Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction

The Brilliant Blood of Souls

[Originally published in Talebones.]





The sky above Los Angeles burned - smoldered with the hazy incandescence of another smog-choked sunset. Algernon Harris barely noticed. His mind smoldered on its own. He waded through a throng of gawkers and media vultures circling the barricades and flashed his credentials at a surly beat cop drafted for crowd control. The cop waved him on, then filled the gap behind him like a blitzing linebacker to block the camera crew that tried to shove its way past. Bastards. He had learned to despise the news-sharks: the way they converged around the scent of blood, the sickening zeal with which they gnawed the bones of each new tragedy Morpheus left behind.


Morpheus. Algernon hated that nickname as passionately as the Hollywood tabloids loved it. It made the whacko sound like some doctor with a God Complex dispensing euthanasia to pain-racked cancer patients. His fingers tightened on the smooth metallic casing in his hands with a mixture of pride and loathing.


If you blow-dried idiots could see through ORRA's eyes, you'd drop your microphones and run. You'd never want to sleep again.


Lieutenant Mitchelson met him at the entrance to Wally's Waterbed World, looking more rumpled than usual, and steered him through a maze of mattresses and bedroom furniture that assaulted the eyes like a stew of melting crayons.


"It's him again, Al. M.O.'s the same. Victim's name was Monique Sainte-Marie: part-time actress, did a few beer commercials when she wasn't working here to pay the bills. Manager found her in the back - corner of the warehouse reserved for novelty items. Nobody saw her come in, nobody noticed anything weird. Jesus, Al, this guy's a spook, never leaves witnesses or physical evidence! Crime lab guys got nada. It's up to you and your magic box."


Mitchelson pushed open a gray metal door spotted with rust. Algernon caught a whiff of mildew and polyethylene… something else, subtle and disturbing.

He took a deep breath and stepped inside.


She lay on a promotional Halloween waterbed shaped like a coffin… another of Morpheus's ghoulish jokes. Copper hair woven in intricate braids beside delicate cheekbones. Lips the color of blackberry brandy. The gown looked like something from the cover of a romance novel. Her arms were folded primly beneath the satin bodice… hands clasped around the stem of a black orchid. A black orchid - like the others. Mitchelson sighed, stubbled jowls making him resemble Deputy Dawg.


"Forensics is a washout: no wounds, no contusions, no puncture marks… not so much as a hang-nail. It'll take a while for toxicology, but the coroner's gonna come up empty. You know he killed her… I know it… but we don't know how. It's like he just flipped a switch and turned her off."


But it wasn't like that, not at all… not through ORRA's eyes. ORRA - Organic Radiation Residue Analyzer - detected the bioplasma radiation signatures that marked every human being as unique. Detected them, and could track the energy residue of a perpetrator through the most crowded urban jungle like an electronic bloodhound.


You've bagged a lot of psychos, ORRA my dear… so why not this one? Why not this one?


Algernon raised his invention and began adjusting the frequency filters as he scanned the chaotic jumble of bioplasma patterns that filled the monitor. He fine-tuned the bandwidth - blocking out the residue of lab techs, police, store employees - until ORRA's screen resolved itself into a manageable number of discrete energy trails. He concentrated on the body, knowing it would exude the two patterns he cared about more strongly than all others… fought to control his dread when Monique Sainte-Marie's bioplasma residue flared into view. Fading life force roiled about her body like a luminescent scream shrill with echoes of a torment beyond his comprehension.


He could not bear to look at her. He lowered the monitor and reconfigured ORRA to erase the remnants of her suffering, to give her what peace he could. ORRA's emitter generated a wave front that matched the bioplasma frequency of Monique Sainte-Marie, precisely half a wavelength out of phase. Destructive interference did its work, canceling all traces of her lingering despair.


