by Richard L. Sanders
Jason neared the source of the awful sound. It was a loud, droning noise that changed wildly in pitch every few seconds. No doubt the sound of a mindbender, one who’d snapped and had become dangerous. Jason moved carefully in the darkness, expecting anything. A spotlight blinded him. Followed by the roar of a deep horn and a loud rumble. He squinted into the white brilliance and saw a locomotive charging his way. He leaped off the tracks to escape certain death. But, to his surprise, the train adjusted its path— as if aiming for him. Roaring closer and closer. He looked down. The rails were still at his feet. Where he knew they shouldn’t be. His pulse quickened, and he sprinted off the tracks. But, wherever he stepped, the rails always materialized—the train still bearing down on him. His heart thumped wildly, and his muscles stiffened. His body believed he would be killed, and every animal instinct urged him to run opposite the train, dart away in a futile effort to save his life. But he stood his ground. And locked his eyes to the brilliant lamp of death closing in. Knowing, deep inside, that none of it was real. He wrestled with his fear. Trying to doubt the train. But it was hard to doubt several hundred tons of unforgiving steel thundering his way. Especially when the screeching of metal tortured his ears, and the bright, insufferable lamp blinded him. With extreme difficulty, he visualized a massive wall blocking the path. Made of the strongest material he could think of—solid tungsten. Like magic, the glossy gray metal appeared. As real as the tracks at his feet. The train collided with the wall at full speed. Jason shielded his face, a knee-jerk reaction, but wasn’t surprised when nothing happened. The world didn’t shake; there was no deafening boom. No spray of deadly debris. Just a flicker, as the train, the wall, and even the darkness vanished. It had all been an illusion, just like he’d guessed. Jason was left standing there. Where he’d always been. In a rail yard that hadn’t been used in years. It was actually dawn, not night, and the source of the illusions stood several yards away. A Nexus agent, someone Jason knew well. “That was very clever, Kyle. I didn’t even feel my mind being probed. But, last time I checked, we’re supposed to be friends.” “I’m sorry, Jason, but I can’t risk anyone stopping me.” Kyle seemed to have completely broken down. His clothes were ripped, his feet completely bare, and his drone—the noise he was making—was off the charts, meaning his intentions were evil. “I don’t know what you’re planning, Kyle, but, whatever it is, it’s not worth it. I can promise you that.” Jason focused his mind, ready to attack if necessary. “Let’s just go back to Nexus and pretend none of this ever happened.” “You don’t understand. You can’t understand. You weren’t there!” Kyle’s voice grew louder. “Pyramid Lake wasn’t the first time!” His bloodred eyes locked with Jason’s. “They lied to us. . . . They lied to us all . . .” “Who lied to us?” It was no secret that Kyle’s mental faculties had been worsening over the past few months. Once a top Nexus agent, he and Drake, another top agent, had come back from a mission severely affected. The details of the Pyramid Lake “incident” were sealed in the Black Folder and remained a mystery. But, whatever had happened there, whatever they’d seen, it had changed them forever. After that mission, Drake went into voluntary exile, and Nexus forbade any contact with him, cutting off all ties. And Kyle, . . . he had become a recluse, never the same person again. Lately he’d taken a turn for the worse, and everyone knew it was just a matter of time before he snapped permanently. “It’s OK, Kyle. Just stay calm.” Jason advanced cautiously. “You have to believe me, Jason. Nexus is a lie.” Desperation cracked his voice. “You have no idea what we really do. I have to stop it, once and for all!” “You don’t mean that. We both know Nexus is about helping people.” Jason took Kyle’s paranoia as further evidence that he’d lost his mind. After all, Kyle had joined Nexus voluntarily, just as Jason had and thousands of others. And Kyle knew firsthand that Nexus had saved thousands of lives every year. Kyle trembled visibly. His voice was as unsteady as his body. “I’m going to take it down, Jason. All of it. All the way down. And everyone in it who tries to stop me too. So back off, Jason. This is your one and only chance.” Jason braced himself, hardening his mind. “You know I can’t do that.” “Then please forgive me.” A large spear appeared and whistled as it cut through the air toward him. It was convincing, especially the glimmer of its steel point, but Jason knew it was fake. Just another illusion planted in his mind. As long as he remembered what was real and what wasn’t, he could block the attack. He thought of a shield and focused, causing an illusion of one to spring into existence in midair. Neither object was real but, to Jason and Kyle, both were convincing. Making it a battle of wills to outconvince the other. Jason knew as long as he believed an illusion, its effects could be felt—to a point. If his shield failed, and the spear pierced him, he wouldn’t sustain any physical injury. It wasn’t real. But the damage to his mind could be lasting—or fatal. The spear glanced off the shield, and both vanished. A perfect counter. Kyle next conjured a hailstorm of bricks, and Jason had to react quickly to block them. He summoned an overwhelming gust of wind to spirit them away, and then used that wind to knock Kyle off his feet and pin him to the wall. Jason took hold of Kyle’s bricks and turned them into chains, wrapping them around Kyle, who struggled uselessly. “Disbelieve,” said Kyle weakly. It was the most desperate and dangerous way to stop an attack, trying to force one’s body not to believe in the illusions. But when the cold metal of chains can be plainly felt, and the illusion is perfect enough to confuse all five senses, it is nearly impossible to disbelieve it. So the attack goes uncountered, and that person’s mind is broken. He loses. Kyle struggled, like a floundering fish, his body completely convinced it was actually being held in place by chains. Only when Kyle stopped wiggling did Jason release him, and all the illusions disappeared. Leaving the two men standing where they’d always been. At the empty rail yard. Kyle collapsed to the ground, unconscious but still alive. Jason never killed people with his illusions. He knew how to do it—create an illusion that convinces the body it can’t breathe, for example, but he believed capital punishment wasn’t his to dole out. He probed Kyle’s mind, and it filled Jason with remorse to know that his friend’s mental state was shattered beyond