Precursors, Part 1

(by msulliva@asacomp.com, 02 December 1997)


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Notice:  This story has been rated "NC17" for adult language, nudity,
sexual content, graphic violence, and explicit smoking.  You have been
fairly warned.

Copyright 1998 by G. M. Sullivan.  All rights reserved.  This story may
be copied and distributed for the uncompensated amusement of others
only.

Author's note:  This story is the next in the series begun in "Hybrid
Vigor" and continued in "Eschaton Boulevard" and "Absolute Power."  Its
action brackets two earlier stories, "Dying for a Cigarette" and
"Phoenix Ascending."  If you have missed any of these tales, they are
all archived at
"http://www.cs.brown.edu/people/lsh/stories/byname.html."   I recommend
them to your attention for a fuller enjoyment of what follows.

Dedication:  To the first smoking woman who will E-mail me after she
reads this story.


"Precursors," Part One of Four


1.  Ernie's Bar and Grill, Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, August 19,
1998, 9:17 PM EDT

"Have you seen this woman, ma'am?"

Lucy Harker examined the photograph carefully.  Though none too clear,
the subject was a strikingly beautiful woman with long, honey-colored
hair and ice-blue eyes.  Most of the woman's body was covered by white
sheets; she appeared to be lying in a hospital bed.

Lucy's lips curled in a mysterious smile.  She looked up from the
shadowy booth at her unexpected interrogator, capturing his eyes.  The
large, burly man took a half-step back and her smile widened.  This was
only getting better as time went on.

"Possibly," she whispered breathily.  "why don't you sit down and we'll
talk about it?"

Bronsen Callaghan found himself sliding in beside her before he could
frame a reply.  This was the third gin joint he'd hit in this south
Jersey backwater and he'd been running on automatic, expecting
nothing.  Smoke-layered air was disturbed by his movements, muted music
lending a thudding, surreal backbeat.

Purely by reflex, Callaghan displayed the wallet containing his shield
and ID card.  His eyes remained fixed on the woman seated next to him.
She was alluring, hypnotically beautiful, with curly brown hair framing
an angelic face.  As for her revealingly-clad body...this was the sort
of woman men went to bars hoping to find but never did.  "I'm..." he
began haltingly.

"From the FBI.  A special agent," Lucy finished.  Ignoring his
awkwardness, she opened her purse and produced a pack of Marlboro
Lights 100s.  Placing one between painted lips, she said, "light me."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't..." he trailed off.  Lucy was already
applying her own flame to the cigarette.  She took a long puff, showed
him the smoke filling her mouth, inhaled it, then loosed a cloud that
swirled in the small space between them.  Despite disliking the odor,
Callaghan neither moved nor blinked.

"And what does the FBI want from me?" Lucy asked, small bursts of white
emerging as she spoke.

The first answer that came to mind was not from the Book.  Callaghan
made a desperate grab for self-possession and said, "we're seeking the
woman in the photograph.  Her name is Shelly Aronsen.  She was last
seen at Maimonides Hospital in Somerset on August 12.  She's wanted for
questioning in the death of an FBI agent."

"Not you, I hope?"  Lucy paused to exhale again and the air grew
cloudier still.  The fog in Callaghan's head was growing too, and he
glanced around the room nervously.  His partner was in here somewhere,
and he could not afford another bad report.  Not after the brutal
dressing-down he had received in Washington.

"No, not me..." Callaghan broke off the stupid, deadpan reply.  He was
in jeopardy here.  He had lost control of this interrogation, if he'd
ever had it.  He straightened his back.  "The agent's name isn't
important.  You said you saw this woman?"

Lucy seemed to consider that as she took a long puff on her cigarette.
Her other hand found its way onto Callaghan's thigh under the table.

He stiffened.  The touch was electric, almost literally so.  Tingles
ran up and down his leg, suffusing his pelvis, rising through his
abdomen.  It wasn't unpleasant...certainly not.  This feeling alone was
better than many sexual encounters he could remember.  His jaw dropped
and again he feared being spotted, being seen at a disadvantage.

