Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from American Craftsman by Tom Doyle, a series set in an alternate universe where magicians serve in the United States army, defending the country against magical attacks. The final book in the trilogy, War and Craft, will be available on September 26th.
US Army Captain Dale Morton is a magician soldier-a “craftsman.” After a black-ops mission gone wrong, Dale is cursed by a Persian sorcerer and haunted by his good and evil ancestors. Major Michael Endicott, a Puritan craftsman, finds gruesome evidence that the evil Mortons have returned, and that Dale might be one of them.
Dale uncovers treason in the Pentagon’s highest covert ranks. He hunts for his enemies before they can murder him and Scherie, a new friend who knows nothing of his magic.
Endicott pursues Dale, divided between his duty to capture a rogue soldier and his desire to protect Dale from his would-be assassins. They will discover that the demonic horrors that have corrupted American magic are not bound by family or even death itself.
As I hustled out from the hangar into the Persian Gulf twilight, my muscles tightened, and power flowed into my hands. Soon I would do what I did best. Soon I would kill a sorcerer.
The U.S. Army base tarmac gave off a blistering heat mirage as I scrambled across it. A helicopter’s blades rotated at ready; their wash blasted hot as I boarded. The door slammed behind me, and the copter, christened Valkyrie, took off.
The five men of my team saluted, then went back to checking their equipment. They showed no impatience at having waited on the pad for orders; they were used to the bullshit. I sat towards the front for quick off-headphone interaction with the pilot when we hit the spooky stuff.
For a silent aircraft, the Valkyrie made plenty of noise inside. Next to me, Cpl. “Vulture” Volant yelled my nom de guerre. “Casper. Is that like the friendly ghost, sir?”
“Not that friendly, Corporal.”
“A killing ghost, sir?” But, seeing that I was unamused, Vulture again inspected his sniper rifle, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to order him to shut the fuck up. It was my fault for choosing a shitty cryptonym, and not just because of the ghost reference. “Casper” gave a clue to my job. Casper, or Caspar, had been one of the Three Wise Men. A magus, or what Americans with knowledge called a craftsman. Why hide my identity only to give it away through the back door?
My father had written me a warning that “We Mortons are too practical about the craft, and too crafty about the practical.” Yeah, my real name was Morton, Captain Dale Morton. Other craftsmen tended to have strong opinions about my family. I didn’t blame them.
My men didn’t know about my family or magic, but they aimed uncomfortable glances at me. I didn’t blame them either. These five had trained together, a seamless whole, but not with me. I was too important a secret to expose to others for too much time. Our unit designation, MAC-66, appeared in no records. The Pentagon didn’t formally acknowledge Delta Force and SEAL Team Six, but allowed their existence to be known. Craft ops were different; knowledge of their existence could be fatal.
Two of my five were boot camps, green as Uncle Sam’s toilet paper. Vulture and Lt. Shaheen were more experienced. Shaheen knew Arabic and regional detail and doubled as team medic, so he was Doc. And there was the old man, my NCO, Master Sergeant “Zee” Zanol.
All good men, but I couldn’t get too close. They were smart enough not to question the bullshit, but they would know the word from this land to describe me: assassin.
Hours before, I had stood in a prefab conference room shoved in a corner of the base hangar. The room served as an office for people who weren’t officially there. Colonel Hutchinson had explained my mission. She was my favorite officer, my favorite craftsperson, and my favorite living human being, all packed tight into a tall fortysomething mix of Kate Hepburn and triathlete.
“H-ring is calling it a snatch and grab, but you’ll assume your usual prejudice against the target,” she said in her easy rural New England way, as if she weren’t sentencing some stranger to death. “Intel says he’s a Farsi speaker, a Persian.” Persian—better than any existing nation’s name to describe ancient loyalties. Hutchinson pointed to a printout map. “He’s been farseen here, about fifty klicks southwest of the bridge.”
“A long ways from home, ma’am,” I said.
“He’s not such a wise man for a magus,” said Hutchinson. “We expect a go before sundown.”
“Isn’t Sword up next?” Code name Sword was the third craftsperson on base, though for security I was kept sequestered from him. I wanted this mission, but I had a gut suspicion of irregular assignments.
“This mission has been called by Sphinx herself,” said Hutchinson, “and Sphinx doesn’t want Sword. She said something to the effect that if we didn’t send you on this mission, we could pack up Western civilization and shove it up our asses.”
“Me, ma’am?” As far as I knew, neither the Peepshow at Langley nor their top oracle Sphinx ever selected the individual for an assignment.
“Don’t let it go to your head, Morton. This bozo isn’t important. Must be a butterfly-effect scenario.”
“So I crush the butterfly,” I said.
“Right,” agreed Hutchinson.
I respected Hutchinson more than my rarely seen parents, and whatever Hutch said, I would execute, with my usual and extreme prejudice. But it was more than personal loyalty. I shared the sense of duty of my ancestors: Philip “Foggy” Morton who delayed the British with bad weather at Brooklyn Heights to save George Washington’s army, Richard “Dick” Morton, who calmed the storms over the English Channel for the D-Day invasion, and Joshua Morton, who gave the last full measure for the Union he loved. Like them, I would serve my country to the utmost.
I checked my watch. We’d be within forty klicks by now. We were coming in low and below radar, but I wasn’t worried about the conventional firepower of the locals. The target would strike soon. I kept my anticipation of the supernatural blow to myself.
The first sign of attack came as a gut-lurching, sideways drop, followed by another. The chopper shook as if an oversized child was pelting it with boulders. Yes, a probable SPACTAD—spooky action at a distance.
I clambered forward and crouched behind the pilot, Lt. Nguyen. She had “Born to Kill” on her helmet. “What’s that turbulence?” I asked.
“Sir, we need to turn back,” said Nguyen.
“Just because of some wind?”
“Look at this,” said Nguyen. On the radar, a wall of disturbance moved towards us. Sandstorm.
“Fly above it?”
“I’ve never seen anything go so high,” said Nguyen.
“Keep flying,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”
“That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir.” Fortunately, Nguyen had been thoroughly warned to follow my every order, no matter how apparently suicidal. But she didn’t sound happy, no ma’am.
I made a controlled tumble back into my seat, and held some laminated maps in front of my face. But my mind followed the storm. I felt the enemy craftwork behind it, craftwork that had been wreaking havoc on air and land traffic in this sector for months. I could try to fight the whole spell, but I wasn’t on my own ground, so that would drain me, and that was probably what the target wanted.
So I’d shield the copter. It would look strange, but what could the pilot say? I touched my hand to the wall of the aircraft, and rubbed and patted it like a horse. I felt the pulse of the life of the air beyond. “Calm air, calm air,” I murmured, and the air around the speeding copter flowed calmly by.
My headset crackled. “Sir,” said Nguyen, “the sand is blowing, but we seem to be in a clear pocket.”
“Roger that. Carry on, Lieutenant.”
Compulsively, I checked my weapons and gear again—way beyond the necessary. I carried a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun with its clean first shot and a Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol, because I didn’t want to adapt my father’s .45 with the electronic safeguards. My team’s equipment appeared standard for a Special Ops unit, but it had hidden features for craft-enhanced ops. The surest weapon in a craftsman’s hands is his opponent’s mind. Each weapon had a “Stonewall” chip that would prevent firing at a team member (including oneself) under any circumstances. I smiled at the chip’s name. As my ancestor Joshua Morton had illustrated to General Jackson at the end of an otherwise bad day at Chancellorsville, getting the enemy to shoot their own took very little craft.
After the mission, the team would be kept under 24/7 surveillance and quarantine for a month, in case any craft time bombs had been dropped into their psyches. I grimaced in sympathy, but their minds wouldn’t be great concerns if I eliminated the target quickly.
