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Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Wounded World, a story of Mantra, Chapter 4



By Aladdin 

Edited by Christopher Leeson




Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Dec. 22, 2018



PINNACLE 

And thine is a face of sweet love in despair
And thine is a face of mild sorrow and care
And thine is a face of wild terror and fear
That shall never be quiet till laid on its bier.
William Blake


Going from Internet link to Internet link, I learned that Gus – young August, as they called him – had gone on a destructive rampage on the 15th, which was only cut short by the sudden arrival of an unknown ultra creature. This entity was described as a female-appearing humanoid protected by armor and possessing a tail. The two aberrations fought like Godzilla and King Kong, until both were knocked flat. A special police unit belatedly burst in and August Blake was taken into custody. The police unit and its insignias could not be identified by observers.
 
That was about all I could find out about the Night of Terror, even though there were hints that it had affected the whole world. Some of the alt-right sites were complaining about a multi-government clamp-down on information.
 
Switching my focus, I searched for references to Gus's earlier – and equally tragic – encounter, the one with the so-called fairies. A keyword search for “August Blake,” “Canoga Park,” and “fairies” drew in a scattering of stories – most of them frustratingly brief. They were mainly located on “strange world” websites. The August Blake Jr. it described had been a normal boy, a boy very much like the one I remembered, until May 23. Then, inexplicably, he had suffered a spontaneous mutation, one that medical science found itself at a loss to explain.
 
Felicia Campbell, the wife of Prototype and a noted specialist in ultra-oriented medicine, was interviewed about the case on FLOX News, a corporate network, but the best of a bad lot. According to reports, the scientist said, August Jr.'s physical changes generally followed a pattern observed in extreme ultra transformations, those involving disfiguring mutations. This time, however, no observable ultra abilities had developed in the boy. 

The only other useful information I could glean was that the boy's claim to have been captured by fairies was being passed off as merely a fantasy of his trauma. Moreover, the supporting assertions by his younger sister were similarly ignored. With annoying quickness, I could see, Gus's problem passed out of the news, and the devastated child was left to a miserable and reclusive existence in the family home.
 
The poor little guy! I could easily believe that events -- even before the Night of Terror -- had left him half out of his mind. Nothing more useful was recorded concerning the tailed creature in armor, though I was willing to believe that what Evie had told me was true. As for the the "special police unit" mentioned, Evie's testimony had likewise convinced me that it had been Aladdin. Like a bad penny, it kept turning up wherever there was trouble -- and almost always managed to make the trouble worse.
 
Then I had to imagine what it had been like for the local Mantra. Everything taken together must have been hideous for her. I, fortunately, hadn't seen these things happen, but just learning about them was choking me up worse than anything I had experienced since the mid-fifth century!
 
Glancing at my watch, I saw it was a little after noon. Mother wouldn't be arriving in Frisco for another six hours and Lauren would be out of touch for almost that long. I continued to worry about Gus, but since Aladdin hadn't called back, I supposed that he was still sleeping. Frustrated, I tried to make sense of all these disparate bits. Though I could tell myself that this wasn't my world to worry about, I had to do the best I could for both of the Blake kids. But what, really, could I do?
 
I needed advice, and not just the ordinary kind. But to whom could I turn? Aladdin probably knew a lot, but it was staffed by professional paranoids whose business had always been to hide information, not to circulate it. If I were caught tapping into their data bases without authorization, I could disappear and never be seen again.
 
Taken all together, the situation was making me antsy. I needed to do something positive and do it immediately. Did the Mantra of this world have ultra allies whom she could call on? Was there anyone of them that I could locate? Not Warstrike or – as he was called here, Strike. He was currently in hiding as a fugitive. The Strangers were, apparently, still in San Francisco, but government hostility and the vengeance-mentality of organized crime had made most of the ultras do their best to make themselves undetectable. Finding what amounted to missing persons would take a long time.
 
Wait a minute! I did know an ultra in this city, and I also knew her address. Or, at least, I knew the address that she had used on my home planet.
Pinnacle had been the most powerful psionic I'd ever run into. She had told me little about herself, but I knew she had been worked on by the bio-tech company, NuWare, to endow her with abilities. One of the company's biggest money-making schemes was inducing ultra powers into ordinary people – for high fees, of course. When NuWare got done with her, she had been able to give a supercomputer a run for its money.
 
What made my and Pinnacle's friendship harder than it should have been was that from the start she liked me in a way that I didn't want to be liked. Her beauty should have made that palatable for me, but that degree of kinkiness had instead made me uncomfortable.
 
