Dragon fire

McKenna kept a watchful eye open for returning gang members as the three moved between the derelict buildings. He hated this part of the city – the powers that be had given it up for lost years ago – the street gangs had swept in and it was a lawless wreck. The parking lot outside the club was half empty; the remaining cars were propped up on blocks and their wheels gone. He assumed that if he looked closer he’d find everything inside the cars gone too. Was it any wonder this part of town was unofficially known as “The Barrens”?

The sidewalk between buildings was littered with junk, shopping carts, a couple of oil drums and assorted junk. A couple of shifty men had setup market stalls close to the entrance of the club, Jay shuddered as she passed them by.

It took a moment for their eyes to adjust to the dim lighting inside the club. They’d entered the second of two doors. Once inside it was clear why, the first led to a roped off “VIP lane” taking people directly into the club proper. McKenna had obviously been there before as he stepped up to a window in the wall opposite to the door. Behind reinforced glass and a metal mesh screen a man in a shiny silver shirt was moving to the beat of music filtering up from downstairs. Behind him was a large “DANTE” logo on the wall, beneath which were a pair of coat rails. Behind the left-most rail, almost obscured from sight, was a gun rack. Jay looked at the roped-off entrace, it lead through a metalic archway and a pair of mean looking bouncers were scanning a wand over people if the metal detector arch even so much as flashed a warning.

With a reluctant sigh McKenna surrendered his twin pistols to the silver-shirted staff member behind the desk and received a ticket in return. The guns were placed on the rack alongside weapons of every shape and size from small feminine pistols to sawn-off shotguns.

“This might be a dangerous area but does it really need that level of firepower?” Jay asked McKenna with a nod of her head toward the rack.

McKenna nodded and turned a sharp left and made for the bouncers. The metal detectors didnt give a squeak as he and the girls passed through. Jay breathed a sigh of relief.

Beyond the metal detectors they made a swift right turn and down a flight of steps, the sound of dance music getting louder as they descended past posters of bands. Their way was lit by red flourescent strip lights that gave the place a dark, seedy atmosphere. At the bottom of the stairs McKenna guided the girls right, despite the fact that the corridor went straight onward.

“Dance floor is this way.” he said.

“Yes, and what’s that way?” Jay asked.

“Well, you might call it a private function room. Unless you have an invite from the management it’s not a safe place. You saw the bouncers upstairs?”

She nodded.

“Well, they’re the cute ones, compared with the rest of the crew who work here. Best to not push your luck. Let’s hit the club, I’ll buy you a drink and you just try to lose yourself in the crowd while I find my crew. OK?”

Jay nodded again walking past an ornate chair and finding herself at a rail looking out over the crowded dance floor. The club was smaller than “The Jade Room” she noted. The table to her left was lit by a single white candle. Very nice. Much nicer than the seedy flourescent strips! She followed the rail to her right and down a sweeping, curved staircase below another (flood-lit) “DANTE” logo on the wall. To either side of the logo a two-storey pair of black velvet curtains hung. “Nice touch, but not too practical.” she thought. The stairs were lit with more candles along their edges. At the bottom of the staircase she stopped and turned around slowly trying to take in the whole place in one long gaze.

A pair of alcoves to her right held ornate couches and tables offering their occupants a measure of privacy. More candles burned on the tables. Another “DANTE” logo dominated the wall across from where the stairs had deposited her. Tucked in behind a half-height wall, diagonally across from her was the bar. Stools were arranged along the bar and along countertops attached to the wall. To her left a DJ was dancing behind twin turntables flanked by tall speaker stacks. Then she paused taking an involuntary intake of breath, a mixture of awe and creepy horror filling her.

To the left of the DJ, dominating that corner of the club, was a large stone alter with two bowls of smoking incense at either end. Flanking the alter were more tomb stones. The whole arrangement had a grim, “desecrated church” feeling. She shivered. It was almost an anti-climax when she finished her panoramic view at the pair of pool tables immediately to her left. Pool cues were suspended on the wall.

