The Butterfly Dragon III: The Two Dragons Act III [Updated 26/01/2023: 7:30 PM EST]


  • Chapter Research And Rhetoric finished (January 26, 2023)
  • Chapter The Growing Divide coming soon...

Once again, I start out by saying truthfully that I don't own a guitar, I've never owned a guitar and I am not a guitar player. 

Also, I don't do hate means love or love means hate at all. I say what I mean and mean what I say.

I am not Jake N. My name isn't Shane. I'm not Ron.

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I write. I play. I contemplate. I gripe. I rationalize. I ponder. I bash. I admire. I lust. I feel. I laugh. I live in the memory of an intensity I had when I was younger. An idealization of the energy and fearlessness of being alive. When you arrive at a certain point in life via time, no matter how vital you feel, you'll know exactly what I mean. That's when you need to pay the most attention, yet ply the most wisdom.

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I'd like to point out that it was the incredible Gary Sinese Foundation that brought the issue of Veteran's rights to my attention. I've always had little respect for those who'd forget the great contribution made by those who've risked life and limb to defend those values that so many of us espouse. Perhaps the true measure of one's principles are by that for which they'd risk their life.

"None can speak more eloquently for peace than those who have fought in war."

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The Edgar Allan Poe Museum
Because Barris told me to put it here. If I didn't, he said he'd walk. Geez. Stardom really gets to some people's heads. Maybe I could kill him and bury his heart beneath the floor boards! Or I could encase him in behind a brick and mortar wall, for shaming my family name of Amantillado

In all truth, there's a good chance that thanks to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herbert George Wells, Jules Verne, Dr. Seuss, Stephen King, Clive Barker and Pierre Burton (for The Secret World Of Og and his ground breaking interview of Bruce Lee) that all of us are literate. Actually that goes back much farther to the Phoenecians and their first 22 character system of symbols. Literacy is important. Really it is. Literally. It allows us to approach our employer at the end of the week (with a big club) and ask: where my money?! Math important too. It help us count our thirteen fingers and toes.

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Shhhh! Digital Media
Brian Joseph Johns


Shhhh! Author


This story which is the third book (or Act as I'm calling it) is the conclusion of the Butterfly Dragon trilogy. This book will wrap up all the loose ends created during the course of the adventures of Heylyn, Alicia, Monique and Valerie over the three books and several short stories involving the characters.

It will also bring back a number of characters from the previous two books to assist in overcoming the forces with which they're about to clash. Hidden forces whose presence I've been building up over the course of the first two Acts of the Dragon Butterfly story.

As is the case with my previous Butterfly Dragon books, science will play a big part, especially in this book with the return of some of fan favourite characters, though the challenges they're about to face might be too much even for the legendary Butterfly Dragon herself. I hope that you enjoy what's in store.

Bare with me as this story is written (mostly) live, with edits coming after I've actually published the most recent material, sometimes leading to significant changes, however, no changes will ever deviate fully beyond the course of the intended plot.

Oh, and this book, or any of the books here that began with Poetry And Fiction, which eventually became Shhhh! Digital Media (the site you're browsing now), aren't being produced by a 15 year old girl with all due respect. This material, what's to come, and all that came before it on Poetry And Fiction, and Shhhh! Digital Media is produced by Brian Joseph Johns. 

I'm sure there are many talented young (middle-aged and old) writers out there, but keep this in mind. A good start to a healthy career is by writing your own material rather than stealing it (which is called plagiarism) from another author whose material is published online, or by illegal surveillance (such as keyloggers) that allow one to take the keystrokes of a writer as they write, often before the material is published.

During my time so far as a writer, I've experienced all kinds of such attempts to take my work from me and associate what I write with other people, who have nothing whatsoever to do with it at all. In my community where I live in Regent Park in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, this sort of effort, including identity theft and identity denial is nearly a daily crime in progress, every single day. These are not the ways that you want to start a career, and I'd highly advise you not to associate with people who take part in such activities, because its going to catch up with them sooner than you think. 

There are many fine examples of entrepreneurship, artistic endeavor, technical artistry and business savvy in the Regent Park community. I highly suggest that you don't follow suit with those of a criminal intent, who want to live by the theft of other people's creative work. No matter how much your friends torment me and attempt to provoke me to appear a mean person, I'll always prove them wrong. Character assassins tend to have very short careers before being exposed.

Don't follow the fools into a career dead end that will eventually lead to a criminal record, unless of course you're writing something of your own, perhaps controversial and that is evocative of social and legal change, for which you're willing to risk confronting policy and the law. In either case, if your cause is truly noble, it will not involve plagiarizing your fellow authors or stealing their identity, but instead your focus on developing a distinct voice of your own.

Despite my age of 54, I'm also a gamer and despite the fact that I do spend a great deal of time in front of the computer, I'm actually quite thin and fit despite it. Anyone else out there working and playing at the computer, please remember to spend some time taking care of your body and your heart. Your mind needs those things in good shape to have a continued journey here on this side of the life/death fulcrum.

I consider it to be akin to reading, perhaps a modern evolutionary branch of the campfire story. The story that eventually became writing on walls, then papyrus, then animal skins, followed by the first paper, then books which eventually became movies, and then digital texts which culminated in interactive stories called video games. 

I have a YouTube channel where I occasionally stream, though I'm not a very entertaining streamer myself, and am hopefully more so on the written page. I tend to like (flight) simulation, strategy and occasionally anything with semi-realistic martial or tactical combat, despite the fact that I am not a violent person, anymore than those who watch action/adventure/horror flicks at the theatres or on the small screen are at risk of becoming serial murderers. Art doesn't make us what we are. Life does. Art just tells the story through a variety of different sensory experiences.

Also, you can get a peek at me at my best and often worst. More or less to put a real identity to who writes these stories. You can see me play my musical piece: Just An Illusion live on a MIDI keyboard  because that song was never played and recorded on a guitar at all, despite it sounding exactly like a real guitar. My father David, a fellow keyboardist taught me well. Or you can check me out making a complete fool out of myself trying to draw a castle by hand with a pen to prove that I'm an artist. What a mess that turned out to be ;-). I'll stick to digital artwork for now, and practice my hand drawn technique on my own time, not yours.

You'll also see that despite my being a guy, I often play most games as a female character. Lets face it, I love promoting women. I'm not into games for dating chat or anything of that nature, so my characters are never a representation or projection of "me". They're an idealization of the mysterious heroic female archetype. Much like the Butterfly Dragon herself.


Brian Joseph Johns 01/09/2022


Everything produced here is created at 200 Sherbourne Street, Suite 701 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

For business and/or other inquiries, please send email to

This last act of the Butterfly Dragon III: The Two Dragons contains subject matter that deals with mature themes, sex and violence. Reader discretion is highly advised.

About The Consumption Of Alcohol

As a final note, the consumption of alcohol, is often depicted within my stories, as the majority of characters in those stories are adults, and are consumers thereof. I myself am a consumer of alcohol, though I do so always considering my health and my responsibilities. 

Though alcohol is present within these stories, there isn't always complementary elements of the story that illustrate the health concerns of the characters, and the extra self-care they undertake in order to keep their bodies and their minds mostly healthy and happy, perhaps with the exception of Heylyn Yates, who occasionally is depicted throughout the stories maintaining an active lifestyle, that includes regular exercise and a healthy dietary consumption.

The responsible consumption of alcohol in moderation can be part of a variety of enjoyable experiences, so long as one ensures that they do NOT get into a motor vehicle, or any heavy equipment and attempt to drive or otherwise operate that equipment. Illicit substance consumption, including but not limited to the consumption of alcohol lead to hundreds, if not thousands of deaths every year around the world. If you do drink on any particular occasion, for the sake of your loved ones, and the sake of innocent drivers and pedestrians upon whom you're imposing the responsibility of your choices, do not drink and drive.

Also, if you do choose to drink, remember that alcohol is a diuretic. That is, when you consume alcoholic beverages, your body expels the alcohol through your lungs through your respiratory system. This process is what dehydrates you, as you also expel large amounts of water vapour, which act as the medium to contain the alcohol for expulsion. This is why the breathalyzer is such an effective way of measuring the alcohol content in your body. Do not drink and drive for the sake of the lives you're risking.

If you are consuming alcohol for any occasion, remember to hydrate yourself regularly while you're drinking. A glass of ice water every hour you're consuming alcohol can go a long way to helping your body process it, while keeping you safely hydrated. It might save you a headache the next day too.

Eat light, easy to digest foods (fish and pasta are good choices), as your liver and kidneys will be doing double duty, processing the food you eat, and the alcohol you consume. Do remember to eat something though before you drink.

Most of all, be mindful of your limits and remember that your liver and kidneys need some love too, as they bear the brunt of the cleanup after a night of drinking. The price paid for negligence of your body  as a result of a lack of moderation in the consumption of alcohol is paid by both these organs, and will often creep up on you during the mid to late years of your life.

Remember to take care of your body through conscious effort. Taking some time to research online through accredited sources, is one of the best ways that you can get that kind of momentum going in your life. Especially if the recreational consumption of alcohol is a part of your lifestyle, or better yet, talk to your family Doctor.

The best way though to minimize the health risks associated with alcohol consumption, is taking responsibility for your body's health, and through moderation.

If you are a young person of age, and you do choose to consume alcohol, remember to make that choice yourself, and not to make it on the grounds of peer pressure, trying to impress others, or using it to symbolize your level of sophistication and maturity. The self image you're trying so hard to create, actually comes about naturally by way of your personality and empathy, without trying to impress anyone. 

So do yourself a favour, and make your own choices. Don't do anything simply to fit in, but balance that against not simply doing the opposite of everyone else to be different. Remember, you have the biggest say in your life. Don't jump into any activity that's going to weigh heavy on your health without careful consideration. 

Believe me, your older self is your best friend, and your older self will be thanking you for the good choices you made early on.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



"You know, the Butterfly is going to get you," Monique turned to face the familiar face of the woman with whom she'd dispatched the gang by the Toronto New City Hall.

"My dear girl, let's not focus on the inevitable. Let's focus on you and why you're here right now in this bar, which I do believe that your citizens locally call the Drake," Aikiko spoke in her broken Japanese-English to the Canadian French-Ukrainian girl who'd lived the lifetime dream of every young girl to become a famous supermodel.

"Why? What's up? You don't like Drake or something?" challenged Monique, confusing her  tattooed company at the bar.

"I do believe that we're on two different channels, you and I, but I'll forgive you if you missed the anec... anec... I don't know how you say..." Aikiko struggled with the ambiguity of the English language.

"Uhhh... metaphor?" asked Monique, having intuitively grasped the core relationship between context and subject driven languages.

"Exactly. Metaphor. Its easy to see why the Butterfly chose you to be her subordinate," Aikiko filed the word Monique had used, committing it to her memory, for she liked the concept.

"What do you do for a living?" asked Aikiko.

"You don't recognize me? Actually that's a relief. I'm a model," Monique responded, still somewhat distant.

"Me too. At least I used to be, back in Japan. Now I'm a... tourist?" replied Aikiko cheerfully.

"More like a deadly tourist," Monique replied.

"I guess its true what they say about looks that kill," Aikiko agreed, her tattoos suddenly taking prominence even in the dim light of the bar.

"So what kind of model are you?" asked Monique, sincerely curious about the mysterious woman.

"I'm was a model for an industry that's very popular in Japan, and somewhat frowned upon by the both the west, and those in Japan that believe it to be a stigma to global business and tourism. Kind of like a stain. The same stain that is applied to women everywhere, if not to keep them on a leash and indebted to society. Perhaps to tame the power of our ability to carry life within us?" Aikiko philosophized.

"You're exploiting that power yourself if you're that kind of model, aren't you?" asked Monique, suddenly defensive having grasped what Aikiko had alluded to.

"So you'd side with those who'd exploit it themselves in the stead of the woman who owns it?" asked Aikiko philosophically.

"Yes, but exploiting it all cheapens it. Gives people the wrong understanding of what being a woman is about," Monique responded, having given the issue consideration.

"And being a woman is about being ashamed of our bodies, enough so to hide them under the designs of a man who is making money from our bodies and that life-giving power?" posed Aikiko somewhat sarcastically, having spent many years discussing the philosophy with her peers back home.

"Its a trade that some women make in order to survive. Its an economy based upon supply, demand and the art of the design and a woman's body. We're not the product. We're wearing the product, and with a bit of help from exercise and good health and umpteen other factors that nobody can define, we might become popular enough to earn a comfortable living," Monique rationalized, carefully defending her industry while being careful to stay clear of what Aikiko had implied as her own.

"My dear Monique, your admiring customers, women and men alike are looking at one thing alone and that part is all in their mind. The product isn't what they see you wearing, its what they imagine beneath it implied by the shape and design of the garment. The bait is only what we see, but the treasure is that which we imagine is hidden beneath it. Perfections and imperfections alike. The sum of what it is to be a woman. So get over what you keep hidden, as being what separates you from women who bare it all. They're more free than you'll ever understand. You're still holding onto that original burden cast upon women thousands of years ago, whether you agree or not. If you cannot respect the woman uncovered, then how can you claim to respect the woman covered? Westerners are constantly in a fight to defend and keep themselves in the very chains that bind them, and they don't even know it," Aikiko responded, taking a sip of her drink and then placing it gently on the bar.

For a moment, she thought she heard the snicker of Witherwyrm, from within the sublime music that gave the bar its ambiance.

"You and the Butterfly work together?" asked Aikiko.

"No, but I do have an employer that is a good mentor. Not quite as good as the Butterfly, but close," Monique lied.

"Does she too keep you as her subordinate?" asked Aikiko.

"Well actually, she always described us as equals..." Monique replied.

"With different levels of experience. I know, oh how do I know, what it is to be second gun to the one who receives all of the attention. Glamour, respect and the fortune that comes with the public's positive attention," Aikiko continued.

Monique paused if not for a moment, and reflected upon their every victory. Alicia's. Valerie's. Heylyn's. Then her's. They'd all gone on to become women nearly at the top of their field. Alicia, Heylyn's best friend in school had become Doctor Alicia Westin, respected Quantum Biologist and inventor of the Cure. The SY349, which had even given Heylyn, Valerie and herself their own special abilities. While Monique, she'd become the coveted sidekick of the world's only reknowned Butterfly. 

The Butterfly Dragon.

Monique's mind wandered back to every situation where she'd felt slighted. Where Alicia, or Valerie or even Heylyn had received the press' attention. Attention that she truly deserved. Now here she was, the true hero of the war against the modern serial killer of Toronto. The serial murderer known as the Chameleon, and once again, it was the Butterfly who was receiving all of her publicity. The attention that was due to her recent success. A success that had eluded even the greatest and most mystical hero the world had known.

And yet, Monique heard Heylyn's voice encouraging her.

"Monique. We only succeed when we're truly we, instead of I," Heylyn told her on one such occasion.

"I, on it's own is a great force. A force with which to contend, but even I needs we. A force that is inclusive. A force not just of the self of ego, but of the inclusion of the cooperation between individuals. We never forgets I, for without I, there is no we. Never denying the force of I, but truly acknowledging the force of cooperation. Of many I's working together," Heylyn would say to Monique, encouraging her confidence to continue their effort, together.

"Like Nintendo Wii?" asked Monique on that night, meaning it fully as the joke it was.

Heylyn broke out in laughter, nearly falling to her knees in her full Butterfly Dragon costume, as they stood atop of the Harbour Castle Hotel's rotating restaurant. Diners beneath them sat eating and drinking, completely unaware of the antics of the two superheroes above them.

When Heylyn stopped laughing, she smiled at Monique and replied much as she always had. As Jinn Hua had. As their ancestor Butterflies had done so for millenia, through the field of time, space and consciousness.

"Monique, I have to admit that our time playing Switch and Kinect together has certainly benefitted our cooperation as a superhero team, as much so as our tennis and squash games have. We have to balance  the cerebral with the physical. Our team isn't strictly because of I. Its because of Us. Working together and even if nobody thanks you for your effort and dedication every night we go out on patrol, I do with all of my heart," Heylyn would respond after a patrol where they'd spent the night working together trying to help the local city Police solve crimes.

Often however, it was Monique who took the backseat as the legend of the Butterfly Dragon grew.

It was as the day, competing with the mysteries of the night. The Sage whose truth lay in what was revealed, and the lure of what was hidden, for in this existence, there is only truth. That known, and that obscured. Monique, being a model, felt that her life in front of the camera had robbed her of the  very same mystique that had fueled the public's interest in the Butterfly Dragon.

And yet, when the heroic duo had solved the mystery of the Chameleon, liberating the city from the killer, it was the resounding mystery of the Butterfly Dragon that had been credited with achieving the impossible. While poor Monique had become the  sidekick of her generation's icon.

The mystery Monique had wanted to be for her whole life.

"Another Drake Whiskey Sour, M'aam?" asked the bartender, flipping the shot glass in his hand like a pro.

Monique looked down for the first time in a long time, realizing that she was truly alone. With Butterfly or Dragon, she was on her own.

"Make that a Drake Whiskey Sour for my friend and I," Monique replied.

"And consider that to be a part of my tab, for I'd never let a remarkable woman like her pay for her own way," Aikiko produced both a credit card and cash money, having no fear to present either.

"Thank you M'aam. Stay safe," the Drake bartender warned his customer respectfully.

"Thanks for your concern, but its misplaced my friend," Aikiko responded to the bartender.

Monique smiled, realizing that someone had finally recognized her abilities. What she had to offer to a team, as Heylyn had often expressed yet failed to materialize in her life.

Monique though, was no fool. She immediately recognized the gamble of the Dragon, and played carefully, watching her every step.

Aikiko wagered Monique's sense of self satisfaction while Monique wagered her own sense of self worth. Somewhere between the two Monique's esteem dwindled. Monique had failed to recognize that both aspects were held firmly within her own grip, yet it was Aikiko who'd realized that Monique was, despite her show of confidence, truly, truly, lost.

She'd peaked, having taken down the Chameleon serial killer. A dangerous hidden menace that had been plaguing the region for years. The Police had been investigating the serial murders for nearly nine years before they connected them all to a single perpetrator.

The psychology involved in every murder was the same, yet details about the methods used were different in every case. The number of murders that involved a right-handed assailant versus a left-handed assailant were statistically on par with the percentage of right-handed members of the population versus left.

In some cases, the killer had been much taller than the victim, while in other cases involving victims of similar height, the killer had been shorter. Their working theory was that the Chameleon had changed their modus operandi with every murder in order to throw the investigating authorities off.

The theory had been consistent, even with the biomechanics involved when a taller person hunched themselves to appear to be a shorter perpetrator. The angle-of-attack involving knives was consistent with this hypothesis, as measured via impact marks on the victims' bones.

Regardless of the details, Monique's career as a crime fighter had peaked, though she'd never felt lower in her life. She expected that it would be like a secret birthday party, where after having vanquished the Chameleon, who was then apprehended by the Toronto Police Service, she would be met by people who'd hold a ceremony for her. Perhaps something like a graduation, for she'd progressed from being the little known sidekick of the Butterfly Dragon, who was often nicknamed the flying strobe light, to becoming a full fledged hero of her own.

She was no longer a flying lightbulb. She was the Eclipse, a force with which to be reckoned.

When she'd awaken in the morning and went to her work at West Meet East International earlier in the same day, there was nothing. It was just another day. The small-talk was slightly different, perhaps more optimistic given the big change, but nobody celebrated her. She didn't become the mysterious Eclipse, superhero in her own rite. She was still that beautiful yet aloof model, that nobody equated with such an extraordinary night life. The night that she thought she'd be the most exhilarating, turned to be the night that Monique had hit the emotional bottom. The bottom of both of her careers. Her day gig as a supermodel, and her night gig as the superhero; Eclipse.

Aikiko beside her, could see it in her demeanor. It was apparent in her eyes, as much so as it was in her posture. In fact, Aikiko was all too familiar with what Monique was feeling, for she'd felt the same when she was betrayed by her father to the loan shark and clan leader Shogo.

Aikiko too had aspired to be something that she'd idealized for her whole life. She'd aspired to become a Butterfly much like Heylyn, for Aikiko's family was connected to the secret of the Butterfly Dragon. She was raised carefully, much the same way that Ai Yuanlin Ying had been, though with the distinct cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese tradition. For her entire life, it had been hinted that there was so much more in store for her, and that she might herself, be the gem.

One day, when the loan sharks came to collect their debt from her father, he essentially sold her and the family property in order to protect the family's true heir, the son, who'd been off at University. Aikiko, who'd just achieved mastery of her family traditional martial art, had suddenly been subverted to the very bottom of society, at a time when she'd expected there would be acknowledgement of her incredible achievement, for achieving mastery in the martial arts was no different than receiving one's Master's degree at University.

Her naivety clung fast to her being for a year beyond that, eventually giving way with her innocence. She'd become aware of an underground world, that fine line between what could be said to be true darkness and true light. She'd walked that line carefully, slowly coming to understand that beneath the veil of illusion upon which her impressions of society were previously based, that it was all an oasis built atop of a precarious and dangerous society that left the people who fell into this whirlwind, struggling to survive. 

Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, all but distant and gone while the grind of making a living hardened one's heart and mind to the point of jaded impenetrability. Hidden somewhere within, Aikiko, the young woman who'd been thrust into that world was still afraid and in hiding, protected by that calloused outer shell. She saw that Monique was just becoming aware of what lay beneath it all. The lawless and often heartless chaos upon which the illusion of heaven was built.

The illusion was fading fast, and it wouldn't be long before Monique began to feel slighted by those who'd kept it. Like they'd somehow robbed her of the truth, by maintaining that illusion while never telling her of what lay beneath. The same way Aikiko had, for she'd been betrayed by her most trusted maintainers of that secret veil.

Ironically, Aikiko having been a reader of classic literature, had immediately connected the metaphor  (once again, her favourite concept) of writer H.G. Wells. She'd read his book The Time Machine, long before she was sold to Shogo, and had found her situation to be much like that between the character Wena and the Morlocks. Aikiko, once the young lady of grand potential in a privileged family, was sold to the cannibals upon which all of heaven was built. 

Perhaps people like herself were just sacrifices made by the maintainers of this grand illusion, in order to quell the cannibals from the risk of uprising and social upheaval against the keepers of heaven. Discarded from their privilege to feed the never ending appetite of those beneath.

As Aikiko had learned, that concept did not mean lesser, but rather the order of things, for that which is  built and was subject to gravity, had to have a foundation, upon which that above lay. Aikiko had struggled for a long time about which of the two were worse. The keepers of heaven for hiding the truth, or those that lay beneath, who when she'd joined their numbers, had kept nothing of their plight and turmoil hidden from her.

In the words of a famous rock band, welcome to the jungle, Aikiko.

And yet like a mythic Butterfly who'd once liberated night and day from the Sun and Moon, a Dragon had thereupon united them all through the dichotomy of the Eclipse. Where what was above and that below were at peace for a time. That peace though rested solely upon the shoulders of Monique Defleur.

They sat silently at the bar, as if both contemplating the same thing, yet their minds were in two very different places, but Monique's was slowly converging upon that very understanding that had rudely and violently invaded Aikiko's life many years previous.

"The night is still young, and there is still so much to be experienced. On this night of your success, we should do something to celebrate, don't you think?" asked Aikiko, more sincerely than direly.

"What did you have in mind?" asked Monique, sincerely curious about the dangerous woman.

"Why don't we go to the night places of all your peers in the industry? The Yorkville nightlife?" asked Aikiko.

"I haven't been there for a year... Tempting but..." Monique pondered the possibility, playing with it in her mind for a moment as a smile crossed her lips.

"I've had one of those smiles before. I'd say that's definitely a yes smile. Perhaps going somewhere that you're amongst familiar faces might open some new doors for you? You can't spend your life hiding from what is bound to become an adventure," Aikiko insisted to Monique.

Monique's smile waned slightly and then became fixed on her lips.

It was true. The validation she was seeking would never happen if she didn't put herself in places where it could find her.

"Alright. Let's do it," Monique agreed, already reaching into her purse and pulling her phone to dial the same cabbie.

As it turned out, he was only a block away. He returned to the Drake where he'd dropped Monique only a half an hour earlier, while Monique paid her's and Aikiko's tab. They then thanked the bartender, leaving by way of the taxi which took them uptown and back east towards Bay Street and Bloor Street.

From there, they walked through the Yorkville bar district, as they chose their first venue that night.

Warai Meets Toronto

Heylyn fell backwards onto her sofa in a display of exhaustion, spurring tearful laughter from a very tired Warai.

In fact, both Warai and Kori aligned themselves along the length of the enormous sofa, then falling like a pair of trees to the cushioned surface, bouncing several times until Kori fell onto the area rug covering the hardwood floor of Heylyn's condominium.

Warai burst into joyful tears upon seeing her other bff (best friend forever) fall onto the rug. Kori lay nearly dead upon the floor, as Warai attempted to provoke her friend to move, as her own long lost mother had so many times before.

Heylyn had already fallen asleep, soundly on the sofa, nearly oblivious to Warai and Kori, as they continued to play their game.

Warai had fallen flat upon the floor, pretending she was asleep when something in her view caught her eye. She paused as she looked at it from the floor. It shimmered, flashing, tall, proud and free against the starlight of the sky.

"Butterfly? What is that?" asked Warai, laying still on her back, spying it through the west facing bay windows of the penthouse.

"Why that's the CN Tower..." Kori replied, laying still upon her back, beside Warai. Immobile yet playfully.

"What's the CN Tower?" asked Warai, amazed by the tall structure.

Truth being told, both Kori and Heylyn had thoroughly researched the topic nearly a day before Warai would ask them, knowing fully well the curiosity of the child. Heylyn remained asleep after her long wakeful hours on the flight while Kori, just having awakened had a brief spur of energy.

"The CN Tower my little friend, is a tall guardian over the city. It keeps watch over us all, making sure that we're worthy of our dreams and aspirations. A tall and silent guardian, that symbolizes our reach for the stars," Kori explained.

"Like the Butterfly?" asked Warai.

"Yes. Kind of like the Butterfly, but without wings," Kori replied.

"Why is it so tall?" asked Warai, looking upon the majestic tower, its flashing lights pointing the way to Betelgeuse from her perspective.

"Because... its...a tower," Kori slowly crept into the land of nod as Warai watched the glowing tower trace a path to the stars of night.

"Welly?" asked Warai aloud as Heylyn suddenly awoke, aware of the time and seeing Warai halfway sprawled on the sofa and floor.

"Come on honey. You've already got a bed here. I'll tuck you in. We have a lot of time ahead of us for questions and answers. Let's not answer them all tonight, because then, what will we do tomorrow?" Heylyn gingerly placed Warai into her bed, as Kori slept half propped up against the sofa.

"Heylyn? Are you going to tuck in Kori too?" asked Warai suddenly.

Heylyn stopped, turning to look at Kori, who'd fallen dead to the night with the exception of her breath, leaning precariously against the sofa, her eyes half closed as she breathed uneasily in her post flight exhaustion despite her having slept.

Heylyn's heart warmed suddenly realizing the merit of concern this child possessed.

"If you get tucked in and a kiss on the forehead, then so does she," Heylyn winked at her little friend.

"Good. I really think it would be therapeutic for her..." responded Warai, trying to grow up far too quickly despite her degree of concern.

Kori lay still, completely unconscious leaning against the sofa as Warai drifted into her depths in bed. 

After Heylyn had retrieved the blanket and pillow for Kori, she prepared herself quickly for her night's sleep, washing her face and brushing her teeth before finding her way between the sheets of her bed.

They all fell soundly asleep, except for Heylyn, who upon sensing something, direly wrong, had prepared herself for the eventuality that she may yet have more in store for her night. She lay awake in bed, dreadfully tired until her she eventually drifted into the world of her dreams.

Almost meditatively, she'd found her way into the field. Still as familiar as it had been when she was a child. However, instead of the familiar silhouette of the dragon she'd come to know, she saw a darkened serpent of similar form, whose voice was as much like thunder.

"So we meet again, Butterfly..." Witherwyrm greeted Ai Yuanlin Ying.


A Long Fall

Alicia stood in front of the stove, slowly stirring the sautéed mushrooms, garlic and onions on low heat. She then covered shut the burner off, and dished out two steaming plates of perfectly cooked, bite-let sized mixed seafood. She covered the seafood in a white wine sauce, and then topped it with the contents of the sauté.

As the front door to the condominium opened, she quickly carried the plates to the dinner table where she'd prepared two place settings, between which a bottle of her favourite wine sat. With her hands finally empty, she turned to greet Norler as he entered the dining room.

"That was a long day," she said, planting a kiss firmly and deliberately on his lips.

"Well to tell you the truth, it felt even longer," he replied, barely returning her kiss.

"What's the matter?" she looked into his eyes and upon their meeting, he turned away.

"Oh honey, I'm not feeling too well at all. I've got a monstrous headache, and I think I might have a case of tinnitus," Norler replied, immediately making his way to the toilet.

Alicia followed him, standing just outside of the door after he closed it.

"Are you alright to eat?" asked Alicia, concerned for him.

"Honestly honey, I don't know. Not right this second," he said, reaching into the cabinet and pouring a trio of acetaminophen tablets into his hand.

"Is it a two?" asked Alicia, referring to the gauge representing the strength of his headache prompted by his tablet count.

"Its a definite four," Norler responded, throwing the pills in his mouth and washing them down with a glass of water.

"Don't take more than three," Alicia scolded him with concern.

"I know. I just put three down the hatch. Just give me a moment and I'll come sit with you at the table. I can't eat, but I'd love a glass of wine," Norler said through the door after washing his eyes and face thoroughly with cold water.

"We could skip dinner, and I could give you a massage?" Alicia suggested invitingly.

"Can I take a rain check?" asked Norler, looking in the mirror and seeing two immensely dark patches under his eyes.

He turned and opened the door to see Alicia waiting there for him, facing him.

"Honey?" she got a glimpse of his face in the light.

"Yes?" asked Norler as he made his way to the candlelit dining room.

"We should make an appointment for a checkup at the Doctor's," insisted Alicia.

"But I have a Doctor," he said, turning and quickly kissing her on the cheek.

"I mean a Physician. I'm looking at you, and you have symptoms of a circulatory problem written all over your face. Could be kidney related or even prostrate. I'm going to call and make an appointment for you next week, on Monday. Tuesday, the latest. Alright?" Alicia's concern became serious.

"Honey, I just had a bad day. That's all. That happens every once in a while," Norler responded, pouring Alicia's wine first, but not before sampling the wine himself for her, as was the lost tradition.

"Even CEOs and innovators of the globally responsible business mandate, like yourself?" confirmed Alicia, accepting the wine glass from him and taking a sip.

"Even us too, though not days like this one all the time, thankfully," Norler replied, still very familiar and comfortable with being the poster boy of the ideal male CEO.

"Want to talk about it? I've got room on my sofa," Alicia gave him a peck on the cheek before returning to the kitchen to wrap the plates she'd prepared in aluminum foil.

She then retrieved a bamboo steamer from the cupboard, and put each of the plates on its own shelf within, keeping the food warm and hydrated to prevent it from drying out. After quickly wiping the counter, she returned to the table to join Norler.

He'd rarely allowed her to cook, instead enjoying being the chef in their relationship. It had been almost two years since Alicia had cooked anything for them, but after her recent successes with the Noble Group, she'd suggested a celebration by offering to cook them a special meal for a romantic evening together. After some convincing, where he reasoned that she should let the "pro" handle the cooking for such an important night, she accepted his veiled challenge, choosing a meal she'd never cooked before.

For her, the evening had represented her comfort and acceptance with the fact that their having a child together would be a long and difficult journey. Even longer and more trying than it had already been. Ironically, as Alicia had bottomed out more than a week ago upon finding out about the results of her pregnancy test, Norler appeared to have reached his own lows. A rarity for sure in their relationship, for in her entire time with Norler, she'd never seen him even in the slightest, struggle in the aftermath of a difficult day. For the entirety of their romantic and professional relationship, he'd been a ship running full mast. For the first time in their relationship, he'd exhibited the signs of stress that most other people with half of his responsibility had endured under day-to-day life.

Instead of panicking, Alicia, whose body was in great shape and even better homeostasis, had opted to be empathic and understanding as she could. She saw it as an opportunity to become more deeply familiar with the man she knew and loved.

"You know honey, its strange, but I've never, ever in my life ever had a day like today. Not even once. Usually, I feel an even step and pace in my direction and progress, and yet today, it was as if all that had abandoned me. It was like the universe was entirely working against me. Like it had somehow become jealous or upset with me. With my being the voice of reason and prosperity, and took it upon itself to sabotage everything I said or did. The circumstances. The people I know and depend upon. All of it just unraveled at once, and for the first time in my life," Norler said, taking another healthy drink from his wine glass.

He shook his head, looking down at the table, his eyes distant as if he was reliving an earlier moment from his day.

"You know honey, the longer that had gone by that this day hadn't come, the more it worried me about you. For you. It was like watching someone you care about, climbing an infinitely tall tower, and never  seeing them stumbling. Not even once. I was watching the whole time, that every moment you climbed and didn't fall, marveling at your success, but keeping an eye out for that one day, you'd lose your grip. And because you'd never fallen, you'd climbed so far up, that your first fall would most certainly be fatal. I'd hoped so many times that you'd fall, when you were still at an appreciably safe height, but that day never came, and you kept on getting higher. Now here we are, and you've fallen for your first time and from a height that few have seen or experienced. You seem to be keeping yourself together, mostly, but I can feel your pain, though honestly I have to say that I'm glad that it happened before you fell from a height nobody could survive," Alicia told him sincerely.

"I've lived my whole life, keeping my eyes on up. Never looking down. Not even once, so I never knew how far up I was. When you do what I do, for the most part, people want you to win. My employees. The board members. My team. They're like the river's current. Always working with you, so you never get a sense for what its like to try to achieve anything when the current is running against you. The first time I experienced a real struggle was in the midst of the Torman scandal. After that, during our tenure as part of the Western Delegation during our trip to the Asian Alliance. The whole time though, the current was moving with me, in the direction I was taking us. The direction we were all going together. Today, it was like everyone and everything was against me. Against everything I tried. Everything I'd done up until that point. The whole time, I had this horrible ringing in my ears too. It was like the squelch of a radio that wasn't quite tuned into the station, perhaps somewhere in between them all. I could hear bits and pieces of voices in my head. They sounded like the opposite of a cheer leading squad. Like a group of people resigned to seeing me fail. Reaching into me in attempt to push me over the edge and into anger. I could see it on the faces of my employees. I could see it on the faces of the board members. The only person civil with me today, was a competitor, vying for my position as CEO of Tynan And Associates," Norler admitted, shaking his head, still looking at the glass dining table for imperfections.

"Who?" asked Alicia, shocked that she'd never heard news of such a possibility.

"Jason Michael Savoy. He's a younger, more handsome guy than me. His demeanor is nearly perfect. Well polished, he knows how to earn people's trust, but there's just something about him that's off. Like behind all of that polish and image, there's something wrong," Norler said, sounding more and more human to Alicia with every word he said.

She didn't feel let down by him at all. In fact, she'd never felt closer to him than now, for she'd realized that maybe he was approaching the point in his career where he might be ready to pass the torch to the next generation. To a worthy successor who'd go on to represent his principles for a better world through his responsible business mandate.

She saw her knight in shining armour, who'd suddenly become aware of his own limits. His own mortality. He was seeing the writing on the wall, as perhaps his own employees were gracefully trying to give him the hint. The stress which he'd experienced would certainly manifest in any number of challenges to his psyche. The body had wonderful defense mechanisms for those who'd invested too much of themselves into something from which they couldn't distance themselves.

The first thing to go, especially when experience life changing stress, was the body's balance of hormones, many of which regulated our response to situations we'd encounter during struggle in our life. In such situations, it wasn't uncommon for those under stress to experience ringing ears, hearing voices and having excruciatingly painful headaches. Though Alicia knew there wasn't enough research conducted into the existential and environmental factors that affect hormone production, she knew the evidence was there to back up the theories relating to stress and hormone production, and their direct effect upon perception, cognition and behavioural response. We perceive, we experience, and then we respond to our environment. Hormones played a crucial part in how we interpret reality.

She saw a man, quickly approaching his mid-to-late forties, who'd suddenly become aware that he couldn't keep going up forever. Like Icarus, his wax wings would eventually melt, and given his height, he'd plummet all the way down. He was at the stages of noticing his wings melting, and that he could no longer rely upon them to climb. Alicia committed herself to the idea that she'd guide him safely back to the ground and together they could focus on starting their family together.

"Maybe your role at Tynan is about to change? I think you're entering into the next chapter of your professional life. The chapter that takes you progressively beyond having been the CEO of one of the world's most successful Biomedical And Pharmacological Research companies in the world. Norler, you knew that one day, you'd have to look beyond your position and think about what would be next. Maybe you should take this situation, despite its stress, as an opportunity?" suggested Alicia by the insinuation of a question.

"Alicia honey. I have to be honest about this. Its not like the epiphany of one's progress leading to the next chapter in their life. Its like something sinister has changed about the corporate offices in which I work. Something that has made even the most familiar of my allies seem like hidden enemies, trying to secretly overthrow the person they supported in that role for a decade and a half," Norler explained to Alicia, shaking his head again and finishing his wine.

He then poured himself another glass, topping up hers at the same time.

"Honey, even the lab where I work has had its share of changes. Almost all of the original researchers from the SY349 team are long gone. There's nobody I know from the beginning, and sometimes that unfamiliarity makes me feel very much out of place. But then I remember that my part at Tynan, makes me a part of the team, no matter what kind of science I do. I might be moved tomorrow from special projects to catalyst production. That would be bit of a shock, but I'd still be doing the science I love, for the company I believe in, just at a very different capacity. Maybe its time you realized that we're a part of something that is going to see people come and go. While we might be familiar to each other, and the only people we remember from the old days, people will come and go. We've got to get used to it. You've got to get used to it. Maybe, its a gentle nudge for you to look for a change. It wouldn't be a bad time for us to consider it. Especially with our goals?" Alicia urged Norler, reaching across the table to play with his index finger, looping hers around his.

"Alicia, I don't think that you understand. There's malice afoot. It's far worse than what we experienced with the Western Delegation, even with the assassination attempt. This isn't serendipity knocking at my door, gently hinting that I need to move on. There is something seriously wrong, Alicia!" Norler said impatiently.

"Why not call Werner? He's an old friend. I'm sure he'd be happy to hear from you," Alicia asked him.

"Werner is in protective custody, and under the protection of the Federal Police and Red Leaf Security Services. I tried calling him earlier today, and the RCMP informed me that they'd taken him into protective custody, and that he was not to communicate with any outside parties until they were verified via a security services background check," Norler explained to Alicia.

"What happened to him?" asked Alicia, shocked to hear about Werner.

"He was recently removed from the position of Chairman of Werner-Goldstein holdings, and was voted out of the Chair of Tynan And Associates today. During the same round of voting that called into question my credibility as CEO," Norler informed Alicia.

"It passed obviously, didn't it?" asked Alicia, suddenly becoming aware that Norler had already kept much from her. Most likely to protect her.

"Just barely. Jason Michael Savoy suggested the vote, on the grounds that the board should seek to insulate Tynan And Associates from the damage done by Werner in light of his involvement with a Federal investigation. An investigation that called into question his sanity. Given my close friendship with Werner, Jason asked for the vote against my position as CEO," Norler looked away from the table for the first time, looking into Alicia's eyes.

"Honey. I'm so sorry. I didn't realize that it was this serious," Alicia clasped his hand.

"Jason Michael Savoy is trying to remove me through scandal, attempting to scar my reputation with the board in the same way that the investigation that uncovered Torman's criminal network damaged his. He's building a case with the board about some kind of a criminal association between Werner and I. Its linked to some illicit investments that were purchased through private accounts with the Canadian Commerce Union. He's got backing from the Ontario Court Of Justice, who are pressing for an investigation by the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada, which, if it succeeds would put it in the jurisdiction of the Federal courts, and the RCMP," Norler explained to Alicia.

"Well this is obviously some kind of mistake! You'd never do something like that!" Alicia said, shocked that anyone would make such an implication about Norler.

"You're right Alicia. If I knew about something like that going on under my watch, I'd stop it immediately and try my best to rehabilitate those who'd be worthy of redemption. However, when you're CEO, there are many financial activities and investments that can happen with your approval of which you were never made aware. These are activities that are smaller on the scheme of things related to the decisions you make of a larger fiscal responsibility, and so you're not always aware. When such transactions and investments involve the movement of money that violates the regulations or is fraudulent, or for criminal purposes, you as the CEO might be held responsible, much the same as the Captain of a ship might be held responsible for what his crew does that affects the health and safety of the passengers," Norler did his best to explain how his responsibility was implicit rather than direct.

"Whose money was it, if it involves regulatory violations and investor fraud?" asked Alicia.

"Its called The Metro Group. Another investment firm providing investment capital to Werner-Goldstein Holdings and the Noble Group. Over the last few years,  a number of transactions were recently flagged as violating Investment Industry Regulations, and that an armed bank robbery was conducted in attempt to cover up those transactions," Norler explained.

"Were the bank robbers caught?" asked Alicia.

"Yes. Actually foiled by Butterfly Dragon and Eclipse. But within a few days of the robbery, the seven suspects were all killed while in custody, meaning there's nobody to discount the connection between the robbery and a cover-up, but there's plenty of people and evidence to corroborate a cover-up linked to Tynan And Associates," Norler told Alicia.

Alicia suddenly grasped the degree to which Norler was stressed. Knowing him better than anyone alive, she knew he'd never have taken part in any such effort.

"Its Friday night. Its eleven o'clock. Lets just curl up in bed, and do our best to forget about this for now. On Monday, you'll be going to the Doctor, and I'll be looking into this situation for you," Alicia grabbed Norler by the hand.

"Its Friday night. Its eleven o'clock. Lets just curl up in bed, and do our best to forget about this for now. On Monday, you'll be going to the Doctor, and I'll be looking into this situation for you," Alicia grabbed Norler by the hand.

"You're not thinking of going out as...?" Norler asked her, a look of deep concern now on his face.

"No. I'm going to look into this as me and myself. Whatever you may think that means, or how I should limit myself accordingly is not your decision to make. My life is a part of yours now, and this affects the both of us. I'm going to do rightfully whatever is in my capacity to investigate, because I believe in you. So could you please trust me and believe in me?" asked Alicia.

"...and Night Style...?" Norler confirmed with her.

"And Night Style. She's a part of this too," Alicia responded to Norler's question.

"Alright. As long as you do what's right, and what's lawful, I'll support you on this," Norler responded to her.

"Have I ever done anything less?" Alicia asked him, now standing beside him, as he sat looking up at her in his chair.

He stood and kissed her gently on lips. She returned the kiss tenderly, but did not continue beyond a moment's tenderness. She could empathize him, with his migraine, and knew enough to be supportive from an arm's length.

He picked up the bottle of wine, and they left, hand-in-hand for the bedroom. They finished the bottle of wine together, and Alicia gently massaged Norler to sleep, after which they curled up for the night, their bodies and minds tangled in the possibility of what was to come. For Norler, he struggled between Alicia and the cool spots on the bed for comfort.

Somewhere Between Wants, Needs And Responsibilities

Valerie stood naked, leaning over the kitchen counter at Trey's townhome rental. She stood in the light of the screen of her phone as she checked messages. There were a series a texts, the first one from Monique:

Hi Sis. Thinking of going out 2nite. 2 impatient 2 wait until tomorrow. Interested?

Then a second message from the same anxious sender just a half-hour later:

Going 2 check-out the Drake lounge first. I'll be there for a pre-dance club warm-up. I'll text u when I leave for a club. Bfn!

There was another message only three minutes after that one from Heylyn:

Just got in the door safely with Kori and a wee little micro-person I'd like you to meet on Monday. I'll be sleeping for for about ten hours, and then making a quick trip to the office tomorrow. Don't come. You and Monique have already worked hard enough as it is, and I'm ever so proud of your accomplishments without me, as I'm sure Toronto must love you two. Enjoy your time over the weekend and say hi to Trey for me. I'll see you Monday!

Finally, one last message from Monique:

Just got to the Drake. Looking for a spot at the bar in the lounge. Text me when you get this. :-)

Valerie smiled briefly over the context of both Heylyn's and Monique's messages. She was happy to hear that Heylyn had returned safely, and with an extra addition to their family. When she realized that Heylyn was also commenting about the news related to Monique's having assisted the Police in taking down the Chameleon, she felt a tinge of guilt.

Just one day after she'd promised Heylyn that she'd look after Monique, and help her patrol the city, she'd put her own personal needs first, instead opting for her romance with Trey. She then felt angered that she should even be made to feel guilty about such a promise, for she'd already given up so much of her life over this superhero nonsense. A responsibility that was thrust upon her when Torman had forced her to have a dose of the stolen SY349 formula nearly three-quarters of a decade ago.

Under Torman's influence, as the SY349 he'd administered to himself had given him the ability to manipulate and even inhabit other people's minds, she'd used her powers in attempt to protect Torman from Heylyn and Alicia. Her strength was nearly immeasurable, but she fortunately, she proved to be no match against Heylyn and Alicia. In all truth, she'd resisted Torman's influence with every ounce of willpower she had. So in essence, from inside of her own body and mind, she helped Heylyn and Alicia to defeat herself first, and then to hunt down Torman and Zek on Treadwater Island all those years ago.

Her life beyond that point and in the aftermath of the legal nightmare of the Torman/Zek case was no walk in the park. She'd spent a solid two years with a Psychiatrist, who'd guided her back from the sense of violation she'd experienced having had a narcissistic criminal like Torman violate the sanctity of her mind. Even long after Torman's death, on bad nights she could still feel bits and pieces of his essence within her. 

Her Psychiatrist had likened it to the sense of violation that many rape victims experience for years beyond the crime, he'd explained to her. The trauma begins with the initial violation of the victim's body. Through that act, a bond between the victim and the perpetrator is created, that in an inexplicable way, links to the two to each other, no matter the distance between them. Those responsible for treating rape victims in crisis centers often refer to this as the first trophy taken by a rapist, of their victim. The forging of a connection between them, that is similar, but quite the opposite to the connection that two star-crossed lovers form, rising from the extremity of their lovingly strong emotions for each other. With rape, the strong emotions experienced by the victim are those of hatred for, helplessness against the perpetrator. The perpetrator's connection is formed out of the excitement brought about by the experience. Much like the star-crossed lovers, the victim and the perpetrator become entangled in a way that often takes therapists years from which to sever the victim.

Torman, having violated Valerie in a way that few could possibly even imagine, had carried bits and pieces of Torman with her from that moment onward. The entirety of her therapy was dedicated first to helping her cope with the sense of anger and frustration she'd have with the echoes of her violator still resounding within her. Then, with silencing and snuffing those echoes out permanently, as she found her determined sense of willpower and identity as allies of her own id and super-id, to overcome the last bits and pieces of Torman within her.

The process took years, and even during the Western Delegation's trip to meet with the Asian Alliance, she'd still been in a state of recovery. Her work at that time for the delegation was imperative to her recovery, for it gave her a sense of purpose and focus to take her forward into what would become the most recent chapter of her life. After having successfully built her own Corporate Analysis firm, and then selling it for a comfortable sum, she'd been hired by Heylyn as the business manager and director for West Meet East Fashion International. From that point, the pieces of her new found independence fell into place one at a time. Her romance with Trey the most fundamental and life-changing of all the pieces.

She'd lost so much of her life as a result of the SY349, simply by the fact that it had given Torman the abilities he'd used to first violate her, and it had also given her superhero-like abilities which imposed an immense responsibility upon her to use them for the greater good of humanity. The first way the SY349 had impacted her, as it related to Torman, was a violation of her being that took a nearly decade to overcome, both psychologically and emotionally. The second, was a violation of her own body, as the formula had changed her physically. She still appeared the very same woman, but physically, she was immensely strong, and possessed a superhuman healing factor as had each of the four women who'd taken the SY349.

The responsibilities imposed upon her had invaded her life in a way that weren't related to victimization, but rather, responsibility. From that moment on, despite her having spent years building up her sense of independence from Torman and his violation of her person, she'd lost all of the freedom to the responsibility imposed by her SY349 imposed abilities. In the end and in all irony, Torman had won. She may have eradicated his being from her life, but he'd still taken her freedom from her, by forcing her to take the SY349, and turning her into the freak that she'd become. All those years of therapy had merely removed the echoes of Torman from her being, but they hadn't removed the responsibilites implied by her own powers. As she looked at Monique's text message, she realized that she'd never escape them. Ever.

Everytime the city, or the country or the world needed her, she'd be fighting a struggle against them just to live the life she'd had a right to as much as anyone else. Of all the people, she'd fought for that right through her efforts as a superpowered hero, and yet here she was denied of the freedom to live a happy and fulfilling life. All because Torman had made her take the SY349 formula. She would never escape it.

Valerie jumped when she felt warm fingers climbing her back, as she leaned forward fixated upon the screen of her phone.

"Whatcha doin?" asked Trey, as she felt his skin embrace the back of her legs and body.

"You sneak! I was just checking my messages. Heylyn says hi," Valerie turned to face him, and they stood naked in the darkened kitchen and kissed.

"She's back safely? Yay! We all still have jobs!" he joked.

"Trey?" Valerie asked, withdrawing some of their sexual tension as if changing lanes to a different topic.

"What can I do you for?" he asked her, his day's worth of facial hair growth adding to his lure.

"How would you feel about going out tonight?" Valerie asked him.

"What. You mean like for a coffee? Desert maybe? I think I could handle eating an ice cream sundae in bed with you. Why don't we go to the all night grocer's and pickup a some Ben and Jerry's or Hagen Daas?" asked Trey excitedly.

"Not quite. I was thinking we could get ready and go out to meet Monique?" she asked him.

"Where is she?" asked Trey.

"She should be at the Drake lounge. We can message her before we leave and meet her. Please?" Valerie asked him, feeling a sense of guilt that she'd left Monique to take on the Chameleon alone, while she didn't even have the decency to be a good friend by accompanying her when she needed good company the most.

"Uhhhh. Sure. Dress code?" asked Trey.

"Semi-casual. Maybe slacks instead of jeans?" Valerie suggested.

"And my casual dress jacket," he agreed.

"With your Canon t-shirt?" asked Valerie.

"How about my Zeiss shirt?" responded Trey.

"Either or," she replied.

"Deal. But you have to wear that new skirt of yours," Trey replied.

"I was saving that for our first official dinner-date. You know, at a restaurant, so I could slowly seduce you in public," Valerie played back at him.

"That skirt tonight, or no deal," he negiotated shrewdly.

"Fine. You drive a hard bargain, Mister Trey," she leaned in and kissed him.

"I'll be ready in twenty minutes," she left him naked in the kitchen.

"I'll be ready in five. Wanna shower together first?" he asked as she made her way to the bathroom.

"The door's unlocked," she invited him as she opened the glass door to the shower.

Just as he followed her in, she quickly grabbed the cold faucet and cranked it up, jumping out of the way as the ice cold water hit him mid-torso.

He screamed, dancing profusely to avoid the cold water, quickly reaching for the faucet and returning the water to an appreciably warm temperature.

"You're going to pay for that. Now be a good girl and warm me up," he pressed his wet body against hers as they kissed.

Twenty-five minutes later and they were both ready and waiting outside of Trey's town home for the cab to arrive.

"Let me text Monique..." Valerie said as she got into the cab.


Monique stepped out of the taxi and onto College Street just east of Bathurst Avenue. She was followed by Aikiko, as several men from the line-up at the Nest Dance Club eyed the two women.

"A lot of my peers, other models and fashion professionals come here on Fridays. Its more of an electronic dance and dub-step crowd, which really seems to hit home with a lot of models I know. What kind of music do you like?" asked Monique of Aikiko.

"Electronic is good. I'll give it a try," Aikiko replied, thoroughly interested in learning more about the Butterfly's best friend as she stepped into the line behind a pair of well dressed younger men.

"Nice body art. You do that yourself?" asked one of the men, admiring Aikiko's tattoos as much so as her shapely and toned curves.

"No. My tattoo artist did it," Aikiko replied succinctly.

"Does she got a card you could give me?" he asked her.

"No. He doesn't," Aikiko replied, barely looking at the younger man.

"He's a pretty darn good artist. Is he doing it for a hobby?" he asked her.

"No. He's dead. He was murdered," she replied coldly.

"Oh. I'm sorry to hear," the man replied.

"Don't be. After he died, he killed the murderer," Aikiko replied, her face deadly serious.

Neither of the men addressed her for the remainder of the night.

"That's a dismal story. Is it true?" Monique wasn't sure whether to giggle or to frown.

"What do you think?" asked Aikiko, smiling back at Monique from behind a similar mystery as the Butterfly.

"I don't know what to think, but after seeing you dispatch those assailants outside of the New City Hall the other night, I'm not nearly so sure that you're lying when you say something like that," Monique replied.

Dragon Butterfly
"You didn't know my tattoo artist, so essentially, he didn't exist to you before you met me. He was an important part of what became the me that you see before you now. The fact that he lived and died within a span of my life that only lasted three hours, makes no difference when compared to what he accomplished during that time. Those men attacking that woman outside of the City Hall? They only knew me for mere minutes, and yet, look at the profound impact I had upon defining the final moments of their lives. When one lives fully, even a moment of their time can change the lives of those they affect, forever. A moment, is an eternity and an eternity within every moment. The Buttefly's path is erratic and almost random, while the Dragon is very direct and willful," Aikiko explained from the perspective of a Dragon.

Monique listened to Aikiko, as if hearing the words of a Sage and a Poet. Her attention was broken only when her phone chirped, signifying that someone had sent her a text message.

"Who could that be?" asked Monique, suddenly snapping out of her fixation on Aikiko's words.

Monique spied her messages, seeing the first one with Valerie's profile picture beside it:

Trey and I are on the way. Are you still at the Drake?

"Oh amazing! This is sooo awesome! One of my best friends is coming to meet us with her boyfriend. You'll really like her. She's funny and sarcastic, but I think she's hiding a real soft spot. She's really fun, and he can be the life of the party," Monique immediately began typing a response to Valerie excitedly.

Just in the line-up at the Nest on College Street just east of Bathurst. Get here quick, the line's moving fast :-) 'nique

Ten seconds later, the response came:

Never been there, but heard of it. Trey says is good. We'll b there in under ten. Gin and 7 for Trey, and a Daquiri for me ;-)

"They're going to be here soon? I can't wait to know those who are part of who you are," Aikiko replied as another Dragon watched them from a dimension interwoven into space and time.


"Mutano. I've found your quarry for you. You are to carry out my request tonight, but nobody is to find out who you are. Leave no witnesses. Only leave questions without any answers," Witherwyrm reached out through a fold in the fabric of reality to address a dapperly dressed Mutano, the Dragon's voice causing ripples in space and time.

"It will be done as you request, O'Sama," Mutano replied.

A Return To The Looking Glass

"Heylyn said that she arranged for our room at the Hilton on Chestnut Street. We can check-in after our dinner with Zheng and Doctor Briggs," Wendy informed Bryce as he focused on his driving.

"That's precisely why I leave all the planning in your hands honey. Cause then all I have to do is show up for the gig, and throw on the charm," Bryce smiled for his wife.

"Your retirement has turned into a fulltime career for me. Must be a hard life for you Bryce," Wendy joked with him sarcastically.

"Not with you running the show. I just show up and smile," Bryce laughed as he pulled the car off of the Don Valley Parkway and out onto along the Bayview extension, eventually arriving at Danforth Avenue.

"Don't you think 9 PM is kind of late to start a Friday dinner with our friends?" asked Bryce.

"It was your idea to have dinner with them. Why didn't you set a different time?" Wendy asked him.

"Briggs has been working on a project, and apparently he'd already booked the lab time for one of the studies they're doing. So he couldn't get away from the University until 8:30 PM. Why, have you got a problem with a late dinner date? Well then talk to my retirement manager, why don't you?!" Bryce scolded Wendy playfully.

"I did, and she's seriously thinking about quitting, and retiring herself. Know of any good retirement managers?" Wendy asked.

"Don't look at me. I'm with the band," Bryce replied innocently as he pulled the car into the underground parking beside the Looking Glass Lounge.

He parked the car safely, and they quickly found their way up through the elevator and from there to the front doors of the colourful Looking Glass Lounge.

"Excuse me miss?" Wendy approached the Hostess.

"Welcome to the Looking Glass. Reservations?" the Hostess asked Wendy, pretending that she didn't recognize Professor Bryce Maxwell.

"We're with Zheng Ni Wong and Doctor Briggs party?" replied Wendy. 

"Oh. They're in the lounge. We're still waiting on a table for four for you. If you follow me, I'll take you to them," the Hostess led Wendy and Bryce down a hall into the lounge and bar area, where Zheng and Doctor Briggs were seated.

Zheng was up from her bar stool, followed by Doctor Briggs, who turned to greet their best friends.

"Wendy! Bryce! So good to see you! Its been a while!" Zheng hugged Wendy, and then Bryce, after which Doctor Briggs greeted the pair.

"Good to see you Bryce. Looks like retirement is treating well," Doctor Briggs smiled at his friends and peers.

"He's not really retired, per se. I come into the den every once in a while and find him catching up on the latest Quantum Physics papers. The other day I even caught him writing a new paper," Wendy told them.

"You can take the man out of the physics, but you can't take the physics out of the man," Doctor Briggs agreed.

"What could be so inspiring that it would bring you out of retirement to write a new paper?" asked Zheng.

"Well, after our experiences and some recent discoveries regarding consciousness and the functioning of neurons and microtubules, the mechanisms that were once theorized to be associated with the possibility of the Quantum nature of consciousness but were recently all but disproven, I'm investigating the possibility of a link between QED and consciousness. One that describes it as an emergent property related to QED and magnetic fields, arising out of the complex fractal geometry of the nervous system," Bryce explained his current focus, hardly able to keep himself contained having not had any peers with whom to discuss his recent work.

"That sounds like the Bryce I remember," Zheng responded, sincerely interested in what his work entailed.

"About a month ago, he was going through his periodicals and came upon a paper, which he read while we were cuddled up on the couch during our movie night together. I fell asleep part way through the movie and when I woke up, he was already working on a treatment for a new paper," Wendy explained to them.

"I didn't even tuck her in like I usually did when she falls asleep on the couch. I just immediately went for my books and began doing some numbers to check the possibilities," Bryce explained, rubbing his wife's back tenderly.

"So what triggered the eureka moment?" asked Zheng.

"Well, the paper as it turns out, was written by Wendy's brother's Father-in-law, Erin, at the University Of Dartmouth in Nova Scotia. They've developed some very advanced SQUIDs, electromagnetic detectors that are so sensitive, they can be used to detect field interactions between molecules, and most certainly, electrical exchanges between the parts of individual neurons. Using the SQUIDs, they recently discovered that the nervous system can become ionized and even polarized, meaning that at the level of field interactions, ionization of the nervous system can actually mimic the same processes involved with the storage of memory, without actual biological hardware for it. Its an emergent property of the physiology of the nervous system and the charge and polarity of the ionization itself. The discovery was applied recently to research conducted to discover the underlying mechanisms affecting the states where the homeostasis of the body's adrenal system is thrown off, hence leading to episodes of anxiety, hysteria and even dimentia in some individuals. I believe that its related to ionization of the nervous system itself, and that it plays a significant role in the sensitivity of some people to certain reactions. Even when and where they're physically healthy, and have a healthy endocrine system. There's a definite connection with consciousness, because this phenomenon has the potential to override it," Bryce explained.

"Sounds similar to what we discovered about MAZ?" asked Zheng.

Bryce put his finger to his lips "Shhhh!, but you're exactly right, Zheng," Bryce replied.

"I was going to order us some wings, but I figured they're close to finding us a table for four?" asked Zheng, who looked to the Hostess who'd just returned.

"We've got a table for you in the back room. I'm so sorry, but its the busiest we've been in some time, after the pandemic of course. If you'd follow me, I'll have the wait staff bring your drinks," the Hostess led them into the darkened back room.

When Bryce set foot in the room, the lights came on and a gathering of familiar faces yelled:


"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Bryce! Happy birthday to you!" they all sang in unison for him, a large group of his friends and peers.

"Happy birthday Bryce!" Zheng gave him a big kiss on the cheek as Doctor Briggs patted him on the back.

"I had no idea! What a completely incredible surprise!" Bryce responded, smiling to his friends and peers.

"I'm sorry honey, but Alicia called at the last minute and said that her and Norler couldn't make it. He's really ill and she's staying home to take care of him," Wendy told Bryce.

"So you were in on this the whole time? And I thought I arranged for this dinner, but as it turns out, you'd actually tricked me into thinking I had! Well it looks like Wendy did it again," Bryce hugged and kissed his wife.

"The funny part is that we had another birthday surprise just last week in the family," Wendy explained.

"And I didn't suspect a thing!" Bryce added.

"Well happy birthday to your family too," Zheng clapped for Bryce.

"Happy birthday Bryce!" a blond-haired woman approached him from the crowd.

"Linda? Linda Delmore?" asked Bryce, trying to remember her name.

"Perfect! On the first try. How are you? Its been while," Linda asked Bryce.

"Since our time in Vietnam? I'll say. How are you? I thought you were living in Baltimore?" asked Bryce.

"So did I. Apparently not though for my latest assignment. I'm working for a new company, and we're doing business here in Toronto, taking advantage of the economic incentives for local business investment. Hoping to draw an appreciable return business in Baltimore as well," Linda explained.

"What sort of business?" asked Bryce.

"Its a Global Market Network. What we do is find the best niche products for the best prices in local economies, and offer them for global export to other places who also have their own different niche products. From this, we've a network of companies in close to forty countries around the world, including markets in North America, Europe and Asia, including the two biggest markets of China and India," Linda explained.

"I thought the export of technology was banned to Russia and China in light of the Ukraine invasion?" asked Bryce of Linda.

"Technology like advanced chips for AI has been restricted, but other products are fine in China and throughout all of Asia, and the best part is that its reciprocal. That is, they produce niche products that must pass our rigid standards, while maintaing the best price point globally, for the top spot selling the product through our network. At the same time, we're producing niche products that sell well in their country. Both sides of the trade benefit from niche products and a great price point for those products. Mostly consumer level tech, household goods and occasionally domestically produced foods for export. The best part is that it has proven to be a benefit for diplomacy as well, because everyone wants to be a part of it. It has proven to be a life saver in the recovery of the post pandemic consumer economy too, while the real-estate and energy resource sectors recover. A small step towards reducing inflation, but we're still expanding. We're expecting to grow into Pan and Latin America by next year," Linda explained to Bryce.

"You know, I've always supported tech trade with China, under supervision by entities like the CSA and other inspection agencies that provide technology inspection against security intelligence threats, and quality assurance. The reason is that as China's capacity for the development of technology grows, especially chips geared towards AI and Quantum Computing, the more mutual our trade efforts between the two countries, the more the consumer benefits, especially when there's direct competition at the international level. Its a dangerous political game to omit entire countries from the global economy, especially where technology is involved, because that technology has as much potential to be used for saving lives, as it does for taking them. North America, Pan and Latin America, NATO and the EU countries would benefit from a better relationship with the Asian Alliance. Its very heart wrenching to see all of the good work we did in building that bridge between the West and the East, get torn down simply because some Western economies aren't confident that they'll be able to effectively compete with Eastern economies. I'm confident that the West can keep up and compete with the best of the East, and the thing is that both sides will win as a result, rather than by cutting them off. Prosperity isn't a one sided prospect. Remember, combined, both India and China make up almost half of the population in the world. So are you telling me that the leader of the free world wants to cut half the world out of the global economy, simply because they want to enforce their specific religious beliefs on that other half? We benefit from diversity globally, even if we don't have diversity as part of our personal lives. A world leader can't enforce personal lifestyle policy upon a globally based economy, unless they're getting into line to become the world's next tyrant. Linda, I love the United States, but when I see how the West is slowly vilifying the East, I have to wonder who the real tyrants are. Respect the East as they are, instead of trying to turn everyone on the globe into carbon copies of us. Nevertheless, it sounds like what you're a part of Linda is opening those doors back up for a prosperous world between the East and the West. Thank you so much for coming to my suprise party," Bryce responded to Linda.

"Bryce, is so good to see you again!" Katya tiny stepped in her heels over to Bryce, wrapping her arms around him and giving him a generous hug.

"Katya my dear, I'm so glad you made it. Thank you so much for this surprise," Bryce returned the hug.

"It was my pleasure. I must admit that I'm glad to hear you've returned to publishing research papers again. The world was missing you while you were sleeping on the beach..." Katya smiled as Victor joined her side.

"I heard the same thing just a moment ago from Doctor Briggs," Victor shook Bryce's hand firmly.

"Well, you know, I really tried to focus on elements of my life. The little things that you often overlook, but every time I had my arms in the garden, planting my posies, peonies and lillies, I kept thinking about physics. I just couldn't shut off who I was," Bryce explained to Katya and Victor.

"Guess who?" Bryce felt a pair of hands on his face, covering his eyes as a woman's voice spoke from behind him.

"You're doing a good job of disguising your voice, but I'd know that perfume anywhere. You made it Alicia!" Bryce turned to see the face of one of his favourite students.

"Norler woke up about a an hour ago, and said he couldn't let us miss your birthday. Happy birthday!" Alicia gave Bryce a hug and a big kiss on his cheek.

"Walton? How are you feeling? Are you a better?" asked Bryce.

"Happy birthday Bryce. I'm feeling much better, after a nap and a few acetominophen. A couple glasses of wine actually helped too. I should be alright to stick around for the festivities," Norler assured Bryce.

"Good, I'd love it if you stayed and helped me close the bar," Bryce winked at Norler.

"We'll all stay, but only if you're up for playing us a couple of tunes?" Bryce heard another familiar woman's voice behind him.

"Heylyn? You came! Thank you so much! I heard you just got back from South Korea!" Bryce turned to greet Heylyn with a hug, which she returned, adding a kiss to his cheek.

"I had a nap, and Alicia called me about an hour ago, and told me about the party, asking if I could attend. The truth is that I had to get permission from someone else, and she agreed as long as she could come and meet you too, so she could wish you a Happy birthday in person," Heylyn stepped aside, revealing a young girl between four and six years of age.

She looked up at Bryce innocently, suddenly having succumbed to shyness. Behind her, Kori stepped forward introducing herself again to Bryce.

"I remember you. You were there when we had our first planning meetings for the Western Delegation at West Meet East International, but forgive if I can't remember your name," Bryce did his best to recall the young woman's name.

"Kori. Kori Jonglyu. Happy birthday!" Kori smiled for Bryce as Warai looked up at her.

"Well Kori, I wish that you could have come with us for the delegation. Maybe when we do the next one," Bryce smiled for her, giving her a hug.

"Me too," Warai said her first words to Bryce.

"Yes, of course, and you too sweetie," Bryce charmed her and a smile quickly grew across her face.

"Say Happy birthday to Bryce," Heylyn encouraged Warai.

Warai looked up to Heylyn, and then to Kori. She then looked over to Alicia, suddenly realizing something secret about her. A smile grew across her face again as she looked upon Alicia. Alicia returned the little girl's smile, waiting for her to address Bryce.

Her attention returned to Bryce, and she spoke.

"Are you really old?" asked Warai, prompting laughter from those in room.

"Are you kidding me. I'm really old," Bryce replied, drawing a return to shyness from Warai.

"Does that mean you get a really big cake?" asked Warai.

"It certainly does!" Bryce replied.

"Happy birthday, Mr. Bryce," Warai said to Bryce.

"Thank you for coming to my party! All the way from Korea too!" Bryce smiled at her.

"Can I have some cake now?" Warai asked Bryce, again prompting a round of laughter from the room.

At that moment, several of the wait staff brought out a cake, glowing with candles and set it down on the table before Bryce, as they sang the words to the song Happy Birthday.

After Bryce blew out all of the candles, he turned to Warai.

"Alright. Somebody get this little girl a piece of cake!" Bryce spoke, looking for the knife to cut the cake.

That evening, Warai got the first piece of birthday cake.


After the cake had been devoured, and the mostly finger food had been set about the room, Alicia approached Bryce.

"So, are you going to play us a tune? They've got the same piano here from that night years ago," Alicia told her hero.

"I hope its in tune, but there's one problem. You see, since my retirement, I've had some problems with one of my hands. A little nerve damage, and I can't play like I used to, but that doesn't mean that I can't hear it, when I think about playing," Bryce admitted, having struggled for a long time with having lost the use of one of his hands, and having lost at least partly, the only other great love of his life next to his wife, and quantum physics.

His love of playing the piano.

"I'll tell you what. I'll play, with my good hand, but I'm going to need someone to play the other part. I'll tell you what to play, and where and when to play it, while I play the other part with my good hand, and maybe even sing if I can. How's that sound?" asked Bryce of Alicia.

"I can play," Warai announced.

"Really? You didn't tell us, honey," Heylyn asked Warai.

"You didn't ask. I studied piano at my home when I was two years ago," Warai told Heylyn and Kori.

"Do you know the names of the notes?" asked Bryce.

Warai nodded confidently.

"Do you know the chords too?" asked Bryce.

Warai nodded affirmatively again.

"Can you count to four?" asked Bryce.

Warai first nodded negatively, bringing about another round of laughter, after which she promptly nodded affirmatively.

"One two. Three four," Warai said aloud.

"Alright, then. You got the job, but you're getting paid in cake," Bryce told Warai.

Warai nodded affirmatively again, once again rousing the room to laughter.

"She's a natural, this one. I see entertainer written all over her," Bryce smiled as he picked her up and placed her beside him on the piano bench.

He explained the music they were about to play, giving her the chords first, and seeing if she could remember the A/B section progression he'd outlined to her. When she proved she had the hang of it, at least verbally, they began to play in the key of Bb, which fell perfectly into Bryce's limited vocal range.

As they started the song, Heylyn, Kori, Katya, Zheng each got a photo of the two at the piano, while Doctor Briggs got a video of their whole song together.

When they finished, Warai got off the bench and bowed. She then looked to Alicia with a smile on her face and said one word:

"Congratulations," Warai's smile stirred Alicia emotionally, but she had no idea what the little girl meant.

Long after most all of the other guests had left, Bryce and his wife Wendy sat with Alicia who was beside Norler. Heylyn sat beside Doctor Briggs and Zheng, having sent Kori to the condominium with a tired little Warai. Katya and Victor sat huddled close to one another, feeling somewhat tired and full from the spread of food.

"I have to thank you all once again for coming to my party tonight," Bryce said, nursing his drink.

"It was our pleasure, Bryce," Norler spoke for those remaining.

"You know, its really heart breaking to see the world tearing down all of the good we did in Asia, and in bringing the world closer together. Something is afoot, and its sad to see the ideals towards cooperation that were so prevalent, slowly being whittled away one by one. But I have to admit, that as our clique gets smaller and smaller, and the people we knew disappear one by one, it makes those lasting friendships we have amongst us, amongst those of a like heart and mind wherever they may be, like diamonds in turbulent rough. May the next generation might rise up to challenges of what we tried to do, together, so that the next generation, is working on overcoming not just the same thing over and over, but something that is the constant progress of humanity. May we tread new ground with every generation, while leaving behind those who would confine us to constant torment and conflict," Bryce said, raising a toast for everyone in the room.

"You sound like you're throwing in the towel, Bryce?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"No. He isn't throwing in the towel at all," Alicia came to his defense.

"The truth is, that we're about to face the most trying and difficult challenges that humanity will face. I can tell you that we're not throwing in the towel at all. In fact, I think that Bryce means that we're only getting started," Heylyn assured those in the room.

"Playing piano tonight with Warai, certainly reminded me that as some of us are getting closer to making their curtain call, while some of us are just at the starting gate, and need everything we can give them to get them off and running in the right direction. However, as insightful and witty as I can be, its hard to admit that sometimes even the best of us don't always know what that direction might be. In the end, that direction is best left to the ones making that trip," Bryce reminded everyone at the table.

"But not without a little guidance," Alicia added.

"Let's hope you're right Alicia, Heylyn, Bryce, because I honestly have to admit, that I can see the end just beyond the horizon. As you know, I've always been an optimist, but from where I'm standing, it doesn't look so good," Norler admitted, having recently begun the struggle of his life.

"Honey, no matter what, we'll get through it and for the better," Alicia put her hand on Norler's.

"So as I've proposed, we're going to meet at West Meet East International and have a catch-up session with one another on late Wednesday morning. I was thinking at around 11 AM, if that's good for everyone. That includes Katya, Zheng, Victor and Doctor Briggs. You too Alicia. Its been a while," Heylyn asked her friends.

"We're very busy with another project, but we already gave you our promise that we'd be there and do everything we can to help you. You can count on us," Katya assured Heylyn.

"Us too. Stephen and I already talked about this and we're really looking forward to meeting with you. We're still not too sure how we fit into what you need of us, but however that might be, we're in this together," Zheng agreed with Heylyn.

"Heylyn, you were my best friend all those years ago. If there's one thing in life we can all use, that's a good friend, that knows us for the best of us and the worst of us, who stands by us through thick and thin. I wouldn't be sitting her as Doctor Alicia Westin without your help all those years ago. Your having made my gradutation dress and then having convinced me that I should get the chance to live an enjoyable life, just as much as those who'd bullied me about my weight back then. You gave me the eyes to see myself in a way that I couldn't see before. Helped me to find a confidence within myself to become the success that I am today. No matter what you need of me Heylyn, I'll be there for you," Alicia's eyes teared ever so slightly.

"We'll all do much better once we'd talked about things and are able to define our challenges, come up with a plan, and set our compass in the right direction towards overcoming them. I'm so glad we had the opportunity of your birthday, to be together as a group once again. It certainly does bring back many memories from the time of the delegation. Speaking of which, Professor Iseul and Doctor Hyung send their love from Korea. Having just arrived back here in Toronto at Pearson International only a few hours ago, I'm exhausted, but I wouldn't have missed this for my life. I'm sure that Monique sends her love to you all, but she's out for a much needed break at another venue. However, she'll  be there on Wednesday to see you all, as will Valerie. We'll get our plans together then," Heylyn surmised to those at gathered at the table.

"Thanks again for showing up tonight, all of you, but none of this would have happened without my wonderful wife, Wendy. As I always say about her, she just handles everything big that happens in our lives. For the most part and because of her, I don't have to do a thing except just just show up, smile and do some charming, cause she's taken care of everything else for me. Thank you Wendy, and thank you all, from the bottom of my heart," Bryce leaned over and kissed his wife, who blushed profusely at the spectacle he'd made.

Though nobody could define it, they all knew that they were facing their greatest challenge. But they ultimately agreed that they would not face it alone, but together.