Now, as things stood, any such issue had become secondary. She was my best bet for finding out what had happened to me, and to the rest of the world. I had to find her, but an Internet search for "Pinnacle" brought up hundreds of trash listings that had absolutely nothing to do with the woman I was looking for. That was probably because“Pinnacle” had never gone public as an ultra; there had been no mention of her in The Ultramate Source. In fact, she could easily be using another codename, like Warstrike/Strike. Or, even worse, she might have become a “missing person,” like Contrary had.
 
But Pinnacle had, I knew, built up a fully-equipped lab, using intermediaries and dummy companies to cover her traces, while paying her way through the use of her abilities, such as breaking the banks of Las Vegas casinos. J.D. Hunt, meanwhile, was seeking to find her, determined to reassert his control over his pet, something that Penny wanted no part of. 

I still remembered the lab's address. I could only hope that Pinnacle would be found there in this world. I needed to make a drive across the sprawling city and check the place out.
 
Or did I?
 
Pinnacle, I belatedly realized, could form enduring psychic links with anyone whose mind she had read, and she certainly had read mine more than once. A brain like hers could pick up a telepathic shout directed her way. Was there a Pinnacle on this world, and had she made contact with its Mantra? If so, had the imprint she had made on Mantra work for me now? I had her body and her physical brain, after all.
 
Resolved to try, I braced myself on the library chair and tried to initiate the contact. "Penny...I need your help..." I mentally shouted, while simultaneously fixating on an image of her fashion-model face in my mind's eye.
 
After several minutes, my optimism started to wane. I'm not good at meditation and it wasn't long before it was making me feel like a burned out matchstick. But instead of accepting failure, I grew even more driven and determined. Maybe it was this never-say-die push that finally put my call through.
 
"Lukasz," spoke a ghost in my mind.
 
“Penny!” I psychically exclaimed. “I need your help!” 

"And I need yours,” the voice answered.
 
“What, Pinnacle?”
 
"You can save my life." 
 

#


That was all I could get. I didn't know what was going on, but if Pinnacle was in a spot, it had to be a lulu, considering how powerful she was. The surest way to help her in time would have been for me to phone the police about my concerns. But I didn't dare. Pinnacle wouldn't appreciate a SWAT team breaking down her laboratory door and discovering whatever questionable experiments she was conducting. Pinnacle acted like a mad scientist lots of times.
 
If I were to help her, I needed to do it face to face. Leaving my seat at the terminal, I went to fetch Evie. Once I had the tyke buckled into our car's safety seat, I drove though the early afternoon traffic to Pinnacle's address. When I stopped, I made sure that we parked at a vantage point from which Evie would be able to read both names on the street signs, Johnson and Rowe.
 
"Pumpkin," I said, handing Evie my cell phone, "there's a doctor in that building who might be able to fix Gus and me. But I think she could be in trouble and in need our help. Watch the clock. If I don't come back in ten minutes, punch 911 on the phone. When someone answers, tell the person exactly where you are and say that you're worried about your mom. Say that I told you to call if I didn't come back. Okay?"
 
"Is somebody gonna shoot at you, Mommy?" she asked, her eyes large and anxious.
 
I gave my daughter's doppelganger a hug. "I don't think so, Precious, but you have to be ready to help me, just in case. I need you to be my brave sidekick. Okay?"
 
"Okay," she said with a nervous swallow.
 
I felt the girl's hot stare on my back as I left the car. She was afraid for me. I had my own doubts, too. What if Pinnacle had sent out her plea expecting Mantra to come ghosting in through a solid wall, impervious to bludgeons and bullets? Would it do her any good to have plain old Eden Blake rapping-tapping at her chamber door?
 
Ready for the worst, I took off my treacherous pumps, stuffed them into my large purse, and stepped into the building. The front door opened into an entryway. I tried the inner door and found it locked. Beyond its glass pane was mounted a security camera. If Penny, or any enemies who might be holding her prisoner, were watching the monitor they would know that I was here. I pushed the intercom buzzer with resignation.
 
"Penny, are you in there?" I spoke into the grid.
After a tense silence, the door buzzed, releasing the mechanism. I thought about asking the speaker box whether everything was all right, but what would be the use? If Penny was under coercion, she couldn't answer truthfully. Short of receiving a new telepathic message to warn me off, I didn't seem to have any choice except to go inside.
 
The front hall looked deserted. Several doors opened off it, but they were all closed. I'd have felt a tad more reassured had there been a few of Penny's lab assistants milling about. I opted to go upstairs to Pinnacle's living quarters.
 
But how to make the approach? Experience has taught me to avoid elevators in dangerous situations; they render an encapsulated person too vulnerable to ambush. I instead took the stairs to the third floor, reaching Penny's apartment door without mishap. It had a push-button doorbell and this I jabbed with my thumb. Then I waited, primed to dodge back to the stairwell if I had to. 
 
The door pivoted in. Pinnacle, at the threshold, was a silhouette against the day-lighted window behind her.
 
