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Alien Reincarnation in Midtown Manhattan
by Anne Spackman

 
Ever dream you were reincarnated?
Ever wonder if you were an alien in a former life?

Brendan Ardini would have laughed in your face if you answered yes. Most people would. But Brendan was a typical New Yorker: busy, sophisticated, short-tempered, brash, always in a hurry, even when he wasn't in a hurry. And to Brendan, sleep was often "optional". He worked on Wall Street every day, worked late and sometimes weekends, kept up with the Dow, stocks, and other commodities. He wasn't a trader but in sales and marketing, a smooth-talker in a smooth-talking international financial firm. If Brendan ever had a dream, it was about big Christmas bonuses, and joining a start-up company with a big name family backing it. Until one night, Brendan had a dream that he had been an alien. And that he had been reincarnated.

What happened to set him off that evening? He wondered later. Well, nothing really... unless he counted that crazy girl he'd run into.

He had worked late on Friday evening, took the subway to his Midtown apartment. And then he went to work Saturday morning, just to get things finished up for the week. While at work, he discovered he had just closed a huge ten million dollar deal, called his friends to arrange a celebration, then realized he had several hours to kill until they met at the Irish pub around 66th St. in the Upper East Side. Elated and feeling spontaneous, Brendan decided to take a detour on the way home and stop by Central Park. For once, he found he didn't mind all of the joggers and tourists. And maybe his step was a little lighter that day, and maybe it was the fantastic summer sunshine, but Brendan found himself ambling around the park, way more north than usual, past the Guggenheim and to the duck ponds around 95th St, maybe 100th.

There was a New York Times newspaper sitting on one of the benches when Brendan stopped for a rest, unused to the exercise. And, though the paper wasn't "The Wall Street Journal", he picked it up and looked at the headlines.

Murder in Central Park: Death Toll Reaches Five.

Brendan read on, picking out crucial elements in his usual hurry: "...three weeks after the first wave of murders, several bodies were discovered late last night by tourists near The Pond in Central Park, but so far, police have released no information about any suspects in these crimes. No statements have been made linking the previous murders with yesterday's homicide..."

Brendan wasn't the type to get a chill over this kind of thing, but it was disturbing. He was probably sitting not far from the spot where the victims had been found. The Pond was pretty remote by Central Park standards, at the north end of it, with fewer pedestrians and tourists, but Brendan's favorite spot when he needed alone time. He put the paper down, looked around. It was pretty quiet, breezy, fabulous weather. Why would anyone murder someone here? Unless the bodies had been dragged to the area... and with that, Brendan stopped thinking about it because it was too unpleasant to bother with today.

He sat a while thinking about his good luck, how fantastic he'd been throughout negotiations over the ten-million dollar account. Rodriguez and Kowalski would order a big round of Tom Collins and listen in angst when he told them about how sweet it was.

Brendan was so preoccupied thinking that he didn't notice the girl heading past him until she was nearly in front of him. She passed him on the path, and stopped. And then she turned her head around and stared at him. Stared wide-eyed. And craned her neck as she walked away, still staring at him.

Brendan couldn't help but stare back. No one in Manhattan ever made eye contact! He thought. It was taboo. So who was this girl staring at him so hard?

She gave him the creeps. Her long hair was almost white it was so blond-and naturally so-and her eyes were round and dark like coals. Her walk was something stiff-legged. She seemed like a mannequin, skinny as they came, and relatively flat-chested. Her face was probably what some people called pretty, but Brendan didn't care for the look in her eyes. She didn't look dangerous, maybe a little crazy, but then who in New York wasn't just a little? And he'd seen stranger things in Manhattan than a girl with white hair who stared at strangers.

He got up to leave after she disappeared over the wooden bridge nearby, and hurried south a bit, past a children's playground and tennis courts, and then near the more popular avenues of the park.

But just as he was passing down the horse-lanes, the white-haired girl appeared from around a corner and ran right into him. For a girl so skinny, her shoulder was hard as a rock, he noticed ruefully, picking himself up and dusting off rotting leaves. She didn't apologize, but waited a moment, then grabbed his shoulder as he tried to leave.

"Who do you think you are?" he shouted, trying to free himself, but she was strong. Very strong. And he didn't feel like yanking free in front of people, in case he couldn't. That realization hit him in his gut. Who on Earth was she? He thought, jarred mentally. How dare she be so strong?

"Do you remember who you are?" she asked back, in a voice that was short and stilted. And as she looked at him with those big coal-black eyes of hers, he shuddered. Though he would have laughed if anyone else had asked him that. "Do you remember?" she asked again, as he just stared at her.

He shook his head slowly, dismissed her. "Lady, you're crazy."

