Barbara Chepaitis
Telling the Old Stories, and Making Up the New Ones
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THE FEAR OF GOD          B. A Chepaitis 


Prologue

 

Home Planet, Vermontday one

 

    THE FLY BUZZING IN THE ROOM WAS A DISTRACTION.  Sardis Malocco, Mother of the Revelation Sect, didn't approve of its presence. It buzzed and then stopped, landed and then flew and buzzed in circles around her head, then stopped again. Intermittent, random, out of her control, it drew her outward when she needed to think. Pray. Com­mune with her destiny.

    The fly ribboned around her head as she sat at her desk, hands folded, large and luminous eyes focused on a por­trait of mother and daughter that hung on the wall across from her. Aside from the gray in her black hair, and the few extra pounds on a frame that was always meant to be ample, she didn't look that different now than she did twenty-five years ago, when the photo was taken. She pursed her lips in a kiss directed at the coal-eyed, curly-haired little girl who smiled so serenely at her mother. When the fly landed on her forehead, she didn't wave it away. If it stayed there, at least it would be quiet.

    "All will be washed clean," she murmured, "in the blood of the lamb."

    Sounds of singing, praying, weeping, reached her from various parts of the house. Above her in the many bed­rooms, people were preparing for the next phase of their plans. She could hear a child crying. Jeremy, she thought, from the high-pitched whine in his voice. Down the hall in the communal room those who were ready were gathering for their final stand. In the kitchen to the rear of this room items necessary for their journey were being assembled. She heard three voices rise in harmony to the tune of' 'On­ward, Christian Soldiers."

    She looked out the window and saw the Sassies, as the press called the Special Artillery Squadron. They stood at attention, heavy and sexless in their gear, waiting for orders to move. Half an hour before, their squad commander telecommed into her that they were prepared to make forcible entry. She'd replied that she was sending the children out, and needed time for the parents to say good-bye to them. They were motionless now, giving her time. Apparently, they'd believed her.

    The fly left her forehead, circled the desk, and landed on her right hand, exploring her knuckle with his tongue. The small, tickling sensation was pleasant on her skin. She smiled.

    Slowly, very slowly, very carefully, without taking her eyes off the portrait on the wall, she tilted her left hand over the back of her right hand, and carefully brought it down. The fly, unthreatened, continued feeding off her dead cells as her hand closed over it like a dome. It took a mo­ment for the signals of entrapment to go through its tiny system, and then it buzzed and lurched wildly under her palm. She waited until it grew quieter, then pulled it into her left hand and held it up. It buzzed, and she shook her hand hard.

    Quiet. It was quiet.

    She shook it one more time, then slowly opened her hand.

    The fly wasn't dead, just momentarily quiescent. Perhaps confused, if flies had enough neural capacity to allow for something as subtle as confusion.

    "I am confused," she said, examining the prisms of light in the insect's wings. Flies, she thought, were undervalued as a species. They could live off waste, sustain life out of excrement. And they were as necessary as any creature in the kingdom of heaven, she supposed. She pinched one of its wings between her thumb and forefinger and pulled it off. Immediately, the fly buzzed again, struggling to escape. She pulled off one leg, then another. It buzzed louder. If she released it now, it would try to fly away, just as if it could actually survive. In their insistence on survival re­gardless of horrific conditions, humans and flies were the same, she thought.

    She sighed, and placed the fly on her desk, where it crawled in clumsy circles, attempting still to fly away. With a puff of breath, she blew it off the desk. She held the wing up to the light. It was beautiful. Like the wings of angels, she imagined.

    '' 'And I beheld an Angel in the midst of heaven crying with a loud voice, Woe, Woe, Woe, to the inhabitants of the earth,' '' she said. She put out her tongue and touched the tip of it to the wing, then closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair.

    The door to the room opened and closed softly. A man walked across the thick carpet and stood in front of Sardis's desk, regarding her with loving eyes. She opened her eyes, and her face brightened into happiness. He went around to stand in back of her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She rested her cheek against it briefly.

    "Philo," she said, using his sect name, "Are you sure you want to do this with me?"

    He stroked her heavy black-and-gray hair with his thin hand. " 'For the great day of wrath is come,' " he quoted, '' 'and who shall be able to stand?' ''

    She leaned into him, and kissed his hand.

    "We'll stand side by side in the new heaven," he said. "I'm sure of that. But we should begin."

    Sardis released his hand, and he stepped back as she pushed herself out of her chair. "You're right," she said, standing and turning to face him. "Are the children pre­pared?"