She made for the bar, straight across the half empty dance floor, picked up the bottle of lite beer than McKenna handed her and then found the stool closest to the wall. Something in the ambience of the place made her want to watch her back. The tomb stones that were scattered around looked ancient and authentic. She’d seen the movies – housing suburbs built on indian burial grounds, vampires rising at night, zombies and werewolves – this club brought them all back to mind and gave her a cold shiver down her spine. CaraBelle was nowhere in sight. Jay assumed she was roosting among the lights at ceiling level. Wise girl!


McKenna had a bad feeling about Club Dante as a meeting place. He knew that, for the most part, the feeling stemmed from being separated from his guns. He felt naked without them. The shoulder holsters under his jacket rubbed just enough to let him know they were there, but without the comforting weight.

He gave the main dance-floor of the club a quick sweep. His crew werent dancing and as he passed the two booths he didnt see them there either, just a group of kids: two lads who looked to be in their early twenties with younger (late teen) girlfriends. He couldnt see their faces due to the gloom of blown-out candles and the kisses they were sharing with the girls. He moved on to the stairs, and the only remaining location in the club that they could possibly be – the private function room. He hoped that to be the case as he didnt fancy his chances against the thugs who offered patrons perfect privacy back there should it be in use.

At the top of the stairs he made a right turn and followed the corridor around to the right, finding it to be surprisingly empty. Devoid of hired muscle. He frowned, hairs on the back of his neck prickling as he approached the function room door. Something was wrong, very wrong. He paused before entering and his hands reached for guns that were no longer in their holsters. He kicked himself. This was no time to be unarmed. With as much swagger and bravado as he could muster he stepped into the room that overlooked the dance floor.

Sitting on the couches, gently lit by candles all around the room, were three women and his missing crew members. One face was familiar though she was no longer wearing hospital greens – the nurse he’d met – Vixcin. Flanking her were two women in black that his brain immediately connected with the ruckus outside – the two women who’d sliced and diced their way through the gang outside. On the other couch was his first mate, Devon, and Tattoo who’d met him in the medical centre earlier. He nodded to them before stepping forward to introduce himself to Vixcin and her friends.

“Ahh, captain, do take a seat. Let me introduce to you my own ship’s first mate – Valentine – and lilTwie’s mate, Aruba.” Vixcin said before he had a chance to speak.

“Pleased to meet you.” McKenna said as he sat.

“Valentine and Aruba, meet Captain McKenna, also known as ‘Edge’ to his friends.” Vixcin said, completing introductions.

“We dont have a lot of time so I’ll get right to the point. We have two hovercraft committed to this mission right now – the Goddesses of Zion and Aphrodite’s Room. Commander Lock has issued a recall of all ships back to Zion docks and we have a further pair of ships, the Akai Tsuki under Captain Rouge and The Rosenkreuz under Captain JeanMarie on their way to rendezvous with us. I assume the the Vita Secunda will be participating in the recall and joining us?” Vixcin asked.

McKenna nodded.

“Good, we need to give Twie and Aruba some cover. There’s a rumour that Morpheus is rallying captains for an illicit meeting ahead of the recall and that He will be there too.” a note of awe crept into her voice. The way she’d said “he”. There was only one, or rather “The One” who Vixcin could possibly be referring to.

“And when were you planning on telling me about this meeting?” he asked her.

“I just did. We have a problem. Machines are crawling the tunnels and there’s a high probability that it’s suicide to try to make it there. Safest bet is to return to Zion dock at flank speed. Something’s going down and we’re right in the middle of it.”

Across the room Devon caught McKenna’s eye and his fingers flashed a few swift movements of sign language. Vixcin was holding something back. Devon’s instinct was unswerving, nailing a bull’s eye ever time. McKenna trusted his life to some of the got calls his First Mate had made over the years and wasnt about to stop now.

“So. Vixcin…” he began.

She held a hand up as her cellphone rang. She took the call and looked pained as she hung up.

“We have scouts out as we speak. Seems company is inbound and they are between us and the hard-line. If we’re going to make it out alive we need to go. Now.”