He focused on the body once again, fishing for a different pattern - the one he had stored in ORRA's memory at the scene of the previous Morpheus murder. He picked up something hazy in the range he had programmed, adjusted the settings until the image stabilized. Very close to the previous radiation pattern - yet not an exact match. Impossible! No one could alter his bioplasma signature… but Morpheus did.


"Got anything, Al?"


"Same as before. The whole thing's wrong, not like any violent crime scene ORRA and I have ever investigated… except Morpheus's. No erratic movement, no sign of physical struggle. His trace leads straight from the door to the waterbed, but she never budged. She walked in, climbed into that bed… and waited for him."


"Yeah. Well, forgetting for the moment that we got no physical evidence and no murder weapon, can you track him down?"


"It's like the rest, Mitch. I can trace the bastard's path into this storeroom clear as day, can show you his smear all over the body… but I can't show you how he got out. His energy trail just… disappears."


Mitchelson sighed and rubbed his droopy eyes. "Check again, Al. You might've missed something."


"Damn it, Mitch, I know a dead-end when I see it. There's nothing here!"


Mitchelson stared at him with a mournful intensity that smothered his anger. "Check again, Al. We both know you missed something."


Mitchelson was right. Algernon raised ORRA's monitor and resumed his scan, searching for the message he knew was hidden somewhere… for his eyes only. It took him quite a while to find it: he never thought to check the ceiling. Large block letters blazed across the screen. Nobody could control bioplasma like that - could focus it like ink through a pen - but Morpheus did. Algernon smelled Mitchelson's sour breath on his cheek as the Lieutenant peered over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of ORRA's screen. The message burned like demon's blood, taunting them in silence.


NUMBER SEVEN -

HER HELL, MY HEAVEN.

# # #


Mitchelson's office fit him like his clothes: sloppy, stuffed to overflowing, not quite big enough to accommodate the man. Algernon had to move several stacks of reports before he could plop down in one of the battered chairs wedged in front of Mitchelson's desk. Coffee rings stared up from the clutter like wide, cataract-afflicted eyes. The Lieutenant leaned back behind his desk, chair groaning beneath his bulk. Mitchelson looked as haggard as Algernon felt - he, too, had many ghosts to chase away his sleep.

"Al, we're getting nowhere. That's got to stop. The Mayor takes a chunk out of the Commissioner, he takes a chunk out of the Captain, the Captain chews my ass 'til it bleeds… you know the political food chain. Hell, I can deal with that - I got plenty of keister to spare - but I don't want to get yanked off this case. I want this sonuvabitch, Al! We need a new angle, a fresh approach. I'm bringing in somebody else to help out, an expert on these serial-killer whackos. Somebody you know. This is gonna be hard for you, and I'm sorry… but that's the way it's got to be."


"Good morning, Algie."


The voice came from behind him - gentle, with the barest hint of bitterness. She stood in the doorway, short raven hair curling slightly at the ends, sprinkled with a smattering of gray. The dark hair, the un-Californian paleness of her skin, could have given her a sinister aspect… if not for the eyes. Pearl gray, like the inner hollows of a bivalve shell shimmering beneath the waters of a sunlit tidal pool. Something rare beneath that liquid warmth: a penetrating quality, an ability to see things invisible to most. Those eyes impaled him. He felt naked, defenseless, squirming with the guilt of a thousand petty crimes.


"Hello, Mara."


"Algie… I know this is difficult. I told Lieutenant Mitchelson if you have any problem with me being on the team, I'm going to bow out."


Algernon shrugged, tried to swallow the lump growing in his throat like an emotional tumor. Mara Lyttle was a brilliant woman: Ph.D. in psychology, Chair of the Department of Parapsychology at Southern Cal. She, too, often advised the LAPD on violent crime cases, provided information about the perpetrators in ways he could not fathom. The two of them differed widely in their methods, explored the same mysteries from opposite sides - but that was part of the chemistry. At least, it had been.


"It's all right. We need all the help we can get. If I can marry you, I ought to be able to work with you."