    "I saw to it myself."

    "And those who remain know the hours and days to count? Where to go and—"

    "All the plans are complete, Mother," he said rather sternly, using her title rather than her sect name. They would not be Philo and Sardis in the New Realm, but Mother and Father. "Why do you hesitate? Are you afraid?"

    She shook her head. "No, Father. Not for myself. Only, it's so important that I've done my job correctly. That I don't forget anything before we go on ahead."

    "I understand," he said. "But you've been perfect. The people are prepared, and the places all assigned. The ac­counts—you remembered to change account names, didn't you?"

    "Yes. Of course."

    "Then you've done everything. Now you have to trust to heaven."

    She smiled at him, and held her arms wide, her white death robe spreading like wings around her ample shoulders and bust, her blue eyes alight with ecstasy.

    Philo lifted a hand to caress her neck. "That's my girl," he crooned.

    He pressed his hand hard into her neck. Her eyes wid­ened and she gasped once when she felt the needle pene­trate the skin. Adoration became confusion, and her lips formed the one-word question "What?" before she fell heavily onto the floor.

    He stood over her and consulted his watch as the second hand swept around. "Good enough," he muttered, and grabbed her arm, dragged her across the carpet, out the door, and down the hall toward the great room where the others were gathered.

    His intent was to put her in the middle of the huddled group of parents and children before he made his exit, but he was only halfway across the hall when he heard a voice behind him.

    "There's a couple. Grab 'em."

    Philo whirled around and saw four Sassies, weapons pointed his way. He gulped air, and slowly lifted his hands high as they swarmed him, sensors beeping, the neural net wrapping around him. They lifted Sardis's limp form and levitated her down the hall as more Sassies rushed in.

     "In there," the squad leader shouted, barreling toward the great room.

    "I wouldn't if I were you," Philo said, his voice muffled and slowed by the neural web.

    "What's he yakking about?" A Sassy asked.

    "Says he'll never do it again, so could we please not take him to those nasty Planetoids."

      The Planetoids. No. He couldn't go there. That wasn't in his plans.

    He tried to find a part of his arms that would move, a part of his legs that could kick the net that pulsed around him. Nothing worked. No part of his body would cooperate. Even the glass vial in his cheek was pointless now because he couldn't get his finger in his mouth to pull it out.

    "Wait," he garbled at them, "don't send your men in. You don't understand. The children."

    The Sassies laughed and dragged Sardis and Philo out of the house, tossed them into a vehicle, and slammed the door shut. Then they went back into the house and joined the rest of the Sassies at the door to the great room, where the sect members were gathered. The squad leader bent his ear to the door and listened.

    "Singing," he muttered. He straightened up, nodded at his squad. Two of the Sassies kicked the door in. The others poured through and surrounded the circle of praying, weep­ing people.

    "Face front, hands up, and nobody gets hurt," the squad leader barked.

    The outer circle turned itself outward to reveal an inner circle of children. The Sassies moved toward them, weap­ons held ready. The squad leader spotted a little girl clutch­ing a teddy bear to her white robe.

    "Cute," he murmured.

    Then he saw the blinking red light on the girl's chest, and the wire it was connected to.

    "No!" he shouted. "Don't touch them. They're wired."

     But it was already too late.

    From the prisoner's van, Philo heard the explosion in the house, and he knew that at least part of their plan had gone off as expected.

 

 

Planetoid ThreeToronto Replica City Training Center

    The room was dark except for the row of small red lights that tracked the curve of the wall near the ceiling. They pulsed at one-third the rate of a strobe, casting the faces of the two women under them now in light, now in shadow.

    "Boom," Jaguar Addams said, and she dove hard onto Rachel Shofet, laying her flat against the inside curve of the wall.

    "Oof," Rachel said, pushing back at her. They struggled briefly, Rachel trying to unbalance Jaguar and throw her back on to the mats, but that went nowhere.

    "Give?" Jaguar asked, poking a finger at her ribs.

    "Okay. Stop. Don't tickle. I give. Now get off me. It's only training."

    Jaguar rolled over and lay on her back, laughing up at the ceiling. "Don't worry, Rachel. You get to dive me next. It's a basic move."

    The lights in Training Room Seven came up and Jaguar could see the control booth, where site manager Stan Wokowski looked down and shook his head at them.

    "You play rough for girls," he said over the intercom.

