written by Sapphire
The Electro City Spring Festival took place every other year in the first week of May. For that occasion hundreds of artists flocked to the city, presenting there art everywhere - whether it be paintings hung at fences outside or in one of the many art galleries, sculptures displayed wherever there was space available, theater performance indoors or out on the street, or music, instrumental or vocal or both. Wherever somebody went there was some kind of entertainment.
During the days the streets were busy and whoever put out a hat, had a good chance of filling it in a short amount of time. In the evenings the streets were simply packed, and getting from one place to another took three times as long as normal. Not that anybody really minded. There was just so much to see.
On the square at the corner of 32nd and Anderson, a light haired street magician entertained a reasonable crowd. In short order, he produced coins or paper flowers out of thin air, 'liberated' a wrist watch and a purse from an unsuspected victim - only to return it, of course, with a smile and bow - and basically charmed the socks of anybody watching.
Among those people was a young couple, both with red hair, both with rollerblades on their feet. While the young woman watched with certain awe, the young man had an air about him as if he has seen things like this a million times already.
As a matter of fact, he had.
Cosmo - no last name - was after all assistant of one of the world's most famous magicians. Since he'd been thirteen, barely a day had passed, when he hadn't watched his friend and mentor Ace Cooper work on one trick or another. About that time, he also had started to design tricks for Ace, first improving the existing ones with his own kind of wizardry - that of the computer programming kind - and later adding his very own ideas to the show.
Of course, Ace was a special case. Officially, all of those tricks he performed on the stage of the Electro City Ring Theater were just illusions, created by technology, knowledge of human nature, dexterity and plain skill. However, Ace could - and did - wield real Magic. Magic with a capital 'M'. It was a skill he had been born with, and through long years of training he had mastered it to a level, where almost nothing could really faze him anymore. He used his power to fight crime and protect the people of Electro City wherever he could.
Cosmo had known about this for a long time. However, he never had thought he possessed any of those powers himself - not that he would have wanted them to begin with. But he had them, and accepting it had been a lengthily and difficult process. At seventeen nobody wanted to be different. But now, just over two years later, he finally had come to terms with his powers, training them daily alongside Ace. He wasn't all that powerful yet, managing only a few spells well, and a few others marginally. The best thing, in his opinion, was that along the line, he had formed an emphatic link with Ace. It enabled him to sense the more powerful emotions of the magician at any given time, unless Ace decided to shield from him. For Cosmo's peace of mind, the other man seldom felt the need to do so.
At Cosmo's side, Ulene laughed out loud at a comment the street magician had made. Cosmo grinned as well. The guy certainly wasn't in the same league as Ace, but what he wasn't too bad and he had a lot of humor.
The magician winked at Ulene, beaconing her to come closer. Ulene cast a questioning glance at Cosmo, on which the young man nodded. He was curious what the man would be doing next.
Suddenly, his head shot up, and he looked around searching, the magician and Ulene forgotten. Something ... there was something. Something to do with Magic. Close-by. He turned around, scanning the crowd around him. Though not very tall himself, the blades gave him another few inches in height, which he now use to their full advantage.
One of Cosmo's skills as a magic user was that he could detect others with the same talent, as long as the other mage user was close enough. His range was about one hundred feet, give or take a few feet. Ace was the only exception he was aware of, but only because he didn't really need the mage sense to detect him, as he was pretty much aware where and how his friends was, thanks to the link they shared.
Each time he felt another mage, it was a bit different - everyone feeling or rather 'tasting', for lack of a better word, differently. Ace's magic felt warm, like an open fire on a cold winter day. Kate Morrigan, an old friend of Ace, tasted cooler, though not uncomfortably so, like fall somehow. She was a Nature Mage. And then there was this mysterious woman Kris they had encountered a while back. She had felt … strange. Very strange.
This now, however, this didn't taste like a Nature Mage, or a Chaos Mage for that matter (thank God, one had been enough). There was a cold flavor to it, but not like Kate. It felt almost mechanical. But only almost. There was no doubt in Cosmo that the source of this 'Disturbance in the Force' as he liked to call it, came from a human mind. A very controlled mind maybe, but still human.
Concentrating, he tried to learn more. By directing his senses, he could locate the basic vector the feeling came from. Looking in that direction he couldn't find anything out of the ordinary. In the corner of the square he was looking at, a group of people had gathered to listen to a trio of Celtic musicians. A couple of cars parked at the curb of the street. Behind that, the sun reflected of the glass front of a tall office building.
Cosmo looked back at Ulene, but she was busy as the street magician pretended to hypnotize her, to the amusement of the people around them. Well, at least she wouldn't miss him right now and he would be back before she's noticed he was gone.
Slowly, he eased back out of the crowd. Free of the people, he scanned the area again. Wherever the other magic user was, he was close to those musicians. Lazily, he bladed closer, just like any ordinary guy only interested in the music. There was no telling if the other magician could sense him or not, but he didn't want to take any risks. With a thought he put up a minor level shield, one intended to hide himself without loosing his ability to sense the other one in turn.
After a moment, he reached the people around the Celtic trio. The three were playing a lively piece and the people clapped their hands with the beat.
It was close now. Very close.
One of the cars caught his attention. It was a dark red van, of the type one would buy if there were more than two kids in a family. Only, normally, those didn't come with tinted windows. Cosmo noted that it had an out-of-state license plate.
There...there was his source.
Maybe he should call Ace, before he did anything else. Something in this whole situation smelled funny, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was that made him feel so itchy. He raised his wrist com, but then lowered it again. He should have something more solid before he alarmed Ace. After all, all this might just be a coincidence, a magic user just travelling through. Maybe the strange magician was totally harmless.
Just one look. Maybe he could see something, if he got closer.
Casually, he bladed along the curb, passing the other cars. He slowed when he got by the red van, stroking his hair back, pretending he was only admiring himself in the reflective surface of the windows, while at the same time he tried to look inside.
For a moment, he saw two impossibly large eyes watching him out of a face of a kid, who looked no more than twelve years old. The eyes were fixed on him, following him as he went past.
He never noticed the man stepping out from behind the van, hiding a hypodermic in one hand. Only when the needle pricked his skin at his neck he wheeled around.
But then it was too late.
The drugs worked very quick and efficiently. Cosmo's world turned first red than black, and then this was gone too.
Ulene laughed with the crowd, as the street magician dismissed her with a bow. After dropping a bill in his upside down top hat, she made her way back into the audience, searching for Cosmo where she had left him.
Strangely enough, there was no sign of her boyfriend. She furrowed her brow, as her eyes scanned the crowd. No mop of red hair anywhere in sight.
Where did he go?
Mentally she shrugged, not really worried, yet. Maybe he was just answering the call of nature.
Slowly blading across the wide square, she looked where Cosmo possibly could be. At one side there were a couple of concession stands. The place she expected Cosmo to be was hidden away at their side.
She bought something to drink, then sat down to wait.
After five minutes she got bored.
After ten she got angry.
After fifteen minutes she got really worried.
Finding a communication unit, she dialed Cosmo's number.
"The number you dialed is currently out of operation."
Shocked, she looked at the unit. This was not possible. Less than an hour ago, she had seen Cosmo make a call from his wrist com. There was no reason for him to switch it off. At least no reason she could think of.
Gnawing her lower lip, she thought. Off hand, she could think of one possibility how Cosmo could have vanished without so much as a trace, and she didn't like it one bit. And even if she was right, why on Earth would anybody want to kidnap Cosmo?
"Zina. Up!" Ace commanded, patting the examination table with one hand.
The huge panther murped, looking at her master unhappily. Ace repeated the gesture, furrowing his brows. Finally, the cat relented, gathered her legs underneath herself and leaped onto the table.
"Well done, girl!" Ace reached out to the big cat, scratching her behind one ear. Zina's eyes closed to slits and with a rumbling purr she settled down.
"It's all right, Zina. It's only your shots. This won't hurt."
"I always thought that's my line, Mr. Cooper."
Ace looked up, as the familiar form of the veterinarian entered the room. Dr. Rebecca Carlisle had been Zina's vet ever since Ace had moved to Electro City. Zina was a king panther, a rare and protected species, and as such very strict requirements had been placed on Ace in order for him to keep her. One of the those requirements was that she had to receive her annual vaccination shots. That was the reason he was here today.
"Hello, Zina," the vet greeted the panther, holding her hand out to sniff.
Zina took up her scent, then butted the hand, demanding to be petted. Dr. Carlisle obediently complied, and was rewarded by a purr coming from the depth of Zina's chest.
While she used one hand to pet Zina, she held the other one out to Ace.
"Hello, Mr. Cooper. How's it going?"
Ace smiled at her, and for a moment the two exchanged pleasantries, catching up on things. Ace had recently gotten a letter from Tenocha, the medicine man of the Mexican village where Ace had gotten Zina ten years ago. Zina's three cubs, grown up panthers by now, lived close by in the wild, having been adopted into another panther group. Whenever there was a sighting of them, Techona made sure to keep Ace informed. As the doctor who had diagnosed Zina's pregnancy at that time, Dr. Carlisle was naturally interested in their progress.
"So, girl," she returned her attention to the animal on the table. "Lets get to work."
Ace's com rang. He apologized and stepped aside, activating the unit.
It took a second for him to identify the voice on the other end.
"Ulene? What can I do for you?"
Ace was puzzled. He couldn't remember receiving a call from Cosmo's friend Ulene more than three times since they had met the first time. His heart missed a beat. Usually those calls had been because something had happened to Cosmo. Once again, he wasn't about to be disappointed. Not that he would have minded for a change.
"It's Cosmo. He's...he's vanished. We were together and then he was gone, and I don't know where he is now."
She sounded extremely worried. Ace suddenly didn't feel too well either. He knew Ulene wasn't the type to panic easily. If she called to tell him, Cosmo had vanished without a trace she had made certain to exhaust the normal ways of searching first.
"Where are you right now?"
"32nd and Anderson. Cosmo and I were watching some performers, and when I turned around he was gone. I asked everywhere, but nobody has seen him. He wouldn't simply go away without telling me anything. I'm worried."
So was Ace. In his mind, he made a quick calculation.
"Stay where you are, Ulene. I'll be there in ten minutes."
"Okay," she said, and hung up.
Ace turned around. Before he could say something, Dr. Carlisle just shooed him away.
"You go wherever you have to go. I'll take care of Zina." He patted Zina's head, and the black cat gave her version of a meow, her golden eyes fixed on her owner.
Ace hesitated only a fraction of a second.
"Thank you. I call you, as soon as I know when I can pick her up."
The last part was said already halfway through the door.
Ace reached his destination in a little over five minutes, breaking several speeding laws on his way. While driving, he contacted Angel, asking the AI to locate Cosmo via his wrist com. When the computer informed him that she wasn't able to make a connection, Ace's concern deepened.
He parked the Magic Racer close to the curb and leaped out. His feet barely had touched the ground, when he saw Cosmo's red-haired friend Ulene blading towards him.
She skidded to a stop in front of him.
"Any news?" he asked.
She shook her head, her red locks flying. "Nobody has seen anything. He just vanished. I...I think somebody took him."
Somebody took him...
Why on Earth would somebody *take* Cosmo?
With a bang, Ace realized that he had an answer to that question. Actually, he had several answers.
To begin with, there was always the possibility that someone was after money. Ace was rich, and Cosmo, being his partner since last year, wasn't exactly poor himself. Also, it was well known that he cared about Cosmo. Though it wasn't widespread knowledge, he had once already paid money for Cosmo's freedom - and without a second thought he would be willing to do so again.
But that was only the easiest, most harmless answer. Ace, and by default, Cosmo had quite a few enemies. Blackjack, Faceless, Marylyn Conrad, Mitch Wisnewski, Brian Thomas. Just to name a few. There were enough people - too many people - who wouldn't hesitate to get to him by using Cosmo. Not that half of them wouldn't mind killing Cosmo just for the fun of it, or because it had actually been Cosmo who had spoiled one of their plans in the past.
Yes, the possibility that somebody had kidnapped Cosmo wasn't something he could simply ignore.
Not that it made matters any easier.
No, he had to consider something else first. Just because he thought of a bad thing first, didn't mean that this bad thing really had taken place. There could be another reason, a totally harmless reason. Maybe Cosmo had met somebody and totally forgot the time talking to him. Or something else had caught his attention and he was following up on that.
Only, Cosmo would have told Ulene where he was going. The young man had grown up finally, taking his responsibilities always seriously. These lessons had been hard learned, but they had been learned well.
"Okay, tell me exactly what you two have done before he vanished," he urged Ulene.
While Ulene told him what they'd been up to, he searched the square with his eyes. There were a lot of people milling around, minding their own business, eating or drinking at the various places that offered food, watching the performers scattered all over the place. The sun was shining, and it was obvious that most people were enjoying themselves.
But no Cosmo in sight.
The street magician Ulene had talked about, was showing a levitation number right now, a music trio at one corner was taking a break, and farther of, a mime pretended to be a silver statue, not moving.
Except, no Cosmo.
"Okay," he said, after Ulene was finished. "Let's try it again. You ask everybody on this side, and I take the other. We meet over there. Somebody *must* have seen something."
Fifteen minutes later there was still no progress. Nobody here had noticed anything unusual. Of course, most people who where here now, hadn't been there at the time Cosmo had vanished. The festival was all over the town, and the people moved from one square to the next, never staying very long in one place. Ace had spoken to the Celtic trio and some of the people at the food stalls, but they had been working at the time when Cosmo had disappeared and hadn't paid much attention to what happened around them.
Ace wished he could sense Cosmo through their link, the same way Cosmo could sense him and his emotions any given time. At least this way he would know that Cosmo was safe. Sadly, the link was pretty much a one way street.
After he met again with Ulene - she hadn't learned anything either - he weighed his options.
Though there was no substantiating evidence that something harmful had happened to Cosmo, Ace knew in his guts that Cosmo wouldn't have vanished like this volunteeringly.
If there only was a way to find out what happened? Once again, he scanned the area, hoping to see something which could be of any help, when his eyes fell on a small, square box, placed high above the ground on one of the buildings. It took him a moment to realize what this box actually was, but when it finally clicked, he immediately sprang into action.
He grabbed Ulene at the arm, forgetting for one moment his normally forever present politeness. Pointing upwards, he showed the young woman what he had found.
For a moment, Ulene looked up puzzled, but than she realized as well, what Ace had found. Her face lit up.
"We need a computer and a network connection," she stated, starting to look around for a public terminal.
"I have something much better." Ace smiled grimly, as he pulled her towards the Magic Racer.
Ten minutes later they entered the heart of the Magic Express, Angel's control room. Though Ulene had been here once before, she still looked around with open curiosity. The air almost hummed with the vast computer power present, the walls and the console in the center of the room overloaded with top end hardware. A blue multi-facetted hologram hovered in the air close to the entrance, following Ace as he made his way to the console.
"Angel?" Ace called the Artificial Intelligence, who was as much his brain child as it was Cosmo's.
"I've have accessed the network you asked for, Ace," the computer's voice replied.
The screens all around lit up, giving an overview of the town. Red dots appeared everywhere, marking the places where similar boxes like the one Ace had spotted on the square were to be found. They were actually cameras, placed all over town by the police for observation. Normally, civilians were not supposed to be able to access those cameras. But people normally didn't have help like Angel.
With a wide gesture, Ace invited Ulene to take the chair. Though he was no slough in the computer department, he knew that Ulene's skill surpassed his by far. Only last week, Cosmo had told him that the young woman had plans to open her own business as soon as she had finished college, designing computer programs for the SFX industry.
For a moment Ulene looked at Ace, almost as if she wanted to make certain that Ace was serious that she could work with Angel. At his smile and nod, something like glee showed up in her eyes, before she turned around and attacked the keyboard.
In no time, she had singled out the one dot which represented the camera at Anderson square. With a flourish of keystrokes, Ulene searched the memory core of the camera, pulling the data it had recorded.
"It will be tight," she explained absently, while she decoded the information. "These cameras don't record on tape, like a normal camera, but use memory cores instead. The memory last for forty-five minutes, then the recording starts again from the beginning. Cosmo vanished over an hour ago, so we are already work with data which has been overwritten once. Luckily, overwriting doesn't mean the information is completely gone, only buried under the newer data. The trick is getting to it."
On the screens, the data from the camera got displayed. People milled around, minding their business, as the camera's focus moved from one side of the square to the other. After a minute's work from Ulene, the sharp picture got replaced by one with a much worse resolution, where the people were only vague black and white shapes. Then, suddenly, the picture sharpened.
"There!" Ace called out, when he recognized a familiar mop of hair moving through the crowd.
The picture froze, then slowly wound back. Then it freeze framed.
"That's us at this street magician," she explained.
From his bird eye's view, Ace saw two heads, close to each other. The video started to roll forward again.
"Here I go to the guy."
Cosmo's head lingered for a moment, then he moved away, blading slowly across the square. He stopped at the other corner where the music group was playing, another cluster of people surrounding them. A minute later, he freed himself from that group again, moving along the parked cars.
The camera focused for a moment on the lean frame, then started to move back toward the center of the square.
Moments before Cosmo got out of the picture, Ace and Ulene could see how somebody stepped around a car, putting something to Cosmo's neck. Helplessly, they could only watch, as Cosmo crumpled to the ground, only to be pulled into the car, which drove off a second later.
* * *
Most people took it for granted that they had freedom of movement, not hindered by restrains or bonds of any kind.
Normally, Cosmo could be counted among those people, but when he woke up with the grandmother of all headaches pounding away behind his temples, he found that freedom was far from what he was enjoying at the moment. Rather to the opposite. He was sitting in a leather chair, which bore a unwelcome similarity to a dentist's chair. His arms were fixed to the armrests with wide leather straps, his legs bound in similar fashion to the leg rest. A wide leather strap over his chest held him back, restricting his over all freedom to movement of the head and the feet. A needle stuck in the vein on the back of his right hand didn't contribute to his over all feeling of security. A line led away from the needle to someplace behind Cosmo, and no amount of effort on his part enabled it twist far enough to where it ended. Something was wrapped around his head, some kind of band, pressing against his temples and forehead, but Cosmo could not determine what the purpose of it was.
Another disconcerting thing was that somebody had removed his clothing, and he was now dressed in a pair of gray slacks and a white T-shirt.
All in all, a pretty bad situation.
