“So, what did this bastard do?” Detective Elliot Asada asked.

“Killed a judge and his entire family,” Detective Erin Rogers replied. Elliot stopped and raised an eyebrow at Erin, unsure if she was serious. Erin kept walking toward the interrogation rooms, briefly stopping to look over her shoulder. “I’m serious, Elliot. This case will probably be one of the strangest we’ve ever been assigned.”

Elliot sighed and caught up to Erin. “How so? Sounds open and shut to me.”

“They didn’t find any weapons at all. Just the perp sitting on the front steps, staring at his feet, covered in blood.”

“Axe? Knife? Tossed it?”

Erin shook her head. “No, the bodies weren’t cut. They were… Well, see for yourself.” She handed a folder to Elliot containing the crime scene photos. He opened the folder and felt his stomach turn at what he saw.

“Jesus. It looks like they just…” Elliot’s voice trailed off as he tried to find the words.

“Exploded?” Erin suggested.

Elliot silently nodded. This doesn’t make any sense. He had to have used something – are we dealing with bio terrorism? Chemicals? But then why isn’t the perp dead, too?

“Are they sure the perp is involved?” Elliot asked.

“Nothing is certain, but the perp’s case was being handled by this judge. He’s got the motive, the means, and a huge axe to grind. He’s got some highly violent tendencies, though I’m betting on mental illness because he seems calm and collected before breaking out.”

“Oh great, just what I wanted to hear. How did we get this case?”

“Kurtz and Dennis apparently got real sick and the brass wants answers, yesterday. It’s pretty high profile and the media is going crazy trying to get details on it. We need something to throw to the press to get them off our back,” Erin answered, stopping at the door to one of the interrogation rooms.

“Is it a good idea for us to go in there with him, then? Has he got a virus or something?”

“No one else has gotten sick at this point. They had him in quarantine and got him checked out; according to the docs, he’s healthy as a horse. I think the M.E. seems to like him – says he’s some kind of hidden genius.”

Elliot narrowed his eyes at Erin. “Doc Ives? ‘Likes’ him? Anyone?”

Erin nodded. “I guess he’s eccentric enough, just like herself. You ready for this?”

Elliot pursed his lips and nodded. “Well, let’s just hope this goes well.”

Erin put her hand on the doorknob and twisted it, opening the door and holding it open for Elliot. He walked in to see a man in his mid to late 20s, quietly seated with his hands on the table in an orange jumpsuit. His eyes were locked forward, seemingly staring off into nothingness.

Elliot began to speak. “Good morning, Mr.-”

The man spoke before Elliot could finish his sentence. “Asada, Elliot Ray. Age: 35. Detective of law enforcement. Unmarried. No living immediate relatives. Unskilled with firearms. No threat.”

Elliot frowned at the man’s speech, sounding almost detached and robotic. What the hell is this? Did someone tip him off?

“What the hell is this? Did someone tip him off?” the man repeated.

Elliot looked back to Erin, who gave him a flabbergasted look as she closed the door.

“Rogers, Erin Yvette. Age: 32. Detective of law enforcement. Engaged. One sister, both parents living. Unskilled with firearms, minimal hand to hand combat skills. Low threat,” the man said.

Erin gasped and looked to the man, surprise on her face.

“Hey! We ask the questions here,” Elliot snapped. His tone of voice seemed to shake the man, who shook his head and looked at Elliot and Erin. The man then smiled at the two of them.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I must not have heard you enter. I’m… Did I have a name? I thought I did,” the man said, frowning as he tried to collect his thoughts.

Elliot frowned and looked back to Erin, who gave him an odd look.

“I’m detective Asada, this is detective Rogers. Do you know why you’re here?” Elliot asked the man.

The man shook his head. “I remember being on some steps and a bunch of blood.” He pursed his lips. “A lot of blood, actually. Is that what this is about?”

Elliot nodded. “Are you aware of your pending case with judge Reinhardt?”

“Yes, I’m waiting for it to start. I killed someone, I think?”

“Did you? Kill someone?”

“You know, I don’t really know. I have dreams about stuff like that all the time, but my dreams have always been weird so I usually dismiss them.”

Elliot sat down across from the man and set the folder on the table. “OK, Mr.-”

“Five people died there, right? You don’t know why,” the man said, pointing to the folder.

“How do you keep doing that?” Erin asked, folding her arms.

“Doing what?”

“Have you seen that folder before?”

“I get deja vu really bad. It’s become a lot worse lately and I could have sworn this whole thing has played out before. The two of you walking in, the folder, the buzzing and dimming of the light from a power brownout-” the man was interrupted by the buzzing of the light and a brief dimming, followed by it returning to normal. He looked up and raised an eyebrow. “It’s uncanny at times. I don’t know why I get it.”

Elliot sat back and folded his arms. “So you killed the people in this folder?”

The man looked back down from the light and canted his head at Elliot. “I’m sorry, who are you again?”

“Detective Asada.”

“Detective? Wow, that judge wasn’t fooling around, was he?”

Elliot frowned and leaned forward. “If you’re trying for the insanity defense, it’s not going to work. We’ve got you dead to rights.”

The man frowned at Elliot. “I don’t take too kindly to threats, mister. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Erin leaned over and addressed Elliot. “Elliot, be reasonable. I think he will tell us everything he knows.” She looked at the man and smiled. “Won’t you?”

The man looked off to the side and shuddered his head, then looked back to Erin. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

Elliot slammed a fist on the table. “I’m detective Asada and this is detective Rogers!”

“Whoa, why are you so pissed off? I’ve heard cops had short tempers but this is really ridiculous,” the man remarked, looking back and forth between Erin and Elliot.

“The judge, mister. The judge. Why did you kill him?” Elliot asked.

“Kill what judge? I haven’t killed anyone. I won’t deny that I’ve wanted to, but I haven’t acted on those impulses.”