recognition. Jason hadn’t meant his attack to cause lasting damage. He had only wanted to stun Kyle into submission. Jason told himself it wasn’t his fault. That there was nothing else he could have done. Kyle’s mind had already been fragile, and Jason’s mental powers had simply been too much. But that didn’t make it easier. Kyle had once been a deeply kind man who had embodied strength and uplifted all who knew him. Seeing him reduced to this end, this hollow shell, was heart wrenching. And Jason couldn’t tear himself away from his friend for several minutes. *** Once inside his car, Jason telephoned his superiors and told them what’d happened. They ordered him to leave Kyle at the rail yard and return. Jason knew that meant others were being dispatched to pick up Kyle. Hopefully they’d arrive before the police found Kyle. The civic authorities wouldn’t be able to give Kyle the kind of help he needed—if it were even possible to save him. Only Nexus had a chance of helping him. And almost nobody knew about Nexus. The main roads were congested, so Jason took the side streets back to headquarters. He knew what today was, and it turned knots in his stomach; so he wasn’t in any hurry. It began to rain, and he thoughtlessly watched the large drops of water splash against his windshield faster than his wipers could brush them aside. A rare but pleasant sight in this dry climate. Eventually he found his way back to the nondescript four-story building that hid Nexus. The words “United Silver Bank” were dull on a rusty plaque above the dark doors, and the structure blended in easily with the middle-class suburban downtown. He parked in the underground garage but had to use the outside entrance, so he hustled through the rain, one hand over his head, until he got inside. He wiped his feet and nodded to the staff manning the foyer. To them he was a bank manager, an untruth that gave him access to the vault where, unbeknownst to the bank employees, was a secret door to Nexus. He was scarcely beyond that secret door and down the stairs when Jessica flew into his arms. Her silky dark hair smelled of cinnamon, and he resisted the urge to brush his hands through it. Instead, he pulled away after a tight squeeze. “I heard about Kyle. Are you all right?” she asked. “Yeah, I’m fine.” It was hard to lie to those cunning brown eyes. She’d been his best friend since childhood and, as of a month ago, his fiancée. That realization still took him off guard, almost as much as the jolt of energy he felt whenever he saw her. “I can tell something’s bothering you,” she said tenderly. A rare soft side that this ranking Nexus Wraith seldom showed. “What are you worried about? The promotion?” “Yes,” he admitted, though that was only part of what was bothering him. He’d been stressing about this promotion ever since it had been announced a week ago. Unlike other promotions, this involved a ceremony called the Second Rite. It was very secret, and he could only guess at what happened during it. But afterward he would be a Wraith and would have access to the restricted areas. “But that’s not the only thing on your mind, is it?” She was perceptive, and her smile always disarmed him. If he ever had secrets, he doubted he could keep them from her. “Yes, there is something else,” he admitted. “It’s Kyle. . . . He said he had it out for Nexus because of what happened at Pyramid Lake.” “That doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “He has said a lot of crazy things. Lately, that guy’s been about as sharp as a marble.” Jason was uneasy. He couldn’t dismiss Kyle’s ramblings as flippantly as Jessica could. And he seriously wondered if there had been some reason to Kyle’s madness. “Jessica,” he said, his tone sober. “What happened at Pyramid Lake? What did Kyle and Drake see there?” Her eyes darted away for a minute but returned strong. “You know I can’t talk about things in the Black File.” The classified cases in the Black File were only accessible to the very elite, and discussing their contents was strictly forbidden. “I know,” he said with a sigh. “Come on. I’ve never seen such a sour face on someone about to become a Wraith.” She pretended to pout, and it made him smirk. “You’re wonderful.” “I know,” she teased. Then she took him by the hand and pulled him toward his room. “Hurry up. It’s almost time, and you still need to change.” *** Jason came to the end of the black tunnel and pushed open the door. A spill of blue light made him squint. Inside, eleven people sat in soft-looking chairs; they were all Wraiths. The Ministrator stood in the center, performing the ceremony, and in his hand was a glass ball. It glowed blue with an electric current, like a swirling orb of plasma. Jason wondered if it was an illusion. “Welcome, Acolyte,” they all said in unison. Jason nodded, unsure what to say, feeling uncomfortable already. He hated it when groups spoke in unison; they always used the same impersonal, ambivalent monotone. It really bothered him. He slipped around a set of chairs and took his place in the empty seat next to Jessica. She put her hand on his lap, and he took it in his. “Today marks a new beginning for you, Acolyte.” The lights shifted from blue to bright orange as the Ministrator spoke. “Thank you. It’s an honor.” “We have voted and now accept you into our ranks, as a Wraith. May you always be a part of Nexus, and may its energies empower you to wield the sword and shield of justice, and may you forever be a guardian of the weak and a protector of the innocent.” The Ministrator continued his speech, and Jason tried to pay attention, but it was boring. He gave brief replies as often as he had to, and occasionally the Ministrator asked a question to the small audience, and together they chanted replies that were clearly memorized, speaking more out of habit than commitment. The whole experience made him squirm, partly because he hated all the attention being directed at him, and partly because all the individuals around him, people he knew well, seemed to lose their personalities and merge into some kind of empty, collective zombie persona. He knew it was just a ceremony, that there was no harm to it, but it made him uneasy all the same, so the minutes felt like lifetimes. Eventually the Ministrator approached and made him look into the glass ball. As he did, his eyes met what seemed to be an electric, glowing eye. “Behold the Eye of Nexus. And see with it, that you may understand that no progress is without cost, that through sacrifice all may benefit. Understand that this is how it must be. Life from the big to the small, from the strong to the weak, and from the one to the many. Do you accept that?” All eyes turned to him, and Jason’s discomfort spiked. “Yes,” he said, only because