The men had technical explanations for these safeguards. Too much SciFi Channel had accustomed them to all kinds of nonsense—that they might be subject to chemical hallucinogens, microwave mind control, or perfect holographic projections. Like Dad had written, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.
For a long mission, another man might carry amphetamines or other stimulants. I carried only one pill: a black cyanide capsule. And in case I hesitated, there was an exception to the Stonewall chip. One man in the unit would have the order and the means to kill me rather than allow my capture. I bet it was Sergeant Zee.
I felt the gs as the copter veered right. “Sir,” said Nguyen on headset, “we’re about two klicks from the target location, approaching from due south.”
I didn’t look up from my equipment. “Keep flying north, full speed.”
“But the target is…”
“He’ll run,” I said. I moved forward again for a face-to-face.
“But we’re coming in quiet,” said Nguyen.
“He knows that we’re coming.” The pilot looked at me, horrified at this hint of a security breach.
I viewed the ground through the copter’s night-vision screen. Sure enough, far ahead on the lone road leading out of the village, a jeep raced towards the north. In night vision, the jeep glowed bright green with heat, but in my vision, the target burned red with craft. Perhaps if the target had tried to flee quietly without throwing sand in our faces, he would have made it, but that wasn’t magi style. “That’s our man. Try not to lose him.”
If the target was talented enough, he would shake us with some sorcerer stealth unless I could guess where he was heading. That’s why I was here, and not some Predator drone—this chase required craft and intuition.
Where will he run to? My objectives liked old ground. Any other place, I could just pick out the nearest ruin, but here in the Near East ancient sites with occult potential dotted the landscape. Wait, there on the map, straight down the road, a familiar name. Drones had seen some recent small-unit activity in the area, but that wasn’t what concerned me. I stepped back to show the map to Doc. “Isn’t there an archeological site here?”
“Yes, sir, an Assyrian settlement near the town. Looters have been digging pits during the recent unpleasantness.”
“Pilot, head to MC 9146 4211.”
“Roger, wilco—wait a minute. He’s off the scope, sir.”
“Understood. Circle the point where you last saw him for ten minutes. Then, head to MC 9146 4211 on a curved vector, veering thirty degrees west of true until midpoint.” I didn’t want the target to see us pursuing in a straight line behind him, and I didn’t want to beat the target to the site.
I called up maps and photos of the dig on my handheld. Yes, an old tunnel excavation into a nasty temple to Assur-Marduk—the target would like that. And something more organized than looting had been going on in the last two years, with the maze of tunnels opened up to the surface, then covered from view with a series of tarpaulins.
I turned to Sergeant Zee and pointed at my map. “Let’s run through the mission. We’ll insert a few kilometers downwind of the town, here.” It was a small town with a long Arabic name, and before that a Greek name, and before that something in Assyrian. And something else before all that. Every place they sent me was like that. Small towns with large history lessons.
“Don’t make me pronounce it right, sir,” said Zee. “I just forget them all afterwards.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Our objective won’t go to the modern town. The drones have spotted activity just to the west in the excavated mound.”
“What kind of activity, sir?”
“Hostile activity.” Zee didn’t need to know about the other aberrant sandstorms and equipment failures. Like me and many of my ancestors, my target was a weatherman. “Vulture will clear the entrance to the dig. Then, you’ll all cover the town and any approaching bad guys.” Any conventional bad guys.
“You’re going into the tell alone, sir?”
“That’s correct.” Odd that Zee knew the word tell.
“An ancient city? Hmm.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “I’ve seen some strange missions, sir. A crypt in the bottom of a mine in Bosnia, a temple older than the Mayans in Central America. I don’t like that kind of strangeness, but it doesn’t frighten me.”
“I hear you, Sergeant.” The man was saying that he understood something about craft ops—that I could rely on him not to panic in the face of magic and to keep his mouth shut afterwards. That I could talk to him. That I didn’t have to go into those ruins alone. But craft was different from most military secrets. Besides, I preferred to hit the target myself. A mundane soldier was just somebody I’d have to protect.
“We’ll talk afterwards,” I continued. “So we understand each other, no one else is to enter the ruins under any circumstances. You understand my orders, Sergeant?”
Having completed my checklist, I prepared my most important weapon—my craft. I focused on my breathing to find my center. I hit the mute button on my senses. The chopper engines, the camouflage colors, the smells of fuel, equipment, and sweat—all perceived through foam insulation. Very internal, intimate time, turn the lights down low, baby. Some of this quiet bubble was common to most elite soldiers before a mission, but some of it was the peculiar meditation needed for my power.
Ritual and formula were just two possible focal points for magic. The essence of craft was to hold two exact images in one’s mind at once—the thing as it was and the thing as it would be. Then, still holding the images, the craftsman placed the word of action between them. To do all this instantaneously required talent, practice, and energy.
But with my power running high, one of my natural gifts showed itself without effort. The team’s auras flickered around me; the small letters of their sins, scarlet a’s of petty fornications and k’s of military duty, tried to distract me. I ignored them. In my bubble, I waited. I was alone; nothing else existed. I felt the craft energies flow up and down my spine. More than enough juice for one sorcerer. I was ready.
Nguyen signaled: two minutes. I resurfaced. I mumbled a prayer to an absent God that, this time, my team would just face flesh and bullets, leaving the more powerful horrors to me.
“Get ready.” The copter slowed to a hover. “Move out!”
The metal door flew open with a slide-slam and we were down the ropes and fanning out through clouds of dust in a scattered deployment. Better for this sort of op that, until it was done, the aircraft not touch the ground, or stick around too long. The pilot swooped away like a bat copter from hell. My night-vision goggles gave the world a greenish hue. Unlike most Special Operations Forces, this unit had no video equipment. No recording of a craft op would ever be made; no amount of operation review could justify the inevitable leak that would endanger all practitioners.
“Let’s move.” We started jogging towards the tell. I loved the desert at night. Human beings seemed like a blot on its purity. Cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, lamb, exhaust. Sure enough, the inevitable smell of Middle Eastern cuisine mixed with diesel wafted over from the town, making me hungry and queasy at the same time. I hoped the civilians would, unlike their smells, stay at home. Home, and safe from me and my team.
We found cover behind the piles of moved earth. An all-weather tarpaulin, the first of many over the dig, made a tentlike roof to the mound entrance; its loose corners wagged or flapped in the wind. Someone had organized the digging and the tarps, creating a flimsy yet safer ceiling for their ancient home.
Two bad guys stood guard at the entrance, talking, one in a burnoose, the other in a deracinated uniform. Doc listened with a parabolic mike (a craft op standard) and sent me their text. “Heard chopper. Concerned.” Not concerned enough by half. They were lighting cigarettes, which glowed like flares in my night vision. But the guards didn’t glow with craft. Vulture lined them up in his silencer’s sight. Conventional means for conventional people. Always better to take life with a bullet, as the law of karmic return was more lenient and indirect with nonmagical action.
Two bullets snapped. Unavoidable sounds, but they didn’t matter. Any target worth his craft would be tipped off at this point.
I let go of the breath I had held. “Thanks, Vulture.” Then I turned to Doc. “Keep the site sequestered. Talk any civilians out of coming near. We want zero casualties for us and them. I’m going in. Sixty minutes. Mark.” No craft duel had ever lasted longer than an hour, if the craftspeople meant business. Simply not enough energy in one person to go longer at full throttle. A battle with multiple practitioners relieving each other in shifts could go on longer, but that didn’t happen very often. If I wasn’t back in an hour, I was dead, or a danger to my own team, or something worse.
Outside the hangar, Colonel Hutchinson shook her head at her other favorite killer, Code name Sword. In contrast to Morton’s dark features, Native American cheekbones, and expressive mien, Major Sword’s blond hair and nor’easter gray eyes framed a long angular face of iron. That face had just gotten harder. Poor boy was understandably pissed.