"Are you alone?" I asked softly, at the same time stealing a glance through the door crack, just in case.
She shrugged. "I'm nothing else but alone. Come on in, if you're not too choosy about the company."
 
She stood back and I cautiously advanced into the living room. The place was messy and meagerly lighted, except for the the light entering from outside.
 
"Is it okay for me to bring Evie up?" I asked, watching Pinnacle's face closely. My friend's blouse, I observed, was untucked and her whole outfit needed freshening. Her blond hair was frowzy, her expression forlorn, and she wore no makeup. Adding to this disheveled impression was the stale bouquet of assorted liquors in the air, the scent of gin being the strongest.
 
Penny didn't look physically endangered, but her careless grooming, negligent housekeeping, and inebriation told me that something had thrown her into a demoralized funk.
 
"You don't look yourself, Penny. I'm glad you asked me over; you look like you need someone to talk to."
She shook her head and went ungracefully to the liquor cabinet.
 
I stepped up behind her. "What's the problem? Is someone threatening you?" I asked. She still made no reply, but poured a good measure of Holland gin into a pricey-looking piece of crystal.
 
"Want some?" she asked. "I can always call for another delivery. I can afford to drink myself to death on the best."
 
I put a hand on her shoulder; she reacted by bringing her head up. "Penny, you're worrying me. You're a specialist on every science I know, including psychology. What can be wrong that you can't handle it?”
 
She paused the vessel before her bow-shaped lips. "Sure, I'm like Ludwig Von Drake, the expert on everything. I'm Indiana Jane, the world's greatest seeker after lost knowledge. Well, I found out that it's not smart to look for all the secrets of the universe. And do you know why?"
 
“No. Why?”
 
“Because you just might find them!”
 
I tried to smile. "I want to hear about everything, but Evie's down in the car. I can't leave her there for more than ten minutes or else --"
 
"Or she'll call the law," Pinnacle interrupted with a nod.
 
It still seemed uncanny how she could do that, especially when drunk. Here, at least, was one ultra who hadn't suffered the loss of her powers. I excused myself, left the room, and took the lift to street level. I didn't have much time to waste. For the police to come asking questions would not serve any good purpose, since I'd ascertained that Pinnacle wasn't in the clutch of her enemies.
 
The little girl bounced excitedly when she saw me returning. I soon had her beside me in Pinnacle's apartment. "This is my friend Penny," I told Evie. "She's the doctor I told you about. You two met before -- I think. Penny, you remember Evie. You never forget anything."

Our hostess gave the youngster a distracted nod and then finished her glass. Rather than permit Pinnacle to refill it, I drew her to an ottoman. "You're too smart to drink yourself into oblivion, Pen. Sit down and tell me what's eating on you?"
 
The psionic slumped into the pillows at the head of her couch. She was silent for a moment, but then, drawing in a deep breath, said, "Wouldn't you rather talk about your problem? Mind-reading and gin don't go together so well. Your thoughts are coming to me all garbled. One thing that you're brain is fairly screaming my way is that you've lost your powers. I'm sorry. I wish I was in better shape to find you a fix."
 
I said, keeping my voice low. "Before we go any farther, I'm not the Eden you know. I'm in the wrong universe; I got dumped here by some means I don't understand.”
 
“Wow!” the psionic said. “No wonder I couldn't make sense of all that's rattling around inside your head. Don't you have a clue what happened?”
 
“No. I lost five days from my life."
 
Pinnacle frowned. "How can I be sure you're in your right mind?"
 
I bridled slightly. “Are you sure you're in yours?”
 
“Touche,” she said with a sigh. Her eyelids were looking very heavy.
 
"Let me fix you some black coffee while you gather your thoughts," I suggested.
 
Pinnacle shook her head. "Caffeine just turns a sleepy drink into a wide-awake drunk."
 
"If I have a say, I want you wide-awake."
 
Just then, I heard Evie sobbing.
 
I wheeled. "Precious, what is it?"
 
"I-I just remembered where I saw Dr. Penny before," she mewed tearfully.
 
I went to her and drew her into my arms. What a fool I'd been! Pinnacle had been with us when Evie saw her mother, Eden, murdered at the hands of Necromantra. The mere sight of my friend was sure to bring that awful memory back.
 
As I comforted the youngster, Pinnacle pushed herself up from the ottoman and joined us. "May I?" she asked and then touched Evie's left temple with her fingertips. The latter blinked and her sobbing ceased.
 
I looked at Penny with askance.
 
"I've blocked the flow of her emotions into her memory centers," she explained. "She'll feel better as long as the effect lasts."
 
I frowned incredulously. If the psionic ultra could do that, why was she guzzling gin instead of giving herself the same treatment?