"Hey!" he called out, moments before he realized that drawing attention to the fact that he was awake now might not be such a good idea.
But there was no reaction.
He looked around, trying to get a feeling for the place. He couldn't say he liked it very much, and a gnawing fear made his stomach cramp, though he tried hard not to show it.
To distract himself, he looked further around. Ahead a block of five by five TV screens took up most of one wall. They were all switched off, their black, glassy surface reflecting the cold neon light on the ceiling and the chair Cosmo was sitting in. Some kind of dark curtain hid the area behind the chair. The walls to the left and right were bare, nothing breaking their uniform whiteness.
What kind of weird setup was this anyway?
Where the heck was he?
And how had he come to be here?
Think, Cosmo, he encouraged himself. There had to be some clues.
Okay, what had happened?
Memory came to him reluctantly, but slowly he managed to put the pieces together.
Somebody had set a trap for him - and they had used magic as bait! That little girl in the car had somehow projected magic, and he had followed it like a bee followed the scent of honey. Which meant one very disconcerting thing: somebody here knew he had magic.
Big fucking problem.
Cosmo went cold, the stomach cramp changing into an icy lump.
Ace and he himself always had been very careful to conceal his magic from anybody unsuspecting. They didn't need somebody thinking of him as a freak - or someone to be afraid of. Because if somebody feared him, it was possible that that somebody would take steps to make sure he couldn't hurt him. Not that he ever would do such a thing, but that hypothetical person didn't know that.
Of course, he knew that he was no freak - though accepting it had taken him some time. He hadn't wanted the magic in the beginning, had not wanted to be different. It had taken him a while to realize that just because he could do some things other people couldn't, had not changed who he was. Magic was a skill, like the ability to hold a tone while singing, or paint a picture. What he did with it, depended solely on him, on what he decided to do with it. Like Ace. He never hurt anybody with his magic, only helped those people who needed help.
Besides, now that he had the magic, there was no easy way to get rid of it - easy was the operating word here, as their encounter with Brian Thomas had shown not too long ago. Not that he wanted to live without his magic any longer. Having the magic meant he always could feel the living warmth that represented Ace to him, which was so important to him.
Almost automatically, he looked into his link, searching for Ace. And breathed a relieved sigh when he could feel it, the warmth, albeit dimmed, as if there was a great distance between them.
Damn, where the heck had he been taken?
Cosmo had no idea how great his range really was. Normally, he never had any problems feeling Ace, no matter how far they'd been apart. Even after Ace had gone to heal at Kate's place after BlackJack's little gift had been turned him temporarily into an evil version of himself, Cosmo had been able to sense Ace's presence. The almost one hundred miles between them had been only a mild damper. Only if Ace put up a full shield, he was able to keep him out, and the magician never did that if he could help it.
Now, Ace's presence was weaker, muffled somehow. This either meant he was very, very far away, or somebody had found a way to damp his abilities.
Cosmo couldn't decide which on of those two options he liked less.
So far, he had thought that only a handful of people knew of his magic, and he trusted all of them to keep his secret. Ace, of course, as he had been the first one to see it, and now was teaching him how to control his abilities. Vega, who also knew about Ace's magic, and had guessed pretty early on that Cosmo might lean into that direction as well. Little got by the sharp eyes of the cop.
Then there was Kate, who had helped them to unravel the mystery of the bond he and Ace shared. Mona they'd told after the mess with BlackJack's bracelet, thinking it to be only fair to let her know. And finally, Ulene. He cared very deeply about Ulene, loved her, and he thought it was only fair that if there was to be a future for them together - which he sincerely hoped - that she knew about his abilities. He knew he could trust her to keep his secret.
Not his secret anymore, it seemed.
"Hey," he called out once more, unable to stand the oppressing silence any longer.
The low whir of an air conditioning unit was all the answer he got.
Once more he looked around, hoping to see something to give him a clue what this was all about.
He closed his eyes, starting to look with other senses than the ones used by most people.
And got quite a surprise.
There was magic energy all around him, only he had been too preoccupied to notice it. There were at least five distinct sources, two at the same floor, two below him, one a level or so above him. The one above belonged to the girl he had sensed in Electro City, the sharp, cold, almost artificial feel very distinct.
What was this place?
Did somebody here collect magic users like butterflies?
Now *that* was an uncomfortable thought.
One of the screens in front of him lit up, interrupting Cosmo's brooding thoughts, but it showed only the white/gray pattern of static. Then another screen lit up, then the rest of them. A wall of static.
Like one, they all went blank again. Then a white dot appeared on the screen in the lower left corner, moving to the right, jumping screens in the process. When the dot had reached the last screen to the right, it moved up, then to the left again, then down. It made its round twice, until it was joined by an identical dot, which followed it like two rats chasing each other in a cage.
Somehow curious, Cosmo's eyes followed the track of the dots. Without really being aware of it at first, he relaxed, his breathing getting deeper.
Two more dots appeared, moving counterclockwise to the first two dots. One screen lit up in blue, then another in red, and in green, flashing in all colors of the rainbow.
Cosmo jerked back to full awareness, when he realized what they were doing to him.
Those bastards were trying to hypnotize him.
Adrenaline rushed through his body, as he thrashed against his bonds.
He'd be damned if he would let himself be hypnotized just like that.
"Hey, you bastards, let me go!" he yelled.
As before, there was no reaction, and the show on the screens went on. Now the monochrome screens were replaced with pictures. Pictures of people he knew.
Ace. Vega. Mona. Ulene. BlackJack. Senator Dobbs.
People he knew.
Cosmo calmed down again, never noticing that the liquid in the infusion line had changed from a clear water like color to a yellowish brown.
He also never noticed that every time Ulene or Ace showed up, he smiled.
But others noticed.
"What do you think of our newest candidate?
The blond man in his late twenties, wearing a white lab coat, crossed his arms over his chest.
"I still think, he's too old," he said, watching Cosmo on a screen, which was placed in one corner of the observation room.
Beside the screen, a bank of other monitoring devices displayed Cosmo's vital signs and his reactions to the program running. An unit underneath it controlled the drugs, which were administered to him in order to make him more recipient to the hypnotic program. For now they only needed information, how the candidate reacted to certain stimuli. Later, they would use this information in a different program.
"He's the most powerful candidate we've found so far. As soon as we can control him, his use to us will be tremendous, doctor."
The other man in the room was at least twenty years older. He wore an army uniform, which seemed to be two sizes too large. A cigarette hung from one corner of his mouth, and every other second he took a deep draft, lightening the tip red. Cold gray eyes studied the screen, glittering greedily in the artificial light.
"*If* you can control him, Colonel. The others have been much younger when they came here. You won't be able to control this one as easily as them."
The colonel shrugged indifferently. "It's only a matter of time. He won't be the first one I've taken apart and put back together the way I wanted him."
The blond man shook his head.
"There's something about him. I don't know. It won't be easy."
The older man brushed his concerns aside. "He's too powerful. I need him. I have to have him."
At this, the blond man wisely decided to say nothing more.
* * *
Ace prowled the length of Vega's office, his long legs crossing the room in six or seven easy strides. Derek Vega, sitting behind his desk, watched him seemingly calm. But inside he was as concerned as Ace.
Cosmo has been missing for one day.
Twenty-four hours were neither he nor Ace had slept or rested.
With the help of Angel and Ulene, Ace had been able to track the car Cosmo had been kidnapped with to the Northern outskirts of the city, but there had been nothing further. The car had vanished seemingly into thin air. Considering there was five hundred square miles of dessert out there, this wasn't too hard.
As they had proof to show that Cosmo hadn't gone voluntarily - though how this proof had been obtained, he wisely had neglected to tell his superiors - Vega had luckily been into the position to launch a full search, bypassing the mandatory forty-eight hours waiting period. Even Friedrichs hadn't been able to do anything against it.
But their search had brought nothing.
Cosmo was gone.
There had been no ransom notes, no threads, nothing which had given them any information who could be behind the kidnapping.
All very, very frustrating.
Ace wished, he could talk to Mona, but the singer was on her promotion tour through Asia, and he didn’t want to bother her there.
For seemingly the ten-thousandth time, Ace reached the wall, whirled around and resumed his walking, his cape billowing around him angrily. He looked grim, his gray eyes surrounded by dark circles, this whole body tense.
Yes, Vega did worry about Cosmo - but he also worried about Ace.
He knew, how much the magician loved the kid - though kid wasn't the right word for Cosmo any longer, as he had grown very much from the scared and skinny boy who had broken into Ace's home so many years ago.
The two of them had been through so much, had survived so many obstacles anybody less would have perished. But each fight, each catastrophe they'd gone through had only cemented their bond even further.
And then there was their magic. It had taken Vega a long time to realize why Ace had taken in Cosmo six years ago. There never had seemed to be a good reason really. Yes, he had understood that Ace wanted to help, but he had not understood why *this* boy and why he had to take that boy so completely into his life. There would have been different ways, easier ways.
But when Cosmo showed his magic potential, Vega had realized that it never really had been Ace's decision. The magic had chosen for him. Not that this necessarily was a bad thing. After a rough start, Cosmo had fitted so well into Ace's life Vega had wondered, why he had been against it in the beginning.
The desk phone's ring interrupted his thoughts.
Ace froze, his eyes shooting toward the flashing light on the handle. He was a hair's breath away from snatching up the damn thing.
Before Ace could reach for the phone, Vega did the honors.
"This is police officer Randell. We think we've found the van."
"Any trace of the passengers?"
Vega thought he almost could see the woman shake her head.
"I'm sorry, sir. The car is empty."
Vega sighed. It had been too much to hope for anyway.
"Okay, give me the location and we'll be there as soon as possible."
After writing down the information, Vega hung up.
Ace was already halfway to the door, and Vega followed suit.
"We've found the van," he told his friend, though he figured that Ace knew that already.
"We'll take the Racer," Ace informed him with a cold, clipped voice, giving him no chance to protest.
Not that he planed to.
If Ace broke any traffic laws while driving North, Vega didn't mention it. After they'd left the outskirts of the City, Ace accelerated, pushing the powerful engine of the Racer to its limit.
After one or two tries to initiate a conversation, Vega gave up and settled back in the passenger seat of the car, holding tight to the seat belt. He could almost feel how tightly wound Ace was, the tension emitting from him in dark waves. Sooner or later, something would have to give, he only hoped he would be there to pick up the pieces.
It didn't take long to reach their goal. The second the canopy of the Racer opened, Ace was outside, and Vega had to scramble to follow him.
In the middle of nowhere, a couple of miles East from the interstate that connected Electro City with the next town further North, stood an abandoned dark red van. One door stood wide open, revealing the empty interior.
Ignoring the female officer, who was waiting next to the van, and her partner, Ace strode to it, looking inside. Vega knew that the younger man was hoping against hope that Cosmo was in there, maybe having been overlooked somehow by the other cops, or hidden under a seat where nobody had been looking until now.
When Ace's shoulders slumped and he turned around defeated, Vega knew that his hopes had not been full-filled.
"Ace," he said softly, as he placed a hand lightly on Ace's shoulder.
The magician shook off the hand and ignored him, as he walked over to the officer.
"What have you found?" he asked, his voice crisp.
Officer Randell glanced at Vega, looking for permission to speak to Ace. Vega had to give her high points for following procedure in the light of Ace's cold stare. It took somebody with nerves to stand up to those demanding eyes.
"A patrol helicopter spotted the van an hour ago, and immediately informed us. As we were closest, we drove over, checking it out. There was nobody here and we also couldn't find any tracks leading away from here."
No surprise there really, as hover cars left usually few tracks.
"Anything else," Vega now cut in.
"We've already did a preliminary search for fingerprints, but the car has been wiped clean. Must have been professionals, sir, there's nothing."
Randell looked at Ace, then she waved him to come closer, as she pointed inside the car.
"Most people, when they try to clean away their fingerprints, wipe the steering wheel, the door handles and maybe the dash board. However, there are many more places where fingerprints show. And in this car, all of them have been cleaned away. And not just wiped away with a tissue, but with a special solvent which works particular well with prints."
While she explained, she pointed out to Ace and Vega some of those places she mentioned.
"Also," she continued, "the license plates have been removed, the car registration number destroyed, the core memory of the computer dumped. The only way to destroy their traces further would have been to burn the car, but I guess, they didn't want to draw attention to his place. Smoke would have shown for miles around here."
"What about hairs or fabrics?" Vega threw in.
"Nothing so far, but maybe the specialists get more lucky. We've already arranged for the car to be transported back to HQ, but it will take a while before we learn something."
Again Vega placed this hand on Ace's shoulder, squeezing it to show that he was with him. The magician's face had turned into a mask, showing no emotions whatsoever.
Damn, where had the kidnappers taken Cosmo?
* * *
When Cosmo woke up the next time, he was in a different room. He had no idea what had happened and how he had gotten out of the other room, his last memories those of the lights on the TV screens. After that ... blank.
He found himself in a small room, rather a cell, with a simple bed, and not much else in it. At least he was out of that torture chair.
He levered himself into a sitting position, groaning when the room began to spin wildly around him. Bile rose, but he managed to keep it down.
Man, he could use a drink of water right now.
Actually, he needed to get out of here.
Taking slow, controlled breathes, he managed to settle his stomach a little, at least enough for him to sit up without the urge to puke. He swallowed a couple of times, waiting until enough spittle had collected each time in order to get rid of the vile taste in his mouth.
As he brushed over his hair with his hand, he noticed a dark spot where the needle had stuck in the back of his hand. It hurt a little, almost like a bee sting. Absently, he rubbed the spot, looking around as he did so.
These people definitely needed some interior decorators. The walls were bare, the only interruption the faint outlines of a door in one wall. With another groan, Cosmo rose, more or less stumbling towards the door, relieved when he could rest against its solid present. For a couple of minutes the room wavered before his eyes, until finally everything had settled back down again.
There was no handle on this side of the door, or a key hole, the gap between it and the rest of the wall barely wide enough to stick a piece of paper in between.
He could not say that he had liked his situation here very much from the beginning. But, the longer he stayed here, he liked it less and less.
Ace would be sick for worry.
His mind groped for the link, feeling along the line, which tied them together. He closed his eyes relieved, when he felt Ace, albeit far away. He slid down the wall, until he came to rest leaning against it.
Ace was still okay. Yes, he was worried, that much he could feel even from afar, but he was okay. As long as Ace was okay, he would be okay as well. He knew he could stand everything, as long as Ace was okay.
And in order for Ace to stay being okay, he had to get out of here - not that he wouldn't mind being as far away from here as possible himself.
He sighed, then rose again. This time the room stayed as it was, calm and steady, and his dizziness wasn't so bad anymore.
No time like the present. Whoever held him here, would be looking for him sooner or later, and it seemed to be a very good idea not to be here when they came.
He turned back towards the door, placing his hands against it. Taking a few more steadying breathes, he searched for his magic.
What he planned to do, would get him out of the room all right. However, he wished he had something up his sleeve that would draw not quite as much attention. Ace was the one who could walk through walls. He never had figured out how his friend did it. Normally, with his little bag of tricks, it wouldn't be too difficult for him to break out by jimmying the lock. However, his tools were back in his room at home, and the few items he carried with him normally, were with his clothing and who knew where they had ended up.
The shatter spell would do the job, he knew, but it would be pretty difficult for his captors to miss it when a door got broken into a million pieces.
The air around his hands began to fill with red and orange sparks, circling them in tight orbits, one or another of them flitting into the material of the door as if testing it, before they flew out again. Behind Cosmo's temples the pressure rose, as he readied the spell.
Once more he inhaled deeply, then, with a silent, guttural scream, he let the spell fly.
At the last moment, he ducked away, covering his head against the splitters, which flew through the room.
As always, when he worked a major spell, the reaction headache sat in immediately. The first time he had done any spell, which deserved that name, the pain had been so great it had knocked him out - the pain and the fact that all his magical channels had been burned open rather brutally. He had spent three days in a deep coma and only Ace had been able to pull him out of it.
Now he couldn't allow himself to be distracted by the pain. Pushing it into some distant corner of his mind to be taken care of later, he peeked around the corner into a long corridor leading past his cell.
There seemed to be nobody, but this wouldn't stay so much longer.
Treading on bare feet carefully through the debris, he turned right, deciding that one way was a good as the other. After the ground was clear enough to move faster without cutting his soles to pieces, he started into a light jog.
The corridor was about fifty yards long, before it intersected another, wider hallway. There were doors to the left and the right, but Cosmo ignored them. He had to get out of here, no time for sight seeing right now.
At the intersection he paused, listening. There were some metal doors in the center which looked like they belonged to an elevator.
He heard foot falls coming from the left hand corridor, so Cosmo decided to go straight ahead, skipping the elevator as being too exposed. Now he started to check the doors on one side, hoping to find some place to hide. Maybe he could hide long enough until they've lost interest in that area. If somebody looked inside the room, Cosmo could try to go invisible - though it wasn't really invisibility, more like telling their minds that he was not there. Cosmo wasn't too sure how it worked. The important part was, it did.
Instead of a room, however, he found a stairway.
He rushed in and up.
Seconds later, he heard the sound of trampling boots, which encouraged another spurt of speed. Taking two steps at a time, he reached the next floor's landings, when the door there flew open and two men in uniform burst into the stairway.
Cosmo vaulted over the banister, flitting past them. But then one reached out and hooked him around his ankle. Cosmo managed to get the other foot on the ground, which saved him from crashing down face first, but lost his balance still and fell, as the man got a better grip and wouldn't let go. The stair's edge connected painfully with his side.
"Hey!" Cosmo protested, trying to kick at the man with his free foot.
The man ignored it.
He pulled Cosmo closer to him, not minding that the steps bumped painfully against Cosmo's body. Cosmo twisted and turned, but this didn't work.
Then Cosmo Pushed.
The magic push was actually supposed to be a levitation spell, but somehow it never really had worked like that. But it worked perfectly for the purpose Cosmo needed it now.
The man flew away, colliding with a resounding crash against the opposite wall, sliding down unconscious. His partner looked at Cosmo as if he had grown another head.
Before he got the idea it might be his turn now to go after Cosmo, the young magician scrambled around, and up the stairs.
However, he didn't get far. As he turned onto the next flight of stairs, he came face to barrel with a gun. Not something Cosmo was very happy to see. Not ever, and especially not now.