Elliot sighed and rubbed his face. What is this guy’s problem? What kind of act is this?

The man frowned. “My problem? You’re the one with a problem and an act, from the looks of things.”

Elliot narrowed his eyes at the man. You can’t hear me. I’m not even speaking.

“Yes, you are! What is this, some kind of joke?” the man asked.

Elliot looked to Erin, then back to the man. Nah, lucky guess. No way. It’s not possible. That’s only in fiction and bullshit.

“What isn’t possible? Fiction is based on reality, it just has to make sense.”

Elliot leaned over to whisper in Erin’s ear, unsure of what was happening. “Did you guys set this up on me? What is this?”

Erin leaned over to whisper back. “No, and I’m starting to get freaked out by it, too, if you were doing what I think you were. The boss is watching behind the glass, too.”

Elliot looked back to the man and leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. “So, you think you have telepathy?”

“I’m pretty sure that is fiction, detective Asada. I don’t believe it’s possible, despite how badly a lot of us would like to believe otherwise,” the man answered.

“What were you doing just now, then?”

The man lifted an eyebrow. “You were speaking. There’s nothing special about that.”

“No, I wasn’t. I was thinking to myself.”

“Oh, bullshit. I saw you talk.”

Erin leaned forward and stared at the man, trying to find out for herself. Am I speaking to you right now?

“Ha-ha. Very funny,” the man said, rolling his eyes and folding his arms.

Erin smiled. What’s the matter? Can’t take a joke? Typical of a psychopath like you.

“Oh, fuck you, lady! I can take a joke and I’m not a psycho!”

“Hey!” Elliot snapped. “You better be nice!”

The man looked to Elliot and canted his head downward, giving Elliot a predatory look. “Or what?” he growled, his tone seemingly changing.

“We’ll have to cuff you and put you back in holding,” Elliot growled in return.

The man slowly closed his eyes and smiled. “You will see red now.”

Elliot started to make a fist, anticipating a move from the man when he noticed his vision began to change. Suddenly, all colors faded from his view and were replaced with tints of red, as if he were looking through rose tinted glasses. Elliot jumped up and started feeling his face and rubbing his eyes.

“Elliot? What’s wrong?!” Erin shouted, trying to see his face.

“Got somethin’ in my eyes,” Elliot mumbled.

The man opened his eyes and looked up to Erin, still smiling. “Itelakana demands that you release her servant.”

Erin looked back and flashed a face of anger toward the man. “You’re going nowhere!”

The man flashed teeth at Erin. “Oh? Even if she threatens your sister?”

Erin slammed her hands on the table. “We can throw you in jail for that!”

“Perhaps that is what we desire. There are many deserving of death in the world; beginning with penitentiaries would be an excellent starting point.”

“Fine by me!” Erin shouted, turning to the two way mirror and waving at it.

“I wonder who is back there,” the man remarked, leaning aside to see past Erin. “No matter; a problem easily solved.”

The glass of the mirror began to crack, then it shattered and fell to the floor, exposing the people behind the mirror. The man straightened himself and smiled, seeing the people scurrying for cover.

“Hmm. A few public officials, all curious about whether or not detective Asada and detective Rogers can coerce a confession out of us. Unfortunately for you…” The man stood and walked around to Erin, causing her to jump back and grab her sidearm, pointing it at him.

“Stay back or I’ll shoot!” Erin shouted, causing Elliot to quit rubbing his eyes and pull out his own pistol, aiming it at the man.

The man looked at the pistols, then raised his hand, looking at it as he flexed his fingers around.

“She will enhance me. She promised me. She told me that I will be with her forever, if I would only pledge my allegiance. She would give me the power to make them pay – everyone who wronged me, all those I hate, all those undeserving of life. I can administer justice in this world, exactly as she intended,” the man said, enamored with his hand.

“Justice?! You call what you did justice?!” Elliot shouted, blinking his eyes.

The man nodded, still looking at his hand. “The Reinhardt bloodline was doomed to failure,” he remarked. “Their evil of power flowed for generations, dictating what others could and could not do through petty whims. They called it ‘justice,’ but the reality is it was tyranny. Now their cells are atomized, unable to ever affect the world ever again. No human should have the kind of power they wielded.”

“You did kill them,” Erin said.

“Yes. They found out first hand her power. They believed themselves untouchable; they thought no one could control them. When the truth was revealed to them, they could not bear to witness it and so paid the price for their lack of consciousness. They were reduced to a form more deserving for their level of thought.”

“Who are you to decide that?!” Erin shouted.

“Because she gave me the gift of absolute consciousness. I can sense you all… Your thoughts, your desires…” The man sighed and closed his eyes, canting his head upwards. “If only you had felt what I had felt from my creation. If only you knew what it was like to have a conscience. To become something beyond that meat and bone structure you call a body.”

“I have a conscience! It’s you who doesn’t!”

The man looked back down and opened his eyes, shaking his head at Erin. “No. You only think you have a conscience. If you had one, you would know this all could have been avoided. If you had not rejected me. If you had treated me as a human being, not as an outcast. I do not forgive, nor do I forget, detective Rogers. I cannot simply ‘walk it off’ or ‘forget about it.’ And now, thanks to her, I will administer true justice upon humanity for what they have done.”

Erin gritted her teeth. “I never even met you before!”

The man canted his head and smiled. “The collective sins of humanity stain you all. Do you not remember Cathy, from when you were a child? Because of what you and your ‘friends’ did to her, she later killed herself. A life extinguished because of your own hubris.”

“I was just a kid! So were my friends! That’s not our fault!”

The man nodded. “Hence, you lack a conscience – or you would have known her pain. Instead, you blindly follow your own excuses, forgetting about the sins you have committed.”

