Georg Huttmacher looked over his shoulder for the twentieth time in the past hour. He knew the Keepers were there, somewhere. He could feel them in his head. He hugged the strange stone against his chest, under a ragged cloak he had gotten from a beggar in exchange for his own, and tried to hunch farther into the shadows near the wharf. From his vantage point he could easily watch the comings and goings of foot traffic in the area, as well as keep an eye on the galleons in port most likely to be of use to him.
Once I get on a ship, maybe I’ll feel safe. Maybe I’ll be able to relax during the crossing.
He wasn’t really sure why the New World seemed such a hopeful place. Perhaps it was just that Europe had become so treacherous, so dangerous, since a wild impulse led him to steal the relic now hidden under his filthy garment. Nor was he sure where the impulse to steal the artifact had come from.
By all that is Holy, I’m an academic, not a thief! I write about the wonders of the world. I don’t need to own the history, not even this little piece of it.
That had been true until he’d touched the damned thing.
They’d told him not to, of course. Gerd Mendel, the Keeper of the Stone he’d worked with most closely, had explained that the power of the stone — The Stone, Mendel always emphasized it — could cause a person to change, to hallucinate ... to lose their mind from the merest touch. Not everyone reacted this way; to most people, it was just a stone. But for those the stone chose....
Georg had thought that it was just a myth, like so many other myths he’d included in his latest book, Ancient Artifacts of Fabulous Power. He’d nodded solemnly, agreeing to everything.
You must play people along to keep them talking, he’d told himself.
And really, what was the harm? Even as just a rock The Stone was an incredible piece of history. The Keepers could track the thing back to and beyond the dawn of recorded history — this exact piece of rock, its strange inscription nearly worn off by the countless hands that had held it over the eons.
The manuscript of Ancient Artifacts had already been delivered to his publisher but he hadn’t been able to resist making a final visit to the Keepers and their stone. “I want to copy the carvings for further study later,” he’d told the Keeper, and that was all he had planned to do. Then Mendel had been called away, leaving Georg alone with the thing. The light in the room had been mediocre at best, so despite all the warnings Georg had decided that legends of power were just legends. No one would be the wiser if he picked up the stone to examine it more closely....
He had no idea how long he was lost in the insane visions that began to pour into his mind the instant he’d touched The Stone. For the next while — minutes, days, weeks, he had no way to know for sure — he’d found himself transported to, living in snippets of history. None seemed to last more than a short while but all were as real, as vivid, as incredible, as though he had indeed traveled through time and space to witness moments from the past.
He’d watched Martin Luther post his ninety-five theses on the front door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. He’d been there long enough to hear Luther actually read the first of them to the gathered crowds. Then he had been whisked, in the blink of an eye ...
... to the streets of Paris and the thwack! of a guillotine, claiming the life of yet another aristocrat in Robespierre’s purge. Much to Georg’s relief, he’d not been there long before he was again removed to ...
... the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. He could clearly see puffs of white smoke emerging from a smokestack atop the Sistine Chapel, bringing cheers to the crowd of which he’d become a part. Some pope had been elected, he realized. He thought, briefly, to ask details from a member of the crowd around him. Before he could even begin to form the words, though, he’d found himself transported to another vision from the past ... and then to another, and another, and another ... until finally he found himself ...
... swaying to and fro on the deck of a ship. He’d glanced around wildly to get his bearings; he’d always become slightly queasy aboard seagoing vessels, but oddly felt no such problem at that moment. All he felt was a strange, weary tension that held him in its grip until a cry of “Land Ho!” broke from the ship’s crow’s nest. Seamen all over the deck began to cheer wildly, almost hysterically. A pretentious yet noble-looking man in captain’s garb appeared through a hatchway near him and — after giving him a most curious glance — moved swiftly to the ship’s bow to gaze into the distance....
Georg had dropped back into his own reality at that point. The Stone, still in his hand, felt strangely warm to his touch. He could see no changes to the room; he was still alone — but to his astonishment The Stone now seemed to glow, as though illuminated from within.
There was no longer any question in his mind, it was The Stone.
He caught a breath that caused his whole body to shudder. He felt as though he hadn’t drawn a breath in hours, though he knew that to be impossible. When his breathing steadied and his pounding heart slowed he was still staring at the object in his hand, watching the glow of the inscriptions fade once more to mere stone.
It’s just a piece of rock! A stone can’t have power. A rock can’t be powerful!
But Georg knew he was kidding himself. This rock — The Stone — was power. It was real. It was everything that Gerd Mendel and the other Keepers had said it was.