As if agreeing, she gave a dark, low laugh that sounded like the hiss of a hot iron poker being immersed into water. And as she let him go, she said, in a strange, sad way, "I missed you both." Tears welled in her eyes and dripped to the mud like water from a leaking pipe, falling over her smooth, unflinching face. The transformation of the look in her eyes from ice to anguish was both sudden and complete.

Now he knew she was crazy. And yet as he left her there and went back to his apartment to change for the evening, he found he couldn't stop thinking about her.

Thankfully, the guys helped him to. They met, the usual after-work group, at about eight in the Irish pub, and drank and swapped stories until it was very late. And they were nearly drunk as they piled into taxies, with lady-friends, to head to another night place. Brendan, the usual ladies' man, found himself a philosophical, angry drunk for a change. Maybe too much vodka this time. Vodka had a way of making a man think deep thoughts, when all he wanted to do was trip the light fantastic and throw caution to the wind. He should have remembered that, he reminded himself, and stuck to whisky and margaritas.

Deflated, tired, and sick of noise, Brendan returned to his small, empty but immaculately decorated two-roomed apartment, with its always-empty fridge and ever-increasing pile of dry-clean only suits needing cleaning in one corner of his room. And as he sat there pulling off his dress shoes and socks, his mind returned to the damned white-headed girl he'd met at Central Park. She had ruined his day! Just ruined it! Why couldn't he shake the memory of this meeting, out of so many thousands of routine meetings on the streets of New York?

Do you remember who you are? She had asked him. And as he tumbled into bed, shoulders and head aching, still wearing the same shirt, he thought about that. Funny enough, he'd often asked himself the same thing, but only when thinking about how much life in the fast lane in New York City had changed him. Some of the changes he liked, and others, well, that was what it took to succeed and to be where success was measured in superlative terms.

He didn't even remember falling asleep.

*** "Good luck, my friends." The woman said in a way that was meaningful and light-hearted, but then that was Ila. She could be a hard bitch at times and a bleeding sentimentalist at others, but Orian and Kia loved her, anyway. Ila stood blinking at him a while with her large coal-black eyes and then slapped him on the shoulder. "I expect to see your sorry faces when we rendezvous with Vsad One." She laughed at him, unconscious of the power of her laughter. "So take care of yourself, and don't disappoint me."

"How long do you think we have before we reach the target field?" Kia asked. She was young, pretty, doe-eyed, and smart. Unlike Ila, her hair was the darkest shade of grey. And her eyes were red as the supergiant Baytal.

"Soon enough. And sooner if you keep thinking about it," Orian said with a laugh.

The three of them: Orian, Kia, and Ila stood in a small airlock of the spaceship, three comrades in arms, three friends for life, bound closer to each other than any would admit. The only person missing was the old veteran Riak, who had died two years ago. Leaving Orian outnumbered by females, not that he minded much anymore. Half in love with Ila, his often bitchy superior, Orian was equally attracted to Kia, the young officer who had been assigned as his own subordinate and merani assault team partner. But beyond that, the trio had become friends. Imagine that, Orian thought, having female friends, real friends. Friends because they had been through the mouth of hell together and returned, only to brave more battles every time the mothership Vsad One got attacked. Orian knew that any personal relationships with his comrades, now his friends despite his additional inclinations, would just have to wait until the war was really over. Assuming that they won it.

Their enemies, a rival colony recently from Ataxia, were people like them and originally of the same planet, Kerrol, somewhere so far away in the galaxy that most of the people on Orian's ship Vsad Three considered life on Kerrol ancient history. Nevertheless, Orian's people still called themselves Kerrollans. Since the colonies had left Kerrol, the Ataxians, once their own people, had rebelled against the government of Vsad One and allied themselves with an alien race from Catar, a strange society of creatures barbaric in custom but light years ahead in technology and scientific development. A strange mix, the Catar, but there were loads of stranger things in the universe.

"The enemy has breached Vsad One... Prepare to launch all merani units." A voice interrupted over the intercom.

"They keep playing that old song." Ila sighed smiling, then shrugged. "Time to go. Don't forget. You two promise to come back."

"Believe me, we intend to!" Kia returned glibly. "Same goes for you." And a moment later, she and Orian pulled up their faceshields. Orian took one last look at Ila, turned to the air lock and waited for the fall.

The high-pitched whistle of the wind blew on the surface of the rocky planet some distance below, a temporary landing site both fleets of smaller ships had targeted as a place to replenish low mineral supplies. The grounded Ataxian ships had managed to breach the hull of Vsad one, which now had to be protected at all costs, but the Ataxians themselves didn't oblige by making themeselves easy targets in return.

"Tell me they don't have giant animals anywhere down there," Kia said as the merani teams fell, noticing the huge green forests away on the left.

"Oh, they have huge ones," Orian teased. "With huge jaws and big old teeth."

"You are being serious?"