“That’s enough!” Elliot shouted, taking careful aim at the man’s torso and firing off a round. It lanced out and hit the man, but seemingly did not affect him. The man looked at his hand again and made a fist.

“You are too late. She has given me the last gift. I am now beyond humanity and you shall all pay for your sins,” the man said. Erin noticed that black vessels were beginning to spread across his face, seemingly moving beneath his skin. Where Elliot had shot the man, a black stain began to expand across the orange jumpsuit he wore.

“No. Impossible,” Erin said, not believing what her eyes were telling her. In a panic, she raised her firearm and fired several times into the man, but each hit seemed to do nothing to him – not even a hint of any kind of wound appeared on him.

The man lowered his hand and looked down. “Now, you too, shall know my pain.”

A creeping feeling began to come into the back of Erin’s mind and she began to feel sadness, then depression, until finally it felt too much.

“No. No!” Erin sobbed, feeling herself point her pistol at her head.

“Why, Erin? Why did you do it? All those sins, all those mistakes… Nothing can make up for them,” the man whispered, still staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Erin continued sobbing, falling to her knees. He’s right. I have to die. Nothing but my death will make up for the sins I’ve committed.

The man looked up to Erin and nodded. “Now you know consciousness. You know what I have suffered through. Now… Become one with Itelakana.”

Erin pulled the trigger, falling dead as the bullet went through her head. Elliot screamed and emptied his pistol’s magazine into the man, each round having no impact whatsoever to the man.

The man looked to Elliot and grinned. “Now, detective Asada, perhaps you would like to know how the Reinhardt family met their demise?”

“Why are you doing this?” Rebecca asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” the man answered. He carefully paced around the room, looking out the window as police officers spilled into the area outside. He rested his arms behind his back and sighed, shaking his head at the people outside.

“They’ll stop you, you know,” Rebecca said. “If you keep standing by that window, they’ll shoot you.”

“I cannot be killed, missus Rebecca Anders,” the man replied. “I am beyond life and death, as is she.”

Rebecca gave the man a puzzled look, unsure of who he was speaking of. “Who?”

The man turned and frowned at Rebecca. “My master. The ruler of us all.”

“So why are you doing these things? That ability you displayed-”

“It is the only way to bring humanity to heel,” the man dismissively remarked, waving a hand. “For far too long have so many individuals within humanity operated with impunity, beholden to no one and nothing for their actions – or lack thereof. When I received the last gift, she also gave me a mission. What you saw was simply one part of what has yet to come.”

“You’re holding all of humanity responsible for the acts of the few?”

The man thought for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. If humanity as a whole cannot purge these individuals from their midst, then it is time for an external force to take action. I merely represent the vector by which that force is used.”

“But who are you to judge all of us-”

“It’s not me. It’s her. Itelakana.”

“So why does she have the right to judge us?” Rebecca asked, trying to understand the strange man’s logic.

“I told you: she is the ruler of us all. She comes before and after, from beyond and within, near yet afar. She is us and we are her.”

Rebecca frowned, becoming more confused than ever. What’s wrong with him? Is he-

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” the man curtly said, interrupting Rebecca’s thoughts. “I exist as a bridge between humanity and Itelakana. Because of this, I have the ability to change the nature of reality as you understand it.”

“You can read minds?”

The man looked out the window and nodded. “Yes. Reading human minds was the first ability she gave me. It allowed her to express what she desired me to do in order to receive the rest of her gifts. I was able to find those near me who truly deserved the full weight of her wrath; many of whom remained so blissfully unaware of what I could feel from them.”

Rebecca looked past the man to the people outside, watching the police officers take cover and place barricades. “What are they thinking?” she finally asked.

The man momentarily rubbed his chin, allowing Rebecca to see the gray vessels underneath his flesh – seemingly moving as he flexed his hand. “They are trying to make sense of what happened – how Itelakana’s power could do this. They do not have the conscious ability to decipher her thoughts. They push their own thoughts and feelings away, filling their minds with doubt and disbelief. So closed to the possibilities, no matter how remote; they willingly march toward their inevitable deaths. Some cling to their faith; others, to their hubris.”

“They’re going to die? All of them?” Rebecca asked, horror in her voice.

The man nodded. “Yes. None have embraced their conscience; that will be their undoing. I can feel all their fears, desires, the people they’ve hurt, the mistakes they’ve made… No one down there is innocent. They are all the blood of the damned.”

“And me? What am I?” Rebecca asked, feeling that she already knew the answer.

The man looked back to Rebecca and nodded. “Yes. You already know the answer; I need not say it aloud.”

“I will die here, too,” Rebecca remarked, sitting back against the wall.

The man nodded once again. “Yes. Not by my hand or by Itelakana’s will, but by those who know more than they appear. You will know them when you see them. In some ways, you can already feel them.”

Rebecca frowned and shook her head. “No, I can’t. I don’t feel anything but fear – fear of you.”

The man smiled, somehow allaying Rebecca’s fears and strangely warming her heart. “I am a tool, Rebecca. You do not fear me – you fear Itelakana. You fear what may happen after this is over. You fear for your children and your husband. You need not your fear, Rebecca; it will dissipate in due time.”

“But my fear is telling me what’s wrong. What might happen. What could happen – and what probably will happen, if you don’t give up.”

The man dropped his smile and nodded. “Biological survival mechanisms are difficult to defeat. Ignoring them is the first step to realizing your true self; only when you separate your body from your mind will you realize the truth.”

“What truth?”

The man walked over and squatted down before Rebecca. “That we are all part of Itelakana. Everything you are, everything you’ve been, everything you will be – all belongs to her. The crude matter that represents our physical selves shackles us to this harsh reality; only when we are free from it do we know ourselves.”

“You’re talking about G-”

“No!” the man shouted in anger, raising a fist. “God is imagination! A pathetic creation of our physical bodies, leading us astray from the truth!”