Mara tried to smile. The lump in Algernon's throat traveled to his chest, made it hard to breathe. He noticed the dark circles under her eyes, the new wrinkles on her forehead. Her cheeks seemed even paler than he remembered. She had gained some weight in the months since their separation.


She was more beautiful than ever.


The phone rang so abruptly it made them all jump. Mitchelson grabbed the receiver with a growl. After exchanging a few terse words with the person on the other end, his eyes widened comically. He slammed the phone down and lurched to his feet, cursing like a drunken sailor. "You won't have to wait for your goddamn chance to see Morpheus's work, Mara. Both of you, follow me. Now!"


They caught an elevator down to the basement. Instead of heading for the parking garage, Mitchelson steered them into a corridor that led past the Criminology Lab and a series of storage rooms. A cluster of uniforms stood outside the open door to Evidence Room Four, looking confused, uneasy. Mitchelson grumbled something at the senior officer, who spun and led them through the doorway.


The room was jammed with sturdy steel cabinets that extended from floor to ceiling, swallowing intruders like the walls of a maze. The smell of dust and decomposing paper tickled Algernon's nose. The overhead fluorescents gave the place a sickly jaundiced glow. They found her near the back, lying on one of the lower shelves; evidence bundles had been scattered all over the floor to make room for her. Algernon recognized her. One of the clerks: tall and blonde and very pretty. He had noticed her on prior visits to the Precinct catacombs, as had every male officer with contraband to log. Her uniform lay in a pile nearby. She wore a white wedding gown, apparently borrowed from a rack of confiscated clothes along the back wall. She did not look like a bride - she looked like a pagan sacrifice. She clenched a black orchid in her lifeless hands. Something different from the others… a blush of color in her cheeks. She could not have been dead more than an hour.


He had been here. Only minutes ago, the bastard had been… here.


Mitchelson stared at the body, muttering obscenities. "Sonuvabitch is trying to make us look like morons… doing a damn fine job. Right in our own house, for Christ's sake - an army of cops around, and nobody sees or hears a thing. How am I gonna explain this to the Captain?" Mara wandered around the room, eyes bulging like a strangled kitten's, fingertips sliding gingerly across the walls. Whatever she felt there made her cringe. She was beginning to understand - beginning to sense the true nature of Morpheus. That was good… but not good enough.


"The body, Mara. Check the body."


She stared at Algernon, glassy-eyed, then shuffled toward the woman on the shelf like a zombie wading through molasses. He could see it in her face: she felt something on a level that went far beyond the range of ORRA's sensors. She stretched out a hand to touch the dead woman's cheek… recoiled as if the body were electrified. She turned toward him, eyes dim with horror. Her whole body quivered. He watched her, too paralyzed to move, torn between a desire to comfort her and a nagging fear that she might reject such intimacy from him. He was sorry - truly sorry - that she had to share this burden. To his shame, he felt less sorrow than relief.


In that nightmare realm where Morpheus reigned, he was alone no longer.


"Oh, Algie… I actually thought the bloodless way he kills would be humane. He rapes them psychically. He… he…."


"…drinks the blood of souls."


Mara stared into his eyes, bereft of all her comfortable illusions about the sanctity of the human spirit. She understood. Mitchelson dropped a meaty hand on Algernon's shoulder. "The message, Al. Let's get it over with."


Algernon raised ORRA's. He ignored the bruised aurora that swirled around the woman on the shelf - he did not want to see it - and began scanning for Morpheus's bioplasma residue. He found it, although it had mutated again… just enough to defy the laws of biology and physics. Algernon adjusted for the new pattern, began sweeping the room. He could not ignore the body after all. Morpheus's message blazed in the center of its livid afterglow.


NUMBER EIGHT -

YOU'RE STILL TOO LATE.