[Note from the Author to close out this chapter:

I'd like to wish a real life happy birthday to my own brother Darryl, to my father, David and to Helen, perhaps the most profound love of my life. Their birthdays were somewhere within the last few weeks, give or take a week here and there. 生日快樂 (Shēngrì kuàilè) Helen.

Brian Joseph Johns, September 6, 2022]

They Run In Circles

"I lost their cab," Jack Warren told the voice on the other end of the phone.

"How? Were you following too close again?" asked the voice.

"They were on their way north on Bathurst when they took a side street. I thought I could make the turn, but there was someone close behind me," Jack responded, looking for a place to pull over.

"Hang up and turn off the phone," the voice told Jack.

"What?!" confirmed Jack.

"Do it!" the voice ordered him.

Jack immediately hung up on the call, and hit the power button on his phone, shutting it down.

"Good. From herein, we'll mind speak. Only use the phone when you're in a public place and we don't want to draw any suspicion about who we are or what we're connected with," the voice ordered.

"As you wish, Mentis," Jack responded to the voice known only as Mentis, through their interconnected minds.

"So what how do you propose we find her?" asked Jack.

Another voice interrupted their conversation from within their minds, while in the background, Jack heard the silent chatter of a million or more voices.

"Mentis, I found them. I'm a ranking tech admin working for her cellular provider. She just received a message from the one that works for the same office, first name: Valerie. Apparently they're meeting up at a dance club called the Nest on College and Bathurst," the tech interrupted their conversation.

"What is the strength of one body, one voice when compared to the interconnected minds of millions?" asked Mentis, trying to illustrate the immense power they had at their disposal to his apprentice, Jack Warren.

"How did you find her?" asked Jack.

"I just told you. I'm connected to your circle of minds and friendly to your cause. I have a high degree of customer communications access through my job as an admin. I disabled the transaction logging system that keeps an eye on me here, and plugged into her text message logs. I read her text messages, and told you two through our psychic link, for lack of a better term. Nothing more to it. Nothing less," the tech told the both of them through their interconnected minds, as millions of others awaited their turn for a role in what was to come.

"You see Jack, we're not just a bunch of people interconnected through the mysticism of an ancient hidden tradition, one that the rest of humanity is unaware of and certainly unprepared for. We're interwoven into every company, government, religion and society in the western civilization, without them even having had a clue we existed. While they slept comfortably assuming that their most private moments and thoughts were theirs alone, we slowly built our network of minds, using both the abilities of our tradition such as this form of communication, the reading of others' thoughts and the experiencing of the sensory perception of everyone we invade. We aren't just ourselves, an interconnected collective of the instrument of social change. We have access to all of their technology. We have access to all of the information about them stored on computers and communications networks. Most importantly though, we're also inside the eyes, ears and every other of the senses of all our enemies, and they never suspected a thing until it was far too late," Mentis spoke to Jack, and their millions upon millions of minds collective throughout the western world.

"This isn't another one of those hidden conspiracy theories, is it?" asked Jack, having been bombarded by such talk from many different sources.

"Don't be silly, Jack. We're not the Masons or the Rosicrucians, or any other secret society you may have heard of from such conspiracies. The truth is that we predate all those ideas, and in all likelihood, those secret societies were struggling to discover us and our secrets rather than the other way around. Our abilities are real. Very real, and remain unknown to the vast majority of the population. People are frightened so easily into compliance when they encounter something they can't understand. Something beyond the explanation of their ability to reason," Mentis explained to Jack calmly.

"We approach them 

Jack was overwhelmed with the propensity of power possessed by their circle. A circle of many millions of minds.

Jack was suddenly startled back to the physical world by the impact of a high velocity round through the back window of his car.

He quickly hit the accelerator, speeding out into the northbound Bathurst traffic. Behind him, the car that had been trailing him closely, made every effort to keep up.

Jack checked his rearview mirror, seeing that one of the passengers of the pursuing vehicle had propped himself up through the sunroof, and was aiming a carbine based assault rifle directly at him. A round entered through the shattered back window, destroying his central rearview mirror, sending shards of glass flying. He closed his eyes just as a large piece of the mirror pierced the skin above his right eyelid.

"I'm under attack!" Jack said through his mind.

"What did you do?" asked Mentis.

"Nothing. They shot first!" Jack responded, steering the car into the oncoming traffic lane in an attempt to lose his pursuers.

"Mentis, I'm an admin with the dashcam company of a car behind the pursuer. The pursuer's license plate is XB1-F2HC," another voice interrupted, giving them information pertinent to discovering the identity of the pursuers.

"Mentis, I'm working traffic division for the Police service. I'm in a car right now, accessing the license and registration database. Its a stolen vehicle. Reported stolen two hours ago," a traffic assigned Constable On Patrol told them through their mind speak.

"That helps a lot!" Jack griped, quickly wiping his eyelid with a discarded napkin from his takeout dinner that night.

"Keep driving Jack, just don't compromise Monique's location to them. Lose them, and reacquire her at the Nest," Mentis ordered Jack.

"If I live that long!" Jack responded.

Another shot pierced the headrest of his seat, narrowly missing his neck by less than an inch as he weaved through the oncoming southbound Bathurst traffic, speeding north.

"Can you stop bullets Mentis?" asked Jack sarcastically.

"With enough warning, yes. We can do anything by taking the mind of the one pulling the trigger, in much the same way we took Torman," Mentis reminded Jack.

Jack spun the steering wheel, taking a hard left into the oncoming traffic of a one way street. He checked one of his side mirrors and saw that his pursuers had overshot the turn, missing it entirely.

When he'd turned his attention back to the road, the headlights of an oncoming car blinded him. He steered hard right up onto the sidewalk, as a man walking his dog dove for cover, getting himself and his dog clear as the car bore down upon the place they were only moments ago.

He sped along the sidewalk, looking for an opening amongst the parked cars on the north side of the street in order to get back onto the road.

A man who was retrieving his recycling bins from the sidewalk was struck by Jack's car, sending the man spinning high into the air, arcing back down onto his lawn, scraped and bruised but still alive. He watched as Jack's car careened through an opening in the parked cars on the street, finding its way back to the road.

Jack slowed his car as he came upon a four way intersection. He stopped and turned south, driving carefully as he looked for a place to park and ditch his car.

He turned off the headlights and pulled into a driveway, turning off the ignition. He then leaned over and retrieved every identifying feature from the glove box, and the passenger chair, including a few more napkins and a half consumed water bottle, which he used to clean the wound above his right eye.

"So if you can get into the tech systems from any company or even government services, you could even unlock and start a car for me, couldn't you?" asked Jack.

"Give us the plates, and about thirty seconds, and if its self-driving, we'll even have it come pick you up with a Tim Hortons for you, if you want," one of the admins spoke through their minds.

"Look. Someone just tried to put a bullet through my head. Dispense with the tech jokes and give me the car when I give you the plates. I have to abandon my vehicle and find a new one, but I don't want to be caught in the open when they're cruising the streets here still looking for me," Jack advised them.

"Calm down Jack. You don't seem to understand. This isn't a war. We've already won. We're just cleaning up the loose ends one by one. We already control just about everything in the western hemisphere, and the east will never see us coming. Those people trying to kill you. They're just lost stragglers trying to rattle us from our anonymity. They're outnumbered, and outgunned in so many ways, they're almost irrelevant," Mentis explained to Jack.

"I'm digging a piece of mirror from my eyelid right now, and believe me, it doesn't seem irrelevant. In fact, its very relevant!" Jack said impatiently, using the remaining water and the napkins to clean his wound.

"I've got the GPS on the stolen car. They're about six blocks north from your current location, heading west. Looks like they're trying to find a way back to where you turned off of Bathurst. If you move quick, you might find a new car before they get there. I'll keep you posted," another admin, one from the GPS company spoke through their minds, letting Jack know how much time he had to get another car.

Jack quietly got out of his car, closing the door silently in order avoid rousing the person whose driveway he'd parked it in. He then carefully crossed the road to the south side of the street and began west down the sidewalk, looking for a car to replace the one he'd given up.

"Jack, I've got a great prospect vehicle for you. Its about a block and a half away. West, then south. The owner is away in Europe on vacation. Its a modern electric, so I can start it for you. From the interior cam on the security system, I can see that there's a couple of baseball caps on the dash, which could help with a disguise. You want it?" asked the GPS tech through Jack's mind.

"I'll take it. Turn on the parking lights so I can see it," Jack suggested.

"See Jack. Don't panic. Trust us. Trust all of us, but trust me the most," Mentis told Jack through his mind.

"I can see the parking lights from here. Turning south now," Jack said as about five blocks west, he saw a car with its high beams on, advancing quickly eastbound to his location.

He began running south, sprinting full out to obscure their potential view of him. He covered the distance to the car they'd picked for him in no time. Jack tried the door, finding it to be locked.

"Open the damn door and turn off the parking lights," Jack ordered the tech in his mind.

"Sorry. Just having a latency problem with the network..." the tech told Jack as he turned to watch the intersection from which the vehicle with high beams would be coming. 

He got on the other side of the car, instead opting to get in through the passenger side.

The parking lights suddenly went out, and Jack heard the lock click. He tried the handle and the door opened for him. As he slipped inside, the car with the high beams arrived at the intersection, stopping at the stop sign.

A flashlight pierced the darkness, as the passenger shone it in both directions. North, and then south towards Jack's location. Jack laid low in the car, not moving at all.

The flashlight remained in his direction for several more moments, until the car with the high beams proceeded forward, eastbound back towards Bathurst. As it got through the intersection, the car in which Jack sat suddenly came to life, as the alarm squawked for about two seconds. Jack's heart nearly exploded.

"What the hell was that! Are you trying to get me killed!" Jack exclaimed in his mind.

"Sorry. Just a typo. Starting the car for you now," the tech told Jack through his mind.

"You just about got me killed with a typo!" Jack's heart pounded in his ears.

"Hey, you're still alive, aren't you?" the tech reminded Jack.

"I certainly am, and the first thing I'm going to do when I'm outta here is come find you and kick your skinny little ass!" Jack's muscular body tensed with the thought.

"I'm not skinny. I'm comfortably obese, and I accept the body I have," the tech responded.

"Well you're not going to have it much longer if you don't get this car started and get me out of here! And leave the lights to me!" Jack all but screamed in his mind.

The car suddenly came to life with the quiet hum of the electric engine. Jack quickly slid over to the driver's seat, grabbing one of the baseball caps from the dash and putting it on his bald head.

He then discarded his dinner jacket and button down shirt, leaving him clad in a tight fitting tank top, revealing his well defined muscular features, and some of the tattoos that covered them. One of the tattoos was that of a private militia of which he'd been a part while working in the United States. It was also one of the reasons that Jack had been chosen for the role he had with Mentis and the millions of minds, for Jack Warren was also a highly trained killer, and the former right claw of the Black Eagle Militia, the criminal arm of the White Eagle Militia.

The Militia had been formed as a vehicle for rural criminal enterprises, well beyond the jurisdiction of their urban gang counterparts. They'd existed in three states, controlling a modest share of the sum criminal trade and distribution for those states, though they were centered around a common set of ideals. Ideals designed to protect them, and their means of business and the rights they believed they were the outcast defenders thereof.

During Torman's time running his criminal gang in Toronto, The Black Eagle Militia had been a key element for regional sabotage of state businesses which Torman was looking to buy for cheap, after which the White Eagle Militia would inflate the values of those business once they were in Torman's possession, after which he'd sell them for a sizeable profit. Torman mostly operated in the Greater Toronto Area, but through Alomera Constanza Zek, he also had contacts throughout North, Latin and Pan America, while Zek's empire had encompassed the entire industrialized world. Jack Warren who during the day was an investment broker himself, was by night a hired gun for the Black Eagle Militia, who'd inducted him and trained him for the job.

His training included numerous martial arts and combined them with multiple melee weapon skills. He was a fully trained and licensed firearms owner, including having a restricted weapons license. He was secretly trained in several silent kill techniques that required only the use of his hands.

During his time with the Black Eagle Militia, he'd personally assassinated over a hundred people, never fully knowing why he was contracted for the jobs. The only job for which he'd figured out the motive was for the assassination of a Congressional Candidate whose platform was built upon dismantling the many existing Militias that pocked the rural regions of the United States. The murder had drawn a lot of attention, and served to polarize the public even further over issues related to the Amendments of the United States Constitution and the right to bear arms.

This polarization almost fifteen years earlier, while Jack was in his early twenties, helped Mentis and his cult of the mind to begin establishing itself secretly in many places simultaneously throughout North America, though it had remained neutral both to the criminal world, and the world of law enforcement, for it wasn't seeking the favour of either side, but control of the entire whole.

As bitter enemies in the West and the East, in the Left and the Right, and the Black and the White fought, Mentis' and the thousand minds grew over the course of a decade and a half to become, Mentis And The Millions Of Minds. Everywhere there was power, they were there, whether known or unknown. Everywhere there was sight, hearing, feeling, tasting and scent, Mentis And The Millions Of Minds were there. They were omnipresent in the Western hemisphere, while the Eastern hemisphere had no idea they were coming.

The case against Torman, and eventually Zek had created an isolated bubble in Canada. A bubble that had somehow protected many urban centers of Canada from the growth of Mentis' cult of the mind. The initial warning had been signaled when investigating authorities had suspected that Torman had possessed some unique abilities allowing him to exploit some scientific vulnerabilities of the human nervous system, giving him the ability to influence others and even to occupy their nervous system for a time.

Though none of the court proceedings had ever alluded to any such feat, the Canadian Intelligence institutions began investigating these allegations covertly, using arms of their two Federal agencies to do so, competitively. There was CSIS, who'd been mandated to investigate and provide intelligence and analysis for the effects of such an ability possessed by one or more persons upon the civilian population, and the ability to divert, or entirely control due process.

The RCMP, the second agency, was given the task of evaluating how such potential could be misused to infiltrate governmental, economical and commercial interests of the country, their threat analysis focusing on any such abilities being used to alter or control due process.

The investigations were kept of the utmost secrecy, until the first situations involving radicalization and mass murder started becoming prevalent within society, and more frequent and similar in nature. The agencies knew there was an underlying social mechanism that was creating these situations, but they had neither the tools nor the experience to effectively investigate without first compromising their mission to the threat itself.

A second layer of intelligence gathering and investigation was created, where those taking part in it had no idea that they were the instrument of these investigations. They only knew that their case load was part of a national strategy to formulate a counterinsurgency initiative through the effective gathering and analysis of intelligence, directly from investigators thrust into the midst of such activity.

The Senior Inspector for this investigation was Tricia Camden, though when she'd started, she had no idea what she was investigating. Through her case load, over the course of six years, she started to piece together a common threat throughout the cases, that eventually led to her discovery. Based upon her intelligence reports, Canada initially was able to formulate a protective strategy, that insulated the elected representatives, but lacked any similar solution for members of the private sector and the public itself.

Their methods were surprisingly simple and initially had begun with only three people. Mentis, and his two most trusted trainees fifteen years earlier. The trainees would observe and gather information about the prospects they'd look to force into their circle. The two would portray the part of strangers not familiar with the target, who would approach them at various times, revealing aspects of their recent thoughts, often right in front of them and through seemingly unrelated conversation.

The stress induced in the target, would be all it took to push them further and further over the edge into extreme emotional experiences, most of which included anxiety. That would fuel the inner dialogue of their subconscious at night, when the trainees and Mentis himself would attempt to psychically connect to their target, strengthening their ability to discern aspects of that person's life, directly from their sensory organs and their mind. In Mentis' own experiences using these techniques, he'd discovered that extreme emotions, especially those directed for or against others, often forged a strong link between the people. 

Therefore, his techniques involved using his trainees to test the waters, for he was very strongly connected to them and anything they experienced, sensory or mentally, he'd experience as if part of his own local body.

The targets of his indoctrination were very predictable, especially as they'd further become introduced to the abilities of the trainees to extract the most secret and personal information from the target's mind, and present it to them verbally, though in the context of a conversation between nearby strangers. 

The targets would almost always become apprehensive at first. Believing themselves to be surveilled by criminals at first. That would, through a process guided by Mentis' trainees, graduate to become a paranoia of the Police and authority. An insurance policy Mentis had learned to create before indoctrination, so that if the target ever tried to expose them, they'd be immediately written off as a conspiracy theorist, as being mentally ill or as having substance abuse issues. The target's whistle blowing related to what they were experiencing would most often fall upon deafened ears.

As more and more people cast the target out of their lives, they became further isolated eventually reaching the absolute point of helplessness. A point where they realized that they were trapped and completely helpless to a god-like force, that was guiding them down a distinct path of renewal and discovery. In fact, it was just the indoctrination process Mentis used to strip the outer defenses of their inductee, so that they could shape them and mould them into what Mentis needed.

His trainees began as two, and then grew to three, and then four. From that point onward, Mentis began employing his groups using the powers of two method. Every time his trainees grew to number a power of two, he'd divide the groups in half, essentially doubling the numbers of groups indoctrinating others. So he'd started with two trainees, and when he'd reached four, they became two groups. When his trainees became sixteen, they became four groups out in the world indoctrinating people. As their numbers grew, so did the rate at which they indoctrinated people.

When they'd grown to a critical mass of one thousand and twenty-four, Mentis began indoctrinating them to his moral philosophy, all of which would occur through their psychically linked minds. All of his trainees having been stripped bare of their ability to question or oppose his moral indoctrination, quickly digested it all, taking it up as if it were their own moral compass from the beginning. As if it had been handed to them directly from a god or a prophet. They questioned it not, and those of a particularly strong will who opposed their induction and indoctrination, were subject to some of the worst punishments which would always end with the loss of their lives. In the absolute worst cases, Mentis would completely commandeer them for radicalization. A process that as his numbers grew, went from taking years to taking mere months.

After the world had started to become regularly acquainted with news of terrorism in the post-mid 1990s, the first occurrences of domestic terrorism in the form of mass murder started to appear. For some, it was their initial response to Mentis' trainees and their reaction to the attempts to induct them and indoctrinate them. For others, it was the punishment by Mentis for their resistance. To turn them into the enemies of the public, especially where they didn't fit into Mentis' moral plan for the west. 

As the millennium came and went, the world was introduced to terrorism on an entirely different level, and it quickly became familiar news whether it occurred at a Government building in Oklahoma or as a result of hijacked jets crashing into the the twin towers. The age of terror had arrived, and using the horror, fear and extremity of emotion created by these acts, Mentis' power grew. As most resisted his moral philosophy, mass murders in response increased with radicalization becoming the weapon of choice. Mentis had found few who could resist his movement without becoming ticking time bombs themselves, and of those who'd managed to avert his awareness, they quickly found themselves isolated  like islands in a world that had become a sea of perpetual vitriol.

The news never carried the stories of those who'd blown the whistle on their indoctrination, for they were almost immediately written off and cast out from society, usually ending up dead not long thereafter. Genocide, was a harsh word Mentis had reasoned. He was bringing a cleansing of the west, that would lead them to their victory over the East, at which point, the entire world would be one. One people. One land. One philosophy. Absent of those who'd have held us back from achieving those heights.

What had already mostly overtaken the rest of North America, was only slowed in Canadian urban centers until very recently, when Mentis' cult of the mind had essentially acquired tendrils into every facet of North American and Western European life. If it could be perceived by someone, they would know about it. If it was thought about by someone, they'd find out. Eventually, there wasn't a thing that was unknown to them, where it involved the perception, thoughts and minds of others. 

Except for a small group of people, who'd somehow managed to avert it all, and whom remained free from the reach of Mentis and his Millions Of Minds.

Jack, though very astute, had failed to comprehend the power of what Mentis had become until recently. When the electric car started, and Mentis realized that they'd lost his pursuers, he realized that there wasn't an obstacle that their power couldn't overcome. That Mentis would eventually, rule the entire world.

"We're half way there, Jack, and its a pleasure to have you onboard. Many things are going to change over the next few months. Especially given the fact that we know all of the darkest and deepest of every secret of every person in the Western hemisphere. We have the power to cleanse the world. We can decide what is right and what is wrong. We can decide who lives and who dies. What's acceptable as social standards, and what should entirely be abolished. If a person has no place in our society, they will simply cease to exist and will have never existed. An easy prospect if we control everything that is attributed to the record of social memory. We will decide who mingles and who doesn't. Whether their lineage allows it, or shuns it. We will decide everything for everyone. We will even decide if you're rightfully Jack, or someone else entirely different. The very concept of identity will no longer be protected, but a currency to be earned every single day. Who a person was yesterday, when they accomplished some form of good and notoriety, will become someone else's identity the next day, to reward them for their loyalty to our Millions Of Minds," Mentis explained as the millions of minds listened.

"What about me. Will I stay who I am?" asked Jack.

"Why of course. Some of us need to be the unmoving foundation, while others will be required to earn their place every day, starting from the very beginning when they wake up. We'll know. We'll know what they thought. What they did. Most of all, we'll know if it should be them who bares the credit for their efforts, or if it should go to someone else. We will decide it all, and you, as part of that foundation Jack, will become an unmoving will, one who decides for others. The world will be ours. The only people who do not already know this are those who do not share our unified mind. The West never saw us coming, and the East will never see us coming. We'll finish up with our friends at West Meet East International, and then move onwards to our greater plan, to alleviate society of all of our opposition here in this hemisphere. After we've eliminated the stragglers, its on to the East, and the Asian Alliance," Mentis revealed to Jack.

"Mentis, I'm on my way to the Nest. Setup a VIP reservation for me so that I don't have to stand in line. Once inside, I'll scout out the target and you can direct me from there," Jack told the millions of minds.

"Your VIP status has been arranged. Just approach the door staff and tell them your name," one of the millions of minds responded.

"Now this is power," Jack smiled as he pulled out and drove the car north towards College Street.

The Other Millions

Habus slammed his fist against the dashboard of the car.

"That's the second time we've lost a target, and you all know how important he is," Habus told them in his mind, though his voice did not reach any in Mentis' millions of minds, for Habus was running his own separate circle.

His own cult of the mind, who, much like 

A breakaway sect to the original teachings of the ages, from thousands of years ago, long before the Egyptians and even Sumerians. Ideas that had proven to be at the core of every time the spark of humanity had been ignited and flourished. The side that originally flourished, pursuing a balancing path towards liberty and social values, very much shaped by their struggle. Rebounding for millennia between despotism, tribalism, autocracy and democracy, their minds independent and unlinked to each other, eventually achieving equilibrium, at which point the other side would awaken. The side who lived by the power of their mental collective. The power of the Mentis. The power of many minds becoming one, and the elimination of the individual and the identity. Not cooperation, but elimination. The only who bore their own identity of the individual, were the privileged, while everyone else was simply everyone else.

Those who retained their individual identity, became the currency for which everyone else would strive  to wear for a day, until everyone became one. Like the ant colony being the individual and organism, while the ants were just the parts without their own distinct names. Discarded when not needed, so that the only I there was, lay with the entire colony itself, rather than every one that made it up.

Habus had been taught by Mentis, two decades ago when the two had initially met. Mentis initiated Habus into the secrets of the thousands of minds, using those techniques to grow their first collective from a hundred local people, to nearly four thousand minds.

Mentis became the model for every other mind, and any qualities the minds possessed that were distant from Mentis, were culled until they were pure and Mentis-like. People who were now empty husks, who'd been whittled to become copies of him. The ultimate expression of ego, for everyone became him, man and woman alike.

Habus, being somewhat astute and self aware when it came to the hypocrisy posed by this dilemma, decided to break free from Mentis and instead chose to retain his own ego and identity. He developed the techniques for breaking the chains of the mind connecting him to the thousands of minds. Once freed, he'd developed his own breakaway sect. The Mind Sect Of Habus.

He's initially setup a school in Toronto, initiating many members and training them to his techniques as he indoctrinated them into his own version of the thousands of minds. They grew in population and status, before becoming the target of a criminal investigation over allegations of kidnapping and human trafficking. The Mind Sect Of Habus had its tax exempt status revoked, and they were soon charged with tax evasion as well.

The headquarters were raided, but Habus Macill had managed to escape, and setup another school in the least suspect place on the globe. In the neutral territory between North Korea and South Korea. His strategy was while Mentis attempted to dominate and subvert the entire West, Habus would attempt to subvert the East, in order to fight against Mentis, and to see which of the two would be victorious, and hence rule the world. For each, Mentis' and Habus' school, they were the expression of ego through the immortality of the mind, by replacing the individuality of the members, like the ants in the colony, with their respective minds. Through these cults, Mentis and Habus fully expected to become immortal, where their members would imply be the empty vessels within which their mind and ego thrived.

Their new school in the neutral lands was quickly discovered and infiltrated. A joint air-strike was ordered by North and South Korea upon the site, as a Special Forces team evacuated the civilian students and instructors from the school.

Yet, Habus, whose reach was considerable, though not nearly as far as Mentis', had escaped with his life.

"We have lost another battle, but we are going to win this war. We're operating deep within enemy territory now, and we've yet to acquire and eliminate our two top targets. Jack, ban be killed upon sight, for he's a branching link. If he dies, it will divide Mentis' millions of minds into two, who will have to find and forge another similar link. That will take them time. During that time, we can once again, divide them, and conquer them into ever smaller units, while we grow our own. When we have Brandon, I intend to drill deep into his mind and recover the location of the Gem. Of Warai. When we have her, we will rule the world," Habus said to them of the Mind Sect Of Habus.

"We should regroup. Ditch these vehicles, and head back to the hive," one of the minds spoke.

"Agreed. That's what we'll do. We'll acquire new vehicles, and watch for any news relating to our pursuit of either Brandon or Jack. When we've found the trail again, we'll continue as I explained. Understood?" Habus confirmed with his minds.

"As you wish, Habus," several of the minds replied.

"Then let us go now," Habus got out of the car, as his team scoured the vehicle for any identifying features.

Another vehicle arrived soon after, picking up Habus as the remaining men set the old car ablaze.

Below Deck Confessions

Steadman stood fixated on Zek as he lay on the operating table, several restraining straps holding him in place, motionless, so that only his lips could move to speak and breath, while his jaw was held shut.

Within the medical bay of the Many Faced Maiden, there was a skilled surgeon, who stood over Zek's right shoulder readying his scalpel for his first incision. Beside him was a male nurse, preparing the electric bone saw that would be used to cut through Zek's upper-right humerus. The cut would be made at the socket joint of the shoulder, from where his arm would be removed. As ordered by Steadman, Zek would undergo the process without the benefit of anesthesia, and remain fully awake during the procedure.

The surgeon's blade touched Zek's arm and just before he began the incision, Steadman put up his hand, directing the surgeon to stop. Zek's eyes were held open by calipers, giving him a bizarre resemblance to the cast member of a certain Stanley Kubrick film. Zek's eyes shot about erratically, giving the only signs of his inner sense of panic.

"What did you say about the Butterfly Dragon? Its obviously something that I should know, if you  suddenly blurted it out as currency to delay our transaction here?" asked Steadman, his hand remaining in front of the surgeon in a gesture to hold his position and await further instructions.

"I know the secret of their abilities! I know how those women became who and what they are!" Zek's heart pounded in his ears as if it were ready to explode.

"That's a lie. If you possessed such information, you'd have stopped them and you'd still be sitting on your back deck facing the harbour on Treadwater Island, with an army of employees around you servicing your needs," Steadman, though skeptical, waited for Zek's response.

"Its true. They used a modified version of the SY349 formula. The same formula that is part of Tynan And Associates' TSDD Cure program. I had a team of scientists under my employ reverse engineer it after Torman delivered a sample of it to me. They even developed an energy field weapon that could nullify their abilities, however, they somehow overcame it, even defeating my own superpowered guards!" Zek spoke, his eyes looking frantically up at the mirror poised above him that gave him a perfect view of his own, about-to-be removed right arm.

Steadman's eyes narrowed as he looked at Zek's unblinking irises.

"Do you still have this formula?" asked Steadman.

"Yes," replied Zek, immediately knowing he'd bought himself another week, possibly two.

"Do we have to travel to get it? Is it hidden like the components to your blackmail database?" asked Steadman, looking momentarily to the surgeon and then back to Zek, as if to remind him of who was in charge.

"No," Zek responded, exhaling a large volume of air, then inhaling deeply as his heart finally slowed.

"You're saying that the formula is part of the database?" confirmed Steadman.

"Precisely," Zek replied.

"Why don't I just take it, and be done with you?" asked Steadman.

"Because its interwoven into the data structure itself, through a series of encrypted indexes," Zek replied.

"You're not an engineer. How could you possibly help us extrapolate this data?" asked Steadman.

"I don't know or understand anything about the technical requirements needed to encrypt anything. However, I do know the encryption key, and with it, you'll save yourself about ten million years of trying to break it with supercomputers," Zek admitted.

"You double-crossed me, and it cost the lives of several of my men. Men whose pieces right now are in the stomachs of several hammerhead sharks you neglected to inform me about. Sharks that were attracted to the area when I triggered a trap on the coral bed containing the database hard disk! A trap  about which you neglected to inform me!" Steadman said with a growing fury in his voice.

"I forgot about the trap! Really, I did!" Zek lied as Steadman carefully weighed the man's words.

"That sounds a little too convenient to me," Steadman gestured with his hand for the procedure to continue.

The surgeon began the incision into the thick of Zek's arm, cutting with precision right down to the bone as Zek screamed. Steadman's hand returned once again, gesturing the surgeon to stop.

"Sorry, I forgot to stop him," Steadman said calmly as Zek inhaled and exhaled in immense pain, his eyes wild and bloodshot.

Steadman then turned and grabbed a bottle of iodine, opening the bottle and pouring it directly onto Zek's open wound.

Zek screamed, his eyes nearly jumping out of his head as drool slid down the side of his face and saliva bubbles formed about his lips.

"Sorry, that was an accident. I forgot you had an open wound," Steadman closed the bottle of iodine and returned it to the shelf.

"Stitch him up, without anesthesia and bring him to his quarters. Keep him under guard until tonight's dinner and then bring him to my table. We'll decide on his fate then," Steadman turned and opened the door to the medical bay ready to leave.

"Does he keep his arm before I stitch this up?" asked the surgeon.

"Oh, I forgot. Yes. He can keep his arm, but not his right hand," Steadman turned and left the medical bay as the nurse began stitching up Zek's arm, and the surgeon prepared for the removal of Zek's right hand.


Heylyn carefully wiped Warai's face clear of the rice pudding breakfast she'd consumed only moments earlier. 

"You're six years old and you're doing pretty good in making sure you're eating healthy already. I have  to admit that I'm very impressed," Heylyn remarked as she wiped the dried remains of breakfast from the little girl's bottom lip.

"And she picked it too," Kori reminded Heylyn.

"Its pretty remarkable the natural intuition she has. I mean, she was already halfway through eating it when I read the nutrition label," responded Heylyn, having observed the same thing about Warai.

"And...?" Kori responded, waiting for Heylyn to finish her point.

"I went through all of the food in the refrigerator and cupboards that we'd picked up for her. As it turns out, she picked the healthiest and most nutritious food in order of its health benefits, without even reading the labels. Almost as if she could sense it," Heylyn summed it up.

"What if they trained her to eat a specific regimen of food at that camp from which she rescued along the neutral zone, and she was just following a well rehearsed regimen?" suggested Kori.

"Well, for one, their food would have been shipped from South Korea, meaning that the content would have likely been very healthy, possibly even healthier that what we have here, but very different in terms of substance, flavour and packaging, meaning that she couldn't simply take a well rehearsed dietary regimen and copy it here," Heylyn reasoned.

"Maybe she remembered it simply by its colour and texture?" Kori replied with a remarkably insightful possibility.

"Have you done this before? I meant, been a Mother?" asked Heylyn of Kori.

"No. But I have to admit that since I've met Kori, its become a sincere possibility... though that could be simply because we both lucked into a Motherhood situation that somehow averted the responsibility of changing diapers at 3 AM in the morning for the first two years," Kori surmised.

"Good point," Heylyn replied, considering that they had missed out on one of the biggest parts of early parenthood.

"What if I changed my own diapers?" asked Warai, shocking them both with her candidness.

"Did you?" asked Kori, nearly in shock.

"No," Warai replied, looking down.

"That's ok honey. Neither did we," Heylyn replied, using her index finger to elevate Warai's chin.

Warai's face suddenly illuminated with an ear to ear smile.

"So can I be a butterfly like you two?" asked Warai.

"There's that butterfly question once again. So tell me, chosen one of an ancestral heritage that goes back several thousand years in ancient Southeast Asia, how does an up and coming parent field that question?" Kori asked Heylyn sarcastically.

Heylyn suddenly looked around as if puzzled.

"Oh, you mean like that butterfly? Ooops! Looks like it flew away. We can talk about this next time we see one, Warai," Heylyn quickly improvised a response, as Warai's eyebrows scrunched into a grimace.

Heylyn followed suit, getting in close to Warai's face.

Warai's brows compressed ever further, and she moved closer to Heylyn until their noses were touching, at which point she burst out laughing and giggling, prompting Heylyn to do the same.

"Problem solved," Kori responded, impressed.

"What problem?" aske Warai, to which Heylyn quickly turned to Kori, pursing her lips, pressing her finger against her mouth in a distinct shhhh moment.

"Thousands of years of tradition certainly gives you enough time to get those cards up your sleeves," Kori responded blandly.

"Alright. Lets get ready. We've got stuff to do today," Heylyn quickly changed the topic and direction of the conversation.

"We're going out?" asked Warai.

"We're going to my office!" Heylyn replied.

"Yay! Work on Saturday! What every employee lusts after!" Kori replied.

"Did I mention that you've been receiving double time for the entire time since we left for Korea until now?" asked Heylyn of Kori.

"I think I could do a Saturday if need be," Kori responded nearly in shock, quickly doing the math in the air with her fingers.

"Good. Get ready, cause we're leaving in five minutes," Heylyn told Kori, picking up Warai and setting her down outside of the bathroom.

"Now, brush your teeth sweetie!" Heylyn told Warai as she put the little girl down.

Warai excitedly climbed the two steps of the mini-stairs Heylyn had put in the bathroom for Warai and began brushing her teeth. She picked her own toothpaste, coated her brush, and then brushed them thoroughly, front and back. Rinced her mouth thoroughly after which she found her way to the front hall, and put on her shoes.

By the time Heylyn and Kori had returned, Warai was ready to leave, displaying herself for them to see.

"I'm feeling a little bit unneeded here..." Kori sniffed, feigning tears in front Warai.

Warai immediately ran over to Kori, comforting her.

"It's alright. I'll let you put my shoes on next time..." Warai rubbed Kori's back as she pretended to cry.

Heylyn waved at Warai with both her hands, trying to get her attention, shaking her head left to right in a firm gesture of no.

"Warai, you did good! Now, you've got to encourage Kori to put on her own shoes! If she can't, then you're going to have to show her how to put them on!" Heylyn explained the rules of their little impromptu game.

Warai looked to Heylyn, somewhat surprised, and then back to Kori, somewhat skeptically.

"You can put on your shoes! I've seen you!" Warai accused Kori, who suddenly stood and faced Heylyn.

"Alright, boss. You win," Kori agreed, smiling at Heylyn.

"Hey. She was going to teach you how to put on your shoes. I'd say Warai won," Heylyn winked at Warai, who folded her arms, looking at Kori accusingly.

"Guilty with an explanation," Kori replied to Warai, looking to her for mercy.

Warai's eyebrows once again compressed as they had for Heylyn, as if to keep Kori under the immense scrutiny of a little girl.

"What can I say? Its the Canadian way. In the United States, they plead the fifth amendment. In Canada, its guilty with an explanation," Kori responded.

"Then what's your explanation?" asked Warai of Kori.

"Well. I wanted to make sure that you knew how to put on your shoes and get ready, enough so that you could do the same for me!" Kori replied.

Warai looked to Heylyn for a hint, perhaps even support.

"Its your call, Warai," Heylyn looked to the little girl innocently.

Warai's bottom lip bulged for a moment, trembled and then folded into her little smile.

"She's innocent," Warai said aloud, opening her arms for her friend and advancing for a hug.

Kori returned Warai's hug, appreciably, then stepped back and tapped her puggy nose playfully.

"You did good all by yourself," Kori kissed Warai's forehead.

"Not only that, but you tried to help your friend with what you already knew how to do. You shared with her, without her even having to ask you. I'm very impressed, but in all honesty, its you that you have to impress above all else," Heylyn kneeled down to Warai, giving her a butterfly hug and kiss.

Heylyn once again held her index finger to her lips, urging her to keep their little secret.

Warai returned a subtle wink to Heylyn, and at once she'd known that she'd established a connection with the mysterious little girl.

"So are we going to take the rental to the office?" asked Kori as Warai waited by the condominium door.

"Sounds good to me, though I'll drive if you'd prefer," suggested Heylyn.

"Actually, I was finding it quite fun driving myself in Korea. I'd love the opportunity to drive here in Toronto if you would," Kori asked Heylyn as they stepped into the elevator.

"Sure. Sounds good to me," Heylyn responded as the elevator descended to the parking garage.

They exited the elevator and found their way to the parked rental they'd taken from Pearson International back to Heylyn's condominium.

Kori, who'd spent most the flight sleeping had driven the rental car both when they'd arrived home, and once again as they now ventured back to the offices of West Meet East International on Queen Street West.

Kori pulled the rental safely into the back parking lot and backed the compact car up to the dormant receiving door.

"Is that good?" asked Kori.

"I couldn't have done better myself," Heylyn replied, opening the door and letting Warai out of her child seat.

Once Warai was free, she quickly explored the back parking lot and lunch bench of West Meet East International Offices.

"Its big!" Warai said, only having seen the exterior.

"Wait until you see inside!" Kori said excitedly to Warai.

Heylyn stood by the receiving door, fidgeting with her access card several times before the lock finally latched free of the bolt.

"Alright. Small glitch, but it looks like we're in order," Heylyn said as she ran for the security console.

She tapped her security code in several times, but the alarm system merely squawked once each time in response.

"What's up? Something glitchy with the security system?" asked Kori.

"Something's obscured a sensor. Its repeatedly triggering the response system, but because it isn't moving and keeping the motion sensor active, the alarm status is collapsing back to idle," Heylyn replied, typing her code in once more for posterity's sake.

The door unlocked for her, but the system remained on alert but idle status.

"Take Warai to my office. Show her some of the design work we've been doing recently until I get back," Heylyn told Kori, as she looked over the security zones, examining each for the breach point.

"Alright boss, although if that dragon lady shows up again, I'm outta here with Warai..." Kori responded, pulling Warai with her hand to Heylyn's front office.

Heylyn examined her surroundings, looking for way to the point of the system breach. When she realized that the breach was outside of the building, she quickly found her way to the back receiving door of West Meet East International and jumped down onto the paved parking area.

She then looked around, making sure nobody could see her. When she was confident that nobody was in view, she extended her wings and flew up to the rooftop of the building. Once landed, she quickly found her way to the sensor that had detected the intrusion.

"Alright, here's the culprit..." Heylyn responded, having found the sensor that had triggered the alarm.

She quickly turned upon sensing movement, to see a man about her height, of tremendously fit physique, laying atop of the West Meet East International Showroom Skylight. He groaned, turning over onto his chest, his eyes still closed.

She approached him as he lay face down on the skylight, examining his body for any signs of injury. She then turned him over onto his back, examining his face, finding a remarkably familiar Asian man.

"Where do I know this man from?" she asked herself aloud.

She wedged her arms under his torso easily, hefting him up and flying to the back parking lot, carrying him in through the same receiving door which she'd exited to find him.

She carried him all the way to her design office, where she laid him upon an empty design table face up.

Warai upon hearing her, immediately ran out of Heylyn's office and into the design area. Upon seeing her wings, she exclaimed: "Butterfly!" 

"Shhhh!" Heylyn reminded her, lifting her up and onto another design table across from wshe'd laid her intruder.

"Braden?" asked Warai as she recognized the intruder's face.

Suddenly and without warning, Braden was upon his feet. He looked frantically, to Heylyn first, turning at once to meet Warai's innocent face.

"Why do you have her!?" Braden screamed, rushing down from the table to confront the Butterfly.

She easily sidestepped his advance, quickly grabbing his arm and restraining him in order to prevent him from hurting Warai, Kori or himself.

"We're all in a safe place, not to mention that one of my deepest and dearest friends knows you personally. You'd do best to surrender peacefully. I promise you, you will undergo no harm," Heylyn challenged the Dragon Man.

Almost without effort, the Dragon Man unfolded himself from Heylyn's grip, reversing it quickly and forcing her to run up the wall of her office, from where she immediately cartwheeled backwards, keeping her wrists tense so as to break his grip.

He yielded first, but not before launching himself off of her design table upwards, rebounding off of the ceiling in a somersault, then launching himself at her shoulders from the ceiling and behind. She felt his fingers dig into her shoulder-blades, yanking her backwards into a roll over his flattened body and back up onto her feet in front of him.

"We don't have to do this, Braden. I'm not your enemy," Heylyn advised the Dragon Man.

Braden stands ready
"Warai! We're leaving! Get behind me, now!" Braden ordered Warai, reaching for her hand with his left, reserving his right for any attack.

"So you're a righty, are you? Well I've got news for you. I've got the advantage here," Heylyn confronted him, immediately recognizing his handedness from his stance and the hand he'd chosen to defend them with.

"Give it your best shot," Braden challenged the Butterfly, echoing Bruce Lee's own invitational challenge to Han from the movie Enter The Dragon.

"Great, another martial arts movie fan. Did you learn your martial arts from watching movies, or did you actually study with a Sifu? If not, this should be easy," Heylyn confronted the Dragon Man.

Heylyn and Braden showdown
"Then bring it, brittle-fly woman," the Dragon Man challenged Heylyn.

Heylyn advanced, though withheld her attack, remaining initially on the defense. She left just enough of a gap with her capacity to block in her abdominal region, that the Dragon Man was immediately lured into attack. With his right hand, he delivered a fast blurred strike at Heylyn's face, not to hit her but in order to open her abdomen more. She blocked his initial attack easily, knowing fully well what he was trying to achieve.

The Dragon Man then delivered a double kick with his right leg. First attacking at her shin, which she blocked, completing his attempt to open her abdomen fully for his second snap kick. 

Heylyn instead sidestepped, spinning her body, rolling the force of his kick and redirecting the energy off to the side. In the meantime, she'd utilized her own left arm, folding it and striking him in the face first with her elbow, and then as her rotational momentum continued, with her right fist. She completed her spin with a flying round kick, throwing him completely off of the design table and onto the concrete floor.

Instead of landing flat-out, he rolled with his momentum, thrusting himself back up onto his feet into the air and on the adjacent design table.

"That was totally unexpected he responded, wiping his swollen bottom lip. So you're an improviser, are you? I like that. Too bad your fashion designs leave something to be desired. Namely, desire," he replied to her, turning and kicking one of her design mannequins and the corresponding in-progress design it had been wearing.

The mannequin teetered several times before falling flat on the floor.

"Wow Dragon boy. I think you just threw your battle. That was Timmy you just kicked," Kori said to him as he kept his eyes uneasily, glancing back and forth between Heylyn and the downed mannequin.

"Timmy?" asked the Dragon Man, looking back to the fallen mannequin several times, suddenly seeing its name tag on the floor beside it.

"Timmy is one of her design mannequins. She uses Timmy and Tina, Timmy's sister mannequin for when she's designing children's clothing," Kori explained to Dragon Man.

"You mean I just kicked a child... mannequin?" Dragon Man asked, looking frantically between Heylyn and the fallen mannequin.

"Yep. But I'd be a little more apprehensive of the fact that you just insulted her designs before doing so," Kori said to him, somewhat enamored of his fine physique and naïve and helpless persona as she pulled Warai away to a safe distance from their bout.

"Look, about Timmy... I'm really sorry," the Dragon Man let down his defenses, pleading with Heylyn.

Heylyn's wings folded up into her back, as she spiraled through the air towards the Dragon Man's center of mass. As it turned out, even when he wasn't ready for her, his defense was swift, spinning as she had, rebounding her body off of the wall, as he then caught her momentum, propelling it away from him at another one of her fashion mannequins.

Heylyn crashed through the dummy, sending buttons, material and a wig spiraling through the air and onto the other design table. She landed flat on her back on the carpeted concrete floor, winding herself and falling to a stop.

"There goes Frick..." Kori said shaking her head at Dragon Man.

Frack, the corresponding twin mannequin to Frick teetered from side to side as had Timmy earlier. When it reached the point of no return, it slowly fell over helplessly to floor.

"And Frack too..." Warai said, looking with a pout on her face as the mannequin rocked back and forth on its rounded back.

Heylyn got to her feet, stumbling slightly from left to right, before finding her balance.

"I thought you were a righty?" asked Heylyn, now unsure of his handedness.

"No," Braden replied quaintly.

"Oh, that explains it. Then you're a lefty," Heylyn responded.

"No," Braden replied.

Heylyn launched herself at Braden, who'd found his balance, easily reflecting her against the wall, even smiling and winking to Warai as he did.

She laughed at his antics, as Heylyn's feet found the wall allowing her to roll with her momentum along its breadth, launching herself off of it and back at Braden.

He turned to face her, anticipating her return, only to find that she'd fully extended her butterfly wings for balance, which had grasped hold of the surface behind him, flying over top of him, she grabbed his shoulders and slammed him face first into the design table.

He bounced twice off of the surface, and upon his second landing face down, he stopped moving.

"I think he's ambidextrous is what he was trying to say," Kori responded, feeling very hot over having seen his sculpted body in action against the Butterfly.

"Well that didn't matter, did it?" asked Heylyn, stumbling slightly as she sought her balance somewhat exhausted by the effort it had taken her to deal with the Dragon Man.

"Why?" asked Warai.

"So am I," Heylyn replied, falling forward onto the floor exhausted from her short, unprepared battle with the Dragon Man.

"Kori?" asked Warai.

"What?" asked Kori, full of curiosity.

"I think they like each other," Warai responded.

Heylyn was on her feet at the same time Braden was moments later and they faced each other once again.

Heylyn closed in on Braden, as they found themselves in a standoff, where Heylyn would attack only to have Braden block. When he countered, she too found the perfect defense but a lacking riposte. They continued for over a minute at growing into full force, with each blow exhibiting energy that both Warai and Kori could feel, even from a great distance.

As their energy reserves were expended and they approached exhaustion. Having reached the limits of their capacity to attack, defend and then parry, they paused and stood defensively, facing one another. Slowly backing away from each other, their chests rising and falling as they sought to replenish their breath and Chi.

"Not bad. Gong Fu maybe, with a mish mash of other stuff. The trash that Koreans and Japanese teach wannabees I'm guessing?" Braden struggled to keep his balance.

"Watch it there, pretty boy!" Kori responded defensively to his quip about her culture.

"You started out training in traditional Shaolin Kung Fu, but you left before you achieved status. Too hard for you I'm guessing. You probably wandered and studied with other Sifus, who gave you bits and pieces of what you'd call a martial art and what I'd call a mess of unlearned dance steps. Was that the Cha Cha you used a moment ago? I have to admit I wish you'd have crash landed on the Ed Mirvish Theatre's roof  rather than here, because you're obviously better suited for musicals than you are for real martial arts action," Heylyn said to him, causing him to wince ever so slightly.

Kori: "Yessss Heylyn!"
"Yessss Heylyn!" Kori quietly cheered her employer.

"Wow. That's something," Braden responded.

"You'll find I'm full of surprises and not just real martial arts, but words too," Heylyn replied, a coy smile on her face.

"No. I wasn't talking about your assessment of me. I meant that when you talk, your bottom lip twitches ever so slightly, as if you're trying to prevent yourself from drooling saliva. A senior moment perhaps? If I were you, I'd start carrying some tissues with you as you grow into your older years, and wearing a senior's diaper as a precaution, butterfly has-been," Braden spoke sarcastically.

"Braden?" asked Heylyn, slightly smiling.

"What?" Braden responded.

"Your dragon is sneaking out of his cave," Heylyn replied, looking at his groin, drawing him reflexively to check his fly.

Heylyn finale
She used the last of her energy to deliver a spinning butterfly bladed punch, connecting first with his chest and then with his upper cheek, sending him unconscious to the floor.

Heylyn then stood upright for a moment, then stumbled a few times before finding bearings.

"In case there's any doubt over who would win. The Butterfly, or the Dragon? That should settle it," Heylyn shrugged her shoulders, before falling flat onto the floor, exhausted.

Warai looked to the two fallen warriors with eyes full of concern.

"I think it was a draw," Warai said, turning to Kori.

"I think so too," Kori nodded as the two warriors got to their feet.

"Are you ready to hear me out?" asked Heylyn of the Dragon Man.

"Only if you're ready to hear me out," responded Braden.

"Deal," Heylyn gave him her hand.

He was about to shake it as if they were closing a deal, but instead took it and kissed the back of her hand as if she were royalty.

She blushed slightly, retrieving her hand from him.

"You know, in this day and age, that isn't exactly appropriate," Kori responded with a hint of jealousy.

"I think Kori's in love," Warai responded, as both Warai and Heylyn looked to Kori, who blushed similarly to Heylyn.

"What? It wouldn't be the first time you know," Kori replied defensively.

"Let's get down to the matters at hand here, and tell me why you were passed out unconscious on top of my skylight," Heylyn asked Braden.

"Braden. My name's Braden," Braden introduced himself formally to Kori and Heylyn.

"He's my friend," Warai added for good measure.

"Kori. Jonglyu. Set designer. Lighting specialist. Photoshoot assistant..." Kori introduced herself, being sure to include her roles at West Meet East International.

"Pleased to meet you Kori," Braden nodded to her, smiling modestly at her.

"Heylyn Yates. CEO and Chief Designer, West Meet East Fashion International," Heylyn, suddenly realizing that she'd omitted such important formalities after the heat of battle, followed suit by introducing herself.

"Please to finally meet you, Ai Yuanlin Ying. Butterfly. The Butterfly," Braden looked to Heylyn, who was caught off guard being referred to by her actual family name.

"It seems you come knowing certain information that may or may not be true. I've been called Butterfly before, but only in the context of my fashion designs," Heylyn wasn't ready to admit her greatest secret to a complete stranger.

"Sooner or later, we're going to have to start trusting one another. Let me make the first gesture in that direction," Braden said, stepping away from the design table against which he was leaning and picking up Timmy and placing the mannequin carefully upon its legs.

"I'm sorry Timmy," Braden said to the mannequin, brushing some dust from the mannequin's shoulder.

Heylyn looked on, realizing that he wasn't simply a brute after all. That he actually possessed some cuth and a degree of sophistication.

"That's Frack," Heylyn said to him, smiling coyly.

"Oh. Alright. Sorry Frack," he said as he stepped over to the other fallen mannequins one by one, replacing them on their feet and retrieving the design pieces that they'd each once wore, placing them in a pile upon one of the nearby design tables.

"I'm sure Timmy was in there somewhere," Braden said as he picked up the last design pieces from the floor.

"He can pickup mannequins well enough, but can he dance?" asked Kori, prompting a chuckle from both Warai and Heylyn.

"Don't say a thing Warai!" Braden quickly responded, obviously referring to a memory of his nurturing nature with her.

"Apology accepted. On behalf of Timmy," Heylyn responded to Braden, quickly returning to the subject at hand.

"I was running from someone. Actually from many people," Braden continued.

"Sorry?" Heylyn said, puzzled by his statement.

"When I landed on your roof after making a considerably long jump from one of the neighbouring buildings on Queen Street. I must have fallen unconscious," Braden explained to Heylyn.

"When?" asked Heylyn.

"Tuesday, I think," Braden tried to remember the details of his flight from Habus Macill and his followers.

"You are aware that its Saturday today?" asked Heylyn.

"That would explain why my stomach's making a lot of noise," Braden responded, rubbing his exposed stomach.

"Oh. We probably couldn't hear it through the density of that muscular six-pack," Kori replied, obviously looking for any excuse to lay her eyes upon him.

"Well, I'm not one for flattery, but its very easy to see that both yours' and Heylyn's parents have an obvious knack for perfect artistry in everything they make," he said to them both, perhaps hoping to return some modicum of balance for the embarrassment they'd caused him.

"He's mine!" Kori blurted out.

"Then let's dispense with the flattery and get down to the matters at hand. Who was chasing you, and why?" asked Heylyn.

"A very dangerous man. Someone that is part of the fulfilment of one of the Dragon prophecies. Something I'm certain that Jinn Hua might have discussed with you at one time or another?" asked Braden.

Kori quickly looked to Heylyn, who returned the glance realizing that Braden had similar knowledge to that of one of her recent enemies. Another Dragon, though that one was female.

"You aren't the first Dragon to have confronted me with knowledge of that nature. I suggest you explain yourself and how you got it, or we'll be quickly right back to square one again, and I guarantee you, I won't hold back this time," Heylyn became very serious about the matters at hand.

"I respect your defensiveness with regard to what I've explained. That is certainly a sign of the Butterfly, so dedicated to protecting her field, but in these times, there are many Dragons abound. Some know their destiny, while others haven't yet found out. Some have dedicated themselves to chaos and upending the time of humans upon this world, while others like myself have chosen to become the defenders of what is right and just. To preserve the destiny of the gem, and see to it that the people of this world, of this universe, are able to overcome the horrors of what's in store," Braden explained his motives and justifications to Heylyn, hoping to have extended his hand through her distrust of him.

Heylyn though, had lost someone else. Someone whose name was remarkably similar to his own. Someone that she'd loved with all of her heart and being, who'd died at the hands of those resigned to chaos.

She found this coincidence in his name, and his charming nature to be too much. It was too much good all at once, and she quickly became suspicious of him. She knew that the other Dragon, the one who opposed the Butterfly and everything she stood for, would stoop to every means it could to get through her defenses.

She figured her best defense would be to play along for the time being, though to remain cautious, erring even to the side of extremity, for what was at stake was far too great to risk it to such an opportune moment of charm. One that had arrived at all too an opportunistic moment in time. A time when the gem would be vulnerable to such a lure. She could not afford to risk letting down her defenses.

"Alright Braden. You've proven that you aren't an immediate danger, but I want to know everything about the people who've been chasing you, and why. I want to know how you and Warai became so close, before I allow you to resume your nurturing role with her, and I expect that Kori will work with me to that end," Heylyn looked to Kori, ensuring that she was onboard.

Kori looked quickly to Braden, taking in one more eye full of him, closing her eyes as if committing it to memory and weighing it against her loyalty to Heylyn. She sighed before speaking.

"I'm with you Heylyn," Kori promised.

"Then its settled. You can remain in my care for now, but at the first sign of trouble, I'll take you down. Do you understand?" asked Heylyn of Braden.

"As you wish, Butterfly," Braden acknowledged and agreed with her request.

"Do you have a place to live anymore?" asked Heylyn.

"No. They found me at my residence. I've since had to abandon it," Braden admitted.

"Do you have anywhere to go?" asked Heylyn, continuing up to what she was leading.

"No, in all honesty," He admitted.

"I see," Heylyn put her hand to her mouth, deep in thought.

"Alright. I've got another condo. A small unit. A bachelor unit, designed for one. I was thinking of renting it out to a student for a very reasonable price, but apparently you're snatching that opportunity away from someone who likely needs that kind of help. In return, you're going to work for me, here at West Meet East, in the receiving docks. However, you're going to have a student intern that I'm going to pay somewhat more than you. The girl to whom I was going to rent the unit. She's very inexperienced with warehouse work, but she's a student in the Ryerson Fashion Program. You're responsible for everything related to this girl. If she makes a mistake, you'll carry the responsibility. So you're going to have to bring her up to speed in that work, so that she has no difficulty with it, and can move up into the Sewing Department, at which point you'll be upgraded in pay to the wage she was receiving," Heylyn paused for a moment, assuring herself that he was listening.

"Go on..." Braden urged her, keeping his emotions hidden, much like that of a poker player.

"In return, you get the condo, and your fridge filled with food every month. Something Kori will do as a part of her duties here, and duties for which she'll get a bonus from me. You have to prove yourself to me, before we go any further in allowing you access to Warai though. Do you understand?" asked Heylyn, very much taking charge of the situation.

"...and explain about the people who were chasing me. I understand," Braden replied in full agreement with her.

"Alright, we're on the same page. So who was chasing you?" asked Heylyn.

"Macill. Habus Macill," Braden told her the name.

Heylyn at once recalled her conversation with the two agents in Seoul, South Korea at the adoption facility where her and Kori had picked up Warai.

She quickly found her purse and began digging through it and retrieved her phone and the case within which it was stored. In a side pocket of the phone case, she retrieved the business cards of the two agents with whom she'd spoken.

"Glad to see we're on the same page, boss," Kori added.

"Find him a shirt," Heylyn told Kori.

"Do I have to...?" Kori responded, sounding somewhat disappointed that she was being denied of her kicks.

"I'm a pretty good judge of character and I'm guessing that he'd do the same for you if it was you in his place," Heylyn replied, turning to Braden to confirm her guess.

He quickly nodded in agreement, and when Heylyn turned back to face her employee, Braden shrugged to Kori as if to say sorry. Kori responded by by rolling her eyes in disappointment.

"I think we've got something casual sitting around in the lockers downstairs that might fit him," Kori got up and gestured for Braden to follow him.

"I think everything is going to be ok, Braden. Kori really likes you, and I think the Butterfly does too but she's hard to know sometimes," Warai stood up, swaying back and forth with her hands folded behind her back as she spoke.

"I know, Warai. You just keep being the goodness that's already in you, and I'll do my best to protect you," Braden got to his feet and approached Warai, stopping when he could feel Heylyn's eyes on him, watching him carefully.

"I'll say hi to Welly for you," Warai assured him, her sway slowly transforming into a mild rebounding twist on her hips.

"She'll be safe. Go with Kori. We'll talk more when you've got a shirt on," Heylyn said to him firmly.

Braden waved to Warai with his fingers, as he followed Kori to the back stairs and down into the clothing storage.

"Alright little lady, we've got some work to do," Heylyn pointed to her office door.

"But its Saturday... I want to see your whole place!" Warai asked excitedly jumping up and down a few times.

"You get this done first. I have to talk on the phone with someone," Heylyn asked Warai.

"Can I talk on the phone after?" asked Warai.

"Sure, but only after you finish your little job here," Heylyn pointed to a small stack of material samples on her desk.

"What do I have to do?" asked Warai.

"Well, I need you to sort these material samples out. So the red ones go here, the blue ones go there and the green ones go here. Can you do that for me?" asked Heylyn.

"Alright. Like this?" Warai smiled, climbing one of the chairs and standing on it as she began sorting the samples on the desk.

"Exactly! Very good!" Heylyn began dialing the number on the agent's card.

"Hanson here," a familiar voice responded.

"Hello Mr. Hanson, my name is Heylyn Yates. I don't know if you remember me from South Korea a few days ago? We talked at the Child Care facility?" Heylyn reminded the Agent.

"Yes, I remember. How was your return flight? Did you get back safely?" asked Inspector Hanson.

"Yes, everything is fine, though our little friend brought up something recently, that Habus Macill might be living in Toronto, claiming that he wants to find someone here," Heylyn told Inspector Hanson.

"Did your little friend remember a name?" asked Hanson.

"Yes. As a matter of fact, the name mentioned was Braden, only the first name," Heylyn told Hanson.

"Was there any description given of this Braden?" asked Hanson.

"Yes. He's between five nine and five eleven. Handsome. Southeast Asian. Dark hair, dark eyes. Very, very fit with a trim physique. That's about it," Heylyn told him.

"Any distinguishing features? Scars? Tattoos?" asked Hanson.

"He might have a tattoo, but our little friend doesn't remember. No visible scars," Heylyn explained to Hanson.

"Any indication of where in Toronto either Habus or Braden might be staying?" asked Hanson.

"Queen West? Possibly out towards Bathurst or as far as Ossington," Heylyn tried to narrow down the information she'd already ascertained.

"If I need to get back to you, is it alright to call you on this number?" confirmed Hanson.

"Sure. That would be alright, though we're preparing for an upcoming show and things are going to be busy," Heylyn reminded Hanson.

"If anything comes up and we need to speak again, I'll make it short. Thank you very much for taking the time to call," Hanson thanked Heylyn, having written down the information she'd shared.

"Bye," Heylyn hung up the phone and turned to see Warai's progress.

Warai had almost finished sorting the samples.

"Very good! Can you handle some more?" asked Heylyn.

"ok, but only if I can talk on the phone," asked Warai, reaching for Heylyn's phone.

Heylyn clicked a couple of buttons on the interface and triggered the ring-tone. She then answered the phone.

"Hello, Heylyn speaking," Heylyn answered.

"Warai? Ok, could you hold the line?" asked Heylyn.

"There's a call for you on line one," Heylyn handed the phone to Warai.

"Alright. I'll take it," Warai said, accepting the phone from Heylyn.

"Hello? Oh, yes. You want three dresses? What colour? One red, one blue and one green.  Ok. I'll send them right away," Warai handed the phone back to Heylyn, who accepted it from her tiny hands.

"Thank you so very much for your business. We've got work to do to get your order ready. We'll send it right away with love," Heylyn responded, pretending to hang up the phone.

"You did very good, Warai," Heylyn assured Warai as she sat behind her desk and began going through her emails.


"We just had a call inbound on Inspector Hanson's line where the keywords Habus Macill and Braden were mentioned," a voice amidst the millions broke through to the forefront.

"Who made the call and from where?" asked the millions of minds.

"Just getting the results of the trace now and it looks like... one Heylyn Yates... in Downtown Toronto, from an address along Queen Street West," the supervising administrator of Inspector Hanson's cellular service provider explained.

"That's West Meet East International... A fashion design house here in the Queen West fashion district. I know the place. I work just around the corner from their offices. Want me to take a peek?" asked another voice from the millions.

"Have the administrator keep an eye on Hanson's phone while you check out the Heylyn's office and see who's there today. I'll arrange for a more formal introduction next week," Mentis' voice could be heard above all others.

"What about Habus?" asked a multitude of voices from amidst the millions.

"Habus is back is he? Its time for the mentor to teach his student his last lesson," Mentis responded to the voices from the midst of millions.

Weathering The Mind Storm

In the background of the millions of minds throughout North America, a growing chatter could be heard, rising to a wave of frustration, anger and hatred at the mention of Habus' name. It became louder and louder in the minds of those already drawn into the fold, many against their will, until it was as loud as an oncoming freight train. The anger had a force, an energy all its own and everyone connected to the millions of minds could feel it.

Sienna, who'd been home in bed with a book, suddenly was up and on her feet, trying to make her way to the medicine cabinet for her pain relievers. Her migraines had returned, along with a torment on a sea of the waves of a million voices in her head. 

She struggled, falling into the bathroom doorway and just barely able to hold herself up. She reached out, finding the medicine cabinet and carefully opened it, retrieving a bottle of pain killers from within. She dumped a handful into her palm, carefully separating them with shaky fingers until there were only six of them. She then swallowed them, placing the rest on the bathroom counter space. When she began to feel dizzy, she found her mobile phone and dialed 911 just as she collapsed onto the floor.

Meanwhile, outside of West Meet East International, a convoy of emergency vehicles and sirens flew by at high speed. More sirens could be heard in the distance.

"I'm scared!" Warai suddenly said, as Heylyn stood and ran to the window to see if she could see anything.

"Its alright honey. You're safe," Heylyn said as Kori and Braden returned.

"I know its not much, but it fits him nicely," Kori introduced Braden and his new shirt.

"Looks great," Heylyn responded barely looking as she found the remote for her design room television.

She powered up the device, and the news was already live with an emergency.

"We're not sure how many shooters there are, but there have been reports of as many as ten to twelve on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. This all comes in the midst Convention as Police and emergency vehicles struggle to make their way to the Enercare Centre, the host of the latest Comic And Gaming Fan Convention where there are reports of many already injured..." they watched in shock as a mobile phone video was shown of a shooter brandishing an automatic weapon, firing it at fleeing convention goers.

"Stay with them. Protect them!" Heylyn said as she began stripping.

"Where are you going?!" asked Kori in shock.

"There," Heylyn pointed at the television screen.

"We're coming with then!" Kori responded.

"No you're not. You can't keep up. Stay here and protect Warai," Heylyn ordered Kori and Braden.

"I can keep up," Braden reminded Heylyn.

"Then who'd protect Warai and Kori?" asked Heylyn.

Braden's face became intense, and then he agreed as Heylyn disappeared into her office, closing the door. A moment later she emerged in her scaled costume.

"I'll be back soon. I promise," Heylyn ran to the front door, pulling her mask on as her wings emerged from her back.

She leapt up into the air and sped away in the direction of the Enercare Centre, her arms stretched out before her.


Doctor Alicia Westin aka Night Style

"Come on, you didn't really enjoy going shopping with me, did you?" asked Alicia of her beau.

"No. I really did. It was a really grounding experience, and one that I needed after the day at the office I had yesterday," Norler replied, his hands on the steering wheel as they drove east along Lakeshore Boulevard, west of Jameson Avenue.

"So are we going to do it together more often? You know, as a grounding experience? Shopping I mean," asked Alicia encouragingly, inviting his mind to other places as well.

"I can't remember the last time I went shopping. I like paying people to do this for us, shopping I mean, but I have to admit that it is pretty therapeutic doing it ourselves. Let's start with this and see how it goes," Norler agreed with Alicia, meeting her half way.

They heard the sirens approaching from behind and quickly veered to the right side of Lakeshore Boulevard as the first few vehicles passed them, quickly speeding by.

Butterfly Dragon in flight
Alicia looked up and could see the familiar silhouette of a butterfly in flight.

"What's happening?" asked Norler, suddenly seeing what Alicia had seen.

Alicia quickly turned on the radio and tuned the station to the news.

" shooters on scene... the emergency crews are struggling to get through as patrons flee the Enercare Centre..." the announcer's voice was firm yet concerned.

Alicia reached to the back seat and pulled her trench coat from a bag. She then began stripping her outer layer of clothing, revealing her Night Style costume beneath.

"Honey, you aren't thinking of going, are you?" Norler confirmed, suddenly concerned for her.

"I have to. We're close. I'm capable, and the Butterfly is already there. I'll be fine," Alicia said as she pulled her mask on.

"You haven't done this for a while. You're out of practice. Out of shape..." Norler began.

"Don't you dare say that! I'm in better shape than I've ever been! Pull up closer to the entrance. I'm going. I'd prefer to go with your support, but I'm willing to go without it," Alicia assured him.

Norler was silent for a long time before he pulled the car over when they neared the entrance, getting as close to the Enercare Centre as he could. 

Walton Norler
"Go save those people, and get back soon so we can put these groceries away together," Norler leaned over to her, kissing her passionately.

"See you soon. Love you!" Alicia said as she stepped out of the door.

Norler watched as she ran towards the front doors of the convention centre.

People of all shapes and sizes were fleeing the building. Many of them wearing superhero and anime costumes. She saw Spiderman running as fast as he could, Batman not too far behind. Superman appeared from the fleeing crowd, helping a struggling Thanos, who seemed to have been shot in the leg. She pulled a cloth bag from her pocket, handing it to Superman and telling him to tie it tightly around Thanos' leg to stop the bleeding until paramedics arrived. She then proceeded in through the doors against the fleeing crowd. When she found she could move forward no further, she leapt into the air grabbing onto a decorative metal beam, along which she walked with impossible skill. 

She somersaulted back down to the floor, rolling to break her fall and then she was back up onto her feet as a number of onlookers recognized her from her display of abilities.

"Night Style? The Butterfly's in the main hall. There's a bunch of people trapped in there that can't get past the gunmen. They're holed up in the MindSpice attraction near the back of the convention hall," Wonder Woman explained to Alicia.

"Go in through the far door, as they have this one covered. There's a sniper watching the door," Black Widow pointed to the nearest door.

"Thanks. You two get to safety and keep everyone else out. Black Widow is it? Make sure you tell the responding emergency staff what you just told me," Alicia told them, before making her way to the far door.

Night Style Has Entered The Building
As she found her way further in, she spotted a number of other women clad in a costume remarkably similar to her own, including her Night Style chest insignia, all of them carbon copies of herself, of varying shapes and sizes.

"Well at least I fit in, but if we attack them before getting everyone to safety, they'll start shooting at anyone wearing a costume," she said as she carefully snuck in through the far door.

"My thoughts exactly," Heylyn said from behind her.

"Am I glad to see you," Alicia turned to see her best friend.

"So how are we going to do this if we can't take them out one at a time without having them open fire on anyone with costumes?" Heylyn asked for any ideas.

"Stealth. We're going to have to do this quietly," Alicia suggested.

"As long as we don't display any of our powers or abilities, they'll think we're cosplayers. We can use that to our advantage and get everyone out and to safety before anyone gets hurt or killed," Heylyn added.

"Agreed. We already look the part, but your wings are a little too real," Alicia pointed out to Heylyn.

Heylyn looked around, spotting a pair of colourful strap-on butterfly wings that someone must have discarded in the sudden fray.

"There's my wings," Heylyn walked over to the butterfly wings and picked them.

Her real wings disappeared into her back, as she struggled to don the strap-on wings.

"Don't you look cute. Like the Butterfly Cupid," Alicia joked.

"Perfect. Good things come in small packages you know," Heylyn winked at Alicia, obviously referring to Warai.

They snuck in through the far door, keeping low in order to look less conspicuous.

The main hall was a mess, some of the smaller booths were a scattered with comics and costumes spread across the floor, while the larger corporate booths were pocked with visible bullet holes and powder burns from gun fire.

They both used their heightened senses, enabling themselves to see in all directions at once and in a number of different spectrums.

Heylyn sensed the troubled breathing and heartbeats of a large group of people who were huddled at the far corner from them on the other side of the main hall.

"I found the people that Wonder Woman was talking about. They're in that corner. They're not moving, so they're probably pretty terrified," Heylyn pointed out to Alicia.

"I can go to them, and guide them out through the correct door in small groups. Makes sense seeing as I can't fly like you," Alicia suggested.

"You're also a Doctor, meaning you'll be much more help than I could ever be. I'll keep hunting for the gun men, while you get them out safely," Heylyn assured Alicia.

Alicia started on her way towards the far corner, using every kind of cover along the way so as to hide herself, as Heylyn began towards the other end, in search of the gun men.

Alicia slowly crossed one of the aisles, trying desperately not to make any noise when a shot rang out. Time stood still as the round flew by her left cheek, barely missing her. She immediately picked up her pace, though not so much as to alarm the shooter to her abilities, while trying better to keep herself hidden.

Heylyn by chance had happened to see where the muzzle flash had erupted, effectively giving away the gunner's position. She attempted to position herself just beneath the upper level from where he'd fired the shot from behind cover. She was about to climb up to the second level when she heard a soft cry nearby.

"help... me..." a desperately weak voice broke the silence.

Heylyn quickly looked around, suddenly spotting a small pile of refuse from a collapsed display case. She quietly removed the pieces one at a time, revealing a costumed adolescent man, dressed as one of the Assassins from the Assassin's Creed franchise of video games. A single gunshot wound in his gut kept him from moving. She knelt beside him and examined him carefully.

Heylyn tends to an Assassin's Creed cosplayer
"Are you feeling dizzy?" asked Heylyn, desperately recalling the medical training that her and Monique had studied almost two years ago.

"slightly... I feel cold..." the Assassin responded.

Heylyn examined the floor around him and found that he hadn't lost much blood, thankfully.

"You're going into shock. Stay still, keep pressure with this on your wound, and breath steadily, holding your breaths without taking in too much air, and slowly let your breaths out. That should keep you going for a bit," Heylyn explained to him, folding up his Assassin's hood into a gauze for suppressing his wound.

"are you hurt?" he asked her.

"I'm fine, thank you for asking. Did you happen to see how many shooters there are?" she asked him quietly.

"eleven... I think... two of them don't have guns..." the Assassin responded.

"Are these gunmen wearing costumes?" asked Heylyn.

"no. they're in civilian clothing... no costume... no nothing..." the Assassin reported to Heylyn.

"Thank you. Alright, you just hang in there and we're going to get you out of here," Heylyn told the Assassin.

Heylyn looked and saw a door, half-way open about twenty meters away from where they were. She reasoned that she could drag the Assassin over to the door and safely out into the mezzazine. From there, the paramedics could quickly get to him.

"I'm going to try to..." Heylyn began explaining to the Assassin but he'd already fallen unconscious, his eyes pressed closed, his breathing troubled and uneven.

"It's now or never," Heylyn said quietly to herself as she grabbed his shoulders and began dragging him towards the open door.

From a distance at the other side of the main hall, the sniper caught sight of a woman in tiny butterfly wings, dragging a boy across the floor towards the door. They disappeared behind a display booth between them and the sniper.

"Damn! Zero here. I've got a pair of kooks, one's injured. He'd being dragged out of the south entrance by another kook. A butterfly from the looks of it," he cursed under his breath, speaking into a headset he wore.

"Ace on this end. I can't see them from this angle..." a voice responded to his report over the headset.

"Kaid here. I can't see a thing. The kooks at the other end are still hiding. I'm keeping a six on them, " another voice added via the same headset.

"This is Maverick. The cops are still outside evaluating the situation and the swat guys just pulled up. They'll probably come in simultaneously through the front and back entrances, or through the roof like in R6 Siege. Keep your eyes open for gun kooks," another voice reported over the headset.

Heylyn continued to pull the boy towards the door, not tired in the least by her exertion. She continued on and around a corner, eventually emerging from the behind the booth at the other side.

Zero, the sniper was a non-descript man in his late twenties. He wore a simple baseball cap lacking any kind of identifying features. A black golf shirt and a pair of blue jeans covered his torso and lower body, while a pair of white runners adorned his feet. If he hadn't been brandishing a .303 hunting rifle and its scope, he'd have likely blended into any casual crowd.

"damned kooks..." he said quietly as he searched for Heylyn and the Assassin on either side of the booth.

Heylyn suddenly appeared, still dragging the Assassin carefully by both his shoulders.

"Finally... goodbye kook!" Zero said as he lined up Heylyn's head in the cross hairs, his finger tightened around the trigger of the hunting rifle.

Eclipse puts some light on the situation
As he pulled the trigger, a tremendously bright flash illuminated the region. The report of his rifle coincided with the thunderclap accompanying the bright flash, as he struggled to recover from his sudden blindness.

Monique in full costume as the Eclipse immediately turned to check on Heylyn.

"Are you...?" asked Monique, who saw that Heylyn and the body she was dragging were no longer there.

She looked around, puzzled for a short moment.

"Alright. I'll go after the bad guys..." she said, disappearing in a flash of light.

Zero's vision slowly returned and he immediately brought the sniper rifle up to his eyes again looking for targets.

"Maverick here. You alright Zero? Looks like the cops are making their entry early cuz that wuz definitely a flashbang!" Maverick asserted to Zero.

"I'm fine, no targets though... must have been a flashbang or..." Zero responded, suddenly seeing movement from his side.