"Because," Pinnacle said, replying to my unvoiced thought, "my denial phase has gone bye-bye. I have to face the truth, no matter how painful. And the truth stinks."
 
"So boozing yourself red-eyed is better than fooling yourself?" I asked. "Since when?"
 
The physician threw up her hands. "We're really three basket cases, aren't we?" And then I saw her eyes starting to flood with tear. At the same time, however, Evie's own were starting to dry.


Bringing Pinnacle out of her funk was going to be a major undertaking. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time before Mother was due in.
 
While I was there, I had to help Penny.  She needed to get the toxin out of her body, and she needed to regain her self-respect. I took my friend into the bathroom and stripped her down for a cold shower. She didn't object until the cascade I released covered her over with goose pimples. She made a lot of noise, but couldn't have been all that upset. Otherwise she could have slammed me against the wall with a mind-blast.
 
I drew her out rather soon and patted her dry with a thick towel. Her teeth were chattering, so I wrapped her in another, larger, towel for warmth. Then, rummaging through her dressers, I found some fresh underwear and shoved it into her trembling hands. Finally, I helped Pinnacle don a clean blouse and pantsuit. 

On to the next task. Making anything out of her hair took effort, so snarled had it become. As a finishing touch, I applied a minimal application of makeup to her face, which put back a little of the color she was missing. Through this, Penny hadn't said much, but her patient display suggested that she was grateful to be with someone who cared enough to help.
 
Once I had Pinnacle looking something like a lady doctor, I heated some instant coffee in the kitchen microwave. Penny received into both hands, as if afraid she might drop it -- as well she could have. Alcohol would be dragging down her system for the next few hours.
 
I left her briefly to fix Evie a snack from our hostess' refrigerator. The contents were depleted, but there remained a little juice and some cheese and crackers.
 
Behind me, Penny started talking again. "I suppose you want your lost magic back.”
 
“Yes? Do you have any ideas?”
 
“What do I know about magic? If I were you, I'd search under the couch pillows"
 
"Very funny," I tossed back. "By the way, when was the last time you were with the Mantra of this world?"
 
She blinked thoughtfully. "Last winter, after Lukasz and Eden came back from the Godwheel.” Pinnacle paused. “Are you absolutely sure you're not the person I know? You talk and act a lot like her!"
 
"Not so loud,” I said, casting a glance toward Evie.
Pinnacle, nodded. “Sorry. But why are you so convinced that you're not from this planet?”
 
“The history here is different. What do you know about alternate dimensions?"
 
"I haven't studied them much. Do you often slip into other realities?"
 
"Happily, no. It happened accidentally last April. I got into a world where I – Lukasz – never became Mantra.”
 
The blonde frowned. "Did you steal somebody else's body there, like you say you've done here?"
 
"No, I didn't. I went in with my own body. I don't know what's different this time.”
 
“What sort of place was it?”
 
“I met Eden Blake; she's still married and living in her own home. In that world I never became her. I also met the Lukasz of that world. He'd been sent by Archimage into the body of a psychotic criminal. I had to kill him."
 
“How did you feel about doing that?”
 
“Like it was a job well done.” Despite my flippancy, it was a memory that still bothered me and I changed the subject. "At six I'll have to meet with my – with Eden's – mother back at our motel. You'd better come with us.”
 
“Why?”
 
“For your own safety. You honestly looked suicidal a little while ago."

Pinnacle just shrugged.  I took that to mean that she was willing to go along with my suggestion.

"Just be careful not to say too much when I introduce you to Barbara. You're not stone-cold sober and if you start talking unguardedly she'll know it.  She'll start nagging me about my terrible choice of shrinks."
 
"But your mother is all right with you seeing a 'shrink' because you've lost your memory? That's only a cover story, right?"
 
"Right.  The problem with Barbara is that she's been convinced that I've been off my rocker since last year. She'll use any excuse to get me checked out. I can't blame her.”
 
"Mothers are wonderful."
 
"Yeah! They are!" Evie piped in, having just come up from behind me.
 
Pinnacle smiled slyly. "It looks like you've made a big hit with somebody, Lu."
 
I shook my head. "It was the other Mantra who carried that off. By the way, when you meet my Mom, what name to you want me to give her?"

"Lammars. Penelope Lammars," the doctor replied.
"Is that for real?"
 
"Not by a long shot. I picked a last name out of a novel I liked."
 
"I guess you couldn't use your real handle, not with J.D. Hunt still looking for you."
 
"Who says I ever had a real name?"
 
"Is this something we can discuss in front of Evie?"
 
Pinnacle glanced away. "I wish I didn't have to discuss it with anyone at all. But I'm going to explode if I don''t. It's not like I dare to carry a bomb like the one inside my skull to a psychiatrist."
 
“I'm listening." 