Sword pointed at the red horizon, eyes on Hutchinson. “Was that my mission that just took off, Colonel?”
“No,” said Hutchinson, “that was Casper’s mission that just took off, Major.”
The major’s real name was Michael Endicott. If he had known Casper’s real name, he would have been more pissed. The major’s ancestors were the Endicotts of Salem. Sure, he could serve under her, a Hutchinson, descended from that notorious heretic woman—hell, the boy actually seemed to like and respect her. But she doubted he could extend that tolerance to Captain Morton. The pagan Mortons with their “craft” were anathema to the Puritan Endicotts and their “gifts of the Spirit.” A shame, because she was fond of both Dale and Michael, and would have loved to see them fight together against enemies foreign and domestic. But ever since 1628, when John Endicott and his men had attacked Thomas Morton’s colonial settlement, the two Families had feuded, and had even tried to exclude each other from the secret covenant that George Washington had made with all the craft Families in return for their service during the Revolution. Then the Left-Hand Mortons had scared the shit out of everyone, and the Endicotts had never let the later generations of Mortons forget it.
“Casper went under your orders, Colonel?”
Hutchinson knew where this was going. “My orders came from higher up, Major.”
Endicott looked about to shrapnel. “Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”
“What the hell is it, Michael?”
“Hutch, don’t these sudden changes in assignment bother you?”
“They sure seem to bother you,” said Hutchinson. “But you never appreciate assignment by farsight.”
“This is different.” Endicott lowered his voice. “If the Peepshow and our PRECOG can’t agree, it means something powerful is blocking one of their farsights. The general says it could be a sign that they are back.”
Hutch snorted. Michael’s father, General Oliver C. Endicott, had never liked Sphinx or her Peepshow, kissed Pentagon farsight ass, and was close-to-discharge insane about the imminent return of the Left-Hand Mortons.
“OK, Michael. Never mind that those evil kin-fuckers have all been exterminated. Let’s hold that branch of ancient history over the heads of the modern Mortons like a cudgel, make them keep toeing the line, never let them above the active rank of captain, because God knows they haven’t saved our asses enough to trust them again.”
Endicott’s face cracked into a small grimace. “It’s not like that, Hutch. Just don’t be surprised if something goes wrong.”
Hutchinson’s tough heart skipped a beat. Dread, then anger, used up her remaining patience with all things Endicott. “That had better not be an oracle, Major.”
“Good. Then get packing, soldier. You’re due in Prague tomorrow.”
“Prague?” Poor boy sounded positively wounded by the new assignment; Hutchinson tried not to chuckle.
“Yes, Prague. I’ll brief you in the conference room in one hour.” She hesitated, trying to separate the threads of command instinct from an almost maternal concern, until she found they agreed. “But I’m keeping you here tonight.” Because she refused to be surprised if something went wrong.
At the entrance to the dig, my feet came to an unordered halt. A ward, very formal and fancy pants. If I broke the ward’s craft circuit, it would trip an alarm back to its maker. I said “break.” That would certainly get the target’s attention, even if his mundane guards hadn’t.
I stepped under the tarp and scrambled into the maze of passages. Glowing LEDs that hung irregularly along the broken walls gave me a twilight view without the night-vision device. The lights were on, so someone was home.
Why the hell did my duty always seem to take me to confined spaces, sometimes far, far underground? At least the dirt was no longer overhead. My family had reason to fear live burial.
The tell was not large in conventional space. But ruins that had been around this long had aeons of unconventional space to move through. Over the crumbling mix of stone and mud brick, ghosts of buildings shimmered with gold, lapis, and tapestries in my peripheral vision. I ignored most of the lavish details, focusing on those bits of translucent décor that might guide me through the maze to a former temple, palace, or crypt.
Then, out of the ether, two horrendous Assyrian genii blocked my way. Blood dripped from their eyes, gore from their teeth. My heart hammered for fight or flight.
After a second, my pulse continued to race with self-disgust. Obvious fakes. Nonhuman spirits, if they existed, must be rare. I stepped forward, then froze—what could these images be distracting me from? Ah, there, behind the one on the right, a trigger that would probably cave in this portion of the dig. But no trap that I could sense beyond that. If this was designed to make me waste energy, I wouldn’t bite. OK, we’ll be trapped for a while together—some nice intimate time to exchange craft secrets.
I ran through. The walls collapsed behind me. But the cave-in was a shit job, and I would still be able to squeeze through or climb out, if it didn’t get any worse.
Little enemy probes of my power prickled my nerves, but like gunfire, they also guided me to their point of origin. A voice in my head: “Allahu akbar…?” Then, “Greetings friend, in the name of Allah, the compassionate and merciful.” Shit, the fucker could think in panglossic, and with an annoying British accent. I preferred not to have much time for talk.
“Pretty pagan surroundings for ‘Allah,’ friend.”
“Necessary for my little trap.”
“You’d better spring it soon. I’m just about there.” I cocked the hammers of three spells in my mind: a parry, an external thrust, and an internal one. I would have to improvise the specifics.
“We practitioners should not kill each other,” said the sorcerer. “We should stay in our own land, our own power.”
“Right,” I said. The tarp rippled in the night breeze. I came to an L in the maze, turned right, and found myself at the lintel. I used a small mirror to peer into the room beyond.
Through the doorway was a long hall that had once been a temple. The sorcerer sat in a beat-up lawn chair where the altar to Assur-Marduk should have been. His head was framed by a back wall bas-relief of the god’s bull horns, symbols of the long gone Taurean Age. Amidst priceless objects, the sorcerer wore a Red Sox jersey and shorts. His teeth were mostly gone, his eyes stared up at the sky and seemed half-blind. Unarmed? Probably preferred craft-on-craft action.
I raised the MP5, prepared to turn and shoot.
A cold hand of craft squeezed at my lungs. “Break hand,” I said, using my first spell.
Another hand of force reached for me and made my gun feel too heavy to aim. With the MP5 dangling from my right arm, I spun around the corner and drew a circle around the sorcerer with my left forefinger. “Move air.”
The laws of thermodynamics are funny things. They don’t forbid most of the air from moving away from one’s head; they just say that it’s more likely the universe will expire before that happens randomly. A weatherman can put a spin on the forces and probabilities of nature. I was good at tweaking the improbabilities and making them happen.
The sorcerer gasped, but he could still think up mischief. I pointed my left hand straight between my target’s eyes. “Short sharp shock.” The sorcerer jerked rigid. A lot of these backwoods magi had trouble thinking of their minds as mechanisms. They wasted time on hallucinations and ignored the raw synapses.
I moved closer to the sorcerer. That hadn’t been too bad. Now to kill him.
I could not take him prisoner. Confining such a man, much less putting him on trial, was prohibitively difficult. My orders might violate the law, but the law didn’t know about the craft, which was a damned good thing, given what the law used to do to craftspeople.
I held my MP5 inches from the old man’s head.
The sorcerer ceased convulsing and sat bolt upright, eyes fixed on me. I sought a protection to employ. The sorcerer cackled at me like a dirty old farmer at Internet porn.
I didn’t shoot. No further malevolent energies sought me; I could afford to grant a few seconds. “If you’ve got any prayers to say, say them now.”
The sorcerer closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, palms out. “You are here to take me out. Fine, I am old and ready. But I am going to take you out too. Not kill, just stop.”
Threats were not the prayers I had in mind. I leveled my gun and shot the sorcerer between the eyes.
The report echoed down the ancient hallways; in a red burst of craft, the sorcerer’s spirit left. Mission accomplished, I considered my exit.
No exit. The cool night air rustled the tarp, carrying the sound of automatic weapons fire and a crushing sense of dread. My gun shook in my hand as I waved it in the dead sorcerer’s face. “What have you done?”