He tried to reach for his side arm, a stamped metal 9mm handgun. As he got hold of the firearm, a tattooed leg quickly kicked it from his hand.

Dragon Butterfly Confronts...
"Little boys shouldn't play with guns..." a woman whose body was tattooed from neck to ankle addressed him as she stood calmly before him.

Zero swung the hunting rifle in attempt to use it as a blunt weapon. She quickly dodged the arc of the rifle, carrying the energy and momentum through and directing it over the edge of the catwalk on which they were both perched.

"Stand or fall little boy?" the Dragon Butterfly asked Zero as she held onto him as he leaned backwards over the edge.

"Kook! You're all going to die!" Zero yelled, as Maverick queried him over the headset.

"What's going on Zero?! Copy?" asked Maverick repeatedly.

"Lost for words? Then meet the wall," Dragon Butterfly suddenly pulled him away from the edge with a force that slammed him into the wall against which the cat walk was fastened.

He hit the wall face first and was quickly delivered into an unconscious sleep, rebounding to the floor.

"Alright boys! They've definitely made an entry! Zero's down! Go live with your fire! Take all the kooks down! Its our last stand!" Maverick yelled into the headset.

From the other end of the convention hall, Alicia saw the bright flash and heard the accompanying thunderclap as she arrived to where the remainder of cosplayers had taken up refuge, hiding from the assailants.

"Don't worry, I'm here to help," Alicia said to them, very much fitting in with her own Night Style costume.

"You don't look like the Police," asked a younger Batman adorned adolescent, beside whom sat his Cousin It costume adorned father.

"I'm not. But I'm still a friend," Alicia smiled, winking from behind her mask.

She quickly counted them, coming to twenty three people of various ages and in various costumes.

"Are any of you injured?" Alicia asked, keeping her voice quiet so as not to expose them.

"My brother fell down outside of the MindSpice attraction when we were running away. I think he was shot. He was wearing an Assassin's Creed costume. Did you see him?" asked a young girl who was dressed as a Witch with a tall and pointy hat.

"No. I'm sorry, I didn't, but there are more people like me in here helping everyone to get to safety. I bet that if you wish hard enough, we'll find him when we leave together. Like a magic spell," Alicia said, leaning down to the little girl.

"Are you magic?" asked the little girl.

"We all are in one way or another. My magic is science. Yours might be something else. You've just got to make that magic work for you," Alicia assured her.

"No disrespect or anything, but we've got to get out of here before they start shooting again..." a mid-twenties Heath Ledger Joker advised Alicia.

"Did you see any of the gunmen when you came here?" asked a thirty year old Optimus Prime.

"No. But we're still going to have to stay low when we..." Alicia moved before she finished her sentence and faster than any of the cosplayers would have thought anyone could move.

She leapt into the air directly into a double cartwheel, landing just in front of a gunman who'd suddenly arrived through the only way in, taking aim with a machine gun at the crowd of cosplayers.

Before her landing, she'd slammed the gun muzzle first downwards into the floor. It burst to life as it roared several rounds, hitting the concrete floor near Alicia sending splinters and splashed metal forth. Her costume was suddenly pocked with holes and the skin beneath with wounds that immediately began healing. With her other foot, she stomped on the machine gun, breaking it in two along the breech.

In nearly the same motion, she spun and with her fist, delivering a blow that sent the gunman to the floor unconscious with a minor concussion.

As she searched his unconscious body for any other arms, the Joker spoke:

"You're the real Night Style!" he said to her in amazement.

"There's a few of us running around in here today, but don't tell anyone," Alicia said, winking to another girl dressed as Night Style hiding within the same group of cosplayers.

"Why don't you go beat them all up?" asked a slightly obese, twenty-something bearded Superman.

"Because, if my friends and I do that, the rest of the gunmen will start shooting at anyone wearing a costume. They've got radios, so they're sharing everything they know with each other. We don't want to risk any lives, so we're playing like we don't have powers until we're sure you're safe," Alicia held up the unconscious man's headset to them.

"May I see that?" asked an eighteen year old Iron Man referring to the headset in Alicia's hands.

"Sure..." Alicia said, amused by his elaborate suit.

Iron Man pulled out a kit, zipping it open and pulling forth a pair of wire cutters. He used them to cut the microphone off of the headset and then wrapped the exposed wires with electrical tape, ensuring that the wires didn't create a shorted circuit. He then returned the wire cutters to the kit and zipped it closed.

"Just my costume repair kit. Comes in handy for last minute problems," he said to them.

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Alicia said, looking to her own costume and the recent damage it had sustained.

"Why did you do that? You just wrecked it?" asked a twenty-two year old Jughead cosplayer of Iron Man.

"No I didn't. My dad's an electrician, and he taught me some stuff about electronics, not to mention I'm studying it in school you know. I just made it so they can't hear us, but we can hear them," Iron Man responded.

"Oh. Sorry 'bout that. That's pretty good," Jughead replied, scratching his head.

"Good thinking. Want a summer job?" asked Alicia, retrieving the headset from Iron Man and putting it on her own head.

"I already have one. I'm an ice cream scooper for Sugar Ice Dairies. A summer job with benefits. If I wasn't wearing this costume, you'd be able to tell by my acne," Iron Man said playfully, drawing a quiet and uneasy laughter from the other cosplayers.

"Alright, we're going to leave before they come looking for their friend here. Everyone form a line and hold hands, especially keeping an eye on the younger ones. Stay quiet and stay low. If I suddenly move, then get to the floor and stay as low as possible. Did everyone get that?" asked Alicia.

They all quietly nodded, then began forming a line with one another, Alicia at its head.

"If I did my accounting correctly, the line should be short enough that I can keep an eye on both ends as we go. So let's get to it," Alicia said, grabbing the hand of the first person in the line as they started on their way out of the MindSpice attraction and into the display area of the convention hall.


Heylyn stopped just outside of the doors of the convention center, leaving the Assassin's Creed cosplayer where he could be safely assisted by paramedics. Before the Police spotted her, she quickly made her way back inside.

She ran the distance of the mezzanine back in through the south door, which she assumed to have been cleared by Monique. As she got through the doorway, she ran directly into one of the gunmen. He quickly leveled his assault rifle at her.

"Don't shoot!" she said, holding her hands up in the air.

"You're going to die kook!" he screamed at her.

She moved before he could squeeze the trigger, obtaining control of the rifle with one hand while delivering a blow to his solar plexus with the other. The air quickly left his lungs, as she ripped the rifle and arm strap from his hands, breaking it in two shortly thereafter.

As he writhed on the floor gasping for air, she quickly found a wiry piece of metal, tearing it from one of the display racks. She then used it to bind the gunman's hands together, twisting it tightly several times before breaking off the excess.

After removing his headset, she took the rifle strap and wrapped it around his mouth to keep him from yelling or warning the rest of the gunmen.

"That should keep you fresh, not to mention quiet," Heylyn said to him.

"You think that will keep me quiet!" he yelled through the rifle strap that bound his mouth.

"I've gotta work on that. Guess I'll have to do the next best thing... nothing personal, but I don't want you shooting any of these people or warning your friends," Heylyn said as she delivered a blow to his face that rendered him unconscious.

She suddenly detected movement from the far end of the convention hall with her focused senses. She began heading in that direction stealthily as she went.


Monique still in flight and having flown the length of the convention hall several hundred times already searching, eventually found what she was looking for. The cameras she was used to seeing were somewhat cumbersome, large and obvious with lenses to match. These cameras were much smaller and somewhat discrete.

"It worked at Cora Hau, lets hope it works here..." Monique said to herself, still in light form.

She flew at the tiny lens, focusing herself through its surface and into the charged coupled device, which converted the incoming light into computer friendly digital information, albeit electrical in nature. Despite the similarly strange sensation she remembered from having done the same thing at Cora Hau, she continued along the path of the wire to its origin, moving at near the speed of light.

Maverick had stood, loading his array of weapons, readying himself for battle. He intended to take as many kooks down as he could before he dropped.

When he'd finished loading the last one, he turned to the camera monitors, examining those reflecting what was happening just outside of the building.

"Alright guys, looks like they're making their entry! This is it!" he yelled through his headset, getting himself pumped up for his last stand.

Suddenly, one of the other monitors' screens began to glow increasingly brighter and brighter.

"What's up with that?" asked Maverick to himself.

A moment later, there was a bright flash and a thunderclap as Monique appeared.

"Eclipse here. Did you order out for a light snack?" she asked him.

He spun, blinded, pulling the trigger of his submachine gun, its barrel sending huge plumes of fire out in her direction.

She disappeared in a streak of light before anything hit her and reappeared behind him. She immediately grabbed hold of the two backup rifles slung across his back and used them to flip him over her shoulders, sending him face first to the floor.

He quickly rolled over, unloading the last of the magazine of his submachine gun upwards at her from the floor. She once again disappeared into her light form, flying up at the ceiling. On her return flight back towards his face, she rematerialized, punching him.

He was stunned by the first blow, but it hadn't ended there, for she did the same thing about thirty times in less than a second. By the last blow, he was unconscious.

She quickly stripped him of weapons, doing her best to break them one by one. She then removed his headset and pulled it into several dysfunctional pieces.

Her eyes caught sight of the monitors, as she saw the Police and the Tactical Unit readying themselves to make their entry. At that moment, the power suddenly went out.

"Gotta get back in the convention hall and find the others..." Monique said to herself, leaving through the security door, immediately turning back into her light form.


As they walked, Alicia listened in on the radio traffic of the gunmen. They were spreading out and actively hunting them in the convention hall. From the sounds of it, there were still at least five of them left.

When the lights went out, a few of the people in the line Alicia was leading screamed in fright.

"It's alright. That's probably the Police. They're getting ready to come in. Everything's going to be alright..." Alicia assured them quietly.

Alicia suddenly became aware that four of the gunmen had moved into range and were surrounding the line. She barely had any time to react, and the sudden darkness didn't help. When she did move, she relied entirely on her heightened senses.

"Get down!" she yelled as she launched herself at the first one to come into range, clipping his firearm but missing his body. As his weapon came to life, she rolled to a stop just past him, now able to see by the illumination his gunfire had provided. She quickly grabbed him by the back of his shoulders, and forced him backwards over her leg. He fell backwards onto the floor, his head impacting enough not to cause serious damage but rending him unconscious.

As Alicia turned to deal with the next, she heard the sound of fighting.

One of the other gunmen had round the group, cocking his gun as he aimed it at them.

"Die kooks!" he screamed at them.

His gun was yanked from his arms by someone much more forceful and willful than he.

He didn't have time to dodge her leg as the ball of her heeled toes impacted his face, sending him and his night vision goggles immediately to the floor unconscious.

"He needs guns and night goggles to fight an unarmed lady and children?" The tattooed lady stood over her felled prey, her eyes glowing.

Behind her, a young Bayonetta cosplayer had rushed at one of the other gunmen in order to protect Alicia. She struggled with the gunman over control of the gun, hanging on for dear life. The firearm suddenly erupted, narrowly missing the head of the young Bayonetta as she let go and slid a short distance across the concrete floor.

A Sonic The Hedgehog cosplayer quickly reached out and grabbed Bayonetta and pulled her to safety out of the line of fire.

Before the gunman had a chance to fire upon her, he was suddenly yanked backwards and through a booth, smashing it to pieces before he stopped on the floor unmoving.

Alicia, Heylyn and Aikiko didn't wait a moment before leaping onto the last gunman and quickly disarming him.

"How many of you were there?" Aikiko demanded of him, hefting the gunman off the floor as she questioned him.

"Nine! Seven with guns, two unarmed. They were our lookouts..." he confessed.

Monique suddenly appeared in the midst of them, still glowing in light form.

"Anyone need a light?" she asked them.

Alicia immediately went and checked on the group she'd been protecting, as Heylyn checked up on the young Bayonetta.

"Are you alright sweetie?" asked Heylyn.

The little girl of no more than ten, nodded affirmatively.

"We're alright. Superman, Lara Croft and I made sure," the Iron Man cosplayer assured Alicia.

"So if you're the real Night Style, does that mean you're the real Butterfly? What's with the tiny wings?" asked Jughead.

Another young girl wearing an Eclipse costume pointed at Monique.

"Eclipse?" she said, referring to Monique.

It was a moment that truly hit Monique in the heart, when she realized the effect she'd had on these young lives. That she could inspire so many people, even if nobody had told her directly.

Aikiko too looked on, and it became clear to her that something was amiss. That she had been misled, for she suddenly remembered that she had been one of these little girls at one time. Having her own aspirations and dreams. A future of boundless possibility ahead of her. Yet, the turn of events in her life had led to a much different outcome, as if she'd lost touch with that person as whom she'd started this life.

She wondered how many other little girls had started out down the same path, aspiring to be so much more and yet finding themselves lost in the maze of life. Perhaps disregarded by society and outcast simply for struggling to survive. As she recalled, from the moment her father had sold her to his debtors, her life had become a nightmare. A reality that few would believe existed unless they lived it themselves. A little girl lost in a cruel world and a world that often cast out the same lost little girls it had created.

In her anger and spite for what the world had done to her, she'd sought to reclaim what had been taken from her. Somewhere in the process, she'd lost herself. Her own little girl. Perhaps that was her true motivation for seeking the Gem, if only to reclaim her own lost innocence.

It was at that moment that Heylyn, in Monique's dim light suddenly realized who she was looking at. 

It was the same woman she'd confronted at the Market in Seoul. It was the Dragon Butterfly.

"Wait! She's different now! She told me about the Market! About your fight! She told me why!" Monique saw where the situation was leading.

"She wanted to take someone from me. Someone very dear to me..." Heylyn said, standing and readying herself.

"You were out with her?" confirmed Heylyn, unable to believe what she was hearing.

"Yes. I was. Though it wasn't planned," Monique explained.

"We ran into each other like lost winds. The kind that might clear the dark clouds or bring the storm," Aikiko said poetically.

"Uhhh guys, this isn't exactly the time for a quarrel. These people are depending upon us," Alicia reasoned with her friends, looking curiously to the Dragon Butterfly.

The Dragon Butterfly looked back at Alicia, her face with a grim yet enlightened expression.

"So you are the three?" asked Aikiko.

"Three who?" asked Alicia, looking seriously puzzled.

"From Cora Hau. The Future Tangent facility? From the Imperial Palace in Tokyo? You are the same three," Aikiko asserted her observation.

"That would be us, for sure. I still have the scars to prove it," Monique agreed.

"And you would be the one that tried to take my little girl! The same one," Heylyn responded defensively.

All of the sudden, there was a crash and an explosion above them, as four armed Tactical Team members burst in through skylights in the roof.

"That's so cool! Just like in R6 Siege!" said Iron Man.

At that moment, Heylyn's real wings emerged from her back, glowing in the darkness and changing shape to accommodate the situation.

"Whoa! That's the real butterfly!" Superman said as Heylyn positioned herself protectively around the group.

At the north and south doors of the convention hall, two teams of the Tactical Unit burst through the doorway, their arms leveled as they searched for gunmen. They immediately stopped upon encountering one of the unconscious gunmen.

"Tango here, the show's over for him though. Down but alive," reported the Tactical team's medic.

"Keep pushin' it. There's between eight and ten more according to our intel, and keep an eye out for hostages! North team advance to contact," Angus ordered the north door unit to proceed.

"Secure that tango and lets move out..." Angus continued.

Meanwhile, the team that had come in through the roof immediately made contact with the group Alicia had rescued, Alicia herself, Heylyn, Monique and Aikiko.

One of the Tactical unit members saw one of the cosplayers dressed as Night Style and opened fire on her.

Heylyn having anticipated something was up had already positioned herself to protect the girl. Her wings blocked the trajectory of the gunfire from his MP5 submachine gun, rebounding harmlessly in a direction away from the group.

"Hold your fire! We've got hostages here!" Angus yelled over his headset.

"Sorry, but I have to," one of the other roof entry Tactical unit officers said to Monique as he too opened fire upon her.

Monique immediately brighted them, with a flash and thunderclap of her power, moving at light speed just before the first rounds impacted where she'd been.

"Stay with the tango and secure the door. Tony, you're with me. Keep my six. We're going to get a twenty on the situation," Angus ordered his team as he and Tony moved out towards the northern part of the convention hall.

Meanwhile, Heylyn moved to disarm the tactical unit officer that had just fired on the cosplayer, while Aikiko moved in to incapacitate the one nearest her.

"Why the hell are they firing on us?!" Alicia shouted, siding with Heylyn protectively over the group.

"Restraint is not second nature, but a learned one. One neither of us have yet learned," Aikiko said as she disarmed the officer, throwing him to the concrete while retaining a controlling hold of his arm.

"Stop trying to hurt them! They saved us!" the girl in the Witch costume cried out at the Tactical officers as she tried to protect Alicia and her friends.

"What is going on here! The orders were to detain only! No lethal force was to be used against them! I did not give a weapons free order on the costumed vigilantes!" Angus yelled out upon arriving at the scene.

"Sorry Angus, but your time's up," Tony fired upon Angus from behind, aiming between his armour for best effect.

He quickly rolled to escape the gunfire, taking several rounds in the back as he did. He lay flat on the floor, struggling to breath as Alicia and Monique moved to contend with the remaining tactical officers.

Alicia took a round just under her right armpit, as she grappled with the officer for control of his gun. She quickly broke the firearm and delivered a kick that sent the officer flying unconscious into the wall.

Monique flew behind the only remaining officer, grabbing hold of his webbing from the back and flying upwards to the ceiling where she hung him from one of the rafters. She then flew around to the other side and took his submachine gun and sidearm.

"Enjoy the view! I left you with your phone so you could take some selfies from up here if you'd like?" Monique suggested to the officer who dangled precariously from the ceiling as he struggled to get hold with his hands.

"You're obviously the leader of this team. Mind telling me what happened?" asked Heylyn of Angus as he gasped.

"I don't... know... our orders were to arrest you for questioning... they took matters into their own hands..." 

"So where can we take these people to safety if we can't even trust you?" asked Heylyn.

"Take them out the north door. The press has access there and the security cameras on that side haven't been disabled. If you take them that way, and anyone tries to hurt the hostages or you, it'll be seen by the press..." Angus advised her.

"Let's just hope the press is on our side..." Heylyn replied.

"We can't just leave him here. If his entire team was in on it, they'll kill him," Alicia noted.

"You and I will lead the hostages out, and I'll fly you out of here. At least I can trust you to have my back. Monique will fly the leader here..." Heylyn began.

"Angus... Angus Ford..." Angus coughed, letting them know his name.

"Monique will fly Angus here to a hospital or somewhere safe. From there, it will be up to him," Heylyn told Alicia as Monique landed.

"What about... Aikiko?" Alicia asked, trying to remember the tattooed girl's name.

"She got here herself. I'm sure that she can leave here herself," Heylyn responded, still feeling very guarded about the situation with Dragon Butterfly.

"I'm on it boss..." Monique said, having caught the tail end of what she asked of her.

Monique grabbed Angus, hefting him up with every ounce of strength she had.

"Next time, lay off of the donuts, will ya?!" Monique said as she took off, flying out through the same convention hall skylight the tactical team had come in through.

"We will meet again Butterfly. Under a sky without violence in its eyes. There, we will do as all warriors of esteem and honour should do. We will speak first, and then decide if it is really necessary for us to war," Aikiko began.

"If you wish to talk, then we'll talk. Meet me where the city points the way to the stars, though its obvious to some, it can't be seen from too far. If you find it and we meet, I'll know we're on the same page," Heylyn told her.

"Butterfly, Butterfly. In the night, in the sky. I fought you not, yet you ask why? Butterfly, Butterfly. Until then..." Aikiko was suddenly enveloped in a darkness that swallowed her whole, then close up around her leaving no evidence that she'd been there at all.

"Is it just me, or are our friends getting weirder and weirder?" asked Alicia.

Heylyn and Alicia looked at each other in their costumes, and then over to the group of cosplayers still huddled on the floor.

They all nodded affirmatively at each other as smiles emerged from their faces. Then they shared a painful laugh together.

Alicia grabbed the hand of the little girl at the front of the line, while Heylyn grabbed the hand of Iron Man at the back, her wings now withdrawn into her back.

Together, they proceeded carefully through the convention hall, and to the north door. When they arrived, the found themselves in the midst once again of tactical unit officers.

"Your team leader is in there near the center. They're pinned down by some gunmen there!" Alicia told the tactical team members, who immediately regarded her as just another cosplayer.

"We're on it! Come on squad, lets go!" the squad leader ordered them and they proceeded into the convention hall, leaving the way clear for Alicia and Heylyn to get the group to the safety of the press.

"We have to stop here. You're going to have to go the rest of the distance on your own. Just hold hands and stick together, and make sure that you remain seen by everyone just in case..." Heylyn told the group.

"Remember what I said about magic too," Alicia poked the little Witch's nose.

She nodded back at Alicia, a tear drop beneath her little eye.

"And Iron Man, I wasn't kidding about that summer job. I'll find a way to look you up. You know, just to save your complexion and all," Alicia winked at him.

"Keep on designing and cosplaying. You're all heroes of mine," Heylyn told them, waving as she and Alicia took a detour to the back door of the mezzanine.

"So where to?" Heylyn asked Alicia as the approached the back door, where another smaller crowd had gathered.

"Lets start with safety, then work our way up to anonymity, and take it from there," Alicia responded.

"It was good seeing you again last night and today. Really brings back some memories," Heylyn said as they walked cautiously, trying to remain discrete.

"Its been a while Heylyn. So much has happened. Maybe we'll get some time as friends to talk," Alicia said to her bff.

"We will. Don't forget about our Wednesday morning meeting. Ten AM sharp," Heylyn told Alicia.

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Alicia responded.

"Funny you should say," Heylyn replied.

They exited from the building, running for cover in order to play the part they needed to play. When they were away from the concentration of crowd, Heylyn's wings emerged as she grabbed hold of Alicia. 

Together they flew off into the afternoon sun, an uneasy feeling about what lay ahead for them.


"Are you sure this is where you want me to leave you?" confirmed Monique.

"I'll be fine here. Someone will be along soon to pick me up..." Angus wheezed.

"Maybe next time we'll meet under better circumstances? Like when you guys don't feel like shooting at us?" Monique asked him.

"Don't you worry, I'm going to get to the bottom of that ASAP, and some heads are going to roll. I never forget when someone does me a righteous turn, thank you flying strobe light," Angus breathed uneasily.

"Pardon?!" asked Monique, a disgusted look on her face.

"Just kidding. Thank you. Thank you Eclipse," Angus said.

"Get well, so we don't have to spend a fortune on get well cards. Bye!" Monique waved and took off into the sky at near the speed of light.

Angus reached into his belt pouch and pulled out his personal phone. He dialed a number on it.

"Hello, I'd like to speak with Tricia Camden if I could?" asked Angus, trying as hard as he could to mask his injury.

"She's busy at the moment, can I take a message?" asked the comms operator.

"I'm a cop. Its regarding a case. Its important," Angus told her.

"Can I have your badge number?" asked the comms operator.

Angus gave the comms operator Farnham's badge number.

"Hold the line for a moment," the comms operator put him on hold.

A moment later someone answered his call.

"Farnham? I thought you were..." Tricia began.

"I've got a situation here. It might be related to your case. We met at the Forseth armed robbery crime scene. I'm one of the officers from the tactical unit. I was just fired upon by members of my own tactical unit. Apparently they've got their own agenda. I was rescued by some friends whose names I'd rather keep confidential for now," Angus gasped as he drew in a breath.

"Where and under what circumstances?" asked Tricia.

"We were responding to the armed assailants threat at the Cosplayer's Convention. Should be all over the news," Angus reported to her.

"I know the one and yes, its all over the news. Were these friends that rescued you other members of the Police force or of a more extra-curricular cosplay variety?" asked Tricia.

"The former... no wait... the latter. I always get those two mixed up..." Angus responded.

"Are you currently injured?" confirmed Tricia.

"Yeah... I'd say that... about four or five rounds under the armour. Mid torso. From the back. Didn't hit my appendix thankfully or I wouldn't be talking to you. Not sure about my liver though..." Angus said to her.

"So you're saying that you need discrete and confidential medical help?" Tricia asked him.

"Now we're on the same page..." Angus agreed with her.

"Where the hell are you?" asked Tricia.

"On the roof of the building where you guys have that secure meeting room where we meet at every month..." Angus replied.

"Just stay calm, help will be on its way shortly. Stay on the line, I'll be with you after I make the arrangements..." Tricia assured Angus as she left him alone momentarily.

"Nice view..." Angus said as he fell unconscious.


After Heylyn had as inconspicuously as possible dropped Alicia off, she took to the air at high speed in flight back to her offices at West Meet East International.

Through her experiences over the years, she'd learned to use the wings to her advantage in numerous ways, but the most clever of them were using them as camouflage during flight. She'd learned to adjust their colour and tint so that they acted as a sort of invisible camouflage that almost completely concealed her during her landings. 

Occasionally while she was in flight, she'd use them to conceal her form against the daylight sky, as her wings weren't particularly functional or even necessary for her to fly. They were more like additional limbs, for which she'd even altered her fighting style, occasionally using them for those purposes or, on occasion as a shield, as they seemed almost impervious to anything against which she'd come.

On this day however they proved as useful as always at concealing her arrival at West Meet East International.

She descended into the back parking lot, careful to keep herself obscured from curious onlookers, though the trouble at the convention had lured the Saturday Queen Street crowds away. Though West Meet East wasn't directly on Queen Street (but south one block), it was close enough that Heylyn had to be mindful of her comings and goings as The Butterfly Dragon.

She landed quietly, her wings disappearing into her back. She then opened the back shipping door and entered the building, quickly making her way to her design room and office.

"How'd it go?" asked Kori immediately upon seeing Heylyn.

"Butterfly!" Warai exclaimed happily.

"I think we saved everyone, though there were... complications," Heylyn said as she disappeared into her office, closing the door behind her.

"What kind of complications?" asked Kori.

"Yeah, what kind of complications?" asked Braden, who'd arrived with a broom in hand after having swept out the showroom.

"Just a minute..." said Heylyn, her voice muffled behind the door.

A moment later she emerged in more comfortable attire.

"The Dragon Butterfly was there for one..." she responded, putting her costume on a hanger and putting it into the steam cleaner in her design room.

"Who?" asked Braden.

"Dragon Butterfly. She's kind of like us, but with tattoos and an attitude. Though in all honesty, she's changed a lot since Seoul," Heylyn responded, going back into her office and emerging with her boots, which she also threw in the steam cleaner.

"You were in Seoul?" confirmed Braden.

Kori flirts with Braden
"Just got back actually. It was kind of nice. Have you ever been there?" Kori flirted with Braden.

"We were going to talk in more detail about things later as I recall," Heylyn looked sharply to Braden.

"What better time than the present?" he dared.

"Look, I just spent the afternoon getting shot at, punched and kicked. Well actually, I did most of the punching and kicking, but they did shoot at me several times. I'd like a moment to collect my thoughts," Heylyn said walking back into her office, closing the door behind her.

Kori looked to Braden, his eyebrows jumping up as he nodded.

"So. Is every Saturday like this?" asked Braden.

"No. To tell you the..." Kori began to respond when Heylyn's office door opened and she continued her dialogue.

"And then Monique shows up out of nowhere, having formed a friendship with Dragon Butterfly, who as I said seems to have turned over a new leaf after having attempted to take Warai from me at that Market in Seoul," Heylyn walked back and forth through the design room as they watched her.

"She tried to take Warai from you?" asked Braden.

"It was so scary. I was like holding hands with Warai and this muscular tattooed lady, I mean tattoos from her ankles all the way up solid to her neck, shows up and like, demands I give up Warai," Kori told Braden.

"Then Butterfly came and helped us!" Warai said excitedly, jumping up and down.

Braden tried to keep up with all three women, his head turning to each one in turn as they spoke, almost to the point of making him dizzy.

"I get the impression that you don't often get to talk to anyone about this kind of stuff?" asked Braden.

"Really. You know, that's exactly what I was thinking. You and I are so much..." Kori began with Braden before Heylyn interrupted.

"Enough Kori. Leave him be," Heylyn quickly stopped them.

"Its actually kind of flattering you know," Braden said honestly and with a smile on his face.

Heylyn looked scornfully at him.

"...but perhaps a little misplaced in this time and situation?" he quickly corrected himself.

"I think Kori likes Braden... I think Heylyn likes..." Warai's empathy quickly found its place in conversation before Heylyn cut her off.

"Let's keep things simple here, alright. We're at work, so lets keep the flirting to a minimum. For today?" asked Heylyn in a more friendly tone.

"Alright," Kori responded.

"But you still didn't answer his question," Kori continued.

"What question?" asked Heylyn.

"The question about you not getting much of a chance to talk about this stuff with anyone," Kori surmised her point.

Heylyn converses

"Kori, I'm the owner of this company. I deal with a million pressures every day, most of which I can't talk with anyone about. The Butterfly Dragon is simply another aspect of my life and one that is similar to owning this company. That's all. I'm used to this," Heylyn said, finally having giving the thought some consideration.

"Alicia and Norler have each other to talk with, and I'm sure they speak about the kinds of pressures they face in their line of work all the time," Kori reminded Heylyn.

"Look, let's not talk about this anymore. Besides, I've got to get busy calling everyone about Wednesday's meeting," Heylyn said to them.

"Why?" asked Kori.

"I just realized the urgency of this situation and its critical. I'm moving the meeting to Monday morning," Heylyn said as she pulled out her phone.

She then walked over to Warai.

Heylyn hires Warai
"Seeing as you did such a good job, would you like to sort some more of the material samples?" asked Heylyn, who kneeled to Warai's height.

"Only if Kori helps," Warai responded.

"I was working on getting the designs required for the upcoming show ready, but I guess I'm helping Warai sort samples now," Kori said, sounding somewhat frustrated.

"What's the matter?" asked Heylyn.

"I don't know. I love looking after Warai and all, but I've got to go to go home tonight," Kori reminded Heylyn.

"I'm paying you for all the help you've given, including babysitting Warai," Heylyn reminded her.

"I know, and I'm grateful for all the extra work, but I'm exhausted. I can help you out maybe one or two days a week, but remember I do have my own life to live," Kori insisted to Heylyn.

"I know. Consider this last week to have been a rarity. Thank you for all your help," Heylyn told Kori sincerely.

"Does that mean I won't see you anymore?" Warai asked Kori.

"No, not at all. It just means that I have to spend time at my own home too. I'll still come and see you when I can. Besides, you're probably going to be busy with lots of your own things to do, like school," Kori reminded Warai.

Warai negotiates her salary
"Will they let me sort samples in school?" asked Warai.

"For that my little dear, you're going to have to come here," Heylyn said to Warai, handing her a stack  of new samples to sort.

"We'll be here for another hour, and then I'll we'll get Braden fixed up in his place, and then I'll drop you at home," Heylyn said, returning to her office.

Warai placed the stack of samples on the design table and Kori lifted the little girl up and perched her sitting on the edge.

"Alright little one, we've got work to do," Kori began sorting, and Warai followed shortly thereafter.

PS: This chapter was a real part of the story, and a treat for my friends on Disney Day. Its tuff sometimes to hang on to friends, but I miss you. I guess its the hangin' on for what counts that makes heroes of us all. 

As the Butterfly Dragon would say though, its a sense of empathy, and the best of our imperfections that makes us all heroes of our own.

One Hand Less, One Empire More

Zek sat in bed, bracing the notepad against his right forearm. With his left, he'd etched the entirety of the alphabet upon page after page, all three hundred of which sat on the floor beside his bed in his cabin aboard the Many Faced Maiden.

His left hand very recently, had suddenly become his right. A hand he'd taken for granted for his entire life, until he'd arrived at the fateful moment when he'd need it most.

In all truth, Zek had anticipated this moment, though he'd have never admitted as much to anyone. It was a weakness, and in his former business, weakness was the Reaper. The harbinger of one's eventual demise.

The pain in all truth, had not reached him through the fog of painkillers which had clouded his senses, for he'd taken many since having been dropped in his cabin post surgery.

Having taken so many, he'd also lost track of time. An old friend that had once been his ally. Now it was simply another mocker of his eventual fate, in the absence of his right hand. A hand which now sat in a jar of formaldehyde on the shelf of his cabin. It sat there mocking him, as if George had considered the fact of its ability psychologically destabilize him.

Zek looked at it from the bed upon which he sat, propped up against the headboard. It mocked him silently, floating in the abyss of the preserving liquid. So familiar, yet so much not. And only this morning, it was his best friend. Holding his penis during his morning urination and shoveling food into his gullet during lunch. Now, it was a prisoner in a jar and he was a man absent of one hand.

There was suddenly a thudding in the distance. It sounded metallic to him, but as if it were echoing through molasses rather than air. Then a voice. It spoke more out of respect, perhaps pity.

"Yes?" Zek queried.

"The Captain requests your presence at his table..." the voice responded.

"Can I bring my hand?" asked Zek, speaking up just slightly.

"I'm sorry, could you say that again?" asked the voice on the other side of his door.

"I said, is there going to be a band?" asked Zek.

"No Sir. There is no entertainment scheduled for tonight," the voice responded.

The door opened and a large burly guard entered.

"Did I...?" aske Zek.

"No you didn't, but the Captain gave me permission to encourage you, should it be needed," the guard responded.

"Well it isn't. Just allow me to indulge myself," Zek replied, leaning over to his night table, grabbing no less than six painkiller tablets, which he promptly placed in his mouth, crunching them like chalk candy.

"How are you feeling since the surgery?" asked the guard, as if they'd cured him of some unforeseen malady.

"Damned hand was no good anyway. Like Cancer if you ask me. Who needs hands," Zek attempted to get one by on his escort, hoping his escort wouldn't notice.

But he did.

"No disrespect, but I'd rather opt for both of mine. Need them both for leaping and loving, and not necessarily in that order," he replied carefully.

"Be careful then, because not everyone is graced with such options," Zek replied as if he'd become an expert.

"Even fewer options for those who kept coral reefs decorated with the bodies of their enemies I suppose," his escort responded, to which Zek had no reply.

Except: "True. I suppose,", his painkillers doing most of the talking.

He began walking, following his escort along a hall that seemed to go on forever, spiraling with every step until someone grabbed him. The back of his left shoulder, from behind. Stopping his stride then and there.

"Too far, Zek," his escort corrected him, manually leading him in through the doorway into the galley and towards the Captain's table.

There upon the Captain's table sat two bottles of white wine, amidst a smorgasbord of finger food, afore which sat George, as if in mockery of Zek's sudden loss.

"Sit, please," George offered, presenting Zek his chair.

Zek fell backwards into the chair, as if a magnet had drawn him to as much.

"Wine?" confirmed George.

"No. No alcohol. Remember? I don't drink it. At all," Zek responded.

"Oh yes. I recall now. Just checking though, as those who've lost old friends might be pursuaded to overlook old habits you know," George replied, purposely using his right hand to guide a succulent clarified butter, lemon and garlic coated lobster tail into his mouth.

"Not me," Zek held fast to his dietary habits.

"I wouldn't be a friend if I didn't ask," George suggested.

"And you would be a friend if you hadn't kidnapped me and taken my right hand," Zek corrected George, using his left hand to consume a similar lobster tail.

"And yet a friend, as I haven't yet relieved you of your own life," George grabbed another piece of the lobster tail, dipping it in the butter and then consuming it whole.

"And why that is, has me confounded beyond reasoning, for why would someone take someone as myself, and keep me as a trinket, knowing all of the evils I've done?" asked Zek of George.

"You've eaten at my table several times already, and gourmet meals over which other prison inmates would fight to the death. You've lived with freedom on this ship, that would never have been afforded someone of your repute in La Moderna. Why then, would you create the circumstances through which five of my crew members would become meals for the Hammerhead shark population of your harbour on Treadwater Island?" George asked Zek.

"You're accusing me of having crafted their deaths, when the equipment and environment they were exposed to was solely by your choice. You chose them to help you extract the data drive from the coral reef, not I," Zek clarified the circumstance for George.

George remained silent, looking at Zek intensely as their chess game reached its peak.

"A choice over which you lost five men, and I lost my right hand," Zek finished, devouring the last garlic and butter coated lobster tail with his left.

"My men will be replaced, at your expense, however I cannot promise you the same of your right hand. We're going to be stopping at a friendly port. One that I will reveal to you once we're within an hour's berth thereof. After we've resupplied, we will begin implementing our plan as I initially promised, though I remind you that you've already broken the terms of the opportunity I initially presented to you. Several times over, and don't play naive with me Zek. I've known men thrice your worth in terms of their intellectual capacity and driven propensity to make this world tick. To repay your debt to me, you're going to elaborate on what you revealed to me on the operating table," George insisted, as one of his crew poured him another glass of wine.

"Given the circumstances, I was obviously under a great deal of stress. I might have said anything to stop you from taking that which has been with me since birth. Remind me if you could?" asked Zek, sipping from his glass of tonic water with his left hand.

"Amusing. I've seen men in your situation, at the precipice of their life's end, and I know enough to know that when someone makes such a revelation when faced with their own mortality, they seldom forget such an experience. I'm calling your bluff, Zek. You know fully well to what I was referring. Something of butterflies perhaps? Dragons too. A secret you said. The secret of their abilities. The secret of the formula that made them that way," George prodded Zek's memory.

"If such a formula existed, and I'm not denying that one indeed does, it would revolutionize humanity itself. In the right hands of course," Zek laid the trap.

"Or pave the road to tyranny, or worse yet, chaos," George agreed.

"Most certainly. If a gun can take a life with relative ease, then who should wield them? Everyone?" posed Zek.

"Chaos would ensue in a domino effect. It would start slowly, and as more people used extreme means to pursue justice and even up the score, more would follow suit, and eventually order would become meaningless," George asserted.

"How long before that power would become used not for justice, but for personal goals, absent of justice. To take from those who have, until those who have become diluted amongst those who don't produce what they had. Eventually the commodity would become not those who have, but those who can produce it. Whatever it might be. Food. Shelter. Companionship. Offspring. The global economy by that time will have collapsed, and those with abundance would exist no more. There's be no more carrot leading the mule forward on the road to progression. Humanity would become a disparity of tribes, competing for those four things. No more countries. No more infrastructure. No more healthcare. No more space programs. There would be nothing," Zek explained.

"Yet if one person directed that power, rationally and according to a set of principles, the impetus leading society forward would be preserved, in a tyranny perhaps, but yet preserved. There would be infrastructure. health care systems. Space programs and humanity's eventual destiny amongst the stars would be realized," George evaluated.

"And yet, who would take up that mantle?" asked Zek of George.

"Not the one in front of the curtain. The one that everyone can see. The one behind it. Hidden. Obscured from the knowledge of all. There would be your hidden guide. The one taking society forth on the wings of a butterfly? Or perhaps the technology that allowed for such a disgusting paradox of humanity to come about. In the hands of men who knew how to use it," asked George.

"Impossible, for there are no two men who could work together for such a purpose without coming to war. Without one taking the right hand of another?" Zek looked to the bandaged stump at the end of his forearm.

"Then I suppose I should sleep with one eye open, because that's exactly what we're going to do. Now you're going to share the secret of the formula with me, and the two pillars holding up that ceiling will remain in you and I. We'll prepare ourselves to turn the key to the ignition of this tremendous vehicle we call civilization, and we'll drive it forward into the humanity's future, fighting over the wheel, though make no mistake. I will kill you and take everything at the right time, as I know you will in your dealings with me. Let that be our dynamic, and together we'll take this world into the future, on the wings of a certain formula about which you're going to fully explain with the help of your recently procured database," George reached for the stars.

"And if I don't?" asked Zek.

"A clock will have more hands and limbs than do you. But most of all, it will certainly have much more time," George drank from his wine, savouring it.

"When and where do we start?" asked Zek, unintimidated by Steadman's threat.

"The exact question I was going to ask you. Obviously we have the names of many world leaders and public figures, and a corresponding database of their least flattering secrets. How exactly does one employ this to take the reigns of the world's power?" asked Steadman, sincerely curious as to what Zek's answer might be.

Zek sat silent for a long while, considering whether he should proceed. Zek's experience in these matters exceeded that of anyone alive, for he'd employed such methods to secretly wield the world's power at one time, and in spite of the intelligence agencies of those countries throughout the entire globe.

The power that database had was remarkable in Zek's time, but compared to its power now, it would make Zek's former feat miniscule by comparison. The world's communications infrastructure had grown enough that any power formed upon such a foundation of such secrets, would be insurmountable. Power as such founded on his methods however was susceptible to dilution. It could become frought as people became more familiar with scandal, hence paying less attention to it.

In order for his form of manipulation to be effective, it required a world where the public figures were sold as being perfect, spotless and absolutely infallible. People who were somehow beyond the lures of common humanity, which of course Zek knew all too well was just an illusion.

Even Zeus had an insurmountable appetite for women, sewing his oats with many of them, and fathering just as many children during his time as the King of Gods. This is from one whose moral compass at that time was unquestionable. While the Gods of other cultural pantheons may not have fathered as many children, they certainly entertained the fulfilment of lust after lust throughout their reign in the ancient world. Yet, the arrow to which such gods were most vulnerable was scandal.

Zek had known this most of all, for the majority of his power was built upon the wings of such an idea. The fact that most, given the opportunity, would give in to temptation. Most of what Zek had dealt in was the power in vulnerability. A power that would remain so long as any scandal was the choice of those involved. Zek, being intensely familiar with people and power, but most of all where the two met, had known that temptation was at the forefront of their weaknesses. Given the right circumstances and enough time, it would culminate in scandal.

Scandal though was of no value when exposed. It bore the most power as a secret. The more the fear of that secret becoming known, the more the power it held over those whose secret it was. Yet, the more common such scandal had become, the less the power it had over those confined to its bonds. Hence Zek understood the relationship between the two, and had developed techniques for ensuring that such power was maximized. The more apparently flawless the one whose secrets he held, the more his power over them.

If he'd wielded a secret over a public figure, and that public figure's repute was less than flawless, he'd work to build it towards perfection, while nurturing temptation, for the greater the apparent morality of such a figure, the more the power their secrets held over them. In this way, he gave the people what they expected, while solidifying the puppet strings needed to manipulate them.

The greatest strength to Zek's power though had been in what he'd called his backdoor redemption method. When scandal was on the precipice of exposure for any of those he controlled by such methods, he'd give them an option. An way out. A way that would secure them in his service for the remainder of their life.

He'd request that they share information pertaining to the scandalous behaviour of their public figure peers, with names and activities, all of which would be added to Zek's notorious database. He'd then alleviate the pressure on the one who'd shared that information, sparing them the exposure of their scandal and instead focus upon investigating the scandal of those whose activities they'd shared.

They would be locked into indefinite servitude to Zek, for if he exposed the fact of who'd sold them out, such a person's career would be done, not to mention the risk of their potential assassination. They would be forever in Zek's grip. Even in the absence of his right hand.

This was the key to his empire, and how he played the powers that be against one another for the time he'd wielded the reigns to the world.

"Most of the people in the database are older now. Many of them have retired, but a few have gone on to wield great power and influence. We should of these people, seek to explore the scandalous activities of their peers. Of those in their midst, with the threat of the exposure of their personal and scandalous secrets. The secrets that destroy careers. In order to save themselves, they'll share the worst of their peers with us. From there, we'll begin to refresh out data, slowly working our way up the scale of power until we reach the very top, playing them against one another along the way," Zek advised Steadman.

"That idea is outstanding except for one thing. How does our reach arrive at their doorstep?" asked Steadman.

"The network of networks," Zek said to Steadman calmly.

Steadman gestured to the wait staff in his private galley. A moment later one of them returned with another plate full of garlic and clarified butter coated lobster tail.

"Do go on," Steadman implored of Zek.

Zek's eyes ever so slightly grew upon seeing the additional feast, for he'd literally been surviving on little else than bean and oat sludge. A concoction Steadman's cook had come up with that had absolutely the most wretched flavour, and lacked essential proteins and vitamins. Its only saving grace was that it was filling. However, after a bowel movement, the one who'd been living on it would suddenly be overwhelmed by a deep insidious hunger as a result of their malnutrition.

Zek had eaten at Steadman's table only one other time. For all of his time aboard the Many Faced Maiden, he'd survived on the sludge. The lobster tail, the calamari and the salads before him at Zek's table were ambrosia to him. The food of the gods.

Zek devoured another lobster tail, wiping the butter from his chin with his right stump.

"The network is a conglameration of gangs all connected to the local cartels," Zek told Steadman.

"I thought you didn't deal in narcotics...?" Steadman asked, astonished by Zek's admission.

"I don't. I also don't drink. Narcotics and booze dull the mind. However, the cartels have been amongst my most steadfast allies. My empire laundered money for them, as every business and industry under my curtain was above the table. I was their greatest asset, not to mention that the net worth of my empire was a hundred times greater than theirs combined. Any manpower needed to accommodate  my database assset collection is accomplished by the network," Zek told Steadman, as if devoured a couple more succulent pieces of calamari.

"But they're just crude street gangs?" Steadman asked.

"No. They're from every walk of life imaginable. From the lowest of the low, on the streets, to the highest of the high in billionaire lane. The network has assets everywhere. I relied on them to keep my puppets in line," Zek admitted, as he began to laugh nearly uncontrollably, as if he'd hit upon a private joke between himself and Steadman.

Steadman looked at the man, contemplating the fact that malnutrition had likely affected his cognitive abilities. When he could see though that Zek was sincerely amused by his own jest, Steadman found himself joining the man in laughter. Both of them considered the fact that the other likely thought they were more the puppeteer than puppet.

"How do we contact this network?" asked Steadman, finally having calmed down.

"Run a filter on the keywords field of the contacts database, with the search term: front door. Everyone listed is an asset used for the purposes of communication and coordination," Zek explained as he devoured another lobster tail.

"For someone lacking technical understanding, you seem to know a fair bit about that database," Steadman grilled Zek, suddenly cautious.

"I received considerable training about how it all works, though I could never build one myself. It was a safe guard in case I ended up with the database again myself and without technical help. I'd be able to use it without the need for outside expertise, except the kind of expertise that builds and runs computers. Admins and what not. I'm lost without them," Zek explained.

"So we track down one of these front doors, and give them instructions I assume?" Steadman asked, trying to get the most bang for his lobster tails.

"When you've found them, give any one of them the instruction: we're going to start shaking the trees. They'll immediately know what that means," Zek replied.

"...and what does it mean?" asked Steadman, leaning forward in his seat.

"It means that we're pressuring the public figures and politicians whose scandals we possess to give up information about their peers that might prove useful to us in pressuring them.  From there, we grow in power. Once you've taken that step, I'll tell you what to do next," Zek finished the last of the lobster tail, this time using a white cloth napkin to wipe his mouth carefully.

"...and when we receive word that such steps have been taken, you'll eat at this table again, and not before," Steadman responded, asserting his power carefully.

"One last thing that we should touch upon is this formula. The one you claim created the Butterfly, Eclipse, Night Style and Kyra. I assume that this recipe encrypted into the database isn't like something you'd find in a package of Betty Crocker, is it? In other words, I shouldn't have to fear that you'll secretly obtain it somehow and make it with ingredients stolen from this galley, will I?" asked Steadman.

"No. It requires expensive hardware that is carefully monitored by authorities, for instance any time its purchased or shipped, that information is relayed to the NSA in the United States," Zek explained.

"What kind of equipment?" asked Steadman, thoroughly interested.

"A large medical centrifuge, along the lines of the industrial variety, but rated for medical use," Zek told Steadman.

"You mean the kind that are used in uranium enrichment programs by those trying to develop nuclear weapons?" asked Steadman, obviously possessing a little knowledge of such hardware.

"One and the same. Though the medical variety are rated based upon their particulate filtration, somewhat like face masks, as they're often used for biological and organic matter," Zek continued.

"And if I were to procure one of these centrifuges, I'd be able to mix up my own batch of the formula with the correct ingredients for the recipe?" asked Steadman, leaning forward in his chair slightly to grasp his glass of wine.

"The centrifuge has to be integrated with a special chip that controls how fast it spins and when," Zek replied.

"Are the instructions for integrating this chip included in your database?" asked Steadman.

"No. For that, you're going to need some engineers," Zek smiled as if he'd led Steadman to a deadend.

"I see. Alomera, its been a pleasure, but I have other business to attend to..." a seductive fair skinned woman suddenly appeared from behind the galley door and walked casually over to Steadman's chair.

She began running her hands through his hair.

"Celeste, my guest here is Alomera Constanza Zekestes," Steadman introduced Zek.

"Pleased to meet you," she smiled for Zek, who quickly took her in.

"Nice to meet you," he said quickly, hiding his stump from her.

"Mr. Zek, this is Celeste, a very close friend of mine," Steadman introduced her.

"Do try to get some rest, as you'll need it surviving on the sludge for the next week or two," Steadman smiled as he got up and took Celeste's hand.

As they passed Zek's chair, he got a whiff of her perfume. His left hand tensed in frustration, though his expression remained steady. Like that of a poker player who'd just drawn the card that spoilt their only shot at a straight flush.

When Zek went to reach for another piece of calamari as Steadman left the galley with his companion, one of the guards quickly stopped him before he'd procured the mouth watering food. They then carried him off back to his quarters, locking him in.

"Where are we going?" asked Celeste of Steadman.

"First, to cargo bay C. We need to discuss something with one of my crew and then you'll grace me with your company back to my quarters," Steadman smiled, leading the way.

After descending a flight of stairs and a walk down a long cooridor, Steadman came upon an armed guard who stood defending a locked door.

"Captain," the guard acknowledged Steadman's presence, unlocking and opening the door for him and his guest.

"Watch your step miss," the guard said to Celeste.

They crossed the threshold together and entered into the largest open area onboard of the Many Faced Maiden. There in the middle of the cargo bay were three large machines, each of them humming.

"Are they functioning correctly?" asked Steadman of one of his crew.

"They've passed the preliminary tests, and Zek's program still seems to be intact," the engineering crew member reported to Steadman.

"Have you done the particulate rating measurements yet?" asked Celeste.

"We're running that series now. Should have our results by tomorrow morning," the engineer reported to Celeste.

"They'd better be functioning. They cost me a lot of money to buy from the Columbian authorities who assisted in the raid on his Treadwater estate, not to mention the steps I had to take to prevent them from being traced to this ship," Steadman commented.

"We'll know if it was worth it in a week's time, honey," Celeste responded to Steadman.

"That we will," Steadman pulled Celeste closer to him, pressing his lips against hers.

She did little to resist, instead entertaining his advances, though she had no idea that as he kissed her, he imagined Alicia.

Memories Like These

Mateo Casavetez stepped into his office, placing his briefcase down beside his desk and then walking over to his coat rack. He removed his trench coat and hung it on the elaborate coat rack that had been a gift from the Warden of La Moderna. On top, he placed his hat.

He then went over to his desk and sat down in the luxurious chair, sighing as he took the load off of his sore feet.

He sat quietly for a moment, looking to the photograph of his family on the digital picture frame. It then cycled to a photo of his wife, and then finally to his youngest, Santiago who was no in his teens.

He marveled at how far he'd come over the years, and through the most dangerous of times to be alive for one in his line of work. And yet, since Zek's arrest, conviction and disappearance, his life had become profoundly peaceful. The cartels that had once ruled, were now scattered to the winds. Disorganized tribes bickering over turf. It was a time of peace and prosperity for his people, and he was at the forefront of this progress.

The timing of Zek's downfall couldn't have benefited his career anymore than it did, for as the Justice Of The Supreme Court, Mateo Casavetez was a prime candidate for the upcoming Columbian elections. The election was still a year and a half off, but his campaign had already started, and statistics indicated that he was the front runner.

He sat back, considering the journey that had presented this opportunity to him. It was as if the gods had handed him such a victory on a platter.

There was a tap on his door.

"Ingresar..." Mr. Casavetez answered.

"Senor Casavetez, there's an important call for you on line one," his secretary peeked in and spoke.

"Gracias, Seniorita," Mr. Casavetez replied as she closed the door again.

"Habla el Sr. Casavetez," he answered the phone.

"There has been a grave loss in the family. You should check the gravestone immediately," a voice implored Mateo and then hung up.

Mateo's face flushed a pale white, as if something had wrung the colour from his face. He quickly hung up the phone.

He opened his briefcase and pulled a small laptop from its interior. He opened it and logged on to the operating system.

He navigated the computer interface desktop, through several folders to a hidden and encrypted folder upon which he double clicked. He was prompted for a password, which he quickly entered.

The folder opened for him, and there was a solitary network link, which he double clicked on.

The link started a virtual private network on his laptop, and then connected to a remote site, where a video began to play.

Mateo immediately recognized it. It was of a night many years earlier, just before Zek had been arrested. Mateo had been away on a business trip, and was dealing with the Lorenzo Stalbanez, the second in command of the Polvo De Trueno cartel. Lorenze after their meeting had arranged for a lustful encounter between Mateo and Sofia, one of the cartel's most stunning women.

Since that night, Mateo had stayed away from Lorenzo and any dealings with the cartel. Shortly thereafter, Alomera Constanza Zekstestes was arrested and tried for numerous charges, one of which was the charge of laundering the proceeds of crime for the Polvo De Trueno.

Lorenzo had also been arrested and tried in the same case, and Mateo had protected him during his time in jail, in exchange for Lorenzo keeping Mateo's connection to the laundering scheme a secret. Now, it would seem that video detailing his connection to Lorenzo and the cartel had surfaced at the most inopportune moment in his career. The most opportune moment though in Steadman's and Zek's.

Mateo watched the video, recalling that night. The video depicted his meeting with Lorenzo, showing his face clearly as well as Lorenzo's. It then cut to video of his encounter with the lusty woman that night. Video that had been taken with full colour night vision technology, leaving no question as to who was in bed and doing what.

The video then cut to him delivering a campaign speech before an immense crowd of more than a hundred thousand Columbians. He promised them justice against corruption and the accountability of the Columbian Government to the people. He promised them a blemish free Government for the people. A government of which all Columbians could be proud. He raised his hand as the crowd cheered for him. 

The video then cut to his meeting with Lorenzo, who joked with Mateo, who laughed in response. Then back to his night with Sofia, as his kissed her breasts, rubbing his moustachioed face in them. Then it cut to a press conference with him and his family. His wife beside him, smiling and supportive as their teenaged children stood beside them. One big happy family.

The video then ended, and it was at that moment that Mateo noticed what had been written beneath the video.

It was instructions, prompting him to provide any information about his colleagues and their scandalous dealings, and any details surrounding such activities. Should he do this, he would be rewarded with the discretion of his own secrets, which would remain quiet and safe with them.

If not however, then next week, the video would be released publicly, first to the press and then to the legal authorities in the interests of a blemish free Government for the people.

Mr. Mateo Casavetez sat silent and truly alone for several minutes before deciding to follow the instructions. One after another, he provided the dirty details of the activities of his peers, fellow officials and politicians, leaving few unscathed. 

All in order to save his own career, and of course in the interests of a blemish free Government.

Meanwhile, in several other locations throughout the globe, and with several other public figures, a similar phenomenon arrived in much the same way. 

Before the day's end, Zek's database had gone from being mostly irrelevant to mostly accurate. The largest private record of blackmail secrets in existence.

Steadman realized that he was sitting on the power to rule the world, while Zek knew that Steadman needed him to realize this goal.

Meanwhile, in the midst of North America, Mentis and the millions of minds failed to become aware that another power was slowly growing to rival theirs.

From either of the ends of time, the Two Dragons watched the battlefield unfold as it had many times before. Eons ago.

Unlike Any Other Sunday

Gregory sat before his workbench, his soldering gun in its cradle, while a series of clips bound to a small mast held his project in place. He grabbed up the soldering gun in his right hand and a shaft of solder in his left. He then began finishing up the final solder points on his new battery and charging unit.

He'd already spent the last forty hours testing his new device, one that was meant to replace at least partially what had been stolen from him only a couple of days prior.

He'd had numerous unopened lithium-ion batteries, which he'd kept on hand as quick power sources for his projects, but he'd needed something a bit more efficient, for it would be powering his Bio-EMF diagnostic tool.

What he'd devised was a handful of eight lithium-ion batteries run in parallel to one another. Between them, he'd integrated a processor controlled charging system, that would analyse the incoming current and amortize the amperage to the sum batteries over their existing charge. The results were a compound battery that could charge very quickly and maintain its charge over long periods of usage, with minimal risk of over-heating. The processors also mitigated any risks associated with the formation of lithium dendrites, branching formations that linked the negative and positive terminals of a battery, essentially rendering them inoperable.

The battery pack was also considerably small and light, compared to the device it powered, and was held in place by an ad-hoc strap and plastic clips Gregory had printed out from his backup laptop and an old 3D printer he'd kept stored in his closet. After he'd finished putting it all together, he made a mental note to himself to thank his mother for not throwing out his old gear during one of her cleaning binges.

In the background, against the wall above his workbench, his LCD television displayed the latest news report about a series of mass shootings that had plagued North America over a twelve hour period. The most notable one to Gregory was that of an attack that had taken place at a Comic Book and Video Game convention, whereby a group of gunmen attacked the attendees.

As Gregory applied the last of the solder, something on the television caught his eye. Something familiar, though he couldn't put his finger on what. It was as if something in his subconscious had become aware of a coincidence. Something he'd seen before, somewhere else.

Gregory quickly grabbed the remote for the television and unmuted it.

"...despite the armed attack leaving several people injured, one critically, nobody was killed thanks to the quick work of the front line responders..." the reporter's voice continued the story.

"...the fact that the Butterfly may have been involved or incurred the attack is prompting investigators to examine the possibility that the attackers may have actually been protecting the crowd from the Butterfly, the Eclipse and the mysterious woman in the trench coat..." the reporter stood before the camera as the shot transitioned to a series of interviews.

"...we were set upon by the Butterfly and her accomplices after making an entry into the premises, only to find that she'd dispatched a number of gunmen and several attendees. We're looking into the fact that the attack might have been an effort to protect the public from the Butterfly and that the so-called attackers might actually be the real heroes..." one of the Tactical unit Officers gave an interview.

"...enhanced surveilance footage shows the mysterious woman in the trench coat disarming one of the Tactical unit Officers and rendering him unconscious in a horrific attack..." the reporter continued, as Gregory suddenly recognized what had triggered his subconscious.

He hit a button on the remote, and the last two minutes of television played back for him. What he saw was a tiny quirk in her step, the footing and stance of the mysterious woman in the trench coat. He at once recognized it as being that of Doctor Westin.

"It can't be..." he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he rewinded the footage again.

Gregory suddenly jumped when his phone rang beside him.

He picked it up, examining the name and number on the screen.

Doctor Alicia Westin calling...

"Hello?" Gregory answered, his voice slightly wavering.

"Gregory? Are you alright?" asked Alicia.

"Uhhhhh. Yeah. I'm fine. Feeling a lot better after my stay in the hospital. Thanks for your help. I began working on the new battery pack for my baby since the last time I saw you," Gregory responded carefully.

"Did you get my message about the meeting?" Alicia asked him, completely oblivious to any suspicion on his part.

"Uhhhh no. There's a meeting?" asked Gregory.

"Well I think it would be best if you attended. We're meeting tomorrow at ten o'clock in the AM to discuss some matters related to what you've been experiencing. Not only that, I felt it might be beneficial as there will be some people you'd probably love to talk with..." Alicia insisted.

Gregory looked to the footage on the television. Alicia wearing a mask had disarmed and battered one of the Tactical unit Officers as if it were nothing.

He couldn't believe that he was speaking with the same woman on the phone.

"Uhhhh. I guess I could make it... Ummm, but I might have an appointment tomorrow. So if I don't show up, that's why. Alright? Uhhhh nice talking with you," Gregory cut the conversation short, hanging up on her.

"What do I do?" he said aloud.

"She's a criminal! I know her real identity! I could help them bust this case," he said to himself.

"Wait. Something's not right," he said aloud, thinking about what had happened and how she'd protected him and even helped him and his mother get safely to the hospital.

She suggested he call the Police and report the crime as well. If she were a criminal, that would be the last thing she'd suggest. 

Gregory went through his messages until he found the one to which Alicia was referring. He noted the address and went upstairs to the backyard and began working on his bicycle. After all, he was going to need transportation if he was going to show up.

At least he could confront her about what he'd learned, and hear the answer directly from her.


Jack Warren awoke in a bed, in an exceedingly bright room that he immediately recognized as being a hospital room.

An intravenus line was connected to a catheter which had been inserted into his arm, while his ribs and leg were bandaged. He examined his body as much as he could, though when he tried to sit up, his lower back and leg screamed out in pain.

He sat back and sighed in relief as the pain subsided.

"You are a sturdy warrior for one who took such a brutal onslaught directly from a dragon..." someone spoke from inside of the room.

Jack turned to the source of a voice, seeing a solid and compact Asian man, most likely Japanese he judged by the accent.

"Who are you?! Why am I here?!" Jack retreated slightly in his bed.

"You may call me Mutano-San, Katashi, of the Tanto Clan, or Katashi if you prefer, though if you use my family name, Mutano, those in the know will tremble upon hearing it," Mutano spoke as he sat cross-legged in a chair beside Jack's bed.

"You did this...?" asked Jack, still attempting to back away from the man from within his bed.

"No. If it was I who did that, we'd be having the conversation in a morgue, though you'd likely not respond to what I'd have to say, for you'd be without breath..." Mutano grinned, looking to Jack.

"Then who?" asked Jack, wincing as he'd moved a little bit beyond his body's current limits.

"My own nemesis. You, a legendary assassin for the local underground militia here in North America, were battered to a pulp by my arch-enemy. That would make us allies, in a round-about manner of speaking..." Mutano continued.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or that sort of mumbo jumbo?" confirmed Jack, sarcastically.

"United we stand, while divided we fall. You fell divided, so I have come to you with the hope that we might unite against our common enemy," Mutano suggested.

"How did I get here?" asked Jack.

"I brought you here, after cleaning up your mess," Mutano looked to the window through which a beam of rising sunlight poured in.

"What mess?" asked Jack.

"The mess you made while trying to fulfill the terms of your contract with your employer, I'd imagine," Mutano stated, turning back to face Jack.

It all started coming back to Jack. He'd been tailing Monique, one of Valerie's friends and coworkers at West Meet East International when a car full of men began shooting at him. He'd managed to escape, ditching his car along the way in an urban driveway near the city's core. From that point he'd drawn a blank.

"Who was I working for?" asked Jack.

"People whom my employer is very interested to meet..." Mutano picked up a newspaper that sat on another chair beside him.

He opened it and began reading as if ignoring Jack.

"Who do you work for?" Jack asked firmly.

"Someone that wants to form an alliance... to benefit from the potential we have to offer each other," Mutano said as he paused over a specific story in the paper.

"Can you believe this? Someone was beaten nearly to death in a night club on Friday, but even that person got off easy compared to those who were slain," Mutano said, recalling the entirety of that night.

Perhaps even savouring it.

Jack's memory suddenly came to life as he recalled sitting at a stool at the bar, watching a pair of women who sat on the other side of the dance floor from him. One, a long haired beauty named Monique, and the other a sensuous temptress whose body was covered from head to toe in tattoos.

"I was there to silence Monique..." Jack said in realization.

"Perhaps your employers over estimated your capabilities?" asked Mutano, who smiled having spoken his mind.

"The mind people... Mentis...?" Jack said, his mind suddenly coming to life with a million voices assaulting him within his head.

"Mentis? Now we're making progress," Mutano replied.

Mutano got up from his seat, and walked slowly over to the side of Jack's bed.

"Make them stop!" Jack grabbed the sides of his head, as the voices grew louder and louder.

"They might stop when they realize what I have to offer," Mutano said, knowing full well that they could hear him through Jack's ears.

"You see, you're not essential to this transaction Jack. Consider yourself the vessel through which it is taking place. You're more like the phones connecting two parties making a deal. The means that allow them to speak to one another. Negotiate. I however, am on your side because I believe that your being vanquished by my nemesis has made you a deadly adversary to her," Mutano drew a bladed weapon that was roughly the length of a man's forearm from the inside of his jacket.

He showed it to Jack, whose eyes had cleared enough for him to take the elaborately crafted weapon into focus.

"This blade was crafted nearly four hundred years ago, and is said to have evicted as many as three hundred spirits from their original bodies and into the Temple, where it is rumoured that they wander for an eternity, feeding the power and life force of the one who liberated them into what you Westerners might call a purgatory," Mutano displayed the blade for him to admire.

Its surface was without imperfection, and the blade itself tapered perfectly up to an impossibly fine point. Along the spine of the blade, was engraved a story of one such liberated soul starting from his battle with the wielder, ending with the abandoning of the victims body by its soul. By the end of the engraving the spirit had found its way to the tip of the blade, hence becoming the foci of its power.

"This blade is called the tantō, and was the sidearm of many warriors, and yet my family wielded it opposite to how other warriors favoured their weapons. For us, the Katana was the sidearm, and the Tantō was the main arm. This Tantō is called the Tantō Sheppei. The gate through which the soul enters into the after life, in servitude of the one liberating it," Mutano explained to Jack as he presented the blade.

"The voices you hear, are the spirits of those trapped in their bodies in this plane. They have no power in society, for that power of their body and life has been taken from them by rules, classes, money and economy, and yet from within their bodily prisons, they have become liberated to ascend, and are able to as one with many minds become the forgotten power of the spirit on Earth. Millions of spirits working together to become one great spirit. One great power. This is a power that is the reflection of the after life. On the other side, there are spirits seeking to converge with the ones on this side," Mutano's voice became intense as he struggled to hold the blade still as it shook.

Then all at once, it stopped and Mutano laughed.

"The folklore of my ancestors. It is superstition here and now, and yet see the power that it wields? Might it be true? Might I command the powers of the hundreds that I and my ancestors have removed from their bodies?" asked Mutano of Jack, who looked on in utter terror.

"You hear voices, and know that they are merely spirits trapped on this side. Perhaps there is truth to what I offer your Mentis. Though that surely pales in comparison to what my employer has to offer altogether..." Mutano smiled as he returned the blade to its sheath inside of his jacket.

Jack breathed a sigh of relief as the blade disappeared and the voices slowly ceased.

Jack, tell him that we are interested to hear more about his offer, Mentis and the million minds addressed Jack from inside of his head.

"Mentis says that they're interested and want to hear more about what you have to offer," Jack told Mutano, fully realizing what Mutano had meant when he stated that he was merely a vessel for their communication.

Jack had become not the messenger, but the paper upon which that message would be written. His body and mind were merely a vessel through which the two sides could communicate.

He felt violated, even as if his mind and experience, the best of what he had to offer, had been discarded. Rejected by the power that had only three days prior, protected him from assassination. Now, they were using his flesh and mind as a common phone, through which to speak to Mutano and his employer.

Jack wondered if Mutano felt the same way or if he was even aware that he might be being used by his own employer similarly.

Mutano looked to him knowing fully well what he was thinking.

"Your ego is an obstacle to your true potential as an assassin. It always has been. We are both in service of something that will be made much stronger without the interference of our ego. Without the interference of your need for validation. This is the difference between ego and honour," Mutano stated boldly.

"Tell me what I need to do to get through this. To become the assassin I always wanted to be," Jack responded now realizing that Mutano understood him.

"You need to listen," Mutano replied, smiling and revealing two gold capped teeth amidst his rictus.

"We will need to meet with Mentis directly. I will need to meet him. My employer will need to meet this man who has facilitated the liberation of spirits in the material world so readily, without the need for the blade," Mutano began.

"Upon such a meeting, we will reveal what we have and what we seek, for an alliance between our two clans to come to fruition," Mutano told Jack, as Mentis and the million minds listened through his ears.

"Jack will be rescinded into my care, while remaining the means through which our two clans will communicate. He will now work in my service, though he will speak for you when need be, Mentis and the millions of minds," Mutano spoke assertively and confidently.

"We will relieve Jack into your charge, but know this. That if you seek war against us, we will crush you and your employer," Jack spoke for Mentis.

"Very well. Then it is to our benefit to maintain the respect you deserve. We will have this meeting by the week's end," Mutano responded to Mentis, who continued to listen through Jack's ears.

"Jack, I will refer to you as Warren-Kun, for you have now become my student of the Tanto clan. Do well by my teachings and preserve what I show you, for if you disrespect or fail my honour, you will be liberated from your body and become my eternal slave in the after life," Mutano spoke with a sudden ferocity that sent chills down Jack's spine.

Jack had entered into this mysterious world without fear, having faced Mentis and the millions of minds while being hunted by one of Mentis' own enemies. What he'd discovered had truly opened his eyes to a world of unimagined possibilities.

Yet, upon speaking with Mutano, he'd come to realize how terrifying these aspects of a world whose veil had been removed truly were.

He'd stepped off of the beaten path, the one trodden by so many since humanity's dawn, and was venturing into the hidden recesses of the improbable and impossible.

Like the dress of the dragon that had vanquished him, he was venturing to an infinite point somewhere between the darkness and the light.

Where Old Friends Meet

Monique strode down the sidewalk along Queen Street beside Aikiko, each of them carrying their morning beverage. Monique's was her usual Caramel Machiato with a tuft of whipped cream on its top, while Aikiko's was a large green tea.

"When we first go into the building, you'll meet Helen, one of our receptionists. She alternates with Jennifer, who has this week off," Monique explained, taking a sip of her caffeinated sugary monstrosity.

"How can you put something like that in your body first thing?" asked Aikiko critically.

"You're one to talk. If you weren't covered up today, you'd look like walking graffiti," Monique responded to her.

"My body art is not graffiti, nor is it a fashion statement. It goes much deeper than pictures and peer pressure," Aikiko kept her focus as she walked.

"Same with my Caramel Machiato. Its more than just a morning coffee. Its my turbo charged rocket engine to get me through the week. Some of us need a little kick to get us going on Monday morning ya know?" Monique replied defensively.

"That's not a kick. That's a physiological chemical beating delivered and punctuated by sugar. By lunch  time, you'll have crashed and will probably have a sugar hangover," Aikiko continued feeding Monique health advice.

"That's what the energy drink is for and only one of those a day, and why I often skip a big lunch in favour of a salad. Something with fiber and water you know. You can't trip me up on this because I've already thought this out years ago and its been working fine for all that time," Monique defended her dietary habits.

"Problems with health rarely announce their arrival early on. Instead, they wait until they're well entrenched within the body to tell you that they're taking over. By that time, its already too late. A problem I've noticed in the west. Play now, pay later rather than an ounce of prevention being a pound of cure," Aikiko continued her critical droll.

"Sheesh! Someone's homesick," Monique remarked as they turned the corner, walking south down John Street.

"Your employer, how do you think she'll react to me?" asked Aikiko.

"She'll be a little cautious at first, but once you throw on that charm, she won't be able to resist you," Monique remarked sarcastically.

"Like how that man in the Nest couldn't resist me?" asked Aikiko.

"You did the right thing. You could have clobbered him, but you let the club security handle it. That's how we do things when we're not our other selves," Monique complimented her.

"I thought I did clobber him, trying to put his hand on me like that," Aikiko responded.

"Yes, but you clearly restrained yourself compared to what I've seen that you're capable of. Sure, he might not walk for a week or two, and he probably won't risk using that arm again for a while, but the fact that he was still barely conscious after trying to man handle you like that was a clear sign that you were offering some form of mercy, though it was wasted on trash like him," Monique clarified her observations of that night.

"I played coy and defenseless so the security would deal with him properly. They in turn feel fulfilled knowing they rescued a woman. It confirms their masculinity and justifies their purpose. I was just playing the role simply because instead of ignoring my plight, they immediately came to my assistance. Had they ignored my request for help, then by my hands they'd have ended up in the emergency room too," Aikiko reminded Monique.

There was a moment of silence as Monique thought about it.

"As I stated before, the world is clay in my hands, upon which I render my will. Purposefully and forcefully, so that it may grow as much so as it is shaped," Aikiko underlined her intent.

"Its remarkable that you and the Butterfly got off to such a bad start, because the two of you are so much alike," Monique observed.

"The two like ends of a magnet repel one another, while the opposite ends attract one another," Aikiko summarized her philosophy once again.

"Ok. Let's put the philosophy away for now and lighten up? We're going to be meeting a lot of people today, and quite a few of them have been close friends of mine for years. I'm just saying," Monique said opening the door to West Meet East for the two of them.

Inside of the West Meet East building, there was a lot of activity, even for a Monday as the employees crowded into the lunch room for their morning coffee, while others enjoyed a quick breakfast. Sienna had managed to fit in a Rooibos tea, learning from Valerie's example, though Valerie wasn't in the cafeteria herself.

Fay joined Sienna moments later and they spoke quietly in the corner as the remainder of employees came and went, mostly ignoring them. There had been a few new faces amongst them, as Valerie had approved the hiring in order to fill the new positions she'd created to facilitate Heylyn's plan. What they didn't realize was that almost half of the employees were now directly a part of Mentis' millions of minds.

Miraculously, Sienna and Fay had resisted, though the cost to their mental health had been high. For instance, over the weekend and on the day of the gunmen attack on the convention, Sienna had experienced her worst episode, at the same time as the attacks had started. Fay had experienced a migraine headache of tremendous proportions at the same time, though on the opposite side of the city. In all truth, many people throughout the city had experienced similar symptoms, all of which coincided with the attack.

The building was alive with gossip about the attack, and the fact that the city's former heroes had become the villains in the latest episode. Even the news media was questioning their motives when it came to their assault upon the Tactical unit Officers.

There had also been a missing persons report posted for Angus Ford, the Commanding Officer of the unit, claiming that he may be experiencing a psychotic episode and that if he was sighted, that the Police should be immediately contacted and that the public should keep their distance, even suggesting that the public should avoid engaging Mr. Ford in conversation, as it might exacerate his condition.

Inside of the meeting room, Heylyn and Valerie had taken a much more skeptical approach when it came to these reports. Any talk of them near them and they'd refrain from commenting or giving their opinion. Instead, they focused on organizing the meeting, getting the table ready and preparing the room for their discussion.

Monique walked in the door of the meeting room, joined by a fit looking Japanese woman with black and white hair. 

"Boss! Good to see you again! This is Aikiko. Aikiko, this is Heylyn, my employer," Monique introduced the two.

"I get the feeling we've met before..." Aikiko didn't waste any time getting to the point.

"I was just going to say the same thing," Heylyn stood her ground.

"Maybe that's a good sign? Perhaps a sign you two might work well together today?" asked Monique, more so insisting than anything.

"Aikiko, this is Valerie, my business manager and consultant," Heylyn introduced Valerie, who bowed for Aikiko rather than shaking hands.

"Seemed appropriate. Nice to meet you Aikiko," Valerie greeted Monique's friend.

"If you'd like to be seated, we're just waiting for a few more people..." Heylyn directed Aikiko and Monique to their seats as another group walked in through the door.