CaraBelle had entered the club and hugged the ceiling as they’d passed along the corridor and out to the dancefloor area. The moment it had opened up she’d made for the rafters and a safe perch out of harms way. The lighting rig for the club was suspended from metal grid-work that supported a couple of pounds of extra weight without complaint. From her vantage point she watched as McKenna bought a drink and left Jay on the corner barstool. She saw him move purposefully around the room and up the stairs and vanish out of sight, to reappear moments later behind the large window of a room overlooking the dancefloor. As he sat down she lost him in the gloom.

With no-one to watch she’d closed her eyes with a deep breath, allowing the ambience of the place to sink in to her. She picked out Jay’s aura in the furthest booth, along with three others. She picked out Jay’s aura near to the bar. In the room above the dancefloor she clearly felt six more people, McKenna and Vixcin whom she knew.

Jay and Jay? She squeaked in suprise at the double hit. She’d not been wrong like that before. She looked again seeking out their emotional aura. Jay was sitting at the bar and she could see that she was fading. She took a deep breath and concentrated on blasting her with as much annoyance and anger as she could muster. Afterward she felt spent, wrung out, empty. Jay’s aura had filled out and CaraBelle hoped fervently that it would be enough. She couldnt find it in herself to “top her up” again.

She closed her eyes and peered into the emotional ambeince again. There was a trace of Jay in one of the booths. The comments that Jay had made – the words “exile” and “unbridled rage” came back to mind as she gauged the shape of the aura. Something wasnt right. It felt like she could feel two people overlapped in one small space. One of them was close, but not the same, as the Jay she knew. The other was different in a way she couldnt pin down. The combination reinforced each other in some areas and cancelled out in others. CaraBelle couldnt pin it down, the way that various brands of chocolate simply tasted different even though she couldnt name the exact reasons why.

She wasnt ready for the shock of recognition as she moved her awareness around the table to the other girl who sat there. In many subtle ways she was different but at the core, her best friend Keisha was alive and well and glowing with the pleasure of making-out with her boyfriend. It had been a shock to wake up and find herself ten inches tall, it had been a further shock to find her wings to be fully functional not merely decorative but this was a final shock that left her speechless and aware that she wasnt in a world that she knew. Keisha was dead yet here before her she was very much alive. Keisha had dumped a gallon of mayonaise into her loser-boyfriend’s car yet here she was lip-locked with the guy. It unreality of the world crashed into CaraBelle’s mind like a tidal wave.


Jay felt herself sagging internally. It was as though the roof was held up by a jury-rigged plastic pole that under the weight was slwly bending and would eventually snap. She looked at the beer she was sipping trying to guage whether it was the beer or just the fact that the support was alien to her. The prop of foreign anger was a gift that she felt guilty for squandering by simply sitting here but McKenna was insistent: stay here while he finds the crew. Jay wriggled back in her seat and leaned on the rough black painted brickwork of the club wall. People were walking to and fro to the bar and she didnt want to be seen. It scared her that she was in this alien place and drinking under-age. The war inside her raged between not wanting to be caught drinking and the desire to blend in and not be noticed among the patrons of Club Dante. The alcohol was flowing in her blood stream, she could feel that, and it helped her hold loosely to reality around her. She found herself slipping into viewing the dark club partially in the green, eyes tracking the flow of texture across the various surfaces around her. People had been casting the occasional glance her way, an appreciative guy here and there, but soon they were looking past her. The more she drank, the more she withdrew, folding her self awareness in on itself. She set the empty bottle down on the counter top next to her and let the music and green flow around her soothe her concern, revelling in the warm feeling of people finally ignoring her presence. Without warning there was a sudden infusion of inner strength and she felt buoyed up on it. CaraBelle! Jay had no clue what it cost her friend to give a gift that made her feel so wonderfully whole, but she appreciating it nonetheless.


Keisha sent the guys to the bar for drinks, knowing full well that she’d never be served. With them gone she turned to JayUnit with a grin, “So Jane, what do you think of him?”

