To the members of E-Branch, bad dreams were an occupational hazard; it was generally accepted that nightmares went with the work. Ben Trask, current head of the Branch, had always had his share of bad dreams. Indeed, since the Yulian Bodescu affair twelve years ago, he'd had more than his share. And only half of them when he was asleep. The sleeping ones were of the harmless variety: they frightened but couldn't kill you. They were engendered of the waking sort, which were very different: sometimes they could kill and worse. Because they were real.
As for this one: it wasn't so much a bad as a weird dream. And weirder because Trask was wide awake, having driven his car through the wee small hours of a rainy night into the heart of London, and parked it opposite E-Branch HQ ... without knowing why. And Trask was fussy about things like that; he generally liked to be responsible for his actions.
It was a Sunday in mid-February of 1990, one of those rare days when Trask could get away from his work and switch off, or rather switch on. To the normal world which existed outside the Branch. It should have been one of those days, anyway. But here he was, at E-Branch HQ in the middle of the sleeping city, and in the eye of his mind this weird dream which wouldn't go away, this daydream repeating over and over, like flickering frames from an old monochrome movie projected onto a window, so that he could see right through it. A ghost film: if he blinked his eyes rapidly it would vanish, however momentarily, and return just as soon as he relaxed:
A corpse, smouldering, with its fire-blackened arms flung wide; steaming head thrown back as in the final agony of death; tumbling end over end into a black void shot through with thin neon bars or ribbons of blue, green, and red light.
It was a tortured thing, yes, but dead now from all of its torments and no longer suffering; unknown and unknowable as the weird waking dream which it was. And yet there was something morbidly familiar about it; so that watching it, Trask's face was grey and his lips drawn back in a silent snarl from his strong, slightly yellow teeth. If only the corpsewould stop tumbling for a moment and come into focus, give him a clearer shot of the blistered, silently screaming face ...
Trask got out of his car into a sudden squall of leaden raindrops, as if some Invisible One had dipped his hands in water and scooped it into Trask's face. Muttering a curse as he turned up the collar of his overcoat, he glanced at the building across the street, craning his neck to peer up at the high windows of E-Branch. Up there he expected to see a light--just one, burning in a window set central in the length of the entire upper story which was the Branch--lighting the room which housed the duty officer through his lonely night vigil. Well, he saw the duty officer's light, right enough, and keeping it company, three or four more which he hadn't expected. But he saw more than the lights, for even the rain couldn't wash away the tortured, monotonously tumbling figure from the screen of his mind.
Trask knew that if he were someone or thing other than who and what he was--head of a top-secret, in more than one way esoteric security organization--then the experience must surely scare the hell out of him. Except, well, he'd been scared by experts. Or he might believe he was going mad. But there again, E-Branch was ... E-Branch. This thing he was experiencing, it must be in his mind, he supposed. It had to be, for there was no physical mechanism to account for it. Or was there?
Hallucination? Well, possibly. Someone could have got to him, fed him drugs, brainwashed him ... but to what end? Why bring him here in the dead of night? And why bring these other people here? (The extra lights up there, the shiny black MG Metro pulling into the curb, and the bloke across the road--an E-Branch agent, surely?--even now running through the rain toward the Branch's back door entrance.) Why were they here?
"Sir?" A girl struggled stiffly, awkwardly out of the Metro. She was Anna Marie English, a Branch esper. English by name but never an English rose--nor any sort of rose by any other name--she was enervated, pallid, dowdy, a stray cat drowning in the rain. It was her talent, Trask knew, and he felt sorry for her. She was "ecologically aware"; or as she herself was wont to put it, she was "as one with the Earth." When water tables declined and deserts expanded, so her skin dried out, became desiccated. When acid rains ate into Scandinavian forests, her dandruff fell like snow. In her dreams she heard whale species singing sadly of their decline and inevitable extinction, and she knew from her aching bones when the Japanese were slaughtering the dolphins. A human lodestone, she tracked illicit nuclear waste, monitored pollution, shrank from yawning holes in the ozone as a coral polyp from a diver's probing spearpoint. Yes, she was an "ecopath": she felt for the Earth and suffered all of its sicknesses, and unlike the rest of us knew that she, too, was dying from them.