    "Fuck you, Stan," Jaguar replied amiably, stretching out her long, lean body and tightening the piece of leather that held back her hair. She watched Rachel rub at her shoulder. "You want to call it quits?"

    "No," Rachel said a little snappishly. "Why? You think I can't do this?"

    "I know you can do it," she said. "I've seen what you can do. Did I say something wrong?"

    Rachel grimaced at her.

    Jaguar reclined against the wall, propped up on one el­bow. When Rachel first came to Planetoid Three as a pris­oner, Jaguar was her Teacher. After her rehab she stayed on and became a team member, often working with Jaguar on other prisoner assignments. Now she wanted to start Teacher training as a researcher, and had asked Jaguar to help her prepare. Rachel was pit-bull determined to do this, but the Plane­toids demanded a great deal emotionally, mentally, and physically from Teachers. They had the most direct contact with prisoners, creating rehab programs to make them face their fears, based on the premise that all crime grew out of fear.  Even those in the research department faced dangers and difficulties team members never had to deal with.

    When Jaguar started work here, the position of Teacher required a higher degree along with Planetoid training, and you couldn't test pos­itive for certain psi capacities or post-trauma syndrome, or have a criminal record. She’d gotten her doctorate, and managed to scuttle the technology before it picked up on her empathic talents, though she’d been in a few scrapes as an empathy since then.   But now the rules for Teacher’s positions had changed.   The Board of Governors had lifted the restrictions on psi capacities. Ex-prisoners could also apply, if their Plan­etoid Teacher recommended them. Jaguar was glad to do so for Rachel.

    "I didn't hurt you, did I?" she asked.

    "No. Of course not."

    "Am I being too hard on you?"

    "I don't know. How hard are you on Teacher candidates, as a rule?''

    Jaguar twisted her face around some and thought. "I think they start out tougher than you."

    "Thanks," Rachel said. "A lot."

    "I'm not being critical. But you're going into research, and I don't usually train researchers."

    "If that's a different kind of job, why is it the same training?" Rachel grumbled.

    "Because you still do fieldwork with prisoners. Inter­views, assessments. You need to know how to be safe."

    She pulled herself into sitting and put two hands on Rachel's shoulders, rotated them, and felt the tension there. Something not quite right. Something Rachel was working out that Jaguar didn't understand, which was often the case, because their friendship didn't make them any more alike. It just taught them to tolerate each other's differences.

    "You pissed off at me?" she asked.

    "Of course not," Rachel said, shrugging Jaguar's hands off her shoulders. Then she groaned and turned to face  Jag­uar. "Look, I'm nervous, okay?"

    "About the training? I told you, you'll do fine. We just need to put a little edge on you. You're not a naturally edgy sort of person. But we don't have to do it all at once. How about we skip the weapons work and go shopping? I saw a great dress for you down at Wild Child's."

    "I don't need an edge," Rachel said. "I don't need to be like you, and I can't go shopping."

    "Why not? Oh. It's Friday. The Sabbath. You still do that, right?"

    "No, Jaguar. Just listen, okay? I can't go shopping be­cause I have a date."

    Jaguar leaned back against the wall and whistled.  “Well, well. That's different."

    Rachel rolled her eyes. "Don't start, okay?"

    "Start what? Who is it? Miriam? I've seen her flirting with you, but I—''

    "Not Miriam," Rachel said firmly. "Pinkie. With Pinkie."

    Jaguar sat up hard. "Pinkie? Pinkie Horton? Don't tell me you and Pinkie—" She rubbed the heels of her palm together and raised her eyebrows questioningly.

    "No. We have a date. Don't be lewd about it. Pinkie's a great woman."

    "Of course," Jaguar said quickly. "I love her dearly. She's a great drummer, too. But she's—well, not your usual type."

    She looked Rachel up and down. Even the streamlined, black-and-silver training suits didn't make her look like anything but a nice Jewish girl. Her dark eyes, tight dark curls, and small frame were a portrait from the shtetls of long ago. And her demeanor matched, since no amount of Planetoid rehab had tempered the demure ways she'd learned growing up in a closed and very patriarchal ortho­dox community.

    "Jaguar," Rachel said, turning serious eyes to her, "I don't have a usual type. It's been so long since I've been involved with anyone, I think I've forgotten what to do."

    "No, no," Jaguar reassured her. "It's like falling off a bike. It'll all come rolling back to you. When did this start?"

    “About a month ago, but I didn't want to say anything because I knew you'd get all helpful, and I've seen what happens when you're helpful."