Lucy blew a gray-white cloud thoughtfully across the table.  "I met her
at the restaurant where I work, out on the 'pike.  She's very, very
nice.  I'm sure she would never do anything...violent."

Her hand tightened briefly on his thigh, just enough to give the
impression of a hideous strength.  Callaghan stayed silent, but
thought, "shit, she's one of them..."

He knew there were others.  Mary Lou had been snatched from under his
nose by an unknown man with similar powers, leaving no trail to
follow.  The abortive autopsy on agent Dhalgren had shown he too
had...changed before his death.  A death which had no apparent cause.

Now death sat close by him.  Far too close for anyone to help in time.
He turned his best hard stare on Lucy,. locking his eyes to hers,
waiting for her to blink, to back off.  She never did.  Her face kept
the same sultry expression throughout, perhaps showing just a hint of
amusement.  He didn't scare her in the least.

Callaghan's mind was in turmoil.  Think, fool!  Think of something to
say, something harmless and calming!  Try to withdraw, escape, get some
backup...

Gentle words had never been Callaghan's strength.  He was too
accustomed to being the threat, never the threatened.  Backing away was
not his style, either.

Knowing it was useless, his right hand darted for the weapon concealed
under his jacket.  Before his hand had moved six inches the edge of
Lucy's palm struck his throat, crushing the windpipe.  There was no
chance to cry out.  Drowning in his own blood, he was dead in seconds.

Still moving with near-invisible speed, Lucy propped up the corpse,
arranged its jacket to hide the angry bruise, and closed its staring
eyes.  Just another dead drunk, she thought.  No one would give a
shit.

She took a last puff on her cigarette, blew smoke at Callaghan's still
form, and rose casually to leave.  She walked through the bar
unhurriedly, looking for any signs of alarm.  There were none.  She
exited into the warm, humid night.

Lucy's confidence was not entirely well-placed.  One pair of eyes in
the bar had noted the action and knew Callaghan had made his last
error.  That bumbling fool would not be missed at the bureau or
anywhere else.  The unknown woman had done her government a favor.

The watcher rose from a barstool and moved to follow at a discreet
distance.


2.  US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta,
Georgia, August 20, 8:14 AM
     EDT

It didn't smell like a hospital room or look like one either, but Mary
Lou knew better.  There were needles nearby.  And she wanted her
cigarettes, dammit!

She could only smoke when that nice Rebecca came to visit.  Rebecca
always had cigarettes to share, but she never left any for later.  She
told Mary Lou that smoking was not allowed here, and never to tell
anyone that they were breaking the rules.

Dane Peters had said she would see Dr. Ryan, but it had been a week
already and he hadn't come.  Rebecca said he was busy, trying to find a
way to help her.

Mary Lou knew she needed help.  Sometimes she was confused, and often
she forgot things.  She was sure it hadn't always been that way.  It
would be nice to get better.  That was all that kept her from leaving.
She knew they could not stop her if she decided to go.

Sometimes she wandered through the large complex, filled with its
strange sights and sounds and lots of people in white coats.  Usually
they ignored her.  Sometimes they asked her nicely not to go through
this door or walk that corridor, so she didn't.  As long as they stayed
nice and kept their needles far away...

Mary Lou heard her door open.  There was no snick of a key turning or
lock disengaging.  They knew better than that.

Dr. Rebecca Engleman entered the prettily-decorated suite and closed
the door behind her.  She flicked a wall switch, engaging the special
fan she had installed in anticipation of the arrival of this unusual
patient.

"Good morning, Mary Lou.  Feeling better today?"

"Yes Rebecca.  Do you have..."

Rebecca had already produced a pack of Premium 100s and an ashtray from
a lab coat pocket.  She look forward to this aspect of their talks just
as much as did Mary Lou.  Damned CDC rules!  The two sat together on
the suite's couch.

As Rebecca lit a cigarette for each, she examined her young charge.
Mary Lou appeared to be a normal, healthy, 18-year-old girl in most
respects.  Her actual years were closer to 21, but age was largely a
matter of choice for her now...just as it was for Rebecca.  Proper diet
(about 12,000 calories per day) and rest had nicely rounded her once
emaciated body.  Even in her starved state, though, Mary Lou had The
Look common to Homo Sapiens Coelensis (HSCs for short).  It was an
attractiveness, a vitality, an *aliveness* that drew and held the gaze
almost magnetically.  It was a look that could be a deadly trap
for...the more common human species.