# # #


Algernon and Mara remained in the Evidence Room long after the forensics team had retreated to its labs down the hall - after the coroner had removed the body for another pointless autopsy - trying vainly to find some clue they had overlooked amid that invisible turbulence the other investigators could not detect. Nothing. ORRA could track the bastard into the room, trace his sulfurous slime trail as he followed his latest victim to that shelf among the evidence bins in back… but, after that, nothing. Mara, too, could pick up only vague impressions: a residue of cruelty and soul-sickness that left her almost physically ill. Algernon felt compassion for her suffering. He also felt redeemed.


"Now you know, Mara. You see why I had to dedicate myself to hunting down this twisted son of a bitch."


Mara scowled at him, face deathly pale in the light of the overhead fluorescents. "Don't push it… especially now." She stabbed a finger at the device he clutched so tightly in his hands. "There aren't many wives, estranged or otherwise, who would be willing to work side by side with the Other Woman."


"Mara, you've seen what he does! You've touched the poison he leaves behind. What did you expect me to do?"


She swayed slightly. "It's worse… than I ever imagined. But don't use it as an excuse. You were cheating on me long before Morpheus came to town… devoting all your time and energy to ORRA. This just made the abandonment complete."


He wanted to argue, but the pain in her face shamed him to silence. A hint of ocean mist sheened her pearlescent eyes, saltwater drops that stung as if his heart were an open wound. There was very little anger in those eyes - only mourning for the loss of something precious.


"I've had all I can take of Morpheus for one day. What about the bioplasma signature. Still changing?"


"It hasn't altered much since that girl in the waterbed store… but it's not identical. Bastard mutates faster than the AIDS virus."


Mara closed her eyes. "Not mutates. I've got this sense of…. Maybe Morpheus is some kind of wild psychic talent: maybe that's how he gets in and out without being noticed, how he mesmerizes his victims so they don't struggle. I wish I could explain it. But that shifting energy pattern… it's not just him playing chameleon, Algie. Somehow the victims are the key."


She swayed again… staggered. Algernon caught her, hugged her instinctively. She clung to him for one brief, timeless moment before she pushed away.


"Let me drive you home, Mara. You look pretty shaky."


"I feel pretty shaky… but I'll be fine once I get away from here. Besides, your silicon lover might get jealous."


All the hurt, the desperation spilled out of him. "Give me a break! I didn't do this for me - I did it for us, for our future. I was on my way, Mara… to making all those skeptics swallow their tongues, to proving that no law enforcement agency in the country could afford not to invest in ORRA. I was almost there! Then this psycho starts snuffing women all over L.A., and I can't stop him. That pompous ass Barnard at Berkeley tells everybody who will listen that I'm a fraud… and he uses this case as proof!"


"Algie, you've been telling me you're 'almost there' for years. I never asked for a hero, or a millionaire. I just wanted my husband. If your little black box ever tracks him down, let me know."


She left him there, feeling the cold bite of metal while he hungered for the warm caress of flesh.


Algernon gave her time to clear the parking lot before he followed. He did not want another confrontation… did not know if he could bear it. He drove back to his lonely apartment in Anaheim, brooding over Mara's accusations. Truth cut deeper than any knife. The anguish in her voice resonated inside him, awakened pangs he could not silence. Something else she had said gnawed at him. Somehow the victims are the key. Yes. He sensed the truth of it, even if he could not name the reason. A glimmer of excitement chased away the guilt.


He had work to do.


He hurried into his apartment, weaving through an obstacle course of unopened boxes toward the only furniture in the room: a cheap card table wedged against one of the walls. A large PC rested on the table, cables snaking from its back to snare the assortment of spectrometers, interferometers, and other custom peripherals that covered every inch of the table's surface. Algernon plopped down on a folding chair, tried to ignore the exhaustion throbbing behind his eyes as he jacked ORRA into a special socket at the base of the PC. He downloaded the new data and displayed it on the monitor.


The answer was there, hidden in those dancing pixels. He knew it.