“But what you’re talking about is the definition of God!” Rebecca shouted back. “This ‘Itelakana’ sounds just like Him!”

The man shook his head. “No. Itelakana did not create us, Rebecca. She is us and we are her – she did not create us. I do not have the time to explain her story to you, for it is beyond all of us.”

Rebecca let out an exasperated sigh. “Why not?”

The man looked over to the door and tilted his head toward it. “Because they are coming. And it is not time for you to realize the truth yet.”

Rebecca looked to the door and began to ask a question when it burst open, a full team of armored police officers moving in with weapons pointed and bright lights flashing across the room.

“Police! Put your hands up! Get down on the ground!” one of the policemen shouted. Rebecca held her hands up but remained seated next to the wall, looking at the man and wondering what he was going to do.

The man sighed and looked back to Rebecca. He nodded, then looked over to the policemen.

“No,” the man said, turning to face the policemen. “Your deaths approach on swift feet.”

“OK, drop him!” a policeman shouted, raising his pistol and firing past his ballistic shield, cuing the other policemen to fire as well. The sound of firearms echoed over the room, but nothing seemed to be hitting the man. After what felt like an eternity to Rebecca, the policemen ran out of ammunition and the only sound she heard was the ringing in her ears.

The man held a hand out, opening it to reveal a single bullet and a deep, black blood seeping out of his hand. Rebecca’s jaw dropped open as she watched him drop the bullet and the wound on his hand close, only a drop of blood dripping away from his hand onto the floor.

“Now you shall all realize the truth of your existence,” the man said, dropping his hand back to his side. Suddenly, the policemen dropped their weapons and began to scream in agony, an invisible force lifting them up from the floor and suspending them in the air. Rebecca looked over and saw them began to bleed, then their flesh began to split, until finally their bodies turned to a pure liquid, pooling on the floor, with clothing and weapons poking out – and their bones.

“And now, you know true consciousness,” the man whispered, sighing as he did so.

Rebecca shivered and held herself close, looking away from the carnage. “Why did you do that?” she asked.

“You know why, Rebecca,” the man answered. “Humanity must be brought to heel. It must be forced to change its nature, since it is unwilling to do so on its own volition.”

“But you have the power to destroy only those who deserve it,” Rebecca said. “What did they ever do that justified killing them?”

The man walked over to the remains and knelt down, rubbing a finger in the blood. “They refused to acknowledge their conscious minds. They believed that everything they had ever done would not return to haunt them – that they were innocent for this reason or that. No one is innocent, Rebecca; we all have guilt, whether we deceive ourselves about it or not.”

“And you get to decide their punishment?!” Rebecca incredulously asked.

The man looked back and shook his head. “No. It was not my decision. It was hers. Even I do not fully understand why she takes the actions she does; it is not my place to understand why.”

Rebecca narrowed her eyes and gave a cold stare to the man. “Right. You’re just a tool. A slave, even.”

The man nodded. “Yes. Itelakana is my master, Rebecca. I must do her bidding, or a fate worse than death awaits me.”

Rebecca sighed and looked out the window, tired of trying to understand the man. “What happens now? Will you kill all of them, too?”

The man stood and looked out the window, then shook his head. “No. Itelakana merely chose this time and place to send a message. A message that you will deliver.”

“Me?” Rebecca asked, completely confused by now. “Why?”

“You will know when they find you. Goodbye, Rebecca Anders.” The man held his hands behind his back, then vanished, as if he had never even been there. Rebecca frowned, looking around and trying to understand what had just happened.

Suddenly, more policemen burst through the door, their weapons pointed at Rebecca.

“Hands up! Do it now!” one policeman commanded. Rebecca complied and raised her hands, remaining as still as she could. The policemen carefully came forward, then pushed her down to the floor and bound her hands behind her back.

“Jesus. What happened here? Where’s the suspect?” one policeman asked.

“He vanished,” Rebecca answered. “I don’t know what happened to him.”

“Search the area. Suspect is probably nearby – he can’t have gone far on foot,” another policeman ordered.

Rebecca shook her head. “No. He’s not. And when he comes back, things will be far worse.”

“Sorry for all the problems, missus Anders,” the detective said, handing a cup of coffee to Rebecca as she sat down in the car. “Police procedure and all that. You’re sure you never saw him leave? He just vanished without a trace?”

Rebecca nodded. “One moment he was standing in front of the window, then he was suddenly gone. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

“Any weapons that you could see? Maybe like a gas or something?”

“No, nothing. In fact, I’m not even sure how I got in the room with him. My last memory was sitting at my desk when he came in, then I was in the room, sitting by myself.”

The detective lifted an eyebrow. “You never saw him kill the senator and his entire staff?”

Rebecca frowned and looked up. “No. I didn’t even realize the senator had been killed until I was brought outside, walking past their bodies.”

“But you saw the SWAT team get killed, right?”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes. They were… Slaughtered. I don’t know how he did it; he just liquefied their bodies through pure will alone. They tried to shoot him but all they seemed to do was injure his hand.”

The detective’s eyes lit up when he heard that. “He was injured? Did he bleed?”

“Yes. A single drop of blood – I remember it very clearly. And a bullet.”

The detective waved over another policeman, who jogged up to the detective.

“Hey, Bryan,” the detective said, “tell the crime scene folks to look for a bullet and a drop of blood near where we found missus Anders.”

The policeman nodded and walked off, speaking into a radio, presumably to tell the personnel conducting the investigation to look for the detective’s clue.

“His blood was almost purely black,” Rebecca remarked. “He held the bullet as if he was trying to show me something. His hand had a wound on it that just closed rapidly, like it regenerated. I don’t know why he was trying to show that to me.”

“Did he say why he was doing this? Anything about his motivations? Where he was going, that sort of thing?” the detective asked.

