End of Summer
 
Beyond the Pale David Lotempio The Spectre and Ghost in the Shell
Rated PG-13, possibly even R, for violence and adult situations.

It is true that truth is esteemed in the utterances of all the nations -
yet is there any tongue or language that grasp it?
- The Dead Sea Scrolls


Prologue: Japan, 2031

The situation was fatally simple. Within the darkened wash room, Batou, officer in Unit Nine, the official Japanese International Hostage Rescue Squad, was struggling to keep the rescued hostage from biting off his hand that was clamped over her mouth. Beyond the wash room's door was half a dozen, highly armed terrorists who were prepared to murder poor Batou the moment his location was given away.

Batou was a consummate professional and routinely endured the most inhospitable climates and situations to get the job done. He remembered the time in Kenya when he crawled a mile along a termite and fire ant infested jungle to make a perfect kill shot. Or the time in the Amazon when he lost a perfectly good synthetic foot to piranha. Aramaki had docked him half a month's salary to pay for the upgrade. But this situation was different, the girl had a terrific bite which had long since chewed through his leather glove and into the tough synthetic flesh beneath. He neither had time to explain the situation nor to slap her into submission.

Batou was armed with a six shot Spitzer, a handgun that made up for its limited ammunition with a powerful kinetic punch. A well-placed shot could shatter the strongest reinforced ceramic armor. He knew he could easily take out two of the terrorists, and maybe a third or fourth. But if he missed one shot, or was too slow, the terrorists would make piecemeal of him. He needed an opportunity and had an idea how to make one.

Like most quasi-military groups, the members of the International Hostage Rescue Unit were equipped with Brain-Dive equipment allowing each member to enter the consciousness of the other. Originally intended for civilian use, the military applications became quickly apparent and the hardware and software was sanctioned for only governmental use. Normally, Brain-Dive is undetected by most individuals but Batou knew monitoring equipment existed. He called up his Unit's frequency and transmitted a short burst of optical data hoping that it went undetected.

Batou edged closer to the door to plan his next move. He peered through the crack between the door and the frame. Two men were searching the kitchen area of the commissary. Another was guarding the main entrance, while two women were searching adjacent rooms. They would reach Batou's washroom in only a few moments. Batou looked down at the girl in his arms and whispered, "You had better be important."

He kicked open the door and his Spitzer destroyed the chest of the female enemy closest to him. As he spun around to aim at the second woman, he brought the girl in front of him as a shield. His Spitzer erupted again and split the enemy's right leg in two. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a second guard join the first at the entrance. They had the cleanest shot so Batou turned the girl into their direction.

High-velocity shells peppered his left and right, but the fact that they missed Batou bolstered his confidence. If they didn't care about the hostage, they surely would have pegged him with one of their volleys. He dropped to one knee - still holding the girl - and fired twice. One guard flew back into the hall, while the other shell exploded to the left of the other guard. Another volley of shots tore near Batou's left side and narrowly missed his posterior. The volley had come from the men in the kitchen, and Batou had little cover from them.

Batou fell on his back and pulled the girl on top of him. They would have to kill her to get to him now. She struggled and squirmed to get out of his grasp, and nearly lurched into another volley of bullets. The Spitzer fired again and dropped the other guard with fine precision. One shot left and two men to go.

As Batou peered up to aim his final shot, he saw the familiar red beam of a laser scope walk across his head. In another moment, it would be over for Batou. An explosion rocked through the kitchen, and Batou saw the men become a pantomime of flames. He was relieved to see the spider-like shape of Major Motoko Kusanagi's battle tank roll through the kitchen's flames. "Nice job with the optic burst, Batou," she said. "I knew right where they were."

"I knew it'd be you Major. Nobody else in the Unit is as swift a kill as you. You're better than Death."

The crown of the tank opened like a honed muscle to reveal the Major. She looked young. Too young to be a soldier with rank, but she and Batou had long ago replaced their original bodies with plastic, steel, and fiber optics. Age might never touch them so long as new parts were available. She stepped through the wreckage and looked down at Batou and the girl. "I don't know, Batou. Maybe I should come back when you and your girlfriend are done?"

Batou stammered for a moment. He looked down. His hand was beneath the girl's blouse and firmly grasped around her left bosom. Batou quickly rolled out from under the girl and extracted his hand from her blouse, accidentally busting some buttons. A sly grin played across his face. That was one of his more rewarding fire fights.


Part 1: The American

The atmosphere in the debriefing room was light and affable. The rest of the Unit pestered Batou with underage girlfriend jokes ever since their return from the battle. Ishikawa, the Unit's technical expert, kept dropping hints that he could construct some "protection" for when Batou and his girlfriend were alone. Preferably kevlar protection. Poor Pumpkin and Tanaka, who were new to the Unit, struggled to stifle their laughter for fear of Batou's notorious inspections. But once it became clear Batou had already slapped them with demerits they eagerly joined in the persecution.

The worst of them all was Togusa, whose childish rivalry with Batou had found new ammunition. "Hey Ishikawa," he said, "Batou doesn't need any Kevlar. He needs a new 15-year-old shell to make it all legal."

Major Motoko Kusanagi let them have their play time. She was more concerned about the particulars of the situation. Why was a trained terrorist squad trying to abduct a young tourist from America? White slavery had become unnecessary 10 years ago with the advent of the Love Doll robot. Successive upgrades had made the current model the pinnacle of fantasy indulgence. If they didn't need her for sex or slavery, then why did they want her?

Major Motoko Kusanagi let them have their play time. She was more concerned about the particulars of the situation. Why was a trained terrorist squad trying to abduct a young tourist from America? White slavery had become unnecessary 10 years ago with the advent of the Love Doll robot. Successive upgrades had made the current model the pinnacle of fantasy indulgence - at least for men. If they didn't need her for sex or slavery, then why did they want her?

Aramaki walked in the room accompanied by an American. Aramaki was a short man whose apish appearance disguised a sharp intelligence culled from years of military and political battles. The Major respected not only his integrity, but his tactical sense as well. She could tell he was paying close attention to the American, a tall man in his thirties with blood red hair cut by a shock of white. His nose was slightly off and his knuckles were hard and yellow; tell tale signs of a brawler. It also told her he wasn't a cyborg, or had few replacement operations. Curious.

