THE ILLUSION OF MEMORY



   "...my first thought was that someone had been playing with my memories. My second thought was that, if this were true, I was going to hurt someone. My third thought was to consider, if someone was repressing my memories, who that someone had to be. This was chilling, and it brought me fully awake, which led to one of those irritating sessions of 'How much was a dream?'"
       -S. K. Z. Brust, Dragon


         Lightning forked, briefly illuming the night sky with a vision of natural brilliance. Thunder cracked a split second afterward, as loud as the bolt of electrical fury had been bright.
         The telephone sounded again.
         Its shrill, jangling ring sliced through the rumbling echoes of the outdoor storm's moment of wrath. Then all became black and still for a heartbeat. A second flash of lightning scattered the darkness, just as the telephone's peal sounded a third time. More thunder drowned the click of the phone's mechanisms, as a man abruptly cut short its ring by lifting its handpiece to his ear. At first, he heard nothing; or perhaps the latest dying resonations of thunder dampened any other sound. His lips drew away from his teeth in an unpleasant expression, and he cradled the handpiece closer. Now he could hear a soft, unnaturally compelling and undeniably feminine voice.
         "Eagle... you owe us."
         Another sheet of lightning split the sky in two.
         He had not gone by that alias in nearly five years. It had been the name he used among Them, and Their organization. He'd thought that once his undercover assignment among Them was over, he would be able to simply discard that name and the life that had gone with it.
         He had been wrong.
         His mistake had cost him dearly. Now, as he listened to the voice of one of Their most elite representatives, he wondered whether his folly might yet bring about his premature end.
         His eyes squinted suspiciously, and his hand quivered a little. He held the phone's handpiece further away from his ear, as though he half-expected it to bite him. His first instinct was to slam it back in its cradle, but in a paralyzed moment of indecision, he second-guessed himself. If They knew how to contact him by telephone, then surely They knew where he lived. It would make little difference in the end whether he listened to Their threats or not.
         "You thought you could walk away and leave your liabilities behind, didn't you? There is only one way to desert us," hissed the assassin. And if he had taken that way, then she certainly wouldn't have used the telephone to contact him. "You owe us a blood debt. It is past time for you to repay what you have incurred. Go to your back door at once, and open it."
         "Why should I," he replied, trying to make himself sound more calm than he felt.
         "Do you fear that Death is waiting to claim you?" she whispered. He could have sworn she sounded... amused. "Indeed it is, but not tonight. You know me better than that. Now open the back door, and take Camilla inside before she catches cold."
         An abrupt click announced the end of the call. The man once known as Eagle briefly stared at his telephone's handpiece. He was too strong-willed to stay dumbfounded for very long, though, and soon he gingerly replaced the handpiece in its cradle.
         Was it a trap?
         Then again, the person he'd spoken to had a reputation for ruthless efficiency. They called her "Ryonis" - not that it was her true name, nor that she ever used it as an alias, but it was what They called her. Usually behind her back. The reference was an obscure one, to a mythical demon-queen who indiscriminately slaughtered the guilty and the innocent whenever the delicate sensibilities of the god-kings were threatened. Rumors abounded about Ryonis: that she was a single person; that she was a succession of Their agents filling a single post; that she was only an unremarkable spokesperson for Them; that she was not human at all, but rather a fiend of elemental fire bound to Their Grandmaster's will.
         Only one thing about her was certain: when she chose to wreak havoc, she did not alert her victims in advance, particularly not by telephone. Eagle did, indeed, know her better than that.
         Even so, Eagle decided, it would be better to take precautions.
         Hanging just above his telephone was a nondescript picture of a serene oceanscape at sunset. He moved it aside, revealing a sunken dial beneath. A few brief twists of the knob, and he pulled the door of the hidden safe open for the first time in nearly half a dozen years.
         His iron rods lay inside, waiting for him to hold them again. He'd once thought of selling them, or giving them away, or throwing them beneath the waves of the churning sea. He had wanted to leave them and all they symbolized behind himself, forever - but a deep, primal instinct had swayed him to merely hide them instead. Now that he held their familiar weight once more, he wondered how he could ever have thought of setting them aside. They rested easily, comfortably in his hands, more like a living part of him than the cold lumps of metal they supposedly were.
         Armed, and with strengthened resolve, he approached his back door and peered through the distorted glass of its peephole. He saw nothing but darkness. The thunderstorm outside had subsided into mere rain, with no more flashes of lightning to illuminate the surroundings. Cursing himself for an idiot, he switched the outdoor porch light on and peered again. Still, nothing.
         Was this some kind of joke?
         No. There could be no mistaking the voice of the caller, and she was not one to play games. With a slight shake of his head, he undid the heavy locks upon the door and slowly dragged it open. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw what was behind it.