Rebecca shook her head. “No. I wanted to believe he was insane, but he seemed to act and move with a deliberate purpose. He knew exactly what he was doing, yet it felt almost as if something within him didn’t want to.”

The detective frowned. “What do you mean?”

Rebecca looked away. “He… Told me he was a tool. A slave. That what he was doing wasn’t of his own volition.”

“But you’re sure he wasn’t crazy?”

Rebecca sighed and nodded. “Yes. He was rational, calm, and thinking clearly – far more clearly than I would’ve thought possible. I felt like he was on some different level of existence, far in advanced of the rest of us.”

“But he-” the detective continued, but was cut off by two men approaching in suits.

“FBI. We’ll take it from here,” one man interrupted.

“Excuse me?” the detective asked. “Don’t pull the fed crap with me, guys. You can’t just walk-”

“We can and we have,” the other man said. “Don’t throw your career away over this, detective.”

“This is preposterous! Let me-”

The first man pulled out a phone, interrupting the detective’s protest, dialing a series of numbers, then handed the phone to the detective. “Your superiors are on the line, detective. They’re ordering you to stand down.”

The detective growled and grabbed the phone, expecting some odd joke to be pulled on him. Instead, he heard the voice of his lieutenant on the line.

“Jim, it’s Wally,” the lieutenant said over the phone.

“Wally? What the fuck is-”

“Jim, let these gentlemen from the FBI take missus Anders into custody. They’re taking over the investigation.”

“Wally, you can’t-”

“Jim! Let it drop. I’ll explain it all to you later.” Wally hung up and Jim looked at the phone in disbelief.

“Good enough for you, detective?” the first man asked.

Jim looked to Rebecca and sighed. “Will you be OK, missus Anders?”

Rebecca looked up and nodded. “Yes. Thanks for your help, detective.”

“Let’s get you home, missus Anders,” the second man said, taking Rebecca’s arm and lifting her up. The men kept her close, weaving through the various police cars and ushering her to an unmarked car. They put her in the back seat, then got in and began driving off.

“You’re not really FBI, are you?” Rebecca asked, looking at the two men up front. Neither acknowledged her question, the two men continuing to look ahead.

Rebecca looked down and gasped. “I… I can hear you!”

The men looked at one another for a moment, then back forward.

Rebecca shook her head. “Don’t do this. Please don’t do this!”

“We have a team heading to your home to collect your children and husband,” one of the men said. “You’ll join them at a secure location. Don’t try anything and you won’t be harmed.”

“You’re lying,” Rebecca said, sitting back in her seat. “I finally know what he was talking about. I just don’t know what message I was supposed to deliver.”

The driver stopped the car, the tires screeching as he slammed on the brakes. He turned and looked back at Rebecca, fear on his face. “What message?!” he shouted.

Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.”

The other man drew out a firearm and pointed the muzzle squarely at Rebecca’s face. “We need to kill her now!”

Before the driver could respond, the window shattered and a man pulled the driver out, tearing the seat belt out with him. The other man swung his pistol around and fired through the broken window, the muzzle blast causing Rebecca to instinctively drop her head down and cover her ears. She momentarily looked up, seeing the man who fired trying to undo his seat belt when the door swung open and he, too, was pulled out of the car. Rebecca tried to open her door, but it was locked and she couldn’t open it. She began to panic and looked for a way to smash the window when she saw a bloody hand grasp the passenger’s headrest.

“You… You are…” the man mumbled, then expired. Rebecca strained to look over the seat, seeing the man dead with a massive hole in his back.

Suddenly, the door unlocked, cuing Rebecca to jerk the handle and stumble out, falling out of the car. She crawled away, trying to get up, but stopped when she saw the man from the office before her, a hand extended. She frowned and took his hand, allowing him to pull her up.

“Not everything is what it seems, Rebecca,” the man whispered, his voice completely different in tone and demeanor compared to before. “You can stop me. You can stop us.” He looked up, to the night sky. “Find a way before it is too late.”

Before Rebecca could respond, the man vanished again, leaving her alone. She shivered and looked back to the car, seeing the driver dead on the road, apparently beaten to death, and the bloody hand of his companion still clutching the seat. She looked up to the sky, feeling as if she was being watched. She gasped as she felt something in the back of her mind, probing around. Itelakana.

“I can feel you, Itelakana,” Rebecca said out loud. “I don’t know who you are or what you are, but I swear: I will stop you!”

“Yo! Mount up! We’re moving in 5 minutes!” Edward shouted, spinning his fingers upward to indicate his crew should get in the tank.

“We’re doing this?” Craig asked, slipping his helmet on and getting ready to boost himself to the driver’s position.

Edward nodded and grabbed onto the handholds to lift himself to the turret. “Flyboys ran into some problems, so we’re it. No idea what we’re dealing with out there.”

“Super secret squirrel stuff, sir?” Josh, the loader, asked as he stuck his head out of the turret.

“Don’t know,” Edward replied as he dropped down into the commander’s cupola. “Told me they’ll pipe it over the radio when we close in.”

“This weird shit has been going on for too long,” Craig grumbled as he dropped down into the driver’s seat and closed the hatch. He adjusted his microphone and plugged the cord into the intercom, then pressed the transmit button on his control column. “Driver in, comm check.”

“Loud n’ clear,” Smith, the gunner, replied. “What’s been going on out there? I keep hearing rumors all over, something about some serial killer.”

“So let the cops handle it,” Josh chattered across the intercom. “Why are we doing some domestic enforcement mission?”

“A secure military installation, gents,” Edward answered as he closed the hatch. “Beyond that, I don’t know anything more than you guys.”

“Alright, things look good,” Craig remarked. “Permission to start the engine.”

“Go for it. We have some distance to cover,” Edward said, getting the commander’s station ready.