Trask looked at her: she was twenty-four and looked fifty. Despite his pity, perhaps paradoxically, he thought of her in harsh, disassociated, almost disapproving terms--thick-lensed spectacles, liver spots, hearing aid, straggle-haired, crumpled blouse, splay-legged-and knew he disliked her because she mirrored the decline of the world. And that was his talent at work. Ben Trask was a human lie detector: he recognized a lie when he saw, felt, heard, or otherwise perceived one as other men recognize a slap in the face; so that, conversely, in the absence of falsehood he must acknowledge truth. Except Anna Marie English's truth was unbearable. If Greenpeace had her and could make the world believe in her, they would win their case in one ... though of course it would be lost at one and the same time. For they'd suspect that they were too late. But Trask also knew that it wasn't quite like that. The world was a huge creature and had been sorely wounded, and Anna Marie English was just too small to sustain so much damage. But while she was suffering almost beyond endurance, the Earth could go on taking it for a long time yet. This was Trask's view of it, anyway. He supposed it made him an optimist, which was something of a paradox in itself.
"Can you see it?" he said. "Do you have any idea what it's all about?"
She looked at him and saw a mousy-haired, green-eyed man in his late thirties. Trask was about five feet ten, a little overweight and slope-shouldered, and wore what could only be described as a lugubrious expression. Perhaps it had to do with his talent: in a world where the plain truth was increasingly hard to find, it was no easy thing being a lie detector. White lies, half-truths, and downright fables came at Trask from all directions, until sometimes he felt he didn't want to look anymore.
But Anna Marie English had her own problems. Finally she nodded her bedraggled mop of a head. "I see it, yes, but don't ask me what it's all about. I woke up, saw it, and knew I had to come here. That's all. But I've a hunch the world's a loser yet again." Her voice was a coughing rasp.
"This thing isn't specific to me." She frowned. "This time I'm just ... an onlooker? It isn't hurting me. I feel for him, yes, but his fate doesn't seem to have made much impression on the world in general. Yet at the same time, somehow I think it makes the world less."
"Do you know him?"
"I feel that I should know him, certainly," she answered, simultaneously shaking her head. And ruefully: "I know that I was watching him when I should have been watching the road. I went through two red lights at least!"
Trask nodded, took her by the elbow, and guided her across the street."Let's join them and see if anyone else has a clue." In fact he already had more than a clue but was unwilling to give it voice. If he was right, then just like the ecopath he could scarcely view this phenomenon as Earth-damaging. In fact it might even be a relief.
With Whitehall no more than a ten-minute walk away, the torn front page from a discarded Pravda seemed strangely out of place where it spun slowly in the current of the flooded gutter, inching soggily and perhaps prophetically towards the iron-barred throat of a gurgling sump. But as if in defiance of the stinging rain, the night, and all other distractions, the phantom hologram continued to display itself wherever the glances of Trask and Anna Marie English happened to fall. It was there in the tiny unmanned foyer, playing on the neutral grey doors of the elevator as if projected there from their eyeballs; and when the doors hissed open to admit them, they took it with them into the cage to be carried up to the top-floor offices of E-Branch HQ.
The rest of the building was a well-known hotel; bright lights at the front, and a uniformed doorman from the Corps of Commissionaires sheltering from the rain under his striped plastic canopy, or more likely inside taking a coffee with the night clerk now that all the guests were abed. But up here on the top floor ...
This was a different world. And a weird one.
E-Branch: Ben Trask felt much the same about it now as he had fourteen years ago when he was first recruited, and as every Branch esper before and since. Alec Kyle, an old friend and ex-head of Branch, was dead and gone now (was he? And his body, too? Was that what this was all about?), but he had come closest to it when he'd used to say, "E-Branch? A funny bloody outfit, Ben! Science and sorcery--telemetry and telepathy--computerized probability patterns and precognition--gadgets and ghosts. We have access to all of these things ... now."
That "now" had qualified it. For at the time, Kyle had been talking about Harry Keogh. And later he had become Harry Keogh; Keogh's mind in Kyle's body, anyway ...
The cage jerked to a halt; its doors hissed open; Trask and the unnaturally aged "girl," and the hologram, got out.