A voice like a recorded message played in my mind. Feel that, ferangi? We know your family, your country. Your Left-Hand ancestors were an abomination before God. You can violate our land, parade your filth in front of us, even take our lives, but you will not take our magic. You will not take our souls. Feel it, ferangi.
I felt it. Successive explosions of fear, then pain, then a gaping, aching nothing.
A bearded man, hands outstretched, stands as a human shield in front of his house and a veiled woman; then hands and body are ripped with agony, and both man and woman fall into the dusty doorway.
A mangy dog bares its teeth, then whines in final, crippled terror.
A little girl wearing only a “Hello Kitty” t-shirt runs and screams down the street, then her heart bursts as two rounds pierce her chest, and my own heart screams.
I felt the curse. Driven by the power of the sorcerer’s self-sacrifice, my team saw enemies everywhere, and killed every man, woman, and child they saw. The sorcerer’s own death spared him the karmic consequences of his heinous magic. Each murder instead became a cancerous part of my own mind.
In the dungeon of my skull, a voice like my own laughed at the curse, and the murders. The voice of the Left Hand, trying to get out.
Part of a wall tumbled stones at my feet. The dig started to slowly cave in—a dead man’s craft switch. Nothing that I couldn’t have outrun, if I cared to. I didn’t care. I was dying inside, over and over again.
A rip like a Little Bird’s guns. At the other end of the room, the point of a KA-BAR slashed open the tarp. A soldier peered through the newly created gap. “Captain. Where are you?” It was Master Sergeant Zanol.
“Sergeant, I ordered—”
Zee jumped down to the floor. He dashed toward me and pushed me out of the way of another cascading stone. “I don’t give a fuck, sir.” Zee pointed his rifle at me. “They’re … I … you’ve got to help them.”
After that, my memory was a jumbled slide show. Zee gave me a lift up and out of the excavation, then scrambled up after as I ran across the tell for the town. I hurtled down the mound’s side and screamed into the snap-snap of bullets, “Cease fire! Cease fire! Goddamnit, cease fire!”
Far too fucking late. Night vision showed me the cooling bodies of women and children everywhere. My team was staggering around, covered in the sacrificial blood, starting to realize what they had done. I couldn’t let that realization sink in. “Valkyrie, immediate pickup. That’s ASAP. Over.”
Like someone half-asleep, Doc protested on the com. “Captain, I think there’s some wounded civvies here. Should I treat?”
“Negative, repeat negative. Withdraw.”
“You heard him,” yelled Zee, voice nearly breaking with rage and despair. “Move out!”
We jogged to the pickup point. We climbed back in our ground-hovering copter and started home.
I grabbed the chopper’s transmitter. Duty still compelled me; I mouthed the necessary words to base. “Ike, this is MAC-66. We need immediate steam vac, MC 9146 4211.”
“MAC-66, this is Ike. We’ll need to clear that with Mamie.”
“Negative, Ike,” I said. “I’m calling this, priority Alfa, Last Best Hope.”
“Roger that, 66. Wilco. Over and out.” It would be easier to explain a mistake from the air than what we had done. I would be destroying a town and ten thousand years of history to do it. I didn’t care.
I clamped my jaw shut until it ached. Each death exploded in my head. If I opened my mouth without something to say, I’d start screaming and never ever stop again.
I had to maintain appearances, if only for my men. But they wouldn’t leave me alone. “Captain, what happened back there?” asked Doc.
“Nothing. Understand? Nothing happened,” I said. “You fired at some bad guys. We withdrew. That’s your report. You’ll speak of this to no one else.”
But it would have taken more craft than I had left to convince my sergeant. Zee’s face was in his hands. He was sobbing.
We landed back at the base. Dawn was coming up over the dead land like an interrogator’s lamp on my soul.
As we left the copter, Colonel Hutchinson was already on the tarmac and moving right into my face. “Captain, what the hell is going on? Where do you get off calling in an air strike? We aren’t even supposed to be there!”
I gestured over my shoulder, like a drunk at a bar passing the bill. “Colonel, my team…”
“Oh, of course.” One of Hutch’s supernatural talents was to calm and reassure in a crisis. “Good work, men. Get your gear stowed. I’ll debrief you myself at 0800.”
But my team didn’t look calm or reassured as they left me. Some looked back at me with silent questions and confusion. Sergeant Zee’s red eyes never left the tarmac as he crossed it.
The colonel spoke in a low voice. “Now, Morton, what the fuck happened out there?”
I held at attention, silent and steady, until the last member of my team was out of sight in the hangar. Then, my legs buckled, and I crumbled to the ground, retching, trying to be sick, but nothing was coming up.
Hutchinson put her arm on my shoulder. “Dale, I’m sorry.” But her craft couldn’t reach me. “Dale? Captain Morton!”
The dungeon voice in my mind said Kill her. Kill them all.
I struggled back to my feet. We know your family. Cease fire! “I’m stopped,” I said, my mouth like a computer reading a speech. “Done.”
“Good. Now, what happened?”
“No, ma’am, I’m done with this. All this. The military. Life. Done.”
Hutchinson smiled, shook her head. “Some R & R…”
“Done done done.”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
“No, right this fucking minute.” Cold fire flew out from my hands. “I resign. Discharge me now.”
Hutchinson said, “Sword.” As if they were expecting this, two men ran across the tarmac and tackled me. The craft fizzled in my hands. With nothing more to say, I screamed into the face of one of the men. I hated that face, but had forgotten why.
Hutchinson nodded, a sedative went in. I roared, but didn’t care enough to fight it. Being knocked out just made it official. I was done.
All the way back to the U.S., every time I woke up, I screamed until they knocked me out again.
Major Michael Endicott gave the high castle a glance and thought of trivial injustice. Prague, beautiful bullshit Prague. Prague’s old world occult irritated him. Every assignment turned noir here. Like foreign movies, Prague missions tended to end badly and absurdly.
Endicott played the gaping tourist and waited for his call. To his right and above loomed Prague Castle, locus of alchemy and occult practices until the Thirty Years’ War. The old European aristocracies had attempted to monopolize spiritual power in their realms, but the New World’s openness to new Families had helped to put an end to that. To Endicott’s left, a picturesque rabbit warren of streets and alleyways led back down to the town, every shadow potentially filled with Central European nasties who sought his demise. Further up the road stood the old monastery, site of tonight’s rendezvous.
Lovely Slavic women passed to and fro, irritating in their own way. A wife or girlfriend back home was overdue, but a Christian relationship took time, and in his position he couldn’t have any other kind. He had his doubts that God cared much about his sex life, but his superiors and family did.
In response to these insubordinate thoughts, his satphone finally rang—General Dad calling. Other branches of the military could afford to move family members to separate chains of command, but not spiritual ops. Endicott answered.
“Sword, the target has moved up your rendezvous. You’ll proceed directly to the site. Operate under Moscow Rules.” This precaution meant nothing; in spiritual ops, almost anywhere overseas was hostile territory.
Endicott’s irritation got the best of him. “Sir, why am I here?”
To Endicott’s relief, his father seemed to view this question as legitimate. “Pentagon PRECOG wanted you in the desert, but that freakshow Sphinx vetoed it, and that Hutchinson woman concurred on the ground, so we’ve given you Casper’s milk run. Try not to screw it up.”
“Yes, sir.” Dad didn’t think much of Hutch and Langley’s Sphinx, but it was PRECOG’s Chimera that always gave Endicott a queasy feeling. An H-ring joke had it that the motto of Pentagon farsight was “We know, but we don’t care.”
The general’s voice lowered into a confidential, wily tone. “Remember to ask about the Left Hand and the Mortons.”
Lord, would he never cease on that? “Roger, sir. Wilco. Sword out.”
