Ventin Nahr stood in the kitchen doorway of the building his pack claimed as its current headquarters. Abandoned by its former owner, the once fashionable hotel had joined the ranks of structures surrendered to the lawless forces engulfing the aging neighborhood. At odd intervals during the year, patrol officers swept through the streets gathering up the unlucky or the stupid but doing nothing to alter the basic activities of the packs.
Ventin and his fellow pack leaders saw little point in opposing the fruitless symbolism. They let the board have its fun. The same could not be said of those infrequent occasions when the patrol insanely attempted to collect taxes or to shut off basic services to the disobedient areas.
At first, the patrol officers and those they guarded had been returned in pieces to be reassembled if their masters so desired. Later, the hapless servants merely vanished from existence after entering pack-held territory.
The man sitting before Ventin consuming a small lunch had also vanished in a mental sense.
Ventin thinned his lids. Sturwoh Turren awkwardly held a large spoon in his right hand. With intense concentration, he studied the thick soup steaming in a white china bowl on the elegantly polished dining table. The pink tip of his tongue peeked from the left corner of his mouth. Dipping the silver spoon into the mixture of simmered meat and vegetables, Sturwoh guided the implement to his wide-open mouth. Half the dark soup dribbled in a line back into the bowl, across the fine wood, and down the front of his stain mottled yellow shirt.
Sturwoh never noticed the social faux pas. Loudly slurping what remained of his attempt at self-feeding, he swallowed and then turned a beaming face of childish delight towards the woman seated around the corner of the table from him.
Sturwoh's caretaker/teacher/guardian clapped her hands in reinforcing applause and leaned over to give her prize pupil a sticky hug. Thus encouraged, Sturwoh resumed his efforts to consume his meal.
A delicate shiver fluttered along Ventin's spine. Resting against the doorjamb, he folded his arms and crossed one ankle over the other. He did not enter the room.
"Looks like he's making progress," he said quietly.
Sulyn Piir favored Ventin with a quick smile but kept her attention primarily on her student. "In the past week he's begun to regain control over some of his basic bodily functions." The young brunette rolled up her eyes. "Thank the Creator. Dealing with diapers on a grown man is not my idea of a good time." She patted Sturwoh's forearm as he made another messy foray into his soup.
"Seems to have regained some weight." Ventin forced himself to keep his eyes on the now child-like pack member.
Sulyn dabbed futilely at Sturwoh's chin with a very soiled cloth napkin. Observing his wandering eyes, she let her shoulders sag. A corner of her mouth compressed in a blend of anger, disgust, and despair. "What could have happened to him?" She looked up. "We detected no head injury that might account for this. He almost literally just lost his mind." Her fingers curled into tight balls.
Sturwoh's low whimpering broke her reverie.
Wide-eyed, he fixed upon one of her delicate fists. His lower lip quivered. Abruptly, Sulyn relaxed her hand and rubbed Sturwoh's still-scrawny shoulder.
"It's O.K., Sturwoh, honey." A warm smile spread her full lips. Ventin saw the strain lurking beneath the surface of that expression. "Go on and eat," she coaxed. "Eat." She nodded her encouragement as her pupil loosened his grip on the spoon handle and hesitantly returned to his primitive task. His solemn face mirrored the mood Sulyn tried unsuccessfully to mask.
"This did not result from any accident," Ventin said ominously.
Sulyn slid her eyes in his direction. "What do you mean? How could this happen deliberately?"
Ventin shoved his hands into the pockets of his blue shorts. The corners of his lips twitched. "Just what I said!" The anger spilled irrationally in Sulyn's direction. Inhaling a calming breath, he smoothed the tone of his voice. "Sorry." He nodded at Sturwoh. "At first I assumed he'd suffered some type of head injury. When no sign of trauma came to light, I next figured he'd ingested the wrong recreational chemical or chemicals. Though I warn my men to keep their heads clear, I can't nanny them. They mess up, they pay the price. But this...this is a tree with a different bark. He demonstrates none of the symptoms of brain damage lumin or dren or het overdoses produce. He just..." Ventin scrunched up his face. "He acts like a child, an infant. There's a vacancy there... His slate is so blank, he's back at ground zero."