         A thin girl, young enough to be his daughter, lay sprawled upon his doorstep. He had not seen her supine form through the peephole because she had been beneath the angle of his view. She was either unconscious or asleep, but definitely alive and breathing. Her only adornment, despite her long, golden tresses, was a royal purple cloak draped about her fragile body.
         How in the world...?
         The young woman - Camilla? - stirred slightly, murmuring something unintelligible.
         He brought her inside, before she could catch cold.



         Whenever Cammy tried to push her thoughts and memories back, back as far as they would go, she remembered running.
         She remembered minute after minute of looping around the black asphalt track, passing the starting mark in a haze of spartan determination, lap after lap. And then another lap. And another, while her legal guardian, Theodore White, meticulously tallied the ticking seconds on his gold pocket watch. It wasn't really as if she'd been taxed beyond her limits, during those first few months under Theodore's protective care. It was only that running laps every morning had made an impression.
         If she strained her mind even further, if she attempted to feel her way beyond the curtain that shut away all her memories prior to the two years she lived with Theo, then eventually a few images would bubble to the surface. Sometimes they were reassuring, sometimes they were frightening; almost always, they blurred and escaped before she could put them in words. Still, there was a certain comfort to knowing that something was there, that she hadn't just materialized out of nothing three years ago.
         'Amnesia,' they called it, as if that one label could epitomize all the depression, frustration, and wondering about her mysterious past. Sometimes she even wondered if her first name - Camilla, after an ancient amazon queen - was truly her own. However, it didn't feel like a recently adopted name. Sometimes she was almost sure that she had answered to it before, many times before Theodore had given her his own last name of White.
         Cammy had only a few hard and fast links to her former life, whatever it had been.
         One was her hair. It had reached down past her waist when Theodore found her. She thought she could recall him carrying her across his threshold, then carefully brushing out and braiding her long locks, all the while singing her a gentle child's lullaby. Or could she? Perhaps Theodore had told her that tale so many times that she had re-created the 'memory' to substitute for the many other memories that were missing. She had asked him countless times how he first came to care for her. He always told her that he had found her on his doorstep in the rain, but he pretended not to know who had left her there, or why, or even how he had known to check his doorstep on a rainy night. She suspected there was much more to the story than that, but she was reluctant to cross-examine the surrogate father to whom she owed everything.
         Still, one detail Theodore did admit was that her sunny gold hair had been well-cared for. It had possessed such a resilient sheen that it must have been carefully washed and dried before she had been smuggled through the midnight rain.
         That felt somehow... significant.
         As hard as it was to care for her flowing hair, she could never quite go through with cutting it to a more manageable length. Theodore warned her that long hair could be a sizeable handicap in a conflict. Logically, she knew that he was right, but her emotional core could not bear to shear her tresses, and all that they symbolized. Instead, she kept them bound up in braids, which could be tucked under a cap if absolutely necessary.
         Another link was the various markings on her body. Her left cheek bore a thin scar, the only blemish upon her otherwise porcelain-smooth face. Theodore once mentioned that the scar had appeared recent when he had first found her. The passage of time caused it to heal, of course, gradually fading into a slightly recessed abrasion. It barely showed enough to be noticeable; indeed, sometimes she would forget that she had it... until she looked in a mirror, that was. Then her eyes would trace it, from its narrow beginning close to her nose, across and down its breadth, to its slightly wider end under her chin.
         When she tried to recall how she came to be scarred, she would feel a mixture of conflicting emotions; however, no coherent memories presented themselves. Yet at certain, very rare occasions - perhaps when waking up from an indistinct dream, or watching a late-night movie - she could almost feel what it must have been like when the scar was first carved upon her, and the fingers of her left hand would involuntarily brush against her cheek, tracing the mark once more.
         In addition to the scar, she possessed an abstract pattern of light green, permanent tattoos scattered around the slim circumferences of both her legs. The body markings spread from below her knees to high on her upper hips. Whenever she looked at them, she could not decide whether they were stripes, blobs, or swirls. Their amorphous seamlessness was disrupted only by a very tiny, deeper green smudge on the back of her upper right thigh. After using a hand-held mirror to squint at it, she'd realized that it formed numbers, indicating a faint date: 1-6-74.
         Was that her birthday? Theodore had gauged her to be about sixteen when he'd taken her in, so the year sounded about right. Who had tattooed it and all the other stains upon her legs? And why?
         The tattoos' mystery was but a tiny fragment of the larger enigma of her lost memories. She took to displaying the markings proudly, and for a time she had meticulously shaved her legs each morning, so that not the slightest stubble of an unsightly hair might obscure these marks of self-identification. (That had been before she'd learned about leg waxing.) She disliked wearing slacks or jeans, even in cold weather, and did so only because Theodore urged her to. Her disdain also extended to shorts; she preferred to wear leotards or similar outfits with a high bikini cut, so as not to hide a single one of the tattoos on her legs and hips.
