Chapter 4




          There was a faint drone in the air.  A slight vibration under the feet.  The engines of the Lear55.  Derek closed his attaché case and put it on the carpet beside his seat.  Merlin was looking out the window.

          “The conference should go well,” he said.  “I’m sorry you had to be dragged along.  You could have concluded your discussion with Paul over the phone.”

          “It’s okay,” Merlin replied.  “You never really know what’s important to you until you get some miles between you an’ it.”  Not that Nick was ever an ‘it’.  She turned from the window.  “Seem to be thru that turbulence.”

          “The seatbelt light is still on,” Derek remarked mildly and Merlin grinned.  “Soon, you’ll be able to have that vodka martini you’ve promised yourself.”

          “While you stick with coffee,” she accused.  “You’ll never sleep.”

          Suddenly, with no warning, Derek slumped.  Merlin began to tense then blinked.  He was straightening again.

          “You okay?” she frowned.

          “I feel fine.  So much for too much coffee.  I think I fell asleep for a split second.”

          “It looked like you passed out.  I didn’t feel a drop in cabin pressure.  You sure you’re okay?”

          Slowly, Derek nodded.  The seatbelt light winked off.

          “Maybe, when we get home, you should get yourself checked over,” she suggested as she released her belt and stood up.  “At last .. vodka martini.  I won’t get you coffee – you haven’t finished the last one.”

          Derek laughed quietly.

          “Looking forward to getting home?” she asked, going to the drinks station.  “It is gonna be real busy for the next few weeks, and there’s Christmas an’ New Years.”

          “Actually, yes, I am looking forward to it.”  He glanced up.  “I’ve asked Alex to open up the old wing.”

          Merlin looked at him.

          “It’s long past time that it saw the light of day,” he added gruffly.

          “There’re some old memories protesting at the idea, aren’t there?” she remarked.

          “Oh yes.  But it’s often the way.  We know we should do something but we put it off and keep on putting it off, until circumstance forces our hand.  I should have opened it when I went back there as Precept, when the house became mine.  I should have gone thru those rooms and cleared out what was left.”

          “You had plenty of opportunity, Derek, you just never had the heart.”

          “No.  I never did.  But, now, I have no choice.  If we are going to make a success of the Forum, we’ll need the rooms.”  He lifted his chin firmly.  “My .. lack of heart .. means we have a tremendous amount of work to do to bring those rooms to a state of readiness.”

          “Profelis and I will help.  We can work all night while we sleep, an’ then work all day as well.  We’ll be ready.”

          “The offer’s gratefully accepted.  I hope Aquila won’t think it beneath her.”

          “No, I don’t,” Merlin said and frowned slightly.  “Aquila answers to me, Derek.  I tell her what to do.  She bitches, I’m the only one who gets to hear.”  She sat down again and sipped her cocktail.  “How soon before we land?”

          “Three hours or so.  I think I’ll nap for a while, if that’s okay with you?  It’s been a long day.”

          “Sure, go ahead.”  Merlin glanced out the window again.  “Cloud’s really thick tonight.  It’s still misty out there.”

          Derek studied the view from his window.  “I thought we’d climbed thru it …  At least the turbulence is behind us.”  He settled back and closed his eyes.  “Wake me in a couple of hours, will you?”

          “No problem.”

          Merlin gazed at the pale gray cloud outside but didn’t see it.  It was something for her eyes to unfocus on and see thru.  Her mind was elsewhere.

          Okay, so .. how do I tell him?  I’ve been mean the past few weeks.  I’ve not been myself even though I have tried to be the same as usual.  Somehow, I have to find it inside me, the courage and the words to tell him it isn’t going to happen.

          I like kids.  I like Kat.  She’s like a kid sister.  But I can send her home at the end of the day.  I’m not into babies – mine or anyone else’s.  I’ve tried, I just don’t have what it takes.  They smell, usually bad.  They’re always spitting up.  They’re too demanding.  You have to be a certain type of woman to want them.  They are life changing .. and I like my life as it is.  And that’s before you add in all the complications of being a Flamefall.  Right now, I can go anywhere in the world at a phone call.  Having a kid .. I’d have to leave it with Nicky and that’d impact his working life.  I really don’t know why he suddenly asked me.  He must want a kid.  Why else did he ask?  I felt hurt that he’d expect me to overturn my choice for something that he wants but I don’t.  I couldn’t give him an answer.  I haven’t been able to.  I guess I’m scared of his reaction.  This kind of thing is often the top of a long, very slippery slope which leads to break up and divorce .. only we don’t have divorce.  It’s why I told him right at the start – no kids.  Back then, he said about adoption though …  He didn’t sound like he meant adoption when he asked.  But I’ve had surgery.  I’m not physically able to do this.