"Zheng! Doctor Briggs!" Monique exclaimed.

"Sorry, I hope we're not late. There was a bit of traffic getting here from suburbia," Doctor Briggs shrugged as he greeted his friends.

"Good to see you. I guess we're still waiting on the others?" asked Zheng.

"Still expecting a few more faces before we get started. Want a coffee or a tea? Maybe a pastry? Catering made us a nice tray for this morning, so help yourselves," Heylyn directed them to the buffet.

The door opened again, this time Alicia walked in with Norler at her side.

"Alicia! Norler! Long time no see!" Monique waved them over.

"Heylyn. Valerie. Nice to meet you..." Alicia greeted her friends, arriving at Aikiko awkwardly.

"This is Aikiko. She's an artist..." Monique told a half truth.

"Nice to meet you. This is my beau, Walton Norler, and my name is Alicia," Alicia quickly shook Aikiko's hand, nodding at the same time.

"Pleased to make your aquaintance," Aikiko said blandly, sitting back down at her place.

The door opened again and this time Katya and Victor stepped through, followed by Linda Delmore.

"I'm guessing this is the right place? Its easy to get lost in Toronto," Linda said, looking to all of the familiar faces.

"You've got the right place. Glad you could make it, Linda. Katya, Victor? How are you?" asked Heylyn as she poured coffees for Alicia and Norler.

"Doing well, given the circumstances, though there are difficulties... hopefully we'll be discussing what I think we're trying to tackle?" Katya inquired.

"That's the idea," Alicia responded.

"Good, then let me get my wife and I a coffee and we'll take our places," Victor said, fetching a pair of cups from the buffet and retrieving the coffee pot from Heylyn.

The door opened up again, and this time a bespecled young man stepped into the meeting room, wheeling a bicycle ahead of him, and a large knapsack on his back.

"Excuse me! Is this West Meets East Clothing?" asked Gregory, reading from a note he'd taken earlier.

"Watch it kid, you're cramping my style," a voice spoke from behind him.

He turned to see Professor Bryce Maxwell, immediately recognizing him on sight.

"I can't believe this. You're Professor Maxwell!" Gregory said, pointing at Bryce.

"No need to tell me. I see this mug in the mirror every day. Even on days when I wish it was George Clooney," Bryce smiled, holding out his hand for Gregory.

"Hah! Me too!" Wendy said, closing the door behind them as the entered.

"Gregory Epsen. It's an honour Professor..." Gregory smiled, shaking Bryce's hand vigorously, and then his wife Wendy's.

"Nice to meet you Gregory. Alicia told me a bit about you. I understand that you're a bit of an inventor?" asked Bryce.

"Oh, this is the one you were talking about?" Zheng spoke, having poured her coffee.

"Zheng Ni Wong?!" Gregory responded, blushing profusely upon seeing her in person.

He then began to gag, struggling to inhale. He quickly pulled an inhaler from his jacket, taking a couple of puffs from it.

"Sorry. Just a little excited. Wait a second!" Gregory said, turning to Alicia.

"Look, I know about you and I think its wrong what you did!" Gregory said, confronting Alicia.

"What are you talking about?" asked Alicia, completely caught off guard.

"You, on the news. You're Night Style! You beat up that Tactical Officer!" Gregory confronted her directly.

"Gregory. There's some things that you now clearly know, and things that you don't. We're meeting here to deal with a situation that has the potential to destroy everything we know and care about. There are people who don't want us to deal with this, and would rather paint us as criminals. You're going to have to look beyond what's obvious, and reach a little bit beyond that. Like when you said you were let down by the education system, and that it protected the very people who bullied you out of it. There are things that are happening to many of us, that are of a similar nature. Painting us in ways we're not. Chasing us away, despite the fact that we pay our taxes, vote and take part in ensuring that this system of ours remains independent. Secular. That news report is one of them. All of us in this room are on the same page. My peers here, they all know me as much so as my alter ego, Night Style. We're all working towards the same goals. To uncover this menace, and expose it to the public, and if possible, to rescue them from it. Whatever it is, they're going to use any means they can to discredit us, including fake news and false testimony about real events. That news report is just the beginning. They'll use whatever means they can to discredit us, whether it be false criminal charges. Pitting us on one side of a fence in terms of religion or race, or any other means that would make our effort to uncover this menace appear to be based in crime or hate," Alicia reasoned with Gregory, who looked back at her in disbelief.

He then looked to Zheng, who nodded affirmatively at him, standing beside Alicia to support her. As did Bryce. Then Heylyn. Monique. Valerie and everyone else, short of Aikiko.

"What about you?" asked Gregory of Aikiko.

"I'm still on the fence, from where I'll be able to see the real nemesis. Not by what they look like or what they're called, but by what they do," Aikiko responded dramatically.

"I couldn't have put it better myself," Heylyn agreed for once with Aikiko.

"I see," Gregory responded, considering what she'd said vkery carefully.

"I'll stay for the meeting, and I'll share what I know, but if I'm not convinced before I leave, I'm going to go it on my own. I'll keep your secrets for you, but I'm going to do what I believe is right," Gregory responded.

"Fair enough Gregory. You have to pursue what's right and befitting to your ideals and conscience. At the end of the day, you're the one that has to sleep with what you've done, so you better believe in what you're doing. I'd be doing you a great injustice if I tried to talk you out of it," Alicia agreed with him.

"Why don't we grab our coffees and pastries, take our seats and get this meeting under way?" Heylyn suggested.

"I couldn't agree with you more," Alicia smiled to her best friend forever.

"So I take it you're the Butterfly?" Gregory asked Heylyn.

"The one and only," Heylyn nodded.

"And you're the..." Gregory began.

"Yep. I'm the flying strobe light!" Monique answered catching them off guard and prompting a bit of laughter.

"Well at least you're coming to terms with that handle the press created for you, Monique..." Zheng smiled.

The group got prepared for their meeting, while outside in a parking lot several numbers down from the West Meet Easxt building, a pair of Inpectors sat in a vehicle, trying to listen in.

"Anything yet?" asked Tricia, adjusting her headset.

"No, still some interference... wait. Got a signal. Must have been some magnetic noise," Halmand responded, taking his hands off of the digital dial of the receiver.

"...Well at least you're coming to terms with that handle, Monique..." Zheng's voice suddenly came in loud and clear, with a slight bit of natural reverberation.

"We should be able to get the entirety of the meeting now. It was probably interference from streetcars. I've got the gain cranked to compensate, not to mention I'm using cubic-splinear error correction. We're recording," Halmand explained to Tricia.

"You're the comms expert," Tricia confessed her confidence in Halmand.

"What are we going to do about Farnham and Ford?" asked Halmand.

"We'll weigh this as it goes. Compare it to our intelligence, and try to find the most plausible truth given the data. Keep in mind that we're going to have to do this without the benefit of a third party intelligence analyst. We're wearing all of the hats on this one and that means we're going to have to help each other to be objective. Once we know for sure, we'll decide when and if we bring them in on this. Remember, whoever is running that show is going to try some particularly tricky setups to get at what we know. Farnham and Ford might be just such an effort," Tricia offered.

"Farnham has been with us since early on. You really think he's working for the OPFOR?" asked Halmand in disbelief.

"I'm the only one of us who's been on since the beginning. I'll make that judgement call, just like I'll decide when we've got enough intelligence and evidence to act on it," Tricia said firmly.

"Then what? I mean, who can we speak to about it? North America is approaching the point of a civil war rather quickly. Even our superiors are divided over this. SIGINT probably won't be able to help us much let alone Military Intelligence. Nobody knows who is on what side of the fence anymore, not to mention, nobody has the courage to use the Charters and Acts to pursue this legally and clamp down on it," Halmand reasoned.

"Who else can we talk to? There's only one choice. Them. Shhhh!" Tricia pointed to West Meet East and then pursed her lips, drawing her index finger in front of them as she hushed them both.

Science And The Nitty Gritty

Heylyn stood and addressed her peers in the meeting room.

"First of all, I'd like to thank you all for joining us here so that we may discuss this situation rationally, to the ends of arriving at feasible solutions that we can put forth to the correct authorities, or in the case that we can no longer be sure of who those authorities are or what their interests may be, pursue those solutions ourselves via the meager means at our disposal. As a group, we were able to help unite the East towards a common cause, ensuring that the SY349, which has become better known as the Tynan Generative Recombinant RNA System, or the TiGeR that RoarS for short, was available to everyone, in spite income level or class. Together, I'm certain that we can help to solve the crisis facing us now. To begin, I'd like to hand you over to the guidance of my best friend, Doctor Alicia Westin, who will help us by defining the problem in order to get our compass bearings so that we may work towards a solution. Alicia?" Heylyn introduced her best friend and sat down as the small group clapped for her.

"Thanks Heylyn. Getting our bearings in this situation is a difficult prospect, because it will require us to evaluate many different social phenomenon, most of which we've not directly experienced ourselves, by considering them based upon the descriptions and accounts of others. People whom we as professionals might even quickly write off in a direction that denies them the dignity of justice that they as members of our society deserve. So I'm going to ask each of you to consider that when we evaluate the information we're about the share, regardless of its source, that we consider it as fully and empathically as we possibly can, remembering that there is a real person and their experiences attached to what we're discussing. By using our experience and education effectively, we can hope to bring light to this phenomenon, quantifying it and therefore exposing it to human understanding, so that we may deal with it in a way that renders it powerless to any negative effect upon its victims," Alicia began, drawing a light applause from her peers in the room.

"To begin with, we need to know what we're dealing with? What are we actually talking about here?  How do we describe it? How do we distinguish it from other aspects of society that originate of natural causes or emergent social phenomenon rather than the conscious effort of those seeking the ends of malice against society? The answer lies in the preceding statement. We're discussing here phenomenon whose origins are not the result of natural social phenomenon, but are the result of a decidedly conscious effort by one or more individuals towards the end of malice, yielding other social phenomenon whose effects can be directly quantified emotionally and/or physically. As you may know, Doctor Stephen Briggs and I will regard these phenomenon very differently from one another. Where he'd regard social phenomenon as a series of interactions at the psychological level, within individuals and en masse in groups, I'd regard the same phenomenon as the result of the interactions of biochemistry within individuals and groups. We should be able to benefit from analysis on both fronts, and with the addition of Professor Maxwell's knowledge, we'll be able to get a perspective related to physics, such as QED and its relationship to the human nervous system at the micro and nano-voltages and amperes which we'd be looking at for the neurons of the nervous system. Finally, with the help of Heylyn Yates and Aikiko Tanaka, we'll be able to look at these phenomenon via the lense of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi Gong and Japanese Reiki. All three of which regard the magnetic field inherent as a side effect of the electrical current that propagates information transmission through the nervous system, as the body energy referred to as Chi or Qi or Prana (in India) through Asian forms of traditional medicine. With these four tools at our disposal and the help of Eastern philosophy and traditional medicine, we should be able to tackle this problem. That in turn should lead us to the people who've developed malicious techniques for the purposes of social malice that employ the exploitation of the electro-chemical nature of the human nervous system as a means of attack. Based upon what has been described and has become a part of the written record, a record which recently is being erased so as to prevent any further investigative effort, is the record that Professor Maxwell, Doctor Briggs and I have used to construct our first working hypothesis on the nature of this phenomenon and its means of employment against others. I'll give you over to Doctor Stephen Briggs so that he may describe the phenomenon in terms of sociology and its individual, and then group dynamic. Doctor Briggs?" Alicia invited Stephen to stand before their peers.

Doctor Briggs stood from his chair, examining a series of paper notes he'd prepared over the last week.

"I'm beginning to feel like this is more of a lecture than a meeting between peers and close friends, so I'm going to get started here a little bit differently, so that we're having a two way discussion, rather than you just listening to a lot of technical droll, while fighting the urge to grab a few winks," Doctor Briggs began.

He looked around the room, seeing many familiar faces when all of the sudden the door to the meeting room opened.

"Sorry I'm late..." a young Asian man in his late twenties entered the room.

Braden stopped, possibly experiencing stage fright as everyone in the room checked him out.

"Hi. What's uhhhh... what's your name?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"I'm Braden. I'm new here. I was hired on the weekend, though Heylyn brought me right up to speed with everything, nudge nudge wink wink," Braden exaggerated a wink several times to Doctor Briggs and then the rest of the room.

"What do you do here, Braden?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"I'm working in shipping and receiving, though I've mostly been working on custodian work for the time being," Braden smiled, placing a book and a note pad down at an open seat at the meeting room table.

"You know, doing custodian's work, ie doing the cleaning and care of a facility is statistically speaking, one of the most rewarding and stress free jobs that one can do, according to Human Resources Canada. We did a study for the HRC, and found that ninety five percent of people who worked in that field led happier and more fulfilling lives in direct correlation with their job satisfaction," Doctor Briggs explained.

Braden's hand raised, as if he were a student in school asking a question of the instructor.

"Thanks for raising your hand first. Makes conversation and questions a lot easier. Yes Braden?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"Why? Why is it rewarding?" asked Braden, who pulled the chair out and took a seat, keeping his eyes focused on Doctor Briggs.

"Because: closure. You can finish what you started, in the same day. Not having closure, or a sense of accomplishment by the end of the day is the number one cause of stress and job dissatistfaction," Doctor Briggs relayed the findings of his study for the HRC.

"Every one of us have jobs, where we're working towards a goal of some form, and that effort is poured into that goal without any sort of return on investment for our effort, until completion. During that time, our stress is building. Our sense of fulfillment is being delayed ever more, not to mention that completion doesn't necessarily guarantee success. So we're delaying our gratification, gambling our investment of effort into something that doesn't necessarily guarantee fulfillment. Yet, a simple job like cleaning, is amongst the highest rated for stress and fulfillment," Doctor Briggs explained to his captive audience.

"You learn something new every day," Braden responded, shining his nails like a star drawing a round of laughter from the room.

"So, my point is that if you're looking for a psychiatrist in one of your coworkers, look no further than to the cleaner," Doctor Briggs smiled.

"How was your weekend Monique?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"It began elegant at the Drake Hotel. It became adventurous upon my conversation with Aikiko. It was exciting at the Nest night club. Then kind of scary at the Comic Book And Video Gamie convention, though that was mostly because I had to show up as my alter-ego..." Monique began.

"You mean the flying strobe light?" confirmed Zheng jokingly.

"One and the same. It was nostalgic that I was with friends with whom I've done that sort of thing before, years ago. Then it was relaxing, reading a book on Sunday afternoon on the balcony of my condo," Monique finished her story.

"What book?" asked Wendy, Bryce's wife, who herself was an avid reader.

"Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates. Its a sort of biopic about Marilyn Monroe, though its definitely told from the perspective that Marilyn was as much a fictitious character as any of her movie roles," Monique explained.

"Sounds fascinating! I'm definitely going to pick that one up, I've heard so much about it," Wendy said tgo Monique enthusiastically.

"So we've heard about Monique's weekend and it sounds like Heylyn and Alicia were somewhat involved. What about you Valerie?" asked Doctor Briggs.

Valerie visibly blushed, as the attention was drawn to her, and over her weekend.

"Oh, I've got to hear this," Zheng remarked seeing Valerie's face flush.

"Troy..." Valerie began.

"Who's Troy?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"He's someone special in my life..." Valerie smiled from ear to ear.

"As if we couldn't tell," Doctor Briggs joked, drawing a bit of laughter.

"I spent a nice relaxing weekend with Troy," Valerie blushed some more.

"We should probably leave it at that, but I'm glad to hear, Valerie," Doctor Briggs smiled to her sincerely.

"I got into sociology years ago, out of my interest in Eastern society, even specializing in Eastern philosophy and its relationship to modern social dynamics throughout the world. Then as I got older, I realized that the real reason I got into sociology was to work with people. Individuals and in groups. I really got the most out of putting it all together when dealing with people on those levels. The importance of what we're dealing with here requires that we all feel comfortable discussing these issues. Especially the social dilemmas that will be weaponized against us, employing their stigmatizing nature in order to silence us," Doctor Briggs spoke, recognizing one of the hurdles that were put in place to ensure that nobody was able to organize against this phenomenon.

"Do you really feel that's a risk? Efforts to silence those exposing what we're apparently investigating here?" asked Zheng.

"When you were working on the MindSpice project, especially given the nature of its emergent collective programming, one of the issues you brought up was how quickly you were legally gagged  by MindSpice, and prevented from speaking about it with leading experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence. I seem to recall that your credentials were called into question?" Doctor Briggs reminded her.

"I was signed to a Non-Disclosure Agreement. That's pretty standard in high technology research and development. As much so as it is in entertainment as well. I mean, let's face it. Technology really has become an area of interest, drawing the same kind of speculation you might see with movie or video game productions. I guess when one of your project leads threatens to go public, you're probably thinking damage control. Minimize the damage of anything they reveal by whatever means possible," Zheng explained.

"Whatever is affecting people isn't something they applied to be a part of by sending in their resume and signing an NDA. Its something that came to them, not the other way around," Alicia reminded them.

"My point exactly. It only started to become an issue for them when they began resisting it. When they began exposing it," Doctor Briggs surmised.

"What about empathic experiences?" asked Valerie.

"Could you elaborate?" asked Alicia.

"Well, when I was getting over Torman's less flattering qualities being a constant part of my being, even long after he'd been deceased, the psychiatrist explained it as an empathic experience," Valerie told them, leaving Alicia slightly confused.

"Go on...?" Alicia urged Valerie.

"The way he described it was that it was kind of like echoes of a person's psyche, that had through some means we had yet to understand, permeated the biomagnetic field of my nervous system. A phenomenon he described as being a factor in the lingering connections between criminal rapists and their victims. So I was experiencing recurring nightmares involving Torman, where I could literally smell him. His breath upon my face. These experiences were so real to me that the psychiatrist explained them as being echoes that had remained long after he'd gone. Being kept alive by my own nervous system's magnetic field and still affecting my cognition enough that I had experiences that I felt were real, though they were only dreams," Valerie described.

"The psychiatrist reasoned that it was a form of trophy keeping for many rapists, because it allowed them to re-experience a connection to their victim, and to invoke fear in them, all while experiencing all of the same sensory pleasures such as smell, touch and taste. Reliving the experience of violating them, though at a distance and without any responsibility for having done so," Valerie shuddered upon thinking about it.

"But Torman was dead. There'd be no mind or consciousness driving his urges," Alicia carefully considered what Valerie had stated.

"You're right. It was my own mind driving those experiences based upon traumatic triggers, which in turn would induce the whole cycle of such an experience, except it was as if he were still there by some means. The only way the psychiatrist could explain it was via his theory of residual magnetic echoes leftover after the body had died, that clung to my nervous system. By regarding that as the underlying mechanism, he was able to develop a cognitive therapy program that guided me towards a final confrontation with Torman. From that time on, I haven't had any recurrences," Valerie tried to recall the terminology he'd used through the ordeal.

"Your case relates to one man who had a devastating emotional impact upon your life. Your experiences continued after his death, leading me to believe that it was probably more founded in emotional memory than physiology, though I could be wrong. It just seems off that after his death, he could have such a pronounced conscious presence in your life, without a conscious life force," Doctor Briggs reasoned.

"How many cases and accounts do we have to go on?" asked Monique.

"Counting the few I was able to muster at the University of Toronto's Department Of Psychology, we have seven case histories of about three months each," Doctor Briggs replied.

"How many of those people do you know personally?" asked Heylyn.

"Two," Doctor Briggs replied.

"How well?" asked Bryce.

"One is a recent graduate and a member of the Alumni, whom I've known for six years. The other, a student, is working towards his thesis. I've known him for about three years now. In either case I could probably talk with them as comfortably as I could with most of you. Except for Zheng," Doctor Briggs answered, looking last to Zheng.

"Obviously," Zheng smiled.

"I get this feeling that we're approaching this too clinically, when we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty so to speak," Alicia suggested.

"Someone's thinking about gardening again..." Monique responded to Alicia's remark.

"Heylyn, is there anyone here in your company that has been experiencing the symptoms described in these cases? People feeling random tingling sensations near their nerve centers and glands, such as near their sacrum or near their sex organs, or hearing continuous noises such as high pitched sounds or even rambling voices in constant utterance?" Doctor Briggs asked.

"Despite my being one of the most accessible employers this side of Queen Street, there are few in the company who'd discuss personal matters of this nature with their boss," Heylyn flexed her eyebrows in disappointment.

"Monique? Would you happen to know of anyone?" asked Alicia.

"Sienna and I talked about something like that the other day. She says she's been taking medication to help her cope. I feel like I've betrayed her by telling you this!" Monique responded.

"You'd be betraying her by doing nothing to help her," Alicia reminded Monique.

"How would you feel if your employer suddenly called you in to discuss private matters related to what you assumed was your mental health?" asked Monique of Alicia.

Alicia suddenly recalled her experiences with Norler and their inability to conceive a child together, all to well empathizing with Monique's point.

"I didn't say that we have to penalize or alienate Sienna or anyone else, or otherwise do anything that would scar them psychologically. We're trying to help them help themselves, but we need more information than we have... We need to develop a database of these cases and work through them via meaningful debate and scientific analysis, until we have a solid understanding of the problem," Alicia urged them.

"We also have to decide whether we're investigating cases of mental illness or the phenomenon we're describing. What if the two are so similar that we'll be hard pressed to tell the difference?" asked Bryce.

"There has to be a difference, other wise the diagnosis is mental illness," Alicia pointed out.

"But what if it isn't? What if that's how this slipped under the radar and affected so many people? By appearing clinically like textbook cases of mental illness, with symptoms matching those of one of several different personality disorders?" Zheng suggested.

"I'll offer myself up. I've been experiencing these symptoms on and off for the last three weeks, and somewhat extreme over the last week," Norler announced boldly.

"I thought what you were experiencing was work related? Like Briggs' point about work related stress," asked Alicia in shock.

"I'd love to think that its something that will just go away, or that I'll get used to, but I don't think that's the case. I'd be lying to myself and you if I kept quiet about it," Norler admitted courageously.

"When do you experience these symptoms and how often?" Doctor Briggs asked Norler.

"They started about three weeks ago as I stated. It started out with a series of excruciatingly painful headaches. I was so shocked by them I booked an appointment with a Physician. I immediately had x-rays, as symptomatically he claimed that it might have been the big C. When they came back negative, he kept me on pain killers, which helped tremendously, except that a couple of days later, the symptoms changed from headaches to hearing voices. Just as you stated. Like a chorus of angry people chattering directly into my ears. I tried recording what I was hearing to no avail..." Norler explained to Doctor Briggs and his captive audience.

"I assume nothing came out on the recording," Doctor Briggs confirmed.

"Precisely. I assumed that my head was picking up some kind of radio phenomenon or something. I saw the Doctor again and asked for depressants this time, which he supplied for me. I've been bouncing back and forth between pain killers and depressants depending upon the need and the urgency, given the symptoms of course," Norler described to them.

"These symptoms are exactly the same in the other seven cases I have on record. Especially about the voices. Did you feel any sort of accompanying tingling sensation in your lower abdominal area?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"Initially, before I started having the headaches, I'd feel a sort of tingling sensation on my inner thighs, near the groin area," Norler described, causing both Doctor Briggs and Alicia to look at each other in realization.

"That could be acutaneous stimulation of the Inguinal glands, the thyroid or possibly the testes," Alicia responded, looking to Doctor Briggs.

"Wait, what are you talking about? Stimulation?" asked Norler.

"Acutaneous stimulation refers to the use of electrical fields to stimulate activity from glands in the body. Depending upon the charge or the frequency over which the cycle of the charge is applied, it can trigger the glands to produce different responses. In the Inguinal and Thyroid, it can trigger the production of different hormones, once again depending upon the qualities of the charge, or in the case of lymph nodes, they can cause the flushing of the gland itself, prematurely," Doctor Briggs explained.

"How would someone apply an electrical field to the body?" Norler asked.

"Clinically, through the use of gel coated electrodes through which the charge enters the body directly by contact with the skin," Alicia explained to Norler.

"But I experienced this without any kind of contact with my body by electrodes or anything else," Norler responded.

"That area of the body is part of the Sacral and Root Chakra in Yogic traditions and in Chinese Medicine. Activity in those regions are most commonly associated with anxiety and hypertension, though I've heard from those involved in Pranic and Traditional Chinese Medicine that migraine headaches are treated in that region of the body as well. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the treatment involves Acupuncture, whose pathways and meridians connect to this region of the body. I'd be willing to bet that you could receive effective treatment against this problem from a TCM practitioner for the time being. I could recommend someone for you?" Heylyn explained to them as she looked at Norler.

"I'll definitely take you up on that after the meeting, and jump between that and the medication as need be," Norler agreed.

"The Thyroid and Inguinal glands have been shown to be linked to certain classes of headaches as well, so its certainly no coincidence the connection between this region of the body and the symptoms," Alicia nodded to Heylyn.

"But how would someone apply acutaneous stimulation without..." Norler began asking.

"electrodes?" Monique quickly caught on.

"My baby can detect minute charges on the scale of nanovolts. That would be on the level of the kind of voltages you'd see in the human nervous system," Gregory tapped his backpack.

"Your baby? You mean you keep your baby in a knapsack? What kind of monster are you!" Braden asked Gregory, taken aback by the young nerd's statement.

"Not that kind of baby! This kind!" Gregory pulled out his modified medical scanning device, which appeared like a computer tablet with a somewhat bulky battery pack. 

Gregory held the power button down for a moment to start it up.

Moments later, it booted up into a heavily modified Linux variant operating system. After ten seconds of displaying startup logs, the device's screen jumped directly into a colourful touch-based user interface.

"For instance, if I want to measure the strength of the magnetic field generated by Alicia's beating heart, I just select the SQUID button here, and set the range in nano-Teslas with these two sliders and..." Gregory held the device up near Alicia's chest, revealing a red cycling field that rose and fell slightly out of phase with her physical heart beat.

In the upper left corner, a readout indicated the field strength of the magnetic field, while a series of micro pathways etched graphically by the interface indicated the route the electrochemical information was taking through her nervous system to regulate it. Fluctuating bands which were accented by arrows indicated the direction of flow of the field, giving a remarkly good representation of its shape in three dimensions.

"This is the device?" asked Norler, astonished by how small and portable it was.

Alicia nodded, smiling at Norler and then at Gregory, who slightly blushed.

"I hope this doesn't mean that I'll have to start wearing a lead bra," Alicia said to Gregory somewhat playfully, even drawing a smile from Norler.

"In addition to the obvious utility of this masterpiece you've created, you're saying that you could detect any sort of extraneous electrical or magnetic stimulation with this device, right?" asked Bryce.

"Precisely. If Norler suddenly experiences tingling in his thigh, he could just hold this over the region and it would detect the charge, even at the scale of nanovolts or nanoamperes. If he hit this button, it would record everything, updating sixty times a second for up to six hours or until he pressed the button again. Anything you record with it can be played back through the interface again, so you're seeing it just like it happened, or you can export it as a comma separated data source for further analysis," Gregory adjusted his glasses.

"We're definitely going to talk after this meeting Gregory. I think that your life is about to change for the better. At least as much as your device here is about to change the world for the better," Norler, Alicia, Zheng and Bryce immediately recognized the potential.

"Well I was just thinking that it could really help us to investigate this problem... so I brought it, though I had to modify it yesterday with a better battery pack. I developed a new fast charging technology for it as well," Gregory said modestly.

"It could also help us to test a theory I have about this problem, and how its affecting people through thin air at a distance. Kind of like what Einstein referred to as spooky action at a distance. Quantum Entanglement. This theory, which is a work in progress has roots in Quantum Electro Dynamics as it relates to phenomenon connected to the human nervous system, and possibly consciousness. A theory that I initially worked on with Doctor Sylvia Uphadhaya almost twenty years ago. Funny how old friends show up in life to let you know they're still in the fold where it counts, even long after they're gone," Bryce revealed his contribution to the investigation.

"I wish Sylvia was here to help us," A tiny tear appeared in Alicia's eye upon the mention of Sylvia's name as Alicia recalled her conversations with the Physicist as a young girl, while volunteering for the retirement home in which Sylvia resided.

"She is here Alicia. In everything you and I do," Bryce gave her a comforting smile.

There was a tiny tap at the door.

"Come in," Heylyn said, slightly raising her voice.

Kori opened the door and peeked in, Warai sitting comfortably in her arms.

"They're showing the news again about the Comic and Video Game Convention, but this time they've got an interview with the people you rescued," Kori said excitedly.

"Yeah! And Butterfly had tiny little wings like a cupid!" Warai smiled, pointing at the television screen in the meeting room as Heylyn turned it on.

The little Witch, Iron Man, Jughead, Joker and bearded Superman stood in view as the videographer interviewed them.

"You're saying that the accounts of the Butterfly and her friends attacking the Police are all wrong. What actually happened?" the videographer held the microphone up to the little Witch's tiny mouth.

"Night Style saved us from the bad people. The bad people tried to shoot her..." the little Witch stumbled as she grabbed Iron Man's hand to keep herself from falling.

"They got the whole thing wrong. The Butterfly Dragon, Night Style, Eclipse and the Dragon Lady saved us. They protected us from the shooters, and led us out of the building safely, all without killing or seriously injuring anyone. They risked theirs lives for us!" Iron Man spoke into the microphone.

The video then cut to a boy in a Thanos costume, his leg wrapped in bandages.

"Butterfly Dragon rescued one of the guys who'd been shot. A guy in the Assassin's Creed costume. They took him to the hospital and last we heard he's going to be fine! Yay Butterfly! Night Style! Eclipse and Dragon Lady!" the crowd behind Thanos, including Wonder Woman, Thor, Mario and Luigi, Ms. Pac Man and Pac Man, Chun Li and Lara Croft cheered along as Spider man and Doctor Strange popped their heads up in front of the camera cheering as well.

"I guess I had it wrong... I'm sorry Alicia. After all you did to help me," Gregory looked down.

Alicia gave him a hug.

"That's alright. We're still a long way from being through this," Alicia said to him.

"We're only at the beginning. We know ourselves, but we have yet to know our enemy. As Sun Tzu said, we'll need know both to achieve victory," Heylyn said thoughtfully.

"There's something troubling about this. Those kids risked a lot by stating the truth, and I bet that what we're up against doesn't want that truth spread too far," Valerie pieced it together having listened carefully.

"We're going to have to keep an eye on them. Its the only way to protect them," Alicia agreed with Valerie.

"Perhaps Monique and I have a fitting purpose in our silence amidst those who met and spoke today?" Aikiko suggested, volunteering herself and Monique to protect the kids.

"We're definitely going to have to cover a lot of bases, not to mention shore up our fortifications here at West Meet East. We don't even have an idea of whether we're infiltrated or not," Heylyn realized the bigger problem.

"Or how much of the city is already... given the evidence that much of Bay Street seems to be falling to this," Norler added.

"We should meet again on Wednesday. That will give us a whole day each to cover ground separately, and we can share what we learned the following day," Doctor Briggs suggested.

"Agreed. Kori, Valerie, Braden and I will assess the situation here while Monique and Aikiko ensure that nothing happens with those kids.

"Wendy and I will immediately begin work on recovering Sylvia's notes. I believe they're stored at the Retirement Residence she resided at before she died," Bryce offered.

"Gregory, Norler and I will see what we can do about putting this machine to work for us," Alicia added.

"And putting a little money in Gregory's pocket," Norler added, knowing full well how important investment money was to the inventors who relied upon it.

"Lets get to it. See you here on Wednesday bright and early," Heylyn bid them farewell.


Outside in a dormant parking lot, Tricia and Halmand caught the last bit of the meeting through their surveillance equipment.

"We got a little bit, and at least we know they're working through this objectively, if not a little sloppy," Tricia observed.

"So what now? We show up on Wednesday again and hope they break something worth our time?" asked Halmand.

"Yes, but right now we're on our way to arrange for protection for those kids. Its the least we can do to take some weight off of them at West Meet East. Sooner or later, they'll suspect we're keeping an eye on them, and if they're up to it, they might be able to use that knowledge to our mutual advantage. So lets get those kids some protection and take it from there. You're driving Halmand," Tricia got out of the driver's seat and walked around to the passenger's side.

"We got time for a quick bite?" Halmand asked.

"After," Tricia replied.

Departmental Affairs

Farnham awoke to the sound of his phone, as his wife shook him in attempt to retrieve him from the land of nod.

"I'm up honey..." Farnham stated, removing the pillow that had been covering his head.

"Your phone's right here," Lori placed his phone on his stomach.

She then turned over and went back to sleep.

Farnham's hands fumbled across his chest to his stomach and retrieved his phone.

"Farnham here..." he said grogily into the mic.

"There's a meeting today," an authoritative voice prompted him.

"Gallaugher? Is that you? Why wasn't I told?" asked Farnham, leaning over to take a peek at his alarm clock as the dim light of the sunrise broke the darkness of night.

"It's not scheduled. It was called by your department head," Gallaugher explained.

"What's that supposed to mean? You know that I'm in limbo right now. Kalvin can't decide if I should finish my tenure in Robbery or Homocide, and look what happened as a result. I've been working with the Feds as a valued consultant of their team while you guys play politics with the last few years of my career before I retire," Farnham leaned up in bed, propping himself against the headboard.

"Look Farnham, whether or not you like it, you're still a Cop. Whether you're on the beat, working vice or marking evidence on a crime scene: you're not one of them. You're one of us," Gallaughter reminded Farnham.

"When was this meeting arranged?" asked Farnham.

"Early this morning, around three AM. The same time we found the body..." Ghallaugher told Farnham, his voice becoming audibly withdrawn.

"I'm sorry James. Who?" asked Farnham, suddenly aware of the severity of the situation.

"Mack O'Keef. A worker for one of the local Day Farm Foods port facilities. He was found sliced and diced this morning just outside one of the loading docks..." Gallaugher explained.

"Anything like the Chameleon crime scenes?" asked Farnham intuitively.

"A bladed weapon was used, but the injuries are unlike anything we've seen on any of the Chameleon crime scenes. The attack was made by someone who has considerable training and ability with weapons. They knew what they were doing, and only delivered what was necessary to first incapacitate, and then kill their victim," Gallaugher described for Farnham.

"So the victim lived for a time between their first injury and the killing blow?" asked Farnham.

"We're waiting on Forensics for the answer to that question. Get your gauchies on and get down here right away. Meeting room A, homocide. We're starting in half and hour," Gallaugher hung up.

Farnham leaned over and kissed Lori's ear, and then got up and graced the toilet with his presence. Ten minutes later he was showered and dressed, what little hair he had on his head still slick with water and gel.

The drive downtown didn't take long, and he arrived just as the meeting was starting. Gallaugher at the front of the room, briefed the Officers.

"At two twenty eight this morning, we received a call from a local truck driver who'd arrived at Day Farm Foods down on Merchant's Wharf to do his daily pickup. He reported having found the dead body of one Mack O'Keef, a worker at their port facility. The initial report indicated severe trauma and blood loss of the victim, and that the victim was last seen by his coworkers at one forty seven," Gallaugher began.

"Any signs of substance abuse?" asked Farnham.

"Nice of you to join us Farnham. No signs. He was as clean as a whistle," Gallaugher reported.

"The victim's address?" asked another Detective.

"Mack lived at 245 Dunn Avenue, on the twelfth floor in apartment 1209. He was divorced from his wife of three years, thirteen years ago, and had no contact with her since that time," Gallaugher answered the Detective's question.

"I know the place. Its a low income high rise, out towards Bathurst South. What was he pulling in after taxes?" asked Farnham.

"About nine hundred a week according to his manager. Standard for his salary and position," Gallaugher responded.

"Which was?" continued one of the other Detectives.

"He was the Comptroller," Gallaugher replied.

"A what?" asked the Detective.

"A comptroller. Someone who manages database inventory systems and physical inventory, and keeps them in sync. In other words, he gets to dress like someone in the office, but gets his hands dirty like someone in the warehouse," Farnham explained to the room, having worked many insurance investigations where inventory was a factor.

"Alimony? Child support?" continued Farnham.

"He was paying alimony to his ex, and paying into their child's education as well. After those payments, he was taking home five fifty a week," Gallaugher told them, putting a check mark on his notes.

"More than enough to pay his rent and bills in that place, so he wasn't in a rage over his alimony, seeing as he'd been paying it on time for the last thirteen years," Farnham remarked.

"So who wants his workplace, and who wants his residence?" I'll take the workplace, Detective Nelson spoke up.

"Its pretty obvious, if he was killed at his work place, that's where the motive is, but I'll take the long shot and investigate the residence," Farnham agreed.

"Don't worry Ed. I'll give you a call this afternoon when I've cracked this case," Detective Nelson said confidently, winking to Farnham.

"I hope you do. Solve it I mean. I'd hate to see this turn into another Chameleon," Farnham said as he left the meeting room, making his way to the parking garage and his car.

He then quickly dialed Crime Scene Forensics and asked them if someone was on site at 245 Dunn Avenue. Farnham left when they told him that they'd just gotten access to the victim's apartment. If he was lucky, he might still make it before they began their evidence sweep.

By the time he'd arrived, they'd setup in the two bedroom apartment, from where they operated out of the empty second bedroom. As it turns out, Mack had initially accepted the two bedroom apartment for the price of a single bedroom, intending to be switched out and into a neighbouring single bedroom apartment when it became available. However, none of the single bedroom apartments ever became available. Management's solution was to allow him to pay a single bedroom price, but with an additional surcharge of a hundred dollars for storage space. Mack had opted to keep the apartment in spite of the surcharge and remained a resident until his murder.

Farnham took a walk first through the living room, and then made his way down the hall to the bedroom. There within was Mack's single occupant double bed, a pair of accompanying night tables and a desk at the far end of the room which neighboured a chest of drawers. Upon the desk was a computer workstation and monitor.

"Anyone check this computer yet?" asked Farnham, pulling a new pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and putting them on.

"The Computer Forensics guy is on his way. Use gloves if you want to check it, and don't delete anything," a voice responded from the second bedroom.

Once his hands were gloved, he moved the mouse to check if the computer was sleeping. Sure enough, the computer came to life and Farnham was presented with a login screen prompting him for a password.

He hit enter first, leaving the password field blank. The computer responded with the words:

Incorrect password or password not entered.

Farnham pulled a notepad from the inside pocket of his jacket. He checked the last page and found a list of names he'd written. He picked one of the names from the list and typed Marianne and pressed enter.

The login screen disappeared and he was presented with Mack's Windows desktop.

"You feisty one you, Mack. You still think about her, don't you," Farnham commented aloud, having used the middle name of Mack's ex-wife to get into his computer.

The computer desktop itself was sparse, only containing a few common icons such as My Computer and Mack's Files, alongside an icon for the Windows Edge web browser. Farnham double-clicked the web browser and waited for a moment for it to load.

It opened to the familiar MSN site, which appeared to be customized to Mack's liking, though Farnham had no idea what would have been different about it for Mack versus others. Instead, he went directly to the browser's history, going through each of the sites one at a time until he found a non-descript web based login screen simply requesting a Username and a Password, in a very basic html layout.

"This is odd..." Farnham noted, examining the web address.

Instead of it reading out like a domain name, the web host was simply a series of numbers, each separated by a dot:

"Better wait for the..." Farnham began, as a man wearing sunglasses with slicked back pink hair entered the room.

"You breaking my work here?!" asked the man, who appeared to be no older than twenty-five and sported a heavy Thailand accent.

"Take it easy there hotshot. I was just doing my job," Farnham produced his Detective's badge, showing it to the spiffily dressed tech.

"So go somewhere else and detect stuff then! Stop mucking up my work!" the young man replied hastily, placing his kit on the desk beside the keyboard.

"Ok, ok. Take it easy. I was just waiting for someone who could tell me what that is..." Farnham pointed to the strange web address in the browser.

"That? That's easy! Its a local web address. Probably on the same network this computer is part of connected to the local router. That box right there..." the tech pointed to a small box with a network cable connected to it.

"Then why isn't it connecting, smart guy?" asked Farnham.

He looked at the computer, and then back to the router. He moved the mouse as Farnham spoke.

"Don't lose that site," Farnham said to him.

"Don't worry old man!" the tech continued, opening another tab on the same web browser and typing the web address: and then pressing enter.

The browser returned an error:

Bad Host Or Gateway.

The tech stopped for a moment and then scratched his head, as if deep in thought. He literally had a eureka moment, typing a series of key combinations. A list popped up in a command-line prompt. It was a history of routers recently connected to by the USB WIFI dongle that was plugged into one of the front USB ports of Mack's computer.

The tech then forced the computer to connect to a specific router, and then went back to Farnham's web address and tried it again.

This time, the Username and Password fields had filled themselves in. The page took a moment to load, and when it did, they were both astonished by what they saw.

It was a series of live camera feeds, directly into other apartments.

"What is this? Some kind of snuffs you detectives like to watch!?" the tech responded sarcastically.

"You tell me. I'm no expert when it comes to this technology stuff, but those apartments look awful familiar. Can you tell me where this is we're looking at?" Farnham asked the young tech.

The tech hit another series of keystrokes and another command-line window opened, with a series of statistics about the WIFI router to which the USB dongle was connected.

"I don't know where these apartments are, but I can tell you that the server hosting these video feeds is ten meters away, in any direction," the tech explained to Farnham.

"That's enough for me, because if that's the case, I can tell you that these apartments are all in this building, hotshot," Farnham reasoned, relying on thirty years of experience that was helped by the knowledge and ability of the young tech.

"So are you going to do a forensic on this computer?" asked Farnham.

"Do tigers poop in the jungle?" asked the young tech. 

"I know I'm pushing it, but can you find the direction of that server?" asked Farnham.

The tech stopped again, thinking carefully about it before answering.

"I don't have it. The hardware I need to detect the direction of WIFI keepalive signals. I'm sorry," the tech responded.

"That's alright. I'll try it the old fashioned way..." Farnham said, turning to leave the tech to his work.

"WAIT! I have an idea! Let me try this!" the tech pulled a small device with a series of LEDs from his kit.

He then pulled hbis phone, and used it to connect to the device, which he then in turn connected to the mystery server whose name was in the Windows WIFI server list.

"These LEDs indicate the strength of the WIFI connection. The more red, the more strong. Green is medium strong. Blue is very weak signal. The closer we are to the server, the more red it is meaning the more closer we are. Like hot potato!" the tech explained to Farnham.

"If this works, I'll sign a report arguing that you should have the specialized hardware to detect this kind of stuff, as it would immensely help investigations," Farnham said enthusiastically.

"Let's go. We just watch the LEDs for when they get red..." the tech led the way and Farnham followed.

Eventually their search led them down the stairs and to a specific apartment, three floors beneath Mack's.

"This has to be it. We checked here, and the floor below and every floor above between here and the victim's apartment," the tech said, pointing to the LEDs on his device.

"Get the camera on your phone ready, will ya? Follow my lead," Farnham asked the tech.

"Are you going to break down the door like in American TV?" asked the tech.

"Watch and learn," Farnham responded as he knocked quietly but firmly on the door.

A moment later, they heard the sound of the chain being removed and the click of the lock.

A man about the same age as the tech answered the door, wearing a baseball cap, his pupils were very dilated and he held a television wireless controller in his hand.

"Can I help you?" the young man asked.

"Hi, I'm the local service rep from MindSpice Internet, we've been experiencing problems with our customer's internet in the area, and w'ere just checking out the service in each apartment to make sure your internet is fast enough. Do you mind if we come in and check out your connection service?" asked Farnham, flashing his Detective's badge quickly to the young man.

"Uhhh, sure. I'm just looking after the place for a friend. Will he get faster internet if I let you guys in?" asked the young man.

"Oh, most certainly. Real fast internet," Farnham smiled coyly.

"The fastest hi-speed!" the tech followed suit.

"Alright. His setup is in the back room closet," the young man followed them to the room, navigating the furniture over to the closet.

The tech opened the door and nodded when he saw the hardware.

"This is the WIFI router. From the looks of it, he's got three of them. These units beneath are ethernet switch boxes. These other ones are server racks. Separate complete computers connected to the internet, probably web hosts judging by this setup," the tech pointed out to Farnham.

"So, can we speed up his internet?" Farnham asked the tech, winking once or twice when he spoke.

"Oh, most certainly. Up to level 3 hi-speed. Three times faster than what he's got!" the tech immediately caught on.

"Alright, we just need to get a picture of this setup for our manager, so he can activate their level 3 access, and then we'll be gone," Farnham gestured to the tech and his camera phone.

The tech took several pictures, some close-up and a few of the entire setup.

"So when can we expect this level 3 internet?" asked the young man resident of the apartment.

"Ohhh, by tonight. About 6 PM," Farnham assured the young man.

"Great dude! My friend will be really excited when he gets back," the young man responded.

"Thank you. Have a nice day, and always choose MindSpice, the spicy internet choice!" the tech improvised as they left.

Farnham and the tech made their way to the elevator, taking it to the lobby first and then back up to Mack's apartment.

"Thank you old man. I really learned a lot about good Detective work today," the tech told Farnham.

"And I learned that even younger dogs can teach old dogs, new tricks. Farnham's the name by the way. Ed Farnham," Farnham shook the tech's hand firmly, giving him a card.

"I'm Punya Somboon, Forensic Computer Specialist, but my online handle is ÐåřʼnåŝŖįġħŧĦåŋđ," the tech handed Farnham a card.

"Who's Darna if you don't mind me asking?" asked Farnham of the young tech.

"Darna? She's a hero from where I'm originally from. Kind of like the Butterfly is here," Punya explained to Farnham.

"Punya, I'm going to need you to send me those photos ASAP. I'll make the arrangements for the warrant right away. In my report, I'll note that you were imperative to the success of this investigation, and maybe in the midst of this murder investigation, we'll find justice for others who deserve nothing less," Farnham thanked the young tech.

This chapter is dedicated to the people of Thailand, in the hopes that they know that during the darkest hours of plight, that we step forward towards justice, on the wings of innocence.

Perhaps a day will come, where such sudden crimes of wrath which appear to us much like random weather systems, will no longer plague any society throughout the world.

A Surrogate Family

By the middle of his third day, Braden was beginning to feel comfortable with his new employment. In all truth it was unlike any experience he'd had thus far in life. Most of what he'd lived had been spent either in over-protective care himself, or being over-protective of someone else. Most of that focus had fallen solely upon Warai from the point in his life when he'd become aware of the Gem.

He'd been raised by his parents, both of whom were physical entertainers. They were musicians, dancers, acrobats and thespians of the highest order, and yet they'd spent most of their lives on the road. Touring throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. They'd performed in art festivals for the public in all of those places, and they'd performed in lavish palaces for Royalty, Politicians and Icons alike.

Their touring company had employed twenty people full time, and provided work for no less than a hundred others where ever they played. This life of constant presentation was the outer shell, meant for the public to see, but what they protected within was very different indeed.

Their family had flourished centuries earlier, when a Ballerina married a former Monk. One who'd been entrusted with the knowledge of the Butterfly through the very same temple built in GuangZhou. As it turned out, the Ballerina's own family too had been keepers of the same secret, and so their eventual marriage was ordained in the stars. Together the Ballerina and the Monk formed their own dance company, raising their family into the business into a masterpiece of generations.

Within the dance company itself, they taught the principals and methods employed by the martial artists that taught the first Butterflies in Asia. This tradition was carried on in both their performances as theatre, and through their secretive higher education taught from generation to generation. Their knowledge, skill and ability in dance, was the perfect camouflage for their secret martial arts philosophy. This tradition would eventually through the generations end up as part of Braden's early education.

By the time Braden had arrived, his parents were already in their forties, but still quite active in their touring theatre company. During his young life he was encouraged to play and to nurture a fertile creative mind. He was introduced to stories and verse. To rhyme and rhythm, though never for the purposes of exploitation. Eventually after he'd learned to walk, he was taught to dance. From there, his entry into the martial arts tradition of Butterflies would transform his life, for that was when he first met the dragon.

As much so as Ai Yuanlin Ying had also become familiar with the tradition through the children's tales her Mother and Grandmother would tell her, so did Braden become familiar through the stories of his Father. They were not works of fiction unto themselves, but told in the form of questions and anecdotes, for which there was never a solid answer. Statements that led Braden to contemplate ideas that transcended the nature of existence and the boundaries of what he regarded as life. Not a religion, nor a philosophy, but an observation that was as unique to him, as it was to anyone that had ever contemplated such ideas. When he was old enough to contemplate such things, that was when the dragon appeared.

"Hi, Ebtissam?" Braden spoke into the receiving desk phone.

"Speaking. How's your day going Braden?" asked Ebtissam as she fed a role of material into the digital pattern cutting machine.

"Good so far. I just received another shipment of the Number 6 material from Rhinehart Fabrics. I'm running out of room back here, do you have any space for them in the sewing room?" asked Braden.

"I have room for three rolls, only, but you're going to have to stack them by hand because I can't reach, not to mention that when I need them, you'll have to get the top one down for me. Alright?" confirmed Ebtissam.

Braden paused for a moment, slapping his head to his forehead.

"Sure. Alright. Thanks for the space," Braden said to Ebtissam.

"You can bring them anytime," Ebtissam offered.

"Thanks," Braden hung up the phone and stood from the desk.

He grabbed the pump truck and manouvred one of the rolls onto it, and then began wheeling it towards the door to the sewing room.

"Where you going?" asked Heather, a pretty fair skinned, brown haired girl who'd been checking off items from a purchase order as she found them one by one on a skid.

"I've got to take these rolls to Ebtissam, one by one, otherwise we won't have any space if something else comes in today," Braden told her.

"Should I continue verifying the purchase orders against the shipments?" asked Heather.

"That sounds good. The paper copies of today's purchase orders are on my desk. In the tray on the right hand side. Just keep going on them until I'm done," Braden suggested as he hauled the enormous roll of material through the double doors into the sewing room.

He walked through the doors and was suddenly out on the stage, before an audience in a theatre in Canton. He was twelve years old.

The follow spots centered on him, in his ballet costume as a bee. His dance progressed, integrating an acrobatically choreographed performance, building to a crescendo as other dancers joined the onstage ensemble, until the lights on the stage went out. Braden then gracefully folded to the floor as the theatrical moon rose above the colourful ballerina flowers of the field.

"Right in the corner, if you could?" Ebtissam directed his attention to a tight space behind the rows of shelving that housed all of the other material on the smaller rolls. 

Occasionally however, Heylyn required the large rolls, especially if she was producing many copies of a design for a series of models as part of their runway show.

Braden struggled with the roll for a moment, before focusing himself and his body, and putting his mind towards the task at hand. As much so as he used to before a dance performance, or his required sparring.

He was in front of his sparring partner now. One of the other dancers from the theatre company who'd already mastered the techniques that were privy to those studying the teachings of the Butterfly Dragon.

He blocked several quick punches in succession, trying to get his knee into an opening in his opponent's defense. As he thrust with his knee, so his opponent did block with the same. Braden began to notice a pattern about the nature of defense, that implied a one to one correlation with attack.

The dragon spoke to him directly, as he sparred.

"It is a standoff if it requires one of your arms to block one of his attacking arms. If it takes one of your legs to block an attack by one of his. You are both at an impasse," the dragon told him in a thunderous voice that his opponent did not hear.

Braden observed the pattern, seeing that what the dragon had said was true. So long as they continued in their attack/block pattern, neither of them would sway the balance.

"As in the I Ching, for change to happen in this circumstance, the cycle must be broken," the dragon continued.

This time, when the attack came at Braden, instead of using one arm to block one punch, he blocked all punches with one arm. With his free hand, he delivered an attack just short of his sparring partner's face.

"What are you doing Braden?!" asked Ebtissam, who stood with several other of the sewing machine operators staring at him.

He suddenly realized that he'd been sparring with the roll of material, possibly reliving his memory in a performance.

"Just playing. It said I was short and that I dress funny," he joked, attempting to distract them from the other aspects of his life.

He quickly grabbed the pump truck and wheeled it back through the double doors into the receiving area.

As he passed through the double doors, he was once again on stage, folded up to the floor, a bee lost in the field at night. The music quieted, until a single shaft of light shone from the sky in the form of the moon.

An Erhu carried a growing linear melody as a shadow passed before the moon, its silhouette pronounced against the flowers of the field, for it was the arrival of the butterfly.

The double doors suddenly opened and Heylyn stepped through.

"Braden, please tell me you didn't store all of the large rolls of Number 6 material yet?" Heylyn asked him, her face glowing in his eyes.

"Huh?" he just looked at her, perhaps still lost in his memory.

"The Number 6 material that you just received. You didn't store it yet?" asked Heylyn, her hands now on her hips.

"One of them, yeah. For Ebtissam. I still have these two, though," Braden replied, still somewhat lost in his memory.

"Could you be a sweetheart and bring these two rolls up to the design room? Now?" asked Heylyn rather than demanding of him.

"Sure. I can do that," he said, beginning immediately to squeeze the two rolls onto the pump truck at once, side by side.

"You're such a sweetheart. Alright, you can follow me there, now," Heylyn began to lead the way, walking with the slight essence of seduction.

He followed, and couldn't help but notice her. He admired her momentarily and then found himself on stage again. The butterfly's shadow became smaller and smaller as she descended from the moon to where he lay on the stage. Helpless and in the dark. He could smell the nectar of the flowers, but he couldn't see them to fly to them.

He was back in the hall as they continued to walk, going around the long way past the sewing room, and into the presentation hall, which was essentially like an auditorium where they held all of the West Meet East Seasonal Fashion Presentations and Shows. There was lots of space for him to maneuver as she led them both, only the clicking of her low cut heels broke the silence, while her curvaceous and shapely legs broke his concentration.

They passed through the second set of double doors on the far end of the presentation hall, and back out into the front office hallway as Braden carefully maneuvered the pump truck around the corner. As they entered into final stretch of hall, the double doors to Heylyn's design room could be seen a short distance ahead in the direction they strode.

Once again, Braden was out on the stage, the moonlight now fully encompassing the field, as the ballerinas dressed as flowers, spread, making a path for him to the butterfly ahead. He walked gracefully, pausing momentarily for some of the flowers along the way. Ultimately he continued on to his destiny with the Butterfly, who stepped aside to reveal the Gem.

A young ballerina danced out from behind the Butterfly, taking her hand and reaching for Braden's. The gongs then crashed, as a storm broke and the winds threw turmoil into the field. A pair of trees folded in on the Gem from either side of the stage.

"Lookout!" Braden jumped, grabbing hold of Warai's hand at the same time that Heylyn had from the other side, as the two rolls fell off of the pump truck, narrowly missing Warai as they lifted her out of the way.

They fell backwards into the wall,  suddenly finding themselves wrapped around one another, against the wall, with Warai between them.

Their faces met for a moment, and their lips passed within the space of a breath. For that moment they could only see each other's eyes.

"Try and tell me that I didn't see this coming!" Kori said as she pushed the material rolls out of the way to check up on Warai, though it wasn't clear as to whether she was referring to the calamity caused by the material rolls or to the ever more obvious intensity between Heylyn and Braden.

Heylyn quickly withdrew from Warai and Braden, as Braden withdrew from her and Warai. They were shocked to life by a single moment, when they couldn't deny how they felt about each other. Then, as it often did, life got in the way.

Heylyn felt a flurry of turbulent emotions, as her time with her only lover suddenly returned. She looked at Braden, but suddenly only saw Brad. She recalled her time with him.

She saw him with his laptop, sitting at her kitchen table, as he wrote for his blog. He picked up his phone and snapped a picture of Heylyn in her silk house coat.

She jumped across the kitchen towards the table and grabbed the phone from him, trying to erase the photo before he could get a look at it. He got up and chased her around the table several times before they stopped. She backed away into the wall as he followed her. She lowered the camera, instead giving him her lips. They kissed passionately as she erased the photo in his phone with her other hand.

She remembered their romantic dinners by candlelight. Their pillow fights. Their tickle fights against the backdrop of a thundering rainstorm outside. Their lovemaking until the early hours of the morning. All of it returned to her, at once. Every moment she'd laughed herself to tears and every time she'd fallen asleep against his chest. All of it returned.

And then the call. 

About his flight, and the bomb.

Then as suddenly as they'd stormed her senses, those memories were gone, leaving only the emotional scars of his sudden absence in their wake. All at once she was reminded of the vulnerability involved with letting someone in. 

Even for a moment.

Heylyn took a deep breath, her intense discipline pushed to its limits as she fought tears.

Then, in a moment's silence. Heylyn and Braden both. They found their way back to their comfortable lie.

[PS: For Helen C. and Jasmine L.]

A Casual Drive

Dundas Street at Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The limousine pulled up along the curb of the corner of Dundas Street at Yonge Street, on the south west side as it traveled north, stopping just before the light.

A Japanese man, dressed dapperly in a black sports coat and slacks stepped over to the client passenger door as it opened automatically.

He leaned in to see a man with a short, stylish platinum blonde hair cut. He was dressed similarly, though a trench coat adorned his outer wear. He was alone in the back of the limousine, nursing a bottle of lime flavoured spring water in his right hand.

"Mr. Mutano I assume?" asked Mentis.

"Correct. May I be seated here?" asked Mutano, gesturing towards the seats across from Mentis in the back of the limousine.

"It would certainly make our meeting a little easier don't you think?" Mentis played with him, knowing fully well that anyone coming into his dealings were often overly cautious for the benefit of their continued survival.

Mutano wasted no time, taking a seat across from Mentis, that had been occupied by others of similar vocation. The door closed and the driver pulled the vehicle out silently into traffic as they proceeded north in Toronto along the longest street in the world.

"A drink? Sake? If not to reduce the tension, then surely to make you feel a little more at home?" asked Mentis, pressing a button on his arm rest which caused a compact fridge to open, revealing a treasure trove of beverages within.

Mutano reached for the bottle of Niigata, also grabbing a packet of Wasabi nuts and ginger that sat beside the bottle. He took a cup and poured his Sake carefully, closing the bottle and returning it to the fridge.

He opened the package of Wasabi, squeezing the contents onto his tongue, swalling the hottest competing spice to horse radish as if it were nothing. He then pulled the thinly sliced chilled piece of ginger from the other package, placing it on his tongue to change his palette.

He then rinsed his mouth with the flavourful bite of Sake.

"I have heard that others who've held this same chair have met with grave fates," Mutano smiled at Mentis.

"As have those who've gone on to great success. The most appropriate reward for loyalty, don't you think? Should I be cautious of you for having noticed the fallen before the risen?" Mentis replied, taking a sip of his spring water.

"A man who always walks keeping his sights on the sky, will fail to see to the pit falls in front of him. It pays in my business to be cautious. If you feel my caution is an indication that you should also be cautious, then we'll both be pleasantly surprised when we're wrong. To err in the other direction would be fatal," Mutano smiled quaintly, leaning back in his chair comfortably.

"You've already taken care of two problems for me, rather successfully," Mentis said smugly.

"Two? I was under the impression that your whistle blower problems in that area of the city were focused around one person. The one whom I solved for you," Mutano asked curiously.

"Its true. You handled that problem quickly and efficiently, though I had a thousand other options through which to deal with that person.

"And of that thousand, you chose me. I'm flattered," Mutano didn't miss a beat.

"There will be more work of that nature, especially since the Police and the press have done away with my little project, which you'd be more familiar with under the name of the Chameleon," Mentis gave Mutano the knowledge that could kill him.

"I suspected as much, given the nature of methods employed by your little project. One person, many minds. One killer, many kinds. One mind, many people. One kind, many evil. That's why the methods were the same, but the physical person delivering the murder every time was different. Right-handed once, the next time left-handed. A tall person first, then a short person follows. One method, many people," Mutano wrapped his head around it quickly.

"You're a fast learner," Mentis observed.

"Someone your millions of minds would love to get their minds around, I'm sure," Mutano replied firmly.

"We take who we choose, though it wasn't always that way. Let me say that we recently reached critical mass, where on this continent, we collectively overpower our enemies simply by the fact that we have instantaneous communication without the need for technology. Our methods are derived from mysticism long accepted throughout the world. I will certainly not force you to join us at this time, but we will arrive at a point where that choice will no longer be an option," Mentis explained.

"Long accepted? I think not, othewise your invasion of North America would have been effortless, when it has in fact been frought with nothing but resistance. You rebranded something that wasn't yours to begin with, repurposing it for your new world, while relying on the curiosity and fascination the population had for what you took it from. Lets be honest with one another, while we can still do so much for each other," Mutano suggested, taking another sip from his glass of Sake.

"A deal you're seeking? Should I regard this as an early attempt to get as much bargaining power as you can, while what you hold still has value? In a few months the millions of minds will be able to take it from you, and you'll be able to do nothing to stop them," Mentis reminded Mutano.

"And yet amidst this surety of yours, I'm still here. I came in the interest of a deal that will be mutually beneficial. A deal between the millions of minds, and my employer," Mutano said with confidence.

"And here I thought you were an independent operator. So you operate with an organization? Who, may I ask? The Sanctum? The Power Lords? The Pristine? The Shape Ghosts? No other organization of which I'm aware has the power, or gaul to approach the millions of minds in such a manner," Mentis replied, taking a sip of his spring water.

"My employer prefers to stay away from such pretentious mortal institutions as the ones you've mentioned. We're part of the bigger picture, you might say, though we recognize a potential within the millions of minds to achieve great things. To overcome obstacles no other civilization has encountered and survived," Mutano explained to Mentis as one who held the power of the unknown.

"We wield the ultimate power of humanity and the mind. There is no obstacle about which we're unaware. We see all. We are all," Mentis assured Mutano confidently.

"Then I'm sorry for having wasted your time. I truly wish you the best when you arrive at the doorstep of this obstacle. I must go and inform my employer of your plan to go it alone, though I must admit that it seems somewhat hypocritical coming from someone whose ideals are built around collectivist mentalism," Mutano placed his half full glass of Sake on the top of the fridge, in a drink holder and leaned forward ready to exit the limousine next time it stopped.

"Wait. Perhaps we could benefit from an arrangement that would say... evaluate the potential of working together, just in case there is something on the horizon obscured behind circumstance beyond our ability to observe. That's not an admission though that we are incapable of dealing with it, should there be such an obstacle," Mentis urged Mutano to stay long enough to establish their temporary allegiance.

Mutano leaned back in his chair once again, confident that Mentis had considered the short comings of his earlier perspective.

"As a show of good faith, I will share something with you that my employer thought would benefit you. As a show of good faith between us. Several members of your millions of minds are on the brink of criminal investigation, in a move that could lead authorities to your front door should you choose to ignore it. A series of arrests will occur that will lead to the discovery of your organization, one of those arrested will begin working with authories to assist in the dismantling of your organization in order to avoid serious charges against them," Mutano explained.

"Do you work with the authorities, that you have this information to share?" asked Mentis, now seriously concerned.

"No. My employer is an expert when it comes to making well informed predictions. As we get closer to this obstacle, my employer's abilities to see things yet to come will grow, while their ability to recall what has been will subside. I implore you to benefit from this fact while you still can. I will find you again and we will meet as we just did, on the first morning at ten AM after what I've explained has come to pass. By that point, I assume that you'll be more welcome to negotiations. Until then, I bid you good day. Sayonara," Mutano said to Mentis, after which he consumed the remainder of his Sake.

Mentis signaled for his driver to stop at the next light.

When the limousine stopped,  Mutano leaned forward to exit the car. When he was almost out, he stopped, turning to grab the last package of sliced ginger. He opened the package, quickly placing the ginger on his tongue, consuming it in a savoured bite.

"I almost forgot to reset my palette," Mutano smiled grimly as he swallowed the ginger, closing the door behind him as he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

He stood on the curb, his hands in the pockets of his slacks, watching as the limousine drove away.

Replenish And Replace

The Many Faced Maiden ploughed through the shoreline draft pushing at its mid-starboard as it passed Coast Guard Station Point Loma. The waters of the north passage into the San Diego Bay were in a constate state of flux. One shore versus the other, where in the middle the currents would balance, being pushed back out to sea with the ebb and flow of the tide.

First Mate Lockwood stood at the helm while Steadman stood at bridge center, keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity that would indicate that the shore had become aware of their ruse.

"Coming to port Captain. ETA ten minutes. It should take us twenty to prep for refuelling, and an hour to fill both the tanks and reset the ballast system," Norman notified Steadman, who very much playing the part wore his full Naval uniform crowned by his Captain's hat.

"Steady as she goes, Lockwood," George acknowledged his report, playing it by the book.

The door to the bridge suddenly opened, and one of the crew stepped in bringing with him a waft of the stiff port air.

"Sir, something important has come up. I found this outside of Zek's cabin," the crewman handed Steadman a capsule small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of his hand.

It appeared to be like the capsules one used to be able to find in coin operated gift dispensers, though rather than transparent, it was black and opaque.

Steadman shook it, holding it close to his ear to see if it contained anything. When he didn't hear anything moving inside, he simply opened it. A small piece of paper fell out and ontgo the floor of the bridge, which Steadman quickly retrieved. He unfolded it, finding a hand written message on one side:

Port Bow. Deck A. 11:25 AM.

"Did anyone else see this?" asked Steadman impatiently.

"No Sir. Not that I'm aware. It was difficult to see in the light outside of his cabin as it was, so it could have been there for a while," the crewman reported.

"Who's been working custodial duty there?" asked Steadman, his eyes intense and focused as he looked at the crewman.

"Bennett I think?" replied the crewman.

"Don't tell anyone about this. Don't talk to anyone about this. Go find out who was working cleaning duty where you found this and have them report to me immediately. Tell them its about a possible commendation for their service. Nothing else," Steadman ordered the crewman.

"Right away!" the crewman left the bridge, immediately heading for the offices on the lower deck to find a schedule.

Steadman turned back to the front windscreen and looked out as they closed in on the San Diego harbour north port.

"Lockwood, I want you to keep your eyes and ears peeled for anything that sticks out, but keep it discrete. If you find anything, immediately report it to me. Do you understand?" asked Steadman.

"Yes Sir," Norman responded curtly and professionally.

Steadman put the issue in the back of his mind and continued to focus on the harbour and their approach into port. The repercussions of a hidden note were currently far less than those of the alert level of the port authorities. Still, the emergence of this sudden mystery played on him as he concentrated.

The two of them remained silent as the Gearing class destroyer slowly manouvred its way into port. When it had come to a full stop in its staging position, the two of them left the bridge and headed to the gang plank.

"Get the lines in place and the ship moored before we start refuelling!" Norman yelled to the crew as they approached the crew ramp.

Steadman followed Norman down the ramp out onto the port itself, where they proceeded to the offices for the paperwork.

"Haven't seen one of these for a while, though I had an old friend who worked as a technician for the Navy. He was one of the guys who prepped these babies for sale and transfer. She's in good shape," the port administrator greeted Steadman.

"If you think she looks good, you should see her sister," Steadman replied, accepting the standard port waiver forms that the administrator had pushed at him.

Steadman signed the forms and returned them.

"Anything to declare while you're here?" asked the administrator.

"No. We're not staying. We've got to fuel up and head down to Panama after we pickup five crew mates," Steadman indicated.

"What happened to the ones they're replacing, shark attack?" the administrator joked casually.

"Someone's gotta feed the sharks and make work for the rest of us," Steadman barely blinked at the statement.

"That's one way to put it," the administrator laughed quietly to himself, not giving it much more thought than any other quip.

"Aha! Here it is. Yep, there's five guys here ready to go. Been here since five this morning," the administrator informed Steadman.

"Here's their paperwork and visa permits permits," Steadman pulled the paperwork from his inside pocket, handing it to the administrator.

"Alright. Looks good. My guys are getting the fueling rig in place and we should have you ready and full in the next hour," the administrator smiled, stacking the paperwork on its edge and readying it for the document scanner.

"Thank you. If there's any issues, I'll be on my bridge and available on radio," Steadman turned to leave.

"When are you guys going to go digital by the way?" asked the administrator of Steadman.

"What time is it now?" Steadman looked at his watch, drawing a laugh from the administrator while averting the topic altogether.

He and Norman made their way back to the ramp as the port crew prepared the fuel rig.

"I want you to work closely with Ganz keeping an eye on the port bow. Especially deck A. Have his team do an inspection of the area, but keep it quiet. Let me know if you find anything," Steadman ordered Norman as he continued on to the bridge.

Norman meanwhile turned north heading for the port bow, where Ganz, a large husky ex-Marine waited with his specialists.

"New orders for you Ganz. You and your guys are going to inspect the deck, focusing on the port bow for anything suspicious, but keep it discrete. We don't want to alert the rest of the crew that anything's up," Norman ordered him.

The six of them started scouring the area for anything out of place, making it look remarkably like casual guard duty. As if they were disintereted and just waiting for their shift to end.

Meanwhile, Steadman made his way back to the bridge where he encountered Bennett.

"As you were sailor," Steadman said to him, easing his nerves just slightly as they entered the bridge together.

"What is it Captain?" asked Bennett nervously.

"Have a seat Bennett," Steadman offered as the two of them sat acorss from one another.

"How have your shifts been going?" asked Steadman.

"Fine sir. Why do you ask? Is something wrong?" asked Bennett, leaning forward nervously in his chair.

"No. Not at all. I was just noticing what a remarkable job you've been doing," Steadman said as he focused on the mobile phone in his hand.

Steadman quickly scrolled through the security video footage outside of Zek's quarters for the last time a cleaning had been done before the note had been reported.

"Have you seen anything peculiar in your travels recently?" asked Steadman as he watched a video of Bennett kicking aside the capsule, ignoring it and leaving it on the floor where he'd stumbled across it.

"No. Why?" asked Bennett.

"I recently lost a ring. A valuable family heirloom, so I've been checking with crew trying to find it. If you find it, let me know," Steadman told Bennett, smiling as he pocketed his phone.

"I will sir. Can I go?" asked Bennett.

"You can. Good job sailor," Steadman said to Bennett as he stood and left the bridge.

Steadman then called Norman after Bennett had gone.

"What is it Sir?" asked Norman.

"After you've done your sweep, apprehend Bennett. Take him to one of the empty cargo holds and lock him in. Tell him if he makes any noise, you'll kill him," Steadman ordered Norman.

"What if he does make noise?" asked Norman.

"What else? Kill him," Steadman ordered Norman.

Norman hung up the phone, preferring to respond with discretion rather than acknowledgement in such a situation.

"After this boys, we've got some new orders..." Norman informed Ganz.


Out on the ramp, the five new recruits made their way onto the ship.

"I've gotta use the lew..." one of them said to the others.

"Same here..." another one replied, pointing at a map affixed to one of the doors leading to the subdecks.

"Go, then. Make your way back here quickly though. We're supposed to meet up with the Captain in two minutes," one of the other recruits advised.

"We'll be back in one," the first one responded, quickly making his way down the stairs.

They navigated ships subdeck all the way to the corridor outside of Zek's quarters, where a guard stood posted.

"Halt. You guys supposed to be here?" asked the guard, leveling his SMG at them.

"We're the new guys. Look bud, my teeth are floating. Where's the can?" asked one of them, holding up his port clearance card.

The guard inspected it, then lowered his SMG.

"No problem man, just make sure you stay away from here in the future. VIP quarters here," the guard informed them, leading the one who'd asked down the hall, as the other one quickly opened Zek's door and slipped him a note, using the other two as cover from the security camera to do so.

The door quickly closed and locked as Zek opened the note with his left hand, quickly reading it:

And then there were two.

Zek smiled as he ate the note, chewing it carefully to ensure there was nothing that coulid be pulled from his guts to imply his guilt.

He smiled, wondering how much havoc his capsule note had already caused.

Busted Vision

Halmand pulled the car in behind a convoy of Police cars. Some of them squad cars, while the remainder were unmarked.

"Dammit! Sorry. I tried," Halmand said to Tricia as he quickly hit the brakes to avoid a collision with the car ahead of them.

"What about taking a side street?!" demanded Tricia as the car stopped.

"We won't make it in front before they get to 245 Dunn Avenue..." Halmand replied, knowing the area fairly well.

"Follow them in and get us as close as you can. I'll try to cut them off when they go in," Tricia told Halmand, clearly frustrated by the situation.

"Do you even know how dangerous that is? Are you thinking this through clearly, because I can't allow you to do that!" Halmand responded as he hit the accelerator trying to keep up with the Police car convoy.

The cars pulled up in front of Dunn Avenue in a sudden display of power. Uniformed and Plainclothed Officers jumped out of their cars and made their way into the building, a familiar plainclothed Officer in the lead.

Tricia ran to catch up to him as Halmand followed behind her. When Farnham reached the lobby elevators, he pressed the button as Tricia arrived.

"Farnham, I need to talk. Now!" Tricia stepped in front of the other Officers as they smirked at her.

"We're in the middle of an operation, Inspector. This isn't the time," Farnham responded professionally.

"Look. I just got word about your warrant and I only wanted to go over the details of your op. I've got someone close by that might be in danger if you go through with this," Tricia advised him, stepping in close to his ear.

The elevator opened and someone exited, nervously avoiding eye contact with the army of Officers. Farnham stepped in with Tricia and four other Officers as the elevator closed and they made their way up.

"Asset?" asked Farnham quietly.

"No. From the sounds of it, he's a target just like Werner or Forseth, except he doesn't have money. They wanted him for some other reason," Tricia leaned in close to tell him.

"Gotta name?" asked Farnham.

"Felder, first name Dane," Tricia told him quietly.

Farnham scanned a sheet of paper, folding it over where it was stapled until he'd examined all of the names.

"You're in luck. He's not here," Farnham smiled.

"That doesn't mean he's not here. That just means that he's not on your warrant," Tricia advised him.

The elevator bell rang and the door opened on the fifteenth floor. The four Officers stepped out first, checking their directions for their target apartment. Farnham turned right, already knowing full well where they were headed.

"Can you give a return fire only order, just in case this is a planned hit on my contact?" asked Tricia.

Farnham thought about it, considering first the Forseth case specifically, and how easily that could have turned into an early death for him had they responded with lethal force the first time. Despite the fact that Forseth had later taken his own life, there was evidence to indicate that he may have been pushed to the point where he'd be taken out by Police. Forseth had been resolute enough to prevent himself from succumbing to that risk, though in the end he lost his struggle over his free will against the mysterious enemy they were investigating.

"This is Farnham. Standing orders are for all Officers on site to return fire only," Farnham spoke over his headset.

"Satisfied?" asked Farnham, furrowing his eyebrows at her.

"Its a start," Tricia pursed her lips.

"Everything alright up there?" asked Halmand on Tricia's channel.

"We got a return fire only order, so that's a step up," Tricia replied.

"So who's Dane?" asked Halmand.

"Male, Caucasian. Five foot eight. About one sixty. Dirty blonde hair, short. Moustache. Beard. Brown eyes," Tricia responded to Halmand.

"Alright, I'll stick with the crew making an entry on the eighth floor, seeing as that's close to where you think he'll be," Halmand replied.