"Heck, yeah! I took a look at the place in the monitors when we got here. Giant trees. Green scaly things crawling about-"

"Ew," Kia said, probably wincing in her suit, not that he could see her face. A merani suit was bulky and had several special techniques to distinguish it from bigger airships. Boosters in the feet helped the pilots to glide over landscapes up to ten lengths of Vsad One, though the merani units kept close to the ground to use it as cover. Smaller than the Ataxian attack craft and airships, merani units were able to weave in and among the enemy and avoid the laser shots. This made it easier for the merani suit pilots to destroy the Ataxian machines and Catar cybercreatures with missiles and rockets sealed within the armored merani suit and with small laser guns. And with one secret weapon: an anti-matter beam, just one each, and small enough that if a merani team exploded with it unfired, the range of the weapon only affected the area immediately around them.

Once the merani teams got through the enemy front line, they would be expected to quickly disable the Ataxian's hover device using a high-intensity explosive. Crippled, the enemy ship would become a target for the Kerrollan lasers... and then the merani teams had to get out fast. If all went as planned, Vsad One would be able to escape once its repairs were complete. With any luck, the Ataxians would then be equally busy repairing their own mothership.

The long fall was always annoying, Orian thought, hating the wait. It took several minutes to reach the ground; Vsad One was somewhere away near the green forests, but they couldn't see it now. And Kia was glad that the terrain of the area directly below showed no sign of the strange leather-skinned giants. It was a rocky, arid area, rare on the planet, full of big boulders and small valleys that gave cover and protection. Still, the many rock-face cliffs and deep crevices could become dangerous to people if they were hit by lasers. Miles of rock could explode the cliffs and crush the merani teams, who were planning to hide below in the crevices at intervals while they slowly advanced upon their enemy.

"We're coming up," Orian said, as the thousands of merani teams descended together to the valley floor and in no time began their run towards the main objective: the Ataxian mothership.

Orian looked behind him and saw his own people's attack craft and airships dropping to the surface; but the Ataxians had better weapons and better craft, which made these operations of stealthy merani teams necessary. Ila's fleet of attack craft really only followed up in the rear to pummel the mothership when the coast was clear. She'd been a merani team pilot until a short time ago, sometimes paired with Orian and sometimes with Kia. Until she hit the cut-off of twenty missions, and someone in higher places promoted her away from the dangerous merani frontal assault group. The merani suits had the added danger, or advantage, depending on who was looking at it, of having the anti-matter beam which no large craft could risk keeping on board.

The merani teams waited until they spotted the enemy coming over the ridges only a field or two away from their position. As the enemy machines came in fuller force and the laser volleys increased, the merani teams broke up away and used the cliffs for cover. When a few enemy units managed to sweep over them, they were dealt with by the Kerrollan attack craft and airships, the last line of defense.

Without warning, a blast sent rocks crashing down onto two teams ahead of Orian and Kia. Clouds of debris were thrown and suspended in the air, for a moment disrupting Kia and Orian's boosters. They were going to have to get clear of the debris or risk their boosters mulfunctioning.

"We'll have to make a mad dash for the next cliff," he told Kia.

"Hang on a second! I'm not ready... All right, all right... let's go."

And then they ascended high into the firing range. The remaining merani teams got together and headed for the open, leaping over the endless crevices in the dry, rocky surface. Orian and Kia found themselves the leaders. They could hear the bulkier support ships coming over the cliffs to their rear just a minute behind.

Suddenly a laser volley tore the air in two with a thundering clap as it struck the ground in front of them, widening the crevice before the high cliff they were preparing to leap over.

Behind the merani teams, in her larger attack craft, Ila saw the second blast coming. She had no time to react or speak. In a split-second, the energy tore the cliff and sent rocks flying. Orian looked at Kia a moment, only a moment, as light descended... Nooo! Ila's scream resounded in that last, aching short second.

And then he was nothing.

*** Brendan bolted awake, drenched in sweat. Damn it, damn it, damn it. No one ever felt himself die in a dream! You always woke up, always, but Brendan had never come so close to feeling as though he had. His heart raced, his palms were sticky. He got up to turn on the wall-unit AC and combed his fingers repeatedly through his hair, pacing. Sunday morning. What do I have planned? He thought. Nothing came to mind; his mind was blank, and drawing him back to the surreal reality he'd seen in his dream. That face, Ila. Ila... Had the face of the woman in the park.

Brendan tried to calm down. It was only a dream! She'd been there in it because he'd seen her yesterday afternoon. But he couldn't convince his nervous system and started pacing. Then paced right into the kitchen for some water to relieve his hangover, and drained it down. But the dream wouldn't leave him alone.

I missed you both.