         Perhaps her most tangible link was her royal purple cape. It had been her only clothing when Theodore first took her in. While she was first adjusting to her new life, a wide-eyed young girl with the intellect of a sixteen-year-old and the savvy of a six-year-old, she had carried or dragged it everywhere. She gave up this habit within a few weeks, as her rapidly maturing mental faculties allowed her to understand how 'childish' it was to carry a security blanket around. By then, the article had accumulated several stains that not even the strongest detergent could completely wash out, which meant that she couldn't wear it among any sort of company. It wasn't really her size, anyway; whenever she put it on, its bottom six inches dragged on the floor. So, she kept it as the top blanket of her bed.
         Sometimes, she would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, unable to remember the dreams that had startled her any more than the lost memories that haunted her. She would sit on her bed, absently chew on the split ends of her hair, hug her knees, and cover herself with the cape... wondering about her past, and trying for the thousandth time to remember.
         There was one last, critical clue to the life she could not recall. It was her virtually inhuman physical prowess.
         Theodore first discovered this when he attempted to train his young ward in the basics of unarmed self-defense, a skill that he strongly believed should be taught to every young person growing up in today's dangerous world. On the first day of her instruction, after the preparatory warm-up stretching and light calisthenics, he had been so impressed with her quick grasp of basic strikes and guards that he ambitiously attempted to teach her an escape to a restraining hold.
         He told her to wrap her arms around him from behind, pinning his own arms to the sides of his body. Then he inhaled deeply, and showed the technique: force the air out and step upon the enemy's foot, simultaneously dropping the one's center of gravity and spreading one's legs into the wide Horse Stance, and freeing the arms below the elbow. Drive the elbow into the solar plexus of the foe behind, break the clasp of his hands, turn, and strike. Of course, all his demonstrated blows and attacks were completely pulled, so as not to risk injury to his young pupil. They changed places, and she practiced the technique against him a few times in slow motion, while he lightly mimed the hold. When he thought she was ready, he warned her that he was going to exert the hold for real, and that she must strike back as if he were truly an enemy.
         "But what if I hurt you?" she asked, a little timidly. She seemed quite nervous.
         He could have told her about his years of training as a former agent of the British S.A.S. He could have mentioned his black belts in three martial art styles, and his dabblings in half a dozen others. Perhaps he could have told her of his time as an undercover agent among Them, and of his former participation in the Their brutal, blood-sport tests of single combat. However, his current focus was upon the lesson. There would be time for storytelling later. So, he merely reassured her with a smile and the kind words, "Don't worry about me."
         He looked down at his bright-eyed young pupil, whose head and fluffed bangs barely reached his chin. Then, he circled behind her. With the abrupt cry of "Defend yourself!", he seized her tightly, clasping his hands around her body and pinning her arms to her sides-
         She reacted instantly, in a blinding flash of movement. Tucking her chin, she used her abdominal muscles to pull both legs upward and over her head, keeping them perfectly straight and maximizing the speed of their extremities. In this manner, she struck Theodore square in the face with the flexed balls of her feet. His grip sagged; she used the recoil of her blow to reverse the direction of her momentum and somersault forward, free of the attempted hold. She stood, turned, and saw her guardian lying on the floor, with two small trickles of blood flowing from his nose.
         The sight left her terrified of what she'd just done, unable to understand how she had done it, and paralyzed by the horrible thought that she had just hurt the one person who was like family to her.
         Theodore did not regain consciousness for a few hours. When he did, his young ward was next to him, sobbing tears of relief. Fortunately, he had not suffered any serious injuries; just a broken nose and a mild concussion. It took Theodore a few days to recover. It took Cammy a few months let him thoroughly test the limits of her strength, speed, and skill.
         The test results were astonishing. Despite Cammy's young age, small stature, and light weight (barely 100 pounds), she was several times more physically powerful than the average man in his prime. She could bench-press 300 pounds without flinching, reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour in a short sprint, and average 15 miles per hour during longer cross-country runs. And she could fight. Without understanding why, she could masterfully execute complex sequences of attacks and defenses, utilizing her raw potential to the maximum. The techniques came to her as smoothly and naturally as walking; she had no inkling why she could do them or where she had learned them. Her skills were so automatic that they seemed to have been programmed into her being.
         As Theodore carefully gauged her abilities, he was frequently hard-pressed to believe the evidence of his eyes. He knew that her slight frame could not possibly have the physical strength it possessed, that her muscle and tendon fibers should tear when she lifted the insurmountably heavy weights; and yet, she protested that she was "just fine." He even took her to a discreet examination by an old medical colleague well-paid for his silence, in order to make sure she was "just fine." And she was; X-rays did not reveal any trace of traumatic stress to her bones, muscles, or joints. She was a living, breathing, biological impossibility.