JayUnit feined a smile. He’d been a good kisser, that’s for sure, but she felt disconnected. The “spark” she’d expected to feel wasnt there. A voice in the back of her head, the real Jane, had been whispering that she could help … that she wanted to help … but JayUnit pushed her back down with ease.

“He’s OK.

Keisha laughed, “Better be! He’s been on at me to hook the two of you up for months now. I’ll never hear the last of it if you ditch him.”

“I’m not planning that, dont worry. The only ditching will be if I decide to kill him and need a place to dump the body!”

Keisha grimaced at the macabre humour. “You’re really going for the whole ambience of the place arent you Jane?”

JayUnit shrugged and smiled.

“OK. You sit tight and wait for the beers to come back, I’m off to go potty.” Keisha said, slipping off the couch and heading toward the bathroom.


Above the lighting rig CaraBelle had shaken off most of the shock at discovering Keisha to be alive. She watched as her friend, sporting a nice looking black trenchcoat, slipped off toward the bathrooms. She wondered what Keisha would say if she saw the new 10 inch tall CaraBelle. Would she freak?

As the thoughts of a reunion were spinning through her brain CaraBelle felt a sharp pang of concern from the private room McKenna had gone into. People stood up, McKenna included, and she watched as they made a hasty exit. Somehow the concern was textured with overtones of loneliness, a desire for companionship … and it dawned on her that someone had sent an empathic summons to her alone. She slipped off the lighting and sped on eager wings toward the top of the stairs, and the exit from Club Dante.


The meeting had broken up with a concensus that it was safer to travel with one non-combatant in each of the groups. Vixcin, Valentine and Aruba elected to take Jay while McKenna, Devon and Tattoo opted for CaraBelle. As they exited the room McKenna had closed his eyes and concentrated on what he was feeling. He selected memories from his childhood – his parent’s first break up where he’d come home from school to find the home empty. A neighbour had been the one to tell him that his father had gone left, and his mother right when they’d exited. Neither had told him where they were going. He’d been about eight. His grandmother had phoned later in the day to say that he had a choise and he could come to her house to stay with his mother or, wait for his father to return. He was sorely tempted to live in the empty house on his own. He was sick and tired of their fights when they thought he was asleep and not listening. He was tired of the decision to “stay together for the sake of the kids”. He was done with it, but, felt an agonizing stab of loneliness so he opted to go over to his grandmother’s house. McKenna thought of his first girlfriend and their breakup, of her walking out of the restaurant and his desire for her to return. He layered on top of these memories the concern that he felt about the Machine threat, the enemies between them and the hard-line, and wrapped it all up into a single concentrated burst that he projected toward the rafters. He hoped that CaraBelle was roosting up there somewhere and that she got the message.

At the foot of the stairs leading to the lobby of the club Vixcin pealed off from the group to go find Jay. CaraBelle arrived flying straight as an arrow to alight on McKenna’s shoulder.

“You called?” she asked wearing a cheeky grin.

“Yes, we’re getting out of here. Trouble, with a capital “T” is on its way.”

“What about Jay?” CaraBelle asked, her smile fading.

“Vixcin’s on that. You’re our concern. Stay with me and at the first sign of trouble I want you to fly as fast and hard as you can out of the fight. Watch for us. If the three of us – Devon, Tattoo or I – are separated, follow me. Got that?” He said

“Yes…” she answered.

“Good.”

McKenna and the other two men retrieved their weapons from the front desk of the club and made their way outside at a brisk pace.


Valentine and Aruba headed up the stairs and retrieved their guns from the man behind the desk. Each one checked them over, displaying equal amounts of doubt and paranoia that he’s interfered with them somehow. Valentine also handed him Vixcin’s ticket and stowed hers to give back later. They took up an alert position near the front door ready incase trouble came knocking, waiting for Vixcin to return with the girl.


More people occupied the dancefloor than when Vixcin had first arrived. She pushed through their gyrating bodies moving toward the first of the private booths. McKenna had left the girl drinking a lite beer. What had the man been thinking? The first booth was empty so she moved on to the next, bumping past a tough looking African-American girl in the process.