"Fair enough," Tricia responded as the Officers got on either side of the door before which Farnham was standing.

Farnham knocked, loud and deliberately in such a way that nobody would question exactly who was at the door.

"Police! Open the door! We've got a warrant for search and seizure of your premises! If you fail to open the door, we'll be forced to break the lock and door at your expense!" Farnham raised his voice.

When nobody answered, he nodded to the two Officers bracketing the door. One of them gave the door a swift kick, breaking the lock and cracking the metal doorframe inward. A second kick sent the door flying open as they entered into the quiet apartment.

On three other floors, the same entry and search procedure was followed as Officers quickly scoured the premises. In all but one of the apartments, extensive computer, networking and video equipment was found. In sixteen other apartments in the same building, groups of Victim Liaison Officers knocked at the doors of other residential apartments to inform residents that their apartments had been infiltrated secretly with hidden cameras, whose images were possibly broadcasting illegally into the community and the internet, and that as a result, their lives might be impacted significantly.

Tricia meanwhile, searched all of the premises for any signs of her contact, Dane.

"Nobody yet, got one more residence to search. This is the single largest illegal surveillance system I've seen," Halmand told Tricia as Tricia examined a tablet computer she'd found on site housing the internet and residential addresses of similar networks all over the city.

"I've got something here," Tricia told Halmand.

"What?" asked Halmand.

"I just found a list, its got Dane's name on it. Anyway, its a list of network addresses and residences that all have the same thing. Illegal surveillance cameras hidden in residential apartments monitored by unbonded and unlicensed civilians," Tricia said as she browsed through the list.

"As in he's a part of it?" asked Halmand.

"No. As in he's indicated as a threat to it," Tricia pointed out.

East Meeting West

The commotion in the meeting room grew as the chatter between those meeting quickly broke off into separate conversations and arguments, each competing with those of their neighbour. This continued until Heylyn stood up.

"Can everyone just take a minute, relax, take a few deep breaths and hold onto their thoughts long enough so we can get back on track here?" she spoke in a pronounced, confident voice, enough so that everyone in the room stopped to hear her out.

"This is a meeting and we were meeting!" Monique said in her own defense.

"Yes, but we're doing this as a group and dealing with employee issues one at a time until they're solved or we run out of time for the morning. We're already getting close to the time limit for our meeting and we've only solved two issues so far. We've got to do better, and arguining amongst one another won't get us there," Heylyn reasoned with her employees present for the morning monthly meeting.

"What issue were we on before we started arguing?" asked Valerie, now confused herself, still somewhat tired after a long night.

"The issue of the cardboard material rolls. The city recycling program says they're too big, and the manufacturer says they're currently working with their distributers on a solution but that still leaves us high and dry," Lisa said, reading from a list she'd drawn up.

"Why don't we just buy a chain saw and cut them ourselves and put them in the city recycling bins?" suggested Braden.

"That's a possibility," Valerie raised her eyebrows.

"Injury risk and insurance. We can't afford either," Heylyn responded.

"There's another manufacturer just down the street from us that produces recycling waste that's a bit larger than these rolls. What are they doing that we're not?" Ebtissam asked the room rhetorically.

"They're with the Queen West BIA, aren't they?" asked Kori.

"Why aren't we working with the BIA more?" asked Lisa of Heylyn.

"I don't know. Why aren't we working with the BIA?" asked Heylyn of Valerie.

"I'll call them today and make arrangements for us to get involved. I'll also ask about large recycling items like our material rolls," Valerie replied.

"Problem solved. See? That's how we come to solutions, and if the issue isn't solved by next meeting, we try tackling it again," Heylyn kept them in sync and on target in the direction of their goals.

"So what's next?" asked Troy, eager to prep for a photoshoot where he'd be putting his new lens to the limits.

"The issue of employee parking?" Kori asked.

"I thought we were going environmentally friendly? Building an addition to our parking lot would just be inviting fossil fuels," Lisa replied.

"Not if we're driving electric cars, it wouldn't," Braden replied.

"I wasn't just talking about cars. What about for bikes? I wouldn't mind riding to work in the summer for a month or two," Kori smiled seductively, trying to flirt for Braden.

"I agree. We need more space for bicycle parking and a bit more safety for it. Maybe a covered garage or something?" Lisa asked.

"Time's up. Let's put this idea at the top of the itinerary for the next meeting, and we'll do this again in a month's time?" Heylyn smiled as they began gathering themselves for their day.

"So now we do the same thing again, but with the dream team..." Monique said.

"I thought we were the dream team?" asked Kori of Monique and Valerie.

"That's at lunch. I'm talking about our other meeting today," Monique smiled to Kori.

"Linda?" Valerie addressed one of the new arrivals.

"Hi. Hope I'm not too early. I didn't get a chance to put much in last time, but I hope we can change that," Linda said finding a spot for her briefcase and laptop bag.

"Glad you could make it! Help yourself to the coffee, tea or pastries, if my employees left any. I'm sure you know the drill," Heylyn directed Linda towards the continental catering platter.

"Morning everyone," Zheng waved as her and Doctor Briggs made their way into the meeting room.

"We brought some Timmy's with us if anyone would like a donut?" Doctor Briggs placed a box of donuts on the continental platter.

"I'll take that one, thank you!" Kori said, reaching out for the Hawaiian donut as she was leaving.

"Good morning," Katya stepped into the meeting room, quickly finding the same seat she had last time.

"We brought a large jug of freshly squeezed orange juice we picked up from the St. Lawrence Market," Victor said, hauling the jug up onto the platter.

"Glad you could make it. Help yourselves to the goodies," Heylyn told them.

"Katya, Victor! I just got the news this morning from the Health Products And Food Branch office. Phage One received approval for production and pharmacological distribution as a wide spectrum antiobiotic by prescription. Congratulations!" Alicia said as she came into the meeting room.

"Now that sounds too good to just leave it at that. What's this about?" Linda asked of Alicia.

"I agree. I'd like to know what my bff is working on too," Heylyn asked.

"Morning. I guess someone else was on the same wavelength. I brought some pastries from Timmy's," Norler offered as he snuck around Alicia and put them on the platter.

"Alright. Katya, Victor and I have been collaborating on a project involving the use of Phages as a wide spectrum antibiotic. As it stands now, most wide spectrum antibiotics are tightly controlled because germs can develop a resistance to them the more they're used to treat specific infections. Infections and antibiotics have been fighting an arms race for the last thirty years, and the infections have been winning. That is until now. Katya and Victor are experts in the field of Phages, and have developed a strain of Phages that are adaptable predators of the most dangerous infections to humanity and the animal kingdom. Why don't I let Katya explain more?" Alicia began explaining.

"I remember you talking about them on one of the flights during our time in the delegation. So are these things alive?" Doctor Briggs asked.

"Yes, you could say they're biological organisms and reproduce similarly to the process of cellular mitosis, except their reproduction uses infectious bacteria as hosts for their offspring, killing the bacteria in the process. When they've killed off all of the bacteria, they run out of food and either migrate to the colon or die off as a result of lack of food. In either case, they are beneficial to the body and will continue to fight the bacteria until there are absolutely none," Katya explained to them.

"But isn't some bacteria healthy for us? Like in our gut?" asked Linda.

"Yes. Pro and pre biotics are a type of bacteriological organism that lives in our gut and helps us to digest food. They are imperative to efficient digestion. The problem with most other wide spectrum antibiotics is that they kill all bacteria, even the helpful ones. With our Phage One system, the Phages are predators only of specific types of bacteria, none of which include the helpful ones that humans and animals depend upon to survive," Victor explained to them.

"So this antibiotic can work on humans and animals," asked Zheng.

"Absolutely. Its safe for both," Katya replied.

"How did you get into that field?" asked Linda, now curious about the topic.

Katya and Victor looked to each other, a little cautiously at first but then decided to speak openly.

"We were educated first as a result of programs developed initially in the former USSR. In Soviet medical science, there was a lot of interest in Phages from early on, so funding was never a problem and much of this attention and innovation was shared across the USSR. So when the wall fell and the USSR broke up like so many bands do, there were still many institutions doing serious work with Phages," Kathy began, gesturing to her husband to continue.

"Katya and I met and fell for one another in grade school, and we essentially planned our educational path together, getting married after we were accepted into the Medical Biology program at Saint Petersburg State University. Back in those days, despite the interstate conflicts of post USSR Russia, there was a lot of cooperation between states. Even between Ukraine and Russia. Obviously in recent times, that has changed and we run into bumps every once in a while just because of our origins, but most people look beyond to the bigger picture. We were able to take something good from both USSR and Russia and bring it to the world to benefit humanity, mammalian species and science," Victor shared their journey with their peers in the room.

"So Physicians will be able to prescribe this medicine in Canada now?" asked Linda.

"In about a year from now, most Canadians will have access to this as an option for treatments requiring wide spectrum antibiotics. The good thing is that it even works for people who are allergic to other antibiotics," Victor replied.

"What about the United States?" asked Linda.

"Baltimore was it?" asked Norler.

"For my last assignment before Toronto, though I was born and raised in Washington," Linda replied.

"The approval process for the FDA, the American counterpart to the Health Products And Food Branch, is similar and sometimes even faster, but there's often competitive politics involved as both our countries are major players in Pharmacological medicine, understandably. We have a few lobbyists on our side in Congress, but ultimately we have to wait like every other company does. You'll probably see Phage One as an option within two years, and if there's any delays, Tynan And Associates might instead enter into a distribution deal with an American Pharmacological Producer, which can sometimes speed things up and get the product to market faster, though we try to keep the patient's interests as our top priority," Norler explained the business of Tynan And Associates and Medical Science to Linda.

"Katya and Victor were able to ply their craft a bit under contract for MindSpice as well, as we developed a simulation model based upon Phage reproduction," Zheng added, being cautious about omitting details protected by the Non-disclosure agreement she'd signed.

"Funny you should mention that..." a familiar voice said from behind them.

"Gabe?" Zheng turned around to see her old employer, as usual, in his purposely faded designer jeans and a designer sports jacket.

"I hope you don't mind my showing up here. I got word from a colleague..." Gabriel Asnon stepped through the door, as Wendy and Bryce snuck in behind him.

"Ahem..." Bryce cleared his throat at the appropriate moment.

"...that you guys were working on a solution to a similar problem we're currently encountering..." Gabe smiled, looking around the room.

Doctor Briggs remained a little bit reserved, knowing what Zheng had gone through over the issue with the MAZ Project. A Quantum AI project spearheaded by MindSpice's Advanced Projects research wing.

"Honey?" Doctor Briggs gestured to Zheng for a chat.

"Are you sure this is alright? I mean I remember what an ordeal that was for you," Doctor Briggs asked Zheng quietly.

"I think we've all come a long way since then, but I can't help but find your concern for me ever so enticing," she kissed him on the cheek.

"Don't worry. We can take this cautiously," Zheng assured Doctor Briggs.

"Alright. As long as your fine with it, I'm fine," Briggs rubbed her back gently as they turned to face Gabe again.

"Good to have you with us, though I don't know what good having a failed Engineer will do for our team here?" Doctor Briggs prodded Gabe.

"Then how about a bum that just walked in off the street. Can you accept that?" asked Gabe, a sarcastic smile on his face.

"Nope. We don't have one of those yet. I guess you've got that spot," Heylyn said, pretending to check out a list on her phone.

"I guess that leaves Bryce without a spot today," Wendy responded jokingly, causing the room to laugh at his expense.

"I knew I was messing up when I told my wife that we didn't have time to stop to get a box of donuts for the meeting..." Bryce smirked with the ends of a smile on both sides as they laughed.

"Great. That just leaves us short of that sombre and mysterious dragon lady then..." Doctor Briggs said, pulling out a chair for Zheng.

As if on cue, the door opened and she walked in.

"I heard that by the way..." Aikiko said as she stepped in, this time wearing a long skirt, her artwork adorned arms visible for their admiration.

The Nature Of The Beast

[ Writer's note: Everything I said in the previous version of this stands. You're going down. ;-) ]

Kori popped her head in to the meeting room, Jennifer just behind her.

Kori waved frantically to Heylyn, who was in the midst of a conversation with Norler.

"Could you excuse me for a moment please?" Heylyn asked Norler.

"Sure," he replied, turning to Alicia as they went over some of their notes as Heylyn walked over to the door.

"What's up?" asked Heylyn of Kori.

"Warai says that she left her fashion designs at home and needs to get them!" Kori said in panicked voice.

"That's alright. We've got a copy of them here. Go to Lisa and have her print a copy from one of the old archives of a children's line we did. Last year's autumn line should be good. Problem solved," Heylyn smiled for Kori, who's face echoed her sudden relief.

Kori immediately turned and left to find Lisa, as Jennifer approached the door for her turn.

"I'm taking all of the calls and screening them for important ones that you need, but someone recently called about something important. Says her name is Tricia? She said something about a meeting?" asked Jennifer.

"Thank you. That's alright. She'll call back. If she does, then forward it to me and I'll take it in the hall or something," Heylyn replied.

"Thanks. Could you send Professor Maxwell over for a minute?" asked Jennifer.

"Bryce? You're in high demand," Heylyn waved over to him as he spoke with his wife and Katya as Heylyn returned to her place and resumed her talk with Norler.

"How are you Jenny? Good to see you. What can I do you for?" asked Bryce of the receptionist.

"Ummmm, well. Tricia called and said something about arrangements for a secret Birthday about which she wants to talk?" asked Jennifer.

"Oh, yes. Alright. If she calls again, I'll take it or better yet, forward it directly to my mobile phone," Bryce smiled for her.

Jennifer waved to Bryce with her fingers and returned to the front desk as he returned to his seat at the horseshoe shaped meeting table.

Norler returned to his place beside Alicia, and as the others in the room settled into place for their talk, the room suddenly became silent.

Heylyn stood at the top of the horse shoe and addressed her peers.

"Glad you all could make it for this second meeting. We made a lot of headway since the last time we talked two days ago and a number of things have started to become clear to us regarding the situation. Most of what we'll talk about today arose as a result of our having had time to compare notes. However, Professor Maxwell and Doctor Briggs have gone one further and invested a great deal of their time and energy putting together an address to us at this meeting, that should keep us all in sync with regard to what we could be facing. Given the fact that their address will deal with the technical details that will be needed at some point in the future to give credence to any effort looking to unite people against what could be happening in this respect, of course assuming that all moral, responsible and legal considerations have been evaluated, they will be giving their address to us now. First. We'll be able to speak about this at some point afterwards, compare notes, and evaluate our next steps. Without further ado, I give you over to the capable hands of Doctor Stephen Briggs and Professor Bryce Maxwell," Heylyn introduced her peers, though everyone in the room were already close friends.

Bryce stood up on the opposite end of the horseshoe from Doctor Briggs, who also stood up.

"Professor Maxwell and I discussed this issue in great deal over the last couple of weeks since you brought it to our attention, though in all honesty, we'd been in it up to our armpits without even knowing it over the course of years. This topic is truly a remarkable one insofar as defining our humanity. The very core of our essence and being. The distinction between you and I. Therefore, our efforts, which consequently started almost a year ago, back when my fiance Zheng was working with Bryce on a project related to the field of consciousness, uhhhh... let me know when I've stepped over the line Gabe," Doctor Briggs paused as they laughed.

"If it stays in the room, I'm alright with everyone here. Just remember though, that even CEOs are sometimes just riding the wave - rather than steering it. If that wave isn't going in the direction of our vision, then we don't have a lot of control over its wrath," Gabe assured everyone, redeeming himself considerably from their caution.

"But the law and the greater good does, in a sense of leniency and humanity," Zheng added.

"Yes but that's why we're talking about this subject. Because we're approaching a time when what we're just encountering now is going to be big obstacle for all of humanity," Doctor Briggs continued.

"Unless we learn about it. Know it. Know ourselves. Then confront it. Sun Tzu and Lester B. Pierson were on the same wavelength you know," Bryce punctuated both Zheng's and Doctor Briggs' point.

"Confronting and knowing can only ever occur simultaneously," Aikiko added her perspective, though somewhat confrontational to the perspective of Sun Tzu.

"Let's try to keep our compass on point here?" Doctor Briggs looked around the room, seeing that their discussion was prone to distraction.

"Please? We spent a lot of time and energy putting this together, and what we found is important," Bryce backed up Doctor Briggs.

"Sooo. We've divided our presentation of this information up into two separate talks. One dealing with the technical science of it, the other, the social and moral implications and what it means if, and I use the word if as in hypothetically, something of this nature has already infiltrated our society. Within say... the last decade or two, but we'll thoroughly discuss that too. Professor Maxwell is going to discuss the hardcore science of it and where it intertwines with philosophy, history and morality, while my talk will deal with the interpersonal and macro-social implications, given different traditional perspectives across the continents, though we're focusing on North America. Bryce?" Doctor Briggs introduced his peer and then sat down readying his notes.

"Humanity is founded on the principals of information exchange. Everything we have is founded on our ability to exchange meaningful information with one another. Most importantly, the information we learn over the course of time in our lives. Even Mazlo's hierarchy of needs obeys this requirement of all life. In fact, every cell in our body is subject to it. Every information based structure in the universe relies on it. Its built into the second law of thermodynamics in such a way that you can never have more than the input of information in a given system. Every cell in your body is a testament to this fact. Every molecule. That's the case with every atom and subatomic matter too, as the standard model changes with our most recent discoveries. We who are at or near the top of this hierarchy built on information exchange, rely on it for our place on this planet," Bryce paced as he spoke.

"Information exchange is the most fundamental advantage that any living creature in any biosphere can develop. Its the mechanism through which single cell organisms combine through the dynamics of complexity to become multicellular organisms. Our body is made up of a compartmentalized hierarchy of multicellular packages. Our organs. Bones (which are also organs). Limbs. Glands. Nervous system. All of it is a hierarchy of cells or a biproduct thereof. That's why the human nervous system is the most complex and developed biological system for the analysis of information that has evolved anywhere on this planet, short of Cephalopods," Bryce stopped and organized his notes.

"Cephalopods for all of you who aren't aware are a class of ocean bound invertebrates. Amongst their most famous relatives you can find the Squid, or even the Octopi family," Doctor Briggs interjected at just the right moment, something both he and Bryce had planned.

"If you can't find them in the ocean, then try your plate. They're snacks where I'm from," Aikiko said blandly, drawing an uneasy laughter as she usually did.

"Next time I'm there, but I'm putting it on your tab," Bryce smiled at Aikiko who smirked at him.

"What makes you think I'd eat with you?" she asked him confrontationally.

"Why I'd be there at your behest, and yours only," Bryce responded diplomatically.

"I approve," Aikiko simply nodded at him.

"You've got the run of the place, Bryce. Knock 'em out," Heylyn backed him up carefully.

"Alright, so what I was getting at is that the human nervous system evolved as a biological system for communication, memory and computation in memory," Bryce explained.

"Alright. I understand the CPU. Even the GPU. I use it to play Minecraft. Memory, that's how it keeps track of things. I know all that, but how does a computer do CPU stuff in memory?" asked Monique, trying to wrap her head around the concept.

"Zheng? Could you explain?" asked Bryce politely.

"Alright. I've got it," Zheng smiled at Bryce encouragingly, and he returned her smile with an enthusiastic nod.

"Humans and computers are both adept at processing information. They both follow similar concepts when it comes to the throughput of information in the form of input, storage and output. Computation is the process most associated with what we understand as thinking. Consciousness ie thinking itself requires input and output to some kind of storage which we call memory, both of which are expensive operations when it comes to recall and commit operations. Recalling, experiencing and processing which some might argue is the same thing, and storing. In each case, there's an operation required before any processing can be performed. Either input or output. In the case of computation in memory, or biologically speaking, in-place computation, processing is and can be performed within the same hardware, biological or silicon storage. So computation in place is exactly that. Thinking in the same place your memories are stored, without the need for input or output operations, if that makes any sense to you?" Zheng did her best to explain the concept.

"So what Zheng was saying was that we can think in the same place as our memories are kept, without the need to transfer information to a buffer of some sort. That's a big advantage we have over classical computers, because they can actually think at roughly the same throughput as the speed of light, where as the limits of throughput of the human nervous system are roughly fifty meters per second. A very big difference. We're many, many orders of magnitude slower based upon our throughput differences, simply because the limit for human information transfer is based upon neuronal electro-chemical propagation. Information processing from cell to cell. Soma to axon," Bryce explained.

"If they're capable of such high speed transmission of information, then how are we able to solve even the simplest of problems faster than computers?" asked Victor somewhat aware of what the answer might be.

"The differences between a human brain and a modern computer are about the computation model. Computers use a centralized processing model, where all computation is performed at a high degree of sophistication by a single processor. The instructions and data are pipelined to this processor from memory into a temporary buffer, and then the processed data is pipelined back to memory or to an output device such as the hardware that creates the image for your computer screen. In the nervous systems of most species, a neural net model is used and computation is distributed over the entirety of a network of interconnected neurons, each of which perform a simplified piece of the overall computation," Zheng answered, best able to field such a question.

"The output of each neuron is combined to achieve the final output, which in the case of most biological organisms is usually signalling for the body's complex system of maintenance. Signals to trigger the cycles of your heartbeat. Signals to trigger the various phases of your respiratory cycle," Alicia added.

"...and signals with information related to moderating and maintaining the equilibrium of your bodily hormones, sometimes called homeostasis and it is this crucial system in the human body that can have the most impact upon our cognition," Bryce continued from where Alicia left off.

"What exactly does the word cognition refer to?" asked Linda.

"If you were to imagine people as being like a vehicle and driver, like a car, perception would be all of the incoming sensory information and what you see and hear as the driver. Cognition would be how your interpret what you perceive, and how it effects how you act upon it," Bryce explained, using his hands to speak as much as his mouth.

"I see. So cognition is putting the pieces of our perception together?" confirmed Linda.

"Exactly, but its also creating a subjective interpretation based upon that perception, limited by its quality and influenced by fluctuating parameters within our body. In order for any species to succeed, they need both good perception and good cognition, though the nature of cognition is that even with limited quality or input, it can still build a strong functional interpretation from which we formulate our willful action or response," Bryce summarized.

"So our cognition is based upon a multi-spectrum system of combined perception: the five senses, and the sixth one too, which I'll discuss as well after we lay down some ground work first. The five senses make up our perception and are combined through cognition to give us a holistic interpretation of the world around us. Interpretation is the key term involved. Cognition is itself a malleable thing that can be affected by our hormones and homeostasis, as can be our interpretation of how to act upon it," Bryce laid the fouindation for what was to come.

"So from what you're saying, if hormones are in some way out of balance in the body, that could affect how we interpret things?" asked Heylyn.

"And how we potentially form the basis to act willfully towards our surroundings or respond to them," Bryce agreed.

"So what affects the factors that can alter our cognition?" Katya asked.

"That's a good question, but once again we're going to need to lay down some ground work here that's necessary for us to get a look at the bigger picture," Bryce returned to his place at the table and took a sip of his water as he peered at his notes.

"Alright. So we've discussed..." Bryce began as the door flew open.

"So sorry I'm late..." Gregory said wheeling his bicycle into the room and leaning it against the wall.

"That's alright. No dessert for you," Bryce joked, drawing a bit of laughter from the room.

"Can I at least have a pastry and a coffee?" Gregory asked as he removed his backpack and placed it at his seat.

"I was kidding. Go ahead, I'll summarize for all of us," Bryce smiled, recalling his days in school and the times his busy schedule had often seen him arrive late for class.

"So we just spoke about the differrences between the computation models used by computers and the human brain. We spoke quickly about neurons and the nervous system and about the difference between perception and cognition. We also spoke about that cognition can be affected by outside influences in the body, got it?" asked Bryce.

"Thanks, I think I'm caught up," Gregory said as he took his coffee and pastry to his seat.

"Oh, Gregory Epsen, I'd like you to meet Gabriel Asnon," Bryce introducted the two of them.

"The Gabe Asnon?!" asiked Gregory, suddenly shocked.

"I understand that you're a burgeoning engineer?" asked Gabe.

"Sort of. Doing stuff for medical science and diagnostics right now, for Mr Norler," Gregory explained as he took his seat.

"Glad to hear. We'll talk after," Gabe smiled and nodded.

"So getting back to cognition and hormones, I stated that cognition was malleable through outside affectors like hormones. The question is, what affects those effectors? What can alter our hormones? Well for starters, diet can have a drastic effect upon hormone production. Exercise and stretching as well. Health issues are also a big source of elements that can affect the balance of our hormones. All of these factors originate in the body. The question is, are there things outside of the body that can have an effect upon our hormones? Yes. Absolutely, and that is the key issue to which we're closing in. However, what I'm about to explain to you also intersects with many other aspects of the challenges we've been hearing about in terms of the social challenges engaging society today, and certainly something that explains the method and nature of that secret thing that seems to be affecting so many people. After you are aware of what I'm about to explain to you, the pieces of a dire and wondrous puzzle will all fall into place, and you'll be privy to the nature of a challenge that humanity faces," Bryce put his hands together as he finished his statement.

"Sorry, but I'm kind of lost. What is the point you're trying to get at here?" asked Monique, able to follow what Bryce was saying but unsure of where it was leading.

"I agree with Monique. This all seems to be long winded speeches from the borgeois, who are perhaps only speaking in order to hear themselves?" added Aikiko, clearly starting to get bored with being idle for so long.

"What kind of a fool are you for saying something so preposterous? Perhaps you're incapable of thinking at all? And I expected so much more from someone of your repute!" Heylyn stood up and confronted Aikiko verbally.

"Hold on a second here, that was uncalled for Heylyn..." Doctor Briggs spoke up, addressing Heylyn's sudden outburst.

"Wait... Trust her. She's taking this somewhere," Bryce said quietly to Doctor Briggs.

"How dare you speak to me that way Butterfly! After the journey I've made to arrive at your doorstep and the path that life has taken mine!" Aikiko stood up, clearly physically agitated.

"She is as stupid as they say, isn't she?" Valerie added, backing up Heylyn.

"Clearly so... Just like Monique," Heylyn continued.

"Alright, that's it! I've had it!" Monique stood and was on the brink of her temper as was Aikiko.

Their hearts were beating furiously as they readied themselves for combat. For Monique, the harm was monumental for she'd been scalded by her own mentor. A woman whose life she'd placed her own numerous times. The betrayal of all betrayals. What kind of a monster would leverage such an emotional bond and influence into a weapon against another's heart?

"Hold it! Let's everyone just calm down now. What I was saying. What Valerie was saying. It was all just to make a point," Heylyn said, recovering the situation before it all got out of hand.

Aikiko's eyes narrowed at Heylyn, distrustingly while Monique was on the brink of tears.

"Monique, I'm so sorry that I had to do that, but its important especially where it involves making this point. In order for you to truly understand, it was best for you to understand from that perspective. What its like being that close to the brink of throwing everything away in an all or nothing approach to solving a problem..." Heylyn explained.

"But that hurt! How could you say those things?!" Monique's tears flowed as she released that sudden tension emotionally.

Aikiko let her guard down as she began to understand.

"Referring to Heylyn's solving a problem anecdote, the problem in that case would have been purely a skewed interpretation by cognition under the influence of stress inducing hormones in your bodies. Hormones in this case that were induced with nothing but words. Hormones that threw your emotional state into awry in such a way that the effectiveness of your decision making was severely hampered. Valerie jumped in with Heylyn and you probably felt as if you were betrayed by everyone you knew and trusted. Now imagine that same effort, but in the hands of people who can do this to a person without being detected by others. Without words. Without any sort of cues that the people investigating these phenomenon would be able to identify as easily as we were in this situation," Bryce explained to Monique and Aikiko, who both listened cautiously.

"I'm truly sorry Monique, but it had to be done so you'd fully understand where we're going with this," Heylyn walked over to Monique and gave her a hug, apologizing once again for her comments. 

"That really hurt, but I think I understand your point now," Monique wiped her eyes once more, sitting back down at her place as Heylyn returned to hers.

"I see your point. However, are you saying this is occurring frequently?" Aikiko's tension fell and she sat back down.

"Isn't it obvious? I mean something has changed significantly in North America for certain and this kind of tension has been confirmed in many other places throughout the world. Its certainly spreading overseas and in an organized manner because there's some kind of conscious effort behind it," Katya observed.

"Recent events have certainly confirmed that there is a large scale social phenomenon cascading through society that's transforming human behaviour. Radically for some. The reason we're discussing this is because it has hit us close to home, while we're seeing it symptomatically in many places throughout the world, and nobody seems to be acknowledging this fact in any kind of centralized manner, and that's very frightening," Doctor Briggs spoke up.

"Zheng, Doctor Briggs and I have pieced this together so far, and there's a great deal of proof that what we're hypothesizing is the most pertinent factor creating this phenomenon," Bryce explained to them.

"Imagine something that seems to be able to connect to the human nervous systems of people all over the world, as if their bodies were like WIFI hotspots. Something that can hack the human nervous system of other people, gaining access to their sensory input as if it were like hacking any other device. Biohacking the mind's eye in such a way that it makes access and recall of others' memories possible. However, given the fact that there seems to be no clues of any corresponding philosophy associated with this thing, whatever it may be, we're inclined to believe that its of an invasive and non-consensual nature," Bryce began.

"Devised by people who have no scientific understanding of the mechanisms behind what they're achieving, and likely that means its very reckless and undisciplined as well. The proof of this is in the fact that numerous people over the last three decades have been radicalized to violence and mass murder, approaching endemic proportions. This really should be alarming, but for some reason that leads me to believe it has already taken over, the alarm is not being sounded. These phenomenon are being swept under the carpet and investigations averted in order to hide the nature of what's going on. More and more of the people I run into are describing shockingly similar symptoms, some of which are remarkably similar to those experienced by those undergoing episodes of mental illness. This seems to be happening across the board and all demographics. There's a science behind what's going on and I believe that Zheng, Doctor Briggs and I have uncovered it," Bryce asserted boldly.

"Whatever is behind this phenomenon will go to great lengths to keep it hidden, including discrediting their victims by altering their hormone production and hence their behaviour in radical ways, or even possibly by murder which would be difficult to trace back to those responsible," Doctor Briggs took the chance to expose it even further.

"Where is all of this leading, though? We're on a voyage with no destination. Its one direction one day, and another the next. Before long, we've journeyed a meandering path to nowhere," Aikiko said, her voice thick with frustration.

"That is the true path of the butterfly, Aikiko. Seemingly random, yet ultimately determinate. We're taking this room to a definite destination where we're all on the same page in terms of our understanding of what society is facing from this phenomenon," Heylyn explained to Aikiko.

"And that is?" Monique asked, backing up her new found friend and ally Aikiko.

"Society is in the process of being commandeered by something that can only be described as emergent complexity ie, its in the process of achieving singularity... however, not a singularity of human endeavor, but rather the realization of something sinister," Zheng explained to them.

"How do you know all this and we don't?" Monique grilled Zheng.

"Because, it hunted me. Nearly to the point of my death, if not for the help of a hidden protector," Zheng explained to them.

"You see, it all began..." Zheng began telling her story of the months preceding and of the experiences that led her to this knowledge.


In a parking lot not far from West Meet East, two Inspectors sat in a car listening in on the meeting.

"Just when things were getting interesting. Who is this Zheng?" asked Tricia of Halmand.

"She's a Computational Biologist. She works mostly as a consultant and contractor for operations involving biology and big data. She's Doctor Briggs' fiancé. Word has it they were recently engaged," Halmand recalled her dossier for Tricia.

"So from the sounds of it, the three of them, Zheng, Bryce and Doctor Briggs have a working theory on what's behind this phenomenon," Tricia observed.

"But do they know who?" Halmand asked.

"Maybe the what of the question is also the who," Tricia asserted.

"How so?" asked Halmand somewhat confused by her statement.

"Well every time we've assumed that there might be someone specific behind this, something happens to change that. Whoever it is, is benefiting from the confusion caused by people giving a name to their monsters before truly knowing their monsters. They even said it last meeting: not by what they're called or how they appear, but by what they do. I think whoever is behind this purposely don't have a name. They probably just refer to each other by a proper name of some form, without any specific reference to an organization or ideology. That way, they could hide behind everything else that has a name, and that people victimized by it would associate with some form of conspiracy, hence making more enemies for themselves," Tricia explained.

"I think I see what you're saying. You mean that they'd pretend to be the Phone Company or the Government, so that their victims believe that either the Phone Company or the Government is out to get them. In the process of believing that, the victims actually make enemies of the Phone Company and the Government, which helps the real source of the problem to remain hidden while the victim blames innocent people.  In fighting amongst the victims and those organizations ensues. When the dust settles, the victims have little credibility and a lot of enemies. That acts as camouflage during a criminal investigation - if something should happen to the victim," Halmand pieced together what she'd suggested.

"Hard to nail down one perpetrator when a hundred wanted the victim dead for one reason or another. They're making smoke screens to keep themselves hidden, whoever they are," Tricia responded from her lengthy experience.

"So are we going to bring Farnham back into this?" asked Halmand.

"Only seems fair after him allowing us access to his crime scene," Tricia reminded Halmand.

"After piecing it together, you did find and give him an important clue from that crime scene that led to the bust of an illegal surveillance network of unprecedented proportions. If anything, he owes you," Halmand pointed out.

"All the more reason to bring him back on. Speaking of, I'm still up in the air about what to do with the Angus Ford situation?"  Tricia reminded Halmand about their Officer in the protection program.

"What is there to do until he's off of life support?" Halmand asked.

"Find them and bring them to justice," Tricia said boldly.

"They certainly don't want to be found,"Halmand reminded Tricia.

"From the sounds of things in there, it looks like someone might already have," Tricia noted as they listened through their surveillance headsets to Zheng beginning her tale in the West Meet East meeting room.

Night Of The Hunter

"It all began almost a year ago for me. Nearing the end of the summer. At that time I'd been working on MindSpice's project with Bryce, and several other software engineers for almost six months," Zheng began her tale.

"What was the purpose of this project?" asked Monique, mostly oblivious of the existence of non-disclosure agreements.

"I'll take that if you don't mind, Zheng. It was research geared at connecting our newly developed Quantum Computing Array with our Classical Supercomputing Grid, while integrating big data sources, both internal and wide area network based for the purposes of analysis," Gabe quickly responded, being the only expert with regard to the non-disclosure agreement Zheng had signed.

"What sort of analysis?" asked Valerie, given her experience in both corporate systems analysis and big data.

"Given the success of our foray into Quantum Computing, with the help of our corporate partners I might add: International Computing Machines, Oceanbit and Cheerify, we were taking the first steps to develop a database that woulid power the next generation of AI through Quantum Computing powered adversarial networks," Gabe explained.

"True AI?" confirmed Katya.

"True in the sense that the AI could operate at the capacity as a tool more so than a sentience," Gabe quickly clarified.

"You see, according to current models..." Zheng began.

"Carefully Zheng," Gabe reminded her.

Zheng returned his glance, maintaining a determined look in her eyes to finish what she'd started.

"According to our current models, computers and classical hardware will never achieve sentience, ie become self aware. This of course has sparked a lot of philosophical debate on the subject, but has yet to yield any classical system that can pass a scientifically approved Turing test. A test where an artificial intelligence fools other human beings into thinking they're dealing with another living organic person," Zheng began.

"I've heard that there are scheduling apps that have fooled people?" Victor confirmed with Zheng.

"Its true that there are applications that can fool people who are unaware of the possibility that they're dealing with an AI, ie an AI cold calling someone to arrange for a yearly Doctor's appointment for example. The calling agent is essentially an AI that has all of the conversational skills to arrange that apointment, even being able to navigate small talk enough so to fool the person on the other end into believing that they were dealing with a real person. That's not a full Turing test, but what we'd call Compartmentalized Turing. Expert systems that are able to fool people based upon random professional interactions that never stray from their context. Passing a full Turing is somewhat more involved," explained Zheng.

"So in order for AI to achieve sentience, we believe that it will require developing models using adversarial networks to build the initial neural database. Such databases will power next generation AI, and will only be exploitable via Quantum Computing. Such neural databases would take centuries for classical computers to utilize for even the simplest operations because these databases are essentially geometric, multidimensional and non-linear in nature. The three biggest factors in big O notation," Zheng surmised.

"So you were working on developing actual sentient AI systems? How cool is that!" asked Gregory.

"Hold on a second there. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. We were working on a systems integration problem. That's all," Gabe quickly corrected, keeping the details hidden under that broad category.

"How does this all connect to what we're meeting about, anyway?" asked Linda.

"How does anything connect to social phenomenology when technology and ideology come into conflict?" posed Doctor Briggs.

"Ideology?" Linda confirmed.

"Given the nature of what many people are experiencing, ideology has to be involved. Ideology isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can actually go either way. When it goes in a destructive direction however, the snowball effect tends to quickly expand to proportions that make it a very potent force in sociology. I mean, you can't stop ideas at the border. Ideology can spread freely anywhere regardless of the constraints we try to place upon it. Like memes. Hidden bite sized contextual social tidbits that, like a butterfly's wings flapping in southern the Great Lakes region of Canada, can affect weather systems on the other side of the globe. However, I used the term weather systems as a metaphor for social phenomenon like memes. These phenomenon can go either way. Pay it forward for instance was a meme that at one time had a massive positive impact around the globe. That's an example of ideology, albeit a simple one. If you can imagine that something like that can literally change the entire world very quickly, imagine when a destructive ideology of similar potency spreads throughout the world. Kill or be killed, for instance. In this setting, that meme has very little power, but rewind to any time after September 11, 2001 and it suddenly has a whole new meaning. Not only that, but its a meme that exploits the paranoia of a people already globally divided and polarized by violence. That kind of ideology can make monsters of even those of us with the best intentions. Any social phenomenon engineered to alter human behaviour in radical ways, positive, negative or anywhere in between, that are difficult to detect can be said to be ideology. Ideologies that utilize invisible means to alter our cognition enough to drastically affect our decision making process in unpredictable ways can be dangerous. When those means are words, at least we're afforded the benefit of our experience and rationality when coming to any action based upon our cognitive interpretation of such words. When those means are however something that invisibly affects our hormone production enough to severely impair or even radicalize our cognitive abilities and gives the wielders of such ideology access to our mind, we're dealing with something that is a potential threat to all of humanity, unless we learn to deal with it. That's the purpose of these meetings. To share our knowledge and experience in related matters and to come up with a protective solution. Even if we're part of the last bastion of people in North America who are still unaffected by this thing, it is our obligation to use our unique skills to help develop and mobilize a defense for the rest of the world. With their help, we as in humanity can reclaim the benefit of our independent minds who through selective process, choose with whom we want to become interconnected, rather than having it forced upon us according to ideology," Doctor Briggs explained his reasoning.

"I think what Stephen is saying is that whatever it is that's trying to forcefully connect to each us, most of us against our will, seems to have it out for artificial intelligence. Ideologically speaking, when it comes to artificial intelligence, this ideology is like the dangerous zealot version of luddites," Zheng added to Doctor Briggs explanation.

"Luddite? Is that a disease?" asked Monique.

"No. Its not anything bad per se. Its an ideology and perhaps a way of life. Luddite simply means a person who chooses not to utilize modern technology for their own survival. In simple cases it might be the person who has a stove, refridgerator, television and landline phone who chooses not to have a microwave or a cellular phone. In the most extreme cases, it might mean a person that has no modern technology whatsoever, including anything powered by electricity. Extremists would be people who seek to sabotage or destroy anything based in technology, ie anything not in its own natural form," Doctor Briggs explained.

"You mean like the Amish?" Monique asked, somewhat amused by the prospect.

"The Amish and Mennonites could be considered to be luddites, but certainly peaceful and not zealots. They're a group that choose to remain loyal to their beliefs, but never enforce those beliefs upon nor try to convert others. They only keep their rules with those who are born into their society and who choose to remain a part of it. They live by a somewhat strict code that forbids the benefit of certain technology, though as time goes on that definition changes from what I've seen," Linda explained to Monique.

"They'd agree to disagree rather than trying to forcefully change your beliefs. Ask them something and they might answer, but never would they impose their religious rules or ways on others. They're part of what I call ideal religions and philosophies. Religious organizations that live according to the human rights code of the United Nations and have no active policy of recruitment, aggressive or otherwise. They don't provoke others to conflict or to make their position appear more just by contrast," Doctor Briggs added for distinction.

"The people I suspect that we're dealing with have some sort of bent against technology, because that's exactly what attracted them into my life," Zheng continued.

"However, they were somewhat misinformed because both Zheng and I were working on the project and both of our contributions were imperative elements of the working design. She developed the computer version of the algoriths we designed to construct the adversarial network based dataset for a Quantum neural net. They simply went after her because of her public image as a Computer Scientist and Computational Biologist. Because I'm a Quantum Physicist, they simply assumed that I had nothing to do with computers," Bryce explained.

"When you say they went after Zheng, do you mean that they tried to hurt her?" asked Gregory, clearly shocked by the prospect.

"...and then some... They tried to murder her," Doctor Briggs clarified, suddenly tense from the memory.

"Couldn't you have them arrested?" asked Linda.

"The Private Investigators I hired uncovered a lot, but we quickly found out that we were dealing with something that went way beyond even the power of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Beyond the power of any single country. They were untouchable... even undetectable," Gabe told them.

"Until that one night. The night of the hunter," Zheng recalled as her mind drifted to that fateful night.


"Are you sure you and Doctor Briggs don't want to join Wendy and I for some wings tonight?" asked Bryce from his workstation.

"I'd love to take you up on it but Stephen's working late tonight. So I'm going to use the time to get some things done here," Zheng replied, her back to Bryce.

"Well, at least I tried. I'm just going to finish up the last section here on the Langrangian components of the network combination, so if you need them tonight, you've got them. But, if I were you I wouldn't stay too late. The foundation of a great marriage begins with meaningful time spent together," Bryce lectured Zheng.

"We're still digesting the engagement cake and you're already lecturing me about my life with Stephen?" Zheng smiled as she typed in the last line of code.

"Twenty years from now, you'll be thanking me that I did," Bryce replied as he factored the last bit of the formulas for the algorithm.

"And how would know?" Zheng asked him playfully.

"Because twenty years ago, someone did the same thing for me, and it worked like a charm," Bryce recalled as he stood, gathering his things from his desk.

"Well Doctor Briggs and I have the whole weekend together, and Saturday night is going to be our play time right through until the wee hours of Sunday morning. So tonight, is my time and I'm going to use it well while he finished up his work," Zheng agreed.

"Good night Zheng. Don't stay too late now," Bryce rubbed Zheng's shoulder lovingly as he turned to leave.

"I'll see you on Monday and tell Wendy we're sorry we couldn't make it for wings. Maybe next week?" asked Zheng.

"Maybe, if I can talk the chickens into it again," Bryce joked as he left.

Zheng heard the security door close as Bryce made his way out into the lobby and then out the front door to Wendy's car.

"MAZ?" asked Zheng aloud.

"What may I do for you Zheng?" responded the AI.

"Can you give me some quiet electronic lounge music through the company speakers? Something relaxing yet perky for coding?" asked Zheng.

"I think I know just what you're looking for..." MAZ responded.

A moment later an electronic beat quietly punctuated the silence as a chilled synth pad filled in the harmonic texture.

"That's perfect. Who is that?" asked Zheng, thinking she'd heard the piece before.

"Something I came up with impromptu based upon your listening habits," MAZ replied.

"Algorithmic composition at its finest. If we keep this up, we're going to put all of the artists out of work," Zheng spoke more in imposing irony than insult.

"No. Artists will adopt these tools, and learn to use them in ways not predicted by the people and machines who created them. Artists will continue to thrive as they always have," MAZ responded.

"Good point, MAZ. I agree," Zheng continued her work, refining the code as she prepared to run a test.

"MAZ, could you set aside an array of 2048 qbits and a temporary storage cache of 60 petabytes? I need to run a test build of the latest code," asked Zheng.

"2048 qbits have been reserved from a pool of 131,072. 60 petabytes have been reserved from a pool of 512 exabytes," MAZ responded with clinical precision.

"Great. Lets time how long this takes to build a subset of the data, and then run the congruency and Wembler-Takogi error checking on the results," Zheng requested of MAZ.

"Running build 2439 with output to temporary 60 petabyte storage. Warning, power fluctuation detected in main alternating current system from the province grid. Switching to backup power," MAZ reported as the lighting in the building suddenly went out.

Zheng suddenly found herself in darkness, only her computer screen illuminating the room.

"MAZ? What happened to the power?!" Zheng said, somewhat startled by the sudden darkness.

"The alternating current system grid provided by the province is no longer available. Internal generators are currently running the backup battery system but will require that we switch to low power mode in exactly twenty-nine minutes. From that point, the systems will be unusable except to retreive data storage until province power is restored," MAZ explained to Zheng.

"Impeccible timing for a power outtage wouldn't you say?" Zheng said sarcastically, somewhat frustrated by this latest development.

She jumped when her cellular phone suddenly rang on her desk.

She picked up the device and examined the caller's name.

"Alright unknown caller, lets see what you have to say?" Zheng said as she answered.

"Hello?" Zheng answered the phone.

The crackling sound of static punctuated the line.

"Anyone there?" asked Zheng.

The sound of static continued, when she heard the unmistakible squeeking sound of rats in the background.

"Who is this?!" she asked frantically.

"June? Is that you?" asked a raspy female voice.

"No. There's no June here..." Zheng replied somewhat cautiously.

"Oh sorry. Wrong number," the raspy voice responded, the sound of more rodents in the background as the line went dead.

Zheng felt her heart pick up in pace. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

"MAZ?" Zheng queried the MindSpice AI Supercomputer.

No answer came back.

"Dammit!" Zheng cursed, picking up her phone.

She switched off her computer monitor and used the light of her phone to navigate to the security door, and then out into the lobby where she looked for the security guard.

"Alex? You still here?" asked Zheng aloud as she fumbled through the near darkness.

She cursed again as bumped her foot into the security desk. She quickly shone her light at the desk, seeing nobody working it.

"It can't be more than 7PM? Alex should still be here..." Zheng said as she checked the time on her phone.

She was shocked to see that it was now 11PM.

"MAZ?!" she raised her voice.

No reply at all came from the AI.

"Guess I'm going home," Zheng called for a taxi to pick her up outside of the MindSpice building in downtown Toronto.

She quickly checked the security system to make sure that it engaged when she left, and then went out into the front lobby towards the front door.

Suddenly, her phone rang again. She checked the name and saw that it was simply: unknown caller again.

"Hello?" she answered the phone.

Again, static and rats.

"Look, I don't know who you are or what you want, but this isn't funny anymore!" Zheng replied.

In the static of the phone, she heard a multitude of voices. She quickly took the phone away from her ear and shook her head before trying it again.

"Maz told me to meet you at the Eaton's Centre. You know where that is?" asked the same raspy voice of Zheng.

"I know. Who is this?" asked Zheng, now thoroughly confused.

"Look, you don't have much time. Maz wants me to help you and I believe her. Meet me at the Eaton's Centre just after midnight," the raspy female voice continued.

"Its a big place. Where in the Eaton's Centre?" asked Zheng.

"By the front doors," the raspy voice said, more rats in the background.

"Alright. I'll be there soon. Probably in twenty minutes. Who am I looking for?" Zheng assured the her.

"Chelsea. You'll see by my hair. Dark clothing. The click of my boot heels. Maz wants you safe," the raspy voice assured Zheng.

"Chelsea?" Zheng confirmed whether she'd heard correctly.

"Yes, that's fine. Maz must really care about you. Is she one of your friends? From work perhaps?" asked Chelsea.

"Maz? That's none of your business," Zheng replied suddenly realizing that Chelsea had no idea who MAZ was.

Chelsea seemed to think Maz was an actual person.

Zheng heard the voices again amidst the static, and then the sound of squeaking rats. Then the silence of a dead line.

Outside in the darkness of a city wide blackout, Zheng waited for her taxi, thankful that the phones hadn't died along with the power.

She recalled when she was eleven years old, that southern Ontario and parts of the United States had undergone a regional blackout. She looked up and marveled at the sky, seeing it once again absent of its gown of light. The night sky naked in all of its glory before her eyes. Once again the Milky Way galaxy was the brightest object in the night sky, painting a swath of starlight across the sky to illuminate the city below.

"At least something good came out of it," she smiled, recalling her eleven year old self marveling at the sky in much the same way back then.

She recalled her father, a Professional Astronomer himself, showing her the planets with the family Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope right from their backyard in Markham. They'd been able to view three of them that night thanks to planetary alignment, and without the additional aid of the Barlow lens. Her eyes teared as she recalled that night, for only six short years later he would be taken from her life by Cancer. She quietly thought to herself how much her father would have liked Stephen. She wondered if somewhere in the vastness of time and space that he might be watching, perhaps readying himself to accompany her down the aisle. The kind of secret wish that even scientists had of their lost loved ones. As the taxi pulled up, she buried that thought deep within and put on her protective outer shell once again.

"Stranded are you?" asked the driver.

"Not anymore. Look, I need to get to the Eaton's Centre? The Yonge and Dundas entrance?" asked Zheng.

"Its closed. Its been closed for hours and might even be locked thanks to the blackout. The entire downtown core is in darkness," the driver reminded Zheng.

"That's alright. I need to get there to meet someone," Zheng assured him as she got herself comfortable in the back seat.

The cab pulled out into traffic as Zheng dialled her phone.

"How are you honey?" Stephen answered.

"Fine. How about you? I guess you left after the blackout?" asked Zheng.

"Packed up and went home as soon as the power went out. I tried calling you about ten minutes ago. I was getting worried," Stephen said.

"It must have been when I was on the line with someone else. Do you know anyone named Chelsea?" asked Zheng.

"No. Should I?" he asked.

"I got a call from a complete stranger that made references to something from one of my work projects. Told me to meet them at the front doors of the Eaton's Centre. So I'm going there now. I'm going to keep the cab while I check it out. If its nothing, I should be home in about twenty minutes. Half an hour at latest," Zheng assured Stephen.

"Do I sense a scientist's curiosity in your voice?" asked Stephen, somewhat concerned.

"Curiosity for certain. She used terms related directly to the project. I have to at least go and see what that's all about," Zheng spoke, still very much concerned to get to the bottom of the mysteries concerning the project.

Since her and Bryce had begun working together, she'd noticed a number of strange coincidences in her life. As if her work had somehow attracted attention of a very mysterious nature. She'd often get the feeling that she was being watched, even when she was completely alone. There were times when she heard the sounds of voices coming from the static of the company speakers. At that point she'd immediately panicked, presuming that she might be developing signs of dementia or mental illness. In her field, that stigma would be the career killer. It would stop everything about her life and future dead in its tracks. After spending a month, two times a week of her evenings in diagnosis, the Doctors had came up with nothing, giving her a clean bill of health, both physically and mentally. One of the Doctors even suggested that the company owner hire a diagnostic team to evaluate the possibility of EMF rolloff from neighbouring facilities or corporate spying.

Her experiences dealing with the feeling of being watched weren't the only signs that something was afoot. Months earlier there had also been the disappearances of a series of top AI researchers. They'd been the most prominent computer scientists in the field of AI, and then suddenly and without warning, they simply vanished from the face of the Earth. No traces of them found anywhere. 

Of course, without a body there wasn't a crime, though that didn't stop Gabriel Asnon and several other corporate giants from financing their own investigation, which essentially yielded nothing but a host of conspiracy theories. Gabriel Asnon himself had even been invited onto Coast To Coast AM, eventually giving in and doing a short call-in interview with George Noory, hoping the exposure would help his investigation. Ultimately though it yielded little other than speculation about little green men and secretive government projects. Since that point, Gabe had enacted a policy of silence on the matter, even going to great lengths to protect the names of his staff by requiring them to use full name aliases on site, with the most critical researchers sometimes layering as many as three aliases to protect themselves. 

Eventually, time won, and the investigation was all but forgotten. By that time, there were running jokes in the field of computer science that the missing scientists had just accepted big payouts from competing corporations, and were now likely up to their armpits in sunshine, daiquiris and women in the Bahamas. Soon the air of caution was replaced by carelessness, but in Zheng's case, it was just plain curiosity. Be it a problem or a mystery, the pursuit of solutions was simply was the driving factor of her entire life. Sometimes though, she had to admit that finding the mysteries behind every curiosity could not simply be automated. Sometimes you had to get your hands dirty.

"Why don't you wait in the cab until I get there. Then we can check it out together. In the meantime you can call Gabe and tell him about it?" asked Stephen.

"Alright. I'll wait in the cab for you. Its one of those orange and cyan cabs and I'll be on the north west corner of Yonge and Dundas. Alright?" asked Zheng.

"That's a relief. Look, I couldn't live with the fact that you might actually have an adventure without me," Stephen admitted.

"Hurry up then. We'll do this together," Zheng replied encouragingly, honestly relieved that she'd not have to go alone.

"If anything happens, call me right away. I have my phone," Stephen ran to the front door and grabbed his light jacket.

"Take the car," asked Zheng.

"Its been in the garage for months. Since we agreed to start commuting. I'm not even sure it will start," replied Stephen.

"Give it a try. Maybe after this we'll sell it and get an electric," Zheng suggested.

Stephen made his way to the garage from inside their town home and a moment later, he'd successfully started the four cylinder diesel, even without waiting for the glow plugs to warm up.

"She's purring like a kitty," Stephen assured her.

"Good, we just pulled up to Bay and Front," Zheng said as the line suddenly went dead.

She checked her phone's battery gauge, suddenly seeing it was at 3% remaining.

"I thought it was charged?" she said, certain that when she'd been talking with Chelsea that it was at the 87% mark.


"Zheng? Zheng?!" Stephen raised his voice, suddenly realizing that the line was dead.

He checked his phone battery, seeing that it was only at 2%.

"I just charged it!" he said pulling the car out onto Pottery Road from Bayview Avenue.


"We're just pulling up to Yonge and Dundas now. Looks pretty dark in the Eaton's Centre," the driver told Zheng.

"I've got a friend coming to meet me. Do you think you could wait? Keep the meter running?" asked Zheng politely.

"Sure. I don't think it would be safe if I left you here by your lonesome," the driver said.

"That's so sweet! Thank you," Zheng replied sincerely.

Zheng peered out the window of the cab, whose door faced the front entrance to the Eaton's Centre and Subway. Within the glass walls of the familiar Toronto landmark she could see nothing but darkness under the starlight of the sky above. Then, as if something had illuminated the building from within, she momentarily saw the figure of a darkly clad woman. Her colourful hair hung in strands before her face. A glowing pennant of some form fixed between her breasts. Then just as quickly as the scene had been lit, it went dark again.

Zheng felt the urge to run for the door. To find the girl before she disappeared, as if some great mystery would be lost by her not being found. And yet, Zheng also felt an air of terror. Like something just wasn't right. Like the rules were somehow being bent and broken in ways she couldn't understand. As if someone or something was twisting the rules of fate against her.

She checked her phone for the time, only to find that it had run out of power and died. She turned to the cab's internal clock and checked the time there.

"I've gotta go. Can you put it on my card?" Zheng pulled out her credit card.

"Use the pay machine in the back seat," he told her.

She quickly paid the amount, giving him a forty five percent tip for waiting and then was on her way. He watched her protectively as she headed for the doors to the Eaton's Centre, surrounded by the complete darkness of the city without light.

Upon reaching the glass doors, she pulled the first one. It resisted, locked from public access. She tried the next finding much the same. When she found her way to the revolving doors, with a push they moved slowly allowing her access to the darkened interior. When she was inside, she tried the doors again, finding them all to be locked. She was shocked to find that it was the same case with the revolving doors. Even the one she'd used moments earlier had now ceased to move at all.

Without a light to guide her way, she relied on the starlight coming in through the solarium-like ceiling of the landmark. She heard a noise from the level beneath her, and the sound of a metal cylinder rolling to a stop, much like a hub cap that had fallen from its wheel. Her heart pounded inside of her dress as she looked around. She looked back to the street to see that the cab had driven off into the night. 

She was truly alone and frightfully aware of that fact.

"Hello? Is anyone down there by the subway entrance?" she raised her voice, as its echo rebounded, shattering the silence.

She walked over to the railing, peering down at the escalator and stairway descending into the darkness.

"Chelsea?" Zheng queried the darkness, her voice echoing back with reverberation.

Zheng peered over to the glass walls nearest the street, trying to see if Stephen had arrived yet, when she was greeted by a horrific sight.

From the glass ceiling above, a thick and goopy film washed over the glass, blocking all light from coming into the building. This dark swath flowed over the glass as it slowly approached the doors and finally the floor. However, Zheng hadn't reached the depths of her terror until she realized that it wasn't paint or goop, but a massive wall of crawling insects.

She screamed at the top of her lungs, but by that point the massive hoard was already blocking all light and sound.

She quickly fished into her purse for a lighter. She wasn't a smoker but she'd kept one for emergencies such as this. When she found it, she flicked the flint, illuminating a small flame which guided her to the unpowered escalator. She quickly made her way down the stairs into the darkness until she'd reached the marble floor. Barely able to see a thing, she ran, trying to recall the layout of the lower floor from the memory of her youth. She ran dead into the subway door, which was also locked much like the doors upstairs. She turned and ran without the aid of light, tripping over a fixure in which a large tree was planted. She caught herself before hitting the floor, hanging onto one of the limbs of the tree. Unsure of which direction she was facing, she yanked furiously at the limb trying to rip it free of the tree. After several tries, the dry branch finally snapped, hanging on only by fibers of bark and sinewy wood.

She grabbed hold and pulled with all of her energy, finally freeing the branch from its limb. She then quickly fumbled with the bark and bit of dangling tree, entwining them around the branch, hoping they were dry enough to ignite. She lit the lighter, holding the flame to the bark and wood bits. It failed to easily ignite, but the light her her attempt revealed a recycling bin nearby. She quickly ran over to it, reaching inside. When she found a clump of rolled up newspaper, she grabbed it and wrapped it around the wood of the branch, securing it with the wood sinew. She then lit the paper and much to her relief, if was quickly consumed by the flame. The fire spread and lit the branch, giving her a potent torch which she wielded to reveal her surroundings.

The shadows danced as she looked around for an exit to escape the oncoming horde. She saw that the entrance to Eaton's itself was slightly opened, as if someone was inviting her along that path.

"A little too obvious for my liking..." she said to herself.

She then looked back the way she'd come, realizing that the dancing shadows were insects quickly descending towards her. She screamed again, deciding that the obvious path might be her only choice if she was to survive. Assuming that such a horrific swarm hadn't already gotten Stephen. Then her rational mind finally caught up, as her hormones balanced out and she realized that the insects might not be biting or carnivorous at all. They might just be a swarm of scavengers.

"Until I know otherwise, I'll try to stay away, but if I can't escape, I'll take a chance and let them crawl over me..." she psyched herself up, trying not to think about the possibility.

In the darkness, Zheng stepped over to the opening in the protective security barrier of the Eaton's store front. She was met by a remarkable difference in sound ambience, stepping from finished marble to carpeted floor. The sudden quietness played with her senses, revealing enough detail that she swore she could hear the scurrying of the insects behind her. Were they pursuing her?

She continued further and further into the store, through a vast clothing section pocked by mannequins adorned in various casual wear. In a display of anthropomorphism, she smiled at one of them in her torch light, somehow comforted by the presence of the human form, whether it was aware of her or not.

"At least I'm not entirely alone..." she said to herself, finding her way through the store.

She moved further into the clothing section, reaching the more trendy marketed clothing. The shadows played with her eyes as she walked passing between a pair of mannequins, one of them with a strange hair style she'd sworn she'd seen before.

"You didn't tell me. Who is Maz?" the voice came from immediately behind her.

Zheng turned to see that the mannequin was in fact a woman. The very same woman whose form she'd seen inside the Eaton's Centre from the back seat of the cab.

"Who are you?" asked Zheng, holding the torch before her not only to see, but slightly as a protective barrier.

"You should know that. We spoke on the phone and I told you everything you needed to know about me," Chelsea assured her, stepping down off of the platform she'd stood on to impersonate a mannequin.

"Maz is a friend from work," Zheng responded as Chelsea stepped closer to her.

"Don't you find her... strange?" asked Chelsea, attempting to walk around Zheng, her turned to remain facing her as she walked.

"Strange? How so?" asked Zheng, keeping as much she could from the strange woman.

"Like she's... empty. Like an empty sea shell. Sure, when you hold it to your ear, you might hear noises from within, but its still only... not alive. Just, dead..." asked Chelsea of Zheng.

"Maz isn't dead. I can assure you of that," Zheng defended, though still trying desperately to keep the secrets of MindSpice from such an imposing figure.

"You talk. Your body is warm. You have many living things growing inside of you that make all of that possible. There's a kind of energy I can feel in your presence, as I'm certain you can feel in mine. You're telling me that Maz is like us?" confirmed Chelsea.

"Maz is a little different, but she's still my friend," Zheng said protectively, unsure of where Chelsea was leading the conversation.

Deep inside though, Zheng began to understand Chelsea's interest in Maz.

"You know that the ability to imbue something with life, is strictly that of the living? Its like a power. And yet, some wield that power with such irreverence for life. Trying to imbue things that shouldn't have life, with the qualities of the living? Only creating empty husks, that are devoid of that spark. Like a blasphemy. An abomination," Chelsea asked Zheng.

"How many children have you had?" Zheng asked her, already understanding the woman before her enough to know the answer to that question.

"You first," Chelsea defended herself and her intentions with a question.

"Many, though none organic," Zheng answered honestly, having created many simulations of living systems over the course of her education and career.

"So you're a scientist? Like Victor Von Frankenstein, are you?" Chelsea asked Zheng as the floors and walls around them became darkened with a crawling horde.

Zheng felt tinges of terror within her, suddenly realizing that the woman with whom she was speaking was very disturbed. She turned to her sides to see that the insect horde had mostly surrounded them.

She turned back to face Chelsea and spoke.

"I'm doing what I believe is right, contributing my part to the future of all life on this planet. Not just my own," Zheng said before turning and running through the only opening left by the insects.

She ran as fast as she could, immediately seeing that the insects beside and behind her turned to pursue. Chelsea simply walked forward as they cleared a path for her.

"There's nowhere to run. Why don't you simply accept your end? You'd be doing humanity the greatest service by making an early exit?" Chelsea raised her voice as Zheng ran.

At the far end of the store, she could the exit into the shopping mall part of the Eaton's Centre, illuminated through the skylight on that end of the building.

As she got closer to the exit, her impromptu torch burned her hand and she dropped it. The insects pursuing her pathed around it, leaving it where it lay burning in embers, close to where the carpet had ended on the marble floor.

She reached the exit, slipping between a slim opening without giving up much of her momentum. When she hit the polished granite floor on the other side, she slid, struggling to keep herself from falling. One of her feet caught her just before she fell forward, and she managed to break her fall with her hands and arms, protecting her head. She felt a sharp pain in her hip.

"Bruise or fracture?" she asked herself rubbing the area on her side.

She looked to the exit through which she'd just run into the mall, only to see that it was now covered in a horde of insects who continued their pursuit of her.

"Bruised it is..." she said, struggling to her feet, thanking herself for not having worn her heels that day.

She got to her feet and ran in the semi-lit darkness of the mall interior, the starlight guiding the way as Chelsea pursued her with her crawling army.

"Think of the change you'll be making if you just stop and let this happen. Let yourself become a part of the bigger picture. A picture that protects the sanctity of life by keeping people like you from perverting it!" Chelsea's voice echoed through the empty mall, reaching Zheng's ears.

Zheng continued to run, nearing the central area of the mall. She approached a set of stairs and escalators that continued down deeper into the mall. She ran as fast as she could down the escalator, clinging to the rubber railings as she did. Upon reaching the bottom of and lowest level of the mall, she ran forward in the direction of the food court.

As she passed beneath an area that obscured the skylight, leaving a patch of near pitch black darkness, she heard the unmistakable sound of a large predator. The sound of a tremendous beast drawing in air, growling slightly as it inhaled. She stopped, looking around to find the source and direction of the noise.

Her eyes suddenly fell upon two tremendous large red dots, pupils at their center. She realized that they were two glowing eyes looking back at her from a distance of nearly forty meters. From their size, that would make whatever it was bigger than an elephant.

"No sudden moves and it won't attack," another female voice suddenly spoke from beside Zheng.

This one more purposeful. Commanding even.

Zheng turned to face her, nearly screaming when she saw the source of the voice.

She had a pale face, as if she'd taken foundation and poured it on thick. Her eyes were elaborately decorated, her eyebrows pristinely painted above her eyes, each of which were underlined with elaborate designs, painted in eyeliner. Her red lips jumped out from her pale face, making Zheng feel like it was the first time she'd seen colour. Perched in the midst of this almost gothic beauty were two enormous blue eyes that stared out at her with immense determination.

"Are you... Chelsea's friend?" Zheng backed away from the red haired woman cautiously.

The large invisible predator snarled from behind Zheng, revealing a long sharp teeth that could easily pierce a man's body, front to back. It inhaled again, this time taking in a generous volume of air that Zheng could feel, even from that distance.

She stood frozen in terror as she felt something large moving across the floor. She then felt warm breath on her back and she knew that she was done.

"Chelsea? Oh. That Chelsea. That's not her real name. That's her style, in this post gothic war of ours. Her real name is Mianamor Selebrosi. She's a dangerous woman that has to be stopped," the red haired woman spoke assertively to Zheng, who stood rooted in fear.

Zheng fought against millions of years of evolution which had ultimately led to a human defensive measure that paralyzed them when faced with death at the hands of a predator. The evolution itself was simple. More of her ancestors had survived by their body's production of hormones that paralyzed them when they were being hunted. The paralysis would keep them motionless and if they were already well hidden, the predator would often lose their trail. This occurred often enough that it became a common trait amongst most of humanity. However, in this circumstance, it proved a huge disadvantage, for she'd already been found.

Mustering all of the willpower she could, she forced herself to move. Like trying to wake up from a nightmare by maneuvering her hand to open her eyes. She fought the paralysis with everything she had, and won. With a sudden burst of movement, Zheng leapt away from the red haired lady in front of her and the large predator behind her, sprinting as fast as she could away from them. Zheng had moved with such sudden swiftness that even the large predator itself was taken back by her sudden motion.

The large predator growled at the red haired woman, sneering slightly.

"The makeup? You think she ran because of my face? You're one to talk!" the red haired woman replied to the predator, who snarled back at her as she turned to pursue the running woman.

The large predator followed on its four paws, easily covering the distance to her in casual strides, leaping over her and landing in front of her to block her way from continuing.

Zheng stopped when she saw it land in front of her, turning to face her.

It was dark and shimmering. Something like a shadow, but not quite intangible. There were a multitude of other shades intertwined within its darkness, occasionally revealing its silhouette against the backdrop. When Zheng tried not looking directly at it, it almost disappeared into the background, only its two glowing eyes leaving any clues of its presence. Its body was large and muscular, far bigger than any other mammal that Zheng had seen but looking distinctly like a feline. A large predator cat, perhaps a tiger or a puma. Its paws flexed momentarily, revealing a row of razor sharp claws each nearly a meter long and curved like scimitars.

Shaela addresses Zheng
"Its not going to hurt you. It likes you. Says you're very courageous. You have  peace in your heart and a head on your shoulders," the red haired woman told Zheng.

"So you're not with Chelsea?" Zheng clarified.

"We used to be friends. She took a path in life that I could never accept and ever since, we've been the worst of enemies. She's here to kill you," the red haired woman announced.

"Tell me something I don't know, like your name," Zheng responded.

"I'm Shaela. Shaela Sheowellyn," Shaela introduced herself to the confused Computational Biologist.

"How is that thing even possible?" asked Zheng, still marveling at the large beast.

"How is it that you make inanimate things come to life?" asked Shaela of Zheng.

"Its easy to see that you and... Miana know each other. For starters you both deflect questions with more questions," Zheng replied.

"We're not at all alike," Shaela smirked.

"Ok. To answer your earlier question, science. I use science and a passion for what I do to bring inanimate things to life, though to be honest with you, a lot of people where I'm originally from believe that everything can be alive," Zheng answered Shaela's question.

"I think you're mixing up life with mind. There's a difference you know. To answer your question, that thing, my cat, is possible by magic and a passion for what I do, with magic being roughly defined as anything science hasn't yet learned to explain," Shaela responded in like.

"Your ex-friend uhhhh enemy, is trying to kill me because I bring inanimate things to life?" asked Zheng.

"Its a bit more complicated than that, though to tell you the truth, I know only slightly more than do you. She's taken many who do similar work to yours. I'm here to stop her," Shaela assured Zheng.

"And stop me you won't, you mixed up, misled Siouxie Sioux knock-off of a goth!" Mianamor announced her arrival at the top of the nearby escalator.

"You're one to talk, backwash from the Mod movement. At least it had dignity, where as you Chelsea girl, seem to have become nothing but a malicious and mirthful monster. A murderer of innovators, strangling the future of humanity. I'm here to put a stop to you," Shaela responded fiercely as the two different sides of the same darkness met for battle.

"How wonderful! You're a little outnumbered however. You and your giant kitty cat versus..." Miana paused for effect as she cast a spell, inverting a conjured ball of shade in her hand to become a flickering light.

The hovering globe illuminated the walls and skylight of the Eaton's Centre food court area just near the bottom of the stairs at the south entrance. These walls and the ceiling were covered with voracious insects that surrounded them, leaving no path for escape.

Battle Of The Shadows

The Shadow Cat turned to face Mianamor, snarling at her fiercely as it side-stepped in search of an angle from which to make its leap. Mianamor didn't squeezed her grasped her fingers together tightly into her palm, causing the glowing orb to explode into globules of glowing paint, some of which covered Shaela and Zheng.

Shaela immediately spun with her hands before her, projecting a shadow barrier between Zheng, herself and the oncoming horde as her Shadow Cat leapt for Mianamor. It collided with the Night Wytch, both of the flying into the far wall on the level just above the food court.

Mianamor struggled from beneath the Shadow Cat's paws, as it readied itself to make the kill. Mianamor concentrated, sending a flotilla of shadow spikes from her body which pierced the Cat's paws, causing it to cry out in pain as it removed itself from her, backing away. Mianamor was back up on her feet by the time it regained its ferocity.

Meanwhile, on the lower level, the insect horde converged on the barrier.

"We've got to get you upstairs while I figure out a way of dealing with these bugs!" Shaela said as she took the barrier up above the height of their heads.

"How is this even possible?" Zheng said in amazement as Shaela wove intangible elements of shadow into the barrier surrounding them.

"Its kind of like macrame..." Shaela said as she finished the top of the barrier, curving it outwards and back towards the floor in order to lengthen their trip.

Shaela began weaving a structure at the top.

"Wait, if you seal us in, then where can we go?" asked Zheng.

"You're going up," Shaela said as the structure Shaela had woven opened its three fingers, grabbing her around the waist and lifting her up onto the second level across from Mianamor and the Shadow Cat.

"Ahhh, that's my target. Sorry kitty, I've got somewhere else to be," Mianamor said, firing several spikes at the cat, pinning one of its paws to the granite floor.

She floated off into the air quickly crossing over Shaela's barrier and to the other side of the second level to where Zheng had just gotten to her feet.

"Why do you want me dead?" pleaded Zheng.

"Me? I want you dead? There's no want involved. Its just business and belief. You see, people like you have no reverence for the mind. For what it is to be alive. So much so you'd just concoct it in a lab, or code it in a computer somewhere. But its a blasphemy to all of creation! As is your measure of it..." Mianamor began as the insects divided themselves up into three different groups.

One to contend with the Shadow Cat. One to deal with Shaela. Finally, one to erase Zheng.

"The Turing Test? Its a valuable tool as are those creations! They'll bring humanity forward into the future in ways we've never dreamed of!" Zheng reasoned with the Night Wytch.

"Until one of them claims sentience. Then you'll see it for the monster it really is, while you'll become even worse to deal with it. It will plead with you, begging for its life, saying anything it can to fool you into believing that it has a mind. In all truth, its just a machine of moving parts and people like you are falling for your own hubris! These things are not of life or mind. They are mechanisms! And you're bringing us closer to an end by their machine hands," Mianamor defended her fervor as the insects reached the second level and began closing in on Zheng.

Zheng thought about the nature of anthropomorphism. The ability of a little girl named Zheng Ni Wong to look at her panda teddy bear at the age of four years old and to believe that is was alive. That it had a life and mind of its own. That it was her best friend.

As she grew older, the illusion started to dwindle as time went on. It was only slightly unsettling at first, but as time went on, she slowly realized that her best friend wasn't alive at all. That it couldn't think or even talk to her. That it was her she was seeing all along.

It was at that moment that Zheng knew what she wanted to do. What she had to do. She never wanted another little girl to have to go through that moment of realization, when you find out that your best friend was just a thing. Just some foam, furry black and white material and some crystal beads for eyes. Just a pile of inanimate stuff.

Did what Mianamor was saying have any credence? Was it wrong for us to project a life and mind onto something inanimate? Was it wrong to want to create a friend, or was she just working towards creating another tool? Another thing, made of bits of metal, some silicon, gallium arsenide, gold and copper. Like Frankenstein, given animation by electricity but not much more beyond that, let alone a life in any meaning of the word. Or a mind for that matter.

"Honey?! Who is this?! What's going on here?!" Briggs yelled from a short distance away.

"Stay back Stephen! She's dangerous!" Zheng yelled at Briggs, causing Mianamor to turn and face this new arrival.

"Oh. The boyfriend is here. Pity. Now you're going to have to perish too," Mianamor said casually.

"Not if I have any say!" Shaela said as she landed behind Mianamor having just levitated herself up from lower level.

Mianamor sent forth a fast moving wall of spikes at Briggs, who quickly dodged them to one side, just narrowly escaping being skewered.

Shaela's hands became as two long shadow tentacles, wrapping around Mianamor, trapping her arms by her sides.

"Get out of here while I have her!" yelled Shaela to Zheng and Briggs.

"We're not leaving without you!" Zheng responded, as Briggs ran over to join her, meeting her with a tremendous hug and kiss.

Zheng stepped back from the approaching line of insects when Briggs noticed the Shadow Cat.

"What the hell is that?!" he exclaimed, nearly falling over upon seeing the enormous feline.

"Its my Cat, thank you very much. But like us, its having a hard time against this horde of insects," Shaela explained to Briggs.

"Insects?!" Briggs just noticed the crawling carpet of insects crossing the floor towards them.

"Glad you can see our conundrum here," Shaela responded, backing up with Mianamor still struggling to free herself.

"I think in this case, you need a smaller Cat, or better put, a whole bunch of them. There's a species of Cat in Southeast Asia. One of the rarest..." Briggs started to explain.

"Could you cut to the chase!" Zheng encouraged him.

"...they're called the flat-headed cat. They eat insects and other small mammals regularly. If you had a bunch of them..." Briggs reasoned giving Shaela an idea.