everyone was watching him, and he knew that’s what they expected to hear. But truthfully he didn’t understand the question; it was too vague. He guessed it meant nothing. More pointless ceremonial gibberish. Jason was then passed the glass orb and was surprised how cold it was. The sensation coursed through him like a snake through his fingers, up his arms, and down his back. It was unpleasant, but it energized him, and he’d never felt more alive. Just as his hairs began to stand up, the Ministrator took back the orb. Jason felt his mind probed after that. He tried to block it out but couldn’t shield himself. The source was much too strong. It was like being pierced by the minds of everyone in the room, and, for an instant, nothing made sense. All he saw was static and random colors accompanied by random sounds. He felt pain. A light pain that spread across his body and became fierce quickly, like an avalanche, into bone-twisting, muscle-ripping torture. He was the living embodiment of anguish as excruciating agony rocked him from the tips of his extremities to the center of his core. Like pins and needles pushing into him, pricking his skin again and again, all over his body, while a fire raged through his veins and arteries. More pain than he thought possible. A pain so breaking and brutal that it didn’t even make sense. He screamed. Screamed for all he was worth until he could scream no more. Tears poured from his eyes. He could scarcely breathe. And for a moment, he was convinced he was dying. But he wrestled against the invasion and eventually regained control. As quickly as the pain had come, it vanished. Like it had never been there at all. When his surroundings normalized, everyone was clapping. “Nexus accepts you. You are now a Wraith, one of the Forever Bound.” The ceremony ended with a tour of the restricted areas, which were less interesting than he’d hoped. Although there was still one room which he was not allowed to enter. Eventually a ranking Wraith, Davin, cornered him, along with Jessica. “Jason, I need to speak with you.” Davin’s voice was gruff and deep. “What about?” “Your assignment.” “I’ve been assigned already?” Usually it took a new Wraith days or weeks before he was considered a candidate for the major teams and assignments. “Yes,” said Davin. “You’re a Gray Wraith now.” Jason felt his knees lock with excitement. Was this some sort of a joke? No, Davin wasn’t the type to joke around. The Gray Wraiths were the most elite team in Nexus. The details of their missions almost always ended up in the Black Folder. And best of all, Jessica was on that team! “Really?” “Yes. We’ve been considering you for some time, mostly because of her strong recommendation.” Davin glanced toward Jessica, who grinned. “But when you took down Kyle, an ex-member of this team, you proved yourself to be his worthy successor.” “So, do you accept?” Jessica asked with a smile. “Wow, I don’t know what to say.” Jason looked from Davin to Jessica and felt warm. “Of course I accept!” “Good, because we have a mission tomorrow. A serious one, so I hope you’re ready.” “I won’t let you down, sir.” “You’d better mean that.” “I do.” Jason would gladly give his life for Nexus. “Then meet us in the parking garage at 0700.” *** Jason was surprised to find himself, along with six other Gray Wraiths, at a state-run shelter for children awaiting foster placement. Not where he’d expect to confront a dangerous criminal. It was basically a small orphanage, with two buildings and a playground outside. A cement path led to the front door. The other Wraiths were scattered around at a distance, and Jason approached alone and pulled open the gate with a creak. Some of the children turned curious eyes his way, but most kept playing. They were too busy fighting over the swings to care or else pushing each other down the slide. He smiled, watching them. “Want to play?” asked a young redheaded girl with a blue dress; she was playing hopscotch. It took Jason off guard to see a kid so friendly around strangers. “No thanks,” he said with a nod. She looked so innocent and carefree, and he wondered if he’d once been the same way; his own childhood seemed like a fleeting instant. Something very precious, very short, and very, very long ago. But these children didn’t know the burdens of adulthood that awaited them. They seemed like pure incarnations of bliss and innocence. The thought of a criminal here made him sick. The idea that someone would try to hurt any of these children filled him with disgust and rage. Fortunately they hadn’t come too late, and their target, Ms. Douglas, was bound to arrive any minute. An aide was standing outside, watching over the children. She spotted Jason and hurried over, placing her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Why don’t you run along and play?” she said, her suspicious eyes focused on Jason. “OK, bye, bye,” the little girl said as she ran off to her friends. “Hello,” said Jason. “I was hoping you could point me toward the main office.” “It’s just through the front door.” “Thank you.” He followed the path and went inside, leaving the door open. He was greeted by a lady at the front desk. “Yes, hello,” said Jason. “I was hoping you could tell me about a Ms. Douglas. I think she works here.” “A Ms. Douglas? We have no Ms. Douglas working here.” Jason bit his lip; he was sure he’d remembered the name correctly. “Yeah, a Sarah Douglas.” “Sarah Douglas?” She raised a confused eyebrow and pointed out the window at the sweet little girl that he’d talked to before. “That’s one of the children in our care, not someone working here.” Now Jason was confused. He looked at the girl, then back to the attendant, and then back to the girl—who was again playing hopscotch. That couldn’t be right. A whole team to take down this little girl. What threat could she possibly be? And why didn’t he hear her drone if she had such bad intentions? He probed her mind but was thrown out immediately. She’d blocked him? A kid had blocked him? Jason couldn’t believe it. And, as if to add insult to injury, the little girl kept playing her game, as if she didn’t even realize she’d just thrown one of the best mindbenders in Nexus out of her head. He tried again, more forcefully this time—and, for an instant, he tapped into her mind but couldn’t make sense of anything before she threw him back out. Hers was the strongest mind he’d ever felt. Was it possible that someone so young could be planning something foul enough to justify a takedown? “I think you should leave,” the attendant said, but, just as she spoke, her face changed from suspicious to dazed, and, without blinking, she stood up and wandered mindlessly out of the room. The Nexus agents were taking control. He turned and