Part I

Aren't all cyborgs crazy anyway? Replace too much meat with machinery and it's practically inevitable. Join the club, Brogan—you are now officially 'losing it,' just not for the usual reasons. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes as the cityscape of Angelus rolled past outside the window. His squad was on the way to Angelus General after three days in Omega Sector. It didn't seem nearly that long, least of all to him. For most people, visiting Omega Sector was suicidal—it was a testament to 9th Squad's skill and courage that most of them had now survived two forays into Omega, and on both occasions they had nearly all been damaged, physically, emotionally, and in some cases, spiritually. None of which had prepared anyone for Brogan's first exposure to the horrors of the Omega Sector. Brogan had expected a harrowing experience on the far side of that Wall, not some sort of perverse exaltation!

Tyger had gotten the worst of it. Already cursed with ill-fortune, the Clade's luck had finally run out altogether in the heat of battle, and now he was headed for surgery, with one less arm, and still under that damned curse. Not good. Brogan couldn't help feeling a little guilty himself—he'd been wishing Tyger would just shut up after blurting out 'You've got a passenger!' down in the old subway. But that was just Tyger's style—always perceptive, never subtle. Thanks, Tyger, I kinda had that figured out—now the whole *&^%$#@! department's gonna know it. Good thing the world's ending soon, or that'd really piss me off... no hard feelings, friend.

The rest of 9th squad had fresh memories of the terrors of Omega on their minds, and wounds to remind them, if they should forget. And if that wasn't enough, they had only to look at Brogan, which for the most part, they were refusing to do at this point. Brogan had seen terrors in Omega, and it had affected him deeply—but unlike anyone else, Brogan acquired a preternatural awareness of the entities in Omega, and his strength increased the longer he stayed there, as something within him struggled to manifest itself. While everyone else became disoriented, Brogan always seemed to know where he was, and which way he was going.

But no matter where he went, the dark heart of Omega Sector kept calling to him. Brogan sensed hundreds of Entities there, and he knew that they were engaged in building something, but nobody knew what. Against all reason, he felt an impulse to go there, to find out what they were constructing, and tear it down. Brogan wanted to go there and destroy them all, but he knew he'd never even get there alive. Common sense, and loyalty to his squad won out. Brogan stayed with them, and fought entities like never before, with the help of his 'passenger.' But that was the problem, now wasn't it?

To be frightened of entering Omega Sector, and to be scarred or even killed by it, was expected. The surviving members of 9th squad had seen that before, and they understood it. But for a man, a cyborg, especially one of their own, to be on the verge of manifesting an Entity, yet remain in control of himself, might be too fine a line to walk. Now they weren't sure what to make of him. It hadn't escaped their notice that not a single Entity in Omega had even tried to attack him. Gotta wonder what the reports on this are gonna look like. Normally, Brogan would expect to be put on leave, or even locked up as a result of this incident, but manpower was so short right now he couldn't be sure what would happen.

One thing was certain—Carpenter still wanted to talk to him. Back at the hospital, Jama had told Brogan his soul was 'diseased.' So, this was what she meant, was it? He had asked her not to discuss the matter with anyone else, but apparently, Carpenter didn't count as 'anyone else.' But Brogan promised her he'd talk to Carpenter, and he kept putting it off until they ended up in Omega Sector and the whole thing blew up in his face. Score one for Jama. Now something would have to be done, but what, exactly? Brogan had no idea—this was outside his experience.

It all went back, he thought, to that first Entity Brogan had killed. The damned thing had him in its maw when it got blown to hell, and he had figured that was the end of it. Now, he knew better. Physically, it had been destroyed, but spiritually, a piece of it still held on to him, somehow, persistent beyond the death of its body. And it was feeding on Brogan's soul—what was left of it, anyway. The Class III Entity/Sullivan hadn't lied—there wasn't much of his soul left to feed on, and this thing inside him was probably starving, growing weaker even as it slowly killed Brogan. Entering Omega Sector had awakened it somehow, and it had attempted to manifest like the Entities at Silver Hills, but it was too weak, and all it could do was cause Brogan some pain, and exert a portion of its power through him.

Now that Omega Sector lay behind them, Brogan's 'passenger' was quiescent again, and he felt normal once more. But his hand still felt hot and dry where he had pulled the dumbest stunt of his career, refusing to leave Omega until he had succeeded in grasping Carpenter's sword. Brogan had passed that test by the narrowest of margins, and he was sure the Lieutenant would have words for him about that later. At least Carpenter hadn't wasted time arguing about it—he had understood it was necessary. Maybe Carpenter would know what to do.