    "Hey," Jaguar protested, "you know I have a policy of noninterference.''

    "You? Dr. Jaguar If-You-Can't-Make-It-Better-Make-It-Worse Addams?"

    Jaguar was ready to protest further, with examples, when a belt sensor began its insistent whine. The two women simultaneously reached for their belt packs.

    "Mine," Rachel said.

    "Mine," Jaguar said. They looked at each other and shrugged.

    "Who wants you?" Jaguar asked.

    "Looks like—Alex. Special duty. Report immediately."

    "Thought you were on rest leave?"

    "Called in."

    "Big bad. Mine's easier. Gerry wants me at Silver Bay to cover for a gig. Look, I'll call Alex and tell him I left you incapacitated in training. He'll believe it."

    "Don't play games with him, Jaguar. He's your boss."

    Jaguar laughed.

    "Okay," Rachel said. "That was stupid." She knew that Jaguar had no boss except her own decision to do some­thing, or not.  “Then what about your noninterference pol­icy?" she tried.

    "That's not interfering. It's expediting. What's the code he's sending?"

    "Brushfire."

    "New prisoners? From where?"

    "Doesn't say."

    "Maybe Gerry'll know." Jaguar stood up, and extended a hand to Rachel. "If you won't let me get you out of  work, how about if I get Pinkie on to work with you?"

    "Jaguar," Rachel said, "let it go."

    "Can't," Jaguar said, "I never learned how."

 

 

    And on the home planet, the sons and daughters of Reve­lation looked skyward.

    Sardis was gone, and Philo with her. Some of their people had disguised themselves and gathered to witness the shuttle flight that took them up and away, as prophesied. They knew that now they had to disperse, stay hidden, ready themselves.

    There would be three days of death, and ten days of imprisonment for their leader. Thirteen days to prepare, just as it said in Revelation. Those who saw her leave would tell the others how to count the days.

    They would hide in the appointed places. Wait for the appointed time.

    Time whirled around them, and they looked skyward, waiting.


 

 

 

1

 

 

 

Planetoid Threeday two

 

   JAGUAR STEPPED  OFF  THE  ELEVATOR ON  THE fifth floor of the Supervisors' Building and directly into two team members who were struggling with a man on the industrial-gray rug. She lifted her foot and placed it deli­cately on the exposed thorax of the man, and with a small twist forced him onto his back before she addressed the team members.

    “What gives, Gail? This guy want to learn capoiera?”

    Gail lifted her head and laughed breathlessly. "No, Dr. Addams. He just dropped a contact lens and we're helping him look for it."

    "I see. Well, maybe he can do without it, and you can just lead him blind." She turned her sea-green eyes down to the wide dark eyes in the pale face under her foot. "You'll let these nice people help you down the hall, won't you?" she asked, moving the heel of her sandal to press against his carotid.

    He made a choking sound, which she took for an affir­mative, and she released him. "Have a nice day," she said, and walked on down the hall, toward the office of Alex Dzarny, who was her supervisor on Prison Planetoid Three.

    She was surprised at the level and the kind of activity in the building. Though prisoners often went through these halls on their way from the holding tanks to their program sites, usually by the time they arrived here they'd been tested, a program determined, a Teacher assigned, and im­plants tucked into them to keep them in line. Most prisoners never even saw this building, but were sent directly to one of the regular houses or one of the special sites Planetoid Three boasted.

    Jaguar had been a Teacher in the Toronto replica for more than five years, and she knew most faces and many of the names of Planetoid workers in this zone. But today she'd run into a glut of unfamiliar people in the lobby, a few she would've sworn were Federal Agents arguing about interview techniques in the elevator. And now this. She was glad she'd decided to come in.

    After Rachel had left, Jaguar had gone to the Silver Bay Bar, where Gerry was setting up his band. He'd wanted Jaguar to take over for the weekend. He'd been called in for brushfire duty, he'd said. Big rush of incoming prisoners from a cult disaster.

    "Cult disaster? Which cult?" Jaguar had asked him.

    Gerry had pondered the ceiling, waiting for the information to come down the pike between his brain and his mouth.

    "Elevation?" he'd asked at last. "Relegation? Evolu­tion? Degradation?"

    "Would that be Revelation?" she'd suggested.

    He'd scratched his ear. "Yeah. Maybe. Can you take the gig?"

    "For tonight," she'd said. "If they're calling us back, you can't count on me for the weekend."                    