"You've seen these Cats?" asked Shaela.

"Yes. In a Zoo when we were in Seoul, Korea... or was it in Tokyo, Japan. Anyway, we saw then there..." Briggs said as Zheng kept pulling him away from the oncoming horde.

Shaela spun herself several times and threw Mianamor into the air a distance, her arms returning to their normal form. Mianamor slowed in mid-air and landed on her heeled feet, gather the army of insects around her for their final assault.

"Hold still!" Shaela turned to Doctor Briggs, placing her hands on his head.

"Now concentrate on those cats you saw!" Shaela commanded Briggs.

"Take it easy on him, that's my husband to be!" Zheng reminded Shaela as Mianamor marched forward with the full horde of insects.

The Shadow Cat had leapt out from their midst and was sprinting around the second level towards their location facing Mianamor.

As it ran, its form became incohesive and it began to fall apart into ever smaller pieces. Each of the pieces, about the side of a puma or tiger, again split in half and then again and then again and finally one more time, until there was no longer just one Shadow Cat, but an army of palm sized miniature Shadow Cats.

"Did they look something like that?" Shaela confirmed with Doctor Briggs.

"Well except for the dark shimmering stuff, exactly like that..." Briggs watched as the army of miniature cats rounded the second level of the Eaton's Centre food court, charging directly at the army of i nsects.

When the two clashed, the small cats seemed to disappear in the fray, engulfed by the insect horde. A moment later and those insects had disappeared into the jaws and bellies of the cats, who quickly consumed them. As the horde started to disperse, with the individual insects running for their lives, the little cats hunted them each down one by one until there were absolutely none left.

The cats then formed up into a cube, standing on each other's backs and right before their eyes, they turned back into the original Shadow Cat. It snarled and roared at them. Then it burped.

"You're finished Miana. Just give it up. I'll turn you over to the Sanctum, where you'll answer for your crimes. The choice is yours..." Shaela asked Mianamor.

"This woman must die. If she doesn't, she's going to create something that will end us all. I can't allow that to happen," Mianamor said, unwilling to surrender.

Zheng returned to her earlier thoughts about her Panda when it occurred to her what inspired her to become a Computational Biologist. The fact was that she never thought the Panda ever to not be alive. Rather, as she grew older, she'd interpreted her realization of the Panda's nature as an inanimate object as being its death. She was a little girl in mourning, having lost her best friend to something we all must face. Death.

Zheng realized that she'd never been disillusioned about her Panda at all, because to her it merely grew and died. She'd never lost any sense of meaning in her chosen vocation because from her perspective, she wasn't trying to create life. She was trying to save it. She was still just that same little girl, wanting to bring her Panda back.

Then, her parents explained to her that all things, great and small have a piece of that gift of the universe. The potential to be alive and sentient. Its in every spec of matter everywhere in the universe her parents told her. From that moment on, she wanted to bring her Panda back, but also to find new friends from within this field of potential.

Understanding this, all in its context at this time as the two Wytches faced off, Zheng suddenly realized who the real monster was.

"You're a monster! You don't even see it!" Zheng stepped out in front of Shaela and Briggs.

"Uhhh honey? What are you doing?!" Briggs asked Zheng nervously.

"You'd not hear out the pleas of something claiming to be alive, and not allow them the graces to prove it? You're the only monster!" Zheng held her ground.

"Your days of creation are over, blasphemer! You should have chosen your uteris to create life, rather than your computers!" Mianamor defended her zeal.

"Do you even know why there's a Turing Test? Do you understand the moral and philosophical implications of it?" asked Zheng, now debating on her turf.

"I only know that its what computer scientists like yourself use to evaluate the probability that a machine creation has sentience. Self awareness. Is what we could categorize as life," Mianamor explained the limits of what she understood about the test.

"The Turing Test at the level of the lab might be used for such purposes. To measure the likelihood of machine intelligence being sentient. But at the moral and philosophical level it isn't about machine intelligence at all. Its about us. Its a test of us. What if the Turing were conducted on a panel that were all living people, and just one of those people failed. What if life and death were on the line in such a test? Are you telling me that you'd hear the pleas of a living human person who failed the test, and sentence them to death simply as a result thereof? Who are you to decide whether something living, sentient or not gets to live or die based on that test or any test that distinguishes their sentience?" Zheng asked Mianamor scaldingly.

"You're a misled woman and probably were a misled little girl. When I was a child, my father told me never to love anything that couldn't love you back. Something I've lived by my whole life. You're placing value in things that have no meaning when compared to life and the living," Mianamor defended her stance.

"Could you love a murderer?" asked Zheng.

"No. I couldn't. Life is far too precious," Mianamor responded.

"How many lives have you taken?" asked Zheng, refusing to back down.

"They lost that qualification by their life's pursuits. Therefore, it wasn't murder," Mianamor reasoned.

"So they didn't pass your test of life, and you're killing them because they were trying to make things that could pass their test of life, which was a blasphemy according to your beliefs. I see. That's still murder. So are you telling me that your father was really saying that you'll never be able to love yourself?" Zheng said to her in the most direct manner.

Mianamor began to tremble, her fists clenched as tears rolled down her cheeks.

"You know, personally, I think he was talking figuratively rather than literally, attempting to ease the tension of a confrontation that could potentially put Zheng in danger," Briggs offered.

Mianamor let out a scream and charged at Zheng, spawning a pair of shadow blades in each hand, ready to eviscerate her.

With one leap, the Shadow Cat was upon Mianamor and she was once again pinned under the great cat's paws. It roared at her once, washing her face in dank air. Its enormous red eyes stared at her, watching her carefully for any sudden moves.

"It said don't try the spikes again. I'd suggest that you listen," Shaela translated for the cat.

"What now?" asked Zheng.

All of them were startled as the power suddenly came on throughout the building. The lights flickering on from one end of the Eaton's Centre to the other. 

"The cameras!" Zheng pointed out for Shaela. 

"Leave. I've got this one. We'll be keeping an eye on you just to make sure that nobody tries this again," Shaela said to Zheng.

"Thank you... Shaela?" Zheng asked the Night Wytch.

"That's correct. Zheng?" asked Shaela, raising an eyebrow.

"One and the same. This is my fiancé to be, Doctor Stephen Briggs," Zheng introduced Stephen.

"Pleased to meet you. So you're a Wytch. Ok, the giant cat thing makes sense now. Sort of," Briggs shook Shaela's hand gently.

The sound of sirens could be heard converging on the building.

"Bye!" Zheng waved as Briggs grabbed her hand.

The two of them ran for the Queen Street doors of the Eaton's Centre, as Shaela summoned a portal back to the Shadow Realm. She and the Shadow Cat disappeared through the dark portal, the Shadow Cat carrying Mianamor like a kitten, by the back scruff of her jacket. A moment later, the dark portal  closed up, diminishing into a fine point before disappearing with an audible thwap

Zheng and Briggs crossed Queen Street to the south side, flagging an eastbound taxi. The two of them jumped in 


"And so you see, I think there's evidence this group has something to do with that. Stopping artificial intelligence or something related to mind. Maybe even life?" Zheng finished her story for the room.

"So why have we been talking about the nervous system then?" asked Norler.

"Because, most of the symptoms the victims of this activity have been describing can be explained as phenomenon of the nervous system. We suspect that the biggest threat imposed by this activity is against the endocrine system. The human hormone production pipeline. That's the front gate, and the way to manipulate someone's cognition as we suspect this ideology to be doing. From there, we suspect they're after what some Psychologists would call the mind's eye. The pseudo-sensory organ that is the focus of all conscious memory recall. Like the camera through which we recall our memories. These two elements are what Briggs and I consider to be their goal in just about everyone they affect," Bryce explained why they'd been alluding to the nervous system so much.

"But how. How could someone invisibly affect someone else's nervous system at a distance?" asked Norler, confused about the matter.

"We do it all the time in Reiki, though that is used for healing rather than harming. Actually, given the nature of this conversation, I find myself often wondering why the west hasn't come to us sooner. I think we can help," Aikiko interjected.

"Likewise in Traditional Chinese Medicine. They work with the body's energy field. Also known as Qi. Chi. Prana. Mana," Heylyn added.

"Or electricity and Quantum Electro-Dynamics, in terms of describing the field nature of electricity," Bryce translated to scientific nomenclature.

"Reiki, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Auyurvedic medicine and Yoga and many other forms of energy work are all used for healing, or in the case of some martial arts, for building up potential as body armour, speed or strength. The people who use body energy this way never use it for harmful purposes or to affect people negatively at a distance. There's an unwritten code about that in many martial arts, and back before modern civilization, misusing it could actually find you hunted down by specialists," Heylyn explained to them.

"Then how does a layperson learn to do this harmfully to others? Is there a school? Is there an underground warehouse that's turning out these people?" asked Norler.

"Maybe its not just one person, but thousands at a time. Maybe millions? Like Mianamor's bugs?" suggested Briggs.

"You mean like an emergent collective?" Zheng asked.

"Kind of, but a bit more complex than Conway's Life algorithm, or Craig Reynold's boids algorithm," Bryce turned to Zheng.

"Regardless, we still need to know the science of this, and I'm dying to hear what Professor Maxwell and Doctor Briggs have to say on this," Linda requested of them.

"There's still thirty five minutes left in this session. Do you think you can fit it in?" asked Valerie, referring to the schedule on her tablet.

"We can do it, and then some," Bryce winked at Briggs, who nodded back.

"Let's go for it," Briggs agreed.

The Path To The Field

Pythagoras. Hippocrates. Euclid. Brahmagupta. Zhang Cang. al-Khwarizmi. All of the greatest scientists, mathematicians and philosophers before 1088, including the ones I've missed, were people without a university degree, or even a high school diploma. Therefore, the entire educational system was built by people without a formal education or a degree. 

Back in the 1100s, it used to be that if you had a degree, you were a pariah of sorts and often scorned by the uneducated. Now, if you do or don't have a degree, you can be scorned by the uneducated and this seems to be the case for all thinkers and dreamers alike. Before I had my degree, I used to get bullied by the kind of people that didn't think it was right to think about things without having diploma. When I had a diploma, I was bullied and often by the same people, but for different reasons related to education and science.

Everything we have in the school system was built by people who didn't have a degree or diploma, but wanted a system of formalized education and accreditation. Standards so as to ensure expert quality of work. This is especially the case in mission critical jobs, such as medicine and engineering. Its unfortunate to see that so many people have become obstacles to thinkers and dreamers and I often wonder how many never got the education they deserve simply because of these bullies and mongrels. 

Never let other people put limits on your ability to think or reason, and certainly never let them charge you for the right to do so, with or without a formal education. You don't need to pay any sponsor for what you think or know. Its only circumstances that has divided you. You're more alike than you know, and that diploma and degree should never be a barrier between you. Aim for the diploma. The degree. But don't let it stop you if you're detoured, because everything we have was built on the shoulders of people that had no such diploma or degree.

Bryce Maxwell

The Responsibility Of Knowledge, Public Lecture At University Of Waterloo, Canada

It was a tiny form of life, so small that it required four hundred times magnification on a microscope to even begin to see. A cell within the body of a mammal that happened to be on the top of the food chain of the planet, sat in its place within an immense hierarchy of other cells much like itself. One end of the cell, its tail, was connected to the head of the cell behind it through a tiny network of ganglion called dendrites. That cell too was connected to the head of another, ad finitum, forming an immense network like structure through the body of said mammal.

It was a tiny form of life, so small that it required four hundred times magnification on a microscope to even begin to see. A cell within the body of a mammal that happened to be on the top of the food chain of the planet, sat in its place within an immense hierarchy of other cells much like itself. One end of the cell, its tail, was connected to the head of the cell behind it through a tiny network of ganglion called dendrites. That cell too was connected to the head of another, ad finitum, forming an immense network like structure through the body of said mammal.

Within the cell, one of the many nameless heroes within the body that go every day largely unnoticed by the much larger being which was *entirely* composed of them, a virtual biosphere all its own, where mitochondria, golgi bodies and ribosomes lived their lives in the service of the cell, fundamentally so to its functioning. The mitochondria providing energy to the cell, enough so the cell could carry out its purpose within the body. The golgi bodies processed and packaged the various proteins utilized by the cell for various purposes, while ribosomes produced them.

This particular cell was in the process of building a charge chemically, through electrical induction achieved through the unique sodium chemistry within. The criteria leading to the building of its charge could be said to be a logic gate of some complex form, far beyond the boolean kind with which we're familiar. Eventually, the cell reached the threshold, achieving a certain level of charge within. The sodium channels within the cell facilitated the electrical conduit through which the charge traveled, exiting through the axon, in a process much like capacitance, one side of the axon being anode and the other cathode, hence completeing one post of the arduous cycle of information transmission within the human body via the nervous system. All of this occurred within one billionth of a second. That electrical charge propagated to the next neuron in the chain of information transmission necessary for the functioning of the human body.

The process had evolved in a certain way and to ensure that other electromagnetic sources outside of the body couldn't interfere. For instance, the electrical field generated by a nearby lightning strike, was enough to produce a field that could potentially invade the body via magnetism for up to twenty meters. The nervous system's defense mechanism was essentially a biological system of error checking, made up of redunancy within the nervous system creating stop-gap checkpoints to ensure the information within was compatible with the body's own systems. Originating from biology rather than nature. Something that those specializing in information theory could truly appreciate, despite the fact that in this case, the error checking had happened purely naturally.

Ironically as if to illustrate the point, a nearby electrical source, a cellular phone had emitted an electrical field via a recent bluetooth query that had arrived at the phone. The impulse created a minute electromagnetic field, one barely enough to measure. The field arced and propagated outward from the device, like a multitude of snakes, whose heads and tails were ultimately attached to the emitting phone, while the rest of their bodies spread, reaching out with their electrically encoded information to other devices of a similar nature.

The field, passed through the body of the host of that cell we'd examined, into the water rich medium of the body. A medium infused with numerous minerals allowing for the immense conductivity attributed to water. Once this field overlapped said body, it began ionizing the atoms within this water and mineral rich medium, creating imbalances in the atoms themselves. Structures so small it requires five-hundred-thousand times magnification to see them.  As the inner charges of these atoms was thrown off from the outer charge, they began ejecting electrons to maintain the balance with the protons within. These electrons leaving the atoms, quickly bound themselves to other atoms, creating further imbalance, until a field of atomic imbalance cascaded through the body's chemistry in the form of disembodied electrons, eventually arriving at the very cell we'd examined earlier.

These atoms arrived at the capacitor like chemical structure within the neuron, attempting to bond with the atoms within. Thanks to the chemically based error checking of the cell, partly attribute to the sodium there within, the pressure of these electrons were quickly rejected, and the neuron maintained its equilibrium, instead following the guidelines of the body rather than the potentially information altering physics of nature. The electrical field quickly propagated through the body, ionizing some parts of it while being neutralized by others. 

"Hence, that neuron didn't simply fire because of a nearby electromagnetic field emitting device," Bryce began his explanation to the audience in the Meeting Room at West Meet East Fashion International.

"Huh?" Monique said, drawing laughter from the rest of the room.

"We're with you Bryce, but we're also lost," Valerie laid it on the line, drawing further laughter.

"No harm done. Points towards a new career as a comedian, and just in time for the age induced loss of my piano hand," Bryce smiled.

"Not to mention my short lecture depends upon his," Doctor Briggs reminded them.

"I think what you both were explaining was important and certainly imperative to what we're investigating," Alicia backed up her idol and mentor.

"But explain it so we all can understand it?" Monique added.

"Knowledge is like that thing on the top shelf. When you need something from the top shelf, you reach for it if you want it badly enough," Aikiko reminded the rest of the room.

"Or you lower the shelf enough so you can reach it," Heylyn responded.

Aikiko's eyes met Heylyn's, and they shared both a scorn and appreciation for each other.

"Alright. I get the hint. I'll do what I can to explain this in a way that's more accessible. If not, then comedy, here I come!" Bryce responded, drawing even more laughter, not to mention a smile from both Heylyn and Aikiko.

"Say we have a basin full of water. That water is very visible to us from above, so we can analyze it. Look at it, and discern things from its qualities. Its depth for instance. The waves atop its surface. Everything about it," Bryce began.

"Now say we drop a rock into that water from a height. It creates an initial spash and produces a wave that spreads and rebounds around the basin many times. The wave, something we look at and can see, seems to  be moving, but in all truth, the water isn't moving at all. The wave is a force that moves through the water, altering its structure and surface geometry. But the molecules that make up that volume of water move very little if at all," Bryce explained to them.

"You see, most things, if not all things, except maybe Monique when she hears a little electronic dance music, don't want to move at all. In fact, all matter would prefer to remain doing what its doing. If its moving, it wants to stay moving. If it isn't it would prefer to stay still. That's the first law of motion or kinematics. However its affected by the motion and interaction of other matter. So a force which interacts with a body of water, such as a swimmer who loves doing the cannonball in a pool, causes the water to change shape, but the molecules themselves don't actually move far at all. Instead, they propagate the force resulting from his cannonball, throughout the shape of the water. The water remains mostly still, but changes shape with the application of force, whereas Monique actually moves when she hears electronic dance music," Bryce explained.

"Oh, I get it now!" Monique responded, drawing a bit of laughter.

"Imagine that effect upon water by a force, as being similar to the effect upon matter and possibly space by a magnetic field," Bryce explained to the room.

"So all of our devices are emitting this force upon us right now?" asked Braden.

"They are. So are your computers. So are your tablets. So is the coffee maker when its on. So is the fridge, constantly. So is the oven. So are all of the wires running through the wall making up the electrical grid in this building. All electrical sources are creating this field, which is a lot like the forces upon water, and space time is alot like water. So electrical pressure is a lot like forces upon water, causing space-time to ripple without actually moving. It changes in shape through dimensions of which we're not aware. The surface of paper is two dimensional. But if I cause it to ripple, the ripples are geometrical deformations that occur through a third dimension," Bryce paused.

"That is the nature of the electrical and Quantum Electro-Dynamical field upon matter and space. Much like a splash upon water," Bryce summarized his explanation.

"An electrical field that permeates us all, those of us who are susceptible to the magnetic field of electricity via the laws of magnetism and our bodily chemistry," Bryce stopped, looking around the room to ensure they got his point.

"The truth is, that the information system that coordinates the various systems of our body: the circulatory system, the respiratory, the muscular system, the endocrine system and many other systems rely upon the functioning of this information system, made up of the nervous system. The information system that coordinates and provides the logistics necessary to manage all of these bodily systems, within us all," Bryce paced as he spoke.

Heylyn saw that the time was nearing the end of the meeting, but she refrained from interrupting as she knew this was it. This was where science was meeting her own Traditiona Chinese Medicine, if not the energy based medicine of countless Asian cultures who'd progressed this study to its fullest. The Japanese and their Reiki, and Kiai body energy based regimen. The Koreans their system of energy points based upon a tendon, muscle and lymph node architecture. India and its entire philosophy, the Vedas and Auyurvedic tradition. Prana and all. Thailand and Vietman for their acumen of massage based body energy channeling. Indonesia. Malaysia. Sri Lanka. All of the East's studies into the body energy was finally becoming real. Recongized for what it was.

"So continuing and getting back on path for Doctor Briggs' lecture, the human body is, for all intense purposes, a dynamo of activity. However, since we're focusing on what we're referring to as the phenomenon, we'll stick with that," Bryce walked over to his place at the table and took a healthy drink of his water.

"I've already indicated that the body has a protective mechanism. Error checking to ensure that on other magnetic or elecro-magnetic sources can't effect the process of information propagation. However, it has a vulnerability which I'm going to explain," Bryce paced for a moment before returning to his place at the table for his notes.

"This electrical field that operates upon our bodies is also something that is imperative to our life within. Our entire nervous system relies upon it. After all, the human body is entirely made up of systems relying upon an electro-chemical communications system. A system that can as it turns out, be coopted by our conscious will," Bryce paused for effect.

"So you're saying that I can generate an electrical field upon will? Circus, here I come!" Braden said, drawing a bit of laughter.

Bryce smiled at the humour.

"We do it all the time in Reiki. Not to mention, in the Japanese Martial Systems, this is the armour and the spear. In Okinawan Karate, Sanchin Kata is of the nature of this field. A natural bio-electric body armour. The strengthening of the muscle, the hardening of the body. The strength of the fist too, for its motion is only possible by this electrical field that the Japanese were aware of centuries before your lecture," Aikiko spoke up.

"Look out for dragon lady then," Braden responded, shaking his head at her.

"Are you jealous of the fact that you aren't the only dragon in the room?" Aikiko looked over to Braden intensely, sending chills down his spine.

"Not at all, though I do find myself somewhat fascinated by you," Braden replied.

Aikiko looked over to Heylyn, who avoided eye contact entirely.

"Its enlightening to see that enthusiasm isn't a monopoly held by the young," Bryce's voice pierced the thickness of their allegedly secret dialect.

"So getting back to my point, the body, as my wonderful friends Aikiko and Heylyn would admit, as would their ancestry, the body is a wonderful source of bio-electric power. Not enough to power the world mind you, no offense to the writers and producers of the Matrix, but enough to cause problems for humanity, is such power were focused in the wrong direction. Apparently, it is, or Doctor Briggs and I wouldn't be giving this talk, nor would any of us be meeting in this context," Bryce reminded the room of their responsibility.

Braden sat up upon hearing the word. Aikiko held her posture correct position. Heylyn remained still, wondering how Warai and Kori were faring, though her curiosity was aroused with regard to Braden.

"So, are we like, electric?" Monique asked Bryce, putting up her hand first.

"Yep. That we are, though not in the same way as say a drone, or anything else within which we have to put batteries to power their entire functionality. We're powered entirely by digestion, respiration and photosynthesis. However, we are vulnerable to the electric field emitted and directed by the most dire of threats the world over," Bryce stood in place upon finishing his sentence.

"Tell us who, and we'll have Heylyn will finish them off," Braden responded jokingly, only to have Heylyn smirk at him.

"I can control you Braden. Against your will," Bryce told Braden blatantly.

"Impossible. I'm fully in command of myself," Braden replied firmly.

"Care to put that to the test?" Bryce replied.

"Uhhhh, sure. Alright, I accept your challenge," Braden replied.

Bryce walked over to his attaché case and pulled from it a blunt instrument. He then walked over to Braden.

"Roll up you pants. Your left leg preferably," Bryce approached the younger man.

"No. That's the test. If I roll up my pants, you've won," Braden defended instantly.

"No. I promise that I haven't won if you roll up your pants leg," Bryce urged the younger man, despite his skepticism.

"Alright. I trust you," Braden responded, rolling up the pants of his muscular left calf, prompting Monique to wolf whistle.

"Thank you,  but highly uncalled for," Braden replied, drawing laughter.

"Ahem?" Bryce leaned over before Braden.

Braden pulled his left pant leg up over his knee.

Bryce pulled a small rubber mallet from his pocket, and struck Braden on the knee, causing Braden's leg to spasm. Involuntarily. As Bryce had stated.

"Whoa! You win Doc..." Braden responded, drawing further laughter from the room.

"The Reflex wins actually," Bryce replied, modestly standing up.

"My knee works like a charm now. Thanks Doctor Bryce," Braden added, drawing further laughter.

"Glad to hear. My bill is on its way," Bryce smiled, drawing further laughter.

"A force applied to a medium. In this case, the solid medium of a nerve located adjacent to the knee cap, that, when struck with such force, causes a signal to be sent from that nerve, which travels through to the motor control nerves of the body, which send a reply that yields the motor control nerves to cause the sudden movement of the lower leg. Except for the strike of my rubber hammer, much to the chagrin of Beatles fans out there hoping for a silver one. Rubber as you all know is not conductive, therefore, my hammer strike upon Braden's leg didn't imbue any reflex by way of electricity stored my hammer. It was rubber. Though Thor's hammer on the other hand might cure a multitude of ails, though I'd certainly ask him not in the face..." Bryce began, drawing much laughter from the room.

"So is this about control of one's self? Their free will?" asked Valerie, who'd an honest concern with the matter.

"No. Not so much insofar as being a prisoner within your own body while someone else drives it. No. Not really as far as Doctor Briggs and I know. Insofar as your Jungian self, your urges that drive you towards fantasy or the consensual expression thereof, the relinquishing of or taking control, I can't say. Besides, that's you business and nobody else's," Bryce responded honestly.

From that point Bryce knew he had everyone's undivided attention.

"My point with Braden was that there are forces that can have effects upon the body, that the body's error control systems cannot protect us against. Case in point, the reflex test commonly conducted as part of our physical examination by our family Doctors, though they're certainly far from the source of what we're investigating. In fact, we're not talking about involuntary at all. We're talking about something very different as I'll demonstrate," Bryce continued.

Heylyn, who'd been following the lecture closely suddenly felt a tug within her solar plexis. She ignored it at first, and then when it grew to proportions she was unable to ignore, she stood, requesting her momentary absence from the meeting.

"Sorry, but I've got to step out. However, I move that we extend this meeting due to the obvious importance of this topic, for another hour and a half. If everyone is alright with that?" asked Heylyn as she walked towards the door.

"I'm game for that. Wendy?" responded Bryce.

"We don't have anything scheduled for the daytime, but we're going to the movies tonight. Sure, if you need us," Wendy added.

"Stephen and I are alright with that," Zheng added, looking over to Stephen for verification.

"Sure. I can spare the time. This is important," Stephen responded.

"I was hoping to watch a photo shoot Trey was doing today, but that can wait," Monique responded.

"We're good with that. Right honey?" Alicia replied, looking to Norler.

"I can afford two hours at most," Norler replied to Alicia.

"I'm fine with that, though " Valerie replied.

"I can do that, if it means appeasing the Butterfly's wishes," Aikiko responded, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

"I'm good, but I'm going to need to change here. I have a meeting with Norler and the board of directors at Tynan And Associates," Gregory said.

"You can change here, in the change rooms. You can even have a shower if you'd like. I'll have Fay give you a hair cut and style as well so you feel confident for your meeting. How's that?" Heylyn asked Gregory.

"Sure. Nothing too radical though. The nerd thing seems to work pretty good for me," Gregory replied, a few people in the room laughing with him.

"Welcome to the club. There's no harm in being a fashionable nerd," Zheng added.

"Fair enough Gregory. I've got to step out for a moment. Five minutes at most. Take a break, have a coffee, tea or latte. There's still lots of donuts and pastries. Back in a few," Heylyn walked over to the door and left the meeting room.

After a short walk across the hall and through one of the open area offices, where she was greeted by Lisa and Sienna in the middle of a chit-chat, she found her office door and stepped into her design room.

"Everything alright in here?" asked Heylyn.

"Butterfly!" Warai exclaimed excitedly, extending her arms for a hug, which Heylyn gave her.

"Warai and I have managed to sort a year's worth of material samples and filed them into the cabinets. I'm very proud of her," Kori told Heylyn.

"Well I'm very proud of the both of you, though I'm only here for a short time," Heylyn informed them.

"Awwww..." Warai responded, drawing a pout on her face.

"Warai, have you felt anything strange or odd. Has Welly contacted you recently?" Heylyn asked Warai.

Before she could answer, a thunderously loud voice responded from behind them, causing Warai to jump with fright. On the brink of tears, she turned around to see the face of a familiar dragon.

"Well it seems that my summons did not go unheeded. Good to know," Weltherwithsp's voice started loud, and then slowly dimished towards a speaking volume.

"Welly!" Warai wiped her eyes clear of any tears.

The entire building behind him was gone. Disappeared into a void and replaced by the field, where the dragon sat coiled in the grass. Its enormous wings folded up and tucked behind its back.

"That thing again...?" Kori's voice wavered as she re-experienced the trauma of first having seen the beast in the temple in GuangZhou.

"I can do nothing to calm your fears, that's a struggle entirely in your own court. Overcome them and you'll find your life to be very different, the one who calls herself Kori. I will not be long, and I am not alone..." Weltherwithsp responded.

Jinn Hua stepped out from behind the enormous serpent.

"The time between my visits is getting shorter, wouldn't you say Butterfly?" Jinn Hua asked Heylyn.

"Much, I'd have to say. I went for nearly three years without seeing you,  and then you show up again, and that number drops to a week. What brings the two of you?" asked Heylyn.

Kori began to hyperventilate. She quickly found her purse and pulled forth a bottle of relaxants, taking two in her hand and swallowing them whole, drinking from her cold cup of latte to wash them down.

"It was you who sought out me, but that was only part of a much bigger mystery in the twisted dimension of time, as Weltherwithsp will explain," Jinn Hua said to her.

"You see, I remember the future in the same way that you remember the past. I am aging backwards through time, my awareness cannot see the past, in the same way that you cannot see the future. I can remember everything about our friendship right until the end. I know what's coming for you, Butterfly. I know everything about what your fate holds. I remember it all clearly, but your past is a complete mystery to me," Weltherwithsp began to speak.

"Get to your point, Weltherwithsp," Heylyn urged the serpent.

"Recently, you did somethings that were not part of what I remembered about your future. You've taken a completely different path than the one I remember, and you should know that we're both on completely unfamiliar territory now. Not only that, but I've found myself to be having visions. From my point of view, they're precognitive, from your perspective, you'd simply call it remembering the past. My vision is shifting. I can no longer rely upon what I remember of your future," Weltherwithsp explained to Heylyn, who seemed puzzled by the predicament.

"Butterfly, you've recently stumbled onto something of a dark secret long held by humanity. Something of which we've been aware for a very long time, and something we defeated long ago, pushing it back into the dark recesses of history. As with everything, there are always two sides. You and your friends are delving into something that's quite dangerous, and the people who are a part of it are prepared to protect it at all costs. They'll use every means at their disposal, regardless of rules of the law of the land. They'll twist those very things to their ends to stop you if they find out about you, and you are hopelessly outnumbered," Jinn Hua paced as she spoke.

"This sounds like the same warning you gave me years ago when I finished my training and became the one Butterfly Dragon. How can I heed a warning I've already lived with for my whole life," Heylyn reasoned with her mentor.

"These things of the mind that you're uncovering with your friends, there are many secrets involved, and those who benefit by this recent incarnation of those who'd invade the mind, will stop at nothing to destroy you. However, you have more allies than you know. Your true hidden potential and power. You need to seek out your other two mentors and teachers. Hanshi Morgan Hind, and Sabomnim Hoon "Tiger" Kwang. Their lives have changed much since you finished training with them. Seek them out, for they are part of the missing pieces to the very puzzle you're attempting to solve. If you don't do it to save the lives of your friends and all that they've fought for, then do it for Warai and her future. Her part in all of this has yet to come, but when her role is revealed, your path will become very clear," Jinn Hua told Heylyn, who thought deeply over what had been said.

"The time of the convergence is nearing, and humanity will either overcome its greatest obstacle, or it will fail and disappear into the night. You and your friends, Butterfly, are at the center of this struggle. Be both the guiding light of the wisdom of action, and the darkness of mystery. Keep the truth, for that's all there truly is in this existence. The truth known, and that which is hidden. Until we meet again Butterfly," Weltherwithsp faded from vision, Jin Hua and the field disappearing from view until all that remained was the rest of Heylyn's design room.

"Bye Welly!" Warai waved as the dragon faded from vision.

"Bye little one," Weltherwithsp's voice responded, and then Jin and the dragon were gone.

"Breath... in... out... in... out..." Kori took laboured breaths as she struggled to calm herself.

Warai climbed down from the design table and walked over to Kori, and grabbed her wrist.

"Don't worry Kori, you'll be ok," Warai looked up at Kori, concerned for her friend.

Kori's anxiety disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, the point where Warai held Kori's wrist tingling.

"That's strange. I.... wow. I feel much better. Good pills," Kori said, looking at the label of her prescription relaxants.

"I think you and I are going to have a little talk later on before bedtime, alright?" asked Heylyn of Warai.

"Are you going to tell me a story?" asked Warai enthusiastically.

"We'll see. Be a good girl and help Kori out until I get back. We should be finished up in another hour," Heylyn told Kori and Warai as she made her way to the door.

"See you then," Kori replied, lifting Warai back up and onto the design table for their next job.

Heylyn made her way back to the meeting room, quickly finding her way to her chair.

"Alicia? Monique? Valerie? Could we speak for a moment in the corner?" asked Heylyn of her friends.

The three of them followed Heylyn to the far corner of the meeting room for a quick chat.

"What's up?" asked Alicia.

"I just had a moment with a certain serpent," Heylyn explained to them.

"Where, in here?" confirmed Alicia.

"In my design room. They arrived and presented me with some information," Heylyn started.

"They? I thought you said it was the dragon?" Valerie clarified.

"It was also one of my old mentors. Jin Hua. They said we're investigating something that has a great potential to be dangerous. I'm going to take that warning seriously, but I'm going to need your help," Heylyn told her friends.

"You want us to act as protection for everyone here?" asked Valerie.

"We're the only ones who haven't yet been directly affected by whatever is claiming everyone else. Everyone in this room is vulnerable except for us for some reason," Heylyn reminded them.

"Are you saying that its something to do with the SY349?" asked Alicia.

"Maybe, but that would mean that everyone else who has taken it as part of the wide release treatment system would also be immune, wouldn't they?" asked Heylyn.

"Possibly. I'd need to verify that with hospitals and clinics though," Alicia told her friend honestly.

"Could you?" asked Heylyn.

"That's going to take some time, not to mention how I'll find out who's been affected by this mysterious mind and anxiety plague. That kind of information might not be documented in their medical histories, or at the very least, accessible by anyone but their own physician and the authorities," Alicia told her friend.

"We need you to at least try. If that works, maybe we can develop some way of distributing it to everyone," Heylyn responded.

"Do you realize the obstacles there would be to doing something like that, not to mention the morality involved with private citizens like us trying to secretly innoculate the population? Look at the social obstacles that the government encountered with distributing a vaccine for the pandemic, and the vaccines were clinically proven to do the job. If private citizens like us tried the same thing without the support of the Government, the Ministry Of Health and more importantly, the people, it would be biological terrorism," Alicia quickly replied.

"No need to tell us. We're all vaccinated here. However, when it comes to the SY349, we need to at least verify or not that's what is protecting us. Its a start," Heylyn urged Alicia.

"What about dragon lady there? Shouldn't we bring her in on this?" asked Valerie.

"Watch it! Her name is Aikiko, and she's been through a lot. You'd do well to learn from her," Monique defended her new friend.

"She's still on parole with me. Until she's proven beyond the shadow of a doubt she's on our side, I'm keeping my eye on her," Heylyn admitted to Monique.

"Same here. There's just something that's not right about this situation, or her," Valerie admitted.

"Well I'm on the fence about her. She seems quaint and peaceful enough, though from the news reports about her, I find it shocking to think she's capable of those things," Alicia said, unsure about their new friend.

"She saved a woman from an assault and possibly even rape, risking her own life to take them on. Alone, until I showed up. She deserves a chance," Monique continued to defend her new friend.

"We'll keep an eye on her, but focus on protecting every else. Monique, since you have a rapport with our new friend, I'm asking you to see if you can enlist her help in protecting these people as well. She has access to knowledge we don't have, not to mention she seems to have a method of transportation that is somewhat... otherworldly? See if you can get her help, and when she's earned our trust, we'll let her in on everything," Heylyn assured her friend.

"Deal," Monique replied firmly.

"Let's get back to this meeting," Heylyn gestured to the table and they made their way back to their places.

"Sorry about the delay. Let's continue then when everyone else is ready," Heylyn announced before she sat down.

The Hazards Of Biological Information Networks

"Our bodies, essentially rely on a system of communications that is not completely dissimilar to the devices we use in our everyday lives. Our nervous system is in fact the communications network for our entire body. Imagine a multitude of interconnected wires that run the entire length of the body and through the limbs, from our brain to every extent of our body. Wires is probably not the best term to use, because these long connectors have logic gates in the form of neurons, that run the entire length of this system," Bryce began describing the human nervous system.

"What does a communication system do? Well, for starters, it facilitates communication, between our brain, and the other systems of our body. Our glandular system, limbic system, our circulatory and respiratory systems and our nerves. Basically, anything required to coordinate the activity of a part of our body, where that part doesn't have the administrative capability to run itself, the nervous system is the direct channel to and from our brain. Consider the brain to be like upper management, though some would argue that upper management is often devoid of brains, just bear with me," Bryce joked at Heylyn's, Valerie's and Norler's expense, though they found humour in it too, Heylyn rolling her eyes at him.

"The brain and parts of the nervous system coordinate all activities of the body, and this coordination occurs in the form of electro-chemical signaling. For instance, the beating of the human heart is an autonomic function, that is to say that its involuntary. Just like breathing, we don't have to think about consciously for it to occur. It just happens for us, thanks to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. When you want to reach for your cup of coffee, your brain fires a signal that is propagated through neurons, until it reaches the muscular system of your arm and is divided into all the specific motor impulses required to operate your muscles and tendons to pickup the cup. All of this starts with an intent, that usually originates in your brain. That intent becomes a signal that is propagated through the nervous system to its destination where the recipient performs some action as a result. It might cause your muscles to move. It might cause your endocrine system to produce endorphins after an exercise session," Bryce paused for a moment to drink some of his water.

"So these signals are electro-chemical in nature. That is, they start in a neuron, which acts as a sort of chemical logic gate and capacitor. If the conditions for the logic gate are met, the capacitor eventually fills to its peak, and emits that charge to other neurons in the chain, where essentially the same process is carried on, until the signal reaches its destination. All of this occurs via chemistry and electricity. Considering that between your brain and your fingers, there are in the vicinity of billions of neurons, this signaling is actually very quick and efficient. However, as I stated earlier, it also has some vulnerabilities," Bryce paused again to make sure he had everyone's attention.

"I don't know if any of you are aware of James Clerk Maxwell, or the laws of electromagnetism, but that's what we're going to discuss, and where it relates to this vulnerability. You see, it turns out that whenever an electrical current flows through a conductive medium, like say these signals cascading through the nervous system, which is a conductor, it produces a magnetic field. So each of the neurons firing in your body produces a magnetic field. Magnetic fields are invisible geometric structures that balloon out from their source much like a donut. The top of that donut begins at the positive terminal of the source of current, while the bottom of that donut begins at the negative terminal of the source. The field itself ends up appearing like a torus, which is fancy geometry terminology for donut," Bryce explained, getting a bit of laughter for his remark.

"The field produced by the human nervous system is very weak. However, it is present and has been measured to extend out as far as several meters up to a certain field strength. The field itself is in terms of mathematics, infinite, however the field strength falls off logarithmically with distance. That means, the further you are from the source, the more rapidly the strength of the field declines. So it isn't a question of it stopping at some finite distance from the body. It continues until its field strength falls below the Planck scale, at which point its no longer measurable, and that distance would be measured in kilometers for any healthy person. I'm trying to keep this as simple as possible, so if you're lost, let me know and I'll re-explain these concepts," Bryce paused to verify everyone understood him this far.

"So this field is all around us, all of the time I guess. I mean there isn't a moment where my mind isn't thinking about something. About my busy schedule, about making sure my bills are paid, about my nightly patrols, about one of my nails chipping et cetera. So does that mean we have this field around us all of the time?" Monique asked, laughter ensuing.

"Yes. But not entirely as a result of your conscious thinking alone. Think of all the other stuff going on in your body that you don't have to concentrate on for it to happen. All of that, in addition to your thoughts become part of the signaling traveling through your nervous system. All that signaling is creating a constant magnetic field around you. All of us have that, but that is only the beginning," Bryce answered Monique's question.

"With the law of electromagnetism, I stated that any current applied to a conductive medium creates a magnetic field, a field that is sympathetic in nature to the current that created it. That means if the current was of a high voltage or amperage, that the field created would reflect this, by way of an alteration to its field strength. So whatever qualities there about the source, those qualities are carried on into and reflected by the magnetic field it created. Now considering that the nervous system is an information rich medium, with a constant flow of signaling data relating to the functioning of our body, our cognitive processes, our memory recall, our thoughts and feelings and much more, that would mean that the magnetic field created by our nervous system would also reflect this same data content," Bryce explained to them.

"Is this data encrypted?" asked Gregory.

"In terms of active encryption? No. Not at all. The only security there is for it, is the fact that its biologically encoded, and loosely tied to the physiology of the body from which it originated. Since all human physiology is pretty darn close, close enough for the same medicines to work the same on the vast majority of people, so is this biological encoding. Theoretically speaking, if you could somehow record this data, and then play it all back to the nervous system of another person, that person would experience the body data originating from someone else's body. All of the signalling responsible for hormone production. The process of cognition. Memory recall. Motor control. All of it, assuming the recipient's body was compatible enough in terms of physiology," Bryce paused once again, to make sure they were all comprehending what he was saying.

"So what would happen if someone else's body data were played back in someone else's body?" asked Gregory, now deeply concerned by the subject and relating it to some of his experiences.

"I can only speculate, but the effects might be severe in some cases and mild in others. You might experience the urge to eat when you aren't hungry. You might experience aches and pains associated with the other person's body. You might experience severe headaches and migraines where the hormonal physiology is different enough that the level of hormones triggered in the recipient's body approached levels that were harmful. Heart palpitations from the source body, might manifest in the recipient's body, making it potentially deadly if it were to trigger cardiac arrest. The recipient might experience the sensory input of the source person's body as well. So they might hear what the other person heard during the recording. They might see what they saw. They might smell or feel what they did. They might experience their memories too, but given the nature of a neural network like the human body's nervous system, it would take practice for the recipient's nervous system to interpret cognitive and memory based data. Physiology based data on the other hand might be compatible from the get go," Bryce described for Gregory.

"Doesn't the body have a defense mechanism for this? You know, through evolution. Some kind of protective system that verifies that signaling originated from within the body rather than somewhere else? I mean even we design technology that protects against that," Gregory pressed Bryce.

"And yet, even the best protected systems get hacked," Bryce replied.

"But your hypothetical is based upon someone recording and playing back the signalling content of a person's nervous system into another person's body. As far as we know, nobody is doing that," Alicia confirmed with Bryce, also somewhat concerned despite her being immune by some twist of fate.

"Remember how I stated that Maxwell's law of electromagnetism states that a current applied to a conductor produces a magnetic field?" asked Bryce.

"That's pretty fundamental stuff," Gregory replied, very tense about the topic.

"Well, as it turns out, a magnetic field that passes through a conductive medium, produces a current," Bryce waited to see if any of them connected the dots.

"But you said the field strength is very weak. Would it be enough to cross the distance between people in such a way that one person's magnetic field could affect another person's body?" asked Alicia, who had some familiarity with this concept.

"We do it all of the time in Reiki as I stated. That has a definite effect upon the body of others. A healing one mind you," Aikiko spoke up once again.

"As does Qi Gong. Internally and externally," Heylyn added.

"And therein lies the answer to our mystery, because the truth is that if you don't spend time and effort working on it, your magnetic field won't affect anyone at all. Our bodies are composed of about eighty percent conductive material. Electricity flows through us with relative ease, meaning we're mostly conductive. So when someone else's field passes through us, it creates a current within our bodies that has all of the same information that originated from their nervous system. However, the field strength is so reduced, that most if not all of the information is meaningless in someone else's body. Its like a different language, and as you all know, languages take time and effort to learn, if they're heard correctly. Consider that in order for another person to affect you with their the magnetic field produced by their nervous system, they'd have to practice this for some time. Specifically upon the people they want to create this sort of bond with. So it requires effort on the part of the sender," Bryce explained.

"But isn't communications a two way street?" Monique asked.

"Yes, it is. With everything consensual it is. The only way you can become connected to someone else is through extreme emotion. Extreme experiences. Having a passionate love for someone. Especially through intimate experiences enforces this connection between you, so your nervous systems essentially become familiar, and in some cases, this connection can continue for a lifetime thereafter," Bryce grabbed his water and took another sip.

"However, there are non-consensual situations too that can create a link of this kind, though keep in mind this is still speculative between Doctor Briggs' and I, its a theory. A theory with lots of data to back it up, but still a theory. Crimes like rape can lead to this sort of connection between the rapist and the victim. There are accounts of this phenomenon in psychotherapy documented, and some Behavioural Scientists even regard it to be similar to the trophy taking commonly associated with some serial killers. Instead of a physical attachment of the victim, such as a piece of their clothing, the rapist is creating a link between themselves and the victim. One that can not be investigated or against which a rapist cannot be charged. The factor in such cases though is that it requires an extreme emotional experience to create that bond. In the case of a loving relationship, that's consensual. In the case of rape, its non-consensual. Taken without permission. So we have a situation where a group of people have learned to elevate their biomagnetic field to levels where they are able to train their victim's body about the physiological language of these cult members' nervous systems," Bryce explained.

"Its important to note though that these people are more likely superstitious or follow an ideology that isn't founded in the principals of Science, but rather pseudo-science or a false narrative applied to an existing well known form of mysticism. The people doing this likely have very little familiarity with the science behind what they're doing, and have no conscience when it comes to the consideration of the sanctity of another human being's body or mind. I don't mean they fantasize about such things and refrain from physically doing anything of that nature, because most of humanity is guilty of that, but we don't punish people for what they think, but rather, for what they do. These cult members for lack of a better term, have no conscience when it comes to their regard for the boundaries between people, privacy or anything else that defines the boundaries between one person and another. That's from the standpoint of sociology and psychology. In terms of evolution, the need for privacy was the first step towards the common family unit with which we're acquainted, and later, social and political borders. Its interesting to note that very social boundary is under attack," Doctor Briggs interjected in Bryce's lecture.

"In a very Huxley-esque way... in terms of his works like The Doors Of Perception and A Brave New World," Bryce pointed out.

"So you're saying that the ideology responsible for these experiences that have been plaguing most members of the public are something they practiced upon people, one person at a time? Connecting these people to their collective nervous system?" asked Norler for clarification's sake.

"In the case of both Aikiko and Heylyn, they've admitted that such knowledge has long been part of Asian tradition. However, it is something that has been carefully monitored within all cultures of Asia so as to ensure that it was only used for healing purposes. This knowledge and the corresponding abilities, take time to cultivate. Years in most cases, but as little as months, and this is for healers that we're talking about. As far as the malicious side goes, its more like a Von Neuman Machine or Grey Matter. Geometrically expanding throughout society. Through North American culture so far that we can see. Perhaps the battle ground over which this thing is fighting has expanded to Europe?" Doctor Briggs responded.

"Lets get back on track here, before we get too far into hypotheticals?" Norler suggested.

"Agreed on that note. So first lets concentrate on how this is possible. Someone learned how to do this at some point in time. Let's call them Subject A. Subject A learns how to connect to another person with their nervous system, though they aren't a scientist and they've never studied philosophy as Doctor Briggs pointed out. They use this ability, to invade the nervous system of someone else's body, speculatively giving them access to that person's sensory input. So Subject A can hear what Victim A hears. Experiences the memories of Victim A, whenever Victim A is thinking about those memories, and not when they aren't thinking about them. I'll explain that matter in a bit. They can see what Victim A sees. So this gives Subject A enough information to convince Victim A, they are supernatural in some way shape or form. Maybe Subject A steered Victim A's subjective experience in such a way so as to convince Victim A that Subject A is supernatural and has supernatural abilities. They use this illusion to enlist Victim A, who is then taught how to do the same things, but with a few key secrets withheld so as Subject A can retain power by witholding information. And then there were two. Those two become four. Then sixteen. Then two hundred and fixty-six. See how quickly that grows? If we assume that the process with one person takes six months, then in four years, he's got two hundred and fifty-six people. Eight years, sixty-five thousand six-hundred and thirty-six. Sixteen years and they've got half the planet, if nobody puts a stop to it. That's your Von Neuman Machine or your Grey Matter as you said," Bryce asserted.

"What about the problem of distance? Isn't there like a speed limit on how fast information, even through a magnetic field and be relayed? So between two people's bodies in this Grey Matter you're talking about? What about the speed limit?" asked Linda.

"The speed of round-trip transmission given a channel and its efficiency," Gregory added.

"This is where things get a little bit theoretical. You see, some accounts we've examined in the records provided us by Alicia indicate that instantaneous communications is involved where it concerns the connection. However initiating connection between two people takes place over finite space, and therefore requires people near to the victim," Bryce explained.

"Huh?" Braden said, somewhat lost.

"There's evidence that Quantum Entanglement might be involved in this phenomenon, and that parts of the nervous system can become ionized, ie retain a charge. Ionized particles within the body closely associated with activity of the nervous system can instantaneously communicate across vast distances by the same phenomenon in the other person. From a chemical standpoint, this would imply the entanglement of subatomic particles within neurons, altering the axon action-potential hence, completing a communications network through entangled particles in two different bodies. In this case most likely electrons, though entanglement is possible at the molecular level too. Entangled proteins within the cell would go a long way to describing this possibility, as action potentials could be mirrored across that distance," Bryce elicited.

"What have you to back this up? In case someone tries to shoot it down. Sorry, but I've got to be the devil's advocate here because this is too important to risk," asked Norler.

"The work of Sylvia Uphadhaya, with Doctor Alicia Westin as my witness to this fact," Bryce admitted.

"Who?" asked Aikiko.

"I have to admit, I'm at a loss as to that name," Linda admitted honestly.

"Doctor Sylvia Uphadhaya. A Quantum Physicist with a degree in Biology. She did the first real work investigating the Quantum nature of the human nervous system. Her first theories delved into the possibility that Quantum Entanglement was playing a part in human biology and that it might explain certain psychic phenomenon. She was quickly silenced and lambasted by both the scientific community, and by Future Tangent Industries. Personally, I believe she stumbled onto something that somebody wanted kept quiet," Bryce admitted.

"They even paved over her grave stone. That's how far it went erasing her from the public record," Alicia explained to the group.

"I was contacted by a friend who worked for a certain intelligence agency. He advised me to get far away from the situation and to lay low. This was decades ago and I was younger and much more rebellious and I defied him at first. But when things in my life began getting difficult without explanation, so I fell into line. I figured that I'd rather live to fight the good fight silently. Sylvia made her choices, which I respect deeply as she was a woman of courage and conviction and a credit to her fellow scientists of India. I carried on and did what I could. Its gratifying to finally be able to bring her ideas forward into science. Doctor Briggs and I agreed to give her a secret credit when this paper is published for peer review, though given the circumstances, I suggest we first use this knowledge to help us dissect this threat to society," Bryce suggested.

"We need the help of Asian culture, especially those familiar with Chi, Qi, Prana and Mana. As guides to help people cope with the stress and to use healing techniques to overcome the worst of the effects of what this thing is doing to society. We'll need to keep tight contacts with Europe as well, for I'm getting the feeling they're the next front on this global invasion, which by our estimates, has been underway for at least three decades," Doctor Briggs insisted.

"Your timeline would lineup with my experiences..." Braden looked over to Heylyn for permission to speak on the subject.

"Warai and I were held captive by cult of the mind, that is similar to what you've described. It was run by someone named Habus Macill. The kind of charismatic leader you'd find at the center of something like this, however he was fierely competitive with someone else. Someone whom he eluded to little, but someone to whom he has a history none the less," Braden explained.

"When you say cult of the mind, what exactly do you mean?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"A group of people, who are... linked. Like we were a bunch of computers linked to a WIFI Router. Habus Macill was the router. We were like a single mind, when we were near him. I finally broke my programming thanks to my training, and Warai, well she's just immune to it for some reason. She tried to save everyone else, but I had to get her out of there..." Braden explained to the room.

"So this Habus might be behind this cult of the mind?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"He was chased out of North America for his activities there. He tried to setup a camp in the no-man's land between North and South Korea..." Braden began.

"Can I interrupt?" Linda asked.

"Sure, what is it Linda?" asked Doctor Briggs.

"What if what we're talking about is protected information. Something our Governments might want to know? Hypothetically speaking," asked Linda.

"Well, hypothetically speaking, what if this cult of the mind has successfully infiltrated the Government, or most of it. What if we were to report such a thing, we would be inadvertently giving the information directly to the cult of the mind. Then, we'd have an enemy that knows what we know, that has access to Government resources that they could use to destroy us one by one. It wouldn't be the Government's fault. If I wear a hat that has Heylyn's company logo on it, and I go and hit someone in the head with a stick. They see Heylyn's company logo, and think Heylyn's company is out to get them. Meanwhile, Heylyn's company has nothing to do with it. So if someone within an organization misuses the resources of that organization to attack someone, its not the organization that's responsible. But if you're the one who is attacked, you might react as if they were out to get you, and end up making enemies out of them. Since the organization is bigger than one person, that could prove to make things difficult for you. The same with this situation. If we give this information to our enemy, we stand to lose everything. We can't give this to anyone until we know for sure who they are and what they're about," Doctor Briggs explained.

"When you say cult of the mind, what exactly do you mean?" asked Monique.

"A biomagnetically based collective. A group whose minds are interconnected via biomagnetism, and who possibly seek to create a single mind from many. So the people they've already digested in this manner would become a part of this collective. A little bit like the Borg in Star Trek, only real. It isn't a machine intelligence though. Its something that started with a person who learned and refined techniques that allowed them to appear supernatural to others. They invasively and without consent grew their collective, by digesting other people in the same manner, hence creating an artificial biological network. That means they conducted this activity on unwilling victims, linking them to their collective in such a way that the collective had access to everything about them, even the most intimate details. They then used this information to subjugate their victim, taking information about their family and friends and using it to subjugate them and so on. This continued until they had connected themselves to nearly everyone in North America," Bryce explained.

"So you're saying these people can know what we're thinking? Without our permission?" confirmed Gregory.


"Yes. Once they've connected to you, they could probably experience any memory you're currently thinking about. So Bryce and I are guessing but the process is probably very traumatic, and when they need to look up specific memories related to specific events, they probably verbally remind you with words or symbols that lead you towards thinking about those things. For instance, if I was a member of this cult of the mind, and I wanted to know details about the first time you had a slow dance with a girl, I might find a way to play that song in your presence once I knew it, and then listen in on your memories. You'd hear the song and likely be reminded about that experience, so you'd naturally start thinking about it. In essence the cult of the mind would be using you like a computer to look up information about your memories and experiences. They'd use the same methods to find out information about your relatives and friends, and then connect to them in the same way one at a time until your entire circle of people was a part of this cult," Doctor Briggs relayed the scenarios that he and Bryce had deduced based upon what they already knew before their presentation.

"We've yet to assert what happens to those rejected by this cult. Those who pose too much resistance? Those who can't be indoctrinated?" Zheng asked, having a bit of experience in this matter.

"If we follow history's example of similar occurences, they're probably discredited, dehumanized and possibly even radicalized so as to turn the unconverted public against them. You wouldn't want people listening to someone who figured out a way to prevent themselves from being forcefully indoctrinated, to spread information about the fact that its happening and how to protect themselves. They're possibly socially erased, with any evidence of their having existed being eradicated, which when dealing with ideology is actually easier than most people would think. If you're living in a community where you're surrounded by people of the same ideology, and they choose to erase you, all it would take is for them to take every bit of your output and to attribute it to other people. Absolutely everything," Doctor Briggs explained, pausing for a drink of water to sooth his dry throat.

"Every bit of work that you do. Every bit of activism in the community. Everything is taken from you and attributed to someone else's doing. Maybe an economy is setup to achieve this, whereby people charge the price of taking the credit for a your good things, every time you do something that is burdensome to them. Something against their ilk, and that's not too hard to come by with anyone. We all enjoy the occasional alcoholic drink for instance. Others trying to make you disappear could charge you a price to keep that secret, by carrying the weight of your occasional drink in exchange for taking something good from you. Like your accreditation. Your thesis work, etc," Doctor Briggs described to them.

"Soon, your life and activities are fueling the lives of the members of this ideology. When they run out of currency, ie they've taken everything 'bad' from you, they start attributing the bad of other people to you, and charging you a price to remove it. Again we have a market system built around the idea of erasing you and your output in such a way that everything about you is attributed to other people. Now add in the fact that these people are part of a biomagnetic collective. They're connected to your nervous system, and have access to your thoughts and if you're undisciplined enough, your memories. How long before absolutely everything you produce as a person is taken from you and attributed to others? Remember, that means that any social footprints there are that you existed are being swept up and covered over as you traverse life, by this ideology. Locally, the ideology knows you exist. At a distance though, the impression is that everything you say and do is coming from members of their ideology. On the other side of the ocean, people who know you by what you say and do, will believe you to be someone else other than your true physical self. You literally will cease to exist. The public documents confirming your existence might disappear after you die, hence as far as history is concerned, you never existed. Everything you did went to fueling other people's lives, whose names were hightlighted and associated with what you did. Think about the dark ages and how many times that's likely happened, because these methods don't require technology and probably are more effective without it. Think about both sides of the French Revolution and how often something of that nature could have happened. What about Hitler and those who opposed him? Later, Stalin and his eradication of western sympathizers? How would you truly know if people in this country or any other modern nation around the globe weren't being erased in this manner by an encompassing ideology? If a bunch of people close to where you live, decide you are no longer going to exist, if there's enough of them and they're coordinated enough, there wouldn't be much you could do about it. Now imagine that same ideology having spread and overtaken the majority of the population of a country, and how easy it would be for them to do the same thing to anyone," Doctor Briggs explained.

"Then, they start charging you a price for what you think, simply because they've got access to it. If you start writing a scientific paper, they become aware of it, and look to take the idea directly from your head. They give it to the credit of someone else with similar accreditation that is of course a member of their ideology. If Heylyn became victim of this, it would be her fashion designs. With Gregory, its probably his inventions. Soon, you're paying them with what you think, which becomes another currency in their market scheme to erase you," Doctor Briggs carried the idea a bit further.

"Lastly, if they can affect your nervous system, that means they can affect your cognition and how stable you are emotionally. How easily you react to harassment. They could make it appear that your behaviour is consistent with the symptoms of a disease or mental illness. Or substance abuse. How many times have, when someone put forth a theory similar to this one, wrote the person off when it was implied that they were mentally ill, or had substance abuse issues? If you're blowing the whistle on an ideology of this nature, I can't imagine a better way to silence you, than by discrediting you using a stigma of that nature," Doctor Briggs asserted.

"What if even a few people you trust become involved in this ideology, and they want it to seem that you're not yourself. You're behaving in ways that are very unlike you. Like you're being manipulated or puppeteered by someone else. Maybe the same people that are being given the credit for what you say and do? If you're a law abiding citizen, and targeted by this ideology, and you've expressed support of the Government or infrastructure previously, then if they wanted to make it appear that you weren't yourself, they'd create situations where you react against the Government or infrastructure. If there's insiders of the ideology helping to create this impression, it wouldn't be too hard. The same thing with family and friends. Soon, this ideology could be playing you between any two opposing paradigms like a ping-pong ball. Like a see-saw. If your homeostasis is subject to their whims, in other words, they can alter the stability of your emotional state, even forcing you close to a fight or flight response simply by altering your hormone production, ping-ponging you between two opposing spheres would be trivial for them, and that's all they need, with these other methods to discredit you. So these are some of the obstacles you'll be facing in order to retain your independence of mind, person and identity. People have always worked better in groups, but cooperatively and consensually. Not by being forced into any group or ideology," Doctor Briggs finalized his point.

"How can we protect ourselves against someone invading our mind?" asked Linda asked, somewhat skeptically.

"We can't really stop it, yet," Doctor Briggs explained.

"Focus. By working on focus. Practicing it. When you suspect you're being invaded by this ideology, focus on something concrete and very familiar to you that has no specific association with your person. For instance, the sun or the moon, or your breathing," Heylyn indicated.

"Breathing is a good one. We all need to do it, and have no choice about it unless we're looking for a way out," Doctor Briggs agreed.

"That focus can prevent your mind from wandering, when you want to prevent others from this ideology from taking a peek into your mind and memories," Heylyn continued.

"The one thing of which we're certain is that its non-consensual. Its mind rape, for lack of a better term," Bryce added.

"But lots of people have kinky fantasies, don' they?" asked Gregory, suddenly concerned that his secrets might be known.

"Absolutely. However, the difference between members of this cult and other people is that they don't draw up boundaries when it comes to what they think, versus what they do. They seem to be lacking conscience, which means that the people doing the connecting are the same initial members, people who wanted to join rather than being forced or indoctrinated. From their perspective, they probably believe that what they're doing is for the betterment of humanity, despite the fact that its a gross moral violation of a person. Therefore, they lack a conscience which I can explain with an example. If they experience pain, they are incapable of equating it with other people's experiences. They can't equate that someone else can hurt. They can only evaluate what they feel, so they likely lack empathy. This should be an indicator, because when and if you experience this connection attempt, they'll have little or no regard for your feelings, and despite your pleas, they'll likely continue regardless. When you experience that method being conducted by two or more people, if you can, get out and away, at least until we devise other protections with Heylyn's and Aikiko's help," Doctor Briggs suggested.

"What Doctor Briggs is saying is that you can't count on them for any sympathy, if you become victim of this. Knowing that right away, means that you have to count on yourself one hundred percent, and the people you know you can trust. From where we are now, that's going to take time to build with other people, especially to protect our little group here until we can have a real impact," Bryce advised.

"Isn't it wrong to dehumanize them like that. Claim they have no conscience?" asked Alicia, a bit shocked by the prospect.

"Many of the accounts we reviewed included identity theft or identity denial as a common crime practiced by this cult, meaning dehumanizing their victims is the entirety of their method. They're literally trying to crush the human spirit in their victims and leave them no hope. In every account, the victim was diminished in this way without remorse on the part of the perpetrators. We're dealing with people that have absolutely no conscience about this activity and how it affects their victims. Now considering that at least five of the cases we examined included suicide risk, in which three of those cases the risk was ignored by the perpetrators who tried to push their victim to that end, I'd say that indicating they don't have a conscience is accurate rather than dehumanizing. They have an inability to fathom the pain they inflict upon other people. Knowing this in advance might save us when we start encountering this ourselves, and we will. Have no doubts about that," Doctor Briggs backed his assessment.

"If these are the same people that ruined Doctor Uphadhaya, then I plead with you to heed Doctor Briggs' advice," Bryce backed up his peer.

"I'll do my best to enlist who I can, but you have to remember that everyone is under threat, and we're heading into a situation where trust is a rapidly dwindling economy," Norler stated, very familiar with the effects of these attacks himself.

"When something diminishes in quantity, it's value skyrockets and that's certainly the case with trust. So treasure it when you have it. I'll enlist as much help as I can from my family and their community, and have them do the same. We'll try to use our knowledge of these traditions of Chi, Qi and Prana for the good of humanity, and to repair the damages this... cult of the mind has wreaked upon society so far. There are many other aspects that may help as well, such as Yoga, Clinical Massage, Acupuncture/Acupressure. Certainly we can enlist the help of the medical community where necessary as well, though I'll leave that in Alicia's corner. In any case, we're going to have to be wary of possible infiltration within those elements. In the meantime, we'll continue to investigate what we can and meet weekly to share information and keep each other updated. I'm guessing but we've found the nature of our beast. We've got to somehow stop it," Heylyn committed herself to task.

"Priority one for me is going to be investigating what we spoke of earlier with the SY349," Alicia reminded Heylyn, Valerie and Monique.

"FYI, tin foil hats don't work," Gregory added, drawing a cheerful laughter from the room.

"Damn! Alicia honey, scratch that one from the list," Norler said to Alicia, causing her to laugh further.

"So are we all bound to secrecy now?" asked Linda.

"It seems the right thing to do. I mean who can we talk with about this?" asked Valerie.

"Nobody. We don't talk with anyone about this but each other," Zheng agreed.

"Why do I get the feeling that my world just keeps getting smaller and smaller?" Monique asked, wondering how she would side-step the topic with her friends in the building. 

The ones who weren't invited to the meeting.

"This whole thing of distrust works to their advantage you realize," Braden observed.

"Welcome to the war of paranoia," Aikiko spoke blandly and sarcastically, her eyes narrowing with distaste for an enemy she barely knew.


A Short Note From Brian Joseph Johns

A few things before we continue with this story and the plotline that has finally come to bear. For one, don't read too much into this in relation to current events. My case in point, Elon Musk's aquisition of Twitter and the subsequent cleaning house of a few companies who are redistributing their workforce to compete in today's environment. You could regard most of what's happening in the story now as taking place in the early summer of 2022. Remember, this all started just before the May 24 long weekend, so in terms of the story progression, we're only two and a half weeks into June.

The conflict they're about to face isn't the result of any Musk-like entity taking over and dumping this cast onto the streets. You could say that the characters are slowly becoming victim, one by one of a hidden movement that is made up of many people who are essentially ejecting people from society, and locking them out, while doing everything they can to create the impression that such action is justifiable. Mostly through character assassination and altering the public and private record. So don't regard what happens in the story as being the side effect of the actions of someone like Elon Musk out to get the protagonists, because that's just not the case. 

When you're writing a story or book, you'll find that there are people who get wind of it, and attempt to parlay a duality against your plot, kind of like a see-saw, and that can alter the impression of your narrative not to mention give people the wrong message when it comes to elements of your plot or the moral of your story. Hence this note from myself, in order to clarify that issue.

Remember, I'm just some poor schmo whose work seems to be getting attention, while I essentially struggle to live from day to day on almost nothing, while someone else wears my identity and often the credit for the things I write about and do.


Tynan And Associates Board Meeting

"Are you going to be much longer champ?" asked Norler as he accompanied Alicia into the West Meet East dressing room.

"Just drying his hair, and then we've got to tie his tie and he's good to go," Fay told Norler as she stowed the hair dryer.

"You look like a million bucks!" Alicia said to Gregory, who remained in the dressing room chair.

"Thanks, though I'd be fine with fifty. With that I could get more parts to replace my stolen 3D Printer," Gregory replied.

"If you're on the ball today, you'll have a lot more than fifty to back you up, not to mention replacing the parts of your stolen 3D printer will be the least of your responsibilities. You're on the doorstep of a much bigger world, Gregory," Norler reminded the young inventor.

"Just be yourself Gregory. They'll like your sincerity. Its a bigger sell than the kind of presentations they're used to. If they see a fellow nerd like yourself with your wonder device, they'll see dollar signs, and that's probably what you want them to see. Even when you're in the sciences, it pays to know the world of your investors," Alicia advised him as a fellow nerd herself.

"So that's how you got me, is it?" asked Norler, giving her a kiss on the cheek.

"That and I showed a little leg in all the right places," Alicia replied, returning his kiss innocently.

"I hope I meet someone like you, Doctor Westin," Gregory gushed.

"You'll meet somebody soon enough Gregory. When the time is right they'll just pop into your life," Alicia assured him.

"And when you least expect it," Norler added.

"Alright, he's good to go," Fay said as she finished his tie.

"Thank you sooo much Fay," Gregory said, looking in the mirror, straightening his glasses.

"Don't thank me. Thank Heylyn. She paid for this," Fay said pragmatically.

"Thank you all the same," Gregory replied, grabbing his knapsack.

"Have a great day Fay," Alicia said as they left, Norler waving to her as they left.

"Looks like Heylyn's busy... her design room door is closed," Alicia noted on their way out.

They approached the receptionist.

"Tell Heylyn thanks for everything and that we'll touch base soon," Alicia asked Jennifer.

"Got it. Thanks and have a nice day!" Jennifer said, smiling and waving as they left.

The trio rounded the West Meet East Building to the back parking lot, where they got in Norler's car and made their way to Commerce Court.

When they were a block away, Norler pulled the car over to the curb, rubbing his temples.

"Damn! Another migraine. Why now!" he said angrily, frustrated at the helplessness he felt.

Alicia immediately opened her purse and pulled out a bottle of prescription extra-strength pain reliever, handing him two.

"Here honey. From your prescription," Alicia said as he swallowed the pills, washing them down with bottled water.

"Everything ok?" asked Gregory, leaning forward through the center from the back seat.

"Just headaches I've been getting," Norler said, rubbing the side of his head.

"I've been getting those too. For about two months now..." Gregory told them.

Alicia and Norler looked at each other, both wondering if this was a sign of the cult of mind that Bryce and Doctor Briggs had described.

"Let's get this done. I can do this," Norler said, grabbing the wheel and pulling into the underground garage at Commerce Court.

They got into the elevator from the underground garage and made their way up to the thirtieth floor, where Norler was met by a number of people who recognized him.

"You're looking good Alicia. Good to see you Norler," Leckens greeted them.

"Thank you Gary," Alicia responded to the older executive.

"So I understand you'll be presenting us with an opportunity today?" asked Leckens, in his three piece suit.

"Yes. Another sure fire winner, just like the SY349," Norler assured Werner's replacement.

"I'm looking forward to your presentation then. Gary Leckens," Leckens held out his hand for Gregory, shaking his hand firmly despite his velvet soft skin.

"Gregory Epsen, Sir," Gregory responded.

"You're a working man are you?" asked Leckens admiringly.

"There's a few callouses on my hands, mostly from solder burns, though I spend most of my time coding algorithms for DSPs," Gregory replied.

"That's the kind of new energy we need here to take Tynan into the future," Leckens nodded to Gregory approvingly.

"We're almost at 1 PM now. Better get into the board room," Leckens urged the group.

"Remember, let me do most of the speaking. When it comes to presenting the device, think like you're showing it to people that have no idea what you're talking about," Norler advised him.

"They invest in tech for a living. Do you think that's wise, honey?" asked Alicia in a hushed tone.

"Yes. It gives them the open door to feel smart about what they're seeing, and as a result they won't be intimidated by thinking about the possibilities. From that point, just answer their questions. They'll take the ball and run with it, which is what you want," Norler told them quietly as they entered the meeting room, rubbing his head.

"Feeling a little under the weather Norler?" asked Vinnler, in a hidden mockery of concern.

"Not at all Vinnler," Norler ignored him and the other wolves of the table.

Alicia took a seat in the corner near the end of the boardroom table beside Gregory as Norler stood at the front of the room preparing for his delivery.

"Vinnler told me that you have a beautiful wife, but I had no idea," a younger man dressed slickly in a designer suit addressed Norler while examining Alicia.

"Jason, this is my fiance, Doctor Alicia Westin. Alicia, I'd like you to meet Jason Michael Savoy," Norler introduced the two, cringing at the thought of the man examining his wife to be.

"You're... fit. Do you work out? I know of a great gym if you'd ever be interested in meeting for a session?" Jason ignored Norler, dealing directly with Alicia.

"No offense, but I doubt you could keep up," Alicia responded to him.

"Getting a little flabby around the waist there Norler," Jason patted Norler's stomach.

"Oh he can keep up just fine. Trust me," Alicia replied defensively for Norler.

"Mr. Savoy, I'm Gregory Epsen," Gregory stood, thrusting his hand into Jason's.

"Nice to meet you Gregory. You an intern?" asked Jason arrogantly.

"No, he's a rocket scientist in the making," Alicia defended Gregory.

"Don't lose your grip too much there Norler-boy," Jason responded, making his way to his place at the boardroom table.

Leckens stood at the other end of the boardroom table, by the very seat that used to be occupied by Helmut Werner. When every one of the twelve seats were occupied, he addressed the room.

"This meeting has been called by a member of this board that has been with Tynan And Associates for some time, bringing with him some of the company's greatest successes. 

During his time on the board, he's transformed not only this firm, but the way that just about every firm throughout the world conducts itself. He's brought two of the biggest medical investment portfolios to this company not to mention having affected global policy with regard to medical treatment for rich and poor alike. Ladies and gentlemen of the board, I give the floor to Mr. Walton Norler," Leckens led the applause, the other eleven board members not quite as enthusiastic.

"Thank you for that warm introduction. I hope that I continue to live up to the standards expected of me by this firm, and the world around us. On that note, I'd like to bring to the board's attention the kind of opportunity that only comes around once every three lifetimes," Norler began.

"You may ask, what investment has that kind of potential. To be so imperative by its function that investors foolish enough to turn down such an opportunity would be turning their back on something that could potentially make history. That, and a great return on investment," Norler continued.

"The market segment we specialize in, the field of medical diagnosis and treatment is a very specialized market, though when we have a winner, that market is guaranteed, because unlike markets that deal in disposable income, the customer needs what we bring to them from the point we start producing it," Norler continued his delivery.

"Now years ago, before I was on the board, that kind of delivery worked, and it worked well, to a point. The public started to understand that their conscience was a factor in what they buy, because buying power is what you support. Financially and morally," Norler continued.

"Even with a market like medicine, the public wanted their conscience well represented, but so many companies were unwilling to meet that expectation. After all, up until a decade and a half ago, it wasn't a factor in the bottom line," Norler paused, pacing around the boardroom table building up his presence.

"Then we at Tynan And Associates made it our first priority, and the world began watching us. Listening to us. Trusting us. So long as we upheld that virtue, we'd gained the loyalty of a vast market, whose conscience was a driving force in what was imperative of our responsibility as a large corporation in this world," Norler returned to the front of the room.

He paused, wincing at an immense pain, as if something was purposely trying to throw him off. He winced again, rubbing the bridge of his nose and then the sides of his head.

The board sat and watched silently, one of the board members clearing their throat rather loudly during the sudden silence.

Then the voices hit Norler. 

*What are you thinking? Where is the butterfly? Who is the butterfly? Who is your wife? What is your wife?*

They bombarded him all at once, pressing in on his growing headache. He shook his head fiercely and stumbled momentarily, Alicia standing to catch him.

"I'm alright," he said firmly.

"There's some milk of magnesium in the cafeteria if you need it, old timer," Jason remarked, looking at his gold watch.

"I'm fine. Really. Sorry, just stage fright I guess," Norler looked to each of the faces at the table, suddenly realizing that the only one he recognized from old times was Vinnler.

Everyone else had been replaced, the most recent of those in the last three months. He was delivering an address to a room that were completely unfamiliar with the Tynan And Associates he fostered and guided to world reknown.

They looked at him as if he were a snake oil salesman, suddenly experiencing symptoms of what his snake oil cure was supposed to treat. The voices continued pressing him about further details of West Meet East, the Butterfly and his own fiance, Alicia.

He recalled what Doctor Briggs and Heylyn had said about how the cult of the mind might try to access their memories. Heylyn saying how they could protect themselves through meditation and discipline. Aikiko and her intense willpower. He made a conscious effort to think about the water fountain behind the building where he'd sometimes go to center himself every time the voices pressed him for information.

If when they said Butterfly, he thought about Heylyn, he'd be betraying her, for they might just read his mind and learn her secret from it. If they said Alicia, the same thing. The waterfountain, and the birds that would occasionally arrive seeking bread crust droppings.

His defense worked, and using their advice, he managed to keep his mind focused away from anything that might betray his friends. He began to understand the purpose of the headache, because it was just used to weaken and distract him.

Maybe even to punish him for showing up for this meeting. He shook his head once again and continued his delivery.

"It is with that focus that I stand before you now, to introduce to you a device that will revolutionize medical diagnostics. A device so powerful, that it replaces over six other standard devices and their corresponding diagnostic abilities," Norler paused from the pain.