Yes, that was it! He remembered what white-head had said to him in the park. And he had of course dreamed that he knew her. Dreamed vividly. Dreamed that he loved her in his strange, mixed-up way. Dreamed that he knew about things he had no inkling of how to do or think or feel. Dreamed of things no one knew how to do, like turning a man into a cyborg and star charts from here to Ataxia- But it was just a dream, just a dream. He relaxed, headed to and opened the curtains, winced at the bright light, was glad that nothing had changed in Midtown Manhattan.

And some time later, he dragged himself out of the apartment and went for some coffee.

*** Death Toll reaches Seven. The headlines glared at him as he passed by a news stand.

Brendan backtracked and read over the paper, fished out change to stop the vendor from looking closely at him, and carried the heavy paper with him down the block to the café he had made his ritual morning stop.

He sat a while, reading in silence, but there was nothing strange about another murder, except that the victims had been found near the police station in Central Park, a short ways from the horse track.

Brendan turned the page and forced himself to read something else until his heart slowed down again. Which it didn't, since he had found the financial pages.

That evening he came home later than usual. After a quick dinner at an Italian restaurant a few blocks down the road, he climbed into bed, exhausted. Sunday evening was soon to be Monday morning. He didn't even pause as he crawled into his bed, having convinced himself throughout the day that he was not the sort of man to allow silly fantasies to interfere with the efficient running of ordinary business for the day. He had even ceased thinking about anything but his schedule for tomorrow.

Until he fell asleep.

*** "What'll it be, beautiful?" The man behind the counter leered knowingly at the young blond-haired woman sitting at the Irish bar around 66th St. in the Upper East Side late that Sunday night. If the bartender expected an answer, he didn't get one. The young woman just stared down at her hands, her eyes vacant, miles away, aeons away.

"Come on, doll, what'll it be?" The American bartender was almost sorry he asked when the young woman snapped out of her reverie and stared at him with dark, unsettling eyes. She was beautiful, sure, but her eyes were like glaciers.

"I'll have whatever he's having," she said stiffly, jerking a thumb at the guy sitting a few stools down.

"Okay then, scotch on the rocks." He said, deciding not to bother this one. Whew, an ice princess if ever he'd seen one. And he shivered a moment, just looking at her. Or maybe, maybe a man-eater.

"Anything else?" He asked a moment later. Her eyes were hard, not cold. She was a man-eater for sure. He bet she could be friendly, though, when she wanted to be. A dangerous lady, he thought, like a fashion model on cocaine.

"No." She answered, and didn't so much as look at him. The bartender shrugged and headed to other customers. A few minutes later, the blond lady got up to leave and passed by a dark-haired girl just coming into the bar.

"Give me whatever you have on tap, there, Jimmy," she said, Irish as a shamrock and just as sassy as Maureen O' Sullivan. Jimmy and the others were already smiling, that smile reserved for women who knew exactly how to push a man's buttons.

The Irish girl passed the blond as she came in, then stopped, blinked twice, and turned around to catch only the back of her blond head, almost white under the lights outside.

"Something wrong, Kathleen?" Jimmy asked. Kathleen's face was pale, her brows drawn together. She looked like she had been trying to place something, or someone.

Kathleen looked up and shook her head with a smile. "Nah. I just thought for a moment I'd seen a ban shee." She said.

Jimmy and the others roared.

*** Brendan didn't exactly know what he was doing in Central Park Friday night, especially now that the death toll of murder victims found there had reached fifteen. All week, people at work had been asking him what was wrong with him, noticed he wasn't his usual self, asked him if he was tired, joked that it was about time he took a vacation. Women at the office tried to cheer him up, sent him cute memos, teasing him, inviting him out to lunch. But Brendan insisted he was fine. Of course, he wasn't.

By Friday night, he knew he had to find the woman who looked like Ila. Ila. He couldn't get her damned face out of his mind. She was in his dreams every night, and in his mind most of the morning every day now. He was cursed by a ghost that couldn't be exorcised. How could a woman who didn't exist at all torment him? Ila didn't exist. And never had. And to prove it to himself, he had to find the crazy blond-headed woman he'd met in Central Park. But how long would he have to wait before their paths crossed again? After all, there were more than ten million people in Manhattan, but he had run across people he knew on rare occasions, like old school friends he hadn't seen in years, and old girlfriends who pretended they hadn't seen him in years. And so he convinced himself that blondie was a regular park-goer, that he'd see her, that he'd confront her that very night.

Brendan left work early on Friday and waited all evening by the Pond, but the albino girl never showed. When the park closed, he went home, tired and annoyed, with an aching back, but dreading sleep. And thinking how much he'd taken his life for granted before, his perfect confidence, his undauntable security that all was right with the world, or at least his world, and that if it wasn't, he could make it right. Of course, he'd had moments of insecurity and doubt before, who hadn't, but he had never been so crudely shaken to the core as he was every morning that he woke up this past week, and found Ila nothing but a dream.