Hologram or phantom? Trask wondered. Gadget ... or ghost? When he was a kid he'd believed in ghosts. Then for a time he hadn't. Now he worked for E-Branch and ... sometimes he wished he were a kid again. For then it was all in the imagination.
Ian Goodly, the night duty officer, was waiting for them in the corridor. Very tall, skeletally thin, and gangly, he was a prognosticator or "hunchman." Grey and mainly gaunt-featured, Goodly's expression was usually grave; he rarely smiled; only his eyes--large, brown, warm and totally disarming--belied what must otherwise constitute a ratherunfortunate first impression, that of a cadaverous mortician. "Anna." He offered the girl a polite nod. "Ben?"
Trask returned the unspecified query with: "Do you see it, too?"
"We all do," Goodly answered, his voice high-pitched and a little shrill, but not unusually so. And before Trask could say anything else: "I guessed you'd be in. I've told them to wait for you in the ops room."
"How many of them?"
Goodly shrugged. "Everyone within a thirty-mile radius."
Trask nodded. "Thanks, Ian. I'll go and speak to them. And you'd better go back to keeping watch."
Again Goodly's shrug. "Very well, but apart from this it's going to be a quiet night. This thing is happening, and soon it will be finished. And then we'll see what we'll see." He began to turn away.
Trask caught his arm and stopped him. "Any ideas?"
Goodly sighed. "I could give you ... an 'educated guess'? But I suspect you'd prefer to let it play itself out, right?" Like all hunchmen, he was cautious about being too specific. The future didn't like being pinned down.
Someone had called the elevator; its doors closed and the indicator signaled its descent. As Goodly made to return to his watch, Trask uttered a belated "Right," then turned left along the corridor and headed for the ops room. And Anna Marie English limped along behind him.
In the ops room they found their colleagues waiting for them. In front of the briefing podium an area had been cleared of chairs where eleven espers formed an inwards-facing circle. Trask and the girl made thirteen. A witch's dozen, he thought wryly. We complete the coven.
As the circle opened up and its members adjusted their positions the better to accommodate the latecomers, Trask saw the point of the formation. The combined awareness of the espers added to the hologram's authentication: to experience the thing as a group was to focus it, lend it definition. And the hitherto nebulous mental projection expanded in a moment from a 3-D picture in Trask's mind's eye to a seemingly physical, apparently solid figure right there in front of him! But only apparently solid, for obviously it wasn't real.
The ring formed by the espers was maybe fifteen to eighteen feet in diameter; the location of the smouldering corpse where it tumbled backwards, head over heels, free of the floor, as on some invisible spit, was no more than ten feet away from any individual viewer. If it were solid--if it were "here" at all--then the figure would have to be that of a child or a dwarf. But its proportions were those of a normal, adult human being. And so the apparition was some kind of hologram, viewed as from a considerably greater distance than was apparent. It was like a scene in a crystal ball: they were seeing something which had happened, or which was even now in enactment, somewhere else. Andmore than ever Trask believed he knew this ... victim? And more than ever he suspected that this was a scene from another world, even another universe.
On entering the room, the head of Branch had noted the identities of the eleven. There was Millicent Cleary, a pretty little telepath whose talent was still developing. There seemed little doubt but that one day she would be a power in her own right, but right now she was vulnerable--telepathy could do that to a person--and Trask thought of her as the kid sister he'd never had. Then there was David Chung, a hugely talented locator and scryer. He was slight, wiry, slant-eyed, and yellow as they come. But he was British from birth, a Londoner, and fiercely loyal to the Branch. All of them were loyal, else the Branch must fail. Chung tracked Soviet stealth subs, IRA units in the field, drug runners--especially the latter. Addiction had killed his parents, which was where his talent had its genesis. And it was still growing.
The precog Guy Teale stood to the left of Trask. Like Ian Goodly, he was "gifted" in reading the future, a suspect talent at best. The future didn't like being read and had kicked back more than once. Teale was small, thin, jumpy. Easily startled, he lived on his nerves. His sometime partner Frank Robinson, a spotter who infallibly recognized other espers, stood next to him. Robinson was blond as Teale was dark; boyish and freckled, he looked only nineteen or thereabouts, which was seven years short of the mark. The pair had worked with Trask on the Keogh job some six or seven months ago; they'd helped him corner the Necroscope in his house near Edinburgh and burn the place to the ground. That had caused Harry to escape right out of this world to a place on the other side of the Perchorsk Gate. Since when everyone who knew the score had prayed that he wouldn't be back. And he hadn't been ...