Their exhales merged over the couch and flowed quickly from the room,
nearly overwhelming the exhaust fan.  Someone would notice the smoking
and she'd be hearing about it, Rebecca thought.  That, however, was the
least of her problems.

Rebecca was not a physician according to her official credentials,
though she had earned the degree in her previous life as Dr. James M.
Ryan.  As a result, it was a constant battle to "buffer" Mary Lou from
the CDC medical staff, a battle she would not win in the long run.
They knew just enough of this strange case to be frothing for a chance
to start poking, prodding, and testing Mary Lou, to get to the bottom
of her obvious abnormalities.

That would be the end.  At the first sight of a needle aimed in her
direction Mary Lou would be gone in a flash, never to be seen again.  A
puzzling fear, considering that no hypodermic could so much as scratch
her skin, and only one drug Rebecca had found could affect HSCs in the
least.  Rebecca, though, had found a possible answer to Mary Lou's
illness, but it was far riskier than any injection.

Mary Lou finished her first cigarette rapidly, clouding the room faster
than the exhaust fan could clear it, then immediately lit another.
Rebecca smoked in a more leisurely and conservative manner, praying
that no one would come in to complain.

"Mary Lou, I've been speaking to Dr. Ryan and he wants...me to suggest
something.  No, no, you won't have to get a shot, nothing like that.
Do you remember, back when you were in the hospital at home, and they
put some sticky things on your body?"

Mary Lou paused her imitation of a steam engine and nodded.  A veil of
fear was creeping over her features.  "They...shocked me."

"Well, Dr. Ryan and I think that's what really started your problems,
and not...the other thing.  There's something here that could help
you.  We have a machine called an MRI.  It's just a big, white cylinder
which we use to look inside people like an X-ray, only better.  It only
looks, it doesn't poke, stick, shock, or do anything else.

"For you, though, it could do more than just look.  Your brain and
nerves are different from most people's, as you know.  If we're very
careful, the MRI might fix what happened to you, make you think more
clearly, remember better, and feel good all the time, not just
sometimes.  I'll be honest, though...it might not help.  It might even
make you worse."  Or possibly just kill you outright. "It will take a
few weeks to set up the treatment..."

Rebecca held Mary Lou's eyes, her deliberate, calm words accompanied by
gently exhaled smoke.  For a while, it seemed reason was getting
through.  Soon, though, panic began to dance in Mary Lou's eyes like a
trapped animal.

"No...no!  It's just another kind of needles!  Where is Dr. Ryan?  They
promised me he'd be here!  I'm getting out, getting out now!  I-"

Before Mary Lou could bolt away, Rebecca clamped her hands firmly to
the side of the young girl's head, holding her still for a moment.
This opportunity would last only a second, but it might be long
enough.

Rebecca thought this was embarrassingly reminiscent of a Star Trek
scene, but here life might successfully imitate art.  Holding Mary
Lou's gaze with gentle, reassuring eyes, Rebecca tried to synchronize
their superconductive nerves.  Much the same effect occurred
automatically when two HSCs made love; now, for the first time, it was
being deliberately induced.  As they came into tune, Mary Lou calmed
and grew still.

Then Rebecca tried another experimental technique.  She attempted to
pass information through their linked nervous systems.  This was not
true telepathy; the data flow was slow, inefficient, and subject to
distortion.  It was, however, far faster and deeper than any speech.
What Rebecca needed to communicate could not be spoken aloud without
causing confusion, disbelief, and probably rejection.  There was no
time for that...even Rebecca could not hold Mary Lou against her will
for very long.

Mary Lou's eyes widened, fear retreating a small distance.
"You...you're...?"

"I was.  Now I'm just Rebecca.  Dr. Ryan is here with us, though, and
you can trust me as you trusted him."

