you're sure you want to send Marken off to do that. At this stage, you might want him doing more important things, but it's your call."

"At this stage, Wall Street's opinion of this company matters more than what they think of any of our others, matters more than the millions we have squirreled away in the different accounts. Timing is crucial. NCRO Corp is the company that will buy out AsperGen, but in order to do that, we need to have a strong reputation. We need to meet expectations so we can exert the proper pressure on AsperGen to agree to the merger."

"I know this, and it will happen exactly that way," Bill answered. He toggled a switch on his computer, and a projector came to life, putting a financial chart up on the right side of the white wall that his desk faced.

Katherine let Bill explain the stock movements of the companies while she lost herself in thought. There were two genetics companies that were astoundingly close to developing a testing program, AsperGen and Amgenter, Inc. With limited resources, Malon couldn't handle them both the same way, not with their timetable so tight. So, six key personnel from Amgenter were placed on a list, the Disposal List, as most of the others had taken to calling it. AsperGen was targeted for takeover, with certain scientists targeted for layoffs, a couple for recruitment, and the rest of them, less intelligent, to remain blissfully ignorant under new management.

Bill activated a second projector, and now had two different charts up on his wall, and Malon was finally starting to come around to Bill's way of thinking. That was a distinguishing mark of Bill Renquist, he always maintained his calm. Not creepy calm, Katherine thought, not arrogant clam, just... calm.

There were two timetables for the Coven. One was for the master plan. The tighter schedule was to prevent either of these two companies from discovering the qualities of particular genetic traits. Such a discovery could lead to the discovery of the Coven itself, and once that thread started to unravel, there would be no way to tie it up again, no matter what Talents Malon and the others had. The master plan needed more time to come to full fruition, but a breakthrough by one company or the other would endanger all that had been built. The key to success lay in secrecy, and this was the only threat to that secrecy. Well, this and Marlissa, Katherine thought, but even if Tremain and the two lap dogs with him failed, she doubted that the woman could find anyone with the ability to aid her. The woman was too young and inexperienced, and incapable of being a true threat, for all of her raw power. And curse Carl for his suggestions. He would have tried to replace me with her!

Katherine forced such thoughts out of her head, and sat back down at her desk, near a corner of the room with a full view of the office entrance. Eliminating the threat from Amgenter would be gruesome, but easier than dealing with AsperGen. With both of them effectively out of the way, the master plan would remain relatively untouched, and on schedule. This failure by Bill was only a momentary setback, but there might be others. And who might move up in Malon's eyes if this particular project had to be rescued by someone more capable than Bill Renquist?

Katherine lowered her head to some papers on her desk as Malon left the business center. She peeked through her dark bangs at Bill, who calmly let out a breath and then made another call on his headset, which he had never taken off, not even with Malon breathing down his neck. As Bill called a broker to make a few thousand dollars out of a deal involving cattle futures, Katherine Flashkow pulled up an Internet trading company, short-selling a few thousand more shares of NCRO Corp stock. Who might move up, indeed?


To Be Continued....


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