         Which would make her the perfect recruit for the British S.A.S.
         Theodore tried to shield her monumental talent from anyone who might pass the information on to the government or the military. She was only a sixteen-year-old girl, learning how to enjoy life; she did not deserve to have her innocence corrupted so early. If she were to continue living at his home near London, or go to a public school, she might unknowingly give away her fantastic secret - and then the recruitment scouts would come. So he moved to his summer dwelling, and hired a private tutor to educate her. For two years, he successfully hid her from prying eyes and inquisitive noses.
         Then, he had a visit from an old friend.
         It was quite a surprise...



         Rob Vincent took one look at Eagle's residence and whistled through his teeth. So the old man called this his "summer dwelling," eh?
         The great edifice was mostly constructed from carved stone blocks, and embellished with symmetric sculptures of winged angels. Centuries of wind and rain had clearly taken their toll; though the doorway looked well-tended, he spotted more than one place where moss and other plant life slowly chipped away at the foundations. The stone itself was a dull yellow-brownish hue. Had it always been that color? If not, then what color had it been originally?
         The stone composing the two main towers was a little better cared for. He had to look way up to see the brightest, most polished aspect of the castle: a thin bridge, without guard or rail, supported underneath by an arched foundation. Vincent lifted his gaze higher yet, craning his neck to see the faded flag of England flying from the topmost turret.
         A patch of color near the stone angels drew Vincent's attention. He carefully squinted at the distant ornament. It was the draped cloth emblem of a golden eagle-lion, rearing with its wings spread on a red velvet background. Vincent nodded, recognizing the crest.
         He'd always suspected that the old man had more material resources than he'd let on, but all of this was a surprise. "Summer dwelling," hell, it was...
         "...a goddamned castle!" Vincent murmured, wondering where the doorbell was.
         "Caw!" shrilled a hoarse voice above him. He jumped nearly three feet up, withdrawing his concealed tonfa and holding them at ready before he touched the ground.
         A large black raven, perched on the carved stone bust affixed to the top of the doorway, idly regarded him with one bright eye.
         "Caw!" it shrilled again.
         He closed his eyes and silently vowed to cut his caffeine intake in half.
         "Don't worry about old Memoriam; he always gets noisy whenever we get a visitor," called a different, cheerful voice, clearly human, not to mention female.
         Vincent opened his eyes.
         He gazed up at a very attractive young girl, clad in a tight one-piece leotard that clung to her like a swimsuit. Her braided blond hair absently draped over her bent legs, hanging down to her bare feet. She rested, relaxed and friendly, on the doorway above him, which but a split-second ago had been the sole dominion of the raven. How had she appeared so quickly? And silently?
         Memoriam fixed one eye on Vincent and the other on the girl, but did not make another sound, as if to disprove her claim. She extended her left hand for the raven to perch upon; it did so with a brief flutter of its wings. Then she casually turned her head to fully regard Vincent. The movement caused her braids to swing about and settle back behind her shoulders. Vincent spotted the patterned tattoos on her legs, and suppressed the urge to nod to himself again.
         Yes, she was definitely the one.
         The girl sharply drew in her breath; her left hand jerked to her face. Memoriam flapped his wings and angrily squawked protests over losing his perch. She paid no attention to the bird, instead fixing her gaze resolutely upon Vincent. Her former, easygoing calm had drained away, replaced by a deeper intensity. She studied his every external aspect, from his reddish, curly hair, to his specially tailored maroon fighter's jerkin and gathered slacks, to his worn all-season boots. In particular, she seemed watchfully suspicious of the ornamental metal guards sewn into the shoulders of his coat and the shins of his footwear. The thought occurred to Vincent that he might appear like an enemy, standing there in his fighting garb and holding his weapons, so he swiftly made the pair of tonfa vanish. The girl's fair blue eyes did not lessen their acute scrutiny.
         "Do I... know you?" she asked, hesitantly, still staring as if to peel back the layers of his soul.
         "Um," Vincent muttered.
         Quit gawking, you fool; she doesn't have anything you haven't seen before, hissed the more cynical side of his mind. He found it significantly easier to speak when he took his eyes off the slender girl and regarded Memoriam instead.
         "-uh, no, I don't believe we've met. Do I remind you of someone?"
         "I don't know."
         "Oh?"
         "I can't remember... my past. Maybe I haven't seen you before, but... are you sure you don't know anything about me?"
         Vincent shrugged, and flashed a sloppy grin.
         So, she had amnesia. Apparently total amnesia. Unless she was lying, but if so then she was a damn good liar. Better make a mental note.
         "Is Eag- I mean, is Theo around? I'm a friend of his."