"Oh, Rebecca..." said Mary Lou, and 'I'm so afraid and alone' came over
the link.  The flow went both ways, and Rebecca was nearly overwhelmed
by the girl's fears and her sheer hunger for companionship and love.
Mary Lou's emotions burned with a superhuman fury far beyond anything
Rebecca had ever experienced or imagined.  Their link trembled on the
verge of dissolution.  Fighting for stability, Rebecca held on and
mentally urged calm, acceptance, and trust.

When all had passed that needed to, Rebecca broke her grip and took
Mary Lou into her arms.  For a long time they rocked together in
silence on the small couch.

"Just be patient for a little while, Mary Lou," said Rebecca, her eyes
too dry for tears but trying for them anyway.  An empathy had been
established that would bind them both like forged chains.  "Just for a
little while..."

"I will try," said Mary Lou, "try to trust you."


3.  Near Baxter, Wyoming, September 15, 5:51 PM MDT

The revolution was over, its forces routed.

Darleen Preston sat cross-legged on the brow of a high hill, looking
down the long, slow slope to her former home town, 20 miles distant.
She exhaled a plume of smoke toward it, wishing it would grow and
billow into a true cloud, hiding the sight of her abandoned home and
her failure.

She had been the chosen one, first to receive the blessing from Saint
Mary Lou, the only one to know the Sacred Waif's tender embrace, and
the one given the power to dispense Her blessing to others.  To two
others, anyway.

"Darleen, I'm hungry," said Alicia from somewhere behind her.

"Shut up, Alicia.  Just smoke.  *She* lived on cigarettes."  That was
not quite true, Darleen knew.  Mary Lou had needed food also, and a lot
of it.  Something would need to be done, and soon.  The others looked
to her for leadership, and leaders must provide.

"Got plenty of those, anyway," said Alicia.  "Hey, Cindy, want a
smoke?"

Darleen turned to watch the two younger girls complete the
lighting-up.  She smiled to see the kids smoking with almost the same
verve and audacity as Mary Lou, clouding the hilltop with sweet
exhalations.  If only there had been more of the blessed Special
Honeys...

After Darleen had been tried and found worthy of the Saint's blessing,
she knew that her days of living in subservience to her parents were
over.  Whatever hold they might have had on her, physically or
emotionally, was gone forever.  She had left home without a backward
glance.

Then had come a time of hiding, of learning.  Learning what she had
become and what she could do.  Her strength was immense, her speed
incomparable.  Making the swim team would be child's play now, if she
still cared about such trivial things.  She could break any school
record, any national record, if she chose.

Her mind was as fast and sharp as her new body.  Her parents had
searched for her. Sheriff Kane had tried to find her too.  They were no
match for her new self.  She had eluded them all with ridiculous ease.

She committed her first revolutionary act.  Biff Fletcher had
embarrassed Darleen and looked threateningly upon the body of Saint
Mary Lou.  She considered harming him, but Mary Lou had never spoken of
harm, only of love.  She settled for hanging him by his feet from a
tall oak.  On his naked form she placed a hand-lettered sign:  "Don't
Fuck with the Blessed."  She watched from concealment while Sheriff
Kane cut him down, shivering and humiliated but unhurt.

She had recruited her allies.  Darleen had no close friends, but she
had come across two 15-year-old underclassmen, Alicia and Cindy,
smoking secretly in a park.  At first they had feared her, having been
warned by parents, teachers, and classmates against any association
with the strange and dangerous Darleen.  But Darleen in person was
friendly, understanding, and sympathetic to their problems, their
vexing alienations.

Even better, she always had plenty of cigarettes to share.

Over the course of many secret meetings Darleen had shared her counsel,
stories of the amazing Sacred Waif, and the wonders that awaited all
who chose to take that magical road She called Eschaton Boulevard.  An
End of sorts was approaching, which also held a Beginning, one which
would reward the Blessed and consign the wicked to a fate better left
unnamed.

In the end she had gained the love and adoration of little Alicia and
Cindy.  When she judged them ready, she had shared the last two Special
Honeys with them.