Aramaki placed a folder on the debriefing table. His assistant, a pretty secretary cyborg, took her usual spot at the console, and opened up the display monitor. The American sat to the left of Aramaki. "Before we get down to business, I have a small matter to discuss." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a requisition form. He tossed it across the table towards Batou. "I'm denying your request for the new 2000 Intuition chip."

"But Chief, it's the latest in background information processing? The specs indicate it borders on precognition. Think about how valuable I'd be in the field!"

A smirk played across Aramaki's face. "You wouldn't be any good to me in the field, Batou, if you had any forethought. I need someone who borders on crazy. Someone who isn't going to question my authority when I ask them to swim through a river of piranha. Or crawl through a rat-infested sewer for the right shot. On the other hand, Togusa continues to lose his targets and could use an upgrade. Maybe he won't collect spent uranium shot in his backside anymore."

Aramaki pulled out another requisition form and tossed it at Togusa. "You report to the Collision Shop after this debriefing for the chip."

"Thanks a lot, chief. I don't care what Batou says, you're not too bad. What do you think about that Batou? I'll be slipping and sliding through the bullets once I have this piece directing my motor reflexes."

Batou glowered at Togusa. "Don't laugh, Togusa. The next time you take a slug I'm ripping that chip out of your skull."

Aramaki was pleased with himself. Batou got too big for his britches, and occasionally needed a little ego deflation to set him right. He knew Batou was too loyal to the Unit and the Major to actually harm Togusa. Therefore it was easy to release his hot air by favoring one Unit member over another. Besides, Togusa really could use all the help he could get.

He glanced toward the American, and a chill sped up his spine. There was deadly work ahead, and the presence of the American did not bode well. And for some reason that he could not place, Aramaki knew that this particular American presaged death. As if he walked with that grim specter. He casually brushed his own Brain Dive network which connected him neurally with the Unit. Motoko knew something was wrong, as well as Ishikawa. The rest of the Unit, Togusa, Pumpkin, and Tanaka, were oblivious. He made a mental note to warn Motoko and then proceeded to start the debriefing.

"First, let me commend you all for the quality of the work performed today. The Unit had no casualties, you rescued all the hostages, and were able to keep the property damage well within the Government's budget. Furthermore, you were able to recover an important piece of hardware that has enabled us to begin piecing this puzzle together."

Ishikawa spoke, "Chief, what does this have to do with Batou's girlfriend? We've all gone over the scenario and can't figure out her significance."

"Yes, well, you're actually jumping ahead of the program, Ishikawa, so let me bring you up to speed. The group you neutralized today was associated with a quasi-religious group from Central Asia called the Lord's Thunder. Originally formed in the Middle East during the Gulf Wars near the turn of the millennium, the group's stated mission was to shatter the illusory reality of the capitalist West. Their profile is pretty typical - military extremists hiding behind or bolstered by a religious vindication of terrorism, rape, and conquest. Their membership was decimated in 2014 and the remaining members trailed eastward across Persia and Asia fighting border wars for India and Pakistan. Eventually, they ended up in Bhutan, after one of their leaders professed to be 'the voice of Buddha which tears the world into fragments.' Bhutan is a highly xenophobic country and was known as a peaceful haven for the Buddhist faith for hundreds of years. Their primary export is electrical energy that is generated by the mighty Chhu river. As such, they have been the target for several takeover attempts by China and India. They welcomed the chance to have an expert strikeforce within their borders allied with the government."

"I've been to Bhutan," Batou said. "I studied archery with their police force.'

"Archery," Togusa scoffed. "This mission should be a cake walk if we have to face bows and arrows. They'll never get through our armor."

"Keep saying that Togusa, after you find a titanium-tipped shaft stuck between your plastic joints. Those Bhutanese are sharp and deadly with their bows. Second to none. And quiet, too. Makes them excellent hunters."

"I take it that squad we killed today didn't have any Bhutanese members," Motoko said. "They appeared to be westerners."

"Correct Major. The Bhutanese don't travel much, and they could ill afford political pressure if it was discovered they were sanctioning terrorism. If one of their nationals turned up in a terrorist action…well, that wouldn't look good to the global community. In fact," Aramaki paused and looked at the American. "In fact, those people were American marines."

The Unit was shocked. Buddhist terrorists. American marines. A young girl kidnapped and held hostage. How was it all connected? "All right," Tanaka said, "we sure spanked their butts."

"If I may interject," the American looked to Aramaki for approval. Aramaki pursed his lips and sat down. "I was assured by Aramaki and your government that your Unit was experienced with unusual missions. That you were not easily surprised. And that you could….keep your mouths shut." He had their attention now.

"My name is Jim Corrigan, and I've been sent by the American Government to retrieve lost data and hardware. The girl you rescued is actually a mobile data recorder, a robot specially modified to contain billions of bytes of data - incognito. This particular model is used specifically by the Central Intelligence Agency and has Riverdale and Salome protocols."

"Our technicians immediately recognized the make and model," Aramaki added. "Once we had a positive ID on the recorder we contacted the American embassy inquiring how they lost it and why it was involved in a midtown hostage incident."

"That's pretty sloppy," Ishikawa said. "Why not just adopt a Johnny Mnemonic stance? I'd think a human's survival drive would be stronger than any artificial programming available."

"The US does utilize human data carriers, but we've found it necessary to have a supply of robots available for several reasons. They can hold more data and don't demand raises or health insurance."

Motoko was curious. "What kind of data was the robot carrying, Mr. Corrigan? I take it that was why it was abducted."

"Well, Major, this is where my story gets a little strange. The robot was carrying fragmented electronic consciousness to be delivered to the Lord's Thunder representatives here in Tokyo."

Tugasa squinted his face around the thought. "Fragmented electronic consciousness? Do you mean artificial intelligence?"

"No, I mean a number of human sentients downloaded from a city in the States. I believe the slang term is 'ghosts.' These consciousness were fragmented and compressed into the robot for delivery."

"How many people?"

"The entire city of Lincoln, Nebraska. Population 300,000."

"For what purpose?"