Left-Hand: the craft relativistic euphemism for “evil.” Endicott hated the word almost as much as the fact. In spiritual ops, evil was Evil.
Endicott strode up the cobbled road. He carried a long and narrow box that enlarged at one end, as if he were a professional pool player with a bridge cue slung over his shoulder. Perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered hiding his thirty-inch sword; in this town, carrying an archaic weapon with a decorated hilt wasn’t so unusual. Endicott’s weapon was the source of his code name. He bore the blade of the first American of his ancestral line.
Endicott was proud of his family, whatever its excesses, and Old John of Salem was the most excessive Endicott. John had used this sword in May 1628 to hack down Thomas Morton’s maypole and drive away his drunken followers. John had brandished this sword during the trial of Ann Hutchinson, ancestor of the colonel. In America’s first declaration of independence, John’s sword had sliced the red cross of Saint George the Dragon Slayer from every flag he could find.
Major Endicott could laugh at a man who had wanted veils for women. But Old John had been right about the things that mattered: faith, discipline, and freedom.
Old John took a distant second place in Endicott’s heart to his later ancestor, Abram. At the siege of the House of Morton, Abram had carried this sword. With it, he had defeated Roderick, leader of the Left-Hand Mortons, the man who had taken the name and guise of the Red Death. Abram had slain the greatest evil in the history of the Fighting Families. Just thinking of Abram gave Endicott an electric feeling of pride.
From generation to generation, the Endicotts had handed down this sword as the symbol of their Fighting Family’s commitment to military service. Other talents in other Families might forget their duty to country and either forego their spiritual gifts or use them only rarely and in secret from government practitioners, but Endicott could not imagine living without either his spiritual duty or practice.
He reached the entrance to the baroque monastery, now a tourist haven. A long line of stocky Germans chattered in soft gutturals at the entrance. Germans still had a way of annoying everyone in American spiritual ops. Dear God, was this Sphinx’s sense of humor? Send the Puritan to a Catholic monastery to meet an atheist with a bunch of Germans nearby. Endicott was tolerant, but he didn’t appreciate being laughed at.
Endicott’s target was Karel Macha, an aging Cold War leftover. Macha had double-dealt too many times, and any number of nationalities would still love to kill him. The Czech wanted to eyeball his contact before coming over.
Endicott didn’t ready any specific spells. He would rely on his strongest spiritual gift: the power of command. His Family had centuries of practice at telling others what to do. Unlike some other Families, his didn’t believe that God played dice with the universe. When Endicott prayed, he felt like a vessel for divine certainties, not skewed probabilities.
“In the name of Jesus, let me through.” Endicott gave commands in simple panglossic, another useful gift of the Spirit. Repeating this simple prayer, he was admitted to the limited tour area, then the caretakers-only area of the monastery library.
In the old library, Endicott’s nose itched. Despite preservation and cleaning efforts, the air was saturated with the dust of decaying books. Many rows of volumes were rebound in bland communist gray, contrasting with the rich dark woods of the shelving. A brief search and he found his goal: a not-terribly-secret passage led downstairs.
On the steep stairway, fancy stone gave way to brick and natural rock. The further below ground Endicott went the more the very air pulsed with hostility. He remembered what Abram Endicott had written about the House of Morton under the Left-Hand Roderick and Madeline, how he could feel its malice against him. This place was like that, a vessel for the chthonic power of those who dwelt here.
When Endicott reached the last stair, he found a source for the anger. An old man glared at Endicott, his head bald and choked with veins, his glasses almost bullet-proof thick.
The man’s splotched face moved quickly from malice to surprise, and then added a dash of confused fear. Just traces of expression, but enough for Endicott to read.
“You are Casper?” asked the old man. What the hell? Who had given this guy code names?
“I’m your contact,” said Endicott.
The man nodded, smiling with his remaining cigarette-stained teeth. “Not Casper. OK. I am Macha.” He pointed to a dusty seat snagged from the antiques upstairs. “Please. We talk, then we go to USA.”
“Not quite.” Endicott placed his hands on the chair, but remained standing. “You’re old enough to know how this game goes. You tell me things that are worth my government’s time and resources, and you get a nice life in Florida or wherever you like. You tell me shit, you get shit. Understood?”
Macha nodded and didn’t smile.
“Good,” said Endicott. “Now you sit, and we’ll talk.”
Macha told his bio, and he didn’t mess up any of the details that Endicott already knew. He spilled about American spiritual ops that had gone bad, and gave the preliminaries on the real reasons they had gone bad. Though these were old files, it was interesting news, and might be worth the cost of making this man’s remaining years comfortable.
Endicott took pages of notes as Macha went on, describing Russian ops, East German ops, Czech ops, Russian ops again. Yes, the old man was talking enough, perhaps too much. He seemed to have forgotten his part in the negotiation—to hold something back until he was on U.S. soil.
Endicott wiped the sweat off his forehead. Macha’s yammering was giving him a headache. Maybe that explained the feeling that the room’s hostility had grown. How could the old man stand it here?
Endicott didn’t have to take it anymore. “Enough!”
Macha smiled and stood up. “We are done? We go?”
Endicott wanted to say Yes, let’s get the hell out of here, but realized he had one more question that, no matter how absurd, he was ordered to ask.
“Just one more thing. What do you know about the Left-Hand Mortons?”
“Left-Hand?” sputtered Macha. “Nothing. Absolute nothing.”
But Endicott was no longer listening. He stared at the door behind the old man. It glowed with the black light of very bad craft.
“What’s in the back?” asked Endicott, trying to keep his tone even.
“Not your business.”
“Yes, my business.” He pushed by Macha.
“I’m working for you,” said Macha. “USA! USA!”
The door was shut but not locked. In spiritual warfare, this was a bad sign—it meant that mundane protections were superfluous. But how bad could it be, Lord?
The back room was long and narrow, with two rows of benches running from end to end. The stench of chemicals familiar and strange made Endicott’s eyes water. On the benches nearest the door, body parts, mostly heads, some in jars, some not. Some desiccation, but no rot. No blood, not a drop. OK, pretty bad. But Endicott had seen death before. If Macha was a serial killer, it wouldn’t be the first time that Uncle Sam had sheltered a sociopath.
Further down the benches, the news got worse. Conventional formaldehyde gave way to alchemical vats, bubbling above gas jet flames and humming with craft. In the vats, attempts at homunculi. Not good, but their failure was comforting.
But what did these alchemical experiments have to do with the dead heads and limbs all around him? Lord, help me understand.
A sound like butterfly wings. The eyelids of the nearest head fluttered open. A groan came from mouths without vocal cords. Arms bent at their elbows, reaching for him.
In a flash, Endicott had his revelation. No, not dead, nor truly alive, these potential golems of flesh and bone. Macha was trying to assemble a deathless body with no soul, a prospective vehicle for another’s spirit. The Left Hand had always striven to defy death, but even Endicott’s father hadn’t dreamed that anyone could go so far.
With a few reflexive moves, Endicott’s sword was out of its box and in his hands. He forgot his mission, forgot himself, forgot everything except perhaps God. With main force and little method, he started destroying all things within reach.
Gnarled hands tried to restrain him; Endicott had forgotten Macha. The old man bellowed with surprising strength. “I do not care who fuck are you!”
Endicott wanted to toss Macha aside and get on with the Lord’s work, but he noticed that the man was no longer alone. Two young goons with semiautomatic pistols stood at the doorway.
Macha chuckled and coughed. “You leave now, maybe I let you live.”
Meanwhile, the undead limbs and heads were crawling and rolling towards Endicott, as if to smother him in their sheer mass. He was outgunned, outmanned. As for spirit, Macha didn’t have much personal juice, but the chamber’s black-light force seemed to flow through him. Endicott couldn’t take him in a straight-up duel of power.