Orian must have lived a fantastic life, he sometimes reflected. But perhaps not so different from being in Sales and Marketing in Manhattan. That too, could be like brutal war. There, too, was an ongoing fight for survival. But there was something about Orian's life, some underlying sense of appreciation for it all, that Brendan now knew he lacked. What was it? He didn't know. Only that seeing it each night and coming so close to the answer was like being another Tantalus in Tartarus, cursed with eternal thirst and tied up just out of reach of a freshwater spring. Worse, every time he looked in the bathroom mirror lately, Brendan kept feeling like he were staring at a stranger. And told himself he was being ridiculous for thinking it. But the stranger was there, moving when he told him to, speaking on command, going through all the motions like a living man would, but not at all the same man he remembered being there before. Before when? I am not this man Orian. I never was.

The difficult part was contending with the man's memories. Memories so clear about things he, Brendan, could never know, and the memories were getting stronger. More than once, Brendan found himself joking with the women in the office in an entirely different way from his lifetime habit of falling on smooth-talking charm. Brendan was being unusually down to earth, he overheard one of them saying later. How ironic, he thought.

But, after wasting all of Friday night sitting on a park bench in the cold, waiting on a silly notion that he would meet her there, Brendan decided to catch a taxi home. And told himself later while he took the elevator up to his apartment that he wasn't going to leave Midtown for the rest of the week-end.

Saturday morning, he changed his mind. After he woke up, he called Jim in Australia and a few of his local friends and cancelled an evening out he had planned a few weeks back.

And then he packed up some sunscreen, put on a pair of shorts that had been in the back of the closet for years, and headed to The Pond.

*** Kathleen had just discovered rollerblades. Of course, everyone had seen them, heard about them, been saturated by images on the telly of happy rollerbladers in parks all over America the beautiful. But Kathy was an Irish girl from rural county Cork. People there just didn't rollerblade, or they hadn't when she was growing up.

Kathleen had hopped on a plane to America fresh out of school six years ago, found a friend who could help her get a green card to work for an Irish tourist shop, and never got any further west than New Jersey. In two years, with saving and living with a friend of a relative in Brooklyn before moving to Manhattan, Kathy had saved a bit of money and invested it well enough to afford Manhattan rent. She'd got in on a good apartment that was only 500 dollars a month and guaranteed not to go up more than with inflation, because of the fixed-rate rent system in Manhattan.

Today she was discovering why America had begun its love affair with rollerblading. Jimmy's sister had lent her a pair of rollerblades a while back, but Kathy had left them at the door of her one-room apartment for ages. Only a rare bright Saturday morning with nothing else to do finally enticed her to put them on. But she ended up running into a stocker outside D'Agostino's, and ran into far too many traffic lights in Manhattan to get far in safety. So she took them off and carried them to Central Park.

More people could fill Central Park on a sunny day than the entire county of Cork. But that was Manhattan. With more people than some small countries. Almost a country on its own. Certainly with a way of life all its own. Everyone in New York loved it and hated it at the same time, and sometimes asked themselves why they were there, but more often, why anybody would ever want to leave.

The one thing she hadn't anticipated was the blisters. Puffy little sores, everywhere. Her pink feet were raw by the time she circled the avenues running though the park twice and took off the skates and went barefoot a while, ignoring the stares of people around her. The rollerblades seemed impossibly heavier by mid-afternoon. She was ready to go back to her apartment, then decided to sit and let her feet recover and found a bench, not too far from Carnegie Hall.

People came and went: children with ice cream cones, women with I © NY bags, families pushing strollers, tour groups, joggers, elderly couples. Speaking every language under the sun. Buses went by, with advertisements for the new blockbuster "Jurassic Park". Kathy had been to see it with Jimmy's sister last week, and loved every minute of it. The dinosaurs especially.

Then a strange woman passed by, with pale pale hair, skinny as a leek. And as she passed by Kathy, she stopped. Her head tilted back a little. She looked like an animal turning her nose up at a scent. Kathy stared, then suddenly looked away when she realized the woman was about to turn to look at her. But she didn't turn. Instead, the woman just hovered, face tilted to the side, a smile on her face. Kathy wished she would go away. And then, when the woman seemed to move off a bit, Kathy quickly put on her rollerblades and skated straight up the east side of the park.

*** The rain came from nowhere. No one had anticipated it, the weather casters had ready-made apologies on the air by the five o'clock broadcast, and people all over Central Park were clearing out fast.

Brendan woke up where he'd fallen asleep on the grass.

Shit.

There wasn't time for him to think about anything else but running for cover. He scurried past bridges to the covered archway a little to the north, not quite to the amphitheater. And he waited, and waited, with no visible sign of the rain tapering off. There wasn't a soul in sight, just a rocky brook doing its thing, birds, other natural flora and fauna. And pretty soon, it started to thunder.