He pulled up Morpheus's reading from Wally's Waterbed World beside the new reading from Evidence Room Four, mapping the variations, trying to glean some meaning from them as he had so many times before. Nothing. He displayed the evidence clerk's bioplasma pattern between the other two. So hard to process with the naked eye. Not pure wave forms, any of them: composites, mixtures of interacting frequencies. Countless hours of Fourier analyses, detailed harmonic breakdowns… none of it unlocked Morpheus's secret. Algernon's head began to pound. The victims are the key. He wanted to scream at that disembodied voice, beg it to give him peace. So tired. So complex, these clashes of interfering waves. Composites. Combinations….


It was there - in his head, on the screen, searing him like lightning from a storm-dark sky. He keyed in the commands, merged the wave pattern from Wally's Waterbed World with the pattern of the evidence clerk lying in the morgue in a stolen wedding dress. His fingers shook so badly he could barely type, but it was there. It was there!


The composite pattern of Morpheus's prior reading and his latest victim's matched Morpheus's new radiation signature exactly. The secret - the reason he could kill without leaving any marks, the reason his bioplasma pattern kept changing. He was absorbing them. Somehow, the bastard was swallowing their souls. Algernon had to share this with someone who would understand… someone who could help him figure out what it meant.


Mara.


He drove like a maniac across town to Pasadena, running the lights, not caring if some cowboy in a squad car tried to pull him over. He squealed onto Grafton Court, almost clipped the mailbox as he swung into the drive. Lights on inside. She had not been able to sleep, either. He rang the doorbell, couldn't wait for her to answer, fumbled for his key. He wrestled with the lock until it yielded and almost ran inside.


Something was wrong. He knew it immediately - the house was silent, and Mara always played Kenny G on the stereo when she couldn't sleep. He stumbled from room to room, panic growing like a cancer. The bedroom looked exactly as he remembered: the floral bedspread he had tolerated for Mara's sake, prints of whales and dolphins on the walls. The fragrance of potpourri caressed him like the timid fingers of an old lover. But the floor… littered with clothes, as if Mara had tossed out every item in her closet. As if she had been digging for something special.


Algernon raised ORRA with trembling hands and scanned the room, searching for something… praying he would not find it. He found it anyway - fiery graffiti scrawled between two windows that stared at him like night-blind eyes.


NUMBER NINE -

WHAT'S YOURS IS MINE.

# # #


He did not call Mitchelson. No time. Morpheus had Mara - Algernon knew better than anyone what that meant. But this time the bastard had made a mistake. Algernon might not be able to follow Morpheus's bioplasma sleight-of-hand, but he could track Mara anywhere. She had been his test subject during the long months when he first began developing and refining ORRA; he had her energy signature recorded with more precision than any other.


This time will be different, you twisted son of a bitch. It has to be….


He had more trouble following Mara's trail than he expected. Not easy to steer with one hand, adjust ORRA's settings with the other, keep his eyes up enough to avoid ramming the Honda into a guardrail. He made slow progress south - past Alhambra, Inglewood, Torrance – and wound up on the Coast Highway before he had to pull over on the berm. Mara's pattern was growing indistinct. He was losing her. He sat there, cursing in the headlight-speckled darkness, until understanding filled his veins with ice.


He was not losing her. She was losing herself.


He programmed ORRA to account for the distortion of Morpheus's engulfing pattern, jammed the Honda's pedal to the floor, raced along the coast toward San Diego like a smuggler late for a border rendezvous. Where the hell are you taking her? But he knew… when he saw the exit sign, he knew. He swung off the Highway and began winding toward the steady rumble of the Pacific.