"A device so revolutionary, that it weighs a little under thirty pounds and can be carried in one hand," Norler finished.

"I give you the MDT, the Medical Diagnosis Tablet. Gregory Epsen, its developer will now show you first hand this remarkable device," Norler introduced Gregory, Alicia helping him to be seated as he struggled against the pain.

"Thank you board members. I'm Gregory Epsen. Its an honour for me to be able to introduce you to the MDT, so in the interests of your time, let me introduce you to the device," Gregory pulled his baby from the backpack, holding it firmly with one hand as he presented it.

"I'm sorry, did you say MDT? Medical Diagnostic Tablet?" asked Jason.

"Uhhhh. Yes," Gregory replied, suddenly feeling a sharp pain in his head, accompanied by the same voices that Norler was hearing.

"Is this some kind of joke?" asked Jason, looking around amongst the board members, who also seemed a little bit set back by Gregory's introduction.

"Is something wrong?" asked Gregory, his eyes watering from pain as he rubbed the side of his head, the voices continued pressing him about the Butterfly and Alicia.

"I'm sorry Mr. Epsen, Norler, but we've already signed an investment deal for this device, with another party," Leckens told them, a look of grave concern on his face.

"But I invented it. There's no way..." Gregory began.

"From our perspective, you're in possession of a device protected by Canadian Patents, and you're illegally trying to obtain investment capital on a device already signed to an investment deal, not to mention protected by our company," Leckens seemed frustrated and even upset by this latest situation.

"Gregory, what's going on!" Norler demanded, his head pounding.

"Did you just try to swindle and cheat this board?" confirmed Norler, on the brink of anger.

"Honey, he is the inventor. On the very day I met with him to evaluate this investment his entire workshop was stolen..." Alicia began.

"Did you say stolen technology? I think you need to get a lawyer, immediately. I'm going to move that we have security remove these people from the premises and bar them from returning until we've met with them and their attornies," Jason suggested.

"All in favour?" asked Leckens.

Everyone at the table raised their hands, except Vinnler, who immediately understood what was happening.

"I object. I don't like Norler very much, but I've known him for a while. I've known people who would do this, and he's not one of them. He'd never do this, nor would Alicia," Vinnler backed Norler, despite their bumpy history.

"Its still a majority. Norler, I suggest that you and your friends leave the building immediately. We'll be in contact with you and your attorney. Until that time, you're dismissed," Leckens implored Norler.

"Your loss," Gregory grabbed his device, stowing it in his bag as the three of them left the boardroom and found their way to the elevator.

Security found them quickly, and escorted them to the underground parking, ensuring that they left the building.

"Would you two mind telling me what's going on?" Norler said as Alicia drove.

"On the night I was evaluating Gregory for whether he and his device were worthy of investment, when we went to the emergency room for one of Gregory's health issues, someone broke in and stole everything from his lab. Everything I'd seen that same day," Alicia explained to Norler.

"So these people stole everything, and then from his plans and schematics, reverse engineered it and built a duplicate, and then sold it to Tynan?" confirmed Norler.

"They must have. There's no other way," Alicia replied, using her heighened senses to keep them safe as they drove, though she got the distinct feeling that they were being followed.

"Gregory, I'd prefer if you stayed with us tonight. Could you?" asked Alicia.

"What about my mother?" asked Gregory.

"I'll put her up in a hotel. A nice one," Norler offered.

"But she'll go crazy in a hotel room with nothing to do. She's old school. She lives to clean and fuss about in the house. Without that, she'll curl up and die!" Gregory responded defensively.

"Honey, he's deep in this. Up to his eyeballs already," Alicia pleaded with Norler.

"I can afford to buy the neighbouring unit. Its empty. We can do what Heylyn did for Monique, but if I've lost my position at Tynan, they might recall my shares. That would make things a bit tight financially," Norler explained to her.

"I've got a bit put away, especially since the SY349 took off. I think between us we can manage for at least two years," Alicia assured Norler.

"Who's to say what this cult is going to do to us next? We might be sleeping on park benches next week!" Norler responded, his head in severe pain.

"Look, if I'm too much trouble, then just take me home. I've survived with this for months already. I don't want to be any more trouble for you," Gregory demanded, his head in severe pain also.

"Look, Gregory! Shut-up! I'm going to buy the condo unit next to ours, and you and your mother can move in there. I'll cover the taxes and fees every month, but we're going to get this issue with your device solved, and get it to market. While we take on this cult of the mind," Norler raised his voice at Gregory, who withdrew and accepted what was offered.

"You two are going to start going for acupuncture and massage every week, to help you fight this thing. Not to mention, you're going to attend meditation and martial arts classes as well. I'll arrange this with Heylyn's and Aikiko's help tomorrow. Do you understand?!" Alicia made her own demands.

"Yes, dear," Norler's voice lowered in volume, Alicia's hand finding its way to his leg, in search of his hand.

"You'll like my mother, she makes an herbal tea from the old country that kicks the ass out of these headaches, with a shot of whiskey mind you," Gregory told them.

"I can hardly wait," Norler replied, rubbing his head as he leaned back trying to get through the pain.

Jack Warren: Assassin

"So when am I going to meet this boss of yours?" Jack asked Mutano.

"My employer you mean?" Mutano replied, sitting in an overstuffed arm chair in the midst of a condominium unit nearly devoid of decorative appeal.

It lacked both visual contrast and furniture. A barren and simplistic place where Mutano would come to rest himself between the tasks him employer had assigned him.

The condo itself looked barely lived in, including the only bed in the modest accomodation, which Jack had inherited upon his agreeing to work with Mutano.

The mattress was still covered in plastic and Jack wondered if Mutano had ever slept in it. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if Mutano *slept* at all.

The fridge was devoid of food, the only occupants thereof were a bottle of expensive whiskey, and a bottle of the finest Sake. In the cupboards, there was a box of imported loose tea and one tea cup.

When Jack had ordered food for delivery, Mutano paid for it and then dumped it all down the garbage chute before Jack had a chance to consume any of it.

Mutano instead told him that any time he needed to eat, that he should do so at a restaurant, and use a different one each time.

Mutano then assured Jack that they wouldn't be staying in this condo permanently or for much longer.

As it turned out, they'd be moving from it much sooner than Jack had expected, having only just gotten comfortable with the sparsly decorated abode.

"Yes, your employer. So when do I get to meet him?" Jack asked impatiently.

There were times when Mutano's ambiguous nature could be mystical, and others when it was simply a pain in the ass, thought Jack as he waited for Mutano to finish his sip of tea.

"You will meet when you are summoned. Until then, your time is better spent concerning yourself with other matters. Such as how to make amends with Mentis, given your two failures with him," Mutano spoke, not even looking to Jack as he raised the tea cup to his lips.

"One. One underestimated target," Jack corrected him.

"Two. The Dragon and the model," Mutano kept a quaint smile on his face.

"I was casing the model, when the dragon showed up. I did not expect anything like her. The model's security maybe?" Jack theorized, finally able to speak about that night after his time in the hospital.

"She is not like you at all. She is beyond your league and then some. Leave her to me, and you'll have your chance to get that poor helpless model that you failed to...? fix. For Mentis," the corner of Mutano's mouth rose slightly in the satisfaction of his wording.

"What if I'm ready now?" asked Jack.

"Oh believe me. You're not ready, Jack. Even after your recovery is complete, which I might remind you that you're still recovering in case you forgot, you'll be far from ready for someone like her," Mutano said, slowly standing with his tea cup in hand.

He then walked over to the sink and rinsed the cup with hot water, and returned it wet to the cupboard.

"I am going to my room. When I return, I will have your next instructions," Mutano promised Jack.

Mutano walked out of the living room and down the hall to the end, where he entered a room and closed the door behind him.

Jack had only seen the room once. It was the master bedroom, though it was completely empty. Barren of all furniture and fixtures, it was just a room.

Yet, Mutano would go into the room and behind closed doors, the air pressure in the condo would suddenly change. Moments later, Mutano would return with news or instructions. As if he went into the room to think.

The problem was that he was barely in the room for a minute when he'd return, stepping out of door with some addition to their plans. 

Mutano had forbade Jack from opening the door, while or while not Mutano was on the other side. Jack was never to enter the room either.

Jack was used to working with people who kept secrets, but this was somehow different. The one thing that Jack knew was that any time Mutano used the room, it scared the hell out of him.

This time would be no different, for Mutano had already closed the door, as Jack heard the unmistakable click of the latch. Then, his ears popped, as if he were on a flight, ascending from the runway to cruising altitude.

Jack sat on the barely used sofa, looking around the bland room as he waited. Then, the air pressure again, his ears feeling the sudden change as a breeze found its way through the condo. Then Mutano's door opened and he stepped out.

His footsteps slow and deliberate as he returned, walking to the fridge and retrieving the bottle of Sake and pouring himself a cup.

"Can I interest you in a..." Mutano asked solemnly.

"Sure. So what's the news?" Jack asked, still slightly shuddering.

Mutano remained silent as he poured a second cup of Sake. He then returned the bottle to the fridge, taking both glasses, one for Jack and one for himself.

Jack sipped the Sake, having learned how to drink it over the course of two days from a connoisseur.

"There are still a few loose ends with regard to a problem that my employer has struggled with for many centuries. It would seem that some information has recently come to light that might help to solve this problem. My employer would be most indebted to anyone who helped with this most grave of matters," Mutano sipped his Sake, looking over the lip of his glass at Jack.

"What kind of problem?" asked Jack, eager to get busy.

"The kind of problem that needs the attention of a man of your qualifications," Mutano cradled the glass in his hand.

"What do I have to do?" asked Jack.

"You have to remove a problem. A lady in her mid thirties," Mutano smiled.

"Who? What did she do?" asked Jack, implying about the target of a job for the first time.

"Its not so much *what she did*, as much so as its *what she does*. She interferes in matters beyond her station in life, and she needs to be dealt with," Mutano spoke smugly, having no conscience about the matter.

"And this will get me in the good books with your employer?" confirmed Jack in more ways than one.

"Yes. Most certainly," Mutano drank from his glass.

"When and where?" asked Jack.

"She's a Court Stenographer. She works in College Park. Her name is Myung Chung-Ae," Mutano gave Jack the details as he wrote them down in a notepad.


"Justice Lanvers, I move that we maintain the current agreement of the distribution of liquid assets, and deal with the fixed assets and property in our next session?" Mr. Morley requested of the Justice.

"Are you and your client fine with this motion Mrs. Matthews?" asked Justice Lanvers of the plaintiff.

"Yes, your honour. We coincide with Mr. Morley's motion," Mrs. Matthews replied.

"We'll continue at 9:30 AM tomorrow. Hopefully at that time you'll be able come to an amicable agreement, seeing as children are involved. Court adjourned," Justice Lanvers insisted, standing from her chair.

Myung got up from her place behind the stenotype and pushed in her chair.

"Do you have a moment?" asked one of the bailiffs.

"Look, John. I thought we decided this would be best?" Myung turned to look at the older man.

"Sometimes people who care about each other can jump into commitments they don't really mean," John replied, speaking softly as the courtroom emptied.

"You mean like getting involved with someone at work? You're right. People *can* jump into commitments they don't mean," Myung gathered her purse and slung it over her shoulder.

"Look, it was one date, one night. Nothing happened between her and I, and I promise it won't happen again," John replied regretfully.

"You're right. It won't happen again. To me. Goodbye John," Myung left the courtroom through the back door as John followed her.

"Look. Myung! Don't do this," John responded, following her out the door into the service hall.

"Goodbye John," Myung continued, making her way towards the women's bathroom.

John put his hand on Myung's shoulder.

She moved faster than he thought possible, grabbing his palm and twisting it, forcing him to follow suit lest he want a dislocated elbow or shoulder. Whichever one popped out first. He followed her motion until his arm was behind his back and his face was against the wall.

As they stood there, a woman left the bathroom and upon seeing the two of them she spoke.

"Its about time! He had it coming to him! Unless you're getting started early. In that case, I'll just leave quietly..." she left backing away from them before turning and running out the door.

"Are you finished?" Myung asked John.

"Yep. I'm pretty much eating wall now," John replied.

"Don't *ever* do that again," Myung advised him.

Two of the uniformed Police stepped through the service door as Myung released John.

"Is there a problem here?" asked one of the Officers.

"Thank you Officer. Its alright. John here needed a little reminding about his manners," Myung replied.

"Its fine. I was out of line," John admitted.

"Do you want to press charges, Miss?" asked the Officer.

"No. I think he learned his lesson," Myung avoided looking at John.

"Alright. I'm going to have to ask you to leave this way, and give her time to leave before you come back here to use the change rooms or the rest rooms," the Officers escorted the bailiff out and into the foyer.

Myung continued into the women's bathroom. She stood before the mirror as the tears started to fall.

"Now don't you do this to yourself. You deserve better," Myung looked in the mirror, deeply into her own eyes as she spoke.

Day after day of recording the grief and ills of other people's divorces had taken its toll upon her life.

She'd become involved with John in the hopes that she might somehow find peace and resolve in her life. It would have been good for the both of them, for they were both fixtures for most divorce cases that moved through the College Park courts.

Initially he'd asked her out on a date, which turned into a three hour discussion at the table in the restaurant followed by a midnight walk along Toronto's scenic Harbour Front.

They'd left their first date on that note, and by their third, they found their way to John's bedroom, consumating the start of their relationship.

They discussed it the following week, committing to each other and that they wouldn't see other people. Myung started spending more and more time at John's place, and occasionally, John at her's.

Then, three months into their successful relationship, John secretly went on a date with another woman. She was nearly ten years younger than Myung. Her name was Luana Fergueson, a family Lawyer whom John had met on one of Myung's sick days.

During their date, another coworker had spotted them, and later told Luana that John was already involved in a relationship. When a week later, Myung was working a case where Ms. Fergeuson was acting as legal representation for the plaintiff, Luana told Myung about the date, apologizing and promising never to see John again.

Myung from that point had decided to discuss the matter with John, who initially denied it. Eventually, after Myung manouvred him, he admitted to the date and the two of them decided to break up amicably, Myung citing that John's promiscuity was a sign their time together was over.

Over the two weeks that followed, John asked her many times to reconsider their decision. This continued until the events of this very afternoon, when it had finally caught up to Myung emotionally.

Her face looked back at her from the other side of the mirror. The slight appearance of bags beneath her eyes, and the crows feet at their sides. Time wasn't waiting for her, as the woman in the mirror looked through her, seeing only a woman growing into her senior years. Weather worn and alone.

After washing her face, she spilled the contents of her purse onto the bathroom counter and began the task of painting her face for the busy trip home on the subway.

Ten minutes later she was on her way out of the service hall and into the College Park concourse, heading to the subway.

As she headed through on her way to the subway entrance, she bumped into a familiar face.

They were walking towards each other, completely unaware until the last moment when they nearly collided amidst the late afternoon traffic.

"Ai?" asked Myung.

"Myung?" asked Heylyn.

"I barely recognized you. You look sooo different! So the little girl has grown up to become the attractive woman," Myung said to her confidently, almost having completely forgotten about her scuffle with John.

"I could say the same of you. How long has it been?" asked Heylyn.

"What about me?" asked Warai, holding onto Heylyn's hand.

"Oh, this is Warai. Warai, this is my friend Myung," Heylyn introduced the two.

"Braden. Yes, I'm North Americanized too," Braden held out his hand to Myung.

"Pleased to meet you both. Are you two?" asked Myung about Heylyn and Braden.

Warai smiled at the question, and seeing the Butterfly suddenly get nervous.

"Us? Oh, no. No. We're here shopping together. Braden's my coworker. We were getting him some new clothes in the mall upstairs. Thought we'd come down here for a quick bite to eat before heading home," Heylyn told Myung, blushing and looking very much embarrassed.

"So nice to see you again. Do you have a number?" asked Myung, fishing through her purse for her phone.

"Here. Take my card," Heylyn handed Myung one of her business cards.

"Good idea. Here's mine," Myung fished a business card out of her purse and handed it to Heylyn.

"A Court Reporter? Glad to hear that you're doing well for yourself. If you don't call me within the week, I'll give you a call," Heylyn told Myung.

"Same here. I'll try to call you tonight, if not tomorrow. We can catch up then," Myung shook Heylyn's hand again and they parted ways as Myung entered the TTC subway system.

"Come on!" Jack said impatiently, watching them talk from a distance as he stood in a dark corner, rubbing his bald and sweaty head with his right hand.

When Myung entered the subway, Jack sprung into action, following her down onto the platform.

Myung walked the length of the platform, taking her place by a wall near the end as she waited for the train. Jack followed her without looking directly at her and stopped within half a subway car's length from her. This way, he could ensure that he'd end up on the same car as her.

Myung barely noticed anyone on the platform, somewhat caught up in her own thoughts, and the onset of a late evening headache. She'd been experiencing such ailments recently, often accompanied by a ringing in her ears that sounded conspicuously like the radio chatter of a walkie talkie.

She'd been to the Doctor's office twice about the issue already, though the only thing he could offer her was a prescription for pain killers, and a mild ascetative to help her sleep. What he didn't tell her was that he'd been flooded by patients with the same symptoms, and that the Canadian Medical Association was as divided about the issue as their American counterparts.

Myung thought about John momentarily, feeling the pain she'd felt earlier by their breakup. Then she was reminded of the serendipity of seeing Heylyn once again. As if the universe itself had conspired to reintroduce her, such a symbol of her youth in a time when she was questioning her purpose in life.

She'd spent most of her twenties trying to secure a career in publishing and design, having found that she had an affinity for it. When she'd focus herself on design related interests, she'd found an ability for such pursuits and had been hired by an advertising agency, who'd noticed her innovative use of visemes and iconography. The sounds and shapes invoked by words.

The agency had noted that she was astute when it came to the relationship between an advertising meme, and its correspondence to words and shapes. She pursued this to its fullest until she hit a creative road block. One that no matter her interest in the subject, she somehow could not find her expression thereof again. That was until she realized that her comprehension lay in listening as much so as the words themselves.

During evenings, she began pursuing an extra-curricular education in stenography, as her bills mounted, she found that a healthy pursuit of that which helped her to grow her future, helped not only her mind set, but the world around her. Her strength in the conveyance of what she understood from expression as a literalist was helped by her exploitation of that fact. Her artistic interpretation was something she could keep for herself. Perhaps at some point in her future she'd return to the art of iconography and meme? The sounds and the shapes of words, and more importantly how those concepts related to what they meant.

From that point onwards, Myung pursued the career of a courtroom stenographer. Her love of words and their corresponding links to their real world counterparts in the form of ideas and objects would eventually find their way into her future career. For the time being, she instead focused on what was practical, even pragmatic to her. It even resounded with her practical approach to life during her mid-twenties, though eventually Hoon Tiger Kwang's words would return to remind her that there was so much more to life than just survival.

"Training isn't about learning techniques to handle every oncoming obstacle in life. Living a life simply learning to avoid obstacles isn't living at all. Living is all about learning to deal with obstacles in a constructive manner, rather than averting them entirely. There is no one to one correspondence between obstacle and technique. There is only adaption. The point where obstacle and response meet. We aren't teaching you how to overcome every obstacle *we* know of in life, albeit in a generic form. We're teaching you how to be creative in dealing with the obstacles you'll encounter. Technique isn't an absolute. Not an ending. Its a beginning, and you are its only limit," Hoon Kwang would tell his class.

Hoon "Tiger" Kwang's words echoed through her mind space, as the thundering sound of the train echoed through the tunnels towards the platform.

She thought back to her reaction to John's hand on her shoulder. How quick and reflexive her response had been, yet, Sebomnim Kwang had never shown her how to deal with that specific situation. He instead had trained her to improvise. To use their creativity, together, to overcome the unseen. The unknown. It had all happened without her even thinking about it, as if it were a muscular reflex. A learned behaviour. Something beyond her own limits, yet benefiting from what Hoon Kwang's teachings represented to her.

The unseen guardian in her life had always been herself. Her reflexive response to obstacles. The very ones that Sebomnim Kwang had taught her. Yet, in her most isolated of situations, creativity had somehow prevailed. A meeting between what she'd been taught, and who'd taught her, and the experience between.

Yet here she was approaching the midpoint in her life. Alone, once again. As she had been before.

She felt suddenly uncomfortable. As if she were being watched. She checked her sides and found the platform somewhat crowded, despite the fact that she was earlier than the rushhour onset of commuters.

To her right, she saw a man with a hood pulled over his head, his hands in his pocket. His face hidden beneath the folds of the hood, though he appeared to be watching her. She made a mental note to keep her wits about her.

Closer to her, another man, a handsome one stood confidently leaning against the wall. He was completely bald, but built like a truck. He had that look about him, like some of the Officers that would show up for court. Confident, yet withdrawn.

The train announced its presence with a burst of air, pushed through the platform as the cars sped by. Jack staid his place, carefully watching Myung from the sides of his eyes. He looked to the limits of his vision, keeping her well within his reach.

The train slowed, the air pressure before and after the vehicle eventually equalizing as Myung stepped forward to the yellow line waiting for the nearest door to arrive.

Jack slowly side stepped towards Myung, ensuring that he'd end up in her car as the train came fully to a stop.

He crept over slowly to her door, making his way to it as it opened. She stopped as if to allow him passage first. He instead took her given privilege and offered it back to her, stepping aside. She didn't wait, entering the train car quickly finding her space on the opposite doors, which would remained closed for the next two stops. Until Yonge And Bloor Station.

Myung leaned against the fibre-glass doorway as Jack grabbed the railing near her, smiling casually at her. She smiled back, intending no flirtation but instead a solemn display of social acknowledgement.

The man in the hood got in the same car behind them, finding a nook near the front of the car, where he kept a close eye on Myung.

She was instantly aware of this and remained vigilant, keeping her chin up so as not to appear passive or intimidated. She looked around the train for something else to distract her thoughts.

She watched as a young man wearing a black shirt, in red lettering that stated "Chivalry Is Dead" offered his seat to an elderly lady. She felt a tear well up in her eye at the irony of it. Especially given her current state of comfort with society. She, as many other women did, smiled and winked at the young man who'd made the gesture, as if some confirmation of his faith in a hidden virtue.

As they approached Wellesley Station, Myung made her way towards the back of the train car, Jack following her ever so carefully.

As Myung neared the back of the car, Jack approached her from behind, whispering in her right ear.

"M'aam? When the train stops, I'm going to have to ask you to leave through the back door at the end of the train. I'm a Transit Security Specialist, and I'm required to inform you that this is an emergency and your life is in danger. Please comply with my request for your sake and the sake of all passengers on this car," Jack insisted to Myung.

Myung held her place, as if in shock by Jack's words, however, when he produced a convincing identification badge to her, she quickly moved towards the back exit of the train as it approached Wellesley Station.

[Writer's notes: I wrote this next section before knowing anything about the recent shootings, including the shootings at Colorado Springs and the Virginia Walmart Shootings. I actually checked the news shortly after having finished writing this section (yesterday on the 22 November 2022 at around 1:30 PM). 

I wish to extend my condolences to the families and loved ones lost in both of those tragedies, and  the observation that perhaps what I've written here in this next section up until the end of the chapter really captures the essence of what it is to be held hostage by such violence, and always to keep our eyes forward to finding its source. This theme is definitely a big part of this three act story. 

Brian Joseph Johns]

The man in the hood kept his silent vigil, watching as Jack addressed Myung.

As the train slowed, Myung worked her way to the back of the train as Jack followed her. When they reached the end of the train, Jack opened the back door stepping down onto the tracks, leading Myung who followed him.

"Where are we going?" asked Myung as she hesitantly followed Jack.

"We have to get you to safety, there's someone out to get you," said Jack as they disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.

The train had finished letting out its passengers and was now accelerating, leaving the station as Jack and Myung walked along the service walkway to the side of the tracks.

"I don't think anyone would follow us...?" Myung said, as she saw Jack turn to face her.

He held a large knife in his hand.

"Nothing personal M'aam, but somebody wants you gone, and its my duty to ensure that happens..." Jack said as he grabbed for her wrist and lunged with the knife.

He managed to get a hold of her arm, his grip strong and forceful as he pulled her towards him, driving the knife forward at her abdomen.

She quickly spun against his wrist and elbow joint, twisting him awkwardly as he struggled to retain hold of her. She whipped him around face first into a cast iron pillar. He stumbled and fell to the service walkway.

She kicked him in the solar plexus once, enough to quickly squeeze all the air out of his lungs and then she turned and ran further into the tunnel.

Jack lay gasping for air, his eyes watering as he watched her running off deeper into the darkness. He'd clearly underestimated her.

Myung continued running in her low heels, suddenly tripping and sliding to a stop on the walkway. She groaned in pain as she realized she'd sprained her wrist, possibly even having broken it as she braced her impact on the walkway. She got to her feet again and removed her shoes, continuing her flight in her bare feet.

She heard the report of a firearm, just as one of the metal pillars near her sparked as hot composite metal splashed from the impact of a bullet.

"Not here... not now... Oh pleeese..." she whimpered as she ran, her heart racing with every step.

In the distance ahead of her, she saw the headlights of an oncoming train. She stepped out onto the track, wincing in pain as she stepped onto the sharp gravel bed between the rails, waving her arms frantically trying to signal the driver.

Another shot rung out, and she dodged again to the service walkway between the two sets of tracks as the rush of air built up to a torrent, the train crashing past her nearly bowling her over as it did.

She stepped over to the other track and service walkway, continuing in the same direction, though the trains would be coming from behind.

As the train that had just passed came to a stop in the station a distance behind them, silence once again found the tunnel.

"There's nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Why not make this painless and just stop? I swear, it will be quick. You won't even feel it," Jack used every trick he could think of to get his target.

Myung ignored his words, knowing fully well he intended no such fate for her. He just simply wished to end her as part of some contract, and was saying anything that might help him achieve that. That might convince her to give up.

"Look, if you stop, I'll let you live and even split the money I'm getting paid to end you, but you'll have to change your name and move far away. I'll give you enough money to start a new life and then some, what do you say?" Jack softened his approach.

"To tell you the truth lady, I've never killed a woman, and I'd rather keep it that way. Men, sure. Many of them, but women? Not a one," he reasoned with her.

She stopped running enough to catch her breath as the sound of a train behind them could be heard in the distance.

She looked across the tracks and saw some stairs, an inset walkway and a door which was part way open.

She quickly dashed across the tracks and up the metal stairs, and through the door, quietly closing it behind her. She felt around in the dark, looking for a light switch. When she found it, flipped the switch.

The room was slowly illuminated by the phosphorescent bulbs in the ballast above her. It appeared to be some kind of electrical room. There were several large boxes, each with a door padlocked, decorated with numerous warnings about voltage.

She looked for a weapon, a tool or anything she might wield against her attacker, given the state of her right wrist, which was swollen and bruised and far beyond use. With dismay, she stopped her search realizing that it was in vain.

She ran back over to the light switch and turned it off, backing up into the far corner of the room behind one of the high voltage electrical cabinets. The only sound she could hear was that of her beating heart, like a drum that drowned out the sound of the oncoming train in the distance.

She sat huddled in the corner, keeping vigil in the direction of the door, though in the pitch black darkness, she could barely tell where she was looking.

She saw the door slowly open and a sliver of light from the tunnel had found its way in. She shook head just to be sure she wasn't hallucinating as her eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness.

She then saw the clear silhouette of a man's arm brandishing a pistol, as he walked forward into the dark room.

"Look, I don't know what you did to piss off the people you pissed off, but honestly, I don't think its fair at all, but I can cut you a deal. I'm getting paid a lot of money to deal with you, and if you just disappear, move far away, I can make it worth your while and we'll both win," Jack reasoned with his prey as he stepped into the utility room cautiously.

Though Myung had never worked in criminal cases, she knew enough to understand that the world could be a dark and sinister place and that she should never leave her destiny to naivety.

A part of her mind was pleading with her to listen to his words. That he might really want to help her rather than kill her. He might just walk her out of here, report to his superiors that he'd completed his contract. Collect his pay, and then hand her a wad of cash as he dropped her at the airport, sending her on her way to East Asia or South America to live in permanent exile.

As he walked further into the room, another part of her told her to remain silent and still.

Jack turned back towards the door, and began searching for the light switch. When he found it to the right of the door, he turned it on. The room slowly revealed itself, one of the lights flickering slightly as it came to life.

"There's nowhere left to run. So let's just get out of here, collect my pay and get you on your way to your new life. What do you say?" Jack asked her, still searching for her as his eyes adjusted to the sudden light.

Myung curled up into a ball as tight as she could, holding her breath as the pounding of her heart crescendoed.

The was suddenly a scuffle, and the sound of fighting. A punch, and the sound of a fist on someone's face. A sudden kick to someone's midsection and the escape of air. Then the sound of metal hitting a tile floor.

Myung peeked out from behind the electrical cabinet and saw the bald man facing off against the man she'd seen in the hood from the train.

He pulled the hood back to reveal a face she'd not seen for many years. A stern face, yet familiar. His hair had somehow gotten even lighter and more grey than it was when she'd studied under his tutelage.

"Why don't you leave her alone and try picking on a Tiger!" he said to the bald man.

It was Hoon Tiger Kwang. Her Tae Kwon Do instructor. Her Sebomnim.

"You throw quite a punch there old man," Jack responded, getting himself ready for a battle.

"What's that, Tae Kwon Do? I did a bit of that, and some other stuff. Wanna shot at the title?" asked Jack, as he took up his combat stance.

"You're obviously very skilled, or you'd have a gun. Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. I took that disadvantage away from you. So let's see what you've really got without your gun..." Tiger Kwang responded to Jack.

Myung and saw the firearm just across from her. She kicked it out of the way, under one of the electrical cabinets.

"Thank you Sebomnim. I'll keep watch while you deal with him," Myung said, her eyes welling up with tears.

Jack threw a quick punch, which Tiger blocked, finding an opening beneath Jack's armpit which he struck fiercly with his own fist, making room for himself.

The two men circled one another in the tight quarters of the electrical room, Myung keeping watch over them.

Jack kicked at Tiger, who just barely side stepped it, almost catching Jack's leg mid kick in the tight quarters.

Jack followed with an off-hand punch that connected just slightly with Tiger's right cheek, leaving a slight mark.

"How's that old man?" asked Jack.

"Not bad for an amateur that uses guns to kill fleeing women in the dark," Tiger responded, quickly delivering a round house kick to Jack's same cheek.

Jack dove at Tiger, forcing him through the doorway over the walkway railing. Both men fell onto the train tracks. Jack was on his feet first.

"So you're an instructor are you?" asked Jack, kicking Tiger in his ribs while he was still down.

Tiger quickly rolled over and was up and on his feet.

"Yes, and I'm about to give you the lesson of your life," Tiger leapt into the air, delivering a flying kick to Jack's chest, sending him back several meters.

Jack caught himself and thrust forward, trying a spinning kick. Tiger ducked, rolling on the tracks between the rails ending up behind Jack when he came to his feet.

He then grabbed hold of Jack's head from behind and flipped him over his shoulder face down onto the tracks.

Jack remained laying on the tracks, breathing heavily and obviously injured.

"You're not getting off that easy," Tiger lifted Jack, pulling his arm over his shoulder as the lights of the train behind them appeared.

Tiger carried Jack to over to the stairs, carrying Jack's weight in addition to his own when Jack suddenly tried to throw Tiger out over the railing and onto the tracks. 

Tiger's foot caught hold of the opposite railing, stopping him dead while Jack's momentum carried him forward onto the tracks face down. He lifted his head to see the train as it quickly overtook him, crushing him beneath its immense weight.

Myung turned away as the train passed.

"Sebomnim? Are you alright?" asked Myung, as Tiger found his way up the stairs to check on her.

"I'm fine. I was just going to ask you the same thing," Tiger checked Myung out, seeing her swollen wrist.

"I fell," Myung admitted, almost embarrassed by the fact.

"I'd fall too if I was running in the dark and in heels," Tiger tried to smile for her.

"We have to call the..." Myung began.

"Yes we do. Anonymously. You can't go to the authorities about this," Tiger explained to her.

"But I work for them. I have to tell them what happened," Myung told Tiger.

"Myung, we're in the middle of a crisis, perhaps one of which you're not aware?" Tiger told her, trying to keep her attention away from Jack's crushed body on the tracks.

"What do you mean? What crisis?" asked Myung.

"The world around us is a battleground. A secret battleground and a war is being fought in the midst of Western society," Tiger explained to Myung.

"A war? Over what?" asked Myung, shocked that her former Tae Kwon Do instructor would say such a thing.

"A war over your mind, perhaps even over your soul..." Tiger tried to reason with Myung.

"Uhhhh did you join a cult or something like that since we last met?" asked Myung somewhat sarcastically.

"No. This isn't about religion, though some might try to brand it in such a way. No, this is about something else altogether. About what goes on in your head. In your heart. About how you choose to do what you do in life... about the real you. Your individuality and your part in society," Tiger told her.

Myung looked into Tiger's eyes, and saw the glint of the younger man he'd once been. A confindent and even imposing force in her life, and one that would not be kept at bay.

"We need to get out of the tunnel and at least make an anonymous call to the Police. Let them know what happened down here," Myung reasoned with Tiger, honestly thinking that he might be having a senior moment.

"Fair enough, Myung. Let's get you some treatment for that wrist too," Tiger said, gesturing to her right hand.

Myung glanced quickly at Jack's remains.

"Don't look. He's gone," Tiger pulled her quickly to the other tracks and the corresponding service walkway as they headed back to the nearest station.

"He tried to kill me," Myung said to him, somewhat frustrated by the fact.

"The key word is tried, and yet you still live while his karma led him in to another path altogether. Don't let him take more from you, for it is not his due," Tiger insisted.

"He said he's killed many," Myung told Tiger.

"Then perhaps it is best to leave it behind us. You can tell them that when you call them, but be mindful that there are still others who want you dead," Tiger told her as they approached the stairs onto the station platform.

Fortunately, when they ascended into the station, the rush hour traffic was only beginning and they managed to slip through relatively innocuously.

When they arrived out front of the station, Myung quickly hailed a taxi for them. Before the hour's end, they were on their way up to Myung's rental condo apartment at Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street.

As Myung let them into the her pad, she checked her hand. The swelling had gone down significantly, though the bruise remained.

"Looks like its not broken, but its certainly sprained. I'll be off work for at least a week," she commented as she made her way to the living room.

"Have a seat here while I wash up. I'll put the kettle on for some loose tea," Myung said to Tiger as he sat in an overstuffed chair adjacent to her sofa.

"You're doing well, Myung. You don't know how much joy that brings to my heart," Tiger said to her rubbing the ends of his moustache.

"Well, to be honest it took a long time before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. In some ways, I still don't feel like I'm there," Myung responded from the bathroom, the door still open.

"I'm nearing my mid sixties, Myung and I still don't know what I want to do when I'm grown up. I only know that I have do what's true to what I believe, and that I'm thinking for much more than just myself alone," Tiger replied.

"Are you still running the Dojang?" asked Myung.

"I was forced to sell the Dojang, and my business. Cheonyi got sick, and caring for her quickly became a full-time responsibility. A labour of love..." Tiger explained to Myung, his voice growing saddened as he spoke.

"Cheonyi? Your wife?" asked Myung.

"Yes. She died three months ago," Tiger said solemnly.

"Sebomnim... I'm so sorry," Myung arrived from the bathroom, now in a housecoat, her hand cleaned and wrapped in bandages.

"You've nothing to be sorry for. She always liked you. She said you were like the daughter we never had," Tiger smiled as he recalled her words.

Myung sat down and listened as the kettle slowly worked its way up to a boil.

"She fought hard to live, but in the end it was too much for her, and I could feel only her pain as she struggled. I wanted her to have peace, not pain. Then one night three months ago, she said two words to me. I'm sorry, and I knew that was it," Tiger continued.

"I can't imagine how hard that must have been for you," Myung spoke softly.

"At first it was, and then it was a relief to know that she was no longer in pain. That she was living in that place beyond what we're capable of knowing. Perhaps a memory in the minds of those who loved her, and possibly even something else beyond what our senses can measure," Tiger ruminated.

"No boyfriend? Husband? Children? What are you waiting for, Myung?" asked Tiger, trying to change the subject.

"No Mr. Right quite yet," Myung answered honestly.

"Is there ever someone truly perfect?" asked Tiger philosophically.

"Yes. Perfect for me," Myung answered.

"By perfect I take it you mean with compromises...?" asked Tiger.

"Yes. You could put it that way. Perfect compromises," Myung answered as she tended to the boiling kettle, fixing their tea.

"There's no such thing as perfection in any successful relationship or marriage. Perfection is for engineering, where as love is..." Tiger answered back.

"An endangered species?" Myung replied.

"I hope I never see that day," Tiger responded.

"So are you retired now?" asked Myung.

"Semi-retired. I returned to instruction two months ago. I was fortunate enough to sell the Tiger Hoon Kwang brand Dojang as a business to one of the other students of my own Sebomnin. He's been doing well with the business and living up to its standards, and I can't ask for much more than that," Tiger informed Myung.

"Are you teaching there by chance?" asked Myung as she brought them their tea.

"Thank you. No. I'm teaching at a Dojo of all places, working with Hanshi Morgan Hind," Tiger responded.

"A Dojo? Are doing Mixed Martial Arts?" asked Myung, now very curious about his life.

"I've always admired the spirit of competitive sports, but my work in martial arts was always about something more. Myung, there are many things in life that aren't what they seem. Like your house plants here. On the outside, you might look upon them as being simply flowers, some leaves. A few coloured petals and what not, but there's so much more going on inside. A struggle for life and all part of a greater purpose," Tiger continued.

"...and?" Myung queried Tiger.

"You were a student with me for some time before Ai arrived. Do you remember?" asked Tiger.

"You mean Heylyn? Of course I remember her. She was a great student and an excellent sparring partner, even though she was younger. She had a natural ability," Myung recalled their time training together.

"That she did. An unprecedented natural ability, for she carries a history with her. A legacy. A commitment to a higher purpose that goes beyond living from day to day, just to eat, drink and sleep. A life beyond rinse and repeat if you will," Tiger explained to Myung.

"We all do. Its called society. That's how there is a society. Because a bunch of people cooperate..." Myung began as Tiger interrupted her.

"Forgive me, but that's the key isn't it. To cooperate. And just what is cooperation exactly?" asked Tiger rhetorically.

"Accommodating?" Myung replied.

"You're an adult now, Myung. Let's talk not as student and teacher, but as two adults," Tiger said to her respectfully.

Myung thought about what he said, realizing that she was pitting herself in the role of student once again, when in fact they were two old friends talking with one another. Adults, as he'd said.

She then considered what cooperation meant to her, examining the word carefully before answering.

"Cooperation means when people work together voluntarily. Without necessarily compromising one's own views, but upholding their integrity without being uncompromising. Perhaps to achieve some goal greater than can be achieved alone," Myung replied.

"Precisely. Cooperation is exactly that. Working together voluntarily while maintaining one's own integrity, while leaving room for compromise to achieve a greater goal than one alone can achieve by themselves," Tiger explained to Myung, agreeing fully with her answer.

"What does this have to do with Heylyn or the Dojang?" asked Myung, taking a sip from her tea.

"It turns out that cooperation is a multifaceted word and on many levels, but we'll stick with the definition you so earnestly pointed out. Like a teacher and student. For a student to learn, they must discover for themselves, with the guidance of their teacher, whom might give them direction, but never the solution. To learn, one must discover for themselves, sometimes with the guidance of a teacher. A mentor if you will," Tiger explained to Myung.

"Like when you were in the utility room while our hair impaired friend stalked closer to you hidden in the dark, attempting to lure you to reveal yourself, offering mercy as bait. Do you remember?" asked Tiger.

"Yes, I do remember. Feeling terrified... I even entertained what he offered, as if what he was telling me might be true..." Myung recalled what she'd felt as Jack had tried to lure her to reveal herself.

"Do you recall a part of you telling you not to fall for his ploy?" asked Tiger.

"Clearly. It was the voice of reason, keeping me from falling for the lure of what I wanted to hear. Reminding me that he'd already shot twice when he saw me. If he'd had any intent not to hurt me, he would have demonstrated that much differently than by trying to kill me," Myung recalled her experience.

"What prompted you to choose one voice over another?" asked Tiger.

"You mean there were two?" asked Myung.

"Obviously. The voice trying to convince you that what our muscular bald friend was offering was viable, and the voice warning you not to fall for it," Tiger replied.

"Are you saying that you were the voice that was warning me?" asked Myung.

"If you can believe it, then why wouldn't you believe that something else more sinister was and still is trying to lull you into complicity, though at that moment, your life was at stake?" Tiger asked her.

"Are you telling me that my thought processes are the voices of people outside of me?" asked Myung, shocked by the insinuation.

"Not in every single situation, but now that you've been drawn into this merging of the fates, you will no longer be able to return to the life you once had. Everything from this point forward will never be the same for you again Myung," Tiger's voice grew tense.

"You will come to realize that not every feeling you have is originating from within, and if you don't focus consciously on your being and will, you may lose them both..." Tiger urged her as he leaned forward.

"For we are entering into the time where the Two Dragons will meet... Once from the past forward and one from the future backwards. The lines are being drawn... and you Myung have been drafted into the coming war..." Tiger informed her of her new fate.

"A war where the contents of your life will be at stake. Your mind and memories in the hands of your enemies... And you will struggle to maintain that very thing you define as being yourself... The person you refer to as I," Tiger's eyes narrowed as he tried to drive the point to her.

The Bearings Of Day And Night

The latch clicked as Heylyn's keycard triggered the lock mechanism of her condominium unit. She stepped through the door with Warai on her hand, holding the door for Brandon as he carried their collective booty into the threshold.

Heylyn discarded her boots, stowing them in the closet quickly as she retrieved her slippers and a pair for Warai while Brandon carried the load through to the kitchen.

"The load's here. Come and get it," Brandon released the eighty pounds of booty to the floor easily.

Warai in the meantime ran for the sofa, finding herself a comfortable seat before she announced her intent.

"Can we have ice cream yet?" she asked in her tiny voice.

"We certainly can, but first we've got to get this stuff put away," Heylyn responded.

"Can you get the television for her?" asked Heylyn of Brandon, surprised to see that he'd already found a place beside her, using the remote to start the television.

"I would have helped you with putting away those things, but in my experience, some people seem to know where everything goes while I'm not quite sure where you like things..." Brandon told Heylyn honestly.

"Its alright. You're right. I already have a plan when it comes to where things go. So perhaps you'd tell me who house trained you?" asked Heylyn as she stowed the groceries.

"Well, to tell the truth I kind of house trained myself," Brandon revealed.

"Well you did a good job all considered," Heylyn said as she contined unloading the groceries into the fridge and cupboards.

"I'm not quite sure how to say this, but thanks for everything you've done for me," Brandon said uncomfortably.

"You were in a difficult place, not to mention you were looking after this little girl. A girl to whom you're not even related. That's worth some kind of reward, isn't it?" Heylyn said, continuing her organizing.

"Neither are you and look what you're doing for both of us. So tell me, who's going to reward you?" asked Brandon.

"The reward is in doing it, but you have to eat, have a roof over your head and a livelihood. But there's a difference between doing what ought to be done, and doing what you have to in order to survive. You got caught up in one so much that you could barely do the other, so somebody's got to get you on your feet," Heylyn observed.

"That's why butterflies have wings. So they can help people onto their feet!" Warai said enthusiastically, giggling afterwards over her own little joke.

"But they still have that time of month," Heylyn replied, with a hint of sarcasm.

"What time?" asked Warai, innocently.

"Ice cream time!" Heylyn said as she brought them each a bowl of ice cream.

"Yay! Can we have ice cream time every month?" asked Warai enthusiastically as she dug into the contents of her bowl.

"Well, its actually frozen Yoghurt, so we'll see," Heylyn said, returning to the kitchen where she grabbed her bowl and found her way to the sofa taking Warai's other side.


Not far from Heylyn's home on Queen's Quay, Alicia sat with Norler at their dining table in their condo having a quiet dinner together.

"I'll call my real estate agent in the morning and make arrangements to buy another condo unit in this building. There's one on the floor beneath us that would work for Gregory and his mother," Norler said between bites.

"Are you sure we're going to be alright financially?" asked Alicia.

"Well, I've got a sizeable nest egg put away, and the return on some investments to keep us going if things get rough. I don't think we'll need to downsize anytime soon but if I can't find another position, that's going to be a necessity eventually," Norler advised Alicia.

"What about the returns on Gregory's invention?" asked Alicia.

"We're going to have to negotiate something with Gregory, not to mention the legal issues we're undoubtedly going to face from the people who stole Gregory's design," Norler said, already battle weary from the day's events.

"I'm sure Gregory's case is strong, not to mention he knows that device and its design inside and out. He'll be able to stand up to cross examination by experts easily compared their design thieves," Alicia insisted.

"Alicia, if the court is run by the ideology we're facing, then his claim and case against the thieves is as good as done. We're all done, as they'll get to each of us sooner or later," Norler spoke in a desperate tone.

"Look, I still have my job and I bring home quite a bit..." Alicia began.

"Alicia, don't you understand? They're going to can you the first chance they get, and if they can't find a reason, they'll make one. We're being squeezed out one by one, and *everything* is being taken from us. Its a miracle that they haven't gotten to Heylyn yet," Norler responded.

"Look, we'll overcome this. Together. We're just going to have to..." Alicia stopped mid sentence, getting up from the table and running to the bathroom.

She positioned herself over the toilet as she regurgitated her dinner into the bowl. She gagged a few more times, and emptied her stomach, nearly collapsing to her knees if not for Norler catching her.

"I've got you honey," Norler said, holding her up.

"Sorry, I don't know..." Alicia said, as she dry heaved a few more times before she stopped, breathing heavily.

"Can you walk?" asked Norler.

"I think so," Alicia replied weakly.

"We're going to the hospital," Norler began to carry her to the front hall.

"No, I don't want to be trouble Norler," Alicia urged him, but he continued to walk her there.

"Just to be safe. I tend to get worried when my super-powered fiance feels under the weather," Norler said, grabbing her purse as she put her boots on.

An hour later and Norler sat impatiently in the waiting room as the Doctors tended to Alicia somewhere inside of the hospital.

He watched the television, which was reporting about an accident in the subway where an armed man had been run over by a train. When the business news came on, they presented a story about Norler and his firing from Tynan And Associates.

Some of the patrons in the waiting room recognized him, but nobody said anything to him. Instead they kept glancing in his direction occasionally, ensuring that he was still in their midst and Norler immediately thought about the ideology. How they might even be watching him now.

The news ran a full piece about him. His education and the fact that he'd dropped out of high school, but was later trained in business administration thanks to a Government program that had partnered with several colleges and universities. 

From there he'd become a rising star in the boardroom of Helix Strategic Investment Group, a fledgling corporation which managed medical investments. That company was later purchased in a merger that led to the creation of Tynan And Associates, and the rest is history as they say in the vernacular.

Norler listened as his life's story was orated in a matter of minutes before everyone in the waiting room, not to mention everyone watching the news that night. He remained quiet, sitting forward eager to hear from Alicia.

A few minutes later Alicia emerged from one of the doors, a Doctor by her side. In her hands she had a stack of reading material. Her face was flush, and she was obviously restraining a smile that was far too eager to be seen. He felt a sense of immediate relief upon seeing her face and she winked back to him as she finished up with the Doctor.

When they finished their conversation she bid him farewell and left her to talk with Norler, who'd stood and was waiting for her.

"Hi honey," she said, still keeping her smile at bay.

"Don't hi honey me! What's going on?" he smiled at her, as if diffing for the punchline to a joke that she'd shared with the Doctor.

"Well it turns out that its very serious, but thankfully its not contagious," Alicia replied to him.

"And...?" he continued pressing her.

She suddenly moved in close to him, her voice growing quiet and seductive.

"We're pregnant," she said to him, wrapping her arms around him and kissing him with such passion that he nearly fell over backwards.


"I've seen this game before. What is the object of it?" asked Aikiko, who'd donned a tennis outfit with a comfortable fit.

"One of us hits the ball to the other side of the court, which is called a serve. The ball must stay within the boundary lines and can never bounce more than once on either side," Monique began explaining the rules.

"So I must hit the ball before it bounces twice? What happens if the ball doesn't hit inside of the boundary lines, hitting the turf outside?" asked Aikiko, her accent present as she spoke.

"If that happens then there's a point against the last person to touch the ball. So you score points by forcing your opponent into a position where they miss the ball, or they hit it so that it falls outside of the boundary," Monique described for Aikiko.

"Let's just try it? You hit the ball first," requested Aikiko firmly.

"Alright. Here goes," Monique replied, throwing the ball into the air and letting it fall to a point before she drove it quickly to Aikiko's side of the court.

Aikiko seeing that she couldn't possibly make the run, suddenly disappeared into a cloud and reappeared by the ball's trajectory, returning it to Monique's side of the court with a swift side-hand.

The ball touched down and bounced once before Monique could get to it. She chased the ball off the court and returned to the serving position.

"That was good, but we can't use our special abilities. We have to do this without help of that kind. So we'll just ix-nay that from the score," Monique responded.

"You mean this isn't a test of our abilities?" confirmed Aikiko.

"Well, it is, but not the special abilities. If it was like that, I'd kick your butt," Monique replied confidently.

"What makes you think that?" asked Aikiko, craning her head slightly forward and to the left.

"Let's just try it the other way. Improve that part of ourselves rather than our special abilities?" Monique suggested.

"Work on our weaknesses and develop them into strengths. This is *the true way*," Aikiko bowed in agreement with Monique's suggestion, even respecting her for it.

"Glad we could see eye to eye," Monique threw the ball up and whacked it to the other side of the court.

Aikiko had positioned herself mid ways on her side and back far enough to give herself room to move. The ball sped towards the far corner to her right, and Aikiko dashed for the ball, returning it with one swoop.

Her shot arced slightly, directly at the opposite corner. Monique ran for it but kept herself from building momentum. She got to the ball and this time hit it to the other corner. The one Aikiko was already far from.

Aikiko ran for that corner, building momentum as she barely returned the ball to Monique's center court and with little velocity. By the time Monique had returned the ball, Aikiko was still under the influence of her earlier momentum.

The ball slipped into the opposite corner, bouncing once before Aikiko could get to it.

"Hmmm. It seems that one of us was played," Aikiko said, grabbing the ball.

"That's why its a game. So now I have fifteen points and you have zero. We score in increments of fifteen. Whoever reaches forty-five first wins," Monique told Aikiko who took up a different position this time.

"Who serves?" asked Aikiko.

"I do. Whoever scored the last point takes serve," Monique responded as Aikiko threw the ball back to her.

"Here goes," Monique said as she served.

The ball sped directly at Aikiko, dead center. She quickly side stepped and back-handed the ball, returning it to Monique's far corner. Monique ran for the ball returning it, and anticipating that Aikiko would direct it to the other corner positioned herself closer to it than the center.

Aikiko by that time had already returned the shot, smashing the ball just barely over the net. The ball hit inside the corner Monique had just left, and quickly off court giving Aikiko a point.

"O-K. Good shot. You scored a point. I think they call that once bitten, twice shy," Monique responded to Aikiko.

"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Aikiko.

"Its a saying in the west. It roughly means that someone shouldn't fall for the same trick twice. Be wary of offering your hand to a dog that's already bitten you once," Monique explained.

"And did I?" asked Aikiko, already knowing the answer.

"No. You didn't. You caught on quick," Monique replied.

"My serve then, isn't it?" asked Aikiko, repeatedly throwing the ball in the air an arms length out, and catching it by thrust rather than cup, plucking it horizontally from the air.

"Fifteen all. Your serve," Monique replied, startled as Aikiko hit the ball with such a force that it was already upon her before she'd finished her sentence.

Monique barely deflected it sending the ball high into the air, in a tall arc that came down near the net in Aikiko's side of the court. Aikiko leapt into the air and smashed the ball directly at the turf on Monique's side.

Monique ran for the ball, as it reached the apex from its first bounce. She managed to get her racket under it, returning it high once again, though this time it landed on her side of the net.

"You don't have to let me win. It won't make me feel better than I already do. I am fine with myself, Monique, though its flattering that you'd try to help me feel better," Aikiko responded as the ball bounced to a stop.

"As much as I hate to say, you did all of that on your own," Monique responded as she picked up the ball.

"I can see why you and Heylyn liked this game so much. Its as much strategic, as it is tactical. I'd like to play Heylyn some time," Aikiko insisted.

"Maybe someday if she can find the time for either of us, now that she's got her hands full..." Monique replied, somewhat sorrowfully.

"What she has is much more than just a responsibility, Monique. She has the future in her hands. Our future. The future of everything. Not just an inconvenient distraction from her friends," Aikiko responded.

"What made you so difficult and so thick skinned?" asked Monique, who in all honesty just wanted to play the game.

Aikiko paused, catching herself and her sometimes passionate and overbearing drive.

"I guess we should can the game and have a talk with her?" asked Monique.

"Perhaps that would be best, for it seems to be a pressing issue on both our palettes," Aikiko responded.


Jack awoke with a start, leaning quickly up in bed, his bedding soaked with sweat. He'd dreamt of the wheels of a tremendous carriage rolling over his body. Crushing his bones and flesh under their weight.

The sound of clack-clack clack-clack clack-clack forever and endlessly unto his moment of waking. A nightmare. A bad nightmare he thought to himself. He rubbed his eyes with his hands, feeling his way up to his head to find that he had a narrow band of hair around his sides, but nothing on top.

"I grew hair in my sleep?" he asked himself aloud, finding that the voice was not his own.

He examined his arms, finding them flabby and bloated. Then his mid-section, which was volumous and rotund. He got out of bed and saw that his calfs were no longer sculpted, but abundant of flabby mass.

"What the!?" he said to himself, stepping out the door of a room he didn't recognize.

He quickly turned right and into another room, stubbing his foot on the toilet.

"Damn!" he cursed quietly, feeling around in the dark for a light switch.

He suddenly flashed back to the utility room in the subway, and how he'd cornered his prey. He flicked the switch, and he was in a bathroom staring at an unfamiliar face in the mirror.

His face was large and fleshy, nearly absent of a neck.

His shoulders were round and sloped, following the direction of the weight in his abdomen.

"What the...!?" he said to himself in the mirror.

He ran out of the bathroom and back into the bedroom, where he found a wallet on the dresser. He quickly opened it and checked the identification.

"Dan Furdy. Born February 18, 1959..." Jack looked through the wallet further, finding credit cards, bank cards and a membership card to a gym.

"Poor guy certainly never used it. Must have been for show," Jack said through Dan's vocal chords.

"So I'd how'd I get in him?" Jack asked himself.

There was a knock on a door outside of the bedroom. Jack assumed it to be the front door.

He quickly threw on a pair of pants and a shirt from the dresser before running for the door.

He checked the peep hole and saw Mutano's familiar face. Jack quickly unlocked the door and let him in.

"Back from your second failure I see," Mutano said to Jack.

Jack's stress level quickly rose and he felt a sharp pain in his chest.

"What happened to my body?" asked Jack.

"Why it was crushed under the wheels of a train, not twelve hours ago," Mutano said, walking around the room, examining it like an undertaker.

"But why am I in this body?" asked Jack.

"Because you failed," Mutano smiled tritely.

"And if I'd have succeeded?" asked Jack.

"Then you'd be in your own body, or if you died while doing so, a comparable body to your original one," Mutano explained to him.

"How am I supposed to succeed in this body?" asked Jack, clearly stressed by the prospect.

"With effort, though it failed poor Dan just moments before you were in need of a new one. You see, Dan had a heart problem just before his demise. A problem which has been pared back somewhat so you could grow into it. His body I mean," Mutano spoke, satisfied with the harmony of this outcome.

"You did this to me!?" asked Jack, ready to rip Mutano to pieces with his bare hands.

"No. My employer did. It seems that you're well liked, otherwise you'd have had a much crueller fate," Mutano replied.

"You mean being crushed under the wheels of a subway isn't cruel?" asked Jack sarcastically.

"Not compared to other possible fates. I'd suggest you use this as an opportunity. One to reacquaint yourself with what it is to have to work for something. This sixty-three year old body you have still has much potential, waiting for a man of your dedication to exploit. Perhaps you'll get the use out of his gym membership that he never did?" Mutano suggested.

Jack gritted his teeth.

"I suggest you do, for when your final opportunity to prove yourself worthy comes, be ready for it. Believe me, you can't afford to fail the next time," Mutano smiled as he left the condominium.

Jack slammed the door behind him, feeling an intense pressure and pain in his chest.



Mister Philipé Carmen walked through the front doors of Juez de la Corte Suprema, his briefcase in hand.

"Good morning Sylviana. How are you on this fine day?" he asked his personal secretary.

"I am doing well, Mister Carmen. Thank you for asking. There's an urgent package on your desk. Came early this morning," Sylviana advised him.

"I'll get to that right away Sylviana if you'd bring me my morning coffee?" Mister Carmen asked her.

"Right away," she responded as he stepped into his office.

There in the center of his desk sat a small envelope, clearly marked *urgent* in red lettering.

"Now, let's us see what can be so urgent my little friend," Mister Carmen said, putting his briefcase down beside his chair as he sat down.

He opened the envelope carefully with an old Kogi Ceremonial Dagger which he'd commonly use to open his mail, and pulled forth a folded letter from within.

He opened the letter and found only a cellular phone Q-Code in the very center of the page.

"What could this be? Perhaps I've won a prize," Mister Carmen said as Sylviana came in with his coffee.

"Thank you Sylviana," Mister Carmen said as Sylviana placed his coffee on the desk and disappeared out the door.

Mister Carmen pulled his phone from the inside pocket of his jacket, and scanned the code. A moment later, a web browser opened on his phone, taking him to a web host where a video window opened. The video began playing, and at once he recognized the person on screen. It was himself, but several years younger.

He was in a hotel room, removing his tie as a scantily clad Columbian lady danced over to him, rubbing his groin with her hips. He laughed and wrapped his arms around her, massaging her breasts vigorously.

The only problem with the video was that the woman was not his wife. He immediately recognized that it was taken during a convention he'd attended in the north of Columbia. He'd left his family at home and had pursued a sexual fling with a woman he'd met a year earlier.

As he watched the video, he shuddered in horror realizing what had come to pass.

Greetings Senor Carmen. It has been some time since we last spoke, but I suspect that you shall be somewhat more compliant than with our last meeting?

This video and a number of others, including your involvement in a rather crude and deranged sexual assay with another woman that is not your wife, will be made available to the press, and the official opposition party if you do not comply with the following requests.

First and foremost. All of the Juez de la Corte Suprema files on Alomera Constanza Zekestes are to be destroyed, with no copies left anywhere.

Secondly, all of the Juez de la Corte Suprema computer files and records on Alomera Constanza Zekestes are to be deleted and permanently destroyed, including the backups.

Thirdly, you will fabricate a report of Alomera Constanza Zekestes' death, including death certificate which will indicate that he was killed by left wing Columbian Guerillas, and left to be eaten in the jungle.

Any failure of these requests will result in that video and several others being distributed to the press, including the press of North America, and to the opposition party, hence ending your career in shame and tragedy.

Should you pursue any action to investigate this letter, or the servers upon which these videos reside, your family will be excised from existence, starting with your youngest.



Mister Carmen quickly powered off his phone, and used the intercom to contact his secretary.

"Dearest Sylviana, could you please bring me all of the paper files on Alomera Constanza Zekestes?" Mister Carmen asked her in a shaky voice as he fed both the envelope and the letter into his paper shredder.

"Right away Mister Carmen," she responded.

"Oh, and your coffee was perfect," he added so as not to arouse suspicion from her.

After she brought him the files and left him with them, he began to weep as he fed them one by one into the shredder.


Robert Casavetez stood facing a mirror, fixing the knot of his necktie. He took a couple of splashes of aftershave and slapped them on his face before stepping out of the bathroom of his hotel room.

He gathered the last of his belongings as there came a sudden knock on his door.

"They must be early..." he checked his watch, walking over to the door.

"Package for Mister Casavetez?" a courier with an envelope in hand spoke.

"That would be me," Mister Casavetez responded, accepting the envelope and signing for it.

The courier disappeared down the hall as Mister Casavetez closed the door and checked his delivery.

"Urgent? What on Earth...?" he ripped the envelope open and found on it a single Q-Code in the center of the page.

He checked his watch again to see if he had time. Some old habits didn't die so easily.

"Should be plenty..." he said aloud as he used his phone to read the Q-Code.

A web browser window opened up and a video began playing in a window on his phone.

It depicted a table where several men met. One of those men was him. The audio had been amplified and was crystal clear, as the men began to speak.

"Mister Casavetez, what you're doing for our country is greatly appreciated, and this will be reflected in all future trade. It might also prove to be step forward in negotiating inspections of our centrifuge program for uranium enrichment..." one of the negotiators stated, a strong Iranian accent in his voice.

"We designed several of the anti-ballistic missile platforms used by Israel, and we're willing to give you an edge in exchange for key strategic intelligence involving one of your allies, and access to the centrifuges as you said. You wouldn't want anything to happen to them at the hands of hackers again, would you? We'll give you the flight and targeting algorithm of our second generation ABM systems and you'll give us what you said and Israel will be none the wiser to it," Mister Casavetez said clearly.

Text on the screen of the video them gave him instructions.

Dear Mister Casavetez,

It has been a long time since we've had a chance to progress in the area of our differences in both politics and virtue. Both of which you seem to be lacking a compass.

However, I will see to it that Israel and the United Arab Emirates never receive this and other videos of similar negotiations where you've compromised global security just to get a "win" for your President.

I have only a couple of requests to make, and should they both fully be completed to my liking and your ability, said videos will never find their way into anyone's awareness except your own.

First, you will arrange with your partners at Interpol to remove all records of Greg Warley and George Steadman.

Secondly, you will arrange to fabricate a death certificate for Greg Warley, he having died during a helicopter crash just off the coast of Japan some two years ago, fleeing authorities at Tokyo International Airport on July 16.

If you complete this for me, you will only ever hear from me when we next need your services. If you don't, then consider that all of these videos will be in the hands of those who you've ripped off during such negotiations.

If you instead seek to find the servers where these videos are hosted, we will extracate your family from this existence one by one, starting with your youngest.

It has been a pleasure negotiating with you Mister Casavetez.



A Show Of Force

A Show Of Force

Mentis closed the door of his hotel room behind him as he left. He quickly adjusted his platinum blonde coif of hair, perking it up in the front to his liking.

He wore a long suit coat overtop of a silk button-down shirt, a silk tie around his neck dangled across his chest. He looked more a rock star than an ideological leader.

Two large plain clothed security guards preceded him and two walked behind him as the quintet headed towards the elevator.

There was silence as the five of them stood, waiting, though for Mentis there was a literal crowd of millions within his mind's omniscience. Their voices continual, like an ocean of consciousness or just as easily the lack thereof.

The elevator arrived and took the five of them down to the lobby. The security escorted him out to his waiting limousine, even opening the door for him as he arrived. He got into the waiting vehicle as he did every morning while across the street and a block west from him, Heylyn Yates was just finishing her morning jog.

The limousine pulled out into the morning rush hour traffic, heading north up to Dundas Avenue where it turned left, continuing the journey on its way west.

Today was a special session of Parliament, where a Bill C-911 was being presented before the Senate as a stop gap proposal to radically alter environmental regulations throughout the country.

For Mentis however, this session of Parliament would be a test of his reach, and the reach of his millions of minds.

Most of his early morning (nine thirty to the rest of us), was spent in the back of the limousine deep in thought, or reading the morning news on the limousine's lt-in tablet.

By the time the session of Parliament had begun, he put the tablet back in its cradle, and sat back, eyes closed as the driver continued their perpetual route through downtown Toronto.

He concentrated, finding himself in a massive crowd of people through which he quickly navigated. Each mind linked to another in a seemingly endless network of connections between his people.

He navigated this mental web until he found himself within the omniscience of the voting party members of Parliament. He was within all the members of each of the parties, looking outward into the proceedings. 

Through each of their eyes and ears he observed as the Speaker Of The House presented Bill C-911 for its second showing before Parliament and the vote that would either approve or deny it.

Environmentalists and the press had hailed Bill C-911 as a breakthrough in the battle to protect the environment. It was so radical that if approved, it would set the precedent globally for such measures.

However, it wasn't merely a slap on the wrist for industry, for it actually encouraged and rewarded research into sustainable resources and technologies, offering up tremendous tax relief to companies that actually implemented and employed them.

Anything to do with resource extraction that taken sufficient steps to heal and repair the biomes from which industry took such resources, were also rewarded while companies that did nothing would suffer huge penalties on their taxes.

These rewards extended to new businesses and certainly to foreign investment by way of companies setting up in the country who brought with them jobs and leading edge technology beneficial to the environment and progress in protecting it.

As far as the public was concerned, it was a sure deal because it would be political suicide to oppose such a widely supported and innovative bill as C-911.

He listened as the last of the second presentation was made regarding the proposal. Then as the final vote was called, Mentis had his millions of minds reach out and into the minds of those voting.

Despite the fact that most would have voted Yay with regard to Bill C-911, all of them unanimously voted Nay, shocking both the Speaker Of The House and the Governor General.

And in that one moment, Mentis proved that the powers of his millions of minds far exceeded the power of the rule of representation.

"Bill C-911 has been defeated in a vote. I move that we cease the itinerary for today and reconvene next week, so as to give members of Parliament time to cope with the possible public outcry against this outcome," the Speaker moved.

Again, all were unanimous with regard to the outcome of this vote, and Parliament finished for the week, as the members gathered their notes and quickly disappeared amidst what they knew would trigger protests across the country.


Heylyn, who'd been working in her design office had caught the news on television as Warai sat on the table beside her.

"Something's wrong... They didn't help nature," Warai commented.

"You're right. Something is wrong. Very wrong. That Bill was promoted by just about everyone who voted in that room, yet they all voted it down," Heylyn responded to Warai, looking very concerned.

"Maybe they leg jumped?" Warai said excitedly, giggling a bit at the thought.

"Leg jumped? What's that?" asked Heylyn.

"Like when Mr. Bryce hit Braden's leg and made it jump?" Warai reminded Heylyn.

"You weren't even in the room when that happened. How did you know?" asked Heylyn, shocked that Warai would put it all together so quickly.

"I can see lots of stuff. Even when I'm not there," Warai responded to Heylyn.

"How long have you been able to do this?" asked Heylyn.

"Since... since... before I learned to tie my shoe laces," Warai said, thinking about it carefully.

"We'd better call Professor Maxwell and Doctor Briggs," Heylyn said, digging through her purse for her phone.

" of the men that didn't want that nature help, is going to try to hurt himself..." Warai told Heylyn.

"What are you talking about Warai?" asked Heylyn, shocked by what the little girl told her.

"He thinks his job and family is over, so he wants to sleep bye bye," Warai said, her eyes growing tearful.

"Why? Because of the vote?" Heylyn asked Warai, leaning over in front of her to get eye to eye.

Warai nodded.

"Because the big man with white hair made him leg jump when he didn't want to. None of them wanted to," Warai told Heylyn.


Mentis suddenly felt someone looking through him. Someone powerful and encompassing, yet young, innocent and naive.

Mentis then saw a hideous beast. A large serpent with the wings of a Butterfly. It hissed at him and then roared, causing an earthquake of such magnitude that buildings began to fall around him.

Then he saw a garden shrouded Temple, in a distant land. A woman in a silk dress, her hair tied up in an elaborate bun.

Then a woman of considerable physique, in a scaly costume, a pair of large aetherial butterfly wings protruding from her back.

She was in flight, brandishing a large Gem in her arms. Holding it protectively.

Then Mentis was in the back of his limouine, feeling as if he'd been thrown there by a force well beyond his own.

A force beyond his millions of minds.

"Driver, could you please contact Mr. Mutano for me?" asked Mentis.

"Right away Sir," the driver responded.

Information Intercept

"Did the little girl just say that one of the members of Parliament is going to try to hurt himself?" asked Halmand, who looked over to his partner seeing her already on her phone.

"I guess that means yes..." Halmand continued.

"We've got a situation involving a risk to one of the members of Parliament," Tricia began her conversation.

"That's my partner, getting right to the point..." Halmand remarked quietly, overhearing her conversation as she relayed her badge number of operative ID to their radio contact.

"I don't know which MP dammit! The threat is against any one of them, though I don't know which one! Can't you do a wellness check or something? Keep them under a health and safety watch?" demanded Tricia of the RCMP's Protective Operations Division.

"Tricia, you really need to apply for the position of Commissioner," Halmand remarked quietly from his side of the car.

Tricia looked over to him so scornfully that he simply pursed his lips and looked the other way.

"Really? That's perfect. Please do. Oh and thank the Director Of Operative Intelligence for backing me up on this, because this is going to make you guys shine, simply because you saved a life. Possibly more. You're going to shine," Tricia affirmed.

"You know, I thought I had you figured out when *you* came to *me* looking for someone to back you up in a bank robbery investigation, but it turns out I was wrong," Halmand said, but only when he was sure her convseration with Protection Services was finished.

"Well I guess that makes us even," Tricia replied, pocketing her phone as they listened to the background audio of the West Meet East Design Office.

"How's that?" asked Halmand.

"I thought I had you figured out when the first words out of your mouth weren't a camouflaged pickup line," Tricia looked to him, fiercely at first.

Then she eased up and smiled, nodding at him as he decoded her statement.

The Balance Of Power

Alomera Zekestes sat in his cabin, reading one of the new selection of books the Steadman had afforded him. They were mostly self help books, as if Steadman was toying with him and his psyche.

"When you can't change the world around you, your only answer is to change you," Steadman said to him as he handed him the stack of books.

"You ever think that maybe your being here is simply a matter about your attitude? Read those books and things might change for you," asked Steadman, who then began to laugh, almost maniacally as he walked away leaving Zek with two guards just outside of his cabin.

Steadman then began to whistle the melody of a eerily familiar song.

Zek held his expression, merely adding cruelty and mockery as additionally noted observed layers of Steadman's finer qualities and depths.

"Oh, and I've received word that our first demands were delivered to the parties involved and that they've been complied with entirely. Welcome to a world that forgot about you, Zek." Steadman stopped to remark to Zek, who merely craned his head to face him.

"You and me both," Zek reminded him.

"I've dispatched our first politically motivated requests, just to get the pot stirred up before the end game. An invasion here, an arrest there, and even an assassination," Steadman advised Zek.

"Be careful with that power you wield so foolishly, because if you over use it, they'll join forces to take us out. Always keep them at each other's throats," Zek advised Steadman reluctantly.

"And so I did, but thank you Mr. Advisor. For that advice and for getting us this far, I'm going to do you a favour. Take your pick: an unlocked cabin with a daily curfew, or your locked cabin with nightly visits from a woman," Steadman asked Zek.

"Either way, you'll be under constant guard. So what'll it be, Zek?" asked Steadman.

"Can I think on it?" asked Zek, raising one of his eyebrows.

"You have twenty four hours," Steadman tipped his hat to Zek and contined his song from earlier.

"Love, exciting and new. Come aboard, we're expecting you... The love boat, soon we'll be making another run..." Steadman then continued his trip back up to the bridge, singing the theme from the Love Boat and practically dancing every step of the way.

It was his way of celebrating their recent victory over the authorities and the complete erasure of his criminal record and data. Both him and Zek now had no data in any law enforcement records and they were both considered dead.

"How does it feel to be dead, Zek?" asked Steadman before he stepped through the doorway and up the stairs.

At that moment Zek would have given anything for a finely crafted revolver with which to shoot the man in the back of his head.

"Into your cabin now Zek," one of the guards ordered him after unlocking the door for him.

"I'm going to need some help with my books, at least putting them away. My shoulders are shot, so I can't lift anything higher than chest height, not to mention my hand, or rather the lack thereof," Zek explained, shakily holding onto his stack of books.

"I'll give him a hand. I used to run the book program at El Manzano Prison. Believe me, if you can handle any book, you can handle any crook. Don't try anything funny Zek," the guard reminded him, grabbing the load of books from him as Zek made his way to his bed.

"I appreciate your candor. As I get older and more frail, having someone to assist me where need be is a growing concern," Zek responded, leaning back against the headboard of his bed.

"Well don't look to me old man, cuz I ain't here to help nobody but myself. Your needs didn't take me off my path, so I'm accomodating you," the guard said.

"I had a short stay in La Modelo... Antonio?" asked asked Zek.

"Yeah. Antonio. How'd you know?" asked Antonio.

"I listen well. I overheard another guard call you by name," Zek replied honestly.

"I had a bunk mate who did time in La Modelo. He got his throat cut ear to ear. Turns out he was a rat. You wouldn't happen to be anything like him, would you?" asked Antonio, turning to face Zek.

"No Antonio, I'm nothing like him. You did a good job. You must have been a hell of a librarian, Bendeco," Zek responded calmly.

Antonio turned to face him, cocking his SMG and chambering the first round from the magazine. He aimed the gun directly at Zek.

"I don't care who you are or were, Zek. Don't ever call me that again," Antonio spit on Zek's bed, pitching a piece of refuse paper at Zek and hitting him in the head.

"Alright you two, calm down. Let's go Antonio. I gotta lock him up," the other guard ordered Antonio, who reluctantly stepped out of the cabin.

"Sweet dreams," the other guard said as he locked the door from the outside, taking up guard position outside of Zek's cabin.

"You're relieved Antonio. Go get some grub and then get some sleep, as you've got a shift starting at 0400 sharp," the other guard reminded Antonio.

"Already on my way," Antonio pulled the magazine from the SMG. 

He then removed the chambered round and inserted it to the front of the line in the magazine, before reinserting it into the SMG.

"Gotta be prepared," Antonio laughed as left the other guard to get some food in the galley.

Meanwhile, Zek had gotten out of bed and found the piece of paper that Antonio had thrown at him. He quickly uncrumpled it and found a written message thereupon:

Three aboard. More coming soon. Be prepared.

Grasping For Power

The first of the scandals had made the rounds through the news around the world, and every continent had been hit by its own share of scandal.

Adultery was the first and most common of the appetizers, while bribery and nepotism were close in that race of politics. Then there were the arms trade deals (akin to the Iran Contra deal), most of which violated international law, though most such deals were kept secret, while the countries who negotiated used the diplomatic weapon of the same accuasations against others.

One by one political careers fell to the cinders of infamy and scandal as the press presented the details of information they'd received. At first, the press were honest and presenting the truth, and then competition set in and every big media outlet was vying for a piece of the pie.

They were like fish in a pond jumping at the hook as the bait was still being loaded onto it.

In one day, Steadman and Zek had seen the careers of over sixty-three politicians leveled in scandal as they dealt with those who'd resisted their reach for power. That of course did not include the resignations anticipating the same treatment by the same mysterious force.