Brendan now remembered why he liked to keep indoors. After a while, though, he sat down under the arch and stretched his legs, and listened. Not bad. Imagine, not a soul in sight. In Manhattan. Unbelievable.

He was sitting there when he heard a scream, a woman's scream. Nothing unusual, he told himself. Where was it coming from? He processed the thought. From the woodsy bit ahead, a patch of forest really. He picked himself up a moment later, drawn by curiosity. After all, the rain was slackening. Had a tourist fallen down a slope? He wondered. Something inside him drove him to investigate, even though it was none of his business, so he did.

He came across a rollerblader just around a corner, and she ran into him. She was panting hard.

"Are you all right?" he asked, casually.

She gave him a terror-eyed look.

"There's a crazy woman around here." She said, in broad Irish.

A crazy woman? Not you? Brendan suppressed the quip. This girl was so afraid, she meant what she was saying. Brendan became excited, hopeful, afraid that the "crazy woman" might be the woman he was looking for. The woman who looked like Ila.

"What did she look like?"

"Tall. Blond. Thin. Dark eyes. I swear, she was following me all over the park. All over it, though how she could catch up with me..." the Irish lass shook her head. "It was like she was waiting for me to go somewhere where I'd be... alone-oh, I don't know. Like she's planning something. And she looks mean, mean enough to be the one who's been killing people around here." She said the last part just out of fear, not really meaning it, but Brendan blanched, anyway. She sighed, tried to move away from him to stand upright, and limped a bit in her rollerblades.

The one who's been killing people... Brendan thought, his mind working over the idea.

"Please don't think I'm crazy, whoever you are. I'm not lying." Kathy insisted, maybe irritated by the silence. "Wait a minute. She'll come around the corner."

"Was that you screaming, then?" Brendan asked.

The Irish girl nodded. Her eyes were clear grey, he noticed. He smiled at her, then took a step away and looked around.

"Please don't leave me, yet." She asked, in a charming way, but not like a girl who was used to asking for favors.

Brendan stopped, feeling a wave of masculine self-assurance that was gratified by the damsel's appeal, and in a moment, he decided he would help her. When was the last time he'd had the opportunity to help anyone in distress? The sensation this prospect gave him was far better than he remembered.

So, they waited a while where they were, half-holding onto each other until it became awkward. No one came. After some considerable time had passed, it became uncomfortable standing.

"Where do you live?" Brendan asked at length. "I'll walk you home."

She gave him an uncertain look and stumbled away, slowly, so he could walk with her.

"I'm just offering," Brendan said, raising palms in defense. She cast a very shrewd glance over him.

"Around East 53rd."

"Are you going to make it back on those things?"

"Why do you say that?" she asked, sassy and pert. He could see she was limping.

"Because you're walking like you've got a tack stuck in your foot."

She laughed.

"Do you want to sit down a minute? I don't think you're being followed anymore."

"All right," she agreed. They walked back to the nearest bench, which was some distance away, in front of The Pond.

"So what are you doing here?" he asked.

"Ah, well, a friend of mine gave me these things to try out-" she pointed.

"I mean in America," he laughed.

"Living. Working. Same as anywhere. And what do you do, when you aren't out rescuing people?"

Brendan sighed. "I work in Sales."

"Oh," she said, in descending tones. "Oh, I see." She was immediately less familiar with him, if only for a minute. "You're one of the suits, are you? So what brings you here, then, dressed like that, eh? You don't look like a jogger."

"No, I'm not." He agreed, privately amazed that she hadn't immediately grilled him for sound, free advice on the best financial investments.

"Me either. The truth is, I seldom get out much anymore."

"I live at the office. Or I did, until last week."

"Oh, really? What made you decide to air yourself out, then?"

Brendan half-smiled at the strange way she had put it, then remembered his ten-million dollar deal and was surprised he hadn't thought about it all day. "It was a good day. I closed a giant deal."

"Congratulations."

"Thanks."

"Did something happen since then?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Ah, never mind. It's none of my business. But if you wanted to know, I'd say you seem awfully distracted. Like you've got some kind of secret workin' it's way on ya from the inside."

"I have no idea what you just said, but you're right."

"Is it a work secret?"

"No."

"Your love life, then?"

He laughed. "No." Then stopped, brows furrowing. "Well, maybe..."

"I knew that had something to do with it," she said, snapping her fingers briskly. She was an awfully bright girl, he thought, and pretty.

"What's your name?" he asked, voice raised in an incidental tone.

"Kathleen." She said. Then, "Kathy."

"Kathy."

"And you?"

He paused. "Brendan."