But Endicott would not leave this room without ensuring its destruction. Even if Macha were telling the truth, Endicott couldn’t live knowing its evil continued.
Only one weapon left, the distinct spiritual strength in which the Endicotts exceeded all others. The power of command.
He prayed at Macha’s goons. “In the name of Jesus, I compel you. Shoot each other.”
Each goon turned toward the other, hands shaking, shooting, but shots flying wide. The old man’s voice rose to a shrill cry. “Stop it. Shoot him. Shoot the American!” The force of the place aided him; the goons stopped shooting at each other.
Now another commanding prayer, one which Endicott had no assurance of being answered. He prayed at the heads, hands, and feet. “In Christ’s name, attack these men.”
With unnatural speed, these soulless things somehow obeyed, crawling and rolling toward his three enemies, wrapping around their feet, biting at their ankles. But the goons’ hands had ceased to shake; soon, their wills would be their own.
Endicott had one more prayer, a completely silent one outside his usual expertise. Extinguish flame. The fires under the alchemical vats snuffed out. He prayed his enemies wouldn’t notice.
Endicott faced his enemies, sword out. One of the goons was slowly aiming toward Endicott; the other was still struggling. Both blocked his exit. The writhing arms and legs on the ground seemed less lively and affectionate.
The gas under the vats continued to hiss. Time to go.
Waving his sword, Endicott charged the goon with the better aim. If he got a shot off, show over. “Fall! Fall and…” Macha started to say something nasty; Endicott slashed at him with his sword as he plowed shoulder first into the goon. Macha dodged the blow; Endicott spun off the goon and tumbled onto the hard floor of the sitting room.
The old man screamed, “Die, die, die!”
Endicott suddenly felt slower, weaker. But such poorly planned craft could not stop him. In a second, he was up, and running for the stairs.
Endicott reached the stairway and raced up with grasping arm and pumping legs, sword gripped down at his side. The room tugged at him, wanting him to stay. “After him!” cried Macha.
The tramp of goons’ feet on stone echoed behind him. No more time. “In the name of God, flame on!”
The explosion rumbled through the stone. The concentrated gas acted as catalyst for other chemicals in the room, which added their destructive force in rumbling crescendo. A furnace of flame roiled up, impelled by alchemy and the dark spirit of the place, reaching for Endicott with the dying screams of his enemies. His clothes were on fire. He was on fire.
Oh God, out, out, out! He burst out of the passageway and rolled on the antique carpet, then lay there, exhausted. For these gifts I give thee thanks, Lord.
He prayed for healing, but that wasn’t his strong suit. His painful burns weren’t that severe. Just get me through the day, Lord. Caretakers and security men were running past. One stopped and shouted at him in Czech. Endicott grabbed his arm. “Take me to the American Embassy. Now.”
Endicott sat huddled in a safe room deep within the U.S. Embassy, still in charred and singed clothes, wrapped in a blanket. Feeling bad and absurd, feeling blistered and burned. The infirmary could wait; first, he had his duty. He cleared his thoughts and phoned the general.
“Sir, target was terminated. Termination was unavoidable. There’s significant mess for cleanup. Intel is … Intel is very significant, sir.”
Silence for a ten count. “Sir?”
“Never mind all that now, Sword. You can report to me in person. You’re needed back home, ASAP.”
“Something is wrong with, um, Casper. We want you to monitor him.”
Casper. The captain he had helped restrain. Endicott’s sword hand itched at the name, and he didn’t know why. “I saw him at the airbase, sir.”
“Right. I expect your report on Prague tomorrow.” The general cleared his throat. “You should know that Casper is a Morton.”
“Understood, sir.” His father must have detected the pause in Endicott’s response and known the emotion it contained. But his response was certain. If his father of all people could give this order, Endicott could damn well obey it.
Containing his strong feelings completed Endicott’s exhaustion. Duty done for the moment, he let himself be cared for and wheeled onto a plane for Washington. Tomorrow he would just report the facts, but he knew what the general would say. The old Czech had been working with some serious Left-Hand craft, craft at a level that he did not fully comprehend and control, or Endicott would have been toast. Only one Family had ever achieved that dark height. The general would say that the Left-Hand Mortons were back. They were trying to make new bodies for their old corrupted souls.
And coincidentally, something was wrong with Captain Morton. Only, in spiritual ops, there were no coincidences.
All this was profoundly disturbing, like a move to DEFCON 2 on a sunny day. But what really stuck in Endicott’s craw (along with the monastery’s splinters) seemed trivial in comparison: why had PRECOG originally assigned the Prague job to a Morton? And why had Sphinx switched this job to an Endicott?
If all had gone well, a Morton would have been fine in Prague, perhaps even too cozy with the monastery’s Left-Hand abominations. But if all had gone as badly as it had? God had granted the Endicotts the strongest power of command, and it had taken all of Endicott’s compulsive power to get out of the monastery alive. If Casper had not played nice with those Left-Hand elements and had gotten into the same fight, he would have died down there.
The steady vibration of the plane was a lullaby. Endicott could not answer the riddle yet, not without knowing more, certainly not before sleep took him. But, within the limits of duty, he would answer it. And whatever the answer, someone would have to face divine wrath and Endicott power. So help me, God.
I was in the desert again, fighting the sorcerer. “Break hand … move air … short sharp shock.” Then, I was running, trying to stop my men: “Cease fire! Cease fire! Goddamnit, cease fire!”
Kill them all.
I stopped yelling and blinked my eyes fully awake. Sunlight streamed into the rural bedroom. I felt cold and wet in a pool of my own night-terror sweat. I rolled off the firm mattress of the oak bed onto the thick shag floor and went to the bedroom door. I knocked. “I’m awake,” I said.
“No shit?” came the answer.
“Thanks for the sympathy.” But I actually appreciated the attendant’s nonchalance. I showered and dressed in my flannel shirt and new jeans with on-duty precision. That was more than I could say for the dining room staff—shirts untucked, shoes scuffed and muddied, symptoms of low discipline and morale. The staff was tired of this shit detail. I had been here too long.
I cut my pancakes with an antique silver knife on fine porcelain. They apparently weren’t worried that I’d use the knife on self or others. As usual, they served me too much breakfast, and, as usual, I ate too little—just enough to avoid the threat of forced feeding. I told myself I didn’t want to put on weight and lose my fighting edge.
But that’s the idea, to stop fighting, said the voice of the curse.
Never, kill them all, answered the dungeon voice that enjoyed the memory of bloodshed. I recognized too well the sound of that voice. I had heard it whisper from the subbasement of my home, the House of Morton. I had fought that Left-Hand voice my whole life. Had the curse weakened me enough to lose?
Caught between the argument of my mental aliens, I could barely think. A thump behind me. Two of the attendants were helping someone downstairs with their elaborately tattooed arms. The pale, thin young man wore a thin black tie—an LDS craftsman, no doubt. The Mormon was still breathing; I hadn’t yet killed in my sleep. But my unconscious night-terror assault had hit a target again.
Maybe they thought the massacre was my fault. Maybe they were worried that I’d gone the Left-Hand path of my ancestors, Roderick and Madeline and the rest. Maybe they feared the voice in my head. If this damage kept up, they might have to consider putting me down like a broken horse or a rabid dog.
If I went for the door or a window, they’d have trouble stopping me. But then the Gideons would find me. Those hard-assed special ops trackers probably patrolled the grounds, sniffing the air like bloodhounds, keeping outsiders out and me in. Was the one called Sakakawea here? She had hunted magi on every continent, including Antarctica.
And if I got past the Gideons, where would I go? The other Families, Abram Endicott at their head, had taken the House before. I could seek the Sanctuary and invoke the compact, but that wouldn’t stop their pursuit. Hell, first, I would have to get past the Sanctuary’s guardian, the Appalachian, and she was no fool; compact or no, she wouldn’t let me in.