Until now? Trask wondered. Is this--image--is it Harry? And he suspected that they were all wondering the same thing. And just like him, they'd all be glad that it was only an image.
Paul Garvey, a full-blown telepath, stood directly opposite Trask on the other side of the circle. He caught Trask's eye through the rotation of the projection and nodded almost imperceptibly. It was his acknowledgment of Trask's thought, which Garvey had "heard." Yes, they were all thinking pretty much the same thing.
Garvey was tall, well built, and had been a good-looking thirty-five-year-old. But then, that time six months ago, he'd tackled a murderous swine called Johnny Found and lost most of the left side of his face. Since then some of the best plastic surgeons in England had worked on Garvey till he looked pretty good, but a real face is made of more than flesh. Garvey's was mostly tissue now, and the nerves didn't connect up too well. He could smile with the right side but not the left, and so avoided the travesty by not smiling at all.
It had happened when they were tracking Harry Keogh, who in turn had been tracking Found, a necromancer whose specialty was to molest women before and after they were dead. Garvey had made the mistake of finding Harry's quarry first, that was all. But the Necroscope had squared it; later, in a graveyard, the police had discovered Found's body so badly chewed up that he was barely recognizable. And despite everything else that was happening at the time--the fact that Harry had been a prime target--Garvey still reckoned he owed him for that.
As for Ben Trask, he reckoned they all owed Harry Keogh something, the whole world. It would have been so easy for the Necroscope to release the plague of vampirism which he carried within himself upon all humanity and be emperor here, with an entire planet for his empire. But instead he'd let them hound him into exile in an alien world of vampires, where he would be just one more monster. Harry had let it happen, yes, before the Thing inside him could take full control.
But whenever Trask thought back on that, on the alien passions which had governed Harry--how he'd looked the last time Trask saw him, in the garden of his burning house not far from Edinburgh--then his own mixed emotions would sort themselves out in short order, and he would know it was for the best:
The lower half of Harry's figure had been mist-shrouded, visible only as a vague outline in the opaque, milky swirl of his vampire mist ... but the rest of him had been all too visible. He'd worn an entirely ordinary suit of dark, ill-fitting clothes which seemed two sizes too small for him, so that his upper torso sprouted from the trousers to form a blunt wedge. Framed by a jacket held together by one straining button, the bulk of Harry's rib cage had been massively muscular.
His white, open-necked shirt had burst open down the front, revealing the ripple of his muscle-sheathed ribs and the deep, powerful throb of his chest; the shirt's collar had looked like a crumpled frill, insubstantial around the corded bulk of his leaden neck. His flesh was a sullen grey, dappled lurid orange and sick yellow by leaping fire and gleaming moonlight. And he towered all of a foot taller than Trask, quite literally dwarfing him. But his face--
--That had been the absolute embodiment of a waking nightmare! His halogen Halloween eyes which had seemed to drip sulphur. And his ... grin? A grin, was that what it had been? Maybe, in an alien vampire world called Starside on the other side of the Möbius Continuum. But here on Earth it had been the rabid slavering grimace of a great wolf; here it was teeth visibly elongating, curving up and out of gleaming gristle jaw-ridges to shear through gums which spurted splashes of hot ruby blood; here it was a writhing of scarlet lips, a flattening of convoluted snout, a yawning of man-trap jaws.
That face ... that mouth ... that crimson cavern of stalactite, stalagmite teeth, as jagged as shards of white, broken glass. What? Like the gates of hell? That and worse, for Harry had been Wamphyri!
Trask started massively as Anna Marie English, standing on his right, grasped his elbow and needlessly, breathlessly stated, "Sir, he's moving away from us."