“Watch yourself lady!” she growled, not slowing.

Vixcin shook her head and looked into the booth she’d come from. In the shadows, and looking definitely the worse for her bottle of beer, was Jay. Already concerned with the incoming threat and annoyed with the girl that had been so rude in passing, Vixcin didnt spare any time for small-talk.

“OK. We’re out of here. Ive been sent to extract you and get you to safety.” she said.

She didnt move so Vixcin injected the best drill-sergeant tone into her voice, “On your feet soldier or I’ll knock you out and carry you myself!”

That did the trick! Vixcin grabbed her by the arm and walked at a pace almost too brisk for her charge across the dancefloor, up the stairs and out of the club. Valentine and Aruba fell in behind her.


CaraBelle squealed in fright as the first shots were fired. Three men in black, who’d been pacing around in a derelict building behind Club Dante, were firing on McKenna and his crew. She took off. McKenna’s instructions were forgotten, she didnt care if he’d said to stay or go, she just wanted to be out of the line of fire! From a vantage point two storey up she felt safer and turned her attention to the men below. The attackers were dressed like the men she’d seen dispatched earlier in the parking lot.

McKenna had dropped into a crouch at the first sign of trouble. His pistols were in hand and he was lining up a shot against the first of the gang members. To his left and right Tattoo and Devon had broken out automatics. The three fired taking down two of the three in swift succession. To their surprise he fell moments later, the victim of superb marksmanship. A shot had rung out from a nearby rooftop. McKenna scanned the nearby buildings but couldnt see their invisible ally. CaraBelle rejoined them and they took off at a jog heading north.


JayUnit felt the cold night air on her face. It sobered her up quickly. Gunshots! In front of her Vixcin had slowed and was looking around alert for danger. The whole group pulled back to press against the wall of the club as her cellphone rang.

“Good shooting Skully. Stay ahead of them and see if you can help to clear the way.” Vixcin hung up without waiting for a response.

The extreme alertness faded from the three women and they walked past the derelict building immediately behind the club without incident.

“Where are you taking me?” JayUnit demanded, “The subway is back that way.”

Vixcin shook her head, “We’re heading north, making for the hard-line and our ticket out of here. Now shut up and start running, I dont know how much time we have.”

The pace picked up and JayUnit found herself concentrating on her feet just to keep up. The beer was still in her system. The memory of a warm embrace and kisses exchanged for cold night air and feeling of impending doom.


McKenna tried to keep his concern under guard but CaraBelle could feel it leaking. A sence of guilt at an obligation shirked overlaid with worry about Jay, she surmised.

“She’s going to be OK.” she said in his ear.

“I know…” he lied.

“No, she is going to be OK.” CaraBelle insisted.

She felt his concern for Jay’s safety lessen but the guilt still remained.

The group reached the edge of the artificial lake that gave the city district its name. The water looked glossy and black in the moonlight. Flecks of chemical foam clung to the wavelets as they lapped against the concrete of the bank below them, a rusty railing their only barrier from falling in. McKenna turned left, and when they reached the corner, made a right to resume their original heading. He was exposed with the water to his right but they had no choise. CaraBelle shivered not only from the chill air rolling in from the large body of water, but also from the dread that the wide expanse of undefensible area inspired in the three men around her.

CaraBelle dug for any possible way to alieviate the feelings, “So, who is this Vixcin woman anyhow?”

Behind her she heard laughter from Tattoo and Devon, “You honestly dont know?” they asked.

CaraBelle shook her head.

“Wow. You’d better get yourself and education, or you risk making some nas-tee mistakes with people!” Tattoo said, deliberately over-emphasising the one word.

“You’re not helping. Would one of you three please tell me?” CaraBelle said, a hint of petulent child creeping into her tone.

“Ohh, dont annoy the pixie! She’ll bite your kneecaps if she gets the chance!” Devon laughed.

McKenna turned his head slightly to address his First Mate, “Will you can it? We’re exposed and your guard is down. Want to get us all killed?” he hissed through clenched teeth.

Devon mumbled an apology, “No sir!”