“Not yet,” she said. “It's complex and I don't want to say it wrong. I especially don't want you to run away screaming."


"It's not easy to make me scream," I assured her.

"Let's just say I need a rest. Put a DVD on for Evie. I've got some good ones.”


TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 5

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Wounded World, a story of Mantra, Chapter 3




By Aladdin 

Edited by Christopher Leeson




Originally written 2006
Revised and posted Nov. 21, 2018



THE ULTRAMATE SOURCE
 

Prayer is vain, I called for compassion: compassion mocked.

Mercy and pity threw the gravestone over me

And with lead and iron, bound it over me forever:

Life lives on my Consuming: 
 And the Almighty hath made me his Contrary... 
 

William Blake




"Uh, sure. Is there anything else, Doctor Sarn?"



"No, that's it, Blake." The Aladdin bureaucrat clicked off abruptly.



What in blazes had happened at the mall? I didn't even know which mall she was referring to. Did it have anything to do the weird experience I had over at the Kid's Club? No, that couldn't be. She was talking about Sunday, and my disaster occurred on Thursday.
And why was a data analyst being asked to make a report instead of a field agent? It wasn't my job to ongoing operations outside the  office. Why was Sarn getting me involved? 


I shifted toward Evie. "Scrumptious, did something happen at the Mall Sunday? I mean, was there anything going on there that was important or scary?"



She gave a little moue. "You can't forget that! A bad robot came and started chasing people. Lauren had to fight with it."



A robot? It certainly was beginning to sound like one hell of a week. “What kind of robot?"



“A big one!”



"Was it at the Mall at Topanga Plaza?"

"Scaring everybody!"



“Were you and I there?”



“You were there, Mommy. I was with grandma.”



“Why was I there?”



“I don't know.”



I paused to think. These little details, as perplexing as they seemed to be, had to add up to some sort of picture, but I still had too few pieces. What had Sarn said? She'd used the term fiasco. There had been a fiasco at the Mall? Shouldn't she have called it an attack or tragedy. A fiasco usually referred to a failed plan. Was the robotic attack somebody's failed plan? Whose plan?
I had a sinking feeling. Aladdin was a tricky and deceitful outfit. It sometimes sent its own agents out dressed as ultras to discredit the vigilantes they impersonated. If people could be manipulated into fearing, would tolerate a government that wish to treat them as criminals or terrorists. Had Aladdin sent a battle robot into a minor suburban mall, intending to start a panic and make it look like some ultra was responsible? That sounded heavy-handed, even for Aladdin.
Momentarily stumped, I punched in another number on my phone menu. This time time I got a real estate office. Once confirming that "I" had a mid-day appointment with a realtor, I asked for a postponement, using illness as an excuse. With that taken care of, the biggest thing left on my plate was learning more about this alternate world. I needed to acquire more information if I was going to stop reacting like a deer caught in the headlights.



"Evie," I said, "do you feel like going out with me?"



"Sure! But you told the man you were sick."



"I fibbed. I need to go and carry out a secret mission."



"A secret mission? Can I be your sidekick?"

"You certainly can! The first thing we need to do is go to the library."



She looked dubious. "Are there robots or monsters at the library, Mommy?"


"I certainly hope not!" I said, not quite able to smile.



#



A sign at the nearest library of size directed patrons to a parking ramp that was three blocks away. Emerging into the light, we continued our trip on foot. Evie stayed close by my side and at first I thought it was because she was suffering from fright. But her grave and determined expression soon caused me to wonder whether it was me whom she was afraid for. Was Evie keeping close to protect her mother from danger, now that she was no longer a super-powered ultra? I took her little hand and squeezed it. Wherever I found a double of Evie, she was always an easy child to love. 
But that raised another question. How _should I react if an emergency arose? I could hardly do more than grab Evie and run -- which was a depressing thought.



Approaching the library, we passed in front of a paperback-and-news shop called the Readmore and I impulsively led Evie inside. I immediately took in the frantic newspaper headlines. Terrifying reports were shouting from almost every article heading. I bought the Los Angles Times on the spot and also asked the clerk for a copy of The Ultra, but the young man replied that he'd never heard of the latter. He recommended instead a newsprint tabloid called The Ultramate Source. Wanting to know how my ultra friends had come though the emergency, I gave in and bought the unfamiliar weekly.



Then we left the news store. A couple buildings down, there stood a coffee shop. Evie was hungry, so I bought us both a brunch. While absently consuming my java, sausage, and eggs, I poured through the Time's lead story, the one describing an appalling disaster in New York.