He froze, his eyes flitting up and down the stairways. Above the man with the gun pointing unwavering at him, downstairs a couple of grim looking guys, now also armed. Not a good choice either way.
He was cornered.
Pressing his lips into a thin, angry line, he raised his hands.
* * *
This time it was the carpet in the Express's living room/library which bore the brunt of Ace's attempt to walk a ditch into it.
Vega was of half a mind of joining his friend in his effort, but then he was not sure if the room was large enough for both of them prowling like that. Not that he ever before had considered the room as particularly small.
Three hours ago they'd returned from the dessert. One hundred and eighty minutes. Each minute contained sixty seconds. Which made for ten-thousand and eight-hundred eternally long seconds doing nothing but waiting.
With no news, nothing.
They'd lingered at the place where the car had been found for about an hour, until the van had been loaded onto a truck and had been ferried of to the crime lab in the headquarters of the police, to be examined with a fine toothed comb. Which would take time.
Vega was worried.
Of course, he was mainly worried about Cosmo. They had no idea where he was, how he was, even if he was still alive - though Ace claimed he was sure he was. Must have been due to that link the Magician and the kid shared.
But he was also pretty worried about Ace.
The man hadn't slept a minute since Cosmo had vanished yesterday. He hadn't eaten. He hadn't rested.
Ace was a strong man, but he wouldn't last much longer like that. And he wouldn't help Cosmo if he collapsed.
With a sigh, he rose from his seat.
The magician didn't give any indication he even heard him.
"Ace?" Vega repeated, louder.
Again, no reaction. Ace's eyes were blank, fixed onto something a million miles away. Vega had a fair idea what it was.
After a moment's hesitation, Vega stepped right into Ace's way, holding out a hand to his chest.
This time, Ace stopped. He looked down at the hand arresting his mindless wandering, regarding it like a particular ugly insect.
"Ace, you need to eat."
"I'm not hungry."
Silently, Vega sighed again. "You've *got* to eat. You can't help Cosmo, if you don't eat."
Ace looked up, his eyes dull pools of pain.
"I'm not helping him at all, it seems."
"We've got to wait."
Ace took a deep breath. "I don't know, how much longer I can wait, Derek. I do need to find Cosmo. But I don't even know where to start looking. If they would come with some ransom demands, I would pay everything they want. If there would be some other demands, I would do anything they want. But not like this. This ... this not knowing. I feel so damn helpless."
Vega nodded understanding. "Whoever has him, is trying to wear you down, that's all. They won't do a thing to Cosmo, before they've told you what they want."
"We don't know that," Ace said tonelessly.
"That's the way ninety percent of all kidnappings go. You're rich, Ace, and this is pretty well known. They will send a ransom demand, and after you pay, they will send Cosmo back. And then we will get those bastards."
At least Vega hoped so. He had his doubts that it would be so easy. With those two, it never was.
Ace let his head drop to his chest. "I...I don't even know if it's about money. It could be somebody who simply holds a grudge against me. There're enough of those around after all. And it wouldn't be the first time."
That was right. Quite a few of Ace's enemies had figured out that the magician cared deeply about his young assistant. If one of them had Cosmo ...
Vega closed his eyes in anguish.
When he opened them again, he saw the same fear he felt deep inside reflected in Ace's eyes.
No, he had to think rational. Not allow his fears take over his mind.
"No! I don't think so," he said, as his mind was working furiously. "If one of them had him, we would know. They ... they would gloat, let you know."
"Unless, as you said before, they want to wear me down," Ace remarked.
Vega shook his head. "No, I think any of them would have such much patience. They don't really think that much ahead."
"Maybe, if they have some kind of plan. While I'm pinned here worrying about Cosmo, they could do ... whatever. I just don't know.
"And there's *nothing* I can do."
* * *
The room was cold.
Though, as he thought about it, Cosmo wasn't sure if it was really cold, or if he just thought it was. For the 'it's really cold' theory spoke that he - unlike the other two guys in the room - only wore the thin T-shirt he woke up in in this place and the gray slacks, without shoes, or socks for that matter.
The 'I just think it's cold' theory got merit based on the fact that the two guys were kind of creepy. Sitting chained to a metal chair certainly didn't help.
Cosmo pulled once again on his handcuffs, but all he achieved was to scuff his already bruised right wrist. Damn, if he only had his tools. He would be out of those blasted thing in an eyeblink.
Casting a glance at his two guards, he suppressed a curse. Getting out of the chains wouldn't do him any good, he feared. And even if he should be able to get out of this room in one piece - which wasn't very likely to begin with - he didn't know how many other guards were around.
At least Ace was safe - his warm, ever living presence the only bright spot in that whole miserable situation.
Whatever that situation really was. He still wasn't too sure what this whole setup was about. He knew, it had something to do with his magic. The presence of so many other magic users close by couldn't be a coincidence. And somehow the military was involved too. The uniforms of his captors was a pretty clear indicator to that. He had no idea to which branch of the military those guys belonged to, but, to be totally honest, he couldn't care less. Alone the fact that military and magic was mixed somehow didn't bode well with him. Not well at all.
The door behind him opened, and somebody entered. Cosmo was tempted to twist around in his chair and look at who had came in, but decided not to give them the satisfaction. He would know soon enough.
Cosmo stared straight ahead, until somebody moved into his peripheral vision, then moved around the metal desk to sit down at the chair at the other side.
It was an older man, Cosmo guessed him to be at least fifty. The hair had probably at one time been dark-brown, but now it was streaked with white. The face was pale, thin, and Cosmo instantly disliked him. The man's eyes were cold as they looked at Cosmo intensely, and the younger man suddenly knew how a bacteria felt, which was studied through the lens of a microscope. The man also wore an uniform, though it hung loosely from his tall frame, almost as if the man had lost a lot of weight not too long ago. There were some kind of rank insignias at his arm, but Cosmo had no idea what they stood for.
The man studied him closely, and after a moment Cosmo had to look away. He didn't like the way the man looked at him at all.
He gulped and looked downed at his cuffs uncomfortably and wished Ace was here right now.
"It's Cosmo, right?"
It wasn't really a question, and Cosmo didn't see it necessary to answer him.
The man shuffled some papers around, looking at a printout in his hand.
"Do you have to touch an object in order to incinerate it, or can you do it also from a distance?"
For a moment Cosmo looked up, not able to hide his shock, but then he quickly cast his eyes down again. He would be damned if he would give them anything.
"I'm actually quite impressed, Cosmo. You've given us quite a chase."
"What the hell do you want?" Cosmo croaked out, torn between being scared out of his wits and being furious beyond anything he every felt. The magic inside of him stirred and bubbled, and Cosmo had to make a conscious effort to restrain it. For once it wouldn't do him anything good at the moment, and then he wasn't willing to give that man another demonstration of what he was able to do. His head throbbed, as much from the effort to hold back and as a reminder of his previous magic use.
The man smiled, but the grin didn't reach those cold, gray eyes.
"Now, Cosmo, that is simple," the man said, "we want you!"
* * *
It'd been two days and still not a word from Cosmo or from whomever had taken him.
The enforced inactivity drove Ace crazy. He couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat, and he couldn't think straight.
This morning, in a burst of anger, he had trashed the orbital statue in his living room with a blast of hot, angry magic, imagining for one second that the stature was the person who held Cosmo captive. And for one short second he had felt better. But then reality had caught up with him again, and he had fallen to his knees, spent, the reaction headache a fierce reminder that doing magic without any kind of preparation was never a good idea.
It was then that he decided that he just couldn't sit around here any longer, doing nothing. He needed to get out and he needed help.
When they had discovered the link which bound him and Cosmo together, they had quickly learned that it only worked in one direction. By somehow - up until today he really didn't know how - implanting a shard of his mind in Ace's mind, Cosmo was able to sense what Ace was feeling at any given time. That was, unless he decided to shield himself from his young charge.
Ace on the other hand didn't sense anything from Cosmo, which frustrated Ace without end. All he could sense - and that only, when he concentrated very hard - was that the link was there, a warm tingle in his mind, which said 'Cosmo' to him. This was how he was sure that Cosmo was still alive; the only comfort he had in this craziness.
Now the link was the only hope he had left to find Cosmo.
Rural towns rushed past him, as he drove south, towards a small village named Whitewater. There, at the edge of the town, at the end of a long driveway, stood the house Anna LeFrez had left to him after her death.
Ace had spent some of the happiest years of his life there, finding and finally accepting his magic after Anna had taken him in after he had left Jack Malone's gang. Anna was dead now for two years, and he still missed her sometimes terribly, missed her gentleness and her wisdom and her love.
After Anna’s death, Kate Morrigan had taken residency there. Kate was an old friend, had been since they had been together under Anna’s tutelage. She also was a mage, a pretty powerful one actually. Her specialty lay in Nature Magic. Besides that, she worked in research, having a doctorate in Theoretical Magic – though officially it wasn’t called that, as, again officially, Magic – the one with the capital ‘M’ – didn’t exist. That hadn’t stopped her from study with some of the best people in Europe and Asia.
It had been Kate, who had worked out what was behind his and Cosmo’s link, and now it would be Kate, who would work out a way to use that link to somehow locate Cosmo. At least, that's what Ace hoped.
The Magic Racer pulled up the drive and came to a stop just before the main entrance. The canopy opened, and Ace climbed out. He had tried to call Kate earlier, but only gotten the answering machine. If his concern for Cosmo wouldn’t be so overwhelming, he probably would have worried, but as it was, he was feeling more angry.
This anger translated now in pushing the bell button with more force than necessary. The cheery ding-dong, which rang through the house didn’t fit Ace’s mood at all.
Ace waited, barely refraining from tapping his foot impatiently. He just had lifted his hand to press the button again, when the door opened, and Kate stood there.
Instead of her usual jeans and turtleneck outfit, she was dressed in sweats and a simple black T-shirt. She had a towel wound around her neck, rubbing it against her reddish-brown hair. When she saw who was standing at the door, her face lit with a smile.
“Ace! Long time, no see.”
Ace forced himself to smile.
How could anybody look so cheerful, when Cosmo was missing?
Then Kate noticed that something was wrong. She frowned, looking past Ace. She knew something was missing, and as there was no Cosmo in sight, she had an idea what it might be.
“Ace, is something wrong? Where’s Cosmo?” Kate asked, again looking past Ace. It didn't take somebody who knew Ace as well as she did, that Cosmo's absence was unusual.
Ace sighed deeply, the weight of his loss pressing heavily on his soul. Then he said, with a voice devoid of all emotions, “Cosmo’s been kidnapped.”
Kate’s eyes widened in shock and her hand flew to her mouth. For a second she just stood there, as the reality of what Ace had said filled her. Then he grabbed Ace by his arm and pulled him inside, pushing the door close behind him after he was inside. She led her unresisting guest towards the living room, where she basically pushed him into one of the overstuffed chairs. Ace allowed her to do it, putting up no resistance.
Kate vanished into the kitchen, returning a minute later with two steaming mugs in her hands. She pushed one of those mugs in Ace’s hand, then sat down opposite of him.
“What happened?” she asked, in a no-nonsense tone, lacing her fingers around her own mug, as her elbows rested on her knees.
Ace inhaled deeply, looking down at his own mug, which, as he noticed, was filled with hot chocolate. Absently he remembered that this used to be Anna's first line of defense in case of trouble, and now it looked as if Kate had taken over that habit. Slowly he started to relate what happened, fixing his eyes on the slowly melting marshmallows.
Kate listened to him intensely, taking once in a while a sip from her own mug.
After Ace was finished, silence settled over the living room like a warm blanket. Ace found that having talked to Kate had had a calming effect on him - or maybe it was the hot chocolate. He had been worrying so much the last two days, thinking about nothing but Cosmo and what those people who had kidnapped him might do to him, that allowing himself to just think of nothing for a moment, placing the weight of his worries on somebody else’s shoulders, was an incredible relief.
But handing his concerns to somebody else wasn’t the way Ace worked. So he closed his eyes for just a second, then drew the worries and the concerns back to him, ready to face them.
“Kate,” he said, his voice firm again, “I want you to find a way to trace Cosmo’s whereabouts through our link.”
Kate furrowed her brow. “The link is only one-way, Ace. You know that. We’ve done a million tests on that already”
Ace shook his head. “I know what we’ve done, Kate. But, it’s the only thing I can think of. Kate, please, it’s the only way I can find Cosmo.”
* * *
“We want you!”
The words ingrained themselves forever in Cosmo’s mind.
“We want you!”
Cosmo didn’t listen the man in the uniform, his mind in turmoil. They … the military wanted to use him, his magic powers. It was true.
One of their darkest fears was true.
When Cosmo had developed his powers, he, Vega and Ace had talked about the many reasons why they should keep them a secret. The ‘military might want to use them for their own gain’ scenario had only been a remote possibility, but, as it seemed now, not quite as remote as they had hoped.
Cosmo’s head shot up. Normally, he preferred to be addressed with just his name. He only had one, and that usually was fine for him. But somehow, it really riled him that that man called him just ‘Cosmo’. Something inside of him dug his feet in. He’d be damned if he told them anything.
The man on the other side of the table had shoved a piece of paper to his side, tapping a line of it with a ball pen.
Cosmo narrowed his eyes. Damn, he should have paid a little more attention what that guy had been talking about.
“Sign here,” the man said, explaining what he wanted from Cosmo.
Cosmo snored. “You’re kiddin’, right?” Cosmo had no idea what he was supposed to sign, but he knew that he would never do it.
The man in the uniform didn’t show any emotions.
“Sign!” he commanded once again, more forceful.
“Like hell I will. You really believe you can simply kidnap me, and expect me to bow to your every whim? Think again.”
Without another word, the man withdrew the document, putting it back in a folder on the desk.
“I had hoped we could make it easy for you, Cosmo. But as you wish. I can do it the hard way. Question is: can you?”
“You’re crazy! You can not do that!” Cosmo yelled, when the two men behind him unlocked his cuffs, pulled him to his feet and dragged him out of the room.
The last thing he saw was the cold smile which played around the older man’s lips, telling him, that, yes, indeed, he could do want ever he wanted, any way he wanted.
* * *
Fran sat on the bed in the corner of her room, her knees tugged underneath her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs.
Fran was twelve years old, her Hispanic heritage obvious in her dark complexion and her pitch black hair. The only thing unusual about her looks were her gray eyes, atypical for somebody of her breed. But that was not the only unusual about her, only the other thing was not visible to the naked eye. The one thing, which really sat her apart from the rest of humanity, was a talent she had been born with, a talent, which was at the same time exiting and frightening. A talent, which also was the reason she was here now, away from her friends and family.
Fran was a Spirit Walker. She could, if she chose so, separate her spirit from her body, letting it roam around without her. It was a quite useful talent - at least she had thought so, until the day when a couple of men had came to her after school, pulled her into a car and drove away with her.
That had been over five weeks ago.
Since then, she - and as she had learned later, others like her - had been held captive in this military place. She didn't like it here particularly, but so far she hadn't found a way to get away.
Expect, of course, in her Spirit Form. There was not much that could hold her back. Problem was, that she was limited to where she could walk to, as she hasn't really mastered Spirit Flight yet.
A while ago, she had heard the sound of the alarm. At that, the woman who had been working with her, had brought her back into the room that was her prison and locked the door. For a while, Fran had just sat there, her mind still befuddled from the stuff they had given her that morning, but now she finally felt her head clear enough, so that she could try to leave her room.
Taking a few deep breathes, she closed her eyes, concentrating on separating her spirit from her body. It took her longer than usually, but finally, she felt the 'snap', which told her that it had worked. For a moment, she grinned, then she 'stepped out'.
Her spirit body easily went through the wall, and she turned, going down the corridor. After roaming the hallways and the rooms of the complex often enough during the night, she had a good idea, where she might find the person, who had caused the earlier alarm. She held no illusion that he or she had managed to escape. The others were just too strong and too many. She knew that there had been previous attempts, but nobody ever had managed even to get close to the exit.
No, whoever it was would be brought to the Colonel, and than they would show him why it wasn't a good idea to ever try again. Usually, it did work very well.
She went into the corridor, which let to the lab, when she heard a commotion from one of the 'interview rooms'. Two guards stepped out, pulling along a struggling, red-haired man. The man put up a good fight, but with his hands cuffed behind his back, and the two men against him, he had little chance.
"Leave me alone!" the younger man screamed, but the guards didn't listen.
Fran could have told him that.
Drifting to the side, she took a good long look at the red-haired man. He was older than the others who were held here, eighteen maybe, or even twenty. Not particular tall, he almost vanished between the two guards. His fire-red hair hung down, obscuring part of his face.
As she was in her sprit form, she was able to see the strong glow of his magical aura, a canopy of gold and orange and red, tiny stars circling angrily around him, flitting through his body constantly. He was pretty strong, that much she could see easily, stronger than any of the others. Not that this would help him here. Not really.
Just then, he threw back his head, giving Fran a good look at his face. Startling gray eyes looked around wildly, searching for something, possibly for some means of escape.
When his gaze aimed into her direction, he froze, his eyes narrowing, as they locked with hers.
The guards, oblivious that their victim was seeing something, pulled at the man's arms, dragging their for the moment compliant prisoner with them.
For a second, Fran couldn't move. Nobody ever had seen her when she was in her spirit form. Even her teacher, Savannah, was not really able to see her, though she was able to spot her aura, and the link, which bound her to her body.
But this man did!
She was sure of that.
"Who are you?" he mouthed, his eyes still fixed on her, though they were pulling him away.
She opened her mouth, but didn't know what to say. Instead, she just turned and fled back to her body and her cell.
* * *
When the house had been built about a hundred years ago, the architect had added a round tower at the side which faced the sea. Kate had set up her working area in the top room of that tower, as it was suspended between three of the four magical elements: Water in form of the sea at the feet of the cliffs, Earth represented by the sheer bedrock the tower was anchored into, and, of course the Air all around. A metal basin at one side of the room, and adding the fourth and last element, Fire, was no problem.
On a clear day, it was possible to see all the way to Glen Island, almost fifty miles away, but neither Kate nor Ace had cast one glance out of one of the windows when they entered. Ace kneeled down in the center of the circular room, dressed only in his black pants with the yellow stripe at it's side, his white shirt and the ever present cummerbund, forgoing for once his usual short jacket, the gloves and the cape.
Kate stepped up behind him, placing her hands on Ace's shoulders.