         The girl's left hand traced a path down her cheek, brushing her side locks of hair back and resting her fingertips upon a revealed, slender line of scar tissue. She regarded him with that disquieting fixed look for a second longer-
         -and then, with no warning, her carriage shifted back to the sunny, carefree mood in which she'd greeted him. She smiled, with a good-natured nod that inadvertently swung her flaxen braids and side locks in front her shoulders, once again obscuring the scar.
         "Okay, stay right there!" The girl jumped up and back, curling into a triple reverse somersault, then landed precisely on a three-inch window ledge ten feet above and behind her former perch.
         "Don't go away!" she called, and disappeared through the window with another flip.
         Vincent stared in disbelief. It wasn't just that she had performed an acrobatic feat worthy of an Olympic medalist; it was the extremely casual manner in which she'd done it. As if it took no more effort than playing hopscotch.
         He'd laughed when he had first been given a photograph of his "superhuman" target. A young girl, barely grown into a woman? Preposterous! He'd been given a sizeable bonus for this job, in advance, and at the time that had been enough to override his disdain. Now, he was beginning to rethink his first impression.
         The creak of the door's hinges startled him out of his ponderings. He half-expected to see a butler or valet, but no, Eagle answered his own door.
         "I say - Rob? Is that really you?"
         "C'mon Eagle, who did you expect?" Vincent replied, with a sly grin.
         "It is 'Theo' now; call me Eagle again, and I shall have to have to hurt you," the older man warned, dryly.
         Vincent laughed, throwing his head back, even as Theodore's taciturn composure chipped just enough to reveal the mirthful sparkle in his eye.
         "Of course, Theo. Whatever you like. I trust you haven't forgotten me?"
         "Certainly not. You still owe me two grand!"
         "That I do. I'll pay you off soon, I promise-"
         "If you do not, I shall indenture your children," Theodore interrupted, with a wry twist of one eyebrow.
         "Don't have any. I'm not married, remember?"
         "Still?"
         "Who would marry a man who's in debt for two grand?"
         "I was just joshing about that. So I saved your life. No matter what wagers we made on who would watch whose back, life is infinitely more precious than money."
         Vincent looked away.
         "Nice place you've got here," he mused, strolling through the doorway. "So where's the living room?"
         "Why yes, Rob, you're quite welcome to come in," Theodore addressed to the empty space in front of the door. "Please do make yourself at home."
         "Thanks, I appreciate it," Vincent beamed, unashamedly.
         "To what vagary of fate do I owe this visit?"
         If only it were a vagary of fate. Did the old man really think that he had kept the girl's true nature a secret? Or did she think she could hide behind him forever? She hadn't seemed particularly furtive a moment ago.
         She probably did have complete and total amnesia.
         "I just wanted the pleasure of a brief reunion," Vincent answered. The lie came easier than it should have, for it contained a hint of truth. "Say, where'd the girl go?"
         "I beg your pardon?"
         Upon hearing the sudden change in Theodore's tone, Vincent realized that he might have made a tactical blunder. Tentatively, he continued, "I thought I glimpsed a young girl..."
         "I don't know what you're talking about." By the time Theodore finished speaking, the edge in his voice had escalated from suspicion to icy hostility. His entire body tensed, liked a tightly coiled spring barely held in check.
         What the hell?
         Vincent could remember when Eagle was a master of verbal deceit. When you could never, ever tell what he was really thinking unless he let you see it. Anger, suspicion, plotting, determination, he could hide it all and lead the unwary in a hedge maze of his true intentions. Now...
         Now, one casual reference to the girl and Eagle's composure, not to mention his physical self-control, went out the metaphorical window. Vincent had been warned of this during his briefing, warned that sudden mood swings and bursts of temper were among the early symptoms, but...
         This was not a good sign.
         Vincent forced himself to stay calm, avoiding Theodore's surprisingly angry glare. Damn! Did everyone in this strange fortress have eyes like diamond-tipped drill bits?
         When Vincent spoke, he chose his words as if picking his way through a minefield. "I... was looking up at your place and thought I saw someone in the window... but I'm not sure."
         The old man's harsh glare instantly softened into his former openness, although his friendly manner retained a certain reservation that hadn't been there before. "Oh yes, perhaps you did after all. I live alone here, but I do have temporary contracts with a few individuals. They keep this place in proper order. Unfortunately, I can't really afford the full range of maintenance that ought to be done. You might have seen one of the housecleaners; I can never keep track of when they're scheduled to be here."
         Vincent wanted to heave a sigh of relief, but that would have betrayed how close he had come to disaster. For a moment there, he'd felt more uneasy than when he'd been underneath the girl's inspection - at least she hadn't appeared about to attack him.