CaraBelle raised an eyebrow, “So, she’s connected?”

McKenna picked up the pace and cast a wary glace around before answering, “Yeah, she’s connected. As united a front as we try to project, there are still factions within the supposedly united human race, or what’s left of the human race. Vixcin is second in command of one of the larger factions who openly support our current leadership. They call themselves Vixens, all female crews commanding six fully armed hovercraft in top condition. They have been unswerving in their support of the council and Commander Lock. Their loyalty to the cause is without question. Neither is their deadly venom. Remember the two who dispatched the gang members earlier?”

CaraBelle nodded, “Yeah. I saw the whole thing, all forty seconds of the fight anyhow.”

“Well, that was just two of the Vixens in action. They are the public face, the female figurehead, of Zion’s front-line ground offensive here in the Matrix.”

That raised a whistle of appreciation from CaraBelle. She felt McKenna’s concern for Jay dropping away the more he concentrated on who exactly it was escorting her to the hard-line.

Without warning a shot rang out to their left, the attack coming from the run-down buildings and not the open expanse of water as McKenna had been expecting. Devon fell clutching at his shoulder. The others hit the dirt too. It had been a glancing blow – a long range shot that had narrowly missed taking out a member of their group – merely winging him. He tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt to bind it up and they waited to see if the sniper would try again. Another shot whined overhead and struck the black water kicking up a small spout of spray. They were pinned down and their attacker was invisible. Devon slid his automatic rifle over to McKenna.

McKenna looked at CaraBelle, “Do you sense him?”

Her eyes went wide, “Me?”

“Yes, you. Reach out there and feel where he’s at.”

CaraBelle gulped and closed her eyes. She could feel the adrenaline pumping in all three men around her. She widened the awareness feeling emptiness. No, at extreme range, a pinpoint of emotion. Annoyance at missing the target. Concern over a reputation that would be lost if the next shot didnt succeed. CaraBelle nodded.

“You’ve found him, havent you?” McKenna asked.

“It’s not a him, it’s a her, and yes I have.” CaraBelle answered.

“Good. Show me, project it.”

CaraBelle pushed with everything she had, projecting the emotional landscape into McKenna’s head. There was a sharp intake of breath then a barking report as he took the shot with Devon’s rifle. Pain exploded in CaraBelle’s skull as she felt the impact of that bullet on its target. A brief burst of emotion and then the bright candle flame flickered and went out.

“You got her.” she said, her voice quaking from the emotional fallout of sensing a person die.

“Good. Let’s keep moving. Devon, you want the rifle?”

“Keep it boss, I’m trading down ‘til I can get this shoulder fixed.”

“OK. Let’s move out. Stay alert for more snipers. CaraBelle, can you take point – fly high – warn us if you sense anything?” McKenna said, the question more an order than a request.

“Sure … I think so.” she responded.

“Dont think so, know so. We’ve no other option, we’re sitting ducks here. Either you warn us or the next shooter takes us out. We were lucky this time.”

CaraBelle swallowed hard and took flight without another word.

—–

Vixcin, Aruba and Valentine moved with military precision, a spearhead with Vixcin in the lead and JayUnit protectively cradled in their midst. The other group was nowhere to be seen; the darkness had swallowed them as surely as if they had never existed.

A gunshot rang out ahead and Vixcin flashed an obviously military hand signal and all forward progressed stopped. The three women moved in close to JayUnit and she suddenly found herself feeling claustrophobic.

“Sniper on the roof, that way” Valentine said, pointing off to their left.

“Skully should have …” Aruba began, pulling a mobile phone from her pocket. Her comment was cut off as another shot rang out.

Vixcin put a hand on her arm, “If you call and you give away Skull’s position she’s as good as dead. That sniper cant be working alone. The sniper’s support crew is out there too. No. We’re taking a different route out of here.” She pulled her own cellphone out and punched the speed dial button.

JayUnit was close enough to hear the initial hum and touch-tones as the phone dialed.

“Operator.” a young sounding female voice said from the other end of the connection.

“It’s me Kyulin, I need a hardline.” Vixcin said.