"Relax," was her almost whispered command.
She felt how Ace took a deep breath, then expelled some of his tension with the air he released. But only some of it. Almost automatically she began to knead the stiff muscles underneath her fingers. God, the man's shoulders were tense.
Ace sighed, and, though Kate couldn't see it, she knew he closed his eyes. She followed his example, and allowed her mind to drift, thinking of nothing special.
For the next ten minutes nothing outward happened. Kate never stopped massaging Ace's neck, willing him to relax, letting go for a moment of his worries for Cosmo.
Naturally, she also worried about Cosmo. How could she not. She liked the boy - well, young man actually.
Ace always had been the more serious one. Even when they had been teenagers in Anna's school. Okay, there had been a few times when the young Ace Cooper had shown that deep inside of him was a mischievous person hidden, ready to follow her in every prank she thought up, and coming up with a few of his own, but normally he almost had looked as if he personally was carrying the weight of the world on his then narrow shoulder. No wonder, considering the power of his gift.
A few years after Ace had left the school, Kate had met him again in London where she had studied at that time. Ace had been on his first world tour, and though on the outside he had seemed to be happy, in his eyes she had seen that he was lonely, and her heart had bled for him.
Then Cosmo came along, and everything changed. Cosmo had filled a place in Ace's heart, which nobody, not even Mona, ever had been able to fill. Ace needed to be needed, and Cosmo had needed somebody to take care of him. As much as Cosmo benefited from Ace taking him in, Ace benefited at least as much in return.
Now they were equal partners, two halves of the same whole, inseparably tied together by their magic and by their friendship - even love, though she knew there was nothing physical going on between the two - for each other. Kate knew that each of them would happily die to save the life of the other - though this would a problem, as it was not very likely that the remaining partner would survive the death of the other one.
Finally, she felt that Ace had slipped into a light trance, his slow, even breathing the only sound she heard. She lifted her hands from his shoulders, allowing them to hover a few inches away from Ace's head.
Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes.
Before her, Ace was bathed in a warm, pale blue light, sprinkled with purple and silver stars, which bobbed and weaved around him, circling around him. His aura. She knew it almost as well as her own - after all, they had enough time to train together when they've been younger. Though now the aura was deeper, warmer somehow. As a teenager it had kind of wild, untamed. Now it was ... well, matured was probably the best Kate would be able to describe it. And strong, very, very strong.
She looked, but couldn't see any traces of the bond. Ignoring the sigh, which wanted to rise from deep in her chest, she slowly removed the outermost of her own shields. She had to concentrate not to hiss in pain, as Ace's magic collided with her own, causing a grinding sound only she was able to hear - and feel.
Though Kate and Ace both were strong magic users, their magics were basically polar opposites. She drew her power from the world around her, from the elements, nature, life itself. It was a slow process, and whenever she did a major spell, she had to rest for days to recharge her power. Ace, on the other hand, tapped into another dimension altogether for his magic. Nobody really knew what the Magic Force was and where it came from, only that some few people were able to use it, and even fewer people actually could envelope themselves into it, using the Magic Force to transform themselves into extremely powerful Magicians.
Now, because his magic was so strong and so volatile, her own magic senses got brutally overwhelmed every time she allowed her shields to drop in Ace's presence.
That didn't mean they couldn't work together magically. Anna had seen to that, though it hadn't been easy and had required long hours of training. At least, as she mussed with a slight smile, thanks to Ace, she probably was one of the best in the world where magic shields were concerned, even having written her thesis on just that topic.
She allowed her mind to get used to the 'taste' and 'sound' of Ace's magic, as she slowly removed layer after layer of her shields.
Ace didn't move, allowing her to do all the work, knowing there was nothing he could do to help. She knew he hated that forced inactivity, but there was no other way.
Ace's aura got brighter, but she refused to dim her Sight, knowing that if there was a trace of the link, it would be hidden in the bright light.
She concentrated, searching for the shard Cosmo had planted in Ace's mind. She had seen it once before, though to say that she had 'seen' it would probably be too much. Sensed it, yes, that was more like it.
Light, there was so much light, and she had to suppress a moan, knowing that Ace would hear it and stop the experiment.
Finally, she had dropped the last of her shields. A headache began to throb behind her eyes, tugging on her concentration. She ignored it.
For a second she thought it might just be wishful thinking, but than she felt it again. Something bright, hiding in the brightness that was Ace, that though it was part of Ace was *not* Ace.
Cosmo. Yellow and orange light. Flickering, fluctuating. Very much there.
Thank God, he was alive.
Carefully, she 'touched' the shard, felt for it, looked for something leading away from it. A thin tendril of light, entwined with Ace's aura, Ace himself. She latched onto it, tried to follow the fragile lead, but had to give up after a very short stretch, when the strand got too thin for her senses.
She tried once more, but with the same lack of success. It was there, yes, and the implications of that made her heart sing, but there was just no way for her to follow it. At least not at the moment.
Finally allowing the sigh, which had gathered at the depth of her soul, to escape, she dropped her hands at her side, rebuilding her shields as she stepped away from Ace.
God, she was tired. And she needed an Aspirin. And a brandy. A large one.
Ace gave her a moment to pull herself together, as he slowly rose to his feet. He knew she always needed a moment after using her magic, even if, as in this case, very little actually magic use had been involved.
"You' okay?" he asked, putting a hand on her elbow.
She nodded, not trusting her voice yet. The headache receded an inch at a time, fighting all the way.
Together they went back to the living room, where Ace handed her a glass of water and a small white pill. The nodded her thanks, swallowing the Aspirin with the water's help.
Relief was immediate and very much welcome, and finally she was able to look into the questioning eyes of her friend.
"Good news and bad news, Ace," she began. She didn't give him a chance to decide which one he wanted to hear first. "Good news is, yes, the link is still there, and that can only mean Cosmo's still alive."
Ace sagged, almost dropping into the couch at his back. He rubbed his hand over his tired face, and through his dark hair. For a moment, his gaze was fixed on the floor, but then he looked up, his eyes guarded.
"And the bad news."
Kate took another swallow of her water, wishing it would be the brandy she dreamed of.
"There's no way I'll be able to track it. I can tell you it's somewhere East, but that's about it. I'm sorry."
Ace closed his eyes briefly. "What if we would move East and than try again, working our way forward step by step?"
"Good idea, Ace, but not really feasible. It will take just too long. There's no way, I'll be able to do that again in the next twelve hours or so, and I doubt it will get any easier."
Ace rested his elbows on his knees, putting his head in his hands. His gray orbs were fixed on Kate, pleading her to find another way, any way.
Damn, that hurt. And it wasn't the headache this time.
"I could look up some of my contacts. Maybe there's somebody else who would be better suited. Scrying is not really my specialty, you know that."
Hope flickered up again, and a small smile tug at Ace's lips.
"Okay, how can I help?"
Before Kate could answer that question, the sound of the door bell rang through the house.
* * *
Cosmo coughed, trying to wave away the thick smoke, which permeated the room. He squinted his tearing eyes, stumbling over the rubble, as he searched for his friend and partner.
"Ace!" he called out once again. "Where are you?"
He climbed over a pile, which had formed as the ceiling had come down, his eyes frantically looking around.
Ace had to be somewhere close-by. He had been standing at the other side of the room, talking with somebody, when the explosion had rocked the building and the world had come tumbling down. Cosmo had escaped unscathed, protected by a large slab of stone, but he feared Ace hadn't been so lucky.
Suddenly, he spotted a foot and a bit of a leg, the rest of the body covered by rubble. The yellow stripe at the pant's side was a clear indicator to whom the leg belonged to.
"Ace!!" He called out again, desperately digging into the stones, throwing them aside as fast as he could. "Ace, answer me!"
No reaction from the inert body.
He dug on, ignoring how the rubble cut into the skin of his hands.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he had worked his way to Ace's head. Blood covered the handsome features, a cut over his eyes still oozing red.
Oh god, there was so much blood.
"Ace!" Cosmo sobbed, quivering fingers searching for a pulse. "Ace, please, wake up."
At his touch, the eye lids began to flutter, then open.
"Co.." Ace croaked, touching his lips with tongue.
"Lay still, don't move, something might be broken."
Ace swallowed, again wetting his lips.
"I'm fine, Ace, don't worry. You just lay still."
But Ace wouldn't calm down, struggling against Cosmo, as he tried to keep him down.
"Cosmo," he rasped out again, his voice weak.
"Ace? What's the matter? What can I do for you?"
Grey, pain filled eyes locked with his.
"I…I just…" Ace drew a shivering breath. "I just want to know…"
"Yes, Ace?" Cosmo asked, when Ace stopped again. With tender fingers he brushed Ace's normally white fore lock aside. Now the usually immaculate hair was blood drenched.
"I want to know why you did it?"
Ace's eyes rolled up in his head, as he sighed once, then stopped breathing.
"Ace?" Cosmo asked confused, but the inert body didn't move.
Cosmo shook Ace, but there was no reaction. No reaction at all. Panic filled his gut with cold ice.
Why wouldn't Ace move?
Slowly, the words Ace had said with his last breath came back. 'Why you did it?" Did what? What did Ace believe, he had done? Did Ace blame him for that explosion? Why did Ace blame him? Why did Ace think he had something to do with it?
What had really happen?
And why wouldn't Ace move?
As the screams of the young man in the virtual reality globe filled the lab, the man in the lab coat watched how the vital signs spiked, than dropped back to a more normal level as the program reached its conclusion. He hit a few keys on his control board, terminating the program.
Cosmo floated inside of the machine, his hair hanging limply over the VR goggles, body held up only by the energy field.
"So, doctor, are we making progress?"
The blond man looked up, hiding a frown as he cast a glance at the Colonel.
"I think, we're moving too fast, Colonel." His voice was carefully controlled. He knew, he couldn't show too much disapproval of what the Colonel was doing. It wouldn't be too good for his career. And his life expectancy.
"Is there a problem?"
For a moment, the doctor glanced at Cosmo, then back at the Colonel, who looked at him disapprovingly.
"No, sir. No problems."
The Colonel nodded, then turned and left the lab.
The doctor sighed, then turned back to his patient - or rather his victim. He sighed, then pushed the button, which would start the next program.
Not much later, and Cosmo's screams filled the lab once again.
* * *
Kate had opened the door, finding two people waiting for her. One was a tall, dark haired woman with a reddish-brown complexity. The other was an middle-aged, slim man, with short, blond hair, dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and a sport jacket.
Kate frowned. Though she recognized Savannah Redwing, a Navaho shaman woman she had worked together with a few years back, she never before had laid eyes on the man. Though, it had been a while since she had heard from Savannah, and who knows what has happened in the meantime. However, somehow she didn't think those two were together.
Savannah showed a small smile, as she greeted Kate.
"Come in, come in." With a wide gesture, the shorter woman invited the two people in. Kate had a strange feeling, somehow knowing that Savannah's visit just now was no coincident, was somehow related to Cosmo's disappearance.
The question was: How?
As the two people entered the house, they caught sight of Ace, who had followed Kate when she had gone to open the door. Savannah just raised an eye brow, casting a questioning glance at Kate. The stranger's eyes widened, his mouth opening slightly.
Kate was not surprised by their reaction. Ace was after all a very famous person, known all over the country, if not the world. Not many, however, were aware that she did know Ace, and actually was a very good friend of his. Something she usually was very glad about, as she did value her privacy, thank you very much.
"Savannah, this is Ace Cooper," Kate took over the introductions. "Ace, this is Savannah Redwing. And you are …" She gestured towards the other man.
"My…my name's Alexander Chasson," the man introduced himself, obviously still baffled - or maybe intimidated - by Ace's presence.
Kate had the feeling it might be a good idea to get out of the entrance way and into a more comfortable environment.
"Let's go into the living room."
Kate let the group, and a few minutes later everybody had settled down, holding a cup of coffee or tea in their hands. Her tea had a good load of brandy added to it, and the smooth alcohol did wonders to her headache.
"So, Savannah, Mr. Chasson, what brings you do my little corner of the woods."
Savannah rested her eyes for a moment on the surface of her coffee, then she looked up. "Fran has vanished. I think she's been kidnapped."
Kate almost choked on her tea. For the second time in one day she looked into the anguished eyes of a friend, heard the same terrible story, told with the same, barely controlled voice.
Fransiska - Fran for short - was Savannah's adopted daughter, a twelve year old girl who had come to live with the Native American shaman, after the girl's parents had died in a car accident a couple of years back. Fran had been in the car that day, but surprisingly she had survived with only a few minor injuries. However, the shock of the accident had woken her talent as a Spirit Walker, tearing her spirit and her body apart. The medical staff on the hospital she had been admitted to, had thought she had fallen into a coma and treated her accordingly. Luckily for the girl, one of the doctors had had a background in shaman healing, and had contacted Savannah in the hope that she would be able to help. It hadn't taken long for the Navaho healer to find what the real problem was, and reunite Fran's body and spirit again, else the girl would have died. Savannah then had adopted the girl, giving her a chance to train her gift.
Now, two young people, both with one form of magic ability or another, both kidnapped - this was just too much to be a coincidence. Deep down, she somehow still hoped she was wrong, that there wasn't anybody who simply took people who possessed some form of magic. The rational part of her, however, knew that she was right, and the consequences of this knowledge chilled her to the bone.
"You have any idea why anybody would want to kidnap her?" Kate heard herself asking. Maybe there had been a ransom demand. Maybe it was about money after all. Maybe Fran had simply ran away, and she was seeing demons that weren't there. Maybe she was wrong.
Yeah, and pigs could fly.
Savannah looked at Chasson, hesitating for a moment. Then she seemed to come to a decision. Drawing a deep breath, she fixed her gaze at Ace.
"As you know, Kate, Fran is not an ordinary teenager. She's special. She's ..."
The Navaho woman hesitated. As most people with the gift, she had learned early on not to talk about her talent to strangers, and it was difficult to break that habit.
"She's a magic user?" Ace asked gently.
Savannah just nodded.
"And you believe her disappearance has something to do with that?"
Again a nod. "At first I didn't think so. Her talent is not very obvious, and I have no idea how anybody could have found out. But about a week ago, Alex showed up. In the last two months, there have been three more cases where young magic users have vanished."
"Three cases I know about," Chasson now cut in. "A thirteen old girl with an amazing affinity to fire disappeared in Texas in March. Two weeks later, a pair of twins got kidnapped in Ohio - the parents claim each boy can feel what the other feels, no matter how far apart they are. And then, end of April, a girl got pulled into a car in New Jersey. She had the gift of telekinesis.
"That's at least five magic users, all of them between ten and fourteen years. Somebody is collecting them like butterflies - and I'm scared thinking about what they are doing with those kids."
"What's your interest in all this?" Kate now asked, directed at Chasson. Though Chasson had spoken in an almost business like tone, there was something more to it.
Chasson tilted his head, then grinned shortly. "Two reasons. First, it's my job, I'm a private investigator, specialized in the super natural - though ninety-five percent of my cases are to defraud hoaxes and cons."
Two business cards appeared in Chasson's hand, which he passed on to Ace and Kate. The words 'Alexander Chasson, Private Investigations' were printed in bold letters, together with an address in Cleveland, Ohio.
After giving them a moment time to study the cards, he continued. "Second, I can not help wondering if I will be next. I also have… some special talents."
Now Chasson's grin turned sheepish. "Usually, I don't mention the second part, but as I can see I'm in good company here." He nodded towards Ace and Kate.
Kate was still wondering what to think about the last remark - actually, what to think about the man at all - when Ace spoke up again.
"You can add another victim to your list. My ... assistant Cosmo has been kidnapped two days ago."
Chasson furrowed his brow. "Cosmo? Red haired kid, about nineteen years old, works back stage on your show? Computer genius?"
Ace just nodded, seemingly not surprised that Chasson knew about Cosmo. But then, why should he? Though Cosmo seldom worked on the stage, there had been more than one occasion where his face had shown up on tv. And if Chasson was a private eye specialized on defrauding fake magicians, he probably had done some research on known magicians - and who affiliated with him.
"Damn, I never pegged him for the real thing." Chasson sighed. "What happened?"
While Ace told once again how Cosmo had been kidnapped and what he had done so far in order to find him, Kate tried to sort through her feelings regarding Chasson.
Though there were more real magic users in the world than the average person knew, there were quite a lot of people who didn't have an iota of power, but claimed to have it. Usually, those people had one goal, and one goal only. To separate the easy to impress from their money.
Somehow, Chasson didn't seem real to her. 'Supernatural Investigations'. The next thing was that the guy pulled out his member ship card to Ghostbusters Inc.. And his claim to have some talents of his own. How come, that she never had heard about him before? She couldn't help it, all this smelled like a con to her, though she had no idea what his angle might be.
Strangely enough Ace seemed to trust him. Normally, the magician was more careful, having had his run ins with enough con men to last a life time.
Savannah also seemed to be okay with him. So, why was she so skittish?
"If you didn't know about Cosmo being kidnapped, why did you come here?" she asked, after Ace had finished.
"Savannah said you might know about more magic users in training, as it seemed that who ever is behind all this, is targeting just this group. We need to warn them to be careful. Besides, there might be more kidnappings we don't know about yet, and we need to find a way to trace all those back to hopefully find out who's behind it."
This made sense, though she was a bit annoyed that Savannah had told him so much about her. By necessity she was a very private person, and it didn't sit well with her, that Chasson knew about her at all. She would have to talk to Savannah about that. Though this could wait for later.
Now, there was work to do.
* * *
Cosmo had no idea how much time had passed until they finally brought him back to his cell, dumping him unceremoniously on the bed, before leaving him alone.
For the longest time, he could only lie on his back, staring at the ceiling, without really seeing it, concentrating only on keeping his stomach under control. For the life of him, he couldn't remember a day when he had felt that miserable. All he wanted to do was to curl up, and then die. His magic was moving and churning like a living thing inside of him, and didn't contribute at all to his overall well being. He had tried to vent some of the magic energy, funnel it away, but it hadn't worked.
He also seemed to be more sensitive to the other magic he had sensed earlier. The individual sources now had a more pronounced flavor to it, some weaker, some stronger, but each one much stronger than they had been when he had he sensed them the first time. Again he could sense the girl who had tricked him into the car, her icy presence close by making him shiver inside.