"Pleased to meet you, Brendan," she said. Meanwhile, the rain had stopped. And they sat on the bench and talked, talked until the sun had nearly set. It was a beautiful sunset behind the remaining clouds, orange-gold, like fire. Some time later, they got up to walk back. The moon was shining like a bright white pearl in the sky.

When the blond-haired woman appeared. She had crept behind them, carefully, soundlessly. And waited until there was no one else around to strike. She had a knife in her hand when she jumped like a soundless predator from on top of an incline to the path below.

Kathy screamed, moved, as the knife pierced her arm. She was knocked over by the force of her assailant clean to the ground. Brendan hurried to help her and pulled off the lithe creature above her, a creature brandishing a blood-tipped knife that aimed closer at the nape of Kathleen's neck. Kathy screamed, looked her assailant in the eye. Recognized her with a shudder like a dying animal, and then an instinctive shriek.

More blood gushed from her arm, and she fainted.

Brendan grabbed hold of the attacker's arm, and swung her around, away from Kathy, who was lying on the ground.

The woman who looked like Ila shot him a baleful glare; she seemed as vicious and as wild as any undead creature. She waited a moment, preparing herself for another attack like a lion sizing up its prey. And then she leaped on him, the knife aimed at his throat. He caught her mid-air and struggled with her. But she was no woman. She was too strong to be a mere woman, he realized in horror.

"Ila!" he shouted, as the knife slowly edged towards his face.

The woman's eyes flared wide in reaction. Her right arm sheered away from him a moment, enough that the force of his arm brought her knife back across her other forearm, gouging it. Or trying to. The knife cut an arc of fabric away from her tight-fitting, long-sleeved white shirt. And underneath it, the skin cleaved neatly in two. Too neatly, like saran wrap. The white-haired woman's didn't flinch, didn't notice the cut at all. But then, she wasn't a woman. There was no blood in her wound except Kathy's now, having dripped from the knife tip. A plate of metal glittered under the blond woman's skin.

She was a cyborg. Brendan struggled with shock, horror, awe, fear.

But instead of advancing on him, she staggered back, dropping the knife to her side, still tight in her hand. And she stared at him. Again, there was a transformation in her hard coal eyes. They softened, became human. And welled with tears.

"Orian?" she whispered.

The name alone was enough to send Brendan's mind reeling. Only Ila would have known it. He shivered, a shiver that welled deep inside and shook his entire body in a paroxysm of pain. He remembered what it was like to be Orian, to hear his own name on those tender lips.

"Ila, are you Ila?" he demanded. Would she know that name, that sound? He was speaking English, not Kerrollan.

Tears dripped from her eyes as he asked her. She nodded.

"You never came back, you know. You lied to me. I missed you both. You and Kia. Kia..." she stopped, blinking, the tears ceasing. And her chin tilted just so slightly towards the motionless body of Kathy.

She dropped the knife to the ground.

But Brendan knew she was still dangerous. She was a cyborg. A cyborg! Unbelievable. Thoughts ran quickly, roughshod over his spinning mind. Who could possibly have created a cyborg? Some secret military organization? The Russians? Certainly not. Some top-secret government project committee? And had they brainwashed him? Did he know of anyone who could create a cyborg? No, but Orian did.

The Catar could.

"Ila, what happened to you?" he asked. She was watching him, with the look of a wild thing momentarily stunned, possibly waiting to attack him again.

She didn't answer. He decided to immerse himself entirely in the fantasy of Kerrol and Ataxia and see if it produced any results.

"Did the Catar capture you? After the battle?" he asked.

Tears welled in her eyes again. She nodded fiercely.

"I was looking for you... but your anti-matter beam... the anti-matter took you. So I stayed behind. I had to. I had to destroy the ship that had killed you," she said meekly.

"And then... then what happened?"

Her face went through a shifting panorama of horrific expressions. "They took me to Catar. I remember; it was years, Orian. Years to get there. Years to come back here, once they made me... made me..."

"A cyborg."

She nodded. "The Catar turned against the Ataxians. Killed most of them. Made the rest like me..."

"Cyborgs?"

She shook her head. "Killers. Programmed... to kill every person from Kerrol. I'm supposed to... kill you all. Everyone from Kerrol."

"The Central Park murders," Brendan deduced out loud; the hairs of his arms stood on end. "Why, Ila?" he asked, and at that moment, his old feeling came back for her. Feeling that wasn't his but Orian's. And he realized-he had lived before. There was no denying it anymore. But how had he been reborn on Earth? And why? Was it-was it because he, Orian, had died in a blast of anti-matter?

"You are the last two." Ila was saying. "Only two more. Two more who came back."

Two more who came back? Brendan shook his head in wonder. How many merani teams had gone out that day? Brendan thought back in a flash, back into Orian's memories. No more than fifty. How many had been taken by the anti-matter? How many of them would come back in the future? A skeptical part of Brendan still held on to disbelief, still wanted to believe that it was impossible that anyone could be reincarnated. Much less people from another planet. But another part of him wondered. What was out there in the universe? Why did he insist on believing that so much was impossible?