         Theodore led his friend to the closest thing his castle had to a living room, which was its library. Every so often on the way, Vincent paused to comment upon this painting or that particularly impressive sculpture. He tactfully refrained from mentioning the clustered cobwebs, the dust that coated less-traveled sections of the hallway, the faded and peeling paint, the moth-eaten tapestries, or the burnt-out candelabrums and wall sconces. He had to squint to adjust to the castle's darkness, for its only source of illumination was the sunlight streaming through its sparse open windows. The sober realization dawned on him that Theo had either lied about or greatly exaggerated his present situation - there were darn few signs that more than one or two people had tried to "keep this place in proper order" in the past fifty years. Perhaps the old man was not so well-off financially after all...
         Vincent snapped out of his silent musings when they started climbing a spiral set of tremendous stone steps. There was only one handrail, and it seemed far too thin and unsteady. Nevertheless, he risked peering down over it, at the sheer, empty drop in the center of the stairwell. He scuffed a tiny piece of loose stone with his boot; it skittered into the central gap and vanished from view. Theo warned him to be careful, mentioning something about one of his ancestors who, entranced by the crevice's mysterious pull, leaned a little too far and fell to his death.
         "It's all right," Vincent softly answered, "heights don't make me dizzy." Still, he prudently distanced himself from the rail to oblige his old friend.
         They both stepped off the stairs, onto the castle's 'second floor,' which so happened to be many times more high up than the top floor of most other buildings. Vincent detected the faint rustle of flapping wings from the open window to his right. That window had to be much larger than the ones closer to the ground; he knew this from the feel of the warm sunshine and slight breeze on the back of his neck, not to mention the long shadow he cast on the floor.
         Adjacent to the stairwell was a tremendous pair of double doors. Their shining, polished brass handles suggested that this was one of the few rooms that the old man visited often enough to justify keeping tidy. Theodore opened the door on the right, and both men entered the castle library. Vincent whistled upon seeing the myriad shelves of books, which stretched so high they brushed against the chamber's distant ceiling mural of angels and fiery judgment. The shelving branched in all directions, a veritable maze of literary mass. Near the entrance rested a long, rectangular central table, flanked by nearly a dozen matching chairs. On the far end, it bore a few piled library volumes, an open newspaper, and a silver tray with a handful of buttered scones; the near end was bare save for an elegant black rotary telephone. Vincent let the corner of his eye rest upon the phone just long enough to confirm that it was quite definitely there... like the floor plans had suggested it would be.
         Each man took a chair. Theodore sat down with his spine perfectly straight, while Vincent casually turned his chair around backwards and straddled it, resting his arms and chin upon its crest. At first they exchanged small talk, but since each man seemed mildly disinclined to discuss his recent activities, their conversation soon recalled when they had been joint members of an elite force, working in conjunction with Interpol to infiltrate the spreading tentacles of an international crime ring.
         Vincent, while not a raw recruit, had been inexperienced enough to keep to the background as Theodore's 'student' (in fact, Theodore actually did teach him how to wield tonfa with polished efficiency). The older man had entered the organization's bizarre underground blood-sport contest, in order to further ingratiate himself with the high-ranking leaders he intended to capture. The former comrades-in-arms reminisced about the battles they had shared, the trials they had overcome, and the friends they had lost... not to mention others who were not exactly 'friends.'
         "What happened to Birdie, anyway?" Vincent inquired, flipping one of his tonfa in his left hand.
         "You shouldn't treat that like a toy, you know," Theodore reprimanded, as Vincent started to twirl the tonfa upon the tip of his index finger.
         "This? This isn't 'toying'; it's an exercise in manual dexterity," he returned, now whirling it about in a figure eight pattern.
         "So is doing tricks with a yo-yo."
         Vincent quietly conceded the point by slipping his weapon back in his boot. "Last I heard, you corralled Birdie in that big bust, along with the rest of the little fish."
         "Not all the rest. Sagat escaped, remember?"
         "I remember. I said 'little fish,' didn't I?"
         "He is not Their leader. He takes orders from someone else. We have failed to ascertain his master's identity for the past seven years."
         "Oh? I'm afraid I'm not up-to-date on current events. Which is why I was asking about Birdie. You know, your partner?"
         Theodore snorted. "He was never any 'partner' of mine."
         "Quit ducking the question."
         "At first he refused to testify, but we had enough on him to ensure he would never see the light of day again. So eventually, with great reluctance, he saw it our way. Then..."
         Theodore turned his head.
         "...he disappeared. He was locked in a maximum security cell, with a full squad of guards around the clock. There was no way in or out, no windows, nothing. And he vanished from all mortal reckoning. There has been no sign of him since. He has been officially presumed dead for years, Rob. Ever since, we cannot get a single blasted one of Them to cooperate with us."
         Upon hearing Theo pronounce the capital letter, Vincent restrained the sudden desire to wince. It had been the older man who had once taught him how to keep his emotions from jumping off his face. "You can't be serious."
         "They do not strike in the open. They run campaigns of secret terror. Whenever They focus upon a potential betrayer, They move in silence to utterly expunge the threat."