    But she hadn't been called in, and by the next morning, curiosity took over. She'd wanted to know what was going on. If it was interesting, she'd get involved. If not, she'd disappear for a while. Even within the limits of this replica city of Toronto, she knew many ways to do that.

    "Hey. It's the big cat." Pinkie's voice came up behind her.

    "Hey. It's the big hair," Jaguar said as they drew parallel.

    Pinkie grinned and twirled the blue portion of her hair with her silver finger. "They call you in?"

    "Not yet. I'm beginning to feel left out. You seen Ra­chel?"

    "Yeah," Pinkie said, grinning. "Not as much as I'd like, though. Why?"

    "I heard she had to cancel a date for work. Too bad, huh?"

    Pinkie slapped Jaguar hard on the back and ambled down the hall, chuckling.

    Jaguar briefly considered the prospect of Pinkie as Ra­chel's partner. She shook her head. There was no account­ing for sexual chemistry. Many scientists had tried, and none of them got anywhere further than the obvious. "Opposites attract," she muttered, and kept walking.

    When she got to Alex's door she put her hand on the knob, and then stopped. From inside, she could hear the low rumble of his voice, followed by a high, light, stream of laughter. Not his. She pulled the door open.

    The first thing she saw was Alex sitting behind his desk, leaning back in his chair and smiling broadly. Then she saw a woman with sleek strawberry-blond hair and an even sleeker gray suit, sitting across from him, one elbow propped on his desk and her chin propped in her hand. She was showing pearly teeth and full red lips in an abundant smile.

    Jaguar pushed the door closed hard. The woman twisted toward the sound and reined in her face. A slow pink spread across her fair skin.

    Alex leaned forward too hard and righted himself quickly. "Jaguar—Dr. Addams—what are you doing here?"

    "So sorry," she said. "Didn't mean to disturb you."

    She pulled her gold-rimmed sunglasses off her head and looked from Alex to the woman and back to Alex. "Gerry said you're calling in all rest leave. I came to protest." She addressed the woman, holding out her hand. "Agitation is one of my particular domains. I'm Dr. Addams."

    The woman took Jaguar's hand, shook it firmly, let it go. "Carolan Shannon. Special Federal Agent." She looked to Alex. "Who's Gerry?" she asked him.

    Jaguar lifted her shoulders and let them fall, took two steps forward, and placed herself deliberately between them on Alex's desk, making herself comfortable on the edge of his blotter. Carolan leaned left in order to look around her.

    "Special team member," Jaguar replied, leaning as Car­olan did. "Very special. He's got a band, Moon Illusion, and I sing with them now and then. Your basic technopoet visionary with a criminal record, soft heart, and strange mind. Or is it the other way around?"

    She twirled her sunglasses by the earpiece and swung a leg back and forth. It tapped against the side of Carolan's chair.

    Apparently, Alex noted, she was in a mood. He wheeled his chair so that he wasn't trying to speak around her, and addressed Carolan. "Dr. Addams is one of my teachers," he said, ignoring her cluck of disapproval in response to the possessive pronoun. " I was about to call you in, Jag­uar. In fact, you were just on my mind."

    As he spoke he felt the stab of subvocal communication from her.

    Is that so, Alex? It seems to me you had something en­tirely different on your mind.

     He stabbed back.  

    Not so different, Dr. Addams.

    A small cluster of cognitive dissonance, then her cool, clear thoughts.

    That's what you think.

    Jaguar turned a careful smile to Carolan and spoke aloud. "Careful, Alex. Agent Shannon will think we're empaths."

    Carolan frowned, then nodded to herself, as if concluding a conversation she was carrying on inside her head. "The ruling against psi capacities was changed some time ago. With this Planetoid." Carolan beamed at Alex. "You were active in getting the prohibition lifted, weren't you?''

    "I was," Alex said. "Good Teachers were locked out whether they used psi capacities or not. Besides, in our system the empathic arts make sense, even if they're not officially approved."

    "But they're not punished either, are they?"

    Alex was about to make a judicious response when Jag­uar cut in.

    "What would you suggest," she asked, her leg swinging harder, "flagellation with pine boughs?"

    Alex allowed himself a moment of silent, heartfelt pro­fanity. Jaguar didn't like Feds. She didn't, in general, like people from the home planet intruding in Planetoid work. And she probably didn't like strawberry blonds. He held her with his eyes.

    Please, Dr. Addams. Observe the common courtesies.

   Common, she replied, is right.