          Nicky knows I’m feeling awkward about it.  He wants to talk when I get home.  He raised it.  I have tried so hard to be like always.  I just couldn’t bring myself to …  How do I tell him?  Should I be blunt?  Talk around it maybe then ease into it?  Laugh about it?  I don’t know.  I guess I’ll just have to play it by ear, see his expression, what’s in his eyes.  Take my lead from him and hope to God we can work it out.  Otherwise .. whoa, eternity’s gonna be a real pain in the ass.  Us two, stuck in the same house forever and he hates me …

          Her eyes focused and she peered forward.

          These clouds are really very high up …




          Derek felt a hand on his shoulder and he blinked, squinting in the light.  “The two hours are up already?” he murmured.

          “Yeah,” Merlin replied.  “We should be landing in less than an hour.  Mike hasn’t given any update though.”

          “Go forward and check, will you?” Derek requested, sitting up.

          Merlin nodded and went toward the cockpit.  “Hey, Mike, can I come in?”  She pulled open the door and started thru, then halted.  “Derek .. they’re not here.”

          He frowned sharply and rose to check for himself.

          Merlin moved aside.  “There’s no room for them to be hiding somewhere,” she commented in a flat voice.  “They’re not going to jump out an’ yell ‘surprise!’.”

          “We saw them go in there,” Derek said softly, as if he couldn’t believe the evidence of his own eyes.  “We heard them doing the pre-flight checks.”

          “Do these jets come with parachutes?” Merlin wondered, biting her lip.

          “I think we would have noticed them jumping,” Derek replied patiently.  “For one thing, at this height, the cabin would have depressurized when they opened the door.  Even if you had fallen asleep, that would have woken the both of us.”  He paused.  “Did you fall asleep?”

          Merlin angled her head.  “Not even for a split second.”

          “So .. where did they go?” he mused.

          “Well .. they’re not here.  No one’s flying this jet plane.”

          Derek leaned forward.  “The auto pilot’s on.”

          “Oh good.  Will it land us at San Francisco?”


          “So .. what are we looking at here?  We keep going till we run out of fuel an’ crash somewhere in the Pacific.  Can you fly this thing?  At least, get on the radio an’ tell someone our pilots have vanished somewhere between Des Moines and the coast?”

          Derek didn’t move.  He was staring hard thru the cockpit window.  “Is there a full moon tonight?”

          “Gee, I didn’t happen to look.  Is that important?”

          “Only that the cloud is quite bright.  Silvery.  And – ”

          “Is it important?” she repeated.  “More important than the fact we have no one flying this plane?”

          Merlin retreated from the empty cockpit, sat down suddenly and folded her arms.  A moment later, she crossed one leg over the other and her head hunched into her shoulders.  Despite their predicament, Derek found he was smiling.

          “You’re not scared, are you?” he asked.

          She blew out her cheeks.  “No.  Confused as all hell, yeah, but not scared.  I mean, we’re okay for now, aren’t we?  We’re not gonna run outta fuel just yet.  We’ve got a little time to figure out what to do.”

          Derek sat beside her.  “Exactly.  Between us, we should be able to do that.”

          “Where’d they go?  When did they go, Derek?” she demanded, shaking her head.

          He was gazing out the window again.

          “If they were dead at the controls, that’d be hard but at least they’d be here,” she went on.  “But to .. just vanish ..?”

          “It is very bright out there,” Derek commented softly.

          “Out there isn’t important right now.  C’mon, we’re in a little trouble.  Can we focus?”

          “It could be linked,” he suggested, his voice mild.

          Merlin froze for a second, her mouth open.  Then she blinked and peered out her own window.  “Oh no … ” she breathed.

          “Have you solved it?” Derek queried.  “So soon?”

          “I’m not sure but I have an idea.  We climbed thru the cloud, didn’t we?  I remember seeing it below us.  And then, when you were sleeping, I remember thinking the cloud was very high because we seemed to be back in it again.  But .. before that .. you remember you passed out for a second?”