Was there anything to be done? Brogan had no idea if there was any way to rid himself of his 'passenger.' Or how long he had before the damned thing killed him. Signs and portents all said the end would come soon anyway—so maybe it didn't matter. Gurzorath, the King in Yellow, and the dark forces of Internal Affairs might destroy the world long before terminal illness became an issue for Brogan. Meanwhile, if he had to go back to Omega Sector, he'd have a little something extra for the job.

Looks like we're stuck with each other for now, you little bastard. Just don't get comfortable....

Part II

Angelus General gave Brogan a clean bill of health. He was better than okay—they wanted to know what he'd been up to since he'd checked out on Christmas Eve! He recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to his bemused physician and prepared to head back to 13th Precinct HQ. Brogan's semi-permanent scowl deepened as he pulled his uniform back on. Whatever had gotten into him, it wasn't visible to ultrasound, CAT scans, PET scans, or MRI. Probably antibiotic-resistant, too, dammit.

Back at HQ, Brogan wrote a concise report on 9th squad's foray into Omega sector. There wasn't much documentation—pretty much all of their recording devices had malfunctioned badly during the mission, so almost nothing could be corroborated. Tyger's sighting of his "passenger" simply couldn't be confirmed, one way or the other. It might have been a hallucination—everyone in the squad suffered from the effects of hallucinations in Omega sector, from time to time during the mission, including Tyger. Brogan wasn't immune, either.

Brogan's report confirmed peaceful contact with Raven and Jester, hostile contact with several other Entities resulting in a number of confirmed kills, Tyger's mishap, and yet another wrecked spinner. Everything else was conjecture at best, hallucination at worst, as far as he was concerned. Finished. File. Forget. Brogan had more important things to do....

Ninth Squad's very own most Holy Inquisitor wanted to speak with him, and soon. Might as well get this over with. Brogan turned off his call forwarding and headed for Carpenter's desk.

Carpenter was leaning back on his seat, propping his head up with one hand as the fingers of the other one tapped at the keyboard. Pages full of text and images flitted through on the monitor. He looked up as the cyborg approached.

"Hey, Brogan. How're you feeling today?"

Brogan looked like he'd rather be anywhere else, discussing anything else. He deliberately kept his voice low, so as not to be overheard. "Hmmm. Short answer--great. Long answer--far better than I should, in my condition. Jama insisted that I talk to you about that."

"Yes, I remember both of you mentioning this." Carpenter looked around at the office.

"Well, this is hardly the place for soul-searching conversation." He turned off the workstation and rose from his seat. "Unless you have a better place in mind, I suggest we head over to a nice quiet watering hole and put some beers in front of us."

Brogan shrugged. He hadn't been sure what to expect from Carpenter, really. On the way out, the desk Sergeant caught his attention.

"Hey, 'War Machine', are you forgetting something?"

"Well, I was trying to." He shot back icily. Then Brogan stopped in his tracks and took off his clamshell armor. He looked slightly more presentable without it. He felt half-naked. "Okay, let's go."

Carpenter led Brogan down to the motor pool, where his personal vehicle, a battered but well-kept pickup truck, was parked. A rack was mounted on the rear window, and Carpenter placed his sword there as he entered.

Leaving the precinct, Carpenter drove through the city away from the downtown district. He stopped at a strange site, a fenced-in lot with a security gate. Opening the gate, he drove the truck in and parked inside.

The transition from the outside to the inside was abrupt. Inside the fence, the first impression to strike the senses was COLOR. It was like all the color that had been leached from the city's walls and buildings had been collected here. Plants and trees exploded in an almost-blinding array of hues and shades.

Among the varied flora a small structure stood, a sturdy greenhouse with glass walls and vents. It was there that Carpenter led Brogan to.

Brogan seemed taken aback when he realized their destination wasn't in fact, a bar, as his friend had implied. Carpenter was just full of surprises today. What the hell--he'd play along. After all, Nathan left his sword out in the truck. An ironic smile crossed his face. "Okay, nice 'watering hole' you've got here, Carpenter. Where do you keep your beer, exactly?"

Carpenter smiled and pointed. "In the greenhouse. It's not the same atmosphere as a bar, and definitely less somber than a confessional booth, but you can't beat the privacy. Plus, I find surrounding oneself with life can be very relaxing."

He added, as his eyes shifted focus to some faraway place and a wistful smile played across his face, "It helps remind me why we're doing what we're doing."

Entering the glass building, Carpenter weaved among the aisles of tables filled with plants and irrigation equipment to a small cleared area in the far corner. There, a wooden picnic table stood with a waist-high refrigerator humming away among the tools.

Tossed next to the refrigerator was a large sleeping bag, unrolled and obviously slept in. Upon seeing the bag, Carpenter stopped for a second, then turned to Brogan with an apologetic expression, his cheeks showing the slightest hint of red. "Sorry, forgot to clean up."