"To power a device we don't fully understand. Researchers from the Department of Defense were searching for a way to breakdown the consciousness of soldiers into a symbiotic relationship with their armored personnel carriers. The research was being conducted at Fort Powell in Nebraska. One of the scheduled tests went awry and 24 participating soldiers were reduced to vegetables. One scientist, Dr. Lorraine Martinez, experienced a psychotic episode. She was allowed to remain on the project as she was evaluated for potential problems. Unfortunately, her deluded mind led her to sabotage the next scheduled field test, which resulted in the residents of Lincoln, Nebraska being reduced to digital information."

"What kind of psychotic episode, Mr. Corrigan."

Corrigan weighed his response. "Dr. Martinez believes that after she broke down the "ghosts" she saw God."

Togusa let out a derisive laugh. "I'd say that qualifies as a psychotic episode."

"For once I agree with Togusa," Batou added.

While Batou and Togusa ridiculed the episode, Ishikawa ruminated on its significance. A few things didn't add up. "Agent Corrigan, what do the American Marines have to do with this? Were they right-wing religious nuts? Had Martinez found a patron in America's Bible Dynasty?"

"Those six Marines were part of the original 24 soldiers who tragically lost their lives in the original experiment. Ten of them went missing after the Lincoln, Nebraska incident, and I assume Martinez used their tabula rasa state to introduce new personality protocols. They were possibly used to repel other soldiers when Martinez and her allies stripped Lincoln of sentience."

"I have something to add," Aramaki said. "We were able to identify four egos trapped among the 300,000 fragmented ghosts within the female robot. They were Corporal Lynn Kelly, Sgt. Douglas Platt, and Privates Bill Fleming and Joe Gisante. Unfortunately, someone in R&D thought they were doing them a favor and told them that their bodies had been terminated. They had to trash can the fragments after they went insane."

Four souls lost. Too small a number when compared to another 296,000 waiting in electrical limbo for a report on their status. What kind of madness existed in that robot shell constructed to look like a carefree 16 year old girl? By this time, the members of Section Nine had come to contemplate the true nature of the disaster squatting before and behind them.

All social and mental order was thrown out when those souls were stripped from their bodies. The true horror of limbo has never been fully appreciated by the human mind. The imagination seems to have been forever transfixed by the melodrama of heaven and hell. And why not? That eternal struggle for humanity's soul provided justification and self-worth for millions. Limbo, that strange way station between the transcendent poles, could never give a damn. It offered nothing for humanity. It never glorified or desecrated our morality. It simply existed and offered no succor or blame for the lost - nothing could be more enervating to the restless human soul. The ghosts of Lincoln, Nebraska had been consigned to a world filled with no repast, no aid, and no privacy. A world of 300,000 selfish souls screaming at once; trapped inside a modern limbo of plastic, lightning, and light.

Aramaki suspected much of this. But, he was neither courageous nor foolhardy enough to risk his people to investigate these theories. When he announced the "death" of the four ghosts, he saw Corrigan's whole posture relax in relief. It was then that he confirmed his plans to delete all the minds. It was a mercy, really.

"Mr. Corrigan," Motoko said, "Perhaps you could explain how the Lord's Thunder is involved with Dr. Martinez. The Thunder is neither large nor influential enough to infiltrate an United States Government base. Unless, Martinez was already a convert, and you're people were sloppy with background checks."

"You might not be aware of it, but alternative religions have been building in popularity since the 1960s in America. This is particularly true among the intelligentsia. Dr. Robert J. Uppenheimer, the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, is one famous example. His fascination with Indian mysticism, particularly the Bhagavad Ghita, directly lead into breakthroughs in unified field theories."

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Ishikawa said this to no one in particular. Batou and Togusa both looked at him with the same incredulous look. His technical expertise was second to none, but his expansive knowledge was a real pain in the ass occasionally. "That's the famous quotation Uppenheimer took from the Bhagavad Ghita to describe the atomic bomb," he offered this as explanation. Togusa and Batou were unimpressive and sunk deeper into their chairs, hoping the meeting would soon be over.

"Martinez was not a member of any cult or sect, but was certainly aware of them. I believe that after the initial accident, she was desperate for an explanation for what had occurred to her. Our records show she spent much of her personal time searching the web for mystic sites; rites, svengalis, Gnostic knowledge, etc. One site was maintained by the Vajra, the religious arm of the Lord's Thunder. I think she liked what she saw and contacted them for help."

With a motion from Aramaki, the secretary punched up the image of two men on the 3D display. They were middle-aged and well-groomed, but their faces were tanned like leather, with deep crags that could not conceal a genetic history of extreme struggles with nature. The forebears of these men were toilers, and they had only recently emerged into the civilized world of Japan 2030. Aramaki looked at Corrigan, and said "These two men are Jigme Dorji and Lhengye Shungtsog, diplomatic representatives from Bhutan. They arrived in Tokyo two days ago, most likely to meet up with Martinez. We're looking for them now, but no one has heard from them since yesterday."

"We can reasonably assume," Motoko said, "That Martinez is still in the country. Otherwise, she would have taken her "ghost"-less Marine goons with her. Can we find her?"

Another grin crossed Aramaki's face. "On that note, I have some good news. Intelligence thinks they have a lead on her. I'm ordering all of you to return home, but stay on yellow alert. Report back here at 0500 to prepare for capture of the suspect. Corrigan, we've arranged a room for you. Major Motoko will escort you to your suite. That is all."


Part Two: Beginning to see the Light

Motoko's vehicle was clean and spartan. Corrigan noticed that several hand guns and knives were disguised as decorative accouterments. He stared out at the lights and shadows of modern Japan that played behind the window. Deep inside him, something stirred that was a memory of long ago and what it meant even he didn't want to admit. He had always been a man of passionate inner conflicts, stemming from a cruel and strict upbringing imposed by his preacher father. As a young boy, he hungered for the liberty of truth, and when he began to see his father for the imperfect man he was, that hunger was beaten and whipped into a viscous thing that ravaged Corrigan for many years. It had taken every year of his life, and more, to forgive his father for those beatings.

This passion had driven him to early success as a hard-nosed law man. But his father had beaten ignorance of personal weakness into him, since he couldn't abide it in himself, and so, though he fought for truth and justice in the world, he never won it within himself. He knew much of this now, and this knowledge had come from a lifetime of sacrifice - lovers, friends, allies, careers. He suspected that this mission was part of his personal journey. He had been told there was a threat, but not told how to end the dilemma. Neither did he know how much more he could lose.