The events of Friday night had not been merely local. The paper was saying that more than a quarter of New York City had been blasted to rubble by a mysterious explosion occurring on Sunday night. Millions had died. A suitcase-sized nuclear weapon was at first expected, but testing showed that the radiation count was low. The authorities were frantic to find a scapegoat to redirect blame from their muddled disaster response. 
A civilian's smart phone video had come forward, showing ultras near the blast zone. One of them was a giant of a man in armor, and with him was some yo-yo swinging a scythe. A woman in a black cat suit was also seen, hurling shurikens. When an ill-trained National Guard unit to confront the mysterious group, a officer apparently lost his nerve and sent his men rushing in with guns locked and loaded. A female ultra appeared overhead and proceeded to repel the the panicky attackers with energy bolts. The startled guardsmen started shooting at anything that moved, and even at each other.



In the aftermath, two members of the ultra gang could be tentatively identified. One matched the description of Amber Hunt, a name that was familiar to me – and not in any good way. But the detail that floored me was the allegation that one of the ultras had been a known crime-fighter known as Strike.



I knew that name from my own world. Strike had been the nome de guerre of Brandon Tark before he'd re-christened himself "Warstrike." Was Warstrike still called Strike in this reality? I searched my reading material to find the name of "Warstrike," but was unable to.



How could Brandon Tark ever willingly involve himself in a terroristic incident? Tark, I knew, had suffered a severe breakdown in my reality, following the incredible Godwheel incident.  But he had pulled out of it. Was it possible that in this world he had lost his marbles and gone rogue? Still, I didn't want to believe the worst. Maybe Strike had only been on the scene trying to apprehend Amber Hunt and was not a member of her gang. A similar mix-up had wrongly implicated me – as Mantra – in a museum break-in only months before.



I kept reading, but there was not much in the news stories that was useful. The politicians were getting their priorities screwed up, as usual. The dominant party in New York state was shocked at having lost to many of their urban voters and were screaming “treason!” and tried to implicate the Russians, or even our own POTUS, in the disaster. The mayor of New York, no longer sure of a winning margin, was actually demanding that his party be granted a handicap in the next election, as if the atrocity had been some sort of a golf game and not mass murder.

A case were one person dies is a tragedy; a million beings wiped out is only a statistic. I couldn't let the magnitude throw me. I had concerns closer to home. Checking for local news, I found a story that apparently proved Evie's testimony. It had a small picture of the "new Mantra."


I showed it to my little girl. "Have you seen this picture of Lauren in her ultra-suit yet?" I asked. "I wonder where she got that armor." Then I noticed a detail of the picture that I had missed. "Hey, she's using the Sword of Fangs! Evie, how did Lauren get my sword?” I asked.



She frowned. “Gus took it away from you; Lauren picked from where he put it."



“I see,” I said dejectedly. “Where's my gold armor and cloak?"



"Oh, they're in that box under the motel bed, Mommy."



I nodded. The news that these items hadn't been lost afforded me some comfort, but I wasn't sure what earthly good magical armor could do me in my current condition.



#



If truth be told, I had been one of the most powerful ultras in the world, and glad of it. Commanding so much power had kept my spirits high even while dealing with what was a difficult adjustment to a woman's life. I had practically defined myself by my magic over the last two years? If I couldn't restore that power, what would my life amount to?



Despite my abysmal mood, I continued the research. In The Ultramate Source I found references to new ultras, none of whom sounded like heavy hitters. Who was the pathetic "Thorn Boy," or the crime-fighting acrobat named "Jack Dancer"?
Interestingly, there had been some goof ball in body armor whose whole super career consisted of coming out into the street shouting “I'm the Chaotician" and then being immediately taken out by a mysterious back-shooter.



I also learned that the Strangers and the mercenary ultras of the Solution were still doing their respective things, though the latter remained in semi-retirement -- a move they had taken earlier after destroying their arch enemies. That jived with what I knew from back home. On the other hand, the UltraForce now consisted only of Prime, Ghoul, Topaz, the Black Knight, and Prototype. Oddly, they were based in Headless Cross, Arkansas, not in Miami, Florida. 
More amazingly, Prototype was no longer Jimmy Ruiz, but Bob Campbell, obviously operating without a secret identity. In my reality, Campbell had been the original Prototype, until forced into retirement after losing an arm due to mishap. Additionally, Campbell's wife Felicia, a specialist in ultra-oriented medicine, was now part of the UltraForce support staff.



In my own reality, Hardcase had been the unofficial captain of the ultra team, but he was not mentioned in the story. Neither was Contrary, the sexy-dressing ultra who had so impressed the country's fourth-graders.


"Evie, have you ever heard of a couple of ultras named Hardcase and Contrary?"



Evie perked up. There was nothing that she liked to talk about more than ultras. "Everybody's heard of Hardcase, but who's Contrary?"



“You've never heard of Contrary?”



“Uh-uh. What can he do?”



She didn't even remember that Contrary was a woman. “Why did Hardcase leave the Ultra Force?” I asked.