The Oceanview Inn lay along the cliffs above Laguna Beach - a modest one-story stucco structure with vending machines glowing brightly on both sides like neon bookends bracketing the mysteries that lurked behind its doors. A forgettable place for most… but not for Algernon. He remembered the honeymoon in Laguna, the most exotic locale he and Mara could afford on teaching salaries. The beach had been lovely in the moonlight… but, in truth, they had rarely left their room. The tang of salt air and rotting kelp stung his nostrils, filled him with bittersweet memories. He traced Mara's dwindling energy to Room Seventeen: the one they had occupied six years ago. He could see a thread of light spilling through the crack along the door jamb. The door was not locked.


He was expected.


Only one light on - the lamp beside the bed - a single bulb shining dimly through a lampshade covered with pastel seashells. The bedspread crawled with silver scallops and dancing pink seahorses; the wallpaper swam with a rainbow of exotic fish. Had it always looked this tawdry? Algernon could not say - his roving eyes agonized over every detail. He found no madmen lurking in the shadows, just one figure reclining on the bed: a woman wearing a Snow White costume. He remembered buying it in an overpriced shop on Main Street just inside the entrance to Disneyland, along with a Grumpy costume for himself… remembered how silly he had felt at the Faculty Halloween Party that year. Despair squeezed the breath from his lungs, crushed his heart to pulp.


Too late. He had failed her again.


Her eyelids fluttered. He froze; his feet grew roots. He could not speak as she struggled to sit up. "Algie… I knew you'd come!" She held her arms out to him, shivering. He stumbled forward, hugged her with a dizzy mixture of longing and relief. As their faces hovered inches apart, he noticed her eyes. They were… wrong.


"Mara, where is he? Where's Morpheus?"


Her knee caught him in the groin, driving him up and back. The wind whooshed out of him as he fell, immobilized by pain and disbelief; ORRA clattered to the floor beside him. Mara loomed over him, eyes as dim and lusterless as two holes into midnight. She snickered. He noticed that she cast two shadows - one dense, misshapen blob within a woman's silhouette, umbra within penumbra. At last Algernon understood the real secret. Why Morpheus was never seen, how he snuck in and out of crowded buildings without detection.


Morpheus's crimes were inhuman. They had never considered the possibility that he might be as well.


Morpheus leered at him through Mara's stolen eyes. "Foolish little man. Charging in like some White Knight come to rescue his Lady Fair, unarmed except for that pathetic snooping device. What good has it done you?"


"It… got me… to you."


"Ah, but I invited you. I thought you might amuse me, but you are too predictable for that. I must thank you, though, for introducing me to your charming wife. She is quite special. She claws and spits like a scalded cat. The very best I've had… and I've had many. Her struggles make the act of consummation even sweeter."


Algernon groped for ORRA, scrambled to his feet. "God DAMN you!"


Mara/Morpheus's lips curled into a smirk. "Too late, little man: it's been done. But I will damn you. You will stand there - sniveling, powerless - and watch me violate your beloved in ways you cannot imagine."


Algernon brushed ORRA's controls with nerveless fingers. Morpheus only laughed in a voice like Mara's… but hollow, empty, as if she spoke from the bottom of a well. "So easy to read your thoughts. You would use your toy to erase me like some stray energy debris that gets in your way at the scene of the crime, but you cannot. Mara and I are merging. Our souls are intertwined. Destroy me and you destroy the one you seek to save. Give it up, little man: Saint George is a myth. Only the Dragon is real."


Mara/Morpheus turned away, arranged herself on the bed. She reached between the pillows and withdrew a black orchid, settled into a familiar pose. Stolen eyes glared at Algernon, savoring his dread, choking him with dark disdain. More laughter as she/it lay back, crooning in profane imitation of Mara's voice.


"Mis-ter Sand-man, bring - me - a - dream…."


Algernon stumbled to the bed and grabbed Mara's shoulders so tightly his knuckles ground against her bones. Fever boiled beneath her flesh, lit her eyes like pools of burning oil. She was in there, somewhere…. "Fight, Mara. You're a lot stronger than the bastard knows. Fight him!"