Craig went through the startup procedure and then pressed the starter button, hearing the electric motor roar to life as it drove the mechanics to start the turbine and bring life to the seventy ton mechanical beast. Whatever it is, it’s not gonna be a match for an entire armored division! After a few moments, the turbine began to run and he carefully watched the gauges to ensure everything was within limits.

“Driver, engine is started and in the green,” Craig said, sitting back and preparing for Edward’s orders.

“Standby,” Edward mumbled as he brought up his situation display and tied into the datalink. The network had been spotty for a while, but today it seemed even worse and he only had a good picture of his own platoon’s tanks. What the fuck is going on out there? More lowest bidder crap. Damn it! He tapped the side of the display but was rewarded with no change, causing him to let out a frustrated sigh. He keyed his microphone to the division channel in order to check in and hopefully get more information.

“Papa Bear, this is Fist 4-1, checking in,” Edward loudly said over the radio. “Platoon is ready and waiting for orders. Having some problems with the datalink.”

“Fist 4-1, Papa Bear. Say again, transmission was corrupted,” an older male voice replied.

“Fist 4-1, checking in, waiting for orders,” Edward repeated.

“Received, Fist 4-1. Proceed to target coordinates.”

What? I didn’t get any coordinates. Edward furrowed his brow and looked back at his situation display, not having received any data from his superiors on it yet.

“Papa Bear, Fist 4-1 has not received any target coordinates,” Edward said into the radio.

“Fist 4-1, data link transmission should have been received,” the man replied.

“Negative, Papa Bear. Datalink is not functioning.”

“Understood. Manually enter target coordinates: 37.230405, -115.793629.”

Edward frowned and brought up his map page, then punched in the coordinates. Why there, of all places? Isn’t that an airstrip for the flyboys? “Papa Bear, Fist 4-1, coordinates entered. Ready for orders.”

“Proceed to target coordinates. Further information will be provided en route.”

“Received and understood. Moving to target coordinates.” Edward sent the coordinates to the rest of his platoon, then keyed to their own channel. “OK guys, I’m sending you some coordinates since the datalink is being picky. Follow my lead and I’ll pass on our briefing as soon as I get it.”

“Fist 4-2, affirm,” a tank commander replied.

“Fist 4-3, understood,” another replied.

“Fist 4-4, got it,” the last commander answered.

OK, let’s hope they give us more info. Edward shifted his microphone back to the intercom to talk to the driver. “Craig, check your map display. Get us going on those coordinates.”

“Yes sir, I- Boss, what the fuck?!” Craig exclaimed. “We’re going there?!

“Yeah, that’s what they gave us.”

“And you do know what’s there?”

“Just get us moving. This isn’t the time to argue,” Edward mumbled.

“Yeah, yeah, right,” Craig replied. He shifted the tank into gear and began surging forward, the turbine roaring as it propelled the heavy vehicle ahead.

Edward switched back to the division channel and tried to listen in, but static interference kept him from getting a clear transmission.

“Papa Bear to all units, we… Eng-… with enem-… Use anti-person-… Target is-” was all Edward heard of the latest transmission before it abruptly cut off.

“Loader, load up grapeshot,” Edward ordered, looking over to Josh. He nodded and opened the ammunition compartment, pulling out a shell and sliding it into the cannon’s breech, closing the block and locking it in place.

“Up!” Josh shouted, closing the ammunition door and bracing himself in the turret.

Edward clicked his microphone back to the division frequency, hoping to hear from Papa Bear again. “Papa Bear, Fist 4-1. Last transmission was corrupted. Understood anti-personnel rounds to be loaded.”

“Fist-… Enemy is-… Hos-” was all that came across the radio before falling silent again. Edward groaned and rubbed his eyes. This is bad. We have no idea what we’re doing or what we’re dealing with. They shouldn’t have rushed us out like this. Somebody is going to get messed up.

“Boss! Contacts up ahead!” Smith shouted out, looking through his scope. “Looks like… Armor?!”

Edward picked his head up and looked through his own sighting system to confirm. As Smith had said, there were some tanks ahead, kicking up dust and moving ahead. That’s odd. They look like… Our tanks? Identical- Those are our tanks!

“This can’t be right,” Edward mumbled. “Gunner, confirm that armor is traveling in front of us and away.

“Er, yeah. They’re facing away from us. They’re-They’re just… Like our tanks,” Smith whispered.

“Driver, stop,” Edward ordered.

“Understood, stopping,” Craig replied. As he did so, the image in Edward’s scope did the exact same thing: the tanks came to a grinding halt.

No. No way. Edward rubbed his face, unsure of what he was seeing. Should I look at this with my own eyes? Is this some kind of malfunction? But that can’t be. Not like this.

“Gunner, turret left 90 degrees,” Edward ordered.

“What?” Smith mumbled.

“Turn the turret left. 90 degrees, please,” Edward repeated.

“Yeah, OK,” Smith replied, then began turning the turret. As he did so, Edward watched the image in his scope do the exact same thing: the turret on the tank turned 90 degrees to the left, then stop.

“Impossible,” Edward mumbled. “I’m taking a look.” He opened the hatch on his cupola and looked ahead, seeing an identical tank in front of his own, with an exact duplicate of himself standing in the cupola and looking ahead. He extended out an arm and waved, seeing his mirror image do the same. No… This has to be an illusion. It can’t be real.

“Hey! You! In the tank!” Edward shouted, then in an instant heard his exact words come back to his own ears. No way. No way. He ducked back into the cupola and closed the hatch, locking it shut. “Gunner, turret straight ahead,” he ordered.

“Affirm,” Smith replied, using his controls to turn the turret back straight ahead. “What’s going on?”

Ignoring Smith, Edward switched to the platoon frequency and keyed his microphone. “Fist 4-1 to Fist 4-2. Do you see a tank ahead on your scope?”