Sulyn shook her head. "You're describing what I already know. You haven't told me yet how such a strange thing is possible."
Ventin pushed himself vertical and straddled the doorway with spread legs. "Ever heard of a memory editor?"
"No. I don't think so."
"It was developed on Terra as a means of dealing with certain types of mental illness. Some even believed it could prove helpful in rehabilitating criminals. The theory goes that painful or traumatic memories lie at the core of many emotionally debilitating problems. Certain people dwell on those negatives -- for whatever reasons -- and can't progress beyond them. They obsess with what they can't change from the past and ignore the actions in the future which they could alter. A negative feedback loop is established, a descending spiral of confusion and despair. An event upsets their ability to cope with life and their experience of it. They fixate on the problem and grow even more depressed or dissociated or whatever. They then become even less capable of handling their life. And so on."
"Sounds familiar. Happens far too frequently here in Ashton. So this memory editor does what? How does it function?"
Ventin stared at the dirty tile floor. "Using a combination of electrodynamic stimulation, magnetic fields, and chemical therapy, a psychiatrist tries to treat the source rather than the symptoms. Brain scans reveal the sections activated when the patient experiences his disturbances. The memory editor pinpoints the initiating site and...alters...the structure of those memories. Edits them out, if you will." Ventin shrugged. "In any event, the patient breaks from the mental rut he's dug for himself and can then retake the reins of his destiny and leave the past behind. In a very real sense, that part of who he was is excised, obliterated. It essentially ceases to exist."
"Sounds reasonable enough. The Creator knows there are certain events in my life I wish I could forget." Sulyn handed Sturwoh a tall glass of water. Thirstily, he gulped it down. Only intermittent dribbles flowed along his chin.
"Yeah. The initial theory offered much promise. Difficulties occurred, however." Another faint tremor tracked across Ventin's shoulders. "Memories don't exist in isolation like sheets of paper in some folder. They're bound up in matrices with other memories. Plus, the stronger the memory, the deeper the track or rut, if you will, it digs in your brain. The researchers discovered that editing such intense memories required multiple treatments. Even then, tattered fragments of the disagreeable memories might linger to haunt the patient with a continual sense of déjà vu. The former problem of memory matrices meant that desirable or necessary memories also had to be erased if all traces of the target memory were to be eliminated."
"And that caused brain damage?"
Ventin shook his head. "No. The basic physical integrity of the brain was never compromised. But instead of losing precise slices of the past, the patient frequently faced ragged, gaping holes that often proved as much or more disruptive than the initial syndrome. Different in nature and result, yes, but just as troublesome."
"You think that's what happened to Sturwoh? Who would -- or could -- do such a thing here in Ashton? And why him?"
Ventin's expression hardened. "I'm confident I know who is capable of such a thing. I've witnessed similar -- though much less severe and complete -- effects as Sturwoh exhibits. The main question is why. Why him and why now?"
With suddenly enhanced sympathy, Sulyn clasped Sturwoh's rough-skinned hand in hers as he watched the two adults discuss their incomprehensible thoughts. "Memory editing sounds too dangerous to use."
"It was...is. People who felt their minds had been transformed into sieves rebelled more at the vast, blank plains dotting their mental landscapes than they did at the initial traumas. At least in the latter case, they still felt complete and whole. Miserable, true, but with at least a sense of unity and identity. Memory edited patients, however, often questioned their very selves."
"Haven't we all experienced gaps in our memories, though?" Sulyn asked. "Too much alcohol or drugs. We survive."
"Survive, yes. But the mild discomfort and disorientation jabbing at us from the knowledge that part of our lives is missing and unavailable is magnified by orders of magnitude for the memory edited person. Don't forget: alcoholic gaps are for specific and delimited events. Removal of already established and strong memories produces much more chaos." Ventin pursed his lips. "It's the difference between losing a shingle from your roof in a thunderstorm versus a section of your house's foundation during a flood. The latter has far greater and widespread repercussions. A lot harder to ignore. A lot harder to live with."