The link was the only thing that kept him sane. Right now, he clung to it with something akin to desperation, using it as his fragile link to reality. As long as he felt Ace, everything was going to be okay. He had to believe that.
He just had to.
While he had been inside the VR globe, he hadn't been aware of the link - hadn't even known it was supposed to be there. He had had no idea that everything he had seen was actually computer generated, was a scenario his tormenters had thought up for him for whatever purpose. Nothing but bits and bytes, fed to him by the machine. Never real, all those times that Ace had died in his arms, each and every time laying the blame of his death on Cosmo's shoulder.
This alone should have tipped him off. Ace would never blame him for something happening to him. Ace wasn't just the type to do something like that. In that nightmarish world, he hadn't know that something had been amiss, and all he had been able to think of was what happened over and over before his very eyes.
Ace dying. And blaming him.
Now he finally understood why when Ace had been kidnapped those many years ago and had spent such a long time inside a VR globe, that the magician never even suspected that he was living in a virtual world.
It was an understanding he now paid a painfully high price for.
After some time, Cosmo fell into an uneasy sleep, plagued again by nightmares, this time of the non-electronic kind.
He woke to the certain feeling that he was not alone in his room. Blinking, he slowly got used to the dim light, looking around carefully.
Though there wasn't much in terms of furniture in the room - his bed and a plain chair the only objects breaking the monotony of the white walls - he still almost overlooked her. A faint outline of a girl standing in one corner, half in half out of the wall, watching him intently. There also was some kind of magic echo, as if she had some magic, but kept it someplace else, away from here.
"Hey," Cosmo called softly, lest to scare her away.
He remembered her vaguely from when he had been brought into the lab with the VR globe. She had been in the corridor, running away, when he had tried to talk to her. Running away through the walls, actually.
The girl hesitated, but then she pulled herself together, coming slowly closer. Secretly Cosmo was glad she wasn't sticking partially out of a wall any more. It was a disturbing sight to say the least.
"Hey," she replied, her voice sounding tinny, very far away, without any depth to it.
"My name's Cosmo," Cosmo introduced himself, while slowly sitting up, wondering remotely how to shake hands with a ghost, if that's what she was. For a second, he had to think of an old movie he had seen once, about a boy who was able to see dead people. Was that girl dead? He didn't think so, as he could feel the living magic, but still ...
"Fran," she said, looking at him with a tilted head, a puzzled expression on her face. "You're the first one who can see me like this," she remarked questioningly.
"You're the first like this I've ever seen," Cosmo said with a slight grin. "By the way, what is 'this'?"
Suddenly, Cosmo had to suppress the childish urge to wave his hand through the girl's body, to see if he would feel a thing. With ghosts it was supposed to be a chilly feeling. Spooky.
Instead he ranked his hand through is hair.
Again the puzzled expression, as she pondered what to tell Cosmo. Then, "I'm a Spirit Walker - at least that's what Savannah's calling it. What you see is my Spirit body. My real body's back in its cell."
"So you're also a prisoner here?"
She nodded, then sighed.
Somewhat relieved that he wasn't talking to a dead girl, he relaxed slightly. He had seen his share of out-of-the-ordinary stuff since he had hooked up with Ace, but ghosts were definitely a step too far.
"Is that," he indicated her transparent spirit body, "the reason you're here?"
She nodded again. "I think they want me to spy on things. But I don't want to. It's not right."
"Who are they anyway?"
Fran shrugged. "Don't really know. Some kind of military. Colonel Shawn says we are to help to defend the country. But I don't think I believe him. I don't like him very much."
Colonel Shawn. This was the first time Cosmo had heard a name attached to this whole outfit. He wondered, if that was the scrawny guy who had wanted him to sign that piece of paper.
In a few words he described the guy to her, asking her if that was Shawn. Fran nodded.
"What is that place here anyway? Where are we?"
The girl shrugged.
Cosmo frowned. "You mean, you never strolled out of here? Shouldn't be a problem for you, right?"
Again a shrug. "When I go too far, I get really tired. I can't concentrate any more. What can you do?" she then changed the topic.
"Everybody here can do something special. I'm a Spirit Walker. Deborah can burn everything she touches. Donny and Pat each can feel what the other feels, not matter how far they are apart. So, why did they take you?"
Cosmo saw his worst fear confirmed. He already had thought about it when he had pondered why he had been taken here. But this...
It was bad enough that he, an adult after all, had been kidnapped. But Fran was a kid, no older than twelve years old, tops. And then there was the girl with the curly hair who had baited him into that car - she had looked to be the same age. Somehow, he had a feeling, that the other prisoners here were not much older.
Somebody collected magic users like some exotic butterflies, and he didn't stop from using children. And that riled Cosmo without end. After the death of his mom, his childhood hadn't been a particularly happy one, his father had been an abusive brute, who had used every chance he got to beat him and punish him for things he hadn't done. He knew that he had gotten really lucky, with Ace and all. There were times he couldn't help but wonder what would have happened, if he hadn't broken into the Express those years back.
Maybe because of those things that happened to him when he had been younger, he had always been willing to help Ace by one of his many child charity projects. He didn't want anything like this to happen to another innocent child, wanted to give every child a chance to have a as normal as possible childhood.
And here, sure as hell, they wouldn't get one. He now not only had to find a way to get himself out of here - something, which had tried to do and failed at once already - but he had to take those kids with him as well, if he could help it.
Ignoring Fran's question for now, he looked directly at her. "Tell me, kiddo, what else do you know about this place?"
* * *
Another place, another room's floor which had to take the brunt of a nervous magician's pacing. But try it as he might, Ace just couldn't stand still anymore, and had taken to pacing Kate's office. Considering how crowded the small room was, this was no mean feat, but somehow he managed. It helped that the others all clustered around the computer in one corner, leaving a small corridor along the tall book shelves, which he used to its full advantage.
After Chasson's revelation that there had been more kidnappings, Kate had hit the internet, searching for more victims, hoping that at least one of those cases would yield a clue. So far, she had found one more she was sure were caused by the same people, and another possible one. Each time children between ten and fourteen years of age had been taken, each time the magic abilities in the children had been awaken less than a year ago. Cosmo was the only one so far, who didn't really fit the pattern, as he was too old and his powers had been prominent over two years now.
Still, Ace knew in his gut that there was a connection.
Only, how did this connection lead him any closer to Cosmo?
He turned once again, as he reached the far end of the shelve. As he started on his way back towards the opposite end, he regarded the group huddled around the computer.
Kate worked on the keyboard, with the practiced skill of somebody who did a lot of research, opening link after link, firing off one e-mail after another.
Savannah had taken a large, bright red ball to sit on, bouncing slightly, as she pointed something out on the screen.
Chasson stood a little to the side, watching the two woman working, throwing in a comment once in a while, but mostly he was quiet. Ace noticed, how the man cast him a sidelong glance once in a while, but he never attempted conversation, and Ace was grateful for that.
Ace was not sure what he should think of the other man. It was the first time he had heard about a private investigator who specialized in magic. Though, if Chasson really had some magical talent - and the magician had no reason to doubt him - it made sense. Who better to defraud false magicians than a real one? One of Cosmo's talents after all was the detection of other magic users. Ace knew there were enough people out there who claimed to have magic abilities, using it to influence those who could be easily impressed in order to part them from their money.
Ace had noticed that Kate seemed to have a problem with Chasson, though he wasn't sure why. But then, Kate always had been more sensitive to other people's magic than himself.
For now, Ace decided, he would wait, and keep an eye on Chasson. Right now, it was far more important to find Cosmo than finding out if Chasson was on the square or not.
Which brought his thoughts back to Cosmo. Though it was all very interesting - and very disturbing - that there had been more cases of kidnapping, so far he hadn't seen anything that would help them to get any closer to finding his apprentice.
"What is whoever is behind this doing with all those magic users?" He heard himself ask suddenly.
The two woman looked up from the screen, Chasson raising from his slouch against the wall.
"He's collecting them?" Kate half asked, half wondered.
"Why? Why collect magic users? Young ones at that."
"Because they are easier to manipulate," Chasson threw in. Again a half question.
"Manipulate to do what? What does he want to use them for?"
"Maybe he's building, don't know, a special task force, or something," Chasson thought out loud.
"A special unit?"
"Military?" Kate added to Ace's thought.
"Our military?" Now a cold shiver ran down Ace's spine. Though he was aware that the military wasn't made up of saints, he didn't want to think that it was involved with something like this. But then, the thought that some foreign country was involved into it would make the whole thing even harder.
"I can't really believe that our military would do something like this. Those are children, damnit." Savannah threw in.
Chasson gnawed at his lower lip, shaking his head slightly. "Maybe you are not too far off, Mr. Cooper. I've seen our military do things ..." He didn't elaborate, and Ace wondered where that remark had come from. What did Chasson refer to? What did Chasson know?
"I have to make a phone call," Chasson said suddenly. "I'll be back in a moment."
Before anyone could hold him back or ask him who he wanted to call, he had walked out of the room.
Ace exchanged a glance with Kate. He wondered if he should follow Chasson, but it seemed obvious that the other man didn't want to be overheard. Not that that would really stop him, if he thought it was necessary to find Cosmo.
In that case, nothing would stop him.
Chasson left the small private office, moving into the living room area. He took a deep lungful of air, feeling for the first time since he had stepped into the house that he could breathe again. He knew the others didn't really feel comfortable around him, and he couldn't blame them - there was a good reason he usually never revealed his abilities to others. He had surprised himself, when he had so readily admitted it to them earlier.
He checked if anybody had been following him, before he pulled out his cell phone, dialing a number he had memorized a long time ago.
He knew, if his suspicion paid off, he would have to inform the others sooner or later, but as long as he had the hope he was wrong, he didn't want them to know too much.
As he waited for the connection, watching distantly the energies in the air, he let his mind wander.
For the hundredth time, he wondered if coming here had been a mistake. He usually was a very private man, one who preferred to work on his own. When he had met with Savannah Redwing, he had done so only because he thought the woman might provide him with some new information. When the shaman mentioned somebody else with more connections, he had decided that he should give it a try. Finding Ace Cooper here, however, had been a big surprise.
Naturally, he had heard of Cooper before. Four years back, he actually had visited one of his shows, when the magician had toured the East. Even before that, he had already suspected Cooper was for real, was a real magic user. In the show he had seen, Cooper had used little, if any of this real magic, but to Chasson's Sight, the magic currents had been plain as day. Even now, he could see the power that surrounded the man like a living thing.
Mage Sight. That was one of his talents. That and the ability to manipulate energies of all kind, transforming them from one kind of energy to another. Electricity to heat, heat to kinetic energy, kinetic energy to mage energy, mage energy to electricity.
It had surprised him that the magician's friend also was a mage user - but then, maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise. He had learned in the last couple of years that the magic had a way of making sure that a fledging mage found somebody to train him. In most cases it looked to be a coincidence, but Chasson had seen it too many times to believe that anymore.
Which probably had been one of his problems. His magic wasn't exactly natural, and he never had found somebody to train him. In the first few years after the project he hadn't been in any condition to look for somebody to train him anyway, and later it hadn't seemed to matter anymore.
From the beginning of this case, when the Carters - a family who he had worked for before - had hired him to find their daughter Deborah, he had somehow suspected that Colonel Gillian might be involved. Though how this could be was a mystery to him, as he knew that the former military research specialist had spent the last decade in a high security mental institution. After the girl had vanished, he had checked, but according to the people he had asked at the hospital, Gillian was still a quivering, drooling wreck of a man, was still where he had been put after killing half a dozen participants in the project he had been running. A project Chasson had some firsthand experience with, as he had been one of only two participants who had survived it - barely.
The phone rang once, then was picked up by a computer.
"Identification please," the artificial voice asked.
"Hypotenuses Alpha Three. Identify!"
A thousand miles away, the security computer matched his password and voice pattern to those stored in its vast database, confirming at the same time that the phone he was calling from was an approved device.
It took a second, then a human voice answered the phone.
"How may I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to General Hopkins, please."
As he had been identified by the computer, no further questions were asked.
"One moment please."
"Hopkins," the general's deep voice echoed across the distance a minute later.
"Major? What can I do for you?"
As usual the general wasn't somebody to chitchat, and went straight to the point.
"I'm not a Major anymore, General," Chasson reminded Hopkins.
"Major, my time is valuable. What can I do for you?" the general repeated.
Chasson frowned. Though they had spoken less than five times since Chasson had left the Army, never before had the general been so short with him. But then, maybe had had called at an inopportune time.
"I need to know if there've been any plans to resurrect the project again."
He didn't elaborate on which project he was talking about, but then, he didn't have to.
"Why do you ask?"
"I need to know," he simply said, knowing that this would have to be enough. Hopkins owed him big time. It seemed as it was time for him to pay.
There was a moment of silence. While he waited, Chasson admired the view the tall windows of the living room offered him. It was a beautiful place.
"It's Shawn," the general finally said, his voice distant. "He made some friends upstairs, persuaded them to give it another try, said he made some changes, that this time he knew how to achieve the goal without casualties. I, naturally, protested it, but was shot down. I'm sorry."
Chasson went cold inside. The project was on again. And under Shawn's supervision of all things. Shawn had been Gillian's assistant all those years ago. At the trial he had been cleared of all charges, and Chasson had never paid him much heed, really, thinking him to be relatively harmless. It looked like he had been wrong. And now a lot of innocent children would have to pay for it.
"Where is he?"
"Chasson, you are well aware that I can't tell you that. I've already told you too much really."
"General. Please. I need to know."
A sigh could be heard through the phone line.
"I'm sorry, Chasson. You know the rules as well as I do."
Chasson leaned against a wall in frustration. He was very tempted to run his fist through that wall, but than that wouldn't achieve anything, except injuring his hand, and pissing his hostess off. Not that he needed more of that. He had the very firm impression that she didn't like him very much. Which was, in a way, sad, as he wouldn't mind getting to know her better. There was something about her ...
Cut that out, he scolded himself. This is neither the time nor the place to listen to your libido.
"Listen, General. I think he took some kids, using them. What he does isn't right."
Again a sigh and a pause.
"Okay," came finally the reply. "I'll see what I can find out. You know I can't officially get involved in this."
"Call me as soon as you know more, please."
The click of the disconnecting phone line was the only answer he got.
For a long moment he kept leaning again the wall. It looked like he would have to talk to Ace Cooper and the others.
He didn't look forward to that.
* * *
Fran was sitting on the floor in front of Cosmo's bed in Indian fashion. Actually, only her spirit body did sit there, but after having talked to the girl for the last twenty minutes, Cosmo had stopped making that distinction, accepting what he saw as her real self.
By now, Cosmo had a much clearer idea where they were. Fran had spent quite a few nights strolling the compound in her spirit form, unseen and unheard by anybody else.
Colonel Shawn had set up his little enterprise in a underground facility in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, Fran had never seen any signs naming the area, and never had managed to get far enough away from her body to find any street signs. All she could say way there the outside was pretty bare, not much in terms of trees and green stuff. New Mexico maybe, or Texas. Not that this narrowed the area very much, really.
The building they were in consisted of four underground floors, each one in the shape of a 'X', with four corridors going away from a central core. The lowest level was mostly storage rooms at one side and guards sleeping quarters at the other. The next floor - which was the floor they were on - was labs and meeting rooms, and one corridor made of twelve cells, eight of them occupied at the moment.
Cosmo's cell was the third one to the left, Fran's was two further down the row on the other side of the corridor. The others where occupied by the other prisoners. Fran knew about the twins, Donny and Pat, who seemed to be able to feel whatever the other felt no matter how far about they where, and a girl with the name of Deborah who seemed to be very handy with fire. She wasn't really sure what the others could do, as she never had been watching when they did any kind of magic, but she was sure they had some special talents, and Cosmo tended to agree with her, feeling their magic stronger every minute.
The floor above contained more laboratories and offices and also some kind of medical facility, and the last floor had guard posts, storage rooms and more offices.
The floors were connected by an elevator in the center core, and had two stairways, one he already had been to, and one at the other end.
Above ground, a small, flat building hid the entrance, and the elevator shaft. Surrounding it was an electric fence, a gravel road leading away from it.
So, the question now was, how to get out of here, and how to take the others with him?
It didn't really look good. Too many of them, too few of him, and then there was the fact that his magic seemed to have gone weird as well. First, he couldn’t vent his magic anymore - he had tried, but it hadn't worked. And when he had attempted a spell, in order to get rid of the churning magical energy which had gathered inside of him at an alarming rate, it hadn't worked either. All he got for his efforts was a blinding headache.
It must be those drugs they'd given him, no doubt about it.
To distract himself he worked on the details of their escape plan - not that there was much of a plan yet.
"And how many guards are there?" Cosmo asked, when Fran suddenly looked up, startled.
"Damn," she cursed, as she got up, looking around wildly.
"What's up," Cosmo asked, getting up from his bed, swaying slightly, when the room begun to spin like crazy.
"I've gotta go. I'll be back later."
And with that, Fran was gone.
"Fran!" Cosmo called after her, but it was too late.
He cursed, as he pressed the palm of his hand against his throbbing skull. Carefully, he sat back onto his bed.
He had to get out of here. Soon, preferably. Or, rather, the day before yesterday.
But not right now. He doubted he would be able to light a candle at the moment. Not that he ever had been able to do that, really, at least not magically, but somehow his magic just wouldn't do anything he wanted at the moment. It was there, more than he wanted really, but…
The link was the only thing that worked. Which was a good thing, as it was the only thing that kept him sane.
Suddenly, he felt exhausted. He leaned over, yawning.
He fell asleep, never noticing the odorless gas, which entered his cell through the ventilation grill.
* * *
Chasson returned to the office, looking somber. Three pairs of eyes watched him questioningly, but he shook his head. It was too early, he wouldn't tell them yet. Maybe he was wrong after all, maybe he didn't have to tell them.
"Sorry, was a dead end," he lied smoothly, glancing at the computer, as if he wanted to see what they learned. In reality, he just didn't want to look at them.
He found out that he hadn't lied well enough, when two strong hands grabbed him around his upper arms and slammed him against the shelves, leaving his feet to dangle a couple of inches above the floor.
"What did you find out?" Ace Cooper's voice was very close to his ear.
Suppressing long years of self defense training, he didn't move, just letting himself be pinned against the shelves. He saw Magic Force floating and spinning around Cooper's body, ready to strike, only held in check by an iron control. If Cooper should loose that control, he would be toast.