          “I wouldn’t describe it exactly like that,” Derek remarked.  “It was more .. a momentary lapse.  I felt like I’d nodded off but woke up again.”

          “You didn’t see you.  I did.  You sagged.  Slumped in your seat.  It was .. marked.  I thought you were ill.  But it was over so fast an’ you said you felt fine.”

          “I did.  I still do.”

          “What if the same thing happened to me?  Right after it happened to you.  What if we were both out of it for more than a split second?  It just seemed like that to us.  Bam!  Over an’ done but really it was a lot longer.”

          “The crew wouldn’t just abandon us, Peri,” Derek commented.

          “What if they had no choice?  Does that look like cloud to you?” she asked.

          “What else could it be?” Derek asked in return, looking anyway and silently admitting that, no, it didn’t look like cloud. 


          His eyebrows rose.  “Mist is a phenomenon which occurs close to the ground, not at this altitude.”

          “You’re a pilot.  You can read instruments.”  She rose abruptly.  “Let’s take a look an’ see where we are.”

          They crowded into the cockpit once more.  “Fuel gage, altimeter … ” Derek pointed.

          “Where’s the GPS thing?  The chopper has one.  Air planes must have them too.”

          “There.”  He halted, frowning.  “According to this … ”

          “We’re not anywhere.”  She could read the display too, just as well as he could.  “At least, we’re not anywhere this system recognizes.”

          Merlin halted, her shoulders dropping.  “Now is not a good time for me.  Derek isn’t the only one who wants to get home.  I have a new house I really want to see looking like something other than a construction site.”

          “Do you know where we are?” Derek inquired in a measured voice.

          “I think so.  It has a familiar aspect.  I think we’re in limbo,” she sighed.

          He tensed.  “Limbo?  That area adjacent to Hell reserved for those who are not baptized?”

          “Not Limbo with a capital L.  It’s limbo with a little L,” Merlin replied.  “The area of quasi, semi existence between life an’ death.”  She returned to the cabin again, shaking her head.  “I’ve been here before, once.  Not quite the truth an’ I think I should be as truthful as I possibly can.  I was brought here, once.  To see how it was, how it worked.  Strange place, Derek.”

          “You were brought here.  Escorted?”

          “Sorta.  I can’t get in without help.  I’m not meant to work here.  There’s no evil.  It’s .. a kinda sanctuary.  Protected.  It can be a lotta things to a lotta people.”

          “Then how are we here now?” he asked, although he had more than a glimmering of an idea.

          “When you passed out an’ I must’ve done the same only I don’t remember it, that’s when it happened.  This aircraft isn’t the aircraft we boarded at Des Moines.  It’s just a reference point to ease us over the transition, because, otherwise, we’d think we’d gone crazy.”

          Derek sat down slowly.  “What happened to the real one?”  He had a glimmering of that answer too but he wanted to hear it out loud.

          “Well .. an’ I’m guessing here .. as limbo is between life an’ death,” she began, “I’d have to say the real one .. crashed east of the Rockies an’, just like this aircraft isn’t real .. we’re not real either.  Physical bodies can’t get into limbo, only spirit essences.  So my guess is that we crashed with the plane an’ we’re in a hospital somewhere.”

          “How do you know we’re not dead?”

          “Because, if we were, we wouldn’t be here.  We’d be in the forest,” Merlin replied.  “We’re definitely here.  We can’t argue that fact, Derek.  We have evidence all around us.  But the how and what of it isn’t important – ”

          “To me, it is.”

          She shook her head.  “The big question is why.  Why are we here?  What’s the reason?  What purpose are we serving?”

          Derek regarded her with a blank expression.  “I’m sure I had nothing in my social calendar which said I had an appointment here.  How about you?”

          Merlin bit at her lower lip.  “Me neither.  I don’t know why .. again, not strictly the truth.  I was put on standby a few weeks back.  A mission.  I don’t have any details of what it is.  They don’t tell me things like that, only that I should be ready.  To be told that much tells me it’s important.  Most of the time, I don’t get told at all.  This .. being here .. is unexpected so I’m tending to think this is it.  The mission.  But what I have to do here, that I don’t know.  I guess I have to wait an’ see what happens.”