Even after the blessing had taken hold, the two children had not
understood Darleen's purpose at first.  They didn't understand why they
couldn't go home or return to school anymore.  They had never actually
seen Mary Lou and were slow to understand Her true message.  They were
children who still needed to be cared for and guided.  Out of
necessity, Darleen learned to assume the roles of mother, father,
lover...and revolutionary leader.

To keep themselves supplied with food and cigarettes, the three girls
staged a series of late-night raids on a number of stores in town.  The
younger girls had been excited by this, reveling in their ability to
break any door, bypass any alarm.  At first the two had gone for
useless CDs, cosmetics, and cash, but Darleen kept them focused on the
real necessities through sheer force of will.

The more they exercised their powers, the more hunger plagued the
three.  On one memorable night they ate their way through an entire
grocery store, consuming everything that did not need to be cooked or
defrosted.  Cans, boxes, and plastic wrap stood knee-deep in the
aisles.  After eating their fill they had smoked half the store's
cigarette supply, leaving the ruin wrapped in smoke as heavy as a
four-alarm fire.  What they didn't eat or smoke they carried with them
to hide in a secret cache in one of the town's abandoned warehouses.

The end came suddenly and embarrassingly two nights later.  While
looting a closed QuikMart, the girls had been startled by a sudden,
thunderous roar.  They froze and turned toward the shattered door.

Sheriff Kane stood there, cradling an enormous shotgun.  Plaster dust
descended from numerous small holes in the ceiling.

"Stop right there, girls," he had said calmly.  "And listen good."

Darleen's eyes flashed defiance, but Alicia and Cindy were clearly
frightened.  All three stayed still.

"I really don't want those FBI assholes back in my town.  But if it's a
choice between that and having you tear everything to hell, then I'm
calling them tomorrow.

"I expect you don't want come down to juvenile hall with me, and I sure
as hell can't force you without trying to kill you.  I'd rather not do
that.  So I'm giving you two choices, and only two.

"First.  Go back home, settle down, and stay that way.  For good.  And
remember, I'll always be watching.

"Second.  Get out of this town and don't come back.  Ever.  I don't
know who or what you are anymore, but I know this.  If you stay here
and continue to raise hell, I'll fight you with everything I've got,
and call anyone I need to for help.

"So, what'll it be?"

Darleen had glanced at her two companions.  No help there.  She herself
was none too sure she could defy the full authority of the assholes and
win.  Even Saint Mary Lou had run rather than stay and fight.  "We'll
go," she said, not giving Alicia or Cindy a chance to wimp out.

"Then GIT, NOW!" Kane barked, and fired another shotgun blast into the
ceiling.

They got, stopping only to retrieve their cache of supplies.  The
sheriff watched their departure from the center of Main Street, riot
gun in hand, flanked by the town's two police cruisers, their red and
blue lights whirling silently.

The attempted conquest of Baxter was over.


Darleen rose and walked back to the entrance of the abandoned silver
mine that had become their home.  It was a good home with many deep,
labyrinthine passages whose darkness held no mystery for their enhanced
senses.  A fine home, but one with too many bare cupboards.

Darleen was joined by Alicia and Cindy, and the three shared their
sacred smoking ritual.  These were always special occasions, and the
younger girls looked to Darleen, the burning cigarettes looking very
large in their small hands.

Darleen's voice was punctuated by white smoke as she spoke.  "It's time
to get more supplies.  Most of Baxter's goods come in by train, and the
tracks run close by these old mines."

"We're going to rob one."


4.  Red Lion, New Jersey, September 17, 1:42 AM EDT

Death took the rapist suddenly and unexpectedly.

He had been haunting the hedges of the small municipal park, as he had
done on three other nights over the past two years.  Moderation was the
soul of virtue, and for him it was also the key to staying out of
prison.  As always, though, the pressure inside him had built over the
course of months, until at last he was forced once again to administer
his just admonishments.

It was possible that the young girls were innocent.  Perhaps they had
no true knowledge of how their provocative dress, their insolent
manners, and their blatant sexuality affected good men like himself.
Happily married men with decent wives and proper children.  For that
reason he never injured his clients.  Not much, anyway.  Not unless
they struggled until he couldn't help it.