Moving the bag aside, he reached into the fridge and pulled out two old-fashioned beer bottles, unlabeled. "A friend I know brews these. Elaine gets paid for her landscaping with a case once in a while." He handed a bottle to Brogan, unstoppered his bottle, and sat on the picnic table, motioning Brogan to do the same.

"OK, what can I help you with?" The question was said in a casual tone, but there was the feeling of a formal ritual in the words as he spoke them.

Brogan started to explain, then realized he had no idea how describe the problem. Or maybe he just didn't want to, now that he came to it. He almost cracked a smile, as it occurred to him that if he tried to stall here, he'd be accused of 'beating around the bush' in a friggin' greenhouse. No, that just wouldn't do at all. He remained standing--most picnic tables weren't built to support cyborgs--and looked outside, at the distant skyline, in the direction of Omega sector. And he decided to get right to the point.

"It seems there's this entity I can't kill. At least not without a trip to the all-you-can-eat hollow-point buffet. I'm not ready to do that--not now, and not ever. Damn thing's gotten into me, but it can't get out like the ones at Silver Hills did. It's too weak. So I guess you could call it a standoff. You saw the result in Omega--I was fair drunk on power back there. Now, Jama thinks this is only going to get worse, and she tends to be right about these things."

Brogan sounded remarkably calm, right up to that last bit. Jama's prediction actually had him extremely worried, and it showed. He turned around to face Carpenter. "She's talked to you about this, hasn't she?"

Carpenter raised an eyebrow. "Actually, no. She just said that I needed to talk to you about something important. When things got... interesting in Omega Sector, I kind of deduced what that 'something' could be about."

"Before we go on, it might help to fill you in a couple of things. You've met my daughter, Elizabeth, at the Christmas party, right?"

He sighed before continuing. "During the Angel's Blood incidents, she... injected herself with a dose. She had an Entity growing inside her. We were able to create a containment chamber to slow the progression, but she wasn't going to last long.

"Jama determined that the only way to remove the Entity was to use the Esperanza Grimorium. It was one of the reasons we went into the Omega Sector the first time.

"We made it out. With the Grimorium. And Jama was able to exorcise the Entity from Elizabeth. There is not a day that I do not give a prayer of thanks for her saving my daughter's life."

Carpenter took a pull from the beer bottle, using the interruption to collect himself.

"I'm not sure I can tell you anything more than what Jama already has. Yes, I see the shadow of evil in you. It has not fully consumed you, but it has not left you either. I don't know if there's anything I can do to help make it go away. I assume since Jama's not mentioned it that whatever ritual she used to purge the Entity from Elizabeth's soul will not work on you. Although it might not be a bad idea to ask her just to make sure.

"You've obviously been able to control what is inside you this long. That says a lot about you. You have a strength that you yourself may not be aware of.

The Entity feeds on despair, on dark thoughts and desires. Keep that in mind." Carpenter grinned, appreciating the joke. "Think happy thoughts."

His demeanor turned serious, his voice heavy with resolution. "I will say this. If there's anything I can do or give to help you, just ask. When you feel like giving up, just remember. Whether you wanted to or not, you are now part of this circle. And we don't give up on our own." The final words seemed to carry the weight of an oath.

Brogan cracked one of his patented stop-scaring-the-children grins. "Even if they're possessed by entities?" He stopped smiling. "Seriously, Carpenter, I haven't discussed this with the rest of the squad, but what's your report going to say about what happened to me in Omega sector? Even if you and everybody else in 9th squad decides to cover this up, it won't stay covered up forever."

Carpenter's eyes opened slightly, then narrowed in thought. "Y'know, I actually hadn't thought about that."

His brow furrowed as the implications sunk in. "That's really a tough question to answer. Considering our handling of Cpl. Hanler's situation, I can see why you're worrying. At the same time, your situation is different. I have a strong hunch you're part of the key to defeating Gurzorath and his master, but I doubt the higher-ups would see it that way.

"It goes against the grain to lie to XSWAT about the situation, but I can keep it under wraps for now. As much as I hate giving Cadbury more to worry about, we may have to kick it up to her and see what she says. Until then, it's no one's business but ours."

Brogan nodded. "I think I covered all the bases in my report without actually lying about it. The rest of the squad will just have to make up their own minds. After that, we'll see what Hemelshot, and Captain Richards think. And hope Internal Affairs doesn't get wind of it. If they do, then we'll need Cadbury's help for sure."

A very dark scowl crossed his face. "Just help me stay on duty until Gurzorath shows up, so I can knock him on his ass."