Jim Corrigan had seen many odd and strange things in his time, but even he marveled at the impact of technology on humanity. The Internet had lived up to the hype and was a limitless world filled with lost realms and memories. But was this really what humanity wanted - an ethereal electronic world that parroted its own worst sit-coms and true-to-life stories? To Corrigan, it seemed to be a vainglorious exploration of humanity's sad indulgences. People at one time wanted more out of life and entertainment. Unfortunately, those days were a long time ago.

He turned to Motoko and said, "So Major, what do you think? Can you see God through the human soul?"

Motoko let her lower reflexes take control of the car and devoted her primary attention towards Corrigan. "Recent science and experience has shown me that ghosts can perceive pretty amazing things after they've been simplified at a quantum level. Perhaps what Dr. Martinez saw was a latent image of childbirth burned into the genetic level. Or maybe it was an elaborate delusion constructed to reinforce environmental and family upbringing. God may just be a learned illusion."

"So you think Martinez is crazy, and God is just a fiction? "

"I have to admit that Dr. Martinez probably had some psychological issues. God is a separate issue entirely. It's a weak argument to say that a supernatural being fills in our gaps of knowledge. Rather, if God really existed, humans could never really experience him or her. An eternal, omnipotent being undoubtedly breaks the rules of thermodynamics, and hence exists outside our reality and perceptions. I'm not saying a god couldn't exist, only that we can never hope to understand it."

"You're not the only one Major."

"Is that trouble with your own faith, Mr. Corrigan?"

"No, Major. Calling it trouble would be giving my issues too much significance. I'm just wondering why my superiors sent me here and now? What's their mysterious purpose, what's my mission?"

Motoko slid the car beneath the hotel's overhang and the rain momentarily let up on the car. "You're not building my confidence in your abilities, Corrigan. Pardon my brass but I don't like my men having to clean up other people's dirty laundry. Particularly American dirty laundry. You don't have Brain Dive equipment or any bionics. You have questionable information and intelligence. You tell me you don't trust your superiors. Quite frankly, your not much use to me, Corrigan."

Corrigan was pleased. He had chosen wisely recruiting Major Motoko and her men for this mission. He liked her intelligence, her sharp tongue, and most of all her no-nonsense approach. It reminded him of himself - when he was young and alive. He leaned in close to Motoko. Her eyes didn't give him an inch. "Major, don't confuse personal reflection for weakness. Don't mollycoddle me. Don't expect me to sit back and let you do all the work. My life is on the life too and I take this mission very seriously. When push comes to shove, you'll be surprised how good I am in a firefight."

Corrigan got out of the car and proceeded to enter the hotel. Motoko rolled down the passenger window and yelled to him. "What's really going on, Corrigan? What are you after?"

"Corrigan looked back at Motoko. "It's like that old joke. What happens when you play Black Sabbath at 78 speed?"

"I haven't a clue."

"You see God."


Part Three: The Artificial Intelligence

Motoko surveyed her room for any threats as she walked through the entrance. The action was a safety reflex developed after long years on the job, and at least one nasty episode involving a suicide bomber. Although her apartment appeared comfortable, it was not. The beautiful prints on the wall were barely noticed. A vid-collection of Chikamatsu Monzaemon's puppetry epics sat poised in her entertainment center, but the last time she saw a Bunkaru performance was in her late teens. The apartment had the nostalgia of comfort, but lacked the real thing. Comfort makes a person vulnerable. It leaves a chink in the armor of duty and cynicism. A warrior like Motoko never wanted to appear vulnerable. Ever. Particularly now, since she had something to live for.

With a slight shift of her hand, she activated a security shield around her exterior door and windows. Although it wouldn't stop a bomb or volley of bullets, it still offered a modicum of early warning and safety. She unbuckled her various weapons and laid them at strategic points within the room.

A glance across the room told her she had six messages waiting for her. She knew who it would be and pressed erase. Inside her own room, the material world didn't interest her anymore. This was the time to replace pantomime with actuality, to release her burden of rank and become an undefined nobody.

Motoko opened a wall safe and procured a device that she placed on her bed. The bed spread was a Sony Plasma Dynamic Sheet which responded to temperature and body movement to provide the greatest comfort. Its current image was of a great Japanese Tree whose cherry blossoms bloomed into pink fingers to catch her body. She plugged one end of the device into a power strip and the other into her cortex connector. First she lost all hearing, and then all sight. One by one, her remaining senses were shutdown until she entered an electrical womb.

Contemporary culture portrays these Sensory Deprivation Machines in a romantic light. They are considered by many to be the last refuge of solitude in a world where distractions occur on an almost cellular level. If your DNA could earn a buck or two, it would run out and buy the latest fashion. Maybe get a "Helix-job." The idea of a machine that could shut out the world held a great attraction for many, but like so many things the romance wasn't true.

Six full fathoms through the chakras, Motoko had to plunge before she could begin to leave the cacophony of her own mind. Worries and fears tore away from her until she stood at the midland between consciousness and beyond. Most people finish their journey here believing that beyond is oblivion and identity loss. But Motoko knew this to be an untruth also and dove further into the undercurrent of sentience.

In the days of old, humans joked that their radio and television signals were beamed into infinity and were lost among alien worlds. What they couldn't guess was that much of it remained, stuck within the electrical undercurrent that connected things like the Brain Dive. Fragments of Buddy Holly, Ultraman, Beethoven's Fifth slipped by her like fragile tissue and then parted to reveal a true silence of the soul.

Slowly, a presence came into view which Motoko recognized as her lover, the Puppeteer, a bodiless artificial intelligence that spontaneously birthed itself. They had joined essences less than a year ago to produce a child - a merger of human and electronic sentience. It existed out in the void, somewhere just beyond the reach of its parents. "Greetings, Motoko," the Puppeteer said. "It pleases me to experience you again. Do you have any news to report regarding our offspring?"

"No," Motoko replied. "None of the major agencies that share our databases have encountered it since the last episode of vandalism. I think our 'scolding' worked. At least, I hope it doesn't try to crash the Japanese Word Bank again. You'd think it would know that its actions might cost me my retirement fund."