         "C'mon, Theo, stop trying to scare me. You and I gave them serious problems, but we're still breathing."
         "Only because it is Their whim."
         "What sort of 'whim' would make them keep their dogged enemies alive?"
         The older man fell very quiet.
         "Uh... Theo?"
         "I wish..." he said, slowly. "I wish you had waited a little longer to ask that."
         "Theo? Something wrong?"
         "You were like a son to me. I wish I could have had another hour to spend with you. To remember you as you once were."
         "Theo, the last time you used that tone was right before a firefight."
         "It is Their whim to keep me alive, because I have performed a certain service for Them, these past years. Taking care of something that was once Theirs. It is Their whim to keep you alive, because you have become one of Them."
         Vincent was not expecting this.
         Perhaps he, too, had hoped to take refuge in the comforts of past memories, before going through with his mission. He had known that this visit would end in bloodshed and bitterness. Eagle could never forgive him for what he had come to do.
         She was only a teenaged girl, after all. Bereft of her memories, innocent of sin.
         But Vincent had planned to at least spend the evening in the home of his old friend and mentor, before he made his move. He had not expected to be forced so early. And definitely not like this.
         "I'm not one of Them," he denied, sharply. "Eagle, if this is one of your damned tests-"
         "Then why are you here? Why are you truly here?"
         Vincent gritted his teeth.
         "You are after my only daughter, are you not?"
         Vincent ground his gritted teeth together.
         So, the old man thought of the girl as his 'daughter'? Deep down, Vincent had been afraid of this.
         "Are you here to murder her? Or to bring her back to Their fold?"
         Vincent could not bring himself to make another denial. He knew it would not ring true to the old man's ears.
         Eagle turned his wrists, and his tonfa appeared easily in his hands, as casually as if they had grown from his skin. "I will give you one chance to live. Go now. Do not come back. Let me remember you as you were, and not as the thing you have become."
         "I wish I could remember you better as you were," Vincent sighed. "You've changed, Eagle. I remember when... when you were so keen, so sharp, you could out-think the most powerful criminals, and outfight their deadliest servants. Now..."
         "Do not think I am too old to destroy you. Or too sentimental."
         "It's not the deterioration of your body that saddens me the most."
         "Leave, Rob. Leave now."
         "I can't."
         "Why?"
         "Because..."
         "Why did you turn traitor? Why are you one of Them?"
         A sting cut at Vincent's insides.
         He had fought back to back with Eagle. Learned how to fight from him. He owed his life to the old man. And for what?
         "Why do you force my hand!?" Eagle demanded, and Vincent's sting became anger.
         Biting wrath.
         Furious bile.
         He could have told the whole truth. But that would not curb the injustice. Nor would it abet his mission.
         "My father," he spat, his temper flaring in response to the mistrust of his former ally. "He ran up too many debts. His holding companies went under. 'They' loaned him money. He went deeper into debt. 'They' were going to put him deeper under."
         "Unless you became Their slave?"
         "I am no one's slave!"
         "Yes, you are. Because you know that when you are no longer useful to Them, your father is a dead man. As are you." Eagle brought up one polished tonfa, so that it reflected a glimmer of sunlight into Vincent's eyes. "At least you have neither wife nor children to suffer from your loss."
         "Don't do this, Eagle. Don't make me hurt you."
         "You have come for my only daughter. Death would hurt me less."
         Eagle attacked.
         Vincent screamed, "BLASTER WAVE!"
         There was a rushing roar of vermillion white, oscillating pressure like the gusts of a hurricane.
         Then silence.
         Eagle slumped to the floor.
         He was good once. He had ranked among the masters. But he had aged, and neglected his practice; while Rob Vincent had trained daily to be number one.
         Vincent sighed, and bowed his head.
         When he raised it, the girl was back.
         She hunched next to the old man's crumpled form, listening to his raspy breathing.
         "Don't concern yourself with him," Vincent suggested to the girl. "You really should worry about me - Cammy, isn't it?"
         She looked at him.
         Her eyes narrowed to slits.
         "Why did you do this?" she demanded, hoarsely.
         He could have told the whole truth. But that would not curb the injustice. Nor would it abet his mission.
         "Better him than me," Vincent shrugged.
         Then, inspiration struck.
         If Eagle saw her as a daughter, then surely she saw him as a father. And if that were true...
         "Now," he sneered, "are you going let me finish the old dinosaur off, or are you going to do something about it?"


         She did something about it.
         Vincent never could remember exactly what it was.
         He remembered the window, very clearly. Not the open one he had been standing in front of. The closed one next to it. He remembered the shrieking, high-pitched wail of shattering glass - or was the shriek his own, in response to the sharp-edged fragments sinking into his exposed arms and face?
         He remembered the mind-bending, upside-down glimpse of the world underneath a very narrow bridge. The one onto which he had been thrown.