“Nearest is north of your position – Northwest Guinness Lake.” Kyulin, the operator, said.

“No can do. We’re pinned down. Sniper and his crew. What else you got for me?”

“About four times the distance, in Guinness Lake East: follow the south bank of the lake. When you’re past the end of it, do not follow the road north instead you need to cut between the buildings for two blocks until you see the raised highway by the parking lot. Follow the highway, take the first offramp and make a left and left again toward Lakeside Park.”

“Good stuff. Warm the Goddess up. We’ll be needing you to run a trace and home in on a redpill signal once we get to the hardline.” Vixcin terminated the conversation and returned the phone to her pocket.

“We’re heading for Guinness Lake East. Rubles, take point.” Vixcin ordered.

Aruba nodded, returning her own mobile phone to her pocket and checking her automatic rifle over before she set off at the head of the spear.

—–

CaraBelle was scared. Fear gripped her insides with an icy fist. The lingering tendrils of the death of the sniper still clung to her psyche, a toxic residue that felt like it was eating into her soul. Her fingers had nothing to do with the trigger being pulled. She’d merely informed McKenna. Guilt twitched inside her as a feeling of culpability swept up and embraced the toxic tendrils. Pinpoints of terror were all around her. Little emotional pinpoints in the blackness of the night, invisible to the naked eye and barely perceptible despite the effort she made to sense their aura, yet any one of them could be pointing a gun at her. She followed air currents higher and pushed harder forward on urgent pulsing wingbeats.

Ahead in the dark she could feel a large brooding presence; it occupied an entire city block and they were heading directly for it. She dropped out of the air like a stone, landing with a bump on McKenna’s shoulder.

“Problem … its huge … go back …” she stammered between panicky breaths.

“No-can-do Cow Bell. We have to reach the hardline to get out.” he explained firmly.

CaraBelle was too unsettled to object to the use of her nickname. Could McKenna not understand what they were walking into? She closed her eyes. The three men were moving at a decent pace and she bumped along on his shoulder for a few moments before leaping back into the air.

Whatever they were walking into was the size of a city block. As they neared it she could feel the emotional aura was concentrated in five distinct nodes. Between them were a network of connections. She couldnt explain how it could be. Each node had connection to all of the others and they pulsated with a malevolent kind of life. She pushed higher and shivered in the cold night air. The nodes were distributed in a regular pattern. With a start she realized that they drew out a perfect pentagram. She concentrated on the nodes. Each read like a person but people never stood as perfectly still as these did. Each node had the bedrock of a normal human emotional aura with all but the lowest strata overlaid with a uniform blaze of foreign emotion. The underlying terror and anger of the frozen humans fed into the feedback loop of the connections with the net effect of powering up the whole pentagram. CaraBelle couldnt help but imagine what would happen if and when the whole construct hit critical mass. She shuddered. She wanted to be as far away from the detonation of this particular bomb as possible!

Beneath her the three men were moving relentlessly forward on a route that would intersect the centre of the pentagram. Could they not see the trap? She felt caught between fight and flight, between the desire to warn McKenna and the desire to high-tail it out of there at top speed. As she hovered the men pressed forward and reached the centre of the pentagram, a city phone booth. She sensed a probing tendril of thought, McKenna, wanted a report. She dove for him.

“It’s a trap!” she screamed.

Devon had his mobile phone out and had hit the speed dial. In the heartbeats between the hum of a dial tone and the warble of touch tones, CaraBelle’s warning reached him. Tattoo and McKenna turned and ran. Devon wasnt nearly so lucky. The fiery connections that CaraBelle had perceived so clearly flicked from connecting all of the nodes to all connecting to the phone booth; the pentagram switched to a 5 point hub centred on the phone booth, and Devon. He threw his head back and screamed. Fire erupted from his mouth, his eye sockets, his ears. Beside him the metal of the phone booth buckled. The glass shattered. Fire blazed out from the telephone itself. Flesh and metal glowed from an inner heat. Deforming. Melting. Flowing into a silvery pool marbled with flesh tones.

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