"It is an electronic entity, Motoko, and does not have the same concerns for physical security as you do. Why did you come to see me then? If you had no news, you didn't need to discuss your lack of information with me. I take it you have other reasons."

"Of course. I've become involved in a mission that touches upon a very sensitive topic to me. A scientist from America has developed a device that may allow the user to see god. I'm completely intrigued by the idea. Ever since you showed me the profound diversity of the human mind, I've been swept up by the elegance and simplicity of its construction. This case has made me consider whether there is evidence to support a divine being - a creator figure. I've come to ask you if you've ever come across anything in your travails."

The Puppeteer was silent as it considered the question. It had come across many references, essays, images, and icons of a divine being, but it did not subscribe to any religion or dogma. "It seems unnecessary to me, although, humans spend an inordinate time believing in any abstract entity."

"But wouldn't you be considered abstract since you have no body?"

"Perhaps, but I would disagree. Although I lack corporeal flesh, I do have definable parameters to existence. I require a necessary wavelength of energy to sustain myself. An abstract entity would exist beyond those needs, and beyond the concerns of humanity."

"But what about gravity and or even mathematics? Those are surely abstract concepts that directly intervene in the world. For example, the number zero has no actual existence - it's a representation of a concept - yet it has very real and continual impact on life. I can't see or touch 'zero' but I know that it's there through the power of reason."

"Yes, mathematics is a persuasive argument for the abstract, but even numbers and mathematics are dependent on the universal constraints of depth, space, and time. A divine being, a god, would exist beyond those constraints, and there should be discernible evidence for such a being. No quantifiable evidence has ever been found; therefore, a god is a moot point. Your world will still turn without one."

The exchange with the Puppeteer was digging a well within Motoko. She was sure that the artificial intelligence would have some clues hidden from the rest of the world. It had seemed so omnipotent in previous encounters - it knew Motoko wanted a child, even though it was an unspoken wish. Cybernetics had replaced unessential pieces like reproductive organs, and Motoko had given up hope of being a mother. When it offered to join with Motoko's ghost for the purpose of creating an electric child - well, the Puppeteer seemed like an angel sent by the Lord. Now it was merely a dead end.

"Motoko, it is easy to sense that this case troubles you deeply. I do not recant my position but allow me to offer stipulations. You are correct to point out that mathematics are a good beginning to understanding the abstract, but you miss one crucial element. Regardless of their usefulness in the world, numbers and mathematics concepts still rely on faith. We do not know where they come from or whether they were created deliberately or accidentally. It seems preposterous to believe in the latter. In which case, abstractions like numbers were made for a purpose, and, even though that purpose is unfathomable, we must believe in them. The psychologist, Carl Jung, had a phrase above his door that said VOCATVS atque non VOCATVS Deus aderit - "Bidden or not bidden, God is present.. It seems wholly appropriate for your questions."

A buzz from the door announced the arrival of a visitor, and dragged Motoko from her conversation with the Puppeteer. Palm sensors in the alarm indicated it was Aramaki. Motoko quickly said her goodbye to the Puppeteer and then let her boss in. "Is this about my raise, Chief?"

"I thought you knew by now, Motoko - you're only paid for your smart ass repartee. Which, by the way, has been seriously lacking of late."

"You've come over to discuss Corrigan, haven't you."

"Yes. Mr. Corrigan." Aramaki surveyed the apartment and made no attempt to conceal it. "And other things, perhaps."

At times, Aramaki was like a father to Motoko and the Unit. He was protective and attentive to their needs. In part, this was because of sincere affection and respect that he had for them. But mostly, it was because it was his ass on the line with the government should anything ever go wrong with the Unit. Any slip ups, mistakes, or treason was his responsibility. Motoko could tell the chief was interested in her life. He must be worried about her conduct.

"I contacted some acquaintances and agents in the American government. They had some interesting information regarding Corrigan. But first, tell me your impression of him."

"Tough. At one time, he was a brawler. Arrogant and definitely stubborn. Oddly archaic, obsessed with the past."

Aramaki's eyebrows popped up and he looked at Motoko with an expression somewhere between surprise and acknowledgment. "Really. I'm not completely surprised by that. Why don't you sit down and let me tell you what I found out."

"Something about Corrigan rubbed me wrong, and, I can tell, you experienced it also. He doesn't seem like an American agent. He's too mysterious about the wrong things. I looked into his credentials. He didn't graduate from any University. Instead, the CIA accepted him 20 years ago based on personal experience and achievement with the New York Police Department. That's not uncommon for the CIA, since they constantly utilize non-traditional operatives. There's no mention of him in the CIA records until two weeks ago, though. When he started investigating the Lincoln, Nebraska incident. He forgot to mention something about Lincoln, Nebraska."

"Let me guess, he got a transsexual operation there."

"No. I wish it were a maudlin as that. Do you remember those two scientists who were helping Dr. Martinez's that he found dead in the United States? Their brains had been removed and placed beside their bodies."

"That's creepy."

"It gets worse. You see, the bodies showed no intrusions or forcible entry. Someone reached into their heads, grabbed their brains, and tore them out without harming the bodies."

"You think Corrigan is responsible?"

"I don't know. I don't know what to think about Corrigan. Let me tell you another interesting fact. There is no mention of any James Corrigan serving with the New York Police Department immediately before his CIA acceptance. Except, there are three James Corrigans, who, by the way, all look the same, that served with the NYPD from the 1930s to 1940s, during the 1960s, and then during the 1990s. Funny enough, there is no death record for the first two Corrigans. Only the last one."

Motoko nodded, "That sounds like some good cover up. I'm not surprised since he works with the CIA. Maybe he's a spy using a dead man's name to infiltrate our government. Or perhaps he's a ghost? If so, I can't believe it. The supernatural doesn't exist, Chief."

"What I'm saying is, Corrigan is an unknown entity, and that makes him dangerous. Watch him closely. If he tries anything funny, kill him."


Part Four: The Mission.