   But he felt her bristle into stillness, and he moved for­ward. "We're calling everyone back," he said. "There's been a cult incident on the home planet. The Revelation Sect. The leader staged a siege that ended—badly."

    Jaguar stopped twirling her shades, stopped swinging her leg. Checking her mental files, Alex thought. Seeing what she knew about Revelation. He waited for it.

    She pressed a finger against her forehead and held it there. After a while she ran the finger down her nose and let it rest on her lips. She twisted around to Alex and said, "Revelation's an End of Days cult. They adhere to the Christian book of Revelation as superseding all other Scrip­ture. Expect the second coming any day now, in noisy glory. It's a pretty big group."

    "Almost a million, if you count the second-order mem­bers who don't live in the sect houses. About ten percent of them under sixteen. You know anything about the leader?"

    "Sardis Malocco? She's fifty-seven years old, born and raised, married and widowed in L.A. One girl child. Deceased. She formed a rescue team in the Killing Times and built her following from that. Received a Congressional Award for bravery, and a Mother Teresa Humanitarian Award from the UN—in spite of the rumors that she started the Safety Squad responsible for burning most of Holly­wood. Her theology's a mix of gender mysticism and eco­nomic conservativism. God as Capitalist Mama, with an emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship, much like the father-son relationship in Christianity."

    Jaguar turned a grin to Carolan. ' 'If I'm thinking of the right person, that is."

    Showing off, he thought. And she had the ability to do so, with her background in ritual practice, her doctorate in world religions, and her understanding of the spirit world. She'd read all the sacred texts and had the memory to quote chapter and verse. She also knew who was who in the world of leadership for both the sacred and the profane.

    "That's right," he said. "She started out okay. Revela­tion took in a lot of abandoned kids and homeless pregnant women after the Serials. She got legislative funding, and she recruited heavily, got a few businesses running. About five years ago she started preaching the End of Days."

    "How come? Were her ratings falling?"

    "Still going strong. She said Revelations indicated the time was right. The Serials were just the first sign of the Apocalypse."

    "Funny," Jaguar said. "I thought they were the Apoc­alypse."

    And her leg started again, back and forth, hitting against the side of Carolan's chair.

    Alex watched Jaguar's face, guarded and closed. She had survived the chaos known as the The Killing Times when she was a child living in Manhattan, and he was probably one of the few people who knew her specific experience in the vio­lence of those years.

    She'd been living with her grandparents, who were mur­dered while she watched, and she’d gone on to survive in the streets for a year after that, finally making her way to family friends in New Mexico. He knew that sometimes she still felt it, as would millions of people caught in the ubiquitous bloodletting. The cities in North America were decimated by murder and homemade biobombs and incendiary weap­ons. And while Jaguar was keeping a precarious hold on her life in Manhattan, Sardis was providing services to sur­vivors in L.A., grieving the death of her daughter, and ac­cording to some people, running one of the most virulent vigilante squads of the Serials.

    But if that rumor had any basis in truth, nobody was willing to talk about it then or now. Sardis was one of a very small group of religious leaders who were courageous enough to provide the little help available to those who sought shelter or escape from the cities. She'd saved thousands of lives and risked her own probably thousands of times. She was a true hero at that time, and up until recently her sect had been a moderate one, known for social welfare work and a strict adherence to biblical code. Nobody had expected the siege in Vermont.

    "How badly did the siege end?" Jaguar asked, her leg going still.

    "Very," Alex said. "The Feds found out they were stockpiling weapons and showed up with a warrant, but were locked out by laser fire. When the Sassies went in, the kids were wired with explosives and the adults were holding them."

    Jaguar closed her eyes. Opened them again. "Ugly," she said.

    "Two hundred and fifty people gathered in the great room of their main house," Alex said. "About eighty chil­dren in the center of the huddle. Sassies only got a few dozen adults out."

    "And lost six of their own.'' Carolan said. "You'll have maybe twenty sect members by the end of the week, if we can keep them alive. They have a taste for cyanide."

    "Great Hecate's cloak, why are they here?" Jaguar said. "Shouldn't they just be rehabbed on the home planet? Harvesting from cults isn't that difficult."

    "We want them tested and interviewed first, and we haven't got the facilities you have."

    Jaguar cast a glance at Alex, and he shook his head al­most imperceptibly. There had been more than a little bit of turf battle over use of the Planetoid's advanced testing facilities from the Federal Bureau, as well as resentment of the Planetoid's freedom to act outside of home planet ju­risdiction. It wasn't a battle he wanted to see fought in his office.