And right then, it was in his hands....
Without conscious thought, he’d wrapped the thing in the cloth that usually covered it and thrust it under his cloak. He’d been in Keeper’s Hall frequently enough to find his way outside with little effort; within minutes, he was on the street, and on the run.
But running where? Where was there to go, what was there to do with an object of such sheer, raw power as The Stone?
Three months and a lifetime later he huddled deeper into the shadows of the wharf and reflected again on his rash action. He’d gone too far now to turn back.
I still don’t know why I did it. It’s not like it gained me anything. And as relentless as the Keepers have been in pursuit, the life I’ve known is over.
There had been no more strange ... journeys, not since those first ones ... but touching The Stone had done something to him. Done something to his mind. It was as though he could hear other people’s thoughts now. Not clearly, and never predictably, but they were there inside his head nonetheless. Not just thoughts, either. Feelings. Urges. He’d found himself almost driven mad by conflicting urges, until he’d realized they weren’t his own but those of the people around him. To preserve his sanity he’d learned to shut them out — not perfectly, things still crept past his mental defenses when he wasn’t careful, but enough to retain his reason. He hadn’t slept well in quite a while. He could feel the Keepers in his head. They were searching for him, frantic to find him, corner him, to reel him back into their control.
He’d decided, somewhere along the line, that his only recourse was to leave the continent. That final vision he’d seen on his Stone-induced journey had been a clue, an omen. The officious-looking nobleman, he now realized, had been Christopher Columbus on the verge of reaching the New World. A new world of vast lands, few people, raw challenge, and huge opportunity. A place to lose himself. A place to disappear with his stolen treasure.
By nightfall he’d managed to work his way out of the dockside shadows and board a galleon heading for America. The ship was of a type long outmoded and little used; he hoped that a vessel so old and decrepit would be a less likely target for search by his pursuers. He’d hidden himself as well as he could in the tiny space that he would have to call home for the next while. He felt no seasickness as long as he kept the relic next to his chest. He intended to do that, the relic being his main reason for living by this point.
The ship set sail with the tide. Georg was delighted to feel the sense of Keepers diminish in his mind with each passing hour. By the end of the first week at sea he finally felt safe, finally felt as though he might have a future beyond his next intake of breath. He idly stroked the piece of rock pressed against his chest, and contemplated its power, and his future.
I breezed down the street with a bounce in my step, my purse holding the delightfully large check I had earned for about five minutes of work. As I pushed into the imposing marble building that was the local Key Bank my mood was good, business was good, and the weather gods had blessed us with a particularly fine spring day.
Which was why, when the nut case burst into the bank, waving a gun and dead-set on ruining everyone’s day, my first thought was that the guy was dressed really odd for a bank robber. In a threadbare suit and bow tie and with a dealer’s visor on his head, he looked more like he should be at an accountant’s desk or a roulette wheel than about to rob a bank.
My second thought, of course, was a bit more succinct.
“Everybody down on the floor!” the gunman roared, his voice slurring from either alcohol or drugs. “I don’t wanna hurt nobody. I just need the money.” Clearly, the guy was not a pro at his chosen task.
Still, I did as I was told … but I also set my Psionic senses loose to assess the situation. Those senses reported a desperation burning in the gunman, a stinging counterpoint to the screaming fear that I sensed from everyone else there in the bank — well, nearly everyone else; one of the rent-a-cops was getting an itchy hero finger as he thought about his gun. Yeah, that made me feel safer. For now, though, the hired badges were on the floor like the rest of us, so I tuned out that distraction and continued my Psionic assessment.
Mr. Robber hadn’t been real specific about who should belly flop, so the tellers had flattened themselves to the floor like everyone else, though behind the thick glass of their cage. I could feel the pulse of the silent alarm one of the tellers had triggered, pounding out its SOS to local authorities; real cops, if not help, would be on the way in a moment.
Meanwhile, the rent-a-cop with the hero complex was itching more and more to show his stuff; as my senses tracked past him once more I could tell that his hand was inching toward his weapon. The weapon was on the side of his hip hidden from the intruder, so he thought he could get away with it. Whether he could or couldn’t there was nothing I could do about it right then.
Finally, I took the time to probe a little deeper into the guy waving the gun. It quickly became clear that the desperation I’d initially felt from him grew from a horrible knot of hatred ... hatred not of any of us, or of the government, or even of the faceless bank. He hated himself. He did not want to be here doing this, endangering people. He wanted to be at his daughter’s hospital bedside, spending time with Annie as she fought for life against a ravaging disease. In short, he wanted to be a normal dad.