saw the aide outside wandering aimlessly too. Their minds had been thrown into a confused state. At that moment, Jessica and another Wraith swooped into the yard. The other agents were busy stunning the kids, trying to keep them from running helter-skelter. One agent must have tried to enter the little girl’s mind because she bolted for the open door. “Stop her,” Jessica shouted. “Help me, mister,” the little girl said, looking up as she ran closer. Jason hesitated; he wasn’t sure what to do. How could he do anything to her? She was just a little girl. But then again her mind was unusually strong, and Nexus must have its reasons. “Stop!” he said, brute-forcing his way into her mind. He made the illusion of walls all around her, and the girl froze in place, believing them to exist. “Good work,” said Jessica as the agents surrounded the girl. Jason stayed back, feeling conflicted. He trusted Nexus, always had, and knew he was supposed to be a follower. But he promised himself at this moment that he wouldn’t be a blind follower and that he would get to the bottom of this. *** They took the girl back to headquarters in the back of a large van. She was kept unconscious; her strong mind was not harmed, but, between the six of them with her, she couldn’t free herself. “What are we doing?” Jason asked repeatedly, but no one would give him a clear answer. “Do you remember your covenant?” Jessica asked him. “What in the world are you talking about?” “During the Second Rite, the Ministrator told us there was no progress without sacrifice. You know, life from the big to the small, from the strong to the weak, and from the one to the many,” Jessica said the phrase delicately, like it was sacred. “That just sounded like garbage to me,” said Jason. She looked away with a frown. When they arrived, they were buzzed in through a security door in the garage. They took the girl through the restricted areas and into the room that hadn’t been on Jason’s tour. “This is the heart of Nexus,” said Jessica. A glowing orb of glass was on the far side of the very large room; it looked like the small globe the Ministrator had shown off during Jason’s ceremony, but this one was much larger and fixed in place. A glass door was barely discernible on its closest side. Davin spoke up. “This is the source of all illusions, the power behind all our power. From this node we connect with hundreds of nodes worldwide. And this is how Nexus works. It gives us power, and we must give it energy. You can’t get without giving.” “I don’t understand,” said Jason. “What are you talking about?” “We join a soul to the Nexus,” Davin explained. Jason looked to Jessica, but she was staring at her feet. “It’s a reservoir of spiritual energy that we tap into whenever we conjure our illusions. When we bend minds and read the thoughts of others, we sap energy from this stream. And it must be recharged, else our powers would go away.” “I thought our powers came from our minds, you know, from nature. We’re just born this way.” “We are born this way. But like I said, you can’t get without giving. The fastest runner might be born with DNA that promises strong muscles and a healthy body, but he still has to eat and rest to have energy. And he can’t run without energy. Energy is what powers every aspect of our world, and, without it, we have no world.” “But what about people who aren’t part of Nexus, like that girl? How can she bend minds if it isn’t natural?” “Because from this node we create an atmosphere that allows it. We are part of a link in a chain of nodes that covers the whole world. Anyone with the gift can bend minds anywhere, so long as we maintain that atmosphere. And with it, we help the world, at a small price.” Before Jason could make any sense of this, the others opened the glass orb and hoisted the little girl into it. Her body dissolved instantly, and, except for an increased glow, there was no trace she’d ever existed. *** “From the big to the small, from the strong to the weak, and from the one to the many.” Jessica’s voice was smooth as cream, but her message scraped Jason’s conscience like barbed wire ripping new skin. “Stop saying that!” Jason shouted, no longer able to contain his anger. He stood in the privacy of his own room; Jessica sat on the couch and watched him pace back and forth. “This just isn’t right,” he muttered, now standing still. “It’s always hard the first time you see it done,” said Jessica. “The first time? How often does this happen? You make it sound like some sort of casual event, but it’s murder.” “Careful,” Jessica warned. “That kind of talk sounds an awful lot like treason.” “Treason against what? Nexus betrayed me. It was everything I had ever believed in, pretending it was benign. And now I see Nexus is guilty of the same stuff it tries to stop, and so am I.” He looked at his hands as if they were coated in blood. Then, with a growl, he slapped the lamp off the table; it crashed to the ground in more pieces than it started with. Jessica waited for his tantrum to pass before she spoke. “Are you done?” “Yes,” he said, collecting himself. Losing his temper wasn’t going to help here; he just needed to sort out his thoughts. He had to be objective. “OK, then if you’re ready to be rational, we can analyze it together. Nexus does a lot of good in the world. We prevent millions of crimes every year—thefts, rapes, murders, and everything in between. If we did not exist and do what we do, then tens of millions of people would suffer, maybe more than that. And we accomplish this good by mind-bending, by finding people before they commit crimes and changing their intentions. But mind-bending requires a special atmosphere, which requires the energy of souls to maintain.” Jason shuddered as he listened. The image of the girl dissolving into nothing was still fresh in his mind. Perhaps burned there forever. Jessica continued. “If we don’t deposit souls, we cannot have that atmosphere, and, without it, we cannot bend minds. And if we can’t bend minds, we cannot help those people, and, therefore, tens of millions of people will suffer. Would you rather look a mother in the eye and tell her you could have saved her children but didn’t because you valued one tiny life more than all the others? I don’t think so. It isn’t pretty, but it’s reality.” Jason shook his head. He hated hearing her rationalize it and hated that it almost made sense, in a perverse way. “We take lives to save lives. How morbidly ironic. Nothing separates us from them.” “Actually there are two things.” She tried to sound professional, but, for an instant, her voice broke, and he saw the hint of conflict in her eyes. “First of all, we take far fewer lives, so, on balance, we save lives. And second, our method is humane. We