Ventin hugged himself. "Use of memory editors was halted. Many worlds outlawed their very existence or even dissemination of information on how to build one." Reluctantly his gaze was drawn towards Sturwoh. The young man's head lolled backward in sleep. Gentle snores bubbled from his throat. "Banning something, though, rarely eliminates it. Memory editors can be had for the right price. And they can be abused."
Carefully, Sulyn rose, scooching back her chair. She joined Ventin at the doorway. "Someone used a device like that on Sturwoh?"
"The evidence points in that direction," the pack leader said grimly. "No obvious brain damage. A general regression to the intellect of an infant. An ability to relearn skills wiped from memory. Pathways smoothed like clay under a sculptor's practiced thumb. Somebody did not bother with tinkering or fiddling with concrete memories. That's too hard and fraught with missteps, like trying to extract a bottom piece from a puzzle tower without disrupting the rest. No. Whoever did this showed no interest in deleting selected areas. They simply and directly erased the whole cube."
Sulyn rubbed her arms as though suddenly chilled. "Horrible." Her gaze shot towards Ventin's. "If someone out there has a memory editor and has used it once..."
"They won't be afraid to use it again," Ventin said with implacable certainty.
The question he did not ask aloud was: Who would be next?
Trent Rivoh shifted uneasily on his aching feet. All day he and five other members of Ventin Nahr's pack had traipsed through the uneven peninsulas of blood runner territory. Meeting with each pack leader, they had reviewed security procedures and warned their counterparts to beware of solitary travel. While Ventin had not shared his suspicions as to the identity of the perpetrators of the outrage against Sturwoh, Trent harbored his own ideas as to who the culprits might be. He kept his own counsel, however.
Though Ventin had initially introduced him personally to blood runner customs and expectations, Trent's education had soon been delegated to Ventin's second-in-command, Karl Rosa. Younger than his leader, Karl exhibited much less pleasure at the presence of the interloper and even less enthusiasm at being saddled with the responsibility for socializing him into blood runner culture.
So far, Trent's "innovative" approach to advancing blood runner interests had not become a subject for major discussion. The incident with Sturwoh had touched something deep within Ventin and driven other considerations underground. His normally energetic attitude seemed dampened, his manner reserved and withdrawn. Any interest he held for Trent's fresh, long-term strategy had either faded or been buried beneath the fallout of the attack on Sturwoh.
Trent scanned the hotel courtyard in which he and his cohorts waited. Wind-scattered debris and untended plants lent the brick-inlaid expanse a wild and abandoned air. Ragged bushes and spreading trees extended long, anemic shadows in the late afternoon sunlight...such as there was of it.
Overhead, tattered clouds raced across the sky in uneven ranks. The rain which had dogged them all morning had abated for the moment. Trent knew it unlikely the respite would last long. Playful fingers of wind snatched at his shaggy hair and tugged at his slowly drying shirt and shorts. His poncho had been less than effective in protecting him from the elements.
"What's taking them so long?" Karl asked.
Trent glanced at Karl's scarred, beefy face. Patience did not rank highly among the man's virtues.
"He's a busy man," Trent said. "I'm sure he'll be here as soon as --"
"Shut up!" Karl snarled. "When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it."
Well aware of the grins wreathing the faces of the other blood runners, Trent felt heat spreading across his cheeks and ears. The retort hanging on his tongue died there. As much as he relished the thought of verbally ravaging his instructor, he knew he could not permit himself the luxury of indulging in that fantasy. He had a job to do. Antagonizing Karl more than he did by his mere existence only made that task more difficult.
The blood runner lieutenant would doubtless not limit his response to angry words. Trent had seen the man's dexterity in using that black-metalled needler holstered at his side. Provoking him might result in negative consequences far outweighing any momentary satisfaction to be gained from twitting the arrogant bastard.
"Damn the man!" Karl shouted. "I'm tired, hungry, and horny. My dinner's going to be cold and Charleen along with it." He glared at Trent.
The novice blood runner chose not to accept the implicit challenge. Nevertheless, he nonchalantly filtered his hand into his pocket and grasped the heavy weight of the folded vibra-blade there.
Karl gave no indication he noticed Trent's action. Only the slightest of motions away from his student hinted he might entertain concerns as to how far Trent could safely be pushed.