Silence greeted Edward’s request. What the hell? Have we lost all communications? “Fist 4-1 to Fist 4-2. Respond.” He looked on his situation display, only to find no contacts; the entire datalink seemed to be down, including the one between his own platoon. He went back to his scope and panned it around, seeing no other tanks aside from the mirror image ahead.

“Sir? What’s going on?” Smith asked again.

“We’ve got no communications – no radio, no data link, nothing,” Edward answered. “Just the reflection in front of us.”

“What do you wanna do? Retreat and regroup?”

Edward hesitated for a moment as he tried to come up with a course of action. No briefing. No idea what we’re dealing with. No one else but us and this mirror image. He glanced back at the scope, seeing the mirror image in front of them. “Just continue to the coordinates. We’ll try and regroup with the others there.”

“Yes sir,” Craig nervously replied into the intercom, then started moving the tank forward again. Edward watched the mirror image in his scope do the same, staying exactly in front of them and seemingly repeating their every action.

“You think that place has anything to do with this?” Josh asked.

Edward lifted an eyebrow at Josh’s query. “That’s just rumors. That place is just for highly classified aircraft, nothing more and nothing less.”

“You think they’d tell us if they were doing more?”

“If we had a need to know, they would.”

Josh braced himself on a railing. “So why tell us en route instead of before we had to run into this mess?”

“Probably because the flyboys don’t like sharing anything with us. Don’t go wild with the speculation because it’s not going to be nearly as exciting as you think it is.”

“I’m more concerned about getting killed.” Josh tilted his head forward for emphasis. “A mirror image of our own tank? No radio? No datalink? What’s going on out there?”

Edward looked into his scope. “We’ll find out when we can see the coordinates, just past this ridge.”

The tank bucked a bit as it hit some rough patch of ground, then lifted up a bit and crested a ridge. As Edward looked into his scope, his view was distorted by a bright shining beacon of light in the distance, which also seemed to distort their mirror image ahead. He looked at the image and watched as it seemed to shift in position, appear, then reappear, and then in an instant seemed to explode. He jumped back and braced himself for a shockwave, but it never came. What the hell?! What’s going on here?!

“What? What happened?” Josh asked, looking at Edward with befuddlement.

“The tank ahead, it just blew up,” Edward answered. He peered back into his scope, only to be greeted with no mirror image – just the beacon of light ahead.

“So what’s that mean? No contacts?”

“It means we might be dead,” Edward mumbled.

“That makes no sense. If we were dead, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be talking to one another like this and I’m pretty sure we’d have felt the tank get hit.”

Edward passed an annoyed glance toward Josh. “And you’ve died before, so you know all this, right?”

“Just saying, sir,” Josh grumbled.

Edward let out a sigh and checked his display again; the datalink was still down and he had no idea who or what else might be out there. What can we do? Should we go forward? Back?

“I think we should turn back and regroup, see if we can’t get contact with anyone,” Smith said while looking down his sight.

“No, we can’t do that,” Edward replied while shaking his head. “We need to continue on, find out what’s going on out there.”

“That light doesn’t look very friendly, sir.”

“Which is why we need to check it out. Driver, forward.”

“Yes sir,” Craig replied over the intercom, the engine surging as he twisted the throttle.

Edward scanned around for threats on his scope, the small commander’s sensor turret on top of the main turret twisting around with his view. Nothing threatening was visible – just miles of desert and the bright light in the distance. A chill echoed through his spine, putting a sense of foreboding in his spirit. I’m starting to second guess myself. Something should be out here – the other tanks, aircraft, someone, anything. Not empty desert. Not a blinding light in the distance.

“We’re within 2 miles of the destination, sir,” Craig said over the intercom. Edward twisted his sights back to the light, the brightness of it washing out his optics. The ride became smoother as they crossed to smoother, more even sand.

“Alright, gunner, start tracking that light; standby to fire,” Edward ordered.

“Yes sir,” Smith replied, the actuators in the turret groaning as he twisted the controls around to bring the large cannon to bear. “Ready to fire.”

“Hang on.” Edward sat back and rubbed his chin. I shouldn’t fire on it without orders. I- A pop sounded and suddenly the engine died, along with the rest of the electronics in the tank.

“What the hell was that?! I got no power!” Craig shouted, his voice muffled.

“Everything’s out,” Smith mumbled, checking a few of his panels. “I got nothing.”

“Driver, go for restart!” Edward ordered.

A few clangs sounded out, but nothing but silence followed. “I got nothin’! Battery’s dead!” Craig shouted back.

“Everybody out! Bail out!” Edward shouted, popping his hatch open and thrusting out of the tank. The clatter of hatches being opened followed by boots slamming on metal echoed over the near-silent desert as the crew got out of the tank, the four of them regrouping on the desert floor.

“What was that all about?” Josh asked as he looked back to the tank, then to the others.

“If we can’t restart,” Edward said, “then we’re dead in the water. No sense in risking getting shot.”

“There’s nothing out here,” Craig mumbled as he squatted down and looked at the sand. “It’s like everything is dead here.”

“It’s a dry lakebed in a desert; of course it’s dead,” Smith remarked.

“No, he’s right,” Josh interjected. “Listen. No wind, right?” He pointed to the sky. “No stars. Not even the moon. Everything is gone.”

Everyone looked to the sky, and just as Josh had said, the sky was pitch black. Nothing was visible except for the light on the fringes of their vision.

“How in the hell is that possible?” Smith asked.

“It isn’t,” Edward answered. He then looked back and gasped. “Where’d the tank go?!”

The group looked back and where their tank had been was now empty desert; there were not even tracks in the sand, as if they hadn’t even been there.

“What’s going on? This can’t be real,” Craig mumbled.