          Derek was surprised at how calmly he accepted this.  It seemed eminently reasonable as an explanation and he had no facts to hand with which he could argue an alternative case.  He nodded.

          “Why am I here?” he asked.

          “Beats the hell outta me,” Merlin admitted, shrugging.  “If it were Nick, yeah, I could understand.  He’s backup.  He has an idea of what to do.  But you   No offense intended, Derek, but you’re a liability.  You’re not an Enforcer.  I wasn’t informed that you’d be along for the ride.”

          “Could it be an error?” Derek wondered.

          She hesitated.  “Anything’s possible but I am very wary of saying the boss makes errors like that.  He isn’t perfect, Derek, but he’s damn close.”

          “So .. it’s reasonable to assume that I have a purpose too.”

          Merlin shrugged again, a mere twitch of her shoulders.

          “Reasonable at least,” he went on.  “Of course, I have no more idea of why I’m here than you.  We both have to .. wait and see what happens.”  Derek settled back.  “There’s no evil here, you say?”


          “Then we don’t have to be on our guard for anything planning to attack us.”

          “I guess not.”

          He heard the qualification in her tone.  “Just .. on our guard in general.”

          “That’s a good plan,” she agreed with a slight smile.

          Derek glanced at his watch, thru habit more than anything, and sighed irritably.  It had stopped.  “Let me guess – no time.”

          “You’re right,” Merlin nodded.  “Limbo is outside time .. so we have all the time in the world.  We just don’t know what time it is .. outside where it is passing.”  She sagged in resignation.  “Weeks could have gone by.  Months.”

          “Or merely hours,” he commented placidly.  Then, abruptly, he sat up.  “My God ..!”

          “What?  What is it?” Merlin asked, alarmed.

          “If the plane has crashed .. Alex and Nick and Rachel – ”

          Merlin groaned, her eyes closing.  “Aw, man!  Just what they don’t need, what with everything else they have to do right now.  I just bet they got a phone call in the middle of the night.  One of those calls you pray you never get.  Hello, this is the police at wherever, I have some bad news.”

          “Can we get a message out to them somehow?  Tell them not to worry about us?”

          Merlin thought hard.  “I don’t think so.  Limbo is like a .. I don’t wanna say a dead zone cos that gives the wrong idea.  But it’s like a null zone.  Hard to get into, easy to get out of – ”

          “Then – ”

          “But we’re here for a reason, Derek.  I don’t think whoever put us here will let us out so fast.  We haven’t done anything yet.  There are no recorded instances of people having near death experiences who are able to influence their physical bodies at the same time.  I’m sorry, but we’re stuck here incommunicado for the duration.”

          “Which could be a long time,” Derek muttered.

          “That’s right.”

          His mouth twitched.  “Well.  There is not much I can do about it.  I must be encouraged by the knowledge that I have a good team.”

          “The best,” Merlin agreed, nodding.

          “Once the shock has worn off and they realize we are not in any immediate danger, they are intelligent enough to figure their way around the clues, such as they are.  They can put two and two together, and get four.  I’m sure of it.”

          “And they’ll hang in there.  They won’t write us off an’ they’ll keep things going till you get back.  They’re good people, Derek.”

          “They’ll use every resource at their disposal.”

          Merlin groaned again, causing him to glance round quickly.

          “What is it?” he asked.

          “Nick will probably ask Profelis to check on me.  My location.  But Profelis can’t come here.  Even if he thinks of looking here, he can’t get in without help an’ he won’t get it.  So .. that could be a false clue, throwing a wrench in the works.  He’ll tell Nick he can’t find me.  Nick could take that entirely the wrong way.”

          Derek frowned.  “There are other ways.  Other people he can ask.”

          “True.  Let’s hope he can clear all the worry outta his head to begin thinking of asking around.”

          “Nick can be very focused, when he wants.”

          “You noticed, huh?” she grinned.  That grin did more to lift Derek’s mood than anything.  “And we can’t dismiss Alex.  When you an’ Nick disappeared, Alex was red hot at using her sight to get some vital clues.  She could’ve picked up something from the wreckage.  Something to .. put ’em on the right track.  She never gave up last time, Derek.  She won’t give up this time.”

          “It’s reassuring to be reminded of that.”  Derek nodded to himself.  “If there is anything which brings them together as a team, it’s a mystery.”

          Merlin grinned again.  “Actually, you’re wrong.”