don’t butcher people with knives and guns. We slip them peacefully into the energy stream.” “Where their souls are squeezed and burned away slowly. How do you know that’s so peaceful?” She deflected the question. “We’re more compassionate than you give us credit for. We choose our targets very carefully. People who are mentally powerful, so we can minimize the number of people we take, and people who will not be missed.” “Will not be missed . . .” The words felt vile in his mouth. “Is that the value of life now? How much you will be missed?” “Don’t forget you’re one of us now,” said Jessica. “We’re Wraiths. That’s who we are and what we do. And we do it for the greater good.” “So, you’ve been doing this for years?” “Yes,” she admitted with some hesitation. Her voice was strong, but it was a pretense; he didn’t miss the slight inflection it carried. The tremor of self-doubt. “It’s a difficult job, and we have to be very selective about who’s on our team. I put your name forward because I thought I knew you.” Her eyes tested him. “No, Jessica,” said Jason, looking away. “I thought I knew you.” He felt the fire of tears that would not come. “Jason, I need to know.” Jessica’s voice was soft but alarmed. “Do we have a problem here?” Jason realized that he’d be in danger if he didn’t answer carefully. So he decided to play it safe, promising himself that, if there was anything he could do to stop this practice, he would. But he didn’t want Nexus watching his every move. And if Nexus believed he was a threat, they would end him before he could change anything. So he put on a fake smile, careful not to overdo it. “No, love. It’s just . . . it’s a hard adjustment.” He sighed. “I need some time alone.” He went to her and took her hands, squeezing them, but, for the first time, he was repulsed by her touch. “Trust me, I understand.” She gave him a hug and left. *** Drake’s home was a beautiful white house in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. It was at the end of a circle, and teenagers were playing hockey in the street. Jason walked around them and up the driveway. Red tulips were growing in a flower box, and Drake had somehow managed to keep a lush lawn despite the desert heat. It wasn’t the kind of place Jason had expected to find a person in exile. He knocked three times and waited, not sure what to expect. Eventually he was met by a middleaged man with a well-trimmed beard and stylish new clothes. “You haven’t changed much, Drake,” said Jason with a smile. “Still got your sense of style.” Drake’s narcissism was legendary. “Is that . . . Jason?” Drake’s face changed from confused to surprised to displeased. “Nexus isn’t welcome here.” He began to close the door, but Jason stopped it with his foot. “I’m not here for Nexus. I’m here for my own reasons.” Drake raised an eyebrow. “You know visiting me is taboo.” “Which is why you must let me in before someone sees me.” Curiosity filled Drake’s eyes, and he stepped aside, closing the door behind them. He guided Jason to the front room and went about closing all his windows before they sat down. “Now tell me, Jason, what is this about?” “I’m finished with Nexus.” Drake just about fell out of his chair. “What? Is that true? What happened?” “I was recently made a Wraith. No, not just any Wraith. A Gray Wraith. And four days ago we went on a mission and captured a little girl.” “And you saw the heart of Nexus?” “Yes. I saw it, and what they do with it. And that was the end for me.” Jason saw no need to explain further. His face was bitter, and deep inside he was completely heartbroken. Nexus had been everything he’d ever believed in, and Jessica too . . . Drake grunted. “I understand your feelings. And trust me, you’re better off.” He seemed absolutely certain. Whatever had stung him long ago was still eating at him under his calm surface. Jason paused before speaking. “What really happened at Pyramid Lake?” Drake didn’t reply for some time. Eventually he spoke. “I suppose you deserve to know.” He took a deep breath. “Where to begin . . . Basically it was an execution.” Jason liked that Drake was someone who got right to the point and didn’t soften the truth. “A small group of FBI agents was investigating us, and they were very close to discovering Nexus. Of course the higher-ups couldn’t allow that, so they sent us in to bend their minds.” “That doesn’t sound so unusual.” “No, you don’t understand. It wasn’t the usual bending. We didn’t just enter their minds and change their motives, like you would with criminals—oh, no. The brass said that was too risky. So instead of just influencing their minds, we took them over completely.” Jason was in almost too much awe to speak. “But that’s a serious taboo.” “Nothing’s taboo when you’re given direct orders. We took over their minds and brought them to Pyramid Lake, where we went off the road to the northeast shore. There we forced one agent to shoot the others. And . . . I had to do it. I had to control his mind, and . . . it was like I was the one pulling the trigger. When you’re so connected to another’s mind, it’s hard to separate yours from his. In the end, I was ordered to march him into the lake to drown. Just as I gave that final command— and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this—I caught a glimpse of his recent memories.” Drake spoke as if to the wall, his eyes seeing past Jason. “He had these kids waiting for him at home, you see, and he’d promised to take them somewhere. And here I was marching him to his death.” Drake’s voice weakened as he spoke. “I didn’t have to do it. I could have stopped it. But I was afraid, and I didn’t let myself believe that I had a choice. And so that horror—realizing what I’ve done only after it’s too late to change it—well, that horror’s been with me ever since. So you can understand why I can never go back to Nexus. And why Nexus will never be welcome here.” “Yes, I understand. So what did the FBI do?” “What could they do? They covered it all up and are probably still investigating it to this day. But what’s easier to have on record? That a suicidal agent shot his colleagues and then drowned himself? Or some theory that people took over their minds and manipulated them? No, Nexus was safe after that, for the time being. But for how long? Another Pyramid Lake is bound to happen someday, and I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to be part of it. My hands are red enough as it is.” “Yes,” said Jason, rubbing his own hands. “But that’s not enough for me.” His frustration began to boil anew. “It’s not enough that I distance myself from Nexus. As long as I know more people are being fed into that . . . machine, I just can’t rest. There has to be something more I can do.” Drake looked away for a