That killed my already small appetite. I drifted to the study to read from the dusty Harvard Classics that filled several shelves, and to ignore the WWI poetry that some joker had stuck in there. It must be visiting hours. In an army dress blue uniform, my father blocked the doorway. “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, Dale. You’re looking thin.”
“Not very hungry,” I said. “You look … unchanged.”
“One of the few advantages of my condition.”
“Being dead as coffin shit?”
“Doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass if you start talking smart.”
“No, I’m sorry, son. I’m here to help.”
“Help?” That was new from this ghost. “OK. Can you move over? I’d rather not step through you.” I could touch ghosts, but they triggered an unpleasant sensation, like a combination of cold and wet. I carefully stepped into the study. “You want to help me, Dad? Tell me where I am.”
“I don’t know.” My father sighed, a hollow sound with no air in it. “You know the rules.” I knew: my father was like a recording that couldn’t really tell me anything new, only how things had been. He could help more with Morton family matters, but not much. A sad, rude, and true way to think of my father.
“Sorry, forgot,” I said. “Haven’t seen you for a while. Why did you wait until I was crazy to show up?”
“I’ve been around you a lot,” said Dad. “Why did you wait until now to see me?”
“I have your letters,” I said. “And Grandpa. They’re usually enough.”
“At home?” Dad asked.
A silence. My father couldn’t come home. For reasons he wouldn’t discuss, Dad had chosen burial at Arlington instead of the family mausoleum. Grandpa wouldn’t let his ghost past the door.
My keepers could listen to my side of the conversation, so I couldn’t ask him my real question: what did he know about Sphinx, the woman who had sent me on my last mission, and probably set me up?
Instead, I asked, “Did the other Mortons end up like this?”
“Left-Hand? No son of mine is going down Roderick’s road.”
“They say you did,” I said. “Before the end.”
“They? Don’t speak ill of the dead, son. It makes us uppity.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Before the end, I was here. But I didn’t know where I was then, so I can’t help you now.”
“You went nuts?”
“They seemed to think so.” Dad shimmered like a heat mirage. “Look, between the happy memories and the craft security, I’m a little tired. We’ll talk later. In the meantime, think about how to lie low—”
“Like you, Dad?”
“—and would you say hi to your mother for me?”
“She’s remarried, Dad, I don’t think—”
“What?” My father shook his head in confusion. “Oh, right. Never mind.” And he was gone.
Not for the first time, I wondered about my mother.
In one of the upstairs rooms, Endicott reported in to Hutchinson. She looked as beat up as he felt from their constant containment of Morton’s outbursts. Yes, practitioners were valuable, and ones with Morton’s power were rarer still, but they had given Morton more energy for his recovery than any other spiritual soldier had ever received. Time to ease Hutch toward the inevitable conclusion.
“Ma’am,” said Endicott, “he still isn’t under control. The general is concerned.”
“We’re all concerned, Major,” said Hutchinson. Her voice held steady with command, but her eyes were slits of fatigue.
“Five weeks,” said Endicott, “and we still don’t know if he can recover, or if he’s been permanently compromised.”
Hutchinson’s sharp jaw tensed, relaxed, tensed again. “Time to see what he’ll do under pressure. We’re bringing a new shrink into the craft secret. Let’s give him to Morton.”
They took me in the middle of the night, out of the first dreamless sleep I’d had in months. They must have used drugs or craft so I wouldn’t unconsciously hurt my awakeners. They took me upstairs to what looked like a dentist office, if one’s dentist had the equipment for waterboarding and electroshock. Interrogation? They must think I’d gone Left-Hand. But that didn’t make sense: if they thought I had gone that rotten, they should kill me thoroughly now. And if they were serious about torture before murder, surely they’d use craft.
The goons sat me firmly down in the chair and strapped me in, then left the room. A man in a doctor’s white jacket and oversized mustache turned on an old tape recorder. “I want to hear about the mission, Dale.”
“You already know about the mission.”
“I need the truth.”
Those in the know about craft were a small community. I hadn’t seen this doctor before. “Are you cleared to hear about what I do?”
“That’s not for you to decide. The sooner you cooperate, the sooner you can leave here.”
I studied the doctor, and found him wanting. His sins were trivial, and he had no craft. “I’m not going to tell you anything.”
“Then I’m authorized to use harsh techniques.”
“You’re going to torture me?” I laughed. I spoke towards the recording equipment and those listening outside. “You get all that? He’s trying to push me around. If you don’t want him to know, you’d better stop this right now.” Then I turned to the doctor, all humor gone. “OK. Joke’s on you, pal.”
“Tell me about the mission, Dale,” said the doctor.
“No, let’s start at the beginning. My ancestor, Thomas Morton, was the first great American craftsman.”
“What did he make?” asked the doctor.
“I’m getting to that. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, and found that, in this new land, he had strange new powers. He could alter the weather. He could see the sins of men, and could influence their will. He could fight and kill with preternatural efficiency.”
“Who, um, told you these stories?”
“My father,” I said.
“Your father? My records say that—”
“Thomas Morton,” I continued, “tried to form a new society of native and European. He took several Indian wives, and they taught each other much magic, or what we call craft. But the Puritans stopped him, shipped him back to England—twice.”
“I see,” said the doctor. “So, Puritans versus your polygamous ancestor. Do you feel the Puritans are against you, Dale?”
“Oh they are, they are. But, for the sake of the nation, we’ve come to a modus vivendi.” I too much enjoyed skewing my story to this prick’s psychological worldview, but I’d get around to the punch line soon. “So, Morton passed his abilities to his part-native descendants.”
“And you’re one of these magical descendants?”
“That’s right,” I said. “I’m a craftsman.”
“Dale, if you have these abilities—”
“If, doctor? Are you calling me a liar?” More psycho role play. So obvious.
“What, you say some backwards Latin mumbo jumbo…”
“Shut up,” I said. Compulsion wasn’t my usual strength, but this mundane doctor was easy.
The doctor’s mouth flapped, but nothing came out. He reached for his throat, covered his lips, a dumb show of muteness.
“No, not Latin,” I said. “Despite the papist tendencies of my Cavalier ancestor, we Mortons have never seen the charm of Latin. Magic is sensitive work, and it’s best to mean exactly what you say. That means Webster’s English. Which you seem to be lacking. Speak.”
“Hypnosis.” The first word exploded from the doctor’s mouth. “I’m a suggestible subject. But that’s not magic.”
“Maybe not.” Good. Now for the scarlet-letter treatment. “Neither were your experiments on students, you fuck. Your late-night sexual exploration seminars with undergrads, did they get college credit for those? And that one patient—you let her snuff herself. Very convenient. All good practice for the harsh techniques.”
The doctor stood up, enraged and in my face. “Bullshit. You’re insane. You’ve got no powers.” He pulled a hypodermic off a tray, and seemed to calm. “Let’s get serious. You’ll tell me about the mission now.”
Now it was my turn for anger. “Sit.” The doctor sat down hard on the floor, the hypo clacked at his side. “Drugs and craft don’t mix. You’re almost right about my powers. I’ve been crippled. My last target was a sorcerer. He allowed me to kill him, then gave his postmortem craft unusual power through the blood sacrifice that he caused my own men to perform. He’s cursed me, and it’s tearing me apart. And that’s what put me here, in this improvised rubber house for a shell-shocked craftsman. Not just psychological guilt, but blood craft. Do you understand now, you fucking joke?”
The doctor looked at me in amazement. “Um, um…”
The chair rattled beneath me. I felt like lightning in a bottle. Murder him, insisted the dungeon voice, for starters. The curse retorted, Then kill yourself, for starters.
My superiors were testing me, and failure meant death. I found my center, and played to the unseen gallery again. “I was on that mission for a reason. Farsight should have seen this setup. Somebody wants me out of the game.”