          Derek wasn’t used to being told that, and especially with such an amused glint in the eye.

          “What brings them together as a team an’ really keeps ’em focused, Derek, is their Precept being in danger.”

          “You said there was no danger here,” he pointed out.

          “I said there’s no evil here,” Merlin corrected.  “This place can be pretty weird.  But I take your point.”  She considered how to rephrase it.  “How about .. their Precept lost to them, missing, whereabouts unknown and, therefore, beyond their immediate help or assistance.”

          “Very well,” Derek accepted.  “All part of the overall mystery.”

          “An’ when I say we have all the time in the world .. we don’t,” Merlin added.  We do, here.  Our bodies, assuming they’ve been found, will be in some hospital, in deep comas.  You know what that’s like, Derek.  If it goes on too long … ”  She shook her head.

          Derek thought about it.  He’d been in a long coma before – several months.  It had taken time, almost as long again, to regain full physical fitness.  The muscles withered thru lack of use.  Weakness and fatigue were constant companions during rehabilitation.  The least effort brought crushing exhaustion and a chronic despair that it would never end.  It took a strong mind to conquer that.

          “Well .. how long do you think we’ve been here?” he asked.

          “How long’s a piece of string?” Merlin asked in reply.  “Ask me a question I have a hope of answering an’ I’ll answer you but how long have we been here .. I don’t know that.”

          “Then – ”

          “And, please, don’t follow it up with how long before we find out why we’re here cos I don’t know that one either.”

          His lips twitched.  Merlin had told him often enough that she was not telepathic but he occasionally doubted it.  But perhaps she just knew him well enough to make a good guess.  Or perhaps the same questions were rattling fruitlessly around her head too.

          “Well, what can you tell me?” he invited.  “Who informed you to be ready?”

          “The boss.  Turned up one morning.  No warning, just walked in.”  Merlin shrugged.  “He said to be ready.  Something was in the pipe.  Shouldn’t be too difficult.”

          “And how do you interpret that?”
          She shook her head.  “I know my job, Derek.  The bulk standard, everyday situations don’t get notified to me in advance.  I just deal with ’em when they crop up.  For the boss to tell me in person .. it’s important, whatever it is.  It may be something out of the ordinary, something he can’t deal with because of who an’ what he is and where he is.  Something unprecedented.  But then he said I wasn’t in trouble an’ that I’d find the task to be well within my abilities.  That could mean anything.  A stroll in the park to just short of getting killed.  I won’t know till I get more information.  To be honest with you .. he said that it’d go down in a few weeks an’ it’s been such a long time that I thought it’d been cancelled.  This is as much a surprise to me as it is to you.”

          Derek nodded, frowning.  “Then make a guess as to why we’ve been brought here.  It has to do with your mission.  I must admit, I find my presence here with you to be a little alarming yet also slightly exhilarating.  I occasionally envy Nick when he goes on training week because I’d like to see the Enforcers at work.  Now I’ll have that chance.”

          “You’ve seen me working,” she pointed out.

          “Well .. yes, I’ve seen the end result.  I rarely see the lead up, the planning, the thought processes which are behind the action plan.  Reuben Meyer doesn’t count,” Derek continued quickly.  “The Legacy helped a lot with that.  I’m talking about purely Enforcer activity such as training week.”

          “This isn’t purely Enforcer activity either.  You’re here.”

          “By accident, possibly.”

          Merlin shook her head.  “If that was the case, the crew would be here as well.  They were in the wrong place at the right time, an’ they’ve been removed.  You haven’t.  For better or worse, you’re in this with me, equal partners.”

          “So why limbo?” Derek asked.  “I’ve seen you working, Peri.  I’ve never been here before that I’m aware to see you working.  Why limbo on this occasion?  What mission could be accomplished here?”

          She leaned back, biting at her lip.  “Limbo is a sanctuary.  A .. timeout place.  It isn’t anywhere, specifically.  It’s between life an’ death.  There’s no evil .. as such.  No enemies to fight.  It’s a place for .. reflection.  To make choices.  To examine the past, see where you went wrong, what needs to be put right, whether you want to try again or give up trying.  I don’t know what mission can be accomplished here.  Obviously, there is something I have to do.  Something you have to do.  We just don’t know what it is yet.  We’re trying to form a picture, Derek but there are pieces still missing.  You know it as well as I do.”