Damn, that man was strong. Magically and physically. Those fingers would leave bruises, that was sure.
"I really can't tell you."
Miss Morrigan's voice at his other ear.
Because you'll think I'm a freak. Because, I'm afraid to go up against the whole frigging US Army. Because I've borne that load for the last ten years on my own, and I don't know how to let go of it.
But these people were only concerned about the people they cared about. Loved.
He sighed deeply, as the others waited for him to come to an decision.
"You won't like it."
Cooper laughed shortly, bitterly. "There hasn't been a thing I did like since Cosmo disappeared."
"Okay, then. Please let me down. I will tell you everything I know."
Once again they gathered in the living room. Ace stood at the windows, staring outside, though he wasn't really noticing the splendor of the setting sun, which bathed the landscape and the sea in its red light.
His concentration was on Chasson, who sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, cradling a coffee in his hands. Kate and Savannah sat to either side of him, holding mugs with tea, taking a sip now and then, almost mechanically.
Ace felt bad that he had lost control. He usually didn't explode like this. It just wasn't his style, but he had simply known that Chasson hadn't been truthful, and he hadn't been able to hold back any longer. Good thing he had been able to keep reins on his magic. Blasting Chasson through the wall wouldn't have accomplished anything.
Since Cosmo had vanished, his nerves had been on the edge. If there at least would be something - anything - he could do to find him. But this endless waiting, this enforced inactivity was driving him crazy. He just couldn't stand it any more.
Maybe it was a good thing that he finally had vented some steam.
Though, he still didn't feel any better, he wouldn't until Cosmo was back in his care.
Chasson sighed, then looked up from his cup at the three people watching him.
"I'm sorry that I'll have to go seemingly off the track for a moment, but if you hear me out, you hopefully will understand.
"Eleven years ago, an Army officer, one Colonel Gillian, started a top secret military science project. He knew that there were people out there with special abilities, special talents. People with Magic. He figured, if you could harness these magic abilities and give it to somebody else, it could be formed into a weapon.
"There were six volunteers from each military branch and for two months, the Colonel experimented with them, giving them drugs, doing tests. Not one of those volunteers knew that in order to fabricate those drugs and to create his tests, Gillian had three magic users captured, and held them against their will."
Slowly Ace moved over to the couch, and slid down into it. His inside was cold. Somebody had captured magic users, used them against their will. It was the stuff of nightmares. Particularly, his nightmare, and that of every magic user. It might have been more than ten years ago, but considering what has happened, it looked like somebody else had picked up that idea. It sounded too much like the current situation.
Chasson fixed his eyes again on his mug, visibly pulling himself together.
"One day, one of the prisoners snapped. I don't know the details, but in the end most of the people in the test facility were dead or gibbering wrecks. Gillian fell into the second category; since that day, he's a 'guest' of Tibras Military Mental Institute - he never recovered. All documents have been destroyed and the project was scraped."
"If he's still in the hospital, what does he have to do with all this?"
"Gillian had an assistant, Lieutenant Shawn. After the end of the project, he was cleared of all charges, though his career was over, thanks to his involvement.
"Now, however, it looks like Shawn has managed to get new supporters high up. He started another project, though I do not know any details - yet."
"How come you know so much about all this?"
Chasson sighed once again, staring at the carpet, ignoring Ace's question for a minute. Ace was just about to ask once more, when the other man spoke up again.
"I was one of the volunteers. In fact, the only one who survived. I've spent two years in various hospitals, thinking I'd gone mad, I was seeing sounds, hearing colors. Suddenly everybody, everything was surrounded by strange lights, sounds. I didn't know that Gillian was successful in the end - we've never been told what the project really was about. I had no idea that he'd given me magic - a magic I really didn't want."
He looked up, fixing his pain filled eyes at Ace. "I had no idea what Gillian had done, how he got his source material, that he was using these people."
Ace studied the man for a second. Chasson seemed to be on the level. Still, he felt sick at the thought that somebody had managed to artificially create a magic user. It was simply… unnatural. Savannah stared at Chasson with wide eyes, unconsciously sliding away a bit to create more distance between them. Kate didn't show any outward emotions, but Ace knew her well enough to know that she was appalled. She, as a Nature Mage was even more sensitive to any abnormal use of magic - and this was abnormal magic.
Magic was something you were either born with, or not. There was no in between. Ace had never heard about something, which was able to create artificial magic in somebody. It was like Frankenstein all over again. A monster, an abomination.
But Frankenstein's monster was not the one to blame - it had been a victim, just like Chasson. Chasson was not evil. It was Dr. Frankenstein, who had committed the crime.
And this time it was this Lieutenant Shawn who played the role of the maker of monsters, not caring who got hurt in doing so.
"Where is this Lieutenant Shawn?" Ace asked, focusing again on the real problem.
They had to find Cosmo and the others.
Anything else could wait, didn’t really matter.
"I'm sorry, but that I don’t know."
* * *
Another day, another nightmare.
This time, when Cosmo was brought back to his cell, he threw up barely seconds after they had tossed him into the room.
He had no idea how long he had been in the VR globe this time - it simply seemed as if it had been an eternity. Again he had been confronted with realistic scenarios of Ace being in danger over and over again. Sometimes later, they seemed to have decided to go on a different track, as Ace had been replaced with Ulene. Usually, she had been put in some kind of trap, and no matter what he had tried, he never had been able to get her out of it. And Ace had stood close by, but never even lifting a finger to help her, no matter how much he begged him. He remembered how he had tried to draw in his magic, to use his spells, but every time the magic had been just out of his grasp, just out of reach.
After a few dry heaves, his stomach wouldn't expel any more. He hadn't eaten since he had been brought here, had only gotten some water to drink. He hadn't been hungry really, maybe because of the drugs.
He wished they would stop using those drugs. He wished all of this would simply stop.
If he had at least an idea what they hoped to achieve with these tests. Magic didn't work in VR space, they should have found that out by now. He figured, it had something to do with the part of the brain that controlled the magic knowing that what the rest of the brain told it was not real. How it knew, Cosmo had no idea. He wished he would, because then maybe he would be able to figure out a way to do the same - and wouldn't believe that every time they pushed him into a new hell it was for real.
He collapsed on the bed, curling into a fetal position.
Once more, he groped for the link. For a moment, he was overwhelmed by the barrage of magic energies he sensed all around him, and he couldn't detect the link in all that noise. He almost sobbed, but than he finally located it, drew it to him, holding tightly to it, almost as if it was a physical thing.
Ace was safe.
That was all that mattered.
At least for now.
* * *
Vega drove up the gravel path which led to Kate Morrigan's house, remembering those times over fifteen years back, when he had first seen the house, bringing a young Ace Cooper here to get schooling in his magic abilities. Anne and Suzan, his wife, both had still been alive back then, Kate had been just a teenage girl. But that had been a long time ago.
He had spent the morning in his office, going through all the information he could find on Colonel - former Lieutenant - Shawn, former Colonel Gillian, and, also, on Alexander Chasson, another former member of the few and the proud.
Vega had been furious when he had come to the Express yesterday and found that Ace had gone without telling him where. For one panicked second, he had thought the magician had been kidnapped as well - as highly unlikely as it was that somebody would manage to take him from his home without anybody noticing anything. But Angel had informed him that Ace had taken the Racer, telling her that he didn't know when he would be back. He had slapped himself, when Ace had called and told him he was with Kate. He should have figured that out on his own, it wasn't the first time after all, that Ace had gone to her when he had trouble. Mona was out of town, on her tour through Asia, and Kate was the only other person Ace trusted enough to go to in a crisis.
When Ace had called and asked about the information, Vega had been torn between reaming the other man out for giving him more gray hair than he already had, or being relieved that Ace had found something for him to do. Normally, Ace wouldn't have to ask him for information, as Angel was very good at finding those herself, especially when teamed up with Cosmo, but she couldn't talk directly to people without giving some proper authorization. Vega was not limited by that handicap.
Of course, Ace only had asked to send whatever he found out by computer - he didn't expect for Vega to show up in person. But, damn it, if there was something Vega could do to help, he wanted to be there in person. After all, Cosmo was his friend as well.
He parked the car next to the blue and white Magic Racer, and, picking up the three files with the information from their place on the passenger seat, he left the car.
On his ring, Kate opened the door to the house.
"Vega?!" she called out, half surprised, half pleased.
"Hello Kate," Vega returned, showing her the files. "I thought, I come by and bring the data myself, instead of calling."
Then, lowering his voice: "How's Ace?"
Kate closed her eyes for a second. "He is ... as good as can be expected," she answered equally quiet, casting a quick glance over her shoulder to the living room. "At least I got him to eat something."
"Thanks, Vega," she raised her voice to normal speaking level again, "you didn't have to do that."
"Oh, I think, I did," Vega said, following Kate's waved invitation inside. "Cosmo's my friend too, you know."
Kate closed the door and followed him into the living room. Ace had been sitting in an armchair, facing the windows, but rose now when he heard Vega coming in. He looked tired, dark circles under his eyes betraying his lack of sleep. He wore almost civilian clothing, at least by his normal standard, just the dark pants with the yellow stripes at the sides, and a simple white shirt. No cummerbund, jacket, gloves or even a cape in sight.
"You found something?" Ace asked, eyeing the files Vega still held. He didn't question Vega's presence here, just appearing to be grateful that his old friend didn't mind coming all the way from Electro City.
From the kitchen, two more persons entered, a dark haired woman, and a blond man. Vega concluded that those must be Savannah Redwing and Alexander Chasson, having spoken to Ace last night on the phone, and holding a picture of the man in his hands. Discretely, Vega shuffled Chasson's file to the back of the stack.
"Not much, but it might give us some more clues."
As they gathered around the low table, Kate introduced the two newcomers, confirming Vega's deduction.
He placed the files next to him, pulling Gillian's file first.
"Former Colonel Dr. Maximilian F. Gillian," he said, placing a photo on the center of the table. It showed an older, non-descriptive man, with dark hair. Only outstanding features were his sharp pale blue eyes, which glared at the camera, as if he took objection to being photographed.
Savannah, Kate and Ace leaned forward, while Chasson, after casting one quick glance at the photo, pulled back, a short flash of hate showing in his eyes, before he looked away.
Vega consulted the paper in his hand. "Fifty-three years old as of last month. Has a medical degree from the university of New York. Joined the army after he got his degree, and worked for a while in various medical facilities as a doctor.
"About fifteen years ago, he changed to the Secret Weapons Division of the Joined Army. The SWD works on developing special weapons, which are a bit out of the range of what you normally consider as weapons. Like how to hide a bomb in a piece of paper, poison in a pencil, secret spy stuff, only for real.
"There he worked on a project to enhance the physical powers of a normal human being - kind of making a super soldier."
Vega watched Chasson as he said the last bit. According to his file, the other man had been in that project, shortly before it came to an end, as one of the subjects.
Chasson just frowned for a moment, before he allowed his face to relax again.
"That's the official version at least," Vega went on. "The project ended, when most of his subjects died in a freak accident - again official version - and the good doctor was reduced to a vegetable, to spend the rest of his days in one of Uncle Sam's nice, padded rooms."
"Now..." He pulled Shawn's photo out of the next folder, putting it on the table.
"This is Colonel Sebastian Shawn, forty-two."
Shawn's photo looked like it belonged to a man ten years older than his real age. He wore his salt-and-pepper hair short, enhancing the thinness of the pale face and the sharp nose even more.
"Shawn used to be Gillian's assistant in his project. Somehow he managed to keep his nose clean when it crashed down. What he's working on at the moment, and where, is top secret, only that he's still with the SWD."
Ace looked up from the photos on the desk.
"So you don't know where he is, either?" he said disappointed.
Vega sighed. "I couldn't find what he's assigned to at the moment. However," he forestalled Ace's next words, "I started some investigations of my own, following his paper trail, and the usage of his credit card. Actually, Ms. LeSage should call any moment, telling me where he has been seen last. After that, it's only a matter of time to find out where he is."
Vega could only hope that this last statement was true. But then, it was the only trail they had right now.
Once more, they were waiting.
Ace was so tired of waiting. Well, he was tired, period, but sleep eluded him at the moment, as his mind just wouldn't come to rest, his worries about Cosmo and his anxiety chasing each other around in a circle.
Kate had brought more coffee and tea, as they gathered around the low couch table, discussing what they would do, as soon as they finally had the information about Shawn's whereabouts.
Ace watched his old friend sipping his coffee, talking to Kate and the others. It looked as Derek Vega had every intention to accompany them, wherever they would be going. Savannah, Kate and Chasson also had expressed their desire to come along, though in their cases Ace could understand it better. The Indian healer and the private investigator had a personal involvement in the whole thing; Savannah because of her foster daughter and Chasson because of his previous experience with Shawn and the project. And Kate had to go, simply because everything that affected a magic user in a negative way, also affected her.
Vega, however, had only his friendship to go on. He knew that Vega cared about Cosmo, the distrust from the early days of Cosmo's appearance in Ace's life long forgotten, now replaced by a deep respect - which, as Ace knew very well, went both ways.
Though Ace had many so-called friends - mostly because he was famous and a lot of people wanted to bath in that fame - there were only a very few people he really trusted. Cosmo was one of them - Vega the other. Even Mona, the woman he loved after all, couldn't really reach were those two men lived in his soul - and luckily for him and her, she knew that and accepted it.
Maybe he just should call himself lucky that now, when one part of his soul was missing, another part of it was there and helped him in anyway he could to get the missing part back. And if really the worst thing should happen and they were not able to get Cosmo back ...
The shrill ring of the phone pulled him out of his dark thoughts.
Chasson and Vega both checked their mobiles, but it was the older cop who flipped his device open, bringing it to his ear.
Soon, Vega asked for a piece of paper and something to write, which was promptly supplied. He scribbled done a few illegible words, and, thanking the person on the other end, hung up.
Just when he was about the inform them what had been said, when a phone rang again, only this time it was Chasson's.
The detective excused himself, before he left the room for the garden, leaving the others behind to discus Vega's new information.
"That was Miss LeSage, my secretary," Vega explained to the others. "She said, Colonel Shawn has made a few purchases on his card the last week in some small town in Texas. Following that, she called the city records, and got the information that he has a house rented down there. She also found out that there's a military facility - though it allegedly had been given up five years ago. It's in the middle of nowhere, so if somebody has set up shop there, there's a good chance nobody will ever notice something is going on there."
Ace let go of a breath he hadn't even been aware of holding.
They had a lead.
Finally, they had a lead.
* * *
This time, Cosmo refused to come willingly. Not that he ever had had any chance before, as the other times they had somehow drugged him before stuffing him into the VR globe. It had always been at the end of a session he had come aware of what they had done to him, but then it had always been too late.
Not this time.
Fran had been visiting again, and they had made plans on how to get out of here, or at least to get some information out on where they were kept. On his incentive, the young girl had snooped around some more, and finally found a clue to their location - an abandoned military complex, South of a small town called Gregburg, Texas. She also had found a computer room, and Cosmo knew, if he managed to get inside it, with a few minutes to spare, he would be able to contact Ace.
He only hoped he could pull it off. Over the last three days, the magic had gone more and more erratic. He now could see Mage Energy everywhere, couldn't switch the Sight off. Everybody and everything was surrounded by an aura - most of the non-magical kind, but still very much visible to him. There were whispers, voices he heard, but never understood. And, he still was not able to vent any of his own energy, which made him feel like an overcharged battery. His whole body fairly glowed to his Sight, so much he wondered why nobody ever had said something.
The only time he was free of that pain, was when he was in the VR globe, but the pain he got in exchange for that, was even worse.
He hurt everywhere, his head felt like it was ready to explode, and if there had been anything left in his stomach, he would have puked non-stop. Probably the drugs.
When the door opened, he pretended to be asleep. He heard the steps of two men coming closer. The moment he though they were close enough, he dashed off the bed, slipping between them, before they could react.
For one second the two men were baffled that their seemingly inert victim had moved. Before they could turn, Cosmo raced for the door, reaching it in a second.
It was open, and Cosmo wasted no time getting through.
"Hey!" one of the guards called out. "Stop!"
Cosmo didn't pay them any heed, stumbling on as fast as he could. His stomach was in a tight knot, and the moving Mage Energies everywhere made orienting himself difficult. The voices got more intense, whispering faster to him, but he still couldn't understand them, so he ignored them.
He could move, and that was all that counted right now.
Thanks to Fran, he knew where to go.
He reached the center core of the station, ripping the door to the stair case open. He had to get two floors up, but using the elevators was out of the question.
The sound of the sirens going of, mixing with the whispers. Cosmo ignored both. He had reached the next landing, when the door below crashed open, and pushed him to even greater speed.
If Fran was right, there were only three guards normally on sub-level one, and their room was at the end of one of the corridors. With any luck, he should be able to get out of the stair case, and to the computer room before they reached him.
He burst through the stair case door as fast as he could, turning immediately to the left. The exit out of the complex was to his right hand side, but reaching it never had been in his plan, though he hoped the guards thought he was aiming for it. With any luck, it would buy him a few more seconds.
Two, three, four. This was the right door. How nice of them to write 'Computer Center' on it.
Cosmo rattled at the door knob, ignoring the calls from behind, ignoring everything. There was only the door.
"One second, just one second," he half cursed, half prayed.
A shot ricocheted off the wall an inch away from his hand.
Suddenly, the door knob gave.
Cosmo pushed the door open, again ignoring the voices. He slipped through, just as another shot missed him by a hair's breath. He slammed the door shut behind himself, searching for something, anything, to block it. He needed just one quiet minute or two, no more, to get his message out, but it didn't look like those guys outside were particularly willing to give him those minutes.
He found a chair, and, hooking it with one foot, pulled it closer, to ram it underneath the door knob. Just then something outside collided with the door, rattling it.
He could only hope it would hold.
Cosmo batted at the voices, knowing it wouldn't change a thing.
He turned around, taking in the equipment before him.
At first glace, it didn't look particularly impressive. But then, there was no real need to. The true power was behind the walls, inside the room was only the interface.
His fingers flew over the keyboard, entering commands at lightning speed. Though the screen looked to be out of focus, glowing in blue and black, he didn't really need to see what he was typing. Long years of practice had pushed his communication skills with a computer - any computer - to an almost instinctive level.