She was right, as everyone there could see. The hologram of the corpse was getting smaller, falling or receding faster and faster towards a multihued, nebulous origin or destiny out of which the blue, green, and red ribbons of neon light reached like writhing tentacle arms to welcome it. The smoking, rotating figure dwindled; it became a mote, a speck; it disappeared!
And where it had been--
An explosion! A sunburst of golden light, expanding silently, hugely, awesomely! So that the thirteen observers gasped and ducked down; and despite that it was in their group mind, they turned away from the blinding intensity of the glare and what flew out of it. All except Ben Trask, who shielded his eyes and shrank down a little but continued to watch--because he must know the truth. Trask, and also David Chung, who cried his astonishment, staggered, and almost fell. But they had seen, both of them:
Those myriad golden splinters speeding outwards from the sunburst, angling this way and that, sentient, seeking, disappearing into as many unknown places. Those--pieces--of the Necroscope, Harry Keogh? All that remained of him? And as the last of them had zipped by Trask and vanished silently out of view--out into the corridor, apparently--so the streamers of blue, green, and red metaphysical light had blinked out of being, returning the briefing room's illumination to normal.
Except ... that last golden dart had seemed so real. Why, Trask could have sworn that it had actually materialized right here in the ops room, sentient and solid, before speeding out into the corridor and disappearing from view!
And now, within the room, thirteen startled, gaping, extraordinary human beings. But perfectly ordinary in comparison to what they had witnessed ...
Trask forced himself into action, stepped across the room to where David Chung was still mazed, staggering. He took hold of him, steadied him, snapped, "David, are you all right?"
"No--yes," the other answered. "But he isn't." He licked dry lips and closed his slack mouth, half pointed and flapped a hand towards the center of the room where the espers were moving about in it once more.
"Was it Harry?" Trask breathed.
Chung sighed heavily and collapsed a little into himself. "Oh, yes. It was Harry, Ben. It was him."
"The end of him?"
Chung nodded, opened his trembling hand and showed the other what he was holding: a pig-bristle hairbrush whose oval wooden plaque fitted snug in his palm. For a moment Trask was mystified ... then he understood. It was Chung's talent: he was a sympathetic tracker, a locator. Following the Bodescu affair Harry Keogh had stayed here at E-Branch HQ for a month, filling in the blank spaces. For a time he'd even considered taking on the position of head of Branch. But with the loss of his wife and son, the Necroscope's world had collapsed and he'd moved on, become a recluse up in Scotland. The hairbrush had been his, one of several items he'd left behind.
"I've kept it all this time, since I was first recruited into the Branch," Chung now explained to the other espers as they gathered round. "This and one or two other pieces which were his. Six months ago, when the Russians reported Harry's escape through the Perchorsk Gate, I took out his things and tried to locate him. I mean, I obviously couldn't locate him, but it was just the same as when Jazz Simmons went through: I knew that Harry wasn't here, not in this world, but he wasn't dead either. He was in Starside."
"And now?" It was Anna Marie English, worrying for her world, for herself.
Chung shook his head. "Now he isn't."
"Not in Starside?" one of the younger espers gasped. "You mean he's come back? He's here?"
Again Chung shook his head, showed them the brush in his hand. "This piece of wood, these few bristles, meant something, told me something. They told me that the Necroscope was alive; if not here, alive somewhere. Only let me pick up this brush or Harry's other things, and I knew it. Now ... it's just a hairbrush, no longer alive. And neither is Harry Keogh. He died a few moments ago, somewhere. And we all saw it."
"Harry's dead." Ben Trask made no bones of it. "What we've just witnessed was him. Somehow, he found a way to let us know, give us peace of mind. That's how I see it, anyway."
Ian Goodly came in with a pair of late arrivals: another esper and the Branch's Minister Responsible. The minister was in his midforties, young for his job, but had a mind sharp as a knife. Small and dapper, with keen blue eyes and dark hair brushed back and plastered down, his blue suit was fashionable in the Corridors of Power; somehow his dress as a whole marked him as a person of class. In no way psychically talented, still the minister was Branch; he too had felt the call--something had lured him here--until a moment ago, when it had stopped.
While Trask told the minister what had happened, Goodly fetched coffee. Then for an hour, two, the entire group sat around and remembered Harry. They said very little but were satisfied just to bethere. And despite that they should have been jubilant, they weren't. And for all that a great plague had passed them by, most of them felt they'd lost a friend.