          He considered this.  “Is it our timeout?  Should we be examining our choices?  Because,” he added, “if it isn’t, whose choices and past actions should we be examining?”

          “It does kinda suggest all the participants aren’t here yet,” Merlin remarked.  “I know I don't have any really bad choices I regret making.  A few minor ones but I can live with ’em.”

          “The same goes for me,” Derek commented.  “Who can we expect to join us?”

          She angled her head.  “You’re back to the string question.”

          Derek smiled and even managed to laugh softly.  “I apologize.  Let me rephrase it.  Let us assume that Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms X, at some time in the not too distant future we must sincerely hope, will join us on this facsimile of an aircraft.  Let us also assume that this person is known to us, either to both of us or to me or you, otherwise why are we here?  Let us further assume that our assistance is required to help this person assess their choices.  Are you happy with that so far?”

          “It’s a lot of assumptions,” she commented.

          “But reasonable ones,” Derek qualified.  “Therefore .. how do we assist them?  What is our purpose here?”

          “Well .. it could be to play good cop, bad cop.  You ever seen It’s A Wonderful Life?  We could do something like that.  Look at this person’s life an’ use it to encourage ’em to go back or to give up an’ go on.”

          “And we can do that?”

          “Yeah.  Limbo is like a .. kinda mirror or window.  We could even sit here an’ watch it play out on the movie screen.”

          Derek smiled.  “Having surmised this much, are we now in a position to guess who it may be?”

          She paused then laughed softly.  “I really wanna say I hope it’s no one we know but that rather defeats the object, doesn’t it?  Bearing in mind this is between life an’ death .. someone is in for an incredible ordeal.”

          He considered that and felt sympathy for her words.  It did mean someone they knew was about to almost die.  It wasn’t a comforting thought.  Neither was the realization that their actions would have an impact on the ending.

          “Ingrid,” he said.

          “Excuse me?” Merlin ventured.

          “We both know her very well.”

          “Sure, but .. Ingrid?  She’s strong in her faith, Derek.  What choices could she possibly have to regret an’ re-examine?  When Ingrid’s time comes to cross the great divide, she’ll be over the river in no time.  She’ll be on the fast track.”

          “Is this an .. out of body experience for us?  A near death experience?”

          “Out of body, certainly.  Near death .. I’d say not.  People who have near death experiences .. doctors are fighting to bring them back, get their bodies living again.  Now, we may have been here only a few minutes but .. I don’t know, it feels longer than that to me.  Doctors would have declared us dead by now .. an’ we wouldn’t be here.  I think this has to be the first suggestion you made.”

          “But the person joining us could be having either.”


          “Can we rule out Nick, Alex and Rachel?”

          “I’d like to say yes but I don’t think we can.”

          He nodded, fighting down a sense of alarm as he thought of his surrogate family being in mortal danger.  There again, maybe he was in the best place to help them.

          “My mother.  She’s getting on in years.”

          “I don’t know her.  Why would the boss put me on standby for your mother?”

          That was true and it came as a relief.

          “It could be any one of the other Precepts,” Merlin went on.  “We both know them an’ they could have regrets over past choices.”

          “The first one being ‘did I do the right thing when I joined the Legacy’.”

          “I disagree with that.  We’re talking deep down inside regrets.  Hidden, buried away regrets.  They may have a bad day, maybe lose a member of their team, an’ think ‘did I do the right thing joining the Legacy’ but they know they did.  I’m sure you’ve thought the same from time to time.  You don’t deep down inside regret joining.  Precepts are more the kind to regret the way they handled a certain situation.  No one’s perfect an’ hindsight is always critical.  Even when they get a brilliant result, they look back an’ think ‘I could’ve done that better’ or ‘if I’d sent Fred instead of Bert, we could have ended it faster’ or even ‘if I’d used the crossbow instead of the potion, Fred wouldn’t have been injured’.  Things they’d never voice out loud because Precepts are supposed to be experts an’ know what they’re doing, but those choices can be major regrets when it comes to life an’ death.”

          She angled her head.  “You’re no different, Derek.  If your life was genuinely in the balance right now, you’d be saying ‘if only I hadn’t let Rachel volunteer to be a patient in that asylum’ or ‘I should have gone with Alex to stay in that tenement’.  You’re human.  If you didn’t think things like that, you wouldn’t be.”