She frowned incredulously. “Mommy, Hardcase never joined it!”
That was strange. Hardcase was a big-time vigilante and an affable guy. Why would he decline a membership? “Silly me,” I said to Evie. “What was I thinking?”



“Mommy,” Evie said in a very sad voice.



"What is it, Sweetie?"



"Does God always answer prayers?"



That question seemed to have come out of thin air. "Why do you ask?"



"'Cuz my prayers didn't come true. I always ask Him to bless everybody, especially you and Gus. But He didn't. Why?”



Faith was so important to a child's development; I had to answer this carefully.
"Evie," I finally replied, forcing a smile, "what you're asking is the same question that wise men have been asking for a very long time."



“What do they say?”



“Nothing. They can't always understand the ways of the Lord.”



The corners of her mouth turned down. "Those wise men don't sound very smart."


"Maybe not. But we have to trust that His way are for the best. We should keep on doing good deeds."


"But wouldn't doing good be easier if you were still Mantra?"



I sighed. "Maybe. But this is how I look at it: Until my magic comes back, I'll just have to go on doing all the good things I can, even if it can only be in little ways. That's what firemen, police, and nurses do."



Evie, looking very sober and serious. "Why doesn't He let you keep doing good in big ways? He could make your magic come back if He wanted to, couldn't He?"



I squeezed her hand. "Of course. God can do anything. But sometimes His plan is so huge that we can't see what it is at first. Would you know that you were looking at a whale if you only saw a little piece of it that was no bigger than a postage stamp? And God did bless me, because I'm still here with you. I'd choose having you instead of ultra powers, if I had to."



"Why?"



"Because you make me smile."



She looked down, biting her lip. "It's hard to smile now, Mommy.”



Too true. And it would have been a lot harder for her to smile if she had known the truth, that her own Mantra was effectively dead. If I could leave this world, I had to leave it. If I didn't, it would be the Evie of my world who would have to suffer. There just wasn't enough of me to go around.



"Mommy,” the little girl suddenly declared, “the Sunday school teacher tells us about how angels save people. She said that when she was a little girl an angel came to help a farmer. A tractor'd tipped over on him. The kids knew it was an angel because he came like from nowhere and looked just like a stranger. He helped the kids and their mom lift the tractor and then disappeared when they were helping their dad get up. Why doesn't some angel come now, to help you, me, and Gus?"



I shook my head. "Maybe an angel will come soon, but unless we are very smart, we might not know that it's a angel. There are two different kinds of angels. Did your teacher ever mention that?"



"You mean good angels with bird wings, and bad angels with bat wings?"



"No, Button. I mean regular good angels, and also good people who help people whenever they can."



"I think Mantra was that kind of angel," she volunteered.



Kids say the damnedest things.



I reached out to draw her close, but, all of a sudden, her hands started trembling again.



"Evie, what's wrong?"



"You f-forgot, Mommy. Because I got so awful scared, m-my hands shake sometimes."



I cupped both her little hands in mine and lifted them to my lips. Soon the quaking stopped.



"This is very bad, Darling. Did -- did we ever take you to a doctor?"


"Not yet. There's been no time. You said we'd see a doctor when we got to Sanfrisco."



I still held wrist firmly. "We certainly will. My little girl has to be well and happy. That's the most important thing in the world."



She shook her head emphatically. "No. Helping Gus is most important."



I nodded. "You're right again. I'm going to try to find a good angel, or maybe one of those secret angels, and try to get him to do exactly that."



"Do you really think you can, Mommy?"


"I'll work at it very hard."



She seemed to brighten a little. I urged her to finish her lunch. While she was doing so, I paged to the science section of the L.A. Times.
 
Speak of the devil! It said that both strategic air defense stations and civilian observatories all across the face of the earth had monitored a series of powerful energy spikes occurring on Friday night. The source of the surges seemed to lay in Earth's near-space and didn't originate from the sun. The unprecedented phenomenon was still under investigation.



Reading on avidly, I found that countless observers has seen the sky display a purplish glow. Green-colored bolts had struck the earth at random places on every continent. In many cases, these strikes correlated with bizarre events. Some individuals spontaneously gained ultra powers. There were instances of inexplicable deformations, death, and madness, but an even more amazing thing had occurred in Oakland, California. Unburied dead had allegedly come to life. The corpses had ranged into the surrounding neighborhood, killing several passersby and breaking into homes. Fortunately, the Strangers had arrived in time to rescue many potential victims and destroy the undead marauders.