As usual, there was no lack of targets this night.  They paraded by,
sometimes in groups or couples, sometimes singly.  Timing was
everything, though, and he waited for just the right moment.  A moment
that always came late, when the park had mostly emptied.  When a young
girl chanced to pass close by his hiding place, alone and unprotected.

She was a perfect client.  Perhaps 18, perhaps less, she was dressed
indecently, unshielded nipples pressing against a thin halter tip,
brief skirt exposing expanses of thigh almost to her crotch.  She was
even smoking, a dead giveaway that she had less wholesome oral
activities on her little mind.

His technique was well practiced and perfectly executed.  One arm swept
from hiding, pulling her into his place of concealment.  His free hand
quickly clamped her mouth, preventing any outcry.  His body fell on
hers, pinning her to the soft soil.

Then came her disrobing, rapid and efficient, accomplished with one
hand while his other continued to stifle her voice.  A quick unzip of
the fly, exposing his painfully erect member.  And then...

A variation to the routine.  The edge of an iron-hard hand slammed into
the back of his neck, crushing two cervical vertebrae and severing the
spine within.  His body jolted as though struck by a powerful electric
shock.  Numbness spread, vision blackened, and he ejaculated on his
stunned victim even as his body slumped atop hers.

Lucy Harker rolled the limp rapist off the trembling girl.  She laid
still, in a state of shock, semen dripping from her bare breasts.

"Go," said Lucy.  The girl rose slowly at first, then recovered swiftly
with the flexibility of youth.  She went crashing away through the
bushes, not stopping to retrieve her scattered clothes.  There was no
screaming and no call for help either, which suited Lucy fine.

Lucy regarded the dead man without compassion.  She lit a cigarette,
blowing smoke at the still form.  Her long years of self-defense
classes were finally bearing fruit.  She had always assumed that her
skills, if she ever needed them, would be solely for her own
protection.  She never imagined she would be saving other women from
predatory men.  But now that she had the strength...

A hard, stinging impact struck her above the right elbow.  She turned
slowly to find the source of the attack.

Slowly?  It was as though she was wrapped in molasses.  She tried to
speed-up her reactions and failed.  Her thoughts were growing blurred
and confused.  She had not felt this way since...before...the ground
rose up to meet her unresisting back.  Lucy saw an armed woman standing
over her, but was powerless to do anything but look.

Lieutenant Kathy Breeling flipped Lucy over, placing one pair of
handcuffs on her wrists, another on her ankles.  She had been trailing
this suspect since the death of Special Agent Callaghan, hoping to find
a lead to the others involved in...whatever this was.  After this
second murder she could wait no longer.

For once, the lab boys in Washington had been right.  Atropine was
effective against these people.  People like ALPHA, BETA, and now Lucy
Harker.  A special armor-piercing bullet loaded with a concentrated
dose had done the trick.

The FBI's bungling had led Washington to call for special help.  That
special help was her, US Army Special Forces on detached duty.  She had
been forced to work with that fool Callaghan only because of his
extensive experience with BETA.  Again, she silently thanked Lucy for
killing the idiot.

As she suspected, the abilities of these mysterious perps were highly
exaggerated.  Callaghan had grossly inflated his reports to hide his
own incompetence.  Lucy obviously had some combat training and perhaps
performance-enhancing drugs as well, but against a real professional
she was out of her depth.  Well, she would deliver Lucy to Washington
and let the eggheads sort out the details.

Lt. Breeling did not want any local police involved, so she was forced
to frog-march the almost-limp Lucy out of the park unaided.  That took
a long time...far too long as it turned out.

She was taken by surprise when Lucy came to life and both pairs of
handcuffs abruptly snapped apart.  It was an even bigger surprise when
she was struck in the head by a blow she never saw coming.  It was a
more brutal blow than she could ever remember taking, either in
training or in the field.  It sent her reeling helplessly to the
ground.

She was unable to do anything when Lucy planted a foot first on one
thigh, then the other, breaking both her legs.  Lucy seemed to vanish
after that, racing away at impossible speed.

Lt. Breeling tried to rise on her elbows, to crawl after Lucy.  The
pain in her head and legs was too much.  She fell back flat and
darkness closed in all around.

End of Part One


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