          “You’re right,” Derek agreed.  “It takes many years to gather wisdom, and you’re still so young.”

          “Nah.  Well, yeah, I’m still young but that wasn’t wisdom.  It’s common sense.  I guess I’m a little more relaxed about being here so I can think a little straighter.  Don’t forget, I’m very accustomed to out of body experiences.”

          He nodded and tried to think of who else might show up.  It could very well be another Precept.  Sometimes, the pressures just became too much.  A string of failures, a series of tragic deaths, losing members of the team, having to get exactly the right people to replace them …  And leaving, resigning, walking out the door, was never enough.  The pressure only seemed to follow and it became burdened with guilt.  Once a Legacy member and Precept, always a Legacy member and Precept.  Only .. once you left, you couldn’t go back and you didn’t have the team as backup.  So the pressure increased.  Not exactly a paradox but it was certainly an inconvenience to enjoying a long and stress free life.  The Legacy changed the way you viewed the world.  Where ordinary people saw only shadows, you saw what hid in those shadows.  What ordinary people dismissed as weird or just an amazing coincidence, you went deeper, saw further, understood what it meant.  You felt the fear on their behalf.

          So retirement was rarely long.  Very few former Precepts – who had resigned due to work related stress – lived to a ripe old age.  The demons won an initial victory when a Precept gave up, and they won the ultimate victory when a Precept took the pills and washed them down with alcohol or held the gun to his or her head.  Derek had felt the despair more than once, and, in those dark moments, he’d considered giving up but, fortunately, he had never succumbed to the taunts of his personal demons.  And that, he felt, made him an ideal candidate to help an associate surmount whatever crisis they were going thru.  Why Merlin would need to be present as well .. that was still a mystery. 

          She had been warned a long time ago.  Put on standby.  Derek frowned.  The Legacy was a lot more open these days.  Houses didn’t work in isolation.  Information flowed freely between them.  Paul Emery was a very hands on leader.  He encouraged Precepts and Legacy members to contact him.  When Derek had met with him in New York, Paul hadn’t mentioned anyone with a problem like depression, and he would have, Derek was convinced.  In the old days, a Precept struggling with that kind of debilitating illness would have been left to struggle alone.  These days, however, the entire Legacy would have rallied around, offering support and assistance.  Paul might have given an affected Precept six months sabbatical and acted as temporary Precept while he or she recovered or chose to leave.  If Merlin had been warned that she would have a mission, and warned so many weeks ago, either the Precept in question had hidden their depression very well while they worked actively in planning suicide .. or it wasn’t a Precept at all.  Possibly, it wasn’t even a Legacy member.

          Could it be an Enforcer ..?  Derek felt that was dangerous territory to trespass into.  Enforcers were born to the job and couldn’t refuse to do it.  He felt they must get depressed at times but they couldn’t let it affect their ability to do the work.  In fact, the only Enforcer he knew who had deliberately self-destructed was Reuben Meyer.  But, maybe, it was possible to drop the guard during a life and death struggle – kill the beast even as you let the beast have a killing stroke of its own.  That would be doing the job but also self-destructing.  Yes, Merlin would be needed in that scenario .. but why would Derek’s presence be needed?

          The crew had been removed.  Maybe for safety reasons, maybe just for the sake of their sanity.  Hopefully, they were recovering in hospital, maybe even the same hospital which was caring for him and Merlin.  He rose to go to the cockpit again, not really expecting to find a clue but hopeful there might be something.  Merlin silently followed him.

          “What are you thinking?” she asked.

          “I’m not sure.  Maybe nothing.  I’m just .. trying to figure my way thru, understand why I’m here, what I’m supposed to do.”

          “I could tell you that,” said a voice behind them. 

          They both knew that voice.  Of all the voices they might have expected to hear, it wasn’t that one.

          “Oh .. shit, “Merlin breathed as she glanced back over her shoulder.

          Derek decided to play it ignorant, as if he and Merlin hadn’t already spent time in long discussion and debate.  Hoping Merlin would follow his lead and not give the game away, he turned.

          “What’s going on?  Do you have something to do with the disappearance of the pilots?”

          “In the way you mean, no, I don’t.  As to what’s going on and, by inference, am I responsible ..?”

          William Sloan paused.  “Yes and no.”




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