    "We're heading a long-term research project," Carolan continued. "We want to establish a better predictor profile for cult meltdowns."

    Jaguar's leg swung back and forth, its arc widening. She propped her shades back on the top of her head.   

"How interesting," she purred, "What are you hop­ing to learn here?"

    "Well, we know there's a significant correlation between cult involvement and psi capacities," Carolan said, enthu­siasm for her topic blinding her to danger, "which indicates a link between empathic talents and the manipulative be­haviors associated with cults. Hypnopaths, telepaths, mind control—that's the triangle, but picking it up isn't easy with our equipment. We'll get a lot of data here with your in­struments."

    Alex watched the narrow line of Jaguar's jaw tighten, saw the flash of fire in her green eyes and the rush of color into the amber-smooth skin of her face.  He braced himself.

    "Marvelous," she said. "And while you're here, you can research the Lilith Effect."

    "The—Lilith?"

    "You know," she repeated. "Lilith. She goes to men in the night, and sucks their penises dry. You can collect data on that, too. Participant observer is the preferred method­ological approach."

    Carolan opened her mouth, then closed it tight.

    Alex sighed. Not too bad, he thought It could have been much worse. And personally, he found Cardan's face very attractive when it was that particular shade of pink. "I be­lieve Dr. Addams takes exception to the implication that empaths are inherently manipulative," he said, by way of explanation.

    "I see," Carolan said. She placed both hands firmly on the arms of her chair and pulled it well back, out of range of Jaguar's leg. "Well, I'm not here to argue proven facts. I'm here to collect new data. The sect's dispersed and their bank accounts are emptied, but we can work with the ones we have to learn about cult behavior, maybe avoid another fiasco like this one."

    "Bad for your image," Jaguar agreed, then looked to Alex. "What's she mean, they dispersed?"

    "Disappeared," Alex corrected. "Sect houses emptied. Accounts emptied of money."

    Jaguar tilted her head inquisitively. Good, he thought. She's getting the implications, too.

    "Any sign of weapon stocking elsewhere?" she asked.

    "None," Alex replied. "And all the standard tests were applied. Radiography and telemetries are still coming in, but so far they've been negative."

    "Who'd she leave in charge?" Jaguar asked.

    "We don't know. Her right-hand man is here. Name of Philo. That's his sect name. They all had sect names, with no surnames because they acknowledge no parentage except the Divine."

    "Gag me," Jaguar commented. "They got rich from a line of snake oil they sell, didn't they? Silicon REM stim­ulators, red algae. What did they do with all that money?''

    "Maybe they figured out how to take it with them," Alex said.

    "But where would they spend it?"

    "We've implemented the usual procedures to track the funds," Carolan said firmly. "It's slow because we're spread pretty thin and we want to keep a tight three-day surveillance just in case they follow the usual Resurrection model of trouble. But we expect them mostly to sit around weeping in their sackcloth."

    "From the news clips I've seen, Sardis seems to prefer silk,” Jaguar said. She leaned over and caught the material of Carolan's suit between thumb and finger, and rubbed it thoughtfully. "Nice suit. What's it made of?"

    Carolan's hand twitched as if she'd slap Jaguar's away, but she restrained herself. Although Jaguar's back was to Alex, he knew her well enough to read the laughter in her spine. She was having too much fun with this, he thought. When she twisted around to face him he saw the smile trying to hide in the corner of her mouth.

    "Did Sardis precede her flock to glory?" she asked, then twisted back to Carolan. "Did she bite it? Buy the farm—"

    "She's being tested," Carolan answered curtly. "Prelim­inary reports say her fear is God."

    "Which one?" Jaguar asked, and Carolan looked at her blankly.

    "Standard Monotheistic," Alex answered, and Jaguar turned to him.

    "Big guy?"

    "Yes."

    Jaguar wrinkled her nose. "I never liked Him. He talks too much."

    She pushed herself off of Alex's desk and sauntered to the window, where she stood, looking out onto the busy street below and saying nothing.

    Carolan mouthed a question at Alex—what's she do­ing?—and he shook his head. She was thinking something through and he didn't want her disturbed. Soon enough she stretched, walked back to her spot, and stood between him and Carolan.

    "I saw some team members bringing a guy in," she said. "One of hers?"

    "That's Philo. Gail and Mark had him. Rachel's proba­bly interviewing him now."

    Jaguar's eyebrows creased down. "Rachel's not trained for interviews."