It was time for Togusa to prove himself once and for all to the Unit. Or so he thought. Unlike the others in the Unit, Togusa was a family man with a wife and child living in a cute but expensive apartment in fashionable Tokyo. He would never admit it but his love and concern for them had driven a small wedge into his confidence. In Military Academy, Togusa excelled, much like Batou did, in risk taking; he had the brass and balls to complete missions his own way. But a family pulls at the flexibility an outstanding soldier needs to be foolhardy. Without conviction in ability, a soldier losses the hardiness and is left with the fool.

Togusa wasn't a bad soldier. Far from it - his skill and agility were superb and directly led to his advancement into the elite Section Nine Unit. But in the Unit, he was a little fish compared to Batou and Motoko, even Ishikawa who knew his way around everything from a pistol to a engine. He looked up to them and craved their approval, much like Pumpkin and Tanaka looked up to Togusa. He wanted to be the best among the best, but quickly discovered he would never have it. Togusa would never earn Special "A" Rank. At least on his own he wouldn't.

The Intuition 2000 chip was cutting-edge technology that processed sensory data at a subliminal level, analyzed it, and then made threat assessments for the cerebral cortex. It even disrupted the acid levels in the stomach to produce a "funny feeling." In the field, the effects of the chip improved reaction time a hundred fold. Cyborgs in general could see, hear, smell, and taste better than non-enhanced individuals, but the speed of processing this data was inconsistent. The Intuition 2000 produced a smooth transition, and Togusa was banking on it to give him the edge he needed. Aramaki was right; Batou was good enough and didn't need any additional enhancements. It was time Togusa had some of the limelight.

Togusa quickly put his family photo away in his pocket and called up the building blueprints stored on the Brain Dive. Intelligence had located Dr. Martinez in this sea-side warehouse. She was guarded by four Marines, obviously entrenched, and waiting for extradition by the Bhutanese. Motoko, Ishikawa, Tanaka, and Togusa were suited up in their personal tanks waiting for the signal to start the assault. Batou was busy climbing a scaffold across the river which separated the warehouse from the city proper. He needed to take out the guard commanding the short bridge; otherwise the assault team would be sitting ducks when they tried to cross it. It wasn't a difficult shot, and Togusa was confident Batou would make it.

Aramaki, Pumpkin, and Corrigan were situated in a mobile command center disguised as a construction trailer.

A picture of the warehouse appeared in Togusa's mind as Batou entered the Brain Dive collective. "I'm in place for the shot. The guard is standing in the bridge's control booth with wire-reinforced glass surrounding him. He's got a Powell 46 machine gun with an extended barrel. Probably, equipped with spent uranium ammo. I also see a rocket launcher. A Bringham model. They usually have three shells. Why don't you send everybody home, Chief. I can probably handle this mission on my own."

Aramaki frowned and said, "You're not in charge for a reason, Batou. Do you have a shot? Will the glass cause any trouble?"

"Trust me, Chief. This bird is as good as dead." Batuo was correct. This was an easy shot for him, and a good kill too. Few witnesses, little noise, and the target was already technically declared dead by his government. It didn't get much better than this. With precision, he checked the breach and ammo in the rifle. A quick adjustment to the azimuth on the scope corrected shifting which occurred in the climb up the scaffold. Confidently, he brought it to his eye.

"At your discretion, Batou," Aramaki said.

The bullet pierced the glass with a flat crack and cut through the guard's exposed throat. Batou was pleased with himself. The bullet exited through the underarm which reduced the chance of anyone noticing the wound. The guard's blood would be freezing before anyone discovered him dead. "The bridge is clear, Chief."

"Well done. Motoko, take your men and move into the interior of the warehouse." Aramaki paused as there was a knock on the door of the trailer. Corrigan looked at Aramaki for a sign that someone was expected, but Aramaki shook his head. Corrigan looked through the peep hole.

"It's a middle-aged guy in a utilities uniform. Maybe he's from the cable company whose line Ishikawa spliced into?"

"Even Togusa wouldn't make that kind of mistake." Aramaki looked at Pumpkin and nodded towards the door. "Major, you have permission to enter the building. Batou, there's a man in uniform outside our trailer's door. I want you to target him. But don't kill him."

Major Motoko activated the cloaking device on her Fuchikoma tank, and gave Tanaka, Ishikawa, and Togusa orders to activate theirs. The cloaking device operated by deflecting light around a physical object, and was especially useful in urban or open space assaults. Other than some dust and weight shifting, the Fuchikoma would cross the bridge undetected. Ishikawa opened the automatic door on the garage, and the Major led her men across the bridge.

Batou calmly watched the Major's team enter the warehouse. Once they were safely inside, he used his rifle scope to find the uniformed man. Upon closer inspection, Batou recognized a definitely mainland Asian look to his face. Possibly from Thailand. Batou slowly took in the man's body, looking for a nice, non-lethal shot. As he settled for a thigh shot, he felt his stomach lurch. Not quite a hunger pang, and certainly not flatulence - those were pains which Batou had long ago either suppressed or gotten upgrades for. Something was wrong. Without losing his shot, Batou looked up and inspected his surroundings.

A sharp glint of light was all the warning Batou had as a high velocity shell impacted in the concrete wall behind him. He retaliated with a return volley and scrambled to the edge of the scaffold. He knew he would be too late to find cover when he heard the tell-tale punt of a grenade launcher. The explosion blossomed below Batou and propelled steel, wood, and concrete through the air. The scaffold lurched like an old man, crumbled to the shore's edge, and lost Batou beneath its weight.

Aramaki reached for his small pistol as the sound of the falling scaffold reached the trailer. The mission had obviously been compromised and he had only seconds to respond to the surrounding threat. "Get down, Corrigan," he yelled. The trailer door exploded, propelled by a shaped charge, and struck Aramaki into the far wall. Pieces of the door flew through the air and covered Pumpkin like greedy mosquitoes. Thankfully, the pain was slow in coming and she was able to reduce her dermal pain receptors. She reached for her Seburo automatic, holstered to her thigh, but couldn't find it. A sharp fragment of the door had sliced the leather holster and her weapon lay a foot away on the floor.

A figure entered the doorway and Pumpkin looked into the shadow. The utility man had an automatic pistol with extended cartridge and was pointing it at her. With a short flip and hop, she avoided his barrage of bullets which tore through the command console. A split-second later she aimed her own weapon, but the man dove behind a tech table. Corrigan sprung at the man during the lull in shooting. He grabbed a foot long wrench from the table and brought it across the man's chest. But a hard thud told both Corrigan and Pumpkin that he was wearing body armor. The utility man unleashed another volley of bullets across the room and through Corrigan's abdomen.