David Chung had put Harry's brush in his pocket; every now and then he would reach in and touch it with his fingertips. But it was just a brush now, wood and glue and bristle, inanimate, without being.
And that's how it would stay for sixteen long years ...
A fortnight later Zek Föener called from her Greek island home in Zante. She'd put it off until it was unbearable, but in the end had to speak to Trask. "Are we friends again, Ben?"
For all that she couldn't see him, he nodded and smiled. He knew that Zek would sense it, for she was a powerful telepath. "After that job we did on Janos Ferenczy's creatures in the Med? We'll always be friends, Zek."
"Despite that I helped him in the end?" Her voice was a little distorted by the line but her anxiety was real enough. Trask's talent was working for him, so that her sincerity was as tangible as the steady beat of his own heart.
He shrugged, which she would also sense, and said, "You're not the only one who helped Harry, Zek."
"You, too? I somehow thought you would."
"I took a chance," he told her. "If it had gone the other way ... I could have ended up the biggest traitor mankind has ever known! By now there might have been a new world order."
"I know. I thought much the same thing. But it was Harry, after all."
"Half of it was, anyway," Trask answered.
"Actually, he died six, seven months ago," she said.
"What?" She'd taken Trask by surprise.
"He was dead to us the moment he went through the Perchorsk Gate," she explained. "Or as good as. There was no way we were ever going to see him again. He'd used both of the Gates, the one in the Urals and the one in Romania. He couldn't come back; the grey holes would reject him."
Trask had been happy to hear her voice, talk to Zek, but suddenly his mood was grim. She'd brought something up that he didn't like to think about. "That's true as far as it goes," he said, "but his son used a different route. Harry had considered himself the master of the Möbius Continuum, but in fact he was a novice. Those are his words, not mine. Harry Junior was the real master. But if anyone knows that, you do: it's how he brought you and Jazz out of that place back here."
There was a pause before she answered. "The Dweller still worries you, right?"
"The Dweller?" Trask frowned. But in the next moment: "Oh, yes: you mean Harry Junior. He worries me, right enough. The PerchorskGate worries me, and the resurgence of one of the Danube's tributaries near Radujevac in Romania. They all worry me, for they're all routes into this world from the world of the vampires."
"But they're covered now, surely?"
"Harry Junior isn't."
And now it was Trask's turn to sense the shake of a head. "He won't be coming back," Zek told him. "He was Wamphyri, yes, but he was different. As different as the Lady Karen. As different as his father. He fought for his territory on Starside, and he'll stay there and keep it. He battled with the vampires, Ben, destroyed them, and to my knowledge he didn't create a one out of himself. He kept no thralls, no lieutenants, no vampire lovers. Just friends. But they did love him, even as much as the Great Majority loved his father."
She had reassured him. "Zek, I know you've turned me down before," he said, "but I really think you and Jazz should come over here sometime. Be our guests and stay in London a while at our expense, and tell us your story in full. No, you don't owe us anything, neither one of you. But you said it yourself: we're friends. And the pair of you have such a lot of information locked in your heads: about Starside, the Wamphyri, even things about Harry Keogh and his son, that only you know. The world's improving, Zek--not by leaps and bounds, not yet--but who knows ... Maybe you can help it along the way? Or if not help it, protect it at least."
And before she could answer him: "I mean, it's not like it used to be, Zek, not anymore. You were used, you and Jazz both--oh, and too many others--by Russia's E-Branch, and by ours, too. But lessons were learned and it isn't like that anymore. We're all of us learning all the time. I've thought about it a lot, and it's as if everything the Necroscope touched upon has been improved and changed forever. Before he'd even discovered the Möbius Continuum, he had to use Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin to get into East Germany and talk to Möbius in his Leipzig grave. And where's the checkpoint now, eh? As for Romania
... Do you see what I mean, Zek? It's as if mankind has turned a new leaf, and all since Harry came along, or since he left us. But should we be surprised, really? I remember Harry once said, 'There are a great many talents among the dead, and they have their ways of using them.' But it was him who showed them how to talk to each other, connecting them up in their graves. Since when--just look around the world.