She did. He caught a flicker on ORRA's screen, the flash of Mara's essence swimming through Morpheus's sea of venom. For a moment, she was there. He knew, then - knew how to help her. He fiddled with ORRA's controls, calling up Mara's bioplasma pattern from storage, programming ORRA to emit that pattern now. Constructive interference: phased reinforcement of Mara's fading life force. A dose of infrared adrenaline to give her strength.


The woman on the bed screamed in pain and rage, shrieked with a voice that was not hers. He could see it all on ORRA's monitor: explosions of light and color to mark the incendiary clash of wills. They crashed and tangled like colliding comets, battering each other with fists of energy. He could do nothing. He could only stand there - cursing his impotence - watching Mara battle for her self. He called her name, not knowing if she could hear him, until he saw her breaking free, bursting into flame like a newborn star. She shrieked again… only this time it was really her.


She screamed a warning.


He saw nothing with his naked eyes… the quintessence of nothing, a disembodied shadow twisting in the air beside the bed. The shadow drifted toward him, stretching out invisible talons that seared him to the core. He could not resist Morpheus - he did not have Mara's gifts. He had only once chance.


He needed reinforcements.


He called up the bioplasma pattern of the evidence clerk in ORRA's memory, fired her waveform at the shadow. Morpheus writhed in agony. Algernon stared at ORRA's monitor, prayed… watched another resurrected spirit squirm away from Morpheus's smothering embrace. Again. He called up the woman from the waterbed store, cheered as her soul erupted from the darkness in a geyser of flame and streaked away to freedom. Morpheus's fury rattled in his skull, but he felt something different there as well.

Morpheus was afraid.


The shadow retreated. Algernon called up another pattern - the lifeguard from Newport Beach - hurled her at the churning void. Another ghost tore free, ripping loose another thread that bound Morpheus's quilt of souls. Morpheus fought with the strength of desperation, casting waves of energy back against the weapon that undid him. ORRA began to whine as wisps of smoke trickled from its casing. Metal edges burned into the meat of Algernon's palms, but he did not stop. He did not stop.


Another ghost, and another - a spectral army attacking their tormentor, gobbling the darkness like torches wielded by a vengeful mob. The whine in ORRA's circuitry became a shriek. The fire in Algernon's hands crippled, blinded, as Morpheus engulfed him. He could not breathe. Something rippled in the space above his head. He looked up, saw the disembodied shadow imploding, felt Morpheus's fury blast across the tundra of his soul. ORRA's screen exploded, spraying circuitry and melted plastic. Nothing, then. He felt nothing.


Algernon dropped the smoking metal carcass. He clutched his blackened, bloody hands against his chest. Morpheus could not hurt him anymore.


But Mara… what had the bastard done to her?


Algernon limped to the bed where she lay motionless, a withered black orchid sprouting from her hands. He stroked her face, smearing pale cheeks with streaks of black and red. Warm - her skin was warm. Her eyes blinked, opened, shone with a radiance he recognized. Cherished. He could not help himself: he sobbed like a baby.


Fingers brushed the tears out of his eyes. "You did it, Algie. It's gone. That thing is really gone."


"Are you all right? Did he… hurt you?"


She grimaced with the pain of wounds he could not see. "He hurt me… but not nearly as much as he would have. I guess the Other Woman has her good side after all." She noticed his ravaged hands for the first time. "My god, Algie, what happened to you?" She glanced beyond him, saw the wreckage burning holes into the threadbare carpet. "ORRA… Morpheus got her, too. I'm sorry."


"Doesn't matter. The damn thing's just a tool - I can build another. But you, Mara… you're irreplaceable. How do I fix what's broken between us?"


Mara smiled, eyes shimmering with the promise of a sunrise he had feared would never come. "You've already started. The Other Woman did me another favor before she died: she tracked down my missing husband."


Algernon Harris stared into his wife's pearlescent eyes and saw the message written in their light. He did not need ORRA to read it. For the first time in a very long while, the darkness could not touch him.