         You could see for miles and miles from that bridge...
         He remembered seeing the girl turn herself into a virtual sliver, coming at him feet first, shouting "SPIRAL ARROW!"
         He remembered the point when he realized just how far over his head he was. When he tried to draw his field radio and make a desperate call for help. How easily the slender girl had taken it from him, just as he connected yet before he could say two words. First she crushed it; then she crushed his bones.
         He remembered her scream, "CANNON SPIKE!"
         Then there was the point when his muscles stopped obeying him - pain, blood loss, and shock turning him off like a light switch - but she didn't seem to notice.
         And he remembered Memoriam perched on his chest. The bird walked up and down his battered body, as if tenderizing its next meal.


         Too late, Vincent decided that he should have gone about this differently.
         Very differently.
         In a way that involved so much less pain...
         "Now," the young girl defiantly declared, interlacing her fingers and flexing her arms, "you're going to tell me why you attacked my father."
         Vincent no longer had any particular objection to that. His bloodied mouth had some difficulty forming words, was all.
         "...phone..." he mumbled.
         "What?"
         "...your phone... ringing..."
         And so it was.
         The girl glared at him, as if she feared he would get up and run away while she answered it.
         Ha.
         That was funny.
         That was just so funny.
         The telephone was close enough that he could dimly overhear her high-pitched voice.
         "Who are you? No, never mind who I am, who are you?
         "Colonel what?
         "That's a silly name. I don't know anybody by that name. You have the wrong number-
         "Who?
         "Is he a guy dressed in red, dull red hair, kinda brawny, carries tonfa, American accent, likes to keep secrets? Are you the one he was trying to call on his radio?
         "Yes, he's here. Why? Did you send him? Do you want to suffer the same punishment he did!?"
         "Yes, he's still alive. More or less.
         "What?
         "What do you mean, he's...?"
         The girl listened for long moments.
         "...okay," she murmured, then slowly put down the telephone.
         Step by step, she approached the fallen Rob Vincent. He tried not to shudder.
         "The paramedics will be here soon," she offered, hesitantly.
         Well, that much was nice.
         "Are you really working freelance for the British S.A.S.?"
         "Yeah." At least his voice was coming back.
         "Why did you hurt my father?"
         "Didn't want to."
         "But why? Did he attack you first?"
         "Eagle was lethal once..."
         "'Eagle'? You mean my father?"
         "He used to have eagle eyes and raptor instincts... he used to fight like he was flying... he used to seize his enemies like fish from a river stream..."
         "He must have thought you were a bad person, or else he wouldn't have-"
         "I know. The old man's mind is going."
         "Why did you let him think you were a bad person? Why did you let me think you wanted to kill him?"
         Vincent closed his eyes.
         "Did you - did you want to provoke me into a fight? To test yourself against me?"
         "No," she reflected. "To test me against yourself. To see how strong I am."
         Vincent's lips curled, in the barest hint of a smile.
         "You love your 'father,' don't you?" he mouthed.
         The girl put her hands on her hips and gave a quick nod.
         "I loved my father," Vincent continued, wistfully.
         "Oh?"
         "He was aggressive and pigheaded stubborn. The concept of sunk costs was meaningless to him. He felt like he had to sink in more money, or the money he spent would be 'wasted'...
         "He tried to control my life. He argued with me constantly. I had to split off from him for years. But he was my father, and I loved him.
         "And They tried to use him against me.
         "When he was in debt, They loaned him money. He couldn't pay Them back. They threatened to kill him, unless I served as Their agent.
         "I refused.
         "They killed him.
         "I'm next on Their list."
         There was a heartbeat of pure silence.
         "Who are 'They'?" the girl requested, softly.
         "You used to be one of Them."


         Eagle was treated and released overnight, at an emergency care facility.
         Rob Vincent had to stay in a military hospital for two months of physical therapy. The apologetic young fighter who had put him there brought him a flower every day. She plied him with many questions. He knew very few of the answers.
         On the basis of Vincent's report, the colonel who had hired him personally asked Camilla White to join a new, top-secret S.A.S. strike force. One designed to take maximum advantage of her incredible talents. One created specifically to bolster her country's defense against an international cartel of terror.
         She never considered saying no.
         It wasn't just the ideals of patriotism, justice, or protecting the weak that appealed to her. It was the hope of piercing the veil that blocked her ability to remember.
         You used to be one of Them.
         Rob Vincent had one opportunity to speak with Eagle again. Their exchange was terse, and ended coldly. After all, Vincent had stolen Eagle's only daughter. As a new recruit of the S.A.S., she might well be destroyed - or worse, retaken into Their diabolical ranks. Yet she dared to walk the deadly path of her own free will, because Vincent had given her the illusion of memory: a clue to her hidden past.
         Eagle never did forgive him, for that.


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