minute. “Do you really mean that?” “Yes.” “How far are you willing to go?” “Whatever it takes, as long as I’m not hurting anyone innocent.” “Even if it means giving up your own life? And maybe even your soul?” Jason was surprised by these questions, so he took a moment to think about it. He didn’t want to give up his life, but he couldn’t live with himself if more kids, like that little girl, ended up being killed because of cowardice on his part. And, as for his soul, he wasn’t even sure he had one. “Yes. I would do it.” “In that case, there is a way.” Drake lowered his voice to almost a whisper. “The Heart at our headquarters is just one of hundreds of nodes worldwide that create the energy atmosphere. But, unlike most, it’s a primary node. What that means is, our Heart is part of the structural chain. If it were contaminated, the whole network would suffer its effects.” “How do you know this?” “Because I was one of the engineers who attached it. I’m ashamed to admit that—but it’s true. And once we brought it online, it was fused to the rest of the Nexus network, and they became interdependent. If negative energy polluted our node, it would spread to all the others like a virus. With enough of it, you’d take them all down forever.” “You make it sound so easy, like knocking over dominos. But if it’s that fragile, how come no one has ever done it before?” “Because few people want to. And even fewer know how. If you or anyone else were to set about destroying the Nexus, your drone would be louder than a passing train. Nexus agents could rush you and stop what you’re doing.” “But I’m not intending anything evil. So why would I drone at all?” “That isn’t how it works. The drone means someone wants to do something against the will of Nexus. That includes crime and disorder, but only because Nexus is against crime and disorder.” “I’m one of the most talented agents I know. I think I can silence my drone almost completely,” said Jason. “That is a rare gift but don’t be too sure. You can’t hear your own drone, so you’re only guessing.” “Am I droning now?” “No,” Drake admitted. “Good,” said Jason. “But even if I were, I’ve already made up my mind to act. Just tell me where to find this negative energy and what I need to do.” “You are the negative energy. Any person who has gone through Second Rite has been connected to the Nexus. It enhances your power, but it also ties you to it forever. Should such a person voluntarily enter the node and were strong enough, the Nexus would destroy itself. You’d lose your life and probably your soul. But it could be done. Though there is no guarantee that you could make it work. That depends entirely on your strength. Are you sure it’s worth the risk?” There were a thousand doubts and questions spinning in Jason’s mind, but he silenced them all by thinking of the little girl evaporating. He would do whatever it took. How many like her had this thing swallowed? And how many more would Nexus take if Jason didn’t stop it? “Is there no easier way?” Jason asked. “Couldn’t we just tip off the police or the government or something? Or blow it up with a bomb?” “Even if we could get the authorities to listen to us, Nexus would just deflect them as fast as they’d come. It would be Pyramid Lake all over again. As for a bomb, it could only stop our local base. What about the Nexus nodes worldwide? There is only one way to poison the whole network. And the only way to do that is to get inside the system. Corrupt the network from within. And there is only one way to do that.” Jason nodded soberly, fighting his doubts. A swirl of anxiety sliced through him, but he steeled himself. “All right. I will do this.” “It isn’t going to be easy. I’m not going to lie. They will probably stop you.” “Then come with me. Help me get there.” “No. I’m not going near Nexus. I have a good thing going here, and I just don’t have the guts to give it all up.” His eyes moved to the family pictures on the mantel. “I’m not a hero, and it’s not my fight.” Jason was disappointed. “Well, thanks for the information at least.” He turned to leave. “But, Jason, for what it’s worth, I wish you luck.” *** When Jason parked his car in the Nexus garage, he tried to remind himself that he needed to play it cool. No one knew his plan, not unless he gave himself away. So he walked nonchalantly inside, focused on making his mind steady, so he could hush the drone of his intentions as much as possible. He met surprisingly few people along the way and tried to make himself believe that was a good thing, that luck was on his side. But as he climbed down the stairs and pushed open the door to the restricted areas, he saw Jessica waiting for him in the hallway. Her posture was firm, but her face betrayed her feelings, revealing the conflict she must be grappling with. Her lips were pursed, and Jason saw the sparkle of what might have been tears in her eyes. “Isn’t it a bit weird to be standing in the hallway for no reason?” Jason asked. “I hear your drone.” Her voice was sad. “I know you too well to miss it.” Jason said nothing. “You don’t have to do this, Jason. Turn around now and don’t take another step. Please. Just one more and we have to be enemies.” Her words were thick with melancholy, but deadly serious. “I don’t believe in Nexus anymore. I don’t agree with what it’s doing.” “Please stop.” “I can’t.” “Jason, do it for me.” For a moment he was taken back. His heart tugged inside him. Seeing her there, thinking of the agony he was causing her. And how much he loved her. It almost worked. He almost yielded. But he couldn’t simply forget about that little girl and what he’d promised himself he would do. “I can’t,” he said. Again he saw weakness in her. She wasn’t happy with Nexus either, with what she’d lived with, actions she’d somehow justified through incredible mental gymnastics. Now here he was. Challenging those justifications. He thought maybe he could win her over. “Jessica. I know you see what I see. I know you don’t like what Nexus is doing. You never liked it. And I know you’re confused, just like me. But it’s not too late, Jessica. You can help me. We can end this together. It’s not just the right thing, it’s the only thing. Please, Jessica. For me.” Her posture slackened for a minute, and the conflict within her was palpable, permeating the room, forming lines on her delicate face. And he thought he had her, but then she became cold. “I can’t,” she said, looking away. “Don’t hate me, Jason.” Her words were a plea, but they bounced off him. He felt betrayed. Betrayed by Nexus. Betrayed by her. And betrayed by himself because he’d failed to convince her to really open her eyes. And, most damning of all, because he’d betrayed that little girl. A girl who had asked for his help, and