Once again something or someone slammed against the door, rattling it in its hinges.
"One minute, just one more minute," he prayed desperately.
Just that moment the powers that be decided they were done with listening to Cosmo.
The door exploded into the room, admitting a man with a gun, which he pointed at Cosmo. To the young magician's sight, the man was surrounded by an aura in angry red and orange colors - not magical, but still very much there.
"Away from that computer!"
Cosmo needed only ten more seconds.
Just ten more seconds.
He was not going to get them.
'… call … us'
The whispers got louder.
Five more seconds.
The keyboard exploded underneath his hands.
He had failed.
'We … will …. open … to you!
* * *
Ace landed the rented jet at a small airport about fifteen miles away from Gregburg, a rural town in Texas. By calling ahead, Ace had arranged a car, which brought them the rest of the way.
Everybody had come, Kate, Savannah, Alex Chasson and, of course, Vega. Though Ace at first hadn't been too happy about all of them coming along, he had neither the nerve nor the time to fight their coming - and to be honest, now he was kind of glad they've come.
The sun had just crawled over the horizon, when they finally reached their goal at the end of a gravel road.
There wasn't much to see actually, a mashed fence, surrounding a area not much bigger than a baseball field. A lonely, concrete building in the center of it, that was it.
"There's a lot of energy around here," Chasson said flatly. "This is the right place. I'm sure of it."
"And how do we get inside?"
There were no guards at the gate, nor anything to communicate with anybody inside.
Though the whole place fairly radiated 'nobody here', Ace knew they were at the right place.
Well, there were other ways than walking through a door, to enter a place. All it need was a touch of magic.
Stepping up to the fence, he raised his arms, pulling the Mage Force to him…
… only to have it ripped away from his grasp.
Something like that had never happened to him before. He always had been able to call the Magic Force to him without a second thought. To him it was almost as natural as breathing. He couldn't see it, never had been able to, but then he had never needed to. He sensed the energy on a much deeper level. And now .. it was gone.
He heard Chasson inhale loudly and turned to look at him. The other man was staring around, searching for something only he could see.
"What happened just now?" Kate asked, confused.
"I … I don't understand," Chasson mumbled, trying to put into words something he had clearly difficulties to comprehend. "But, from one moment to the next, all the Magic Force vanished from here."
'Call …. Just call.'
Cosmo felt something touch him, brush over his skin with something like a caress. It wasn't the guard, that much was clear.
He didn't know where the whispered words were coming from, and why he felt compelled to speak them out load.
"Powers of Magic," he first whispered, but then with every word his voice got stronger. "Open thy Force to me!"
The last was a scream, ripped from his throat.
For one eternally long moment, time stopped.
Patrick Linol had been with the military for the last three years. After basic training, he had been based for a while at the East coast, before he had been transferred to Texas. Only two weeks ago, he had been transferred to this new place.
As a lowly guard, he was, of course, never made privy to any of the ongoings here. He knew that some teenagers with some kind of mental disease were dreaded somewhere on the lower levels, and that he and the other guards were there to make sure that they didn't escape. He didn't know which kind of disease or which kind of treatment, but, to be totally honest, he didn't care. He had an easy job, not much to do really, but going on patrol once in a while, and he would make sure he wouldn't loose it.
Now, from one minute to the next, all of it had changed. The red haired teenager - young man was more like it, really - had barricaded himself inside the computer room. He must have somehow managed to block the door, and he had to shot out the lock in order to get in.
After that everything had gone down the drain.
The young man had turned, looking defeated towards the ground. Patrick had been sure he had him then.
He said something, too low for Patrick to understand at first, but then his words got louder, until they ended in a scream.
"…thy Force to me!"
Out of nowhere, a wind rose. Beginning at the man's feet, it whirled around his body. And not only a wind. Light gathered around him, enveloping his whole body from head to toe. His eyes were open, and Patrick was sure, he had never seen anything more spooky than this, as the eyes now were all silver, like they were cast in liquid metal.
The man started to float a couple of inches above the ground, his legs stretched out long, the toes pointing at the floor, the arms akimbo. Purple, red and orange sparks of light flitted around his body, the light getting brighter by the second.
For one moment, the light emitting from him got so bright, Patrick had to gaze away, else, as he knew without a doubt, he would have been blinded.
When the lightning flash was gone, and Patrick finally dared to look back, the other man hadn't changed his pose. But somehow he had changed.
Gone were the white T-shirt and the slacks, which was the basic outfit of all patients. The other man now wore red pants, with black boots rimmed in orange. Over a red and orange shirt with some lines on it, he wore a gray coat with purple labels. The coat flapped in the storm whirling around him. Modern looking glasses covered half of his face, but they couldn't hide the still metallic looking, silver-gray eyes, which now bore into him coldly.
Patrick's training demanded of him to fire at the man, stopping what ever was going one. That was what he had been hired to do after all. But his instincts told him in now uncertain terms that it was a far better idea to turn around, and run like hell.
In the end, instinct won.
What the hell did just happen?
Cosmo remembered a blinding light, a headache, which cleaved straight through his skull, and then - for a strange moment - floating.
He had the weirdest feeling, he wasn't alone in his head anymore, though it was not Ace's presence he felt. There was somebody else, or, maybe, strangely enough, something else.
A presence, but nothing conscious. Somehow aware, but without a sense of being. It was just … there, doing nothing for now. It was … waiting?.
Yes, it was waiting.
Waiting for what?
Good question, really.
Which brought him back to his first question, namely, what the hell did happen?
Something had changed.
Then it hit him out of the blue.
The magic had changed!
Until this moment, magic, and his use of it, had been a somewhat painful process. Power wasn't the problem, really, he had had all the power he wanted. Actually, until a short while ago, until he had come to term with it, he had had more than he wanted. Namely, any.
The real problem had been control.
Usage of magic required incredible amounts of control. And, to be totally honest, he sucked at control. He wasn't very fond of meditating, hating to be still for any amount of time. It had taken a while, but in the end, he had come to a grudging acceptance of the necessity of it. The link to Ace did help of course, as he was able to anchor himself into the other magician. Though, all in all, this didn’t make it any more fun.
Now, this had changed. Whereas before the magic had been like the wild overflow from a dammed lake, it was now, as if the whole lake was at his disposal, and he had just to touch it, to get access and control it.
Cosmo couldn't help, but feel exhilarated by this new form of power which now was at his fingertips. Finally, he had the means to get out of here and take the others with him. With the power he now had at his disposal, he would be able to do anything.
Though he better hurry, because he doubted he would be alone much longer.
* * *
Colonel Sebastian Shawn had been fast asleep, when the alert was sounded. For the last two nights, he had opted to stay in a room at the complex. He knew, they were close with the red headed boy, close to breaking him or making him.
The boy was the strongest mage he had ever had had the chance to study. Unlike most of his other subjects, he had abilities in several areas. This 'destruction' spell of his was particularly interesting, but also the 'push' spell. He had studied him closely, watched how the boy had tried to use those spells over and over again in the Virtual Reality. Naturally, in VR space, magic didn't work - a shame really, but there was nothing they could be done about it - but it had given him a great opportunity to see how he worked. Besides the primary objective of the programs, of course. To break his will.
This mornings session should be the turning point.
Sebastian Shawn had always known that there was such a thing as Magic - the real thing, not that imitation, which the stage magicians showed, but honest to got Magic. He knew, because he could see it.
It had began in high school, when he had noticed a girl who had some strange kind of glow around her. For weeks he had watched her, knowing without doubt that there was something special about her, until one day, he had seen how she had told one of the biggest bullies in the school to get out of her way - and he simply had done as she had commanded him. As she had done it, the 'light' around her had flared, and Shawn had know that there was a connection. She had left the school shortly after, when her parents moved, but Shawn had never forgotten her. It had been two years later, in college, when he found the next Magic user. Again he had watched him, and learned what he could do - and than he had contacted him, threatened to expose him and his secret, if he wouldn't do as he told him.
For years, he had been satisfied by finding them, and controlling them, until one day, he had found one woman, who wouldn't do his bidding, who had turned the tables on him. It had left him scarred - mentally and physically. From that day on, he had known, that it wasn't enough to find them, he wanted to become one with Power.
For the longest time he had planned, and worked on achieving his goal. Meeting Gillian fifteen years back had been a stroke of luck. The Colonel had no own magic skill, so it was pretty impressive what he had achieved, but in the end it had been his down fall. He had been in the lab the day when that one magic user literally exploded, taking the project with her. Only one of the subjects survived. And, of course, he himself. A sure sing that he had to continue.
Though he laid low after the disaster, playing the innocent bystander afterwards, it had taken him forever to get the approval for another project. This time, he would make sure nothing would happen. Picking children as subject had several advantaged, least of them that they were easily controlled.
His newest acquisition was older than the others, but after he had seen him, he knew that he had to have him. The boy was so powerful, he almost hurt to look at. It had been a tremendous risk to take him, especially with Cooper around, who was a serious power to recon with, but in the end, Shawn hadn't been able to resist. It only had been a matter of separating them. Cooper was even more powerful than the boy, but if his didn't know where he was, there was nothing he could do.
He only had to work out where the boy's power came from, and learn how to control it himself …
He smiled a little at his old dream.
He was so close now. So close. The others thought he only wanted to use them, and that was fine with them. Some idiots in the military had scoffed at him and his ideas, and others had raised 'moral issues' because of him picking kids, but to be honest, he didn't care.
Knowing that the guard should be able to handle any problems, he took his time to slip into his uniform. However, when the alarm hadn't stopped after he had dressed, he reached for the phone.
"What's going on?" he barked into the receiver the moment somebody had picked up at the other end.
"Twenty-two has escaped from his cell. He got to the computer room."
"Damn!" Shawn cursed, slamming down the receiver. Subject twenty-two was the boy he put so much hopes in. This was not going as he had planed.
He pulled open a drawer, getting out a gun. Though the guards should be able to handle everything twenty-two was able to throw at them, he preferred to be prepared.
"The Magic Force doesn't just vanish," Ace remarked, still trying to come to terms with the disappearance of something he had had access to almost all his life.
Chasson lifted one shoulder, clearly also at a loss to what has happened.
“Oh God,” Kate gasped suddenly, clutching her hand to her mouth.
Ace turned. He didn’t like the tone of Kate’s voice, and when he saw her wide, shocked eyes, he liked it even less.
“What?” he asked shortly, his stomach doing a somersault. He knew, all of the sudden, that this had something to do with Cosmo. How he knew, he didn’t know, but he knew.
“Cosmo,” Kate said, confirming Ace’s fear. “He .. I believe .. I think ..”
Ace was ready to grab her at her shoulders and shake the answer out of her, though he had the terrible feeling, he already knew what Kate wanted to say.
Kate sighed deeply, then looked up to Ace. “I believe, he turned into the Magician.”
Chasson and Savannah both looked confused at this statement, though they both obviously noticed the capital ‘M’ she had used when she had said ‘Magician’. Ace and Vega, however, knew what Kate’s statement meant. Vega paled visibly, taking a step back, as if to distant himself from the impact.
“You’re sure?” he asked, whispering.
Once again, Kate sighed. “I hope I’m wrong, but this would explain everything. Ace, do you remember what happened when you turned into the Magician the first time?”
Ace nodded slowly. He had been fifteen and had been living with Ann for maybe half a year. Ann had taught him, and he just had just begun to feel comfortable with his magic, his new life and everything, when one day, when he had tried a spell, something happened. Until today, he didn't really know where the voices had come from, but when he had echoed their words there had been an incredible amount of energy coming from nowhere, and he had Changed, had turned into the Magician for the first time. He also had blown out all the windows in the living room, wrecking the place in the process.
"That day, you … sucked all available Magic Force to you, like a black hole. And it felt exactly like it feels now."
Of course, Kate had been in the house that day as well, as she also had studied magic with Ann.
No. Ace mentally shook himself. He couldn't accept that Kate was right. It just couldn't be. Cosmo had just come to terms with his magic, with him being so different from all the others. He had been so freaked out in the beginning, and Cosmo would never been able to accept *that*.
That is, if it was true. Which Ace highly doubted. Cosmo had never shown any indication that he would be able to change.
Ace's ability to turn into the Magician, to take this next step on the evolutionary ladder of Magic, was not only extremely rare. As far as he knew, he was unique. Ann, and himself, had never found another one who could do it.
It wasn't that he feared any competition - least of all from Cosmo. But, he always had hoped to find somebody who shared that experience, somebody he could talk to, somebody who really, really, *really* understood who and what he was.
No, he didn't wish that on him. The young man had suffered so much already. He didn't need that.
"We've got to get in!"
No matter what.
* * *
He had made his way down two levels to where the cells were situated. He had encountered three guards on his way, but they had posed no problem to him. With one distracted gesture, he simply had Pushed them away, bent their weapons into useless scrap metal. Then he told them that they should go to sleep, and they did.
He felt incredible, like never before in his life. At some, remote level, he knew he probably should be scared out of his mind, scared by the strange powers he suddenly had, scared because he now wore a costume he had no memories of getting into, scared because he wasn't scared. But for some strange reason he wasn't. He felt calmer than ever before in his life.
His link to Ace was somehow dimmed by this power - and again, though he knew he should be, this didn't scare him.
It simply was that he was in control of everything, of that new power, his actions. And then, somehow he wasn't. This … presence, he had felt earlier, it was still there, somehow connected to him. He didn't understand it, but he knew it was safe.
For the moment, it was enough.
His fingertips touched the door for the first cell, and with one simple thought, he opened it.
A young boy, not older than twelve, looked up from the cot he was sitting on. Grey eyes widened when he saw Cosmo. There was nothing to distinguish him from any other boy of his age, at least not to the normal eye. To Cosmo's enhanced senses, it was obvious that he had Power.
"Wanna get out of here?"
Cosmo didn't have to ask a second time. The boy jumped off the cot, rushing to leave the cell. He cast Cosmo a weird look as he slipped by him, but the young Magician didn't notice.
Together they freed four more children, ranging in age from ten to thirteen.
Fran was the last one they got out of her cell.
When she saw Cosmo, she ran to him, wrapping her arms around him. Then she pulled back, looking at him strangely.
"What happened to you?"
Cosmo smiled. "Long story. I'll tell you later. Are these all?" he asked, indicating the kids gathered around them, watching them with fear filled eyes.
Fran hesitated a moment, then shook her head. "No, the twins are missing."
"Any idea where they could be?"
Fran swallowed, then nodded.
"They must be in the lab."
* * *
Shawn couldn't believe what happened to his project. One moment, everything had been running as he wanted it, and now … this.
The computer room looked like a bomb had hit it. Every single monitor was trashed, the computers fried, even those in the extra room. The work of three months destroyed. Of course, there were back-ups in the labs downstairs, but it was the principle of the matter.
As he got down, it didn't get any better. He found two guards, seemingly asleep, though he couldn't wake them up. Next to them, lay their guns, the barrel bent and useless.
He wondered what was going through the kid's mind, what he was planning. He would have expected, that number twenty-two hightailed it out of here as fast as possible. Instead he was heading downstairs. Maybe, he intended to destroy the lab as well. Shawn wouldn't be surprised, after what he had seen in the computer room.
Reaching the third sub-level, he turned left, towards the lab. He had assembled a couple of guards on his way down. He planned on recapturing 22. He simply was too valuable to let him go. Though, if he should resist, he was willing to kill him. A shame, really, but he had no choice.
They found two more unconscious guards, just as they reached the laboratory. There was no sign what had knocked them out, and, to be honest, right now, he didn't really care.
The door to the lab was open, and they heard crashing sounds coming from within. He motioned for one of the guards to get to the other side of the doorway.
The guard did as he was told. Reaching the other side, he did take a quick peek inside. From his expression, whatever he had seen, wasn't good.
Shawn took a deep breath, then he whipped his head around the door frame, pulling it back a second later.
There was no way, he would ever be able to control … that.
He had to destroy him.
Cosmo had reached the lab and freed the two boys, then sent them away to the place he had told the other kids to go and hide. Before he left that room, Cosmo wanted to make sure nothing here ever could be used against anybody.
He had just trashed the VR globe with a couple of energy bolds, when something warned him of some kind of danger. He ducked, even before he realized that somebody was shooting at him.
He whirled around, facing the guards coming through the door of the lab. In their center walked Colonel Shawn. Cosmo had met him only once, but that had been enough. He would never forget that man’s face.
Hot, angry rage rose inside of him.
Here was the man who was responsible for all this. Here was the man, who had kidnapped him and all those children. Here was the man who had put him in the VR globe and had him live through Ace’s and Ulene’s death a hundred time. Here was the man who had singled out magic user only to use them for his own purpose, endangering all of them.
He had been helpless when he had been in the globe, had not known that somebody else was responsible for all his suffering.
But not now. Now he knew. And now, finally, he could *do* something about it.
The guards still shot at him, but Cosmo had stopped avoiding the bullets. He held out his hand, palm out, and deflected them simply back at them. The guards were inconsequential. The only thing that counted was Shawn.
The Magic Force inside of him moved, focusing on Shawn.
Distantly, something snapped.
Cosmo sent the guards to sleep, not caring where they fell, all his concentration on Shawn.
The colonel made one step back, his gun still raised, but didn’t seem to be able to find the trigger. His eyes had grown wide, and Cosmo enjoyed the fear which emanated from the other man.
He put his hands together, gathering energy around them.
A cold smile played around his lips.
A damp spot appeared on Shawn’s pants, and Cosmo knew he had him now. Now, he could kill him, after he made him suffer, just like Shawn had made him suffer.
Deep inside, the weak voice of sanity started to scream.
In the last couple of years, Cosmo had thought he wanted to kill before - had come pretty damn close once or twice, but every time he had realized that it wasn’t in his nature.
He was nobody who could kill in cold blood, who could commit murder.
And it would be murder. It would place him on the same level, or even lower, than Shawn.
Shawn was helpless, was in his mercy, there was nothing the other man could do against him. Not now - and never again. Shawn was finished.
Cosmo tried to move his hands apart, to dissipated the energy into nothingness.
Suddenly, all he wanted was to go away from here, go home, leave this place and this nightmare behind him.
The Magic Force, however, had a different idea. It wanted revenge.
From one moment to the next, his mind was pushed aside, the control, which he had been so proud about, torn from his grasp.
And after that, he knew no more.