A gust of wind rocked Trent back on his heels. From an alley across the way, Ventin Nahr strode purposefully into the open space. Behind him hovered Brend. Trent still marveled at the bodyguard's size and his unquestioning loyalty to Ventin and the blood runner's goals. The hulking man epitomized the ideal soldier: complete obediance to his leaders combined with a deadly calm ability to inflict lethal force on those defined as his enemy.
Raising his voice to carry over the whistling roar of the wind, Ventin shouted his greetings. After shaking hands with Karl, he tossed Trent an acknowledging smile. The expression of warmth did not extend to the blood runner's eyes.
"It went well?" Ventin asked.
Karl nodded curtly. "They agreed to step up surveillance. Any strangers they find," he said, glancing in Trent's direction, "will be interrogated. No one's aware of anything out of the ordinary yet, however."
"All right. I'm not just going to wait for trouble to find us, though. As much as I don't want to, there are some people I intend to visit soon. They may be able to help resolve or at least stabilize this situation before it degenerates any further." He spat into the wind. The milky white gob landed in the non-functioning fountain near which they stood.
Ventin nodded. "That's right."
Karl raised a brow. "You think he's really behind this? I thought he destroyed it to hide his tracks."
"Maybe he did. But it makes sense to suspect him. It's a place to start anyway." Ventin paused and studied Trent. "I want him to accompany us," he said, gesturing offhandedly to the newest blood runner.
Alarmed, Karl took a step forward. "But he hasn't even been blooded yet. Until he proves himself, I don't think --"
Ventin held up a palm, cutting off discussion. "When the time comes to kill, he will." At the scowl distorting his subordinate's face, Ventin clasped his lieutenant's upper arm. "Don't worry so much, my friend. He'll wait outside with Brend." Straightening, he lifted an appraising brow. "You'll be there," he said to Trent, "to offer advice as I request it. And to see for yourself that being a blood runner requires more than enduring a Xaneer's celebration of life."
Trent nodded slowly. He had just noticed something odd... The sun was sinking behind Ventin. So where had that flash of red in his face come...from...
Reflexively, Trent dove straight towards the blood runner leader. A perfectly circular, tiny crimson dot blossomed on the forehead of Ventin's startled face.
Trent hit his target hard with his shoulder, slamming into the blood runner's abdomen and encircling his muscular body with adrenaline strengthened arms. His tackle drove his superior backward. Stumbling, Ventin crashed against the paving, the back of his skull bouncing with an audible thud as it connected with the rough courtyard paving.
Before the two entangled men settled onto the ground, both Karl and Brend had drawn their weapons. A crossing spray of explosive-tipped needles stitched the bricks near Trent's left leg. Geysers of pulverized paving plumed into the air, the hurling shards lacerating his bare lower limb.
Almost simultaneously, a flash of heat lanced through the roiling air where the blood runner leader had stood moments earlier. A nearly invisible bolt of energy vaporized a jagged hole in the trunk of a tree growing in the line of fire. The loud report of the blast startled the other pack members, spoiling the aims of Karl and Brend and sending the other four scattering for cover.
Half-dazed, Ventin moaned and flapped his arms weakly in the air. Ignoring the streaks of blood flowing across his leg, Trent scrambled to a crouch and yanked the fallen blood runner behind the low retaining wall encircling the small copse of trees and bushes.
Another shot drilled into the inadequate barrier. The gaping wound shattered the bricks into a swirling dust cloud. Debris stung Trent's face and gritted his eyes. Blinking away tears of pain, he saw his former attackers redirect their aim back and up towards a balcony in an abandoned building opposite their position. Two other blood runners who owned needlers joined in the fight.
Blurry vision combined with the confusion of the moment to deny Trent a clear view of their assailant. A half glimpsed image of a slender, darkly clad figure wielding a long-barreled weapon seared itself into his memory. By the time he blinked away the obstructions to his sight, the would-be assassin had disappeared, presumably back into the building.
Digging out a communicator from his pouch, Karl frantically called for more manpower. "Get after him, you idiots!" he shouted at the other men prancing uncertainly around him. "Brend and I will tend to Ventin."
The other blood runners nodded their assent and sprinted towards the building entrance.