yet he’d been the one to stop her in her tracks and had allowed her capture. And, ultimately, her death. “It’s not you that I hate, Jessica,” he said. “I hate what I became because of you.” Her head bowed, and, for a moment, all that could be heard was the blowing air from the vent. But when she lifted her eyes again, she brought up her arms too. Jason felt his mind invaded and a thousand knives materialized in the air, soaring his way. He focused his imagination and raised a thicket of trees wide enough to catch all the knives but missed one. It cut him, clipping him along the shoulder, making it bleed. The rest of the knives dissolved into dust, along with the trees, having countered each other. The pain from the scratch was intense, but Jason knew it wasn’t real. He bent his own mind, twisting it until it accepted that the blistering pain was just an illusion, and the wound disappeared. “So that’s your final answer,” said Jason, looking at Jessica. She stood firm, as if in a fighting stance. And refused to make eye contact. With a wave of momentary confusion, Jason saw the walls closing in to crush him. He muscled through his rushing anxiety and imagined several steel beams bracing the walls. When they began to bend, he doubled their number, making them titanium. For an instant he and Jessica pushed against each other, each mind trying to outmuscle the other, but eventually his counter succeeded, and the converging walls faded, banished back to their original places, where they’d always been. Enough playing nice, he decided. It was time to take the offensive. Jason glared at Jessica as he imagined a cage all around her; inside it was a rope that snaked around her arms and legs, tightening viciously. But she carved through it with an animated set of cutters that appeared from nowhere. And, with grace, she turned his iron cage into ice, convincing him it was brittle and melting. In moments it evaporated, along with the cutters and the rope. He clapped his hands and focused his mind. Still the aggressor, this time he imagined the ceiling crumbling upon her, but, instead of a flat surface, he broke it into a storm of boulders. But as fast as he split the cement into pieces, she split it into dust. A fine white precipitation covered her head and shoulders, like flakes of snow, vanishing a moment later. Before Jason could think of another attack, a mind-splitting pain tore into him, and his eyes danced to his left arm which was now completely on fire. It was so excruciating that his head spun, threatening to torture him into unconsciousness. But with supreme resolve, he forced his mind to see his arm as sand, and the flame died. As the sands of his arm shifted back to flesh and blood, he decided he’d had enough, and he would not allow her to delay him any longer. His mind attacked her wildly, holding nothing back, and, without hesitation, he flipped her world upside down. And as the blood rushed to her head, which desperately tried to make sense of the sudden disorientation, he drowned her in darkness. She pushed back, brightly lighting her hands to pierce the darkness, but he would have none of that, and he squished them out. She tried to reorient herself, but her confusion weakened her, and he didn’t let up. In desperation she made a ladder and clung to it with white knuckles, but he twisted it into a snake and she recoiled, flailing in the hell he’d created for her. It was a scarring moment, and tears glossed over his eyes as he wrestled mercilessly with the woman he loved, and she pressed back with fierce strength. His resolve was greater though, and inevitably her own will slackened. The moment she broke, he relented—hoping not to harm her permanently. The illusions faded, and her body crashed to the ground. He ran to her, kneeling to take her by the hand. She was still breathing, but her eyes were glazed, and she gave no sign of recognition except to blink. He squeezed her hand once; it was so delicate, and her eyes so round and beautiful. He thought back on the first time that he’d held her, and all their pleasant memories poured through his mind . . . and now look what he’d done. . . . It was too much to bear. His eyes burned, and he hated himself. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. He stood up and looked away. There was no turning back. He continued down the hallway, nearing the door to the heart of Nexus. It would all be over soon. *** The room was mostly dark except for chaotic splashes of blue and purple in patches all over the walls, coming from the large orb on the far side. With a deep breath, Jason stepped inside the room. The moment he did, something moved in the shadows and four people surrounded him; all were Wraiths. “So Jessica was wrong again. Wrong about your loyalty and wrong about her ability to dissuade you. That’s too bad. You really are more trouble than you’re worth, Jason.” Davin stepped to the center, half silhouetted by the glow behind him. “But, all the same, I’m giving you one last chance. You don’t want to end up like Kyle, do you?” “I’m much stronger than he was,” said Jason, stifling his regret for taking down Kyle. “Be reasonable. You can’t beat us.” The four Wraiths closed in a step, and Jason tensed. “I can’t go back,” said Jason, stepping sideways, defensively. “And I won’t let anything, or anyone, stop me.” He flashed his teeth, feeling a jolt of feral rage course through him, along with fear. “So get out of my way!” “All right, then I hope you’re ready to test the limits of your imagination,” said Davin. While he spoke, Jason took the initiative. He closed his eyes and created an orb of blinding light, hoping to stun them, and, with it, he filled the air with a deafening screech. But the others had combined their strength and crushed his light with overwhelming darkness and softened his screech to a dull, worthless whisper. “I don’t think you understand what you’re up against, Jason.” Without warning, two alligators snapped at him from each side, and a huge stone fist charged him—coming from the wall. Feeling hot breath on his arms and the rush of air blown aside, he imagined he was made of steel. The fierce gator teeth connected but couldn’t pierce his legs, and he felt no pain as the crashing fist sent him flying against the back wall. He lay on his back uninjured, somewhat dazed by his own imagination. A second later everything cleared, and he found himself where he’d been the whole time, still on his feet. He blinked away the disorientation. They attacked again. And, for a moment, Jason wasn’t sure where he was. The eerie room faded, replaced by a desert plain. His arms were now lashed behind his back and ahead was a firing squad. They took their aim, counting down in some foreign language, and he