Ace followed his instincts as they rushed down floor after floor, never hesitating, never doubting that the way he chose was the correct one. For some strange reason, for the first time since he and Cosmo had developed this link, it felt to him, as if he was the one sensing Cosmo, and not the other way round.
And that scared him to the bottom of his soul.
Because what he felt now was coldness, and that was nothing he had associated with Cosmo ever before. There was no fear, or anger, or anything resembling what he expected Cosmo to feel right now. Still, there was no doubt in his mind that what he felt was in fact Cosmo.
About ten minutes ago, a guard had left the building, driving a SUV hell bent for getting out of this place. He hadn't stopped to close the door behind him, and, naturally, they had used that opportunity to get in.
What they had found only had enforced his fears. There was destruction everywhere. One room they came by was totally wrecked. There where guards laying around, unconscious, like some trash bags the janitor had forgotten to pickup.
Something really bad had happened here.
With each step, his fear rose, and he rushed on faster, and faster, not caring if the others were able to follow him or not.
Reaching the third sub-level, he turned left, not needing the link anymore. The noise of destruction was all too obvious. Two doors down, they came to an open door and it was there where the sounds were coming from.
Ace turned the corner, and froze. Distantly, he realized that the others had followed him, Vega at his side, the others a step further behind.
Behind the door was a lab with a large VR globe as the center piece. Or, more accurate, in the center of the room were the remains of a VR globe. The globe was trashed, as was every single piece of equipment the lab had held once.
And in the middle of all that mayhem stood Cosmo.
When Kate had said that Cosmo might have turned into the Magician, she had not been wrong. Ace's heart froze, when he saw how Cosmo had changed. The costume, the shear Power he gave off - Cosmo had transformed. He *was* the Magician.
"Cosmo!" Ace yelled.
Cosmo didn't give him any heed. His whole concentration was focused on a man cowering in front of him. From the photo in his file, Ace recognized Sebastian Shawn.
Between Cosmo's hands, energy flared. His eyes were cold, colder than Ace had ever seen them, but his face was contorted into an angry mask. His hair was blown back by some invisible wind, which seemed to be centered on Cosmo and Cosmo alone, pushing at the long gray coat he wore.
"Cosmo," Ace yelled once again, and once again Cosmo ignored him.
The young magician lifted one hand, the magic energy burning brightly.
"Don't," the man on the ground begged, but Cosmo disregarded his plea, letting the energy ball fly.
It connected with Shawn, enveloping him in orange flames. Shawn screamed.
Ace didn't understand. Cosmo never would attack a man who was already down. It wasn't in his nature. Hell, even the stun spell, which he had used maybe three time in his life, scared the living shit out of the boy.
And now this.
Again, Cosmo let an energy ball fly, hitting Shawn over and over. The man jerked around, though it was clear he had lost consciousness by now.
Ace couldn't stand it anymore. Two minutes ago, he might have been ready to kill Shawn himself, for what that man had done, but he couldn't watch Cosmo killing him. Cosmo wasn't a murderer.
Bracing himself, he stepped between Cosmo and Shawn, grabbing for Cosmo's arm.
It was like touching a live wire. Energy hit him with the force of a sledge hammer, lightning dancing over his skin, and he was thrown back, colliding with some of the lab's equipment.
For one moment, he was stunned. Every bone in his body hurt.
Kate was at his side, checking him over, all the time casting quick glances at Cosmo, who didn't seem to have noticed what he had just done, throwing one lightning ball after the other towards the remains of the VR globe. At least he had stopped bombarding Shawn.
Ace levered himself up to a sitting position, pushing Kate's hands away.
"I'm fine," he said, though he was everything but.
God! What has happened to Cosmo?
What was he to do?
Vega knew he would never forget the scene, which unfolded before them. After Kate's statement that Cosmo might have turned into the Magician, he still had had no idea what he had expected, after they finally found him.
All his imagination had come up was the image of Cosmo in Ace's Magician outfit. And that he had gotten, though the costume had some unique twists that clearly said 'Cosmo'.
What his imagination had failed to provide him with, were the coldness, which seemed to pour out of Cosmo, and the fact that Cosmo didn't seem to care when he tossed Ace away like a useless toy. Actually, the second bit terrified him at a deep level. Cosmo didn't hurt Ace. Never. It was impossible. Until one minute ago, he would have sworn, that when Moses had came down the mountain, the eleventh commandment chiseled in to the tablets had said, 'Cosmo can not hurt Ace'.
Vega had no idea how his gun had gotten in his hand, aiming at Cosmo. Cop instinct, he guessed.
Luckily, he never would know if he really would have fired.
"Don't," Chasson said, placing his hand on Vega's arm, pushing the gun down.
Oh God, had he really aimed a gun at Cosmo?
"What … what can we do? We have to stop him. But we can't hurt him. We can't."
Chasson sighed. "There is nothing you can do. Though I might have a shot."
The last was said barely above a whisper.
Chasson released Vega's arm and stepped forward, only to be stopped by Ace.
"What do you plan to do?"
For a moment, Chasson glanced at a spot somewhere above Ace's right shoulder, then looked into Ace's eyes. He gestured at Cosmo, who now had taken to floating in the middle of the destroyed lab, his feet a couple of inches above the ground, lightning sizzling around him. Even with Ace, Vega couldn't remember ever seeing him that powerful.
"Look at him," Chasson said. "He clearly has lost control. If he ever had any. He's out of it, has no idea what he's doing. The Magic Force has taken over. We … I have to somehow drain that energy. It's the only chance he has."
“And how do you plan on doing that?” Ace’s voice could have cut steel.
“My magic ... I can transform the Magic energy into any other form of energy.”
That stopped Ace.
“Will it hurt him?” he asked, much softer now.
Chasson hesitated for one second. “I don’t think so. Listen,” he said, when he noticed as Ace was opening his mouth to protest. “I have never done anything like this before, but it’s the only thing I can think of. If this doesn't work, he will burn up.”
That shut Ace up. Vega knew that it was only concern for Cosmo that drove the older magician. It would kill Ace if anything would happen to his young friend. It killed Ace that he couldn’t do anything himself. This whole, damn situation was killing Ace.
Ace’s eyes searched Kate, hoping the Nature Mage would know of a way to help him.
The young woman only shook her head. “I’m sorry, Ace. Alexander is right. Cosmo is drawing too much power. It could kill him."
Ace took a deep breath, then nodded.
Alexander Chasson didn't really know, why he had offered to help.
First of all, he had no idea, *if* he really was able to do what he had said he would do. Yes, he could transform power, but he never had done anything like this. He was pretty sure, it was going to hurt, and he certainly wasn't a masochist.
But then, in some weird and twisted way, he felt responsible for that whole mess. Logic told him that he personally wasn't to blame for any of this. He had been a victim ten years ago, and there had been nothing he could have done back then, and there was nothing he could have done now.
Also, the way Cooper and the others cared about that boy - young man really. It was something special, something you didn't see every day. Cooper would do everything to help Cosmo.
Though he wasn't a saint by any stretch of the imagination, he felt he had to help.
He licked his lips, which seemed to have developed a sudden case of dryness. The others had stepped back a little, leaving him all the room he needed. Distantly, he thought that it was a good thing that the lab was already trashed. At least he had not to care about collateral damage. He had the feeling there would be some more coming.
Cosmo was floating a couple of inches above the floor, his arms stretched wide in a crucifixion pose. His eyes were open, but it was pretty clear he wasn't seeing a thing, wasn't aware of anything. Lightning danced over his body and he was jerking every now and then, though he didn't seem to be in pain.
"Cosmo," he said, not so much as to draw attention to him, but just to say *something*.
The young man didn't move.
Inhaling deeply, he put out his hands. To his Sight, Cosmo glowed madly. He concentrated, paying attention to the colors, the patterns.
Whenever he did something like this, it helped him to visualize an electronic setup, the switches, the lines and cables, the electricity flowing through them, the breakers, the light bulbs. Now, Cosmo was the light, and the energy flew to him, always into him, making him glow brighter and brighter.
Where was the light switch? Where could he tap into the line?
Then he saw it.
Reaching out with an invisible hand, the Grabbed the 'line' and Pulled it to him.
Oh God, there was so much energy, so much Power, raw, untamed, blazing like fire.
Chasson opened his mouth, though no sound came out. For a moment he thought his heart would stop, but then, somehow, he felt it, felt how he could pull the energy away, transform it, and render it harmless.
And he did.
At first nothing seemed to happen. Cosmo still did his floating thing, oblivious to the world, glowing like the sun.
Chasson channeled the Energy as fast as he could, grounding it, pulling faster and faster. He felt his hands burning, felt the storm rising. His breath was coming fast, as much from the exertion as from the pain.
He held on as fast as he could, but finally he reached a point were he thought he couldn't last anymore. Never before had he channeled anything even remotely like this. A distant part of his brain asked what had given him the stupid idea he might be able to do it. Because it became more and more obvious he had reached his limit, he would have to let go, or burn up in the fire.
Suddenly, something cool touched him at the shoulder blades, drawing away some of the heat of the Energy. He didn't know who it was, and, to be totally frank, he didn't give shit. The cold was like the heavens and he thought, he never felt anything more wonderful.
Ultimately, something had to give, and it did. Like a rope, which had been stretched too tight, the Magic Force gave. One second it was burning like a million suns, and the next … gone.
Chasson sagged, his knees too weak to support him anymore. Soft arms caught him, and when he looked up, he saw the blurry face of Kate Morrigan looking down on him.
However, before he could work out why she was looking concerned, everything went dark, and he didn't care for anything anymore.
Ace hated feeling helpless, hated to have to stand aside, to have somebody else, a virtual stranger, do all the work. He hated, also, that he still had no access to the Magic Force, making him feel even more helpless.
His eyes were clued on Cosmo. He could see how Chasson pulled energy away from the young Magician, however, so far it seemed to help nothing.
Seconds stretched on forever. He wanted to step forward, but he was afraid he would interrupt Chasson's concentration. Chasson didn't look too good, and it pained Ace, even though he barely knew him, that the other man was doing that for them.
"God, he's burning up," Kate whispered shocked, gripping her hand into Ace's arm.
Though Ace's eyes hadn't left Cosmo, he did take a surprised look, but nothing had changed with his young friend. Then he realized that Kate had been talking about Chasson.
Indeed, Chasson was surrounded by an unhealthy glow. He was sweating, thick rivulets running down his face, dampening his shirt. He was breathing with difficulty. It was obvious, he wouldn't last very much longer.
Without any warning to Ace, Kate stepped forward, placing her hands on Chasson's back. She closed her eyes. Immediately Chasson's features relaxed, as Kate supported him and pulled away some of the heat.
Ace hadn't realized he had been holding his breath, but he had, and it seemed, as if the world was doing the same.
And then, finally, after some eternally long minutes, something snapped.
Ace could feel the difference immediately. The Magic Force kind of hiccupped, and then everything was as it had been before, the Magic Force settling around him like a comforting, well worn blanket. He inhaled deeply, for one moment basking in the familiarity of it.
Then, he forgot all about it, as he rushed to Cosmo's side.
The young magician had fallen to the ground of the lab, not moving. The costume had had been wearing was gone, and now he wore some gray sweats and a plain white T-shirt. Somehow the outfit looked even stranger than the costume - the costume had been 'Cosmo', but this was not.
With shaking fingers he searched for a pulse, sighing in relief when he found it strong and steady.
"Cosmo," he whispered, shaking him carefully, while at the same time going over his young friend's body in search of injuries.
Long eyelashes fluttered, and then gray eyes opened, fixing themselves on Ace.
Ace couldn't recall ever hearing a sweeter word. His face split into a grin, and he his fingers stroke through Cosmo's hair, noting the white strand, which started at his left temple, running along the side of Cosmo's head.
"What stripe?" Cosmo mumbled, sounding confused.
"Excuse me?" Ace asked surprised. He was sure he hadn't said anything about the stripe.
“I could have sworn, you just ...” He didn’t finish the sentence, furrowing his brows.
Ace looked at Cosmo, still wondering what Cosmo had heard, but then decided there were more important things to do.
Like getting out of here.
Vega appeared at his shoulder. “We should get out of here,” he said, echoing Ace’s sentiment.
"Can you get up?" Ace asked Cosmo. Though he wouldn’t mind carrying Cosmo out, if he had to, he much preferred to have him move on his own two feet. He didn’t know what expected them on their way out, and he wanted to be ready to fight, if he had to. Besides, he knew how Cosmo felt about being helpless.
Cosmo nodded, accepting the hand Ace held out to him. He leaned heavily on Ace’s arm, swaying a little bit, but more or less, he was upright. Ace checked his eyes, and saw that Cosmo was blinking a lot, as if he still had problems with his vision.
Only now Ace looked for Chasson. The man was propped up on one elbow, looking tired, but essentially okay. Kate and Savannah kneeled at his side, Savannah's hands a few inches away from Chasson's shoulder, and Ace could see that she was exercising her healing powers.
Another stone dropped off his chest. He didn't know what he would have done if Chasson had been seriously been hurt.
"Wow!" Cosmo said, as he looked around. "What happened here?"
Ace couldn't help it. He burst out laughing.
They all looked up, when two uniformed men with guns appeared in the doorway of the lab. Without a thought, Ace stepped between the new threat and Cosmo. Vega moved to his side, his gun ready, though at the moment the muzzle pointed at the ground. Chasson stood together with Kate and Savannah, and Ace could see that they all were ready to fight if they had to.
Thankfully, the new arrivals held back, watching the four men and two women carefully, but didn't show any sign that they would attack.
The tension in the destroyed lab reached a breaking point. Ace didn't know what to think of the new arrivals. They wore a different uniform than the numerous unconscious guards they had encountered on their way in, but this didn't mean they would be any friendlier. They didn't point their weapons at anyone in particular, but it was obvious that if anybody would move, they would act accordingly.
Ace had just reached the point were he simply had to do something or burst, when another man arrived. He was older, with dark brown hair, gray at the temples. Though he wore the same type of uniform the others had, he had a couple of small stars pinned to one chest, clearly indicating some higher rank.
"General Hopkins," Chasson called out, standing unconsciously straighter.
"Major Chasson," the general acknowledged Chasson, but then looked at Ace, identifying him as the unofficial leader of the group. "Is anybody hurt?"
Ace had to admit that he was a bit surprised. Considering everything, he had expected another fight, was ready for it, though he hadn't been looking forward to it. He wanted all of this to be over, wanted to get Cosmo and go home, and never again to think about the last three days.
But, then, usually, what he wanted and what he got were two different things.
Ace swallowed, and shook his head. "Everybody is okay, I think." Even if Cosmo was far from 100%, he was mobile enough to get him out of here, and that was all what counted.
"Good," the general nodded. "Listen, my people are going to clean everything up. This here," he pointed at the lab, but obviously meant the whole complex, "never happened. You never were here. So, maybe it would be best, if you'd leave as soon as possible."
Ace would like to do nothing better than this. Though he suspected there was a hitch to it. He glanced at Chasson. The other man looked at Hopkins, then at Ace. Noticing Ace's scrutiny, he nodded.
"What about the others?" Cosmo now asked, his voice sounding weak.
Damn, in his worries about Cosmo, he had all but forgotten about the other kids.
"They naturally will be returned to their parents as soon as possible."
"And what do you plan to tell them? 'We're sorry, but we had to kidnap your children to experiment on them?"
Cosmo leaned even more heavily on Ace’s arm, but that didn’t stop him from challenging the general.
"Cosmo," Ace warned quietly, placing his other hand on Cosmo's shoulder. Not that he didn't agree, but right now it might be wiser not to aggravate the general too much. After all, he had said all the kid would get back to their families.
"What about my daughter?" Savannah now stepped forward. "Fransiska Redwing. I think she's also here somewhere."
Ace heard Cosmo whisper the name 'Fran?', but in this moment a young girl with raven black hair ran through the entrance, crying out Savannah's name. She rushed at her, wrapping her arms around Savannah. Savannah went down on her knees, returning the hug, as she buried her head in her adopted daughter's shoulder.
For on moment, the general actually looked embarrassed, but then his face turned hard again.
"All of this should never had happened. But it did, and neither you or I will be able to change that. All we can do is to minimize the damage, and make sure it will never happen again. I do advise you to do as I've told you and leave."
Ace didn't like it, but he had to agree that the general had a point. Fighting crime in Electro City was one thing, but going up against the whole army was something he didn't want to do. The children would be returned to their parents, and, unless they wanted to reveal to the world the powers their daughters or sons had, they would never speak of it again. The important part was that the children could go home, that was all that mattered.
"Cosmo?" Ace asked, looking at his friend.
Cosmo swayed at the arm he was leaning on, and the magician lowered his other hand to grab the teenager around his hip, and support him more.
The spark of rebellion still glowed in Cosmo's eyes, but then he nodded.
* * *
Ace cursed the fact that he was the only one who could fly back the jet back. Of course, Cosmo had a pilot license as well, but no way Ace would ask him, after everything he had gone through.
Back in the plane, Cosmo was sleeping, with Vega and the others watching over him. Not that Ace feared something else would now happen to Cosmo, but he wished it would be him who guarded his young friend's sleep and help him when the nightmare came. The first nightmare in many to come, he was sure. Right now it was more important to finally get home as fast as possible.
Getting Cosmo home.
The last three days had been the longest in his life. The not knowing, the helplessness, the fear. If not for the link, he would have gone mad.
And now the link had somehow changed, deepened. He was pretty sure, that Cosmo had picked up his thought about the stripe from his mind, which would mean Cosmo had developed some kind of telepathy. And he himself had now a much clearer ability to perceive his young friend, sensing him in the back of his mind, though, unlike Cosmo, he couldn't pick up any emotions or thoughts. Cosmo simply was there. It was absolutely enough for him, thank you so very much. How Cosmo's new ability to read his thoughts - if it indeed was telepathy - would change their life, Ace did not know, but together they would work something out, he was sure.
Also, what about Cosmo's ability to call on the Magic Force? Cosmo never should have been able to do it, but undoubtedly, he had done so, no thanks to Shawn's experiments. It almost had ended in a disaster. If not for Chasson, Cosmo would have burned up by the Magic Force. If he ever again would be able to call up the Force, and with which consequences, Ace did not know. They would have to work on that, too.
He didn't know where these changes would lead. He didn't know what the future would bring.
But him and Cosmo, together, they would work something out.
They always did.