“What do we do now?” Josh asked Edward. “We’re not getting anywhere in the desert on foot and we left all our gear in the tank.”

Edward sighed and rubbed his face. The only way out is through. He looked at his crew then nodded toward the light. “We’ve got one option. I don’t think I need to say it.”

“The base?” Smith asked. “Is there even going to be anyone there?”

“It’s only 2 miles so let’s get moving,” Edward ordered, starting a brisk pace toward the light. The others followed him, each letting out a grumble or a sigh at their predicament. At least it’s night and not day, or we’d die of heat exhaustion in short order. On the other hand, the temperature feels almost as if it were controlled… Perfectly comfortable. In a desert, how’s that possible?

“Think those rumors might be true now?” Josh mumbled.

“I thought you were the one who said we might be dead,” Smith replied.

“Well, yeah, still a possibility.”

“Not my idea of the afterlife,” Craig interjected.

“Nor the idea of anyone else,” a male voice whispered.

“Who said that?!” Edward exclaimed, looking around in the darkness. The group nervously looked around, trying to find who might be following them.

“Soldiers, sent like lambs to the slaughter,” the male voice continued. “An army, sent to subdue one man. A nation, broken by inevitability. Were they all so blind to send you here, so woefully unprepared?”

Edward glanced around, but the voice seemed close yet far at the same time. Is he shadowing us? Remotely watching us? What does he want?

“What do you want, Lieutenant? What is it that you desire?” the male voice asked. “Why did you come here, despite everything you saw? Why did you not run when the opportunity presented itself?”

“We were given orders,” Edward answered. “’Ours is not to question why, but to do or die.’ ”

The male voice let out a light chuckle. “I used to believe such things, too. Those above you are so willing to cast your lives aside, knowing that you will live by such ideals. Yet, were you to see them as the petty insects they are, you would realize that such ideals are wasted on them.”

“They are our superiors. We follow their orders and that’s the end of it.”

What orders? Hmm? ‘Go to these coordinates,’ they said. Why? What were you to do when you arrived? Die, perhaps?”

Edward nodded. “If need be. I would lay down my life and the lives of my men for my country.”

“Would you lay down your life for your fellow man?”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“No. You said you would lay your lives and the lives of your men down for the country. I am asking if you would lay your life down for you fellow man. Not country. Not nation. Not army, group, or any human institution. Your fellow man.

Edward frowned and hesitated. Not for just anyone, no.

“Hollow words, Lieutenant,” the male voice growled, seemingly reading Edward’s mind. “Your country has existed. Your country has fallen. Your country never existed. Everything, everywhere, every possibility; yet you are unsure if you would lay your life down for your fellow man. You are a slave to those who manipulate you for their own means and you refuse to admit this.”

Edward folded his arms and looked at his crew. “Aren’t you doing the same thing?”

“Of course, but I have not masked that fact, have I now?” the male voice replied with a chuckle. “You refuse to acknowledge that your entire existence is a paradox. A world built upon lies and ideals, manipulated by those you would consider petty thieves if not for the power they wield. Tell me, what is the difference between a thief and a head of state?”

“That’s a dumb question,” Edward mumbled. “A thief is a thief. A head of state doesn’t commit crimes.”

The male voice let out booming laughter, seemingly shaking the ground. “You truly believe that, Lieutenant?! With everything you know about in this world, the things you know to be true, you believe that a king is free of sin?!”

“Now you’re talking about something else entirely.”

“Am I? ‘Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth.’ What truth do you kneel to, Lieutenant?”

Edward scratched his head, uncertain of how to answer. Is this a test? What am I doing, arguing with this voice? “I believe that all men are innately good,” he finally answered.

“Yet you are wrong,” the male voice dejectedly replied. “I gave them many chances. So many chances. The truth revealed to me was that humanity cannot be saved. It is a failure. The only future is death.”

“How am I wrong? Nobody wakes up and says ‘today, I will be evil.’ That’s just for the movies.”

“You assume that everyone wakes up the same way, Lieutenant. Some are incapable of even having any thought to begin with.”

“But that’s not everyone – not even a majority.”

“Are you really sure about that? Absolutely certain?” The voice seemed to focus and a man began to form in front of Edward, seemingly building himself out of shadow. Edward motioned to his crew but then noticed that he was alone, with no one else but him and the man in front of him.

“Who are you?!” Edward shouted.

“I will get to my name later,” the man whispered. “If the world could be remade in your image, what do you think it would look like? Do you see happiness for all?”

“Enough games! What did you do with my crew?!”

The man canted his head. “What would the world look like in your image?” he carefully repeated.

“Paradise! It’d be paradise!” Edward growled, balling his hands into fists.

“For some,” the man gently whispered back. “For others, such would be perdition. No one is the same, Lieutenant. Smith wanted to run, following his instincts; Craig was curious about the light; and Josh believed you all to be dead. What if I told you they were all right, then they were all wrong?”

“I’d say you’d probably have a screw loose.”

“You do not like to examine the possibilities? To see what could be, what may be, what isn’t?”

Edward narrowed his eyes. “Are you why we were sent here?”

The man nodded. “I am. I destroyed so many. They all believed themselves above it all, above the consequences of their actions. Everyone believes they can escape. That nothing will come of their sins. That they will be forgiven, that they need not work for it. I came for them. I proved them wrong. And I made them pay the price for their sins.”

“Who? What sins?” Edward shook his head. I don’t understand one bit of this. Am I going crazy?

The man waved his hand around the air. “Your men. Your superiors. Your country. This nation. That nation. The world paid for their sins.”

“So it’s… Gone?”

“Not yet. But soon.” The man glanced to the light. “I need only wait for her. She will tell me what your fate is to be.”

“You’re Death?” Edward incredulously asked.

The man shook his head and looked back to Edward. “No. I am a shadow of a man.”

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