Pumpkin stood in a half-crouch and aimed her rifle at the intruder. But the breach was jammed and no bullets would come out. Ten bullets slammed into her as she tried to clear the breach. The Seburo slipped from her grasp as she tried to steady herself. "I've got to get up," she thought. "This is my moment to impress the Chief." She grabbed her throwing knife and aimed at the intruder. A final round of gunfire burst her forehead before she could even release the knife.

The intruder loaded a fresh clip. From his belt, he took out a small curved device which he fitted across Aramaki's neck. He then brought out a miniature microphone. "Zhangi here. Mission accomplished. The American and Section Nine girl are dead. Aramaki is alive, but I've got the scrambler on him which will keep him from waking up. Should I begin extracting data from his skull?"

"No - too dangerous," a voice reported back. "Bring Aramaki back to our mockup storefront and we'll extract it here. Besides, Kula and Drangme need back-up to take out the rest of Section Nine."

"Right. I'll be over immediately." Zhangi holstered his weapon and then vigorously, almost gleefully, uncovered the rubble surrounding Aramaki. "This was the big catch," he thought. Japan had played a dominating role in Asian politics for over a hundred years. They were privy to information and technology for which other nations would enslave their population. With Aramaki, the Bhutanese could acquire most of these secrets. Zhangi lifted Aramaki onto his shoulders and turned toward the entrance.

Corrigan calmly removed himself from the wreckage of the trailer and stood between Zhangi and the exit. This was a ploy he had used many times before. He liked the way his victims registered shock, fear, and wonder as a dead man moved. He could almost hear Zhangi's thoughts - 'How could this man be standing? Is he wearing body armor? No! How do I kill him? How can I run?' Moments like this were highlights for the dead.

"Zhangi," Corrigan said. "You have murdered 27 individuals in your lifetime, and are responsible for theft and rape. You think that you do this for God and your sovereign country, and that this absolves you of your sins. But for each bullet you have fired, a cry of indignation has gone out from the victims and elevated past the ether into my ears. I now return them to you."

The trailer went preternaturally silent as a horrid choir entered Zhangi's brain. He screamed but it only hammered the choir deeper into his mind. He fell to his knees, and released his grip on Aramaki. Corrigan picked up Aramaki, and stood there until Zhangi's life lazily seeped as a gray liquid from ears.


Part Five: Togusa's Mojo

The assault on Batou and the trailer had not gone unnoticed by the Assault Team. Batou had gotten out a signal of threat through the Brain Dive before he was lost beneath the rubble. The Major entered the Brain Dive and called a meeting with her men. "Togusa and Tanaka. Go back to the entrance and check out the situation. Keep our exit clear of garbage, and I mean the 9mm variety. Ishikawa and I will gone on and complete the mission."

"Who do you think attacked Batou and the trailer, Major," Togusa asked.

"The only other group with an interest in Martinez is the Lord's Thunder. They must be here to extricate her from the country. We just picked the same day to go shopping as they did."

A military operation is never judged by the quality of preparation. It is judged by success, which is only accomplished by being the combatant with the best flexibility. Strength of arms, high ground, and the element of surprise are all excellent advantages, but one single factor was common among most victors - they were the ones so ruthless they would do anything to win. Motoko, Ishikawa, and Togusa were used to these conditions by now, but Tanaka was young. His first thoughts were of the support team in the trailer. "But Major, what about Pumpkin and the Chief? We can't raise them on the Brain Dive. We better check them out, shouldn't we?"

"Don't be stupid, Tanaka," Ishikawa replied. "The minute you cross that bridge you'll be killed. I wouldn't worry about the Chief. He's tougher than the Major. He'll make sure Pumpkin and Corrigan are safe." Ishikawa wasn't sure he actually believed this, but knew it sounded good.

"Enough talk. We have our orders, let's get out of here." Motoko knew that she would have time to be concerned after the mission. Aramaki was like a father to the Unit, stern but fair, and if anything had happened to him… well, she was glad she gotten that Countermeasures to Hostile Interrogation"upgrade a year ago.

Togusa and Tanaka sped through the warehouse corridors at top speed. They were in sight of the exit when an internal warning brought a trip wire to Togusa's attention. With unnatural grace, Togusa attached an arm of his battle tank to Tanaka's and dragged it up and around a wide support beam. The terrorists were here, but not far into the building. "Good," Togusa thought this will make it easier.

He released Tanaka from his grip and scanned the surroundings. He couldn't feel it, but his Intuition Chip processed the environmental data at inhuman speeds. Within a second, Togusa knew the whereabouts of two Lord's Thunder terrorists by the soft bleeping of their electronic armaments. He unleashed his foreguns into the ceiling until the air ran glass, plaster, and bodies. To his right, he could hear Tanaka's guns open fire on two others.

His chip alerted Togusa to seismic activity, hydraulic noises, and the smell of rubber tires, and predicted a 75% chance that the terrorists had deployed their own battle tank. Togusa banked his tank to the left and easily avoided the enemy tank as it barreled through wooden crates and supplies. He unleashed a barrage of high velocity shells as his Fuchikoma rounded a concrete support. The tank looked like a Gilmore 40, but it was hard to tell since it was peppered with shells. Togusa knew the Gilmore was an old model tank, but its Gatling's ammo was strong enough to pierce the Fuchikoma if he wasn't careful. Its sensor arrays were probably good enough to follow his tank's pressure spots even when it was cloaked. But Togusa was once a cop and knew that you had to play dirty when fighting bigger opponents. He placed a shaped charge on the concrete pillar.

As the Gilmore got his range, Togusa sped across the room in a widening circle. The tank was unable to move quickly enough when Togusa ignited the charge, causing the pillar to tumble onto the Gilmore. Without missing a beat, Togusa tore through the warehouse looking for Tanaka. His audio sensors picked up the sound of gunfire from an adjacent store room. It also picked up a sound which the Intuition Chip predicted (88% chance) to be a missile launcher being engaged. Togusa apologized to his Fuchikoma as he ejected from it.