"Are they responsible, the teeming dead? Who knows what they've achieved, or how they did it? Communism is on its last legs, a dismal failure, and the world's a safer place. After we send the rest of our false ideological gods packing, then maybe we can start over: a grand restructuring, the ecology of Mother Earth herself. Right now the world is safer, but it's still not safe enough. Could you and Jazz help make it just a little bit safer, Zek? That's what I want you to think about. If notfor me, for Harry. I mean, don't you reckon it's worth finishing the job that he started?"
"That's cheating, Ben," she told him.
"Well, think about it anyway."
Later, she did think about it. Zek and Jazz both. But they didn't go to London. It would take a long time for their wounds to heal, a long time before they would forgive the world's ESP-Branches ...
While sixteen years isn't a long time in the Great Scheme of things, still, changes do occur. People, faces, places change; governments and organizations come and go; causes and ideologies collapse and others spring into being. But establishments are wont to continue, if only because they are established.
Cold wars had come and gone; hot ones, too, however brief, localized; the world's Secret Services were always in demand. Even during periods of intense perestroika and glasnost (perhaps especially through such periods), that most esoteric of all services, E-Branch, had gone on, with Ben Trask continuing as head of Branch. While some of his agents were no more and others had been recruited to take their places, the organization itself was an extremely successful establishment. There would always be work for the Branch, and if ever that should change ... the truth of it was that the government of the day probably wouldn't know what to do with the Branch's esoteric talents if they were disbanded. At least this way the espers could be seen to be working for the common good.
As for the current state of the world:
Communist China was slipping fast on the worn-down heels of Russia into a bog of stagnation and economic decay, and the USSR itself was much less unified. Internally, Russia was still recovering from seventy years of self-inflicted wounds, but its occasional hemorrhages were all on the inside now, and issued from vastly reduced lesions. There was no longer even a remote threat of global conflict; the last remaining superpower, the USA, was ultimately potent and alert, as were her allies. But more importantly, theirs was a generally benign alliance. And just as Ben Trask had once forecast, the world was a much safer place now; so much so that it had become a fad among political and historical commentators to attempt to identify the turning point and name the prime factors and movers:
The microchip; Lech Walesa; giant technological spin-offs from the space race and the Star Wars program; spies in the sky; Chernobyl; the total collapse of European Communism; President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher, and to some extent Premier Gorbachev; the war in the Gulf, where the entire world had watched with fascination, astonishment, and more than a little horror as uninspired warriors with outmoded, outgunned weapons were mown down under the previouslyunimaginable onslaught of outraged passions and superior technology.
And through all of this, no one except perhaps a handful of E-Branch members remembered Harry Keogh, Necroscope, or attributed anything of the current world order to his works. And other than that same small handful, no one credited the Great Majority, the teeming dead, with even the smallest part in it.
Which was the way things stood on that Monday morning in January 2006 when Trask arrived at E-Branch HQ in the heart of London, and found David Chung prowling to and fro in the foyer with a cellphone, waiting for him. Except it wasn't the cellphone which brought Trask up short as he entered the building but the look on Chung's face, and what he was holding in his other hand: an old hairbrush.
Harry Keogh's old hairbrush ...
Before Trask saw that, however, he recognized Chung's urgency and commenced to say, "Sorry, David, my carphone is on the blink. And anyway there's so much interference these days a man can't even think, let alone speak! Is there a problem? Were you trying to ... contact ... me?"
By then he'd seen the hairbrush and jerked to a halt. The occurrences of that night sixteen years ago had all come rushing back in a flood of vivid memories, and the beat of Trask's heart had picked up speed to match the sudden flow of adrenaline. "David?" he said, making it a question.
Chung answered with a grim nod, simply that, and whisked him into the elevator. But as the doors slid shut on them and they were alone, he uttered those words which Trask had most dreaded to hear: "He's back."
Trask didn't want to believe it. "He?" he husked, knowing full well who he must be, the only one he could be. "Harry?"
Chung nodded, shrugged helplessly, seemed lost for words. But: "Something of him," he answered at last, "who or whatever he is now. But yes, Ben, I'm talking about Harry. Something of Harry Keogh has come back to us ..."