Now, to end on a light, good ol’ Dale Morton note. “I think we’re done for the day, don’t you? Please help me undo these straps. Outstanding.” I rubbed my wrists. I had tensed against the restraints more than I’d realized. I stood up. “They’re gonna explain everything later, I expect, but you might as well hear it from me. Even if I hadn’t stopped you, they were never ever gonna allow you to administer serious psychoactives or pain. You know why that is, doctor?”
The doctor shook his head. I said, “Please speak for the microphone, doctor.”
“Because my family scares the shit out of them.” I laughed. “I don’t blame ’em. We once produced pure evil, and they’re terrified we’ll do it again. But we’re useful. So they’ll never really hurt me, unless they mean to kill me.” I turned to go, but my disgust at this American’s willingness to torture harmonized with the darkness inside me, and I needed to give voice to both.
“Doctor,” I said.
“Don’t let me see your fucking face again. Ever.”
“Satisfied?” asked Hutch, shutting off the tape.
“He sounds more than a little paranoid,” said Endicott.
Hutch raised her brows ironically, but Endicott refused to take the bait. “He still wants to quit,” he said.
“Horse shit,” said Hutch. “He’ll change his mind.”
Endicott nodded, but thought, And when he leaves, he’ll be the general’s problem, and you won’t be able to protect him anymore.
The next day, I went back to the old schedule. Night terrors, breakfast, my father in the study. Today, Dad smiled sadly. “Looks like you’ve got a visitor coming. I’ll get out of the way.”
A familiar man stood at attention in the study’s doorway. Sergeant Zee. “Hello, sir. I hope you don’t mind my stopping by.”
I must have gaped. “Sir?” repeated Zee.
I pulled myself together. “No Sergeant, I don’t mind at all.” I managed a smile. “Please, at ease. Have a seat. I’m not exactly on duty here.”
“Thank you, sir.” Zee sat on the edge of an overstuffed chair, somehow preserving his military posture. I sat on the small sofa.
“So, they let you out of quarantine,” I said.
“Yes, sir,” said Zee. “It was a difficult month.”
“Yeah, I understand. You’ve probably noticed my accommodations.” I patted the sofa. “The padding is nicer, but it’s a cell all the same. And not much company.”
“Yes, sir,” said Zee. “That’s part of why I wanted to see you.”
“I appreciate that, Zee. I’m glad to see you. But how did you know?”
“Well, sir, as I tried to tell you, I’d served on a few missions like yours,” said Zee. “They gave me the order to kill you, rather than let you be captured.”
“Yes, I guessed that. Still, to get permission to come here…”
Zee said, “I didn’t need permission, sir.”
I felt a cold hand reaching for my heart. “How’s that?” A stupid question.
“I’m dead, sir,” said Zee. “I’m sorry, I thought your father would have mentioned it.”
“No,” I croaked. “Must have slipped his mind.” Shit. I easily missed the ghostly about ghosts. I had once spent a whole evening with a friend at a bar before finding out the next day that he had been dead for weeks. “Your death,” I said. “Something to do with our mission?”
“Yes. I remembered it all, over and over again.”
“You killed yourself,” I said.
“Seemed to make sense at the time. I left a note. ‘I’m sorry.’ That was it. I left behind my wife and kids.” Zee’s image flickered as his calm lapsed. “Seemed to make sense at the time.”
“What’s happened to the others?”
“They’re more or less OK. They don’t remember much. They’ve been discharged or placed on light duty. They don’t quite understand why, but their survival instincts told them not to fight it too hard. So why are you fighting it, sir?”
“I tried to resign,” I said. “They won’t let me go.”
The ghost considered. “Then think about this, sir. Was it worth it? Your target was protecting a little shit town that no one cared about—not us or them. He just wanted us to stay away. You show up, and it makes him crazy, makes him sacrifice them all, just to stop you.”
“I think about it all the time.”
“Well, think about this too. I have my last orders. I’m not going to let you feel any better until you’ve stopped, sir.”
“You’d serve a terrorist sorcerer?”
“Oh no, sir. I’ve been watching you, and listening. It’s you who’s going over to the enemy.” Zee grinned, face full of rage and malice. “This is for me.”
I felt it all over again, the man, the woman, the dog, the child, the deaths of a whole town. The scream came to my throat, but I wouldn’t let it out.
Instead, I walked through Zee and went to the doctor on duty. In the measured tones of desperate need, I said, “I need to speak with Colonel Hutchinson.”
“Isn’t it time you got over what happened?” asked Hutchinson.
The steady pulse of death, death, death, still beat in the veins of my skull. “This isn’t about the mission, ma’am. It’s about me needing to resign. This treatment you’ve arranged isn’t working.”
“What about the night terrors?” asked Hutchinson. “You’ve … been causing some difficulties in your sleep. We can’t have that on the outside.”
“I know, ma’am. I have reason to believe my sleep problems will cease to hurt others once I’ve left the military. And if they don’t, the Family House should contain them.”
Hutchinson shook her head. “This is something the target did to you, isn’t it? Why don’t you fight it?”
“If it were just a curse, a craft time bomb, I would, ma’am,” I said. “But it’s beyond that now. When the massacre happened, something in me … wasn’t upset.”
For the first time in my presence, Hutch’s eyes betrayed surprise. “The Left-Hand Mortons are dead and gone,” she whispered.
“And they’re going to stay that way,” I said.
Hutchinson said, “No craft soldier has ever quit in time of war.”
“But what about the Right side of your family? The Morton legacy.”
“What legacy? How are you going to get your baby Mortons if I’m too bugged out to take a girl on a date?”
Hutchinson sighed. “Do we really need more Mortons?” She stopped my objection with a wave. “Our superiors agree that we do. And that’s the one reason we’re agreeing to this.” She opened her briefcase. “We have a special discharge for craft soldiers.”
I read the discharge papers.
Section 2. Conditions. 1.1 After the Discharge Date, any action violating natural laws will constitute an act of treason against the United States.
“This says I can’t do craft. Ever.”
Hutchinson nodded. “Same rule for any craftsperson not in government service, only more so. No parlor tricks at a kid’s birthday, no nice weather to watch the baseball game. Nada.”
“And I can’t even talk to another craftsperson?”
“Call it paranoid,” said Hutchinson, “but wherever two or more witches or wizards are gathered without his say-so, Uncle Sam’s balls go cold.”
“If I don’t sign?” I asked.
“You can’t leave,” said Hutchinson.
“Don’t make me answer that question,” said Hutchinson. “You know how this administration feels about craft work. National security only. We won’t risk the general public knowing this. Everything else is Ex-22.” Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
I signed. The colonel nodded. “Good. That was for them. Now I want your personal word on it.”
“I want you to swear by the craft.”
“What if I can’t control it?”
“You come back here until you can. Look, don’t get all Sunday-school questions about this. Take the prohibition seriously, and we’ll all be fine. Push things, and we’ll push back.”
The deal was bullshit—a Morton could no more completely stop practicing craft than completely stop breathing. But I could swear to keep it to a low background, ambient kind of thing. That oath would have real power. My honor was more than an abstraction, it was tied into my being and my practice of the craft. But what about my family’s duty?
I had no choice. “I swear to you by the craft and my ancestors not to willfully practice magic anymore.”
That night, as I lay down to a tentative sleep, Sergeant Zee came to me. “Thank you.”
“Fuck off,” I said. I had found my own solution to the competing voices: a separate war.
I thought of what I couldn’t tell Hutchinson, but what I had tried to tell them all in the interrogation. I was on that mission for a reason. In magic, there were few accidents. Someone, probably Sphinx, had set me up. There was a mole in the craft, and oath or no, I would kill the traitorous sorcerer. It was what I did best.
Copyright © 2014 by Tom Doyle
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