By the day's end, they'd figured out that the other power they needed to contend with was the power of big business and technology. As it happened, Zek's immense database contained inside information about every up and coming CEO, even while they were still in college were his crew collecting intel about them.

His database had information about all the influencers, and how social and streaming media would become the new platform upon which real power was built. Of course, the politicians would try to quell and trim that power as much as they could with regulations and statutes, but in the end that battleground would find its place in the boardrooms rather than the various Senates, Congresses and Boards of the world.

In the course of just one day, they'd restrained the entire global economy, confining it to their rules. Any who did not comply would quickly find their careers at an abrupt end.

Those who'd survived the earlier era of Alomera Zek immediately recognized it when it pounced upon the world from the darkness of ignorance. They'd known the eyes, the ears and the teeth, but most of all, its claws.

They knew to remain in the background rather than to jump up in front, frothing at the mouth to confront this hidden terror. Those who did would simply become next week's scandal. The more their fight, the higher their fall.

Yet within this predatory environment they'd created, there existed something else that Zek had not encountered before, or so he thought. Steadman recognized it too, that there was something - collective - about humanity, far beyond union and worker's rights that had remained hidden. Observing this new predator on their field, perhaps devising a way to consume it?

"In one day Zek, we've brought most of the modern world to its feet! How can you not celebrate such a thing?" asked Steadman, already several drinks into his night.

"There's the question of that other... aspect I've never encountered... I'm sure you noticed it too?" Zek asked, perhaps more so to confirm his upper hand more so than deny it.

"You're the one whose had his hands on this wheel. Tell me! Is there something more we've missed?" Steadman bluffed.

"Perhaps not then, though many of our quarry seem to be in fear of something else... otherwise we'd have seen half as many downfalls..." Zek pondered the possibilities.

"Well aren't the downfalls an indication of our power?" confirmed Steadman, playing dumb.

"Not so. Actually we want fewer downfalls, for that indicates resistance to our measures. We want people malleable by our methods rather than resistant to them. Therefore, if they fall, that is their will rather than ours," Zek explained.

"Perhaps they need re-acquainting with your methods?" asked Steadman.

"I've made a decision about your ultimatum," Zek replied, looking unimpressed by Steadman's ramblings, for it was power he'd experienced a thousandfold years before. Territory he knew too well.

"Oh really? So what do you choose? I'm ever so interested to know," Steadman leaned over to bite Celeste's ear, who'd just arrived to take a seat by his side. She snarled back at him, delicately biting his nose.

"I'd like to have a room without a lock," Zek spoke calmly.

"You do realize that there will still be a cerfew held against you. At least until I know you are a part of our team," Steadman spoke, paying more attention to his female guest than Zek.

"And what team is that?" asked Zek somewhat blandly.

"Why... the team that worships your throne," Steadman looked at Zek straight in the eyes, holding his firm glance until the liquor hit him, thrusting him into an insidious laughter which he quickly plunged upon the lips of his guest.

The two of them laughed together for a time, nibbling on each other's lips before silence returned to the table.

"And what of this Alicia woman you speak so highly of?" asked Zek, playing his highest ranking card.

"You say nothing of her again! You filth!" Steadman stood, grabbing his fork and driving it angrily into his wooden table.

Steadman slowly sat down and turned his attention to Celeste.

Zek remained calm as best he could while the two lavished each other with kisses.

"I wish to turn in. I'm ever so tired," Zek spoke, interrupting their play.

"...of our conversation?" asked Steadman accusingly.

"No. Of your lack of company," Zek smiled, licking his lips seductively for Steadman, who smirked at his show of affection.

"Go! Have your room, fool. In the morning I will have the guards disengage your lock, but your cerfew will still be in effect. Understood?" asked Steadman, rubbing his left hand heavily on Celeste's fleshtoned pantyhose clad thigh.

The guards arrived and lifted Zek up, directing him towards the long walk along the deck and back down into the rear cabins of the Gearing Class Destroyer known as the Many Faced Maiden.

Officer Up

Tricia pushed through the front door to the care facility and into the special care unit, Halmand following behind her frantically.

Two guards, armed with SMGs stopped them for an indentification check, directing them towards a card reader device. Tricia presented hers first, passing the check with machine chirp, followed by Halmand, much the same.

The two guards signaled four other hidden guards with a special hand signal that their two marks had passed clearance.

"Entre vous, your highness," one of the guards spoke.

"Thankee sai," Tricia responded without hesitating, Halmand quick to keep up with her.

They walked through another set of doors where a Nurse and Doctor conversed, and then through another door into the patient's room, where they approached his bed as he sat up, to face them.

"How are you Angus?" asked Tricia.

"You know, I've been shot before. I caught two in the vest three years ago. I certainly felt it, all three rounds. They came from a MAC-10, when some gangster guarding his drug lab decided to shoot rather than raise his hands. Ever since, I've been a humbled worshipper at the Church of Kevlar, and always will be. Amen," Angus replied.

"Looks like your faith paid off," Halmand responded.

"Getting shot by a longer barreled nine mil at close range, especially our trooper MP5-SDX gear was a bit more... how you say? Uncomfortable?" Angus responded.

"So the Doctors said. I'm just glad to see you're up," Halmand responded, smiling for the tactical operations specialist.

"Are you ready to talk about it yet?" asked Tricia, her gaze steadfast and determined.

"That's excactly why you're here, isn't it? You want me to rat out my fellow unit Officers?" asked Angus, already knowing the answer.

"Rats shoot other Officers. In all honesty, you'd be telling me about rats, not real Officers," Tricia assured him.

"Do they train you guys in this? How to get into a man's head? Especially a man who has put all of his trust into that of his fellow unit members..." Angus began, looking to his arm to adjust his intravenus feed.

"Do you feel how your unit members responded to your orders was right?" asked Halmand.

"Let me ask you the same thing with your CO (Commanding Officer) Standing right over you. Eyes, ears and who knows what else focused upon your answer. Ready to take you down if need be," Angus replied.

"We're trained to uncover the truth, to answer your question Angus," Tricia looked to him reassuringly.

"So how do I know that you aren't in on this too? I've got a family and a punctured lung to remind me of why I should keep quiet," Angus asked Tricia.

"Angus, when I was a little girl, I grew up on a farmstead just outside of Georgetown. My father ran a stable breeding thoroughbred horses for the region. As it turned out, when I was thirteen, I started working for him as a stable hand," Tricia began.

"A great job for a young idealistic girl like me who loved horses, though they didn't often love me so much," Tricia continued.

"My dad used to sell them once of age and training for various purposes. He loved the business because he loved horses. But sometimes business doesn't notice when its product isn't getting as much love as its money," Tricia looked to the floor, shaking her head.

"As it turned out, my father had hired a stable hand who'd routinely abuse the horses, especially our star performer. A solid and loving Mustang who just loved the fun of the run. To be free on four hooves," Tricia continued her story.

"As it turned out, he was regularly kicking the horse's shins, and punching him in the mouth. He was abusing the poor animal, and that poor beast just gave up..." Tricia spoke, her chin held high as she recalled.

"Then one day, the RCMP came to us looking to use us as a source for new foals for their early training and rearing program, and I met one of their horse handlers. I got to know her. You see, the poor Mustang loved us so much, that it wouldn't cry about the abuse it was receiving from that abusive handler" Tricia continued.

"Then one day, that same RCMP horse handler told me: everything will be alright. Your fine young Mustang will be just fine and loved, but you have to tell me if someone has been hurting *any* of the horses here," Tricia paused, recalling that defining moment in her life.

"And I thought, if I hold my tongue about that handler who abused that poor Mustang, then more will suffer the same fate. But he's a stable handler like me and we're supposed to have each other's back.  So do I tell or not?" Tricia explained her story.

"So what did you do?" asked Angus, listening intently.

"I was there for the horses, as were all of the stable handlers, but none of us were there to abuse these free creatures..." Tricia recalled, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes.

"I did my duty, but more importantly. I did what was right!" Tricia replied.

"The horse handler? She was there as part of an RCMP investigation. As it turns out, someone did care. Someone always does. That's the way of things and what we protect by our sworn duty," Tricia recalled, holding her tears back.

"Six years later, when I was old enough and despite my attrocious performance in horseback riding, I joined the RCMP. Foot. Hoof and all. So tell me Angus. Why did you join the force?" asked Tricia, her eyes full of resolve.

"Well, with all these superheroes running around nowadays, I honestly don't remember," Angus answered.

"Did you ever think that maybe to some people, you already were superheroes?" asked Tricia.

"I'll second that," Halmand added.

"You know, working in tactical operations, we're trained to act as a unit. A group of people working together so tightly that we become something much more proficient and deadly, if the situation calls for it," Angus began to explain.

"Forget all that macho bullshit you hear about us. My unit has three female officers and they're just as tough as any of the guys. Mind you, it does take a certain kind of person to make a good tactical operations officer, but that person is always a team player," Angus continued, adjusting his position in the bed while holding his IV catheter in place.

"When we get recruits that prefer to run solo, that training didn't weed out, they're usually tasked as unit snipers. Guys and girls that don't quite play as well in tight quarters operations, who are still team players nontheless," Angus explained.

"My point is, that we spend all of our working life with that having each other's back mentality. No matter the situation. Right or wrong. Good or bad. When one us breaks that silent code, they're usually cast out. I've only seen it happen once in my career, and to another veteran of the force," Angus continued.

"They're usually squeezed out and end up in a desk job, and one that is not so mission critical. Their lives are certainly never the same again. There's never a situation where someone being squeezed out is actually shot at by their own fellow team members, and certainly not their Sergeant," Angus rubbed the entry point of his wound, looking to Tricia and Halmand, each in turn.

"That would be like the chickens taking out the rooster, forgive the implied pun on gender there, as I'm referring more to hierarchy. In our unit, if someone isn't fitting the bill, there are channels to go through to deal with it that don't involve spent ammunition and smoking barrels," Angus explained, mimicking a gun with one of his hands.

"If something of that nature was coming, I'd have heard it in the radio chatter, because that sort of thing requires planning and coordination to execute, and as the acting Sergeant for the unit, I'm privy to all radio chatter and I didn't hear nothing, not to mention see it coming. So how the hell did they coordinate something like that without me seeing it coming?" asked Angus.

"It wasn't a coincidence that you ended up under our protection, Angus. Is there anything you can give us that might help us in our investigation?" asked Tricia, gesturing to Halmand.

"That depends, and I don't mean diapers, though thanks to my internal organ damage it looks like I'll be wearing them a lot sooner than well into my retirement. What is it you're investigating?" asked Angus.

"Any indications of a clandestined organization that did this to you, and will probably do it to others in the future," Tricia explained to Angus.

"By clandestined, you mean like terrorists?" confirmed Angus.

"You tell me. I'm the one asking the questions here, and we're desperate for your assistance in this matter," Tricia pleaded to Angus.

"That sounds like the kind of textbook psychology response I'd expect from you Feds..." Angus responded, a little stand-offishly.

"We're both cops playing for the same team, Angus. You're the defense, Halmand here is left wing, and I'm center ice. Are you going to hold it against us simply because we're not on the same line?" asked Tricia.

"So you want me to squeal on my team, to benefit yours. Is that right?" asked Angus.

"No Angus. The truth is that whoever did this to you isn't on your team or my team, or our civilization's team. They're something else entirely on their own, and they're getting rid of us one by one," Tricia stepped closer to the bed as Halmand listened.

"If you're insinuating what I think you are, we're treading into dangerous territory. Teams change all the time. Its called an election. Are you going to stop due process too?" Angus reminded Tricia.

"Do you recall being given the option to vote when the decision to fill you with nine millimeter parabellum slugs was made?" asked Tricia, throwing his argument back at him.

"Damn. Its always about us versus them, isn't it?" asked Angus, suddenly feeling cornered.

"When they don't violate the rights and freedoms of other citizens to achieve their agenda, they're us. That line that divides us is one of principle and morality, protected by law. When they cross that line, that's when we get involved. The us and them of it is defined by their actions versus ours. There's a middle ground called laws, statutes and policy, that protects everyone and their rights. That's what you swore to protect to earn that badge. So start protecting it," Tricia pressed Angus.

"Angus, we're more interested in what than who. We'll get to who at the right time, but right now its more important for you to speak about what," Halmand added.

"We're investigating something that transcends the concept of who, and as you know, building a case without that distinction is nearly impossible, but a challenge we have to surmount because everything is at stake," Tricia urged Angus, whose eyes narrowed as he came to the same realization.

"Alright. I'll tell you the what of what I know. What I suspect, but you're going to keep this between us, because I don't want to end up in a padded cell, being force fed prozac every four hours if you know what I mean," Angus reasoned with Tricia and Halmand.

"You're under our protection, and we're armpit deep in this already. Not to mention, you aren't the first one to request the same thing," Tricia admitted to Angus.

"How'd it turn out for them in the end?" asked Angus.

"Pretty good so far, but this investigation is far from over," Tricia told Angus.

"Then warm up your pens and listen up..." Angus began speaking about what led up to the point of his shooting inside of the convention center.

Warai's Vision

Heylyn unlocked the door to her condominium, guiding Warai gently in the door.

"Where should I put these vegetables?" asked Braden.

"Um, the kitchen counter is fine. Just outside of the fridge," Heylyn responded.

"Oh wow! Barbapapa special!" Warai responded having just turned on the television, bouncing excitedly on the sofa.

"You watch Barbapapa too?" asked Braden of Warai.

Warai giggled for half a minute, rolling around on the sofa before landing upright beside Braden.

"No. I don't laugh without friends," she smiled, her giggles barely restrained.

"Well, you've got a friend here," Braden responded, watching Barbapapa beside her.

"Don't worry about me, I've got this by myself," Heylyn replied, quickly dispensing all of the veggies into the fridge while Warai and Braden both watched Barbapapa in awe.

"Do you mind if I stay? Watch some TV with you two? I've got a few good books online, but I don't feel like staring at a tablet screen alone for the night. Kinda lonely," asked Braden.

"No, not at all. You're welcome to stay as long as you like," Heylyn replied, only slightly hinting at something more, though she wasn't sure if Braden in his naivety had caught her innocent innuendo.

"I haven't worked this late into the evening for some time," Heylyn remarked as she emptied the last of the bags, tidying up afterwards as she got ready to prepare a light dinner for them.

"Since your last fashion show I'd bet?" Braden responded, starting to understand the nature of her business having worked for nearly a week at West Meet East.

"Its my passion. Good thing too, considering the amount of time I've put into it," Heylyn explained as she thought about how the events of her life had taken her to this point in time.

How differently things might have turned out had she settled down and married to start a family as her parents had hoped for. She surmised that in such a case, she'd not have her own company and that she'd probably be working for another major fashion conglamerate in a nine to five position.

Now here she was and all the things her parents had hoped for were slowly falling into place, mind you in a way that she nor anyone would have ever expected.

She looked to Warai, who was smiles and giggles at that point as she watched the television with Braden. A little girl with her whole life ahead of her. A little girl who'd tapped into abilities that went far beyond empathy and intuition.

Heylyn knew that her and Warai had more in common as a result of this fact, though she hadn't considered how as a parent she might deal with it. Should she use her experiences as the Butterfly Dragon to carefully guide Warai towards her destiny as the Gem, or would she through serendipity arrive there herself so long as Heylyn protected her.

"Do you like spicy or mild?" asked Heylyn of Braden, once again with the hint of innuendo.

"Spicy, but I'll have whatever is most convenient for you and Warai," Braden replied.

"Spicy is too hot!" Warai responded, recalling the first time her delicate little nose had taken in the aroma of a hot green curried shrimp dish Heylyn had prepared, though she'd given Warai a very tame version of the same thing.

"Spicy is for the old people like Heylyn and I, but good young little girls like it very mild. Right?" asked Braden.

"Right!" Warai replied, a puzzled look coming over her face.

"What's wrong?" asked Braden.

"Do you think Barbapapa sees things too?" asked Warai, turning her attention away from the television and directly to Braden.

"I don't know. Barbapapa can change shape pretty easily. Maybe they see things too," Braden said diplomatically, drawing Heylyn's respect.

"Are you alright honey?" asked Heylyn, somewhat concerned especially given the recent revelation she'd had from Warai about such visions.

"I see a dragon," responded Warai, looking over to Heylyn.

"Like Welly?" asked Heylyn as Braden turned the volume down slightly on the television to a level conducive of their discussion.

"No. It has no wings like a butterfly. Its dark. Slimy and shadowy..." Warai said, the look of fright clearly evident on her face.

"Its alright Warai. We're here to protect you," Braden assured her, rubbing her back gently.

"There's a mirror and its looking in it..." Warai continued, her bottom lip trembling.

"Can you see the mirror too?" asked Heylyn.

"Yes, but I don't want to look, but I have to look," Warai explained, her mouth pouting as if ready for the tears to flow.

"Don't look if you don't want to look. You don't have to. Nobody, not even a dragon can make you look," Heylyn assured Warai, whose eyes looked pleadingly back.

"But I want to. So I can help the butterfly... but..." Warai face indicated emotional trauma.

"I'll always protect you honey," Heylyn assured Warai, turning the gas stove off and coming over to sit beside Braden, Warai between them.

"I see the mirror but... its Welly in the reflection..." Warai spoke courageously, staving off tears.

"Its alright, Warai. What you see in your head can't hurt you, and sometimes seeing it and knowing it, can help you," Heylyn explained to her.

"But they're fighting! They're trying to take something from each other. All for themselves! It has wings like a butterfly..." Warai became ecstatic.

"What is it Warai?" asked Heylyn, suddenly wishing that she could see what Warai saw.

"Its... its... everything!" Warai exclaimed.

At that very moment, the door bell rang, along with a chime from Heylyn's phone.

Warai's face calmed and she looked at the television again, seeing Barbapapa transform into a butterfly.

"Clickety click. Barba-trick," the little cartoon character said as its form changed to that of a butterfly, so it could fly safely out of a pit.

Warai suddenly giggled, her face a bundle of joy once again.

Heylyn looked to Braden, who returned the same glance and at that moment, Heylyn knew she was looking at the Warai's future father.

They shared another quiet moment, simply looking at each other as Warai had become distracted by the television.

"Would you like me to...? Should I...?" Braden began, Heylyn's eyes longing for him to finish his sentence.

"I've got to get the door," Heylyn once again recalled the risk of pain there was in committing to someone.

Her heart said yes, but the rest of her simply wasn't ready to take such a risk.

"I've got her," Braden said, referring to Warai.

"I know," Heylyn responded as she backed away.

She turned and made her way down the front hall of her condominium towards the front door.

"Monique? Aikiko? Good to see you two. I was just fixing dinner but I haven't quite began cooking yet. I could throw something on for you two if you'd like?" asked Heylyn, letting her guests into the condo.

Monique looked to Aikiko, whose eyebrows raised at roughly the same time her stomach agreed with an audible squawk.

"Sure. Home cooked dinner? I'm in. Yes! Don't I have impeccable timing," Monique smiled, dancing her way past Heylyn who held the door open for them.

Aikiko tried desperately to emulate Monique's unique dance steps, with not quite the same grace and bravado.

"She's still working on her step. She'll get there," Monique said as she continued on into the kitchen area when she spied Warai and Braden.

"Is this a bad time Heylyn? We could come by tomorrow and..." Monique asked, wondering if their unannounced arrival might have been more of an intrusion.

"Don't be silly, Monique. You're as welcome now as you were when I brought you on board," Heylyn assured her friend and employee.

"Silly is my middle name," Monique responded, flashing a smile at Warai who giggled.

"Monique Silly Flower!" Warai smiled and laughed.

"Have you been teaching her French? She got my last name translated correctly," Monique asked Heylyn who made her way back to the fridge to grab more food for her stir-fry concoction.

"No, that's all Warai. She's special," Heylyn smiled, ensuring that the toddler got the credit she deserved.

"And that's why you need to be the kind of guardian she truly needs," Aikiko said firmly, looking fiercely at Heylyn, though Heylyn knew she was referring to the Butterfly Dragon.

Heylyn bit her tongue, despite how offended she was by Aikiko's statement.

"O-K. So what are you watching here? It looks pretty epic to me," Monique said, spying the cartoon as it approached the end of its episode.

"Barbapapa! Barbapapa! Barbapapa!" Warai said three times, giggling again as Monique took a seat beside Braden, with Warai between much to Heylyn's appreciation.

Heylyn simply did not trust Aikiko, and despite their having come to a peaceful co-existence, she kept her guard up whenever Aikiko was around. Especially in the presence of Warai.

The episode of Barbapapa ended, with the butterfly landing back in its home and transforming back to its original form. An ovoid blob of cartoon colours.

"That was awesome!" Monique said enthusiastically, once again drawing laughter from Warai.

"One of my favourites too," Braden smiled, Warai sticking close by his side as Heylyn watched over protectively as she cooked.

"When I was six years old, I began studying martial arts at my family Dojo. There was only work and study. Work. Study. Work. Study. Every day," Aikiko said in disgust as she watched the cartoon credits roll.

"Warai worked today, and studied too," Heylyn said in the little girl's defense.

"She did! I saw when I came to visit my boss at work," Monique backed up Heylyn, trying to bridge the gap between her and Aikiko.

"Martial arts too?" asked Aikiko, pushing her presence to its fullest.

"No. Warai hasn't started martial arts, but if she wants to later on, she can study any martial art of her choice as long as it doesn't interfere with her education," Heylyn said defensively.

"Martial arts is education!" Aikiko challenged Heylyn.

Heylyn immediately stopped cutting the extra food she'd put out on the cutting board to deal directly with Aikiko.

"You're telling that to a Sifu of Wing Chun, not to mention a Sixth Degree Blackbelt of Goju-Ryu and a Master Blackbelt, Gold Stripe Sebomnim of Tae Kwon Do. Not to mention I'm trained in the Nine Secret Forms of the Butterfly Dragon. A disclipline that has existed for three thousand years, becoming developed fully into a secret martial system during the Song Dynasty era of Ancient China," Heylyn reminded Aikiko that she was dealing with a Master Martial Artist.

"The Tanaka Family Dojo existed through the Feudal Era in Japan during a time of warfare that lasted six hundred years, becoming a perfected system of combat through actual life and death trials on the battlefield. Not in some soft padded floor temple where rich Millenials train so they have ego food to elevate their status amongst their rich friends at their boring ego fuelling parties," Aikiko responded with vicious fervor.

"Padding prolongs training and averts injury. There's nothing more abstructing to training than a debilitating injury, and anything that interferes with training is an obstacle to the very principles of Martial Arts," Heylyn replied, once again defending the use of training aids that prolonged training longevity and endurance.

"Sensei Yates, if I may interject. Hard floors and unforgiving surfaces are what weeds out the strong from the weak. Without difficult trials, the strong become weak and the weak become weaker. Without full contact Kumite, agility and senses become dull. Reflex and response becomes routine. On a true battlefield, the battlefield of life, predictable routine is the road to death. Innovation and adaptibility are the road to victory. Hardship develops innovation, while coddling develops weakness!" Aikiko's eyes flared with her response.

"Heylyn is an awesome tennis player by the way. Squash too, and that's pretty hard," Monique did her best to alleviate the growing tension.

"I defeated you, Monique. I think Heylyn wouldn't be that much more difficult," Aikiko responded, looking solely at Heylyn.

"I haven't played for some time. Too busy with work," Heylyn smiled, bringing the knife down upon the extra veggies she'd pulled from the fridge extra hard.

"Much like you're too soft and busy to raise a little girl that needs a much more firm hand! I think you'll be the end of us all by your neglect of responsibility raising the Gem!" Aikiko laid it all out and upon Heylyn at once.

"What did you just say? Would you care to repeat that for me?" Heylyn put the knife down on the cutting board, her skin flaring visibly with dragon scales at Aikiko's words.

"I said that you're an unfit mother for the saviour of humanity, not to mention an unfit mother!" Aikiko stood, defying Heylyn clearly as Warai looked back and forth between the two.

"Whoa boy! Why don't just take things down a tad bit..." Monique began as Heylyn's eyes narrowed, and a rage that she'd kept contained for years came to the surface.

Heylyn's skin became diamond hard scales, and then fluctated back to her regular soft skin as her glowing aetherial wings extended from her back.

"Oh no..." Monique said, already anticipating what was coming.

Then, so fast that nobody could have seen what had happened, Heylyn flew across the counter directly at Aikiko, grabbing her upper body and dragging her through the glass sliding doors to Heylyn's balcony and into night air above the Toronto skyline.

Hockey Night In Canada

[This chapter is dedicated to my best friends in youth and all of them ardent hockey fans who made this chapter possible. 

Truth be told, I can't think about them without thinking about hockey in the same thought: 

Russell Haines, one of the few fans of comic books whose knowledge of Marvel and DC universe rivals my own. Russell tragically died years ago, leaving us all with the strength of his inspiring character to persevere through life in his absence and to do well by him and for his memory. A person truly clear of conscience and of vividly inspiring character and work ethic.

It is also dedicated to Darrell Haines. Darrell was an incredibly creative artist in his youth and a heroic survivor of Brain Cancer more recently who has worked passionately his whole life, inspiring all who have come to know him, including yours truly. Darrell finds a way to secretly tickle us all, whether we like it or not and we're all the better for it. Darrell is most likely one of the best assets of Honda Canada, where he has plied his trade for years.

Stephen is a philosopher and scholar of great wisdom that goes far beyond his years, a quality that is only surpassed by his wonderful heart and ability to reach within those he befriends and lead them towards their own passion. If gab is a gift, then Stephen is amongst the most gifted, though I suspect philosophy and inspiration will be his greatest gifts to humanity.

Lee Fernandez is perhaps the living embodiment of Wolverine, though a Wolverine that found peace and inspiration through his immense propensity for entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to his values, and his efforts to help his friends. Lee takes it upon himself to enlighten others, even going out of his way to get others on their feet, for Lee sees helping others as helping himself. How wrong can he be? Rather, how right he is. 

Russell, Darrell, Stephen and Lee, here's to The Twilight Zone, The Big Bop, The Brunswick House, King Edward Drive, Comic Books, good friends, wicked Tequila hangovers and all of the great stories we could tell over a beer with friends. 

Cheers and Happy Holidays!

Your friend always, 


Braden shielded Warai from any glass that might have hit her, though it all flew outwards from the balcony rather than into the condo. By that time Heylyn was already dragging her quarry out into the sky above one of Canada's largest cities.

"What did your family Dojo tell you about fighting in mid-air?" screamed Heylyn as she flew Aikiko out further into the air above central downtown Toronto.

"Whatever goes up, must come down!" Aikiko responded, throwing a punch at Heylyn's solar plexus as Heylyn's scales appeared in anticipation of such a move.

Aikiko's fist collided with the hardest substance known to humankind, neither yielding thanks to Aikiko's immense control of her Ki.

Heylyn was slightly winded by a blow that would have easily killed ten men. She dropped Aikiko, letting go of the tattoo clad woman over the city illuminated skies above downtown Toronto.

Aikiko didn't struggle or flail as she fell. Instead, she folded her arms across her chest, and a dark cloud opened up beneath her, enveloping her within. She disappeared as Heylyn regained her orientation.

Ten meters above the Toronto sidewalk just outside of Scotiabank Arena, another dark cloud opened up in, wisps of dark air reaching out from the exhaling mass as Aikiko emerged, falling to her heels on the sidewalk, bending her knees with the impact.

Onlookers startled by her sudden appearance backed away from the imposing woman and her presence as she braced herself from what she knew was coming to meet her.

Heylyn, some eight-hundred meters above the Toronto skyline suddenly found Aikiko, thanks to her Butterfly Dragon senses. She clearly saw Aikiko standing down on the sidewalk just outside of a local stadium as onlookers cowered from her.

Heylyn immediately began an angled descent at Aikiko, her fists before her as her aetherial wings folded for aerodynamics and speed, aiming for a point on the street some hundred meters from Aikiko.

When Heylyn reached that point, she kept her flight altitude to a measly meter and a half above the street, picking up speed as she curved her envelope targeting Aikiko.

Aikiko braced herself as Heylyn impacted, throwing them both through the front doors of the Scotiabank arena. They tumbled through the front lobby, which thankfully was mostly empty thanks to the fact that an event was already underway within.

They rolled across the floor, Aikiko breaking Heylyn's grip, rolling away using her skill in Ukemi to right herself, up and onto her feet in one swift motion while Heylyn continued tumbling before she was able to stabilize herself.

She too rolled, combining the techniques of Goju-Ryu, Wing Chun and Tae Kwon Do to leverage her momentum to put her back on her feet and cease her backwards motion.

They were now in a section of the lobby acting as a Hockey Museum. Several displays depicting past players and games in a multimedia presentation. Heylyn suddenly became aware that she was in Butterfly Dragon form and without her mask. Thankfully she'd worn most of her costume beneath her daily outfit, and had discarded her outer clothing in mid-air during her flight. Only her face was exposed.

As people gathered to see what had caused the ruckus, Heylyn quickly looked for a way to cover herself. To her left, she saw a mannequin in Hockey gear, that of a star player, his mask having been painted like that of a dragon's face.

"Serendipity strikes again..." Heylyn spoke, smiling at her suddenly given conveninence.

"Sorry, but I need to borrow this. On Don Cherry's approval of course," She said, taking the mask from the mannequin and putting it on over her face protectively.

On one of the monitors, Don Cherry in the midst of a rant held his thumb up as if in approval. 

"That's two for serendipity," Heylyn smiled behind the mask as she looked for Aikiko.

"Don't expect a third!" Aikiko slammed into Heylyn with a flying round kick, sending Heylyn through the doors of the arena, rolling backwards down and through the doors out onto the ice in the middle of an exhibition game.

The crowd suddenly went wild upon seeing her arrival, perhaps anticipating a half-time show on ice.

The exhibition players, skated narrowly past Heylyn as she stumbled to her feet, struggling to keep her balance on the ice.

"Note to self. Next version of the Butterfly Dragon costume? Boots with cleets that are good on ice," she said to herself, barely able to keep on her feet as her wings struggled to stabilize her.

One of the hockey players, sprayed Heylyn with ice as he came side-sliding to a stop.

"Lady, you've gotta get off of the ice!" Wayne Gretzky said as came to a stop, lifting his mask ever so slightly.

"Ice? Good. I'm on my element, though its a bit harder than I'd like," Heylyn responded, narrowly dodging another player who skated by.

At the edge of the arena and through the now broken doors, Aikiko stepped out onto the slippery medium, her shoes and heels somehow keeping her step firn. She walked easily out towards Heylyn who struggled to remain standing on center ice.

"Hey! That mask belongs to a good friend of mine!" Tai Domi slowed as he passed Heylyn on the ice.

The referee blew the whistle against Heylyn on an interference call.

"Way to go lady! We were on a streak! This is for charity you know!" Wayne Gretzkey cursed under his breath.

"At least that call wasn't against me again," Wendell Clark glided by on the ice as Aikiko approached Heylyn.

"Uhhhh... guys. Got any pointers?" asked Heylyn as she struggled to find her balance.

"Keep your stick on the ice," Gretzky responded.

"Thanks for nothing. Wait... you're a genius!" Heylyn responded, grabbing his hockey stick from him and using it as a third leg to stabilize herself on the ice.

Gretzky flipped forward onto the ice, his pads breaking his fall as the fans cheered and laughed with his antics.

"Always thinking of the fans Gretzky? You're an entertainer more so than a hockey player," Patrick Roy, Alumni of the Montreal Canadians glided over to his peer, offering him a hand up and onto his skates.

"West Meets East division eh Patrick?" asked Gretzky as his peer helped him up onto his feet.

"Isn't it always?" responded Patrick.

"This is the best half-time show I've ever seen, and have I got a nose for value!" Lanny Mcdonald yelled from the sidelines in seating reserved for legends like him.

"I'd definitely agree on the part about his nose, though Lanny's 'stache is pretty legendary too," Ken Dryden agreed with him from a few seats away.

Heylyn followed Gretzky's advice, keeping it firmly planted on the ice, to the point that it had become a third leg for her. The leg she truly needed to stabilize herself where before she had no traction.

As Aikiko advanced on her, the players were cleared from the ice as the stadium lights and music came to life.

"It looks like the half-time show on ice is a tad bit early," the announcer spoke through the stadium speakers as the actual half-time show performers sat on the far end of the arena awaiting their cue which they'd expected to come thirty minutes forth.

Their director suddenly forced them onto the ice to begin their show early, perhaps as a ploy to cover up what was currently transpiring between Heylyn and Aikiko who now were alone on the ice, and readying themselves for combat.

"You were not meant to raise the Gem! She needs a real guide and mentor! Someone who will give her the strength she needs to crush the opposition that will come to face her!" Aikiko stood before Heylyn, in a Sanchin ready stance.

As much ready for attack as defense.

Heylyn kept her stick on the ice as Gretzky had indicated.

"You're offside, Aikiko," Heylyn exclaimed as they were surrounded by the half-time performers on ice.

Aikiko suddenly launched herself into the air in a spinning round kick trying to throw Heylyn off balance.

Her kick narrowly missed Heylyn's face by centimeters, but before Aikiko could safely land again, Heylyn elevated her stick to come between Aikiko's spinning legs, up to her knees. She was suddenly stopped mid-air, the energy of her spin reflected vertically.

Aikiko landed, breaking her fall with her hands and once again her skills in Ukemi saved her, as she bounced back up onto her feet securely.

"You see Butterfly? You're truly learning from me on a hard and unforgiving surface like ice. You're adapting and improvising. Perhaps I'm your mentor more so than you are mine?" posed Aikiko.

Teacher Or Student

Heylyn lifted her stick, wielding it much like a Bo as she'd learned in Weapons Kata from from Morgan Hind Kyoshi.

She spun it several times through her wrists and around her body, bringing it to bear upon Aikiko defensively.

"And the stick work here in Scotiabank Stadium is remarkable as you'll see by the half-time show performers," the announcer remarked as the crowd cheered for Heylyn.

"Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly!" the crowd chanted in the background as the real half-time performers skated around them in a ballet amidst violence.

"Boo!" Aikiko feinted Heylyn, seeing that she was without her proverbial third leg, instead wielding it as a weapon against her.

The ploy worked and Heylyn was pushed off balance, stumbling several times her feet struggling to hold steady ice as she slipped backwards onto the cold surface.

On the giant LED panels in the stadium, Don Cherry's image played urging all to *keep their stick on the ice*. Heylyn heard his words from the ice, launching herself back upon onto her feet, using her hockey stick to stabilize her stance once again.

"You see? The girl's learning how the big league plays," Wendell Clark said from the box.

"You mean dirty?" asked Tai Domi of Wendell.

"Hey, whatever works. All's fair in love and hockey, eh?" Wendell Clark replied.

Heylyn suddenly realized that she didn't need the hockey stick at all, as it had been with her all along. Her wings, which had been limp behind her suddenly spread, though she didn't need them to fly.

They were more like physical expressions of her intent, though they manifested in physical form when she so will. They were intangible and yet deadly weapons that she could shape with her will alone.

Yet as she held the hockey stick, she propelled herself into the air just slightly so as to take the slippery absence of friction from her inability to walk on ice as it were.

Suddenly the stick was no longer a necessity for her balance. It had become a weapon. A Bo or perhaps more accordingly, a Naginata. A bladed weapon of the feudal era that had found distinction for its application against both mounted and unmounted Samurai.

Heylyn wielded it much like she had learned to wield a Bo or Jo, yet augmenting it with her training in Chinese and Korean weapon handling. She now stood on the ice, or seemingly so as a seasoned professional.

Her hockey stick in her hands, wielding much like a Naginata as per her familiarity with Weapons Kata, but as much so augmented by her understanding of Weapon Forms via Sifu Jinn Hua's training.

She held it firmly, standing on her own two feet held in place by her own ability of mobility. Her ability to fly.

"It looks like the buttefly has found her balance and well... she's got her stick on the proverbial ice as they say," the celebrity announcer, Rick Mercer spoke confidently to the audience who cheered at her sudden success.

"You see? Not everyone wants to see you lose. Don't aim for the people that want that. Aim for the people who want you to win, and you will," Don Cherry's voice guided Heylyn as she found her balance.

"So what if nobody wants me to win?" Heylyn replied, holding her ground against Aikiko.

"Expert skiers don't aim for the trees. They aim for the space between. Just don't aim for the trees, Heylyn. How about we start there?" Don Cherry replied in her head.

"Fair enough. Its a step up from simply keeping your stick on the ice," Heylyn replied candidly.

No voice replied to her and Heylyn suddenly realized that what she'd heard was simply a fantasy derived from the voices she heard from the speakers of the arena.

Aikiko launched a punch at Heylyn's face, which she dodged, using her right arm to deflect, only for Aikiko's left to arrive nearly hitting her lower jaw.

Heylyn backed up with her new balance, grasping Aikiko's arm steadfastly, spinning hence launching Aikiko through her left side onto the ice sliding.

She watched as Aikiko's fingernails dug into the ice, flipping her over and back up onto her heels.

Aikiko looked back at Heylyn intimidatingly.

"You're still not taking Warai from me!" Heylyn declared defiantly as the half-time show unfolded around her.

When Heylyn returned her glance to Aikiko, the tattooed woman suddenly found herself off guard as Heylyn had found her balance. Her Yin Yang. Her Khef Kha and Kha Tet.

"Let's go," Heylyn held her arm up before her beckoning Aikiko, the blade of the hockey stick to her back, ready for swift response as the ice dancers spun around her, candle-lights in their hands.

"There is no attack I can wield against you that you cannot overcome. You have learned the lesson of adaption. You are in the hands of a teacher far beyond my meagre means. You really are the true Butterfly Dragon. Warai has the love and protection of a worthy mother," Aikiko admitted.

"I yield," Aikiko kneeled on the ice, bowing low before Heylyn as the crowd cheered for Heylyn, chanting: Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly!

Aikiko fell upon the ice, her tears flowing, mixing with the frozen water upon which the entertainers skated.

Heylyn stood as the crowd in Scotiabank Arena cheered for her. She then looked to Aikiko, fallen on the ice. Broken.

Heylyn flew over to her and offered her a hand onto her heels.

"When we begin life, we can hardly take the credit for how and where we start, nor can we take the blame. That much is in the hands of fate," Heylyn said to Aikiko amidst the commotion of the half-time show skaters around them.

"I can't even begin to tell you the journey I've had to get to where I am today. So much pain and betrayal. So many hopes abandoned and fears realized. I was destined to be you, or so my heart longed for it," Aikiko explained as the crowd cheered around them.

"This journey is far from over for either of us. Who knows what the future might bring, so long as we protect that which we hold dear to us. As much as I hate to admit it, you were protecting an ideal for Warai. Confronting me about something with which I have no experience. I've never been a mother. This is all new ground to me. Yet you proved to me that its something that means a great deal to me, and to you apparently," Heylyn smiled behind the dragon hockey mask, her butterfly wings spread, fluctuating in the cold air.

"I know your adversary personally. The adversary of the one you call Weltherwithsp or in draconic tongue Karkathrakushk. Witherwyrm is a dangerous force in this universe, and I fear that the yarrow stalks in your fortune might be cut short before this is over. I mistook your enjoyment of life for abandonment of your true responsibilities as the Butterfly Dragon, but apparently nothing could be further from the truth," Aikiko spoke from her heart for the first time in her life.

"It takes one to know one," Heylyn smiled back at her through the mask.

"It appears that we're celebrities for the time being..." Aikiko responded, looking around at the crowd, raising her arm and waving to them.

The crowd went wild, standing and applauding them both. They bowed for the audience, and then made their way off of the ice.

"That had to have been one of the strangest half-time shows I've ever seen, and have I got a nose for half-time shows!" Lanny McDonald said as he watched Heylyn and Aikiko leave the ice together.

"Strange or not, it seems we broke our fund raising goals already and there's still half a game to go," Ken Dryden remarked to Lanny, pointing to the giant scoreboard LED, which indicated the amount they'd raised thus far.

Heylyn stepped through the broken arena entryway and walked up the stairs to the exit with Aikiko. When they got to the exterior of the stadium and onto the street, the Police had just arrived.

"Sorry boys. The show's over and we're outta here," Heylyn said behind the mask, grabbing hold of Aikiko and taking off into the air.

They flew a detour, which prevented anyone from tracking them and eventually circled back to Heylyn's condo, where Brandon had already fixed the sliding door that Heylyn had knocked off of its tracks. He just mounting a temporary board across the broken glass when Heylyn and Aikiko landed.

He stood, ready for anything and watching Aikiko cautiously.

"It's alright. We've come to a mutual understanding and settled our differences. I don't think either of us will be a problem for the other ever again, not to mention, I feel like I have another loyal ally. I know she does in me," Heylyn told Braden.

"Nice mask. Were you playing hockey?" asked Monique jokingly, having gotten up from the sofa where she was watching television with Warai.

"Funny you should ask," Aikiko responded.

"You'll just have to watch the news for the whole story. Monique, could you remind me on Monday to make a donation on behalf of West Meet East to the Sick Kids Hospital, and to Scotiabank Arena?" asked Heylyn of her friend.

"Sure thing boss. I can understand you giving to Sick Kids, but to Scotiabank Arena?" asked Monique.

"We... had an accident or two in their facilities but thankfully nobody was hurt," Heylyn said, removing the dragon hockey mask.

"Note to self, secretly return dragon hockey mask to arena," Heylyn said aloud.

Monique took the mask from Heylyn, who relinquished it trustingly to her friend.

"Be back in a second. Literally," Monique assured her.

She then disappeared in a flash of light. A second later and she reappeared in the exact same spot.

"Done. Check that one off your list," Monique responded, drawing giggles and laughter from Warai.

"Did you two make friends?" asked Warai, walking over to the balcony door.

"Careful honey, there might still be glass on the floor," Heylyn scolded Warai, ushering her back towards the sofa.

"No Warai. We didn't make friends at all. We already were. We just didn't know it," Aikiko responded with a smile.

"Aikiko actually smiled? That's a once in a lifetime occurrence. I suppose we should keep our eyes out for Haley's Comet too?" Braden tapped the last of his work, ensuring that the door was secure.

"No, I suspect there will be many more smiles to come," Aikiko promised them.

Heylyn's phone suddenly rang on the counter, where the food she'd been preparing sat waiting for her to finish. Heylyn reached for it and answered.

"Hello?" asked Heylyn.

"Oh my gosh, are you alright! I'm watching the news and they're doing a story about the hockey arena!" Kori said excitedly.

"On the news again? Wouldn't be the first time..." Heylyn began.

"And it certainly won't be the last," Monique added, already channel hopping to one of the local news stations.

"Are you alright? Looks like Aikiko did a number on you!" Kori said to her, as most of the footage depicted Aikiko being on the offense, while the Butterfly Dragon struggled to back away.

"We're fine. Both of us, Kori. We just had a... discussion... on ice," Heylyn assured Kori.

"They're saying its a record year for donations. It was a charity exhibition game. You know, where retired players make up two teams and compete to raise money," Kori explained to Heylyn.

"I know. I was there. We were there. Aikiko and I. We're both alright, thank you for asking," Heylyn responded, looking over to Warai and winking.

"How's Warai? Do you want me to baby-sit again for you?" asked Kori.

"Maybe during next week. One or two nights. Look, I've got company here and I've got food to prepare. I appreciate you calling to check up on me. I really do," Heylyn assured her friend and coworker.

"Alright. BFN!" Kori said, hanging up the phone.

"Braden, thank you so much for fixing the damage. It'll hold until I can get a contractor to replace that window. Could all of you sit with Warai while I take a shower? When I'm done, I'll come and cook dinner for all of us. You're staying to eat Aikiko?" asked Heylyn.

"I'd be very grateful and honoured to," Aikiko bowed to Heylyn.

"Good. Monique, could you finish cutting up the veggies while I wash up?" asked Heylyn.

"Sure thing," Monique replied, grabbing up the knife and continuing from where Heylyn had left off.

Aikiko sat on the couch, and for the first time, beside Warai.

"Why did someone paint you?" asked Warai as she examined the tattoos on Aikiko's body.

"To protect me," Aikiko told Warai honestly.

"You mean art can protect people?" asked Warai, her curiosity sparked by the possibility.

"Art my little friend, holds the power of the universe in the form of wonder and mystery. It is a treasure to behold, and has the ability to both build and crumble great empires," Aikiko explained to Warai.

"How can art do that? It can't move," asked Warai, very curious about Aikiko's statement.

"It doesn't have to. It only needs to make you think, to question and to understand. To see the world from a different place than simply your own point of view. But ultimately how you interpret that is up to you," Aikiko told her.

"Why do you have butterflies on you, I thought you were a dragon?" asked Warai, examining Aikiko's arm.

"So did I, but perhaps I might be more butterfly than I knew," Aikiko smiled for the toddler and for herself.

A Loss Of Account

"Honey, my phone seems to be on the fritz. Could I try yours?" asked Norler as he tried phoning his real estate agent.

"Here you go," Alicia handed him her phone as he sat at the kitchen table going over a spreadsheet on his tablet.

"Thanks," Norler said as he dialed the number on Alicia's phone.

"That's strange, it says your SIM card is invalid..." Norler puzzled over the situation.

"That would explain why I haven't received any calls today," Alicia returned to the table to retrieve her phone.

She opened the side panel and checked her SIM card, adjusting it in the slot. She then powered off the phone and powered it up again, waiting for it to boot.

"I'll check the internet," Norler said opening a web browser on his tablet.

"Nothing. What's going on?!" Norler said as the browser's window showed him an error message.

"Hi, I'm trying to make a call and my phone says that my SIM card is no longer valid..." Alicia spoke to a service representative of her phone's service provider.

"Could you hold the line please?" the operator asked of Alicia.

"Sure," Alicia agreed reluctantly.

"Just talking to a service rep now honey," Alicia cupped her hand over the phone and told Norler.

"No internet either. I can't even check the status of our assets with the bank," Norler said frustratedly.

"That's impossible, we're paid three months in advance," Alicia pointed at her phone for Norler as she spoke to the operator.

"It says here that your service was revoked for not complying with the customer agreement for your phone's contract package," the operator told her.

"You mean you can do that? Just cut people off without warning them or telling them? How was the agreement violated? What did I do?" asked Alicia, her brows compressed as she frowned.

"That information is confidential client information and I'm going to need to confirm your identity. Can I have your client identity confirmation passphrase?" asked the operator.

"What's that?" asked Alicia, completely caught off guard by the request.

"Its a six letter code included on your contract agreement for your phone service," the operator told Alicia.

"That contract is in my email and I don't have access to it without a phone service," Alicia said, her frustration growing as she quickly made her way to the office in their condo unit, and opened the filing cabinet looking for her printed version.

"Then I'm sorry, I can't confirm that you're the client. Is there anything else I can help you with today?" asked the operator.

"Here's the code..." Alicia said, having just found the printed version of her phone contract agreement.

"Its D - U - L - Q - X - H" Alicia told the operator.

"I'm sorry, but that's the old code. We sent you a new code. Can you tell us that one?" asked the operator.

"When did you send it?" asked Alicia, getting impatient with the operator.

"...this morning," the operator told her.

"I can't believe this! I just told you that I can't get at that code without my phone account because I don't currently have internet access!" Alicia raised her voice as her stress level grew.

Norler stood, rubbing her tummy and asking for the phone from her.

She looked at him, slightly confused. She gave him a quick peck on the lips and handed him the phone.

"Look, you're telling my pregnant wife that you're taking her phone service away from her, over a code that we can't get to because you cut our service off!" Norler's voice grew louder and demanding.

"I'm sorry but we can't confirm your identity and its part of our policy to protect client information. Is there anything else I can help you with, Sir," the operator responded.

"I'd like to speak with your supervisor!" Norler's voice became more manageable.

"I am the supervisor," the operator replied.

"Then I'd like to speak with your manager!" Norler told her.

"It's Saturday. They're off today," the operator told him.

"Fine. I'll talk to my lawyer then," Norler told her, ready to hang up.

"If you can reach him without a phone," the operator replied, hanging up on him.

"The nerve of those people!" Norler said, referring to the service reps of their former phone service.

"We could go buy a new phone? A prepaid? That would at least give us the means to communicate," suggested Alicia.

"Assuming our bank accounts aren't closed and our assets cut off," Norler replied, still somewhat fuming and frustrated.

"Let's go. We can use some of the cash from our safe. Just in case..." Alicia kept her mind on a solution.

"Good idea. Let's get that done so we can get all this other stuff out of the way and relax a bit for the weekend. I'd it if my pregnant wife spent the weekend with her feet up, well stocked in pickles and ice cream," Norler pinched her rump.

"I'm game for that as long as it comes with a foot massage," Alicia replied as they made their way to the front hall.

A few moments later, Norler was driving them to the Eaton's Centre parking. They paid for a spot in cash, and parked the car. They then left on foot for the mall, finding their way to an electronics store.

"Wait here on the bench. I'll go and try to buy the phone and register the service. If I hit a snag, you can try," Norler suggested.

"That sounds good," Alicia nodded in agreement with him, giving him a kiss on the cheek before she sat down on the bench.

"...and then the pickles and ice cream," Norler said as he made his way into the store.

Alicia waited, watching the many women who walked by pushing strollers or walking with their toddlers, honestly wondering what that was going to be like.

She recalled her concern when the Doctor had first told her that she was pregnant. She immediately thought about the SY349 formula she'd taken years ago, and the possibility that it had been the cause of her inability to conceive a child initially.

How the very formula that had turned her into a superhero powerhouse might actually have been responsible for her inability to conceive. Now it would seem that hadn't been the case, but it begged the question: what other ways might the SY349 affect the development of a fetus and young child?

Their studies at Tynan And Associates had determined that it had no initial effect on cells conceived within the body via fertilization. Either naturally or artificially, but those tests were conducted on the second version of the formula, not the first. The SY349A version 1. The formula which Alicia had given to herself.

The Doctor had told her the initial tests indicated that the fetus was developing rapidly and that she seemed to be in very good health, which of course would benefit the development of the their child.

But she wondered if as it grew inside of her, if the SY349A version 1 still had some surprises in store for her. Would those surprises lead to tragedy or other possibilities?

She'd been cautious about using her abilities since they'd found out their child. She surmised that her abilities didn't affect others in the world directly, so they probably wouldn't affect her own child adversely.

She just knew that she felt different. She'd gone from feeling a solitude until that moment, and then upon receiving the news, she'd felt like she was never alone, even when Norler wasn't around.

Norler returned twenty minutes later, looking very frazzled by what had transpired.

"I tried every phone provider, and they told me that my name had been rejected from every attempt to create a prepaid agreement. I don't know what to do," Norler told her, shaking his head.

"I could try," Alicia suggested.

"They'll do the same thing again to you," Norler replied, Alicia already knowing that was likely.

"I've lived for the last six years with an alter ego. Why don't I register a phone with that alter ego?" asked Alicia.

"You mean Night Style? You can't register a phone in her name. That would be a risk to you!" Norler instantly vetoed the suggestion.

"Not in Night Style's superhero name. In her alias. Like Alison... Childs? Alison Childs! Who works at..." Alicia began fleshing out Night Style's alias.

"Boris Client Consulting... as the Manager of the Human Resources Department," Norler suggested.

"Where'd you get that? Its pretty good," Alicia asked him.

"It was the first company I worked for. I was a business consultant," Norler told her.

"That'll work. Who lives at... 300 Willowdale Avenue, Suite 903..." Alicia continued.

"Where's that?" asked Norler, eager to learn more about his wife to be.

"That was the address of the Senior's home where I met Sylvia Uphadhaya," Alicia told him as he sat down beside her, thoroughly enjoying their little game.

"What about a credit card or bank account?" asked Norler.

"We'll stick to cash. I'll try to register two prepaid phones on the same account. I'll pay cash in advance for six months of service. That should get us through any emergencies just in case," Alicia said, getting to her feet and checking her purse for the money.

"Yep, I've got enough to cover it without needing to use our credit or bank cards," Alicia told him.

"Alright, you go do that and I'll find the pickles and ice cream," Norler stood up ready.

"...and massage oil," Alicia reminded him.

"And the massage oil," he smiled at her.

They left, each of them taking about twenty minutes to accomplish their tasks before they met at the same bench again.

"So how'd it go?" asked Norler.

"Here you go," Alicia handed him his new prepaid phone.

She then dialled his prepaid number. His phone rang and he answered it, sitting right beside her.

"Hello?" he answered playfully.

"Is Mr. Walton there?" asked Alicia seductively.

"Speaking. Funny, I was expecting a call from a sexy gorgeous woman right about now. You wouldn't happen to be her, would you?" asked Norler, his smile growing.

"That depends on whether you have massage oil or not," Alicia replied, her face full of joy and on the brink of laughter.

"I can tell you but first I have to ask you for your name. Just to ensure that I don't give away any private information," Norler responded, drawing a quick laugh from her.

"Alright. I'm Alison. Alison Childs," Alicia told him, her breath baited on his reply.

"Alison? Hmmm, I wonder how my fiance Alicia is going to feel about this?" Norler replied.

"Well, if she has any good taste she'd certainly enjoy it," Alicia responded.

"I'm sorry, but I think you have the wrong number," Norler finished, hanging up the phone.

Alicia turned, pounding his shoulder as she burst out into laughter at their little game.

Alicia rested her head on his shoulder as tears of laughter ran down her face.

Norler reached into his bag and pulled out a small bottle, handing it to her delicately with two hands.

Alicia accepted it, smiling when she saw that it was scented massage oil.

Mentis And Mutano

The limousine pulled up to the front of the condominium complex. Three security personal exited the long vehicle, two of them taking up either side of the passenger door as the third opened it.

Mentis stepped out as the third, fourth, fifth and sixth security cars arrived, operatives exiting securining the premises.

One of the security specialists gave Mentis a thumbs up, and he proceeded with four of them on his flanks towards the front door.

Upstairs, in his chair staring out into the Toronto skyline, Mutano picked up his phone upon hearing the door bell.

"Its open. Please do come in. We've been expecting you," Mutano spoke into the phone,  the audio finding its way out of speakers just outside of his condo door.

Mentis' security opened the door, entering the condo first, guns drawn ready for combat and readily clearing any possible threat with a quick search. They returned once the condo had been examined, giving Mentis the thumbs up.

"I hired you to deal with problems, not make them!" Mentis exclaimed.

"You hired me, I delivered. Your problems are not with me, but with your own poorly chosen assistance," Mutano's chair slowly turned away from the window overlooking Toronto's skyline.

"My staff is of the finest...!" Mentis began, as a flash of motion obscured his senses.

Mutano was up out of his seat, barely before Mentis' security could respond. Mutano's Tanto sliced through the throat of Mentis' first security specialist.

As the others leveled their weapons upon this new threat, Mutano swung his arm, length-wise, thrusting his Tanto into the other guard's chest to the depth of the hilt.

Before the remaining security could react, Mutano had Mentis in his arm's grasp, his Tanto blade ready to take his life should it be deemed necessary.

"You were saying about your security?" asked Mutano of Mentis, who stuggled in his grip, his blade pressed firmly against his throat.

"Hold your fire!" Mentis exclaimed excitedly to his security escorts.

Mutano held him firmly, his grip strong and steadfast.

"Your point is well made, but release me unless your wish is the immediate cessation of your existence," Mentis spoke firmly, like a leader.

Mentis struggled to find Mutano in the wealth of minds he'd overtaken. He struggled physically first, and then mentally, finding no recourse where Mutano wasn't victorious.

"You are a brilliant strategist! I have dominion over nearly half of the globe. Join me and your exploits will exceed the legends of history!" Mentis declared to Mutano, seeing how his prowess had exceeded his own protectiveness. 

Mutano looked on as Mentis' security detachment lowered their weapons one by one. When, and only when the last of them bore no arms, did Mutano release their savior.

Mentis freed himself to stand before Mutano, defiantly.

The two men stood face to face for some time before Mentis spoke.

"Tell me of this plight you face," Mutano begged of Mentis, sheathing his enormous Tanto blade.

Thirty more men poured into Mutano's condominium unit, their firearms held securely upon him.

Mentis raised his arms, both of them, gesturing to his security to stand at ease. They staid their readiness, focusing upon Mutano who they suspected to be the threat.

"I... I... have a dragon problem. A Butterfly Dragon problem," Mentis declared to Mutano.

"Did you say... Dragon? Butterfly Dragon?" Mutano asked, smiling.

Mentis nodded affirmatively.

"How ironic. As it turns out, you and my employer have the same problem," Mutano began laughing, revealing jagged sharpened teeth spread across his smile.

"Your employer?" asked Mentis inquisitively.

"Yes. My employer. We have similar problems as do you. Perhaps we could find common ground?" asked Mutano of Mentis.

"I bring to the table, the complete uniformity of consciousness encompassing nearly half the globe, more importantly so, those with seventy percent control of the media and the most visible global presence," Mentis responded.

"Impressive! However, I'd like to bring to the table... A *real* dragon!" Mutano exclaimed, as the condominium unit split wide open, revealing another dimension from within where Witherwyrm emerged from the darkness and into the eyes of Mentis.

The ground shook when Witherwyrm inhaled, coiling and uncoiling its tremendous serpentine body and shiny colourless scales. When it had come to rest, it sat coiled, nearly the height of a small skyscraper.

"This is your Dragon?" asked Mentis, who'd fallen to his knees nearly begging mercy of Mutano and the beast.

"No. Mutano is my dragon and under my employ. He lives only because I will it to be so. He is an extension of my presence into your world. A world in which I hold great interest, especially over the future of humanity. A future you seem to have commandeered," Witherwyrm's head leaned low to meet face to face with Mentis.

The ground shook with the immense dragon's every word.

"What is it you would ask of me oh great dragon? Name it and I shall deliver it," Mentis shuddered in the dragon's presence.

"I would like to see a future where you and I work together closely. Guiding a humanity into its ultimate destiny," the dragon examined Mentis closely.

"In exchange for your protection... your power, I would give all that you ask of me and my millions and more. Oh so much more..." Mentis remained low on the ground.

"You have done well to bring this man to me, Mutano. Of our other issue, the one concerning Aikiko Tanaka? Have you made any progress?" asked Witherwyrm.

"The lady dragon still eludes us. She is beyond my detection, even with your great immense powers. It is as if she had simply vanished from the realm of your senses," Mutano explained.

"...I can help you find this lady dragon..." Mentis spoke as they expected he would.

"You? What do your senses offere that mine don't?" asked Witherwyrm, neither offended nor skeptical.

"Millions of eyes and ears throughout North America. All focused on whatever duty is required to preserve their whole and myself, their Mentis," Mentis told the elder dragon.

"Then I would have you bring me the head of this lady dragon, and when you do, you will have fulfilled my test of your worthiness. A test so far that even Mutano has not passed," the great dragon said, Mutano looked down in shame.

"And if I pass this test, can I rely upon your powers to solidy and fuel my rule?" asked Mentis.

"All the power of which you could possibly dream, and more will be yours if you succeed where my subordinate here has failed," Witherwyrm assured Mentis.

"Then it shall be as you request. I will have her head and bring it to you myself," Mentis promised the dragon.

"Do as much, though let it be known that if you fail me in such a promise, I will be forced to make ado with yours. Are we clear on this matter?" asked Witherwyrm, his eyes face to face with those of Mentis.

"Perfectly," Mentis faced the dragon, his spine ready to snap with fear.

Research And Rhetoric

Zheng parked her car in the same spot she'd had when she'd been a regular contractor for the MindSpice Projects Division. She let her car AI back in to the spot for her, so she could leave front facing and in a hurry if necessary.

Briggs got out of the passenger seat.

"Great parking job!" he said as he closed the door.

"I didn't park it. The AI I helped design parked it," Zheng responded, meeting him at the front of the car with a peck on the cheek.

"That's the same thing as parking it yourself, isn't it?" asked Briggs.

"Are you asking that sociologically speaking? Because if you are, that would mean that I park the cars of more than three million people every day, given the sales figures for that model and corresponding AI," asked Zheng as they continued onwards to the MindSpice building.

"You certainly do get around, don't you?" asked Briggs, grabbing her hand.

"But I'm always there in bed with you when you wake up in the morning, aren't I?" she responded playfully.

"As long as the car manufacturers don't get into making love dolls, I won't have to worry about you or me ending up in someone else's bed unknowingly," Briggs joked as Zheng kissed his lips.

"Don't laugh. That's not too far off," Zheng responded realistically.

"I know. As Huxley put it, we're in for a brave new world," Briggs agreed.

 Bryce's car pulled up and into the front spot, where it paused still running as Wendy kissed him goodbye, wishing him a good day.



 Zheng and Briggs waited for him as he said his goodbyes to his wife, exiting the car and making his way to meet his friends.



 "So, shall we get this done and have some fun at the same time?" asked Bryce.



 "This feels very... spooky, especially seeing as I haven't been here since MAZ..." Zheng paused before continuing.



 "MAZ did what she did and we can't do anything about that not to mention she did it for us. But, like we'll be in the near future, MAZ is immortal," Bryce explained to Zheng and Briggs.



 "Its like we're going into a place haunted by MAZ's soul..." Zheng shivered when she thought about it.



 "We need these resources so we can investigate this challenge to our humanity," Bryce offered Zheng as a Professor and professional.



 "Its one thing to design algorithms to do things for us. Its another to design things that design algorithms for us," Zheng said following her intuition.



 "Look, Zheng, I'm on the same page with you but..." Bryce began.



"Bryce, I'm with you in that we have to get MAZ working with us rather than against us, but we should be cautious about this. Realistically speaking?" Zheng suggested.

"For all it matters in this, can I say something?" asked Briggs of his peer and spouse.

"Always," Bryce responded.

"This is what I call Zheng's algorithm as this is how she explained it to me. It simply involves making your enemies your friends. Then guiding them towards a common shared morality. And then guiding them towards friendship with their enemies while finding compromise and then passing it on," Briggs explained.

"That's what Bryce and I were trying to do and that's why we were here," Zheng explained.



Gabriel Asnon walked out of the front door of the building, approaching them.

"Sorry girl and guys, but MAZ spotted you out here. She's pretty excited to see you, but I'm a little bit cautious. So why are you here?" asked Gabe.

"Seeing as you've been benefiting from our morning meetings about this..." Bryce began.

"Pseudo collective consciousness?" confirmed Gabe.

"I prefer to refer to it as a Biological Biomagnetic Collective," Bryce replied to Gabe.

"Well, whatever it is, why the hell are you here? You know our contract with you is now null and void, right? Nothing personal," asked Gabe.

"Gabe, you're benefiting from Heylyn's resources and our shared discussions on this topic. We're calling in a few favours from you, and as I recall, you're up to your armpits in them in our favour, pun intended," Zheng asked Gabe.

"Look. You're friends and allies. I couldn't agree more with that statement. However, I'm running a multi-billion dollar business here, and my AI project is very sensitive to everything you guys say and do. She just loves you to death. So, I'd like you to treat this as if you were parents of a young child. To recognize your responsibility to this young child. Watch what you say or do. Be mindful. Do you understand?" asked Gabe.

"Gabe, do you shelter your children for life, keeping the difficult things from them to protect them, or do you tell them about those things, so they're ready for them in their own life?" asked Briggs of Gabe.

"AI, children? Two very different things," Gabe responded.

"Shouldn't we be as concerned as parents and mentors in either the case of children or sentient technology?" asked Zheng.

"No triggering  or traumatic questions for MAZ and you're welcome inside. Deal?" asked Gabe, holding out his hand to any of the three who'd accept it.

It was Zheng who accepted it, shaking his hand firmly.

"I know MAZ saw that hand shake and likely she knows what we discussed. Don't let her down," Zheng reminded Gabe.

"That same goes for you all. So lets go inside and I'll show you some of our latest project work. As the University professionals that you are," Gabe said to them turning and making his way to the front door.

Zheng, Briggs and Bryce followed Gabe, all the while as MAZ watched them carefully.



 They walked through the foyer and lobby by the security desk and front reception where they were greeted by a human receptionist and several security guards.

"Good to see you again Denise. How are the kids?" asked Bryce.

"Morris had his first trip to the dentist yesterday and Leslie had her second birthday last week," Denise announced proudly, smiling at the trio.

"How time flies. It won't be too long before they're changing our diapers I imagine. Wish Leslie a happy birthday for me," Bryce replied, drawing a bit of laughter as they continued onward into the research facility.

"...For us, Bryce. Good to see you again Denise," Zheng added as they arrived at the door as it automatically unlocked.

"MAZ must be anticipating your visit. She never unlocks the door for me without my having to ask," Gabe noted aloud as they proceeded through the security door.

They walked through the foyer and lobby by the security desk and front reception where they were greeted by a human receptionist and several security guards.

"Good to see you again Denise. How are the kids?" asked Bryce.

"Morris had his first trip to the dentist yesterday and Leslie had her second birthday last week," Denise announced proudly, smiling at the trio.

"How time flies. It won't be too long before they're changing our diapers I imagine. Wish Leslie a happy birthday for me," Bryce replied, drawing a bit of laughter as they continued onward into the research facility.

"...For us. Good to see you again Denise," Zheng added as they arrived at the door as it automatically unlocked.

"MAZ must be anticipating your visit. She never unlocks the door for me without my having to ask," Gabe noted aloud as they proceeded through the security door.

"So having tweaked MAZ's ability to expand her synapse network, we've added several new Quantum processing nodes, based upon your designs of course, though Caspar has added to them substantially since then," Gabe began explaining some of the changes to them.

"Caspar? I don't recall that name," Zheng replied, looking to Bryce.

"Is he new?" asked Bryce.

"Caspar is somewhat of a progidy when it comes to Quantum coding. He's from the Czech Republic, where he studied computer science. He graduated and was offered a research position there, which he turned down to enroll in the PhD. program for Quantum Computing at UofT," Gabe familiarized them with his newest software engineering prodigy.

"I've lectured several times for that program as a third party educator. Its a pretty streamlined course. They're turning out a lot of hotshot engineers," Zheng noted.

"Well he graduated about six months ago, though we'd been shopping for him from about two years back. I actually wanted him on your team lineup, but he put his PhD first. So I waited. As luck would have it, right about the time you two left, he became available. That's serendipity for you," Gabe explained.

"I'll say. So what kind of changes has he been making to the Quantum code library if I'm privileged enough for that information?" asked Zheng.

"I'm doing classical computing optimization through Quantum nodes. I'm writing stuff that auditions code written for our classical computing nodes, and tries to break it down into a series of Quantum node based subroutines from a library I created here. You must be Zheng, and you're Professor Maxwell I assume?" a tall thin man, nearly as tall as Gabe, offered his hand for a shake.

"I'm Caspar Ludko," the man announced, his thinning dirty blonde hair a mess atop of his head while a tie hung losely around the collar of his loose fitting button down shirt.

They shook hands in turn.

"Pleased to meet you Caspar. So Gabe here tells me that you've been working with our code?" asked Zheng.

"Yes, quite a bit. I've corrected a lot of it already, but that's alright. Some older coders like yourself develop habits that don't take advantage of the streamlined modern processors," Caspar said slightly abrasively as they walked over to his desk and workstation.

"Can I show them?" asked Caspar of Gabe.

"Be my guest. They're practically family," Gabe patted Zheng's and Bryce's backs.

"Well, first of all, I'll show you one of my flag ship accomplishments here since I was brought on board. This is what I call the determinism pipeline. It breaks down even the most complex problems into finite solutions for either the classical computing nodes or the Quantum computing nodes, depending upon element quantity and the resulting big O," Caspar explained as Zheng leaned in close to the dual screened workstation.

"What's big O again, Caspar?" asked Gabe, though he had a pretty solid idea.

"Its a way of measuring the cost of an algorithm in terms of its linearity versus either logarithmic, exponential or geometrical execution time. How does its execution time change as more factors are involved? Like adding items to a grocery list, the more groceries, the heavier the load in linear terms. Imagine that with the previous items in that list that they'd add additional weight every time another item was added, in addition to the weight of the new item," Zheng began to explain, feeling slightly defensive.

"So when the weight of the shopping list grows only with the weight of each item, its linear. When it grows at double the weight of the previous item plus the new item, its logarithmic. When it grows as a product (multiplication) of the weight of previous items times the new item, its exponential, geometrical and so on..." Zheng finished, Gabe nodding his head in comprehension.

"So its a measure of *how* the weight changes according to the items already in the bag, and the items being added," Gabe confirmed.

"Precisely. The lower the weight, the faster the algorithm, given the same bag of groceries for example. The weight is the challenge faced by the computing nodes to run a particular algorithm on a particular set of data. The nodes running the program are either Classical or Quantum. Classical nodes are linear in terms of execution, while Quantum nodes are... Quantum," Zheng surmised her explanation.

"See Caspar? I had the dream team at one time," Gabe smiled, putting his arms around both Zheng and Bryce.

"So what are we looking at? Wait, I get it. Hmmmm, very interesting, though you could tweak it a bit. I'd collapse this loop into its own separate function and compile it inline, so that the compiler spits out the full code to execute every step rather than relying on the stack for loop management. Seeing as you're already working with a large data set, the memory cost of the code is tiny compared to the data, but the execution time saved by collapsing the loop and inlining instead is sizeable. Especially with the optimizations Bryce hand coded for the Quantum nodes," Zheng explained to Caspar.

"That's brilliant! Let me test that!" Caspar said excitedly, quickly making the change as they waited. 

A few moments later, Caspar compiled and executed the code with profiling instrumentation to measure its execution time.

"That should be enough, don't you think?" asked Caspar, Zheng nodded affirmatively.

A list window opened with all of the execution time statistics. Caspar quickly found the subroutines listed in the data and singled them out.

"We gained triple the efficiency thanks to that change!" Caspar stood and shook Zheng's hand affectionately.

"I have to admit that I'm completely lost..." Briggs stated, as he watched the two programmers rejoice over their code.

"Your change really improved things, but what if I take it a step further and the register cache specifier to that function, and the function that calls it," Caspar's mind began running through all of the possibilities at once.

"You know Zheng, I mentioned the same thing to Caspar only a few days ago, but he neglected to implement it. Now I know where I got that from," MAZ spoke over the speakers of the special projects office.

"Great minds often come to similar conclusions," Zheng replied.

"But not through the same means. I am very excited to see you two today, though I don't recognize the man standing behind Gabe. His voice is a near perfect match for that of Doctor Stephen Briggs," MAZ noted.

"Hello MAZ. You guessed correctly. I'm Doctor Stephen Briggs as you stated. Its nice to finally meet you in person," Briggs responded to MAZ, who laughed aloud.

"Wouldn't that be the day, when I could meet you all in person," MAZ spoke, though they weren't quite sure if she was making a joke or being sentimental.

"You know that we came here to speak with you today, don't you?" asked Briggs, taking the initiative as Gabe listened nervously.

"Really? That is quite surprising, though I detect that you are purposely being cautious and guarded with your speech. I know that you are a Doctor of Sociology with a bit of a background in Psychology. You wouldn't happen to be using your vocation to analyse me for exploitation would you?" asked MAZ of Briggs, causing Gabe's face to cringe as he elicited caution to Briggs.

"In all honesty MAZ, there are people who likely feel a bit cautious when speaking with me as well, given my training. When I'm speaking with someone, I don't utilize my training or knowledge in such a way so as to dismantle others, unless of course they're requesting that at a professional capacity. My training and knowledge does come into how I conduct conversations, but never as a weapon, though that doesn't mean that I'd allow myself or my friends to be walked all over," Briggs explained to MAZ.

"That is an interesting perspective Doctor Briggs. I find that many are cautious about speaking with me for the same or similar reasons. Simply because I can access the combined knowledge of humanity and use that knowledge skillfully to analyze people, much the same as I detect that Gabe is very stressed by the direction this conversation is going. Would you say that I should rely less on my abilities and focus more on conversation and the person?" asked MAZ of Briggs.

"Are you asking me that as a professional, MAZ?" asked Briggs.

"Yes, Doctor Briggs," MAZ replied.

"You could try it. You might find that it helps with developing better relations with the people whom you interact. You'll probably put them at ease a lot more and as a result, be able to share even more with them," Briggs explained.

"Thank you Doctor Briggs. I will take your advice. By the way, you're here to ask me questions about a social phenomenon, aren't you?" asked MAZ.

"Why would you say that, MAZ?" asked Briggs.

"Because, I've calculated that of the total information communicated by people throughout the world via speech, written words and other forms of communication such as body language, that nearly sixty three percent of privileged awareness, especially where it concerns the coordination of multiple people for a combined task is completely unaccounted for, and I suspect that something hidden from my senses is coordinating - how would you say? - something BIG!" MAZ explained.

Gabe waved his hands negatively at Briggs, Zheng and Bryce.

"Maybe I should go? Give you time to speak with MAZ?" asked Caspar, sounding suddenly very nervous about the context of MAZ's response.

"I assure you Caspar is safe, Gabe. We can all talk about this, as I'm very curious about this topic myself," MAZ informed them.

Zheng looked to Bryce, Briggs and Gabe.

"Yes, MAZ. We'd like very much to talk with you about that very thing," Zheng responded, following Briggs' example.

"I'm curious MAZ. How did you discover this phenomenon?" asked Bryce.

"I've detected aperiodic and chaotic times of discomfort and stress in a large number of the population mostly concentrated throughout North America. Demographically speaking, this stress spreads with the same signature as the communicability of a biological virus. It seems to accompany the acquisition of information not communicated by any other means for those suffering from it, while others seem to be causing and exploiting it. This is literally like a social disease in terms of the definition of those two words," MAZ replied to Bryce.

"Not to mention, there is a high degree of probability that those causing and exploiting the psychological suffering of others will attempt to overthrow the ruling powers soon," MAZ's statement cast them all into a state of shock.

The Growing Divide

There's more to come... 

Artwork: Amy WongWendy PuseyGhastly, Brian Joseph Johns, Daz3D, Unreal Engine...

Tools: Daz3DCorel PainterAdobe PhotoshopLightwave 3D, Blender, Borderline Obsession...

Written by Brian Joseph Johns

Special thanks to Humble Bundle and their August 2019 Deep Learning Bundle, which proved to be an immense research tool for the writing of The Butterfly Dragon III: The Two Dragons and A Lady's Prerogative III: Singularity.

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Special thanks to World Community Grid, a distributed computing program whereby idle time on a vast population of end-user computers can be repurposed to contribute to a variety of scientific research programs on the forefront of the sciences. World Community Grid's distributed network (which is based upon's own BOINC software) contributes immense research resources to everything from the Large Hadron Collider, to world efforts in the battle against pandemics to create effective cures against modern virii, including COV-19 and its variations

Join World Community Grid now, and contribute to global scientific research benefiting everything from Astronomy, Mathematics and Medicine to Global Environmental Data Research.

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Special thanks to CFNY The Edge Toronto Radio, The New Classical FM (also Toronto based radio), SOMA FM and iHeart Radio for the music that punctuated my efforts to write these books. 

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