Trembling from reaction, Trent rose to his feet, his hands half-raised in the air.
"Put your hands down, you fool," Karl barked. "We know you weren't assaulting him."
Groggily, Ventin levered himself up on his arms. Wincing, he pressed one palm against the back of his head. "What happened?" Bits of leaves and twigs and brick comically decorated his dust-plastered face. He turned a puzzled expression towards Trent. "Why did you hit me?"
Shoving Trent to one side, Karl rapidly yet efficiently inspected Ventin's condition. Satisfied with the cursory examination, he and Brend hustled their leader towards their headquarters and relative safety. Feeling at loose ends, Trent trailed along.
They had traversed only half the length of the alley when Ventin dug in his heels and shook off the nervous hands of his men. "I'm fine, I'm fine," he grumbled, staggering slightly. Closing his eyes, he inhaled a steadying breath then scanned the three men standing in a protective arc around him.
"So what happened, Karl?" he asked. Though he attempted a no-nonsense tone, an undercurrent of weariness seeped through his voice.
Grudgingly, Karl gestured at Trent. "We thought he was attacking you." A corner of his mouth curved down. "Apparently he saved your life. We fired at him but missed." Trent could not tell if Karl regretted that deficiency or not. "When we realized the assassin fired from behind us, we shot back. Unfortunately, the asshole beat a quick retreat. I sent men after him, but..." Karl shrugged his broad shoulders to indicate his lack of optimism for their success. "Do you think this is connected with Sturwoh?" he asked in a lower voice.
Ventin pondered that for a moment. "I guess that's something we'll need to discover," he said quietly. More briskly, he turned to Trent. "So. I owe you my life." He shook the other man's hand. "But how did you know...?"
Trent pointed towards the center of his own forehead. "I saw a laser sight dot. That could only mean one thing."
"Hmm. Well. My thanks." Ventin glanced at his other men. "Didn't I tell you his quick wit would prove valuable to us?"
Brend nodded his agreement. Karl merely grunted.
Noticing Trent's leg, Ventin placed his fists on his hips. "Looks like you have been blooded...after a fashion, anyway." He sought his rescuer's eyes. "I believe your actions today should suffice to resolve any doubts as to your intentions. If you'd wanted me dead, all you had to do was nothing." He turned to Karl. "What do you think?"
His second-in-command thinned his lips but offered no comment.
Ventin did not seem to notice. Clasping Trent's arm, he said, "Welcome as a full and official member of our blood runner pack. With your help, we'll nail the bastards responsible for these outrages. Whoever they are."
At a loss for words, Trent nodded. "Um. Sure. Glad I could help."
Ventin laughed and set off again at a brisk pace. "Karl."
The lieutenant trotted to catch up. "Yes?"
"I heard rumors that a few of the other packs have experienced run-ins with armed citizens on the streets."
"There have been three or four incidents this past week when targets fired back with needlers and managed to escape. The Xaneeri are not too happy about the dearth of sacrifices for their ceremony."
Ventin waved that aside. "Those may be connected with this attempt today or with Sturwoh or they may not. I prefer being safe rather than sorry, though. Even if there is no link, perhaps we need to be a bit more aggressive in our actions. A few choice examples may lead such violently inclined individuals to rethink their bravado." He winked at Trent. "Can't have those in control losing that fear we've so diligently cultivated in them."
"What if the patrol steps up retaliation?" Karl asked.
"They won't. Not after we have our little meeting." Shadows deepened around them as the sun melted below the invisible horizon. "Things don't quite make sense here. I intend to clarify them in no uncertain terms."
As they passed through the guarded headquarters entrance, Trent could only silently second Ventin's assessment. Recent events did not add up. The fulfillment of his goals required that Ventin live, not die. At least for the present. And the reports of unexpected armed resistance to blood runner packs was new, indeed, to him. Such a development might well slow the plans he wanted to implement with Ventin's willing assistance. He had waited too long as it was. More delays had to be avoided, if at all possible, if he hoped to pull this stunt off.
Perhaps the mystery meeting would, as Ventin believed, serve to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle into a recognizable picture.
Or -- as Trent half feared -- it might just jumble the image even more than it already was.