Next, something I found in the L.A. City section caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. Seemingly, distinct energy strikes had been seen in many places, including Canoga Park. A little after seven, local time, a bolt had engulfed a home on Leadwell Street where a "special" boy was living with his family. Later, that same youngster was seen exercising ultra-type powers in a very destructive fashion, before being taken into custody. The other energy bolt struck a different Canoga Park home over an hour later. 
The lady of the house in that instance had heard noise coming from upstairs, where her daughter was hosting a Mantra fan-club meeting. The lady had gone to check on the children when she was confronted by a horrifying creature lurking inside her daughter's room. It fled, but all the girls were missing for several hours. When they trailed back to their homes later in the night, none were able to remember where they had been.

 

The "special" ultra boy in story had to be Gus, but what about the weird thing that the woman had seen? Canoga Park wasn't all that large and it had just one Mantra fan club that I knew about -- a clique consisting of Heather Parks and her friends Jessica, Samantha, and Trish.



"Evie," I asked, "did anything happen to Heather Parks last Friday?"



She looked up excitedly. "Are you remembering things now, Mommy?"



"I wish I were. But it says in the paper that some Mantra fans in CanogaPark were frightened by a monster. I know that Heather has a fan club."



"It wasn't a real monster. I mean, it was a real monster, but it was only Heather and her girlfriends. They got turned into a monster with four heads." 


For the love of Pete! No wonder Evie had been left a nervous wreck after Friday night! "Four girls became one monster?" I asked.



She nodded. "Lauren tricked the monster into fighting with Gus. When they starting beating up on each other, Gus got knocked out and the girls all broke apart and stopped being a monster. They couldn't remember what'd happened." Then her face turned sad. "Why couldn't Gus have changed back, too?"



Lauren seemed have worked overtime on her very first night as a ultra! I took Evie's hand and kissed its fingers. "Pumpkin, I wish he had as much as you do. Maybe he got a stronger dose of the same bad magic that changed the girls. But the girls are still okay, aren't they?"



"I suppose," she murmured without enthusiasm.



"Did our house get hit by lightning that night?” I asked


Evie blinked, as if the question were an odd one. "No, Mommy. It didn't thunder at all. But the sky looked awfully funny. It was sorta purple."


I considered that. The paper reported that an energy bolt had hit the house, but for some reason Evie hadn't noticed anything. Likewise, the story didn't say that Mrs. Parks had heard lightning before the monster appeared. Stranger and stranger. Their had to be some underlying connection between all these different threads, if only I could find the key.



I again encouraged Evie to finish her lunch and, when she had, the two of us went over to the library. Once there, I helped her find some good books to read in the children's section and made for the Internet terminals.



A net search of various keywords turned up bits of intriguing information. Many sites were calling Friday evening the "Night of Terror," which name, from everything I'd heard so far, seemed to fit.
News stories provided more information about the Night of Terror, but the jumble of incidents didn't bring me any closer to understanding the bigger picture. When I at last put "Eden Blake" and "Canoga Park" into the search window, I hit pay dirt.

The Weird World blog reported that one Mrs. Eden Blake of Canoga Park, along with a young daughter, Eve, and her son, August Jr., were all at home when a green bolt was observed striking their tract home on Leadwell Street at about 7:15 P.D.T.



According to the website, Eve had gone into her brother's room and found him practicing what she called “magic.” Alarmed, Eve called for her mother to come. When the latter arrived, August reacted with a violent attack upon Mrs. Blake. According to Blake's mother, Barbara Freeman, also of Canoga Park, Eve was forcibly detained by her brother for a short while, but managed to flee outside when a caller at the door distracted young August. 
For the rest of the night, Mrs. Blake remained unaccounted for, but Mrs. Freeman reported that her had daughter had come back in the early morning accompanied by Evie. The latter she had located at the home of a friend with whom she had taken refuge. It was Mrs. Freeman's allegation that Eden Blake could not remember where she had been between the time of her son's attack. Mrs. Blake herself was not available for comment, having been summoned out of town by her employer. At the time of the news interview, Eve was safe in her grandmother's care.



The article provided a few more details supplied by young Eve herself. Before the energy bolt struck, August Jr., a twelve year old who had tragically suffered a disfiguring accident last spring, had been expecting to go with his father, August Blake Sr., to the first Bearcat football game of the season, at the sports field of the local high school. When Mr. Blake canceled at the last moment, August Jr. became incensed and showed aggressive behavior toward his younger sister. Mrs. Blake had intervened and disciplined the boy, confining him to his room for the rest of the night. The child's resultant anger might have contributed to his threatening behavior later on.



A chill coursed through me, like a cup of ice water poured down my back. In my own reality, big and little Gus had likewise been planning to attend the season's first Bearcat game. If the two worlds could share so minor detail, might they not have also shared something major? Something catastrophic? Could the strange things that had come to pass in this reality have happened there, too? Had my own family suffered a similar disaster? Could some of them be injured or even killed?



How I wished that I could be back with them at that moment. 

  TO BE CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 4....