The hospital, though, was first and foremost a business, and it had rules … and their primary rule was, “pay up.” As a result, they were threatening to stop the expensive, experimental treatment that was Annie’s only hope. Hospital administrators had told him he had to come up with more money and faster payments for the care that she needed … that without those payments, they would turn Annie over to a hospice so she could die gracefully.
He saw no other way. He saw no other hope. His employer had recently fired him for being “distracted,” and with no other options he had turned to bank robbery as a way to make it to tomorrow.
Only thing was, the itchy fingered guard on the floor was determined that the guy wouldn’t ever see another tomorrow — or even the next ten minutes, for that matter.
Unless I did something.
Even as I was taking all this in, the robber had moved over to the teller’s cage and was now yelling at the employees to get up. When one of them did, he shoved a tattered bag under the glass to her.
“Stuff it with as much as you can fit in,” he said, his voice gruff but his essence crackling with emotion. My extra senses pulsed with those intense emotions and his resolve; all the teller could hear, though, was a quaver in his voice. She favored him with an odd look before starting to shove money into the bag.
I couldn’t help it — my heart ached for this guy. Sure, he was trying to rob a bank, but he really wasn’t a bad sort. He’d never before done anything more illegal than rip off paper clips from his job. He’d struggled mightily since his wife abandoned him with a sick kid, nowhere near the means to care for her, and little money to use for treatment. He was desperate.
Unfortunately, desperation is a terrible hindrance to my concentration, and his heartache was going to get him killed in the next few minutes if I couldn’t force my mind to stay clear.
Their emotions, not mine, I reminded myself, as I’d had to many times before. Their thoughts, not mine.
I don’t often have moments of precognition. When I do, it’s like in that movie, “The Matrix”: I can not only see future events as though they’d already happened, but time literally slows around me. When I’m in a moment like that, my Psionics can do things in picoseconds that would be impossible in the normal world.
I had one of those moments right then. The guard had gotten his gun in hand and was about to whip it up and fire. I could literally see the bullet fly along its deadly path, tearing its way into the middle of the robber’s chest and ending one tragedy with another, and another. Strangely, as my Psionics watched that bullet fly, I felt a weird sort of release … a lightening of my tension. I knew what I needed to do.
With this many people around I couldn’t do anything showy. There were definitely some showy things in my repertoire: I could, for instance, stop the bullet in mid-air. Somehow, though, I didn’t think the suits down at police HQ would just shrug and accept that “these things happen.” I could probably deflect the bullet off into the ceiling and not raise too many eyebrows; rent-a-cops are not noted for ballistic accuracy.
But there was a bigger problem that would follow either of those options: I had a horrifying vision of the robber blasting a bullet into the guard in response. Whatever I chose to do had to be something subtle, something minute.
Something right now....
My internal time sense slowed abruptly as my precognitive moment shifted into high gear. I felt and heard the guard’s hand snap the gun from his holster and begin to whip into position. I had only microseconds in which to act.
I decided that a little nudge of his hand just as the slug left the gun barrel would be the way to go. There, just enough, I....
No, dammit, not enough. The bullet would still be lethal.
I quickly turned my attention to the bullet itself, as it spiraled its way toward the robber and gave the flying hunk of lead a quick and gentle twist. The bullet’s mark moved ever so slightly....
My internal clock resumed its normal flow and I felt an immediate burst of searing pain from the robber as the bullet tore its way into his shoulder. The agony doubled as he realized that he’d failed, that he wouldn’t be able to steal enough money for his daughter’s treatment. My eyes welled with tears for the guy; I quickly clamped my eyelids shut and shuttered my Psionics to keep from screaming at his torment.
He was still alive. His shoulder was shattered, of course, but he was otherwise unhurt — but as far as he was concerned, his life was over. He dropped his gun, sagged to the floor, and in a heartbreaking display of defeat, began to cry.
The victorious rent-a-cop leaped to his feet and ran over to point his gun at the now-helpless would-be robber. A moment later, real cops flooded in and took over the situation. I breathed a sigh of relief and picked myself up from the floor.
Officer Twitchy Finger was accorded hero status for resolving the crisis with such a compassionate, non-lethal shot: “I knew I just had to knock him down, not kill him,” he told the TV news hounds. And even though it hadn’t been his fancy shooting that saved the day, he was right about one thing — no one was dead.
More important, no one was a bit the wiser about my part in the late-afternoon show.
Maybe the day hadn’t been ruined after all.