"Where are they, the Catar?" Brendan demanded.

"Catar?" Ila echoed, blinking.

"Yes! They're controlling you, Ila!"

"Controlling me. Controlling me... I can't stop it, Orian. It's too late..." Her face crumpled in agony.

"What are you saying?" He asked, his voice rising, and he shot a glance at Kathy, just to make certain she was still all right.

"The Catar ... died. All... of... them..." Ila said stiffly.

Brendan's face paled in horror. "Then... there's no way of changing you back, Ila." The truth descended over him like a dark, heavy, bone-chilling cloud. Ila was doomed. His Ila was doomed.

"No, there's nothing that can save me," she whispered in sad agreement. "Orian, I remember. I remember some things I've done..." she trailed off, as her arm convulsed. She fought to keep it down, to keep from lunging for him in animal fury.

"Why did you try to kill Kathy, Ila?" Brendan asked, indicating Kathy with his eyes, not risking any sudden movement.

"You don't know?" she laughed, that same dark laugh. "Right when I saw her, I knew her. But she kept me chasing after her, so stubborn. She's changed so much, but not enough, have you, Kia?"

Brendan's eyes flitted to Kathy. Kia? Not Kia, surely! Yet, maybe... maybe Kia.

"Why are we all here, in Manhattan of all places?" Brendan demanded, his mind finally pinpointing what disturbed him so much about believing that he had been Orian. Would Ila realize it was too much of a coincidence for him that every person reborn from Kerrol would be drawn to Manhattan, to Central Park? Could she explain that mystery away? He wondered. And he was sure she couldn't.

"Can't you see, Orian?" she asked quietly, surprised he didn't know the answer to his question already.

"No..."

"This is the place where you all died."

Brendan's knees nearly gave out beneath him. "Ila... Ila how long have you been here?"

"What does time mean to me any more, Orian?"

"Are you alone? Or are there other cyborgs?"

"I am the only one on this planet." She said.

"Why didn't you kill me the first day you saw me?" Orian asked. Asking questions seemed to be enough to stall her while he tried to think about how to stop her from killing him and Kathy.

"I... couldn't. I can't kill you." And she took a step back. Impulsively, half out of desperation, half aroused by some old feeling nearly as strong as his will to live, he reached out to grasp her arms. She let him, without a struggle.

"Orian?" she whispered, lost, child-like, limp in his arms.

"What, Ila?"

"You do remember me?"

"Yes." He almost laughed.

"Then, please. Kill me now."

"How?" he asked, wanting to do it, hating to do it. Now that he looked at her, he saw little of the woman he had loved left in her, this cyborg, an abomination created by the Catar, a cruel race of beings whose creature had outlived them, only to perpetuate their evil. And far too much, when she looked at him with softness in her eyes. She was a cyborg, half woman, half machine. And she could have killed him easily. The cyborg in her would never have hesitated.

But she was giving him his life, at the expense of her own.

"I can't kill myself," she explained, as though she knew this with certainty from having tried. Slowly, she bent down to pick up her knife, a knife harder and sharper than steel. For a moment, he felt a flutter of panic, but she pressed the knife quickly into his hand. "You... must cut power to my brain... at the base of my neck, behind..."

"All right," he said fought, regarding her one aching moment, as he battled the contrary will of Orian within him. "Good-bye, Ila."

And he looked at her, this time feeling a sharp pang of anguish he couldn't fight. Why did she have to die? Why was it that so many things could never be resolved among people, even people given a second chance to resolve them?

She smiled at him, her old self for one fleeting moment. "Hurry up, you fool!" Her smile faded a bit. "Take care of yourself...Orian. And don't disappoint me."

While she spoke, he raised his hand behind her slowly, to make the blow swift and sudden. Mercifully swift, sudden so that he could do it before he had time to regret it.

"Good-bye," he said, clenching his jaw tightly. And drew the blade across the back of her neck. She died in his arms, her eyes widening, then finally still. He put her down gently on the grass, heartsick, but still practical enough to worry about what the authorities would think when they found her lying there and realized they had a dead cyborg in their midst. He didn't want anyone to find her here, to cut her up for science, to use her, to try to recreate what they had found.

Then he heard a noise; Kathy was coming to. Brendan moved away from Ila's body and went to aid Kathy.

And then turned back when he caught a bright flash of light behind him.

Ila was gone, gone in a brief burst of anti-matter. There was a gaping hole in the earth where she had been, where grass had been, and now was no more.

Would she come back? He wondered, a light smile on his face.

Why not? He said to himself. Maybe she would.

-- Anne Spackman


 
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