    "I chose her from a list of religious types," Carolan said. "I've been requesting religious types."

    Jaguar scowled at her, then turned to Alex. "Which room is she in?"

    "She's a big girl, and you're not her Teacher anymore. Let her grow up and do her job."

    "I'm helping her get ready for Teacher training. I want to observe."

    "Jaguar, she'll be fine."

    "I want to observe, Alex," she repeated.

     He narrowed his eyes, but when he saw the real fear in her face, he relented. "Forty-two," he said.

    She exited the room, walked swiftly down the hall. Car­olan rolled her eyes at Alex, who shrugged, and stood to follow.

    By the time they caught up with her, she was standing at the one-way mirror, her eyes glued to Rachel, who sat in a chair facing a man with skin as pale as an albino lizard, and eyes that seemed equally bleached of thought and emo­tion. Hair plastered away from his face, thin, venous neck, and badly shod feet, he had a number of nervous tics and twitches that contrasted with Rachel's very still demeanor. He coughed into his hand, a dry sound emerging from a hollow chest.

    Alex took his place next to her. Jaguar chewed on her lip, then shook her head. "Rachel shouldn't be in there alone. The guy's way off."

    "They're all way off," Carolan noted. "They blow up children. Don't worry. We checked them. When we ar­rested them, after testing, and when they got here. There's no danger."

    "There's always danger," Jaguar said. Carolan couldn't possibly understand the thousand and one things that could go wrong, get overlooked, just happen, in this kind of sit­uation. Jaguar knew because she was trained to hyper-attentiveness. Rachel was not.

    Rachel bent over a laptop, taking notes. Her voice stayed calm and smooth as she asked questions, her face stayed quiet as she listened to replies. Philo, eyes twitching, laughed, rubbed at his face.   Coughed into his hand again.  Stuck his finger in his mouth and picked at his teeth.

    "Be picking his nose, next," Carolan commented. Jaguar ignored her. Rachel bent over her laptop. In the background, the voices of men and women moved down the hall. Philo picked at his teeth, coughed again, covered his mouth, and then brought his hand down.

    "Alex," Jaguar said, and then more urgently, "Alex, there's—no, Rachel!" she shouted, slamming her palm against the glass. Rachel, startled, looked to the mirror, and Philo dove at her, pressed a hand into her neck.

    "Something in his hand," Jaguar shouted over her shoul­der as she dashed toward the side door. Already on the move, Alex saw Philo release Rachel, saw her body start the chaos of convulsions, saw Jaguar throw open the door, and beeline to Rachel as Philo inched his way along the wall.

    Alex pointed Carolan toward the hall, shouting "Cover it" as he rounded the corner and joined Jaguar, kneeling next to Rachel.

    She raised fearful eyes to Alex.

    "Heart stopped." She started pressing rhythmically against her chest. "Do the breathing. Masks in the table kit."

    Alex opened the drawer under the interview table, found the medikit and resuscitation mask. He bent over Rachel, masked her, and tilted her neck back as he breathed into the mask opening. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Rachel's laptop, lying on its side, her notes still on­screen.

    Then Jaguar spoke subvocally, urgently. Kiss of Life, Alex.

    Kiss of Life. An energy exchange between one empath and another, used either in times of great need or in lovemaking. Jaguar wasn't thinking straight. The Kiss of Life needed direct contact, and two empaths. Rachel wasn't an empath.

    Won't work, Jaguar.

    Wordlessly, Jaguar's mind moved from insistence to frustration to focus on her task. He kept breathing, working in sync with Jaguar's pressing hands, hearing her mumble encouragement to Rachel, saying with her, come on, Ra­chel. Breathe. You can breathe. He was reconsidering the Kiss of Life, ready to try anything, when he felt a shiver in her muscles that built quickly into a trembling and the sharp intake of breath.

    "She's alive, Jaguar. Hold off—get her legs. Don't let her hurt herself."

    They struggled with her spasmodic thrashing until it qui­eted into twitches and jerks. Then Alex looked up from her to see Carolan standing in the doorway.

    "Philo's not in here?" she asked.

    Alex's attention snapped around to the corners at his rear. No Philo. He heard Jaguar 's breath catch in her throat. He saw her face blanch, her gaze directed to the screen of Rachel's laptop.

    "What?" he asked

    "Rachel's notes," she said. Alex looked down, and read.

    And her children I will kill with deadly plague.

    Jaguar licked her dry lips and stared at Alex.

    "Stay here," he said. "I'll get the medics."