began struggling in a futile panic. He knew he had to focus, had to remember that it wasn’t real, and, with effort, he managed to create a brick wall between himself and the shooters. They fired, but their bullets ripped through his wall, which the Wraiths had transformed into paper. It happened too fast for him to react. He was beaten. But another wall appeared, made of steel. The bullets battered against it and ricocheted off, and he was spared. Everything dissipated, and his bearings returned, leaving him again standing in the Nexus room. His opponents were looking past him, and he turned to see Jessica in the doorway. She was leaning, slightly weakened. But her eyes were narrowed and full of fire. He could barely make sense of what had just happened, but it invigorated him. “What are you doing?” Davin asked, and Jason saw their surprise as an opportunity worth taking advantage of. “Come on,” he called to Jessica, and he focused his mind, feeling it joined by hers. And together they drowned each of their opponents in fire, strapped live bombs to their chests, and poured down a rain of meteors to obliterate them. It was a draining attack, sapping away a lot of energy—but intense enough to cover the room with smoke and obscure everything. If this didn’t put the other Wraiths down, nothing would. Jason and Jessica did not let up until the bombs had each gone off, filling the air with the scent of smoke. Strangely during the onslaught, Jason had not felt any resistance on the part of the four Wraiths. Once the smoke cleared, he understood why. They’d created illusionary decoys of themselves, while camouflaging their real selves by blending in with the shadows. It was a simple counter but risky to execute—if the attacker didn’t fall for it, the defender would be defenseless and lose by default. But it had worked, and now he and Jessica were both exhausted. Jason looked at Jessica, who seemed only inches away from a collapse, and, in his own head, he felt the tempting lull of blackness teasing him. He fought it off, but, before he could make another move of his own, the Wraiths hit him, sending a tidal wave to slap him against the wall. His back crunched and filled with pain, while his arms flailed desperately to keep his head above water. The tides rose and lifted him to the roof, surrounding him—his lungs begged for air. He imagined an oxygen tank into existence. But just as soon as it formed, the air he sucked in was turned into carbon dioxide, and he ripped off his mask in a fit of coughing—which worsened as the saltwater rushed down his throat. He couldn’t breathe. The Wraiths weren’t just going to break his mind, they were going to kill him. He looked to Jessica who was similarly struggling against the water and similarly failing. The panic scourged his insides, feeding off his last ounces of energy. He used all the strength he had left to create a pocket of air around Jessica—but the other Wraiths popped it immediately. He tried to reimagine their situation, to reconstruct it in a positive way. But he just couldn’t ignore the burning in his lungs and his desperation for air. It was too real. It had to be real . . . No! It wasn’t real. He had to remember that it wasn’t real. He just couldn’t let himself believe it. Or else it was all over. The image of the little girl flickered in his mind but seemed like nothing compared to the image of Jessica drowning right before his eyes. He felt mind-shattering fury as she suffered. No, it can’t end this way! It just can’t! In complete desperation, he found another drop of strength, enough to pull himself to the surface, kicking and flailing in anguish. His head broke water just long enough to scream, “DISBELIEVE!” Throwing his abject soul into the word, forcing his mind and heart to reject the situation he and Jessica were in. It was the strongest and most dangerous of all counters—and next to impossible. Should even the slightest doubt persist, it would unravel all his defenses, and his mind would be crushed. But, in a flash, he was standing where he’d always been, and everything was normal. Except for his light-headedness. He was so dizzy that he staggered to keep his balance. It was almost too big of a shift to understand, but slowly his mind figured it out. His counter had succeeded—and with enough overpowering force to cripple the minds of the Wraiths—who’d collapsed to the floor. As for Jessica, his heart skipped a beat, as he turned, and relief poured through him when he saw her leaning against the wall, awake and alive. He went to take her in his arms but collapsed to his knees as fatigue sapped his soul. “We’re all right,” said Jessica, her voice a whisper of disbelief. “Yes,” said Jason. He crawled to her, and she helped him up. They embraced for a minute, then he pulled away so he could look into her eyes. “But I still have to do what I came to do. I have to destroy the Nexus.” “I know,” she said. He delayed turning away from her. “Why did you do it?” he asked, watching her lips curl into a faint, sad smile. “Why did you save me?” “Because you saved me. And somehow you had the courage to do what I never could. And I was afraid, Jason. Afraid of losing you.” Now tears shamelessly filled her proud eyes. “I love you.” She squeezed his hand. “Please, . . . let me be the one to do it.” It took him a second to register what she’d said. “You want to go into the Nexus?” “Yes. I owe the world that much.” “But you’ll die.” “I know.” Her eyes were sober, and he again saw the courageous and genuine woman he’d fallen in love with years ago. “No,” he said stubbornly, turning away from her. “I have to do it.” He hobbled toward the huge orb pulsing on the far wall. “Listen to me. I want it to be me,” she said. “I could never live with myself if it wasn’t. Besides, it will take a lot of energy to shatter the Nexus, and you’re too weak.” He turned back to see her leaning against the wall, barely able to stand herself. And he almost laughed. “So are you.” She came forward, as if to prove herself, and Jason felt an ounce of competition; he wouldn’t allow her to get to the orb first. But just as she caught up to him, she slipped her hand in his and looked him in the eyes. “Then we’ll do it. You and me.” He didn’t want anything to happen to her. But he could see how determined she was, and her passion glowed through her eyes. And she was right; he did need her. He wasn’t enough by himself. “Okay,” he said. Together they approached the swirling plasma, and, as they pried off the cover, Jason remembered how quickly the little girl had dissolved when she was put in it. “Are you ready?” he asked, letting his eyes soak in his beautiful Jessica one last time. “Yes. I’m ready.” They joined hands again and together stepped into the Nexus.