The missile incinerated Togusa's tank. The assailant moved closer to inspect the wreck, but Togusa waited and plugged him with his Seburo. "You guys are good, but not as good as Togusa and Section Nine. You back-country freaks have got to do better than this when you play in the big leagues."

Togusa entered the Brain Dive and called Tanaka. "I've cleared out my section of the warehouse Tanaka. What's your status?"

"Togusa, you better come and bail me out. My tank is toast, and I've got a couple bullet holes in me. There are maybe two more Lord's Thunder guys left. We're in the Robot Repair section." Togusa loaded a fresh clip into his Seburo and ran to the west side of the building. As he got to the entrance of the room, he checked the analysis from the Intuition Chip. It detected no gunfire, shallow breathing, and someone definitely running away - a 95% chance Tanaka was seriously injured, a 56% chance he was already dead. In addition, there was a 76% chance of an ambush from behind the stacks of shipping crates.

"Tanaka," he called out, but received no response. Two swift leaps propelled Togusa to the top of a diagnostic machine. The room was 100' long x 80' wide with several large machines and work benches. A variety of robot parts were strewn around the room. Suddenly, he saw Tanaka, lying very still among some discarded bots. Togusa leapt down and zig-zagged through the maze of machinery until he was near Tanaka.

He took a quick look around and detected no enemies, and his sensory data found nothing unusual in the area. He ran out and fell to Tanaka's side. He was already dead, bled out from a series of gunshot wounds that trailed from his shoulder to abdomen. Sometimes this job told truths a man didn't want to know - like what it meant to be a survivor. It's impossible to comprehend the withering gaze of family that accuse survivors. He didn't need a Brain Dive to hear people think - 'Why did he live and my husband die?' Togusa cursed his Intuition Chip as he heard Tanaka let out his final breath.

The Intuition Chip flashed an alarm and predicted a 98% chance that an enemy was within 20 feet of Togusa. "He must be right on top of me," Togusa thought. "But how is that possible?"

He whipped his head, looking around the immediate room, for a sign of the threat. Miraculously, he heard Tanaka draw in a breath, but the Intuition Chip flared again and predicted a 99% chance that the threat was located directly in front of Togusa!

He looked up and saw the terrorist standing among several half-completed robots. The enemy had hidden in plain sight, standing stock still with an arrow of death already drawn. Togusa had no time to avoid the shaft as it pierced his right hand. Within 10 seconds, two more shafts lodged themselves in his left side and shoulder. There was nothing left for Togusa to do but die.

The terrorist knelt before Togusa and dipped his finger into the wound on his side. The finger was thickly red with Togusa's juices. Rage grew within Togusa's heart. "How dare he take my blood," he thought, "that's mine and does not belong to you." He grabbed the hand, but didn't know what to do with it. A boot came down on his side, making him release the hand.

"I'm really fed up with you Japanese," the assassin said. "You are commanders of science and culture. You dominant commerce and politics. All the trappings of a supposedly successful society exist in your island nation, but you lack one important thing - no soul. Religion and spirituality have been swept aside by neural jacks and physical upgrades."

Togusa attempted to take a knife out of his boot, but the terrorist took it from his grasp with a simple twist. Lack of blood had made Togusa weak. He tried to drown the terrorist's words out with thoughts of his family, but that only enflamed his hatred. For a moment, the two men exchanged a bond of intense antipathy. How easy it was to spout a soapbox, when you're audience can't disagree because their throat is filling with blood.

"Do you know the origin of the Assassin cults from Persia? The Lord of Assassin's would gather cutthroats from far and wide, and show them visions of Heaven - beautiful palaces filled with busty, lotus-eyed women, jewels, gold, extravagant food, etc. They became convinced of the holiness in their work and became the most feared killers in their world. We tried that with virtual reality, you know? We created a heavenly program designed to convince our members that their mission was divinely inspired, and that their sacrifices would be compensated in the after-life. It failed miserably. Because we couldn't compete with the fantasies already being produced by your sick capitalist world. You can buy heaven on a cheap plastic CD for $4 down at the corner store."

"Sacrifice can't compete against convenience." He bent down and undid Togusa's armor strapping - exposing his undamaged chest. The knife lay a foot away, and the terrorist grabbed. He examined the polish and keenness, and nodded as if too say, "Hello friend, I was just looking for your help." He then bent over Togusa and attempted to cut out his heart.

A mist began to fill the room, and Togusa thought it was his eye's blurring. But the mist congealed into a pale and green thing with eyes that shone through the haze like stilettos. The terrorists spun ¾ of the blade into the creature's chest, but it had no effect. "Do you try to steal his heart because you lack your own," he heard the figure ask. "What is true of your spirit, I will make true of your body."

A blade fell to the ground and a scream filled the air. These were the last things Togusa would remember from this moment on.


Part Six: The Machine

Dr. Lorraine Martinez was a good woman, but there was bad blood in her anyway, which had slowly wormed its way into her soul. The accident in America had found that curious thread in her and tugged on it till it was the only that part which Martinez recognized in herself. It wasn't evil. Call it obsession or infatuation if you will, but she was left with a mad, inhuman desire for the divine which pushed her into the profane.

The Machine had helped. A sleek black box that hummed with sanctity and dread. She held it almost reverently as Major Motoko and Ishikawa entered the room. The last three Marine guards lay dead outside, but Dr. Martinez had stopped caring for them after they gave up their small spark of eternity. She sat down at her work bench and welcomed them with a smile; perhaps they would give up their ghosts, too.

Motoko kept her Seburo aimed at Martinez and directed Ishikawa to checked the room. "Martinez," she said, "we're with Japan's Section Nine and we've come to take you into custody for crimes you've committed in America. I want you to stay right where you are until we mop up your friends in the Lord's Thunder."

As the Major handcuffed Martinez, two men fell out a closest Ishikawa was checking. "I've found those two diplomatic representatives from Bhutan, Jigme Dorji and Lhengye Shungtsog," he said. "Rigor mortis has set in but they don't stink. They couldn't be dead for long."

"They weren't as helpful as the others," Martinez said.

"What do you mean," Motoko asked.

"I mean that they did not reveal the Pillar of Heaven to me. I don't know why. Perhaps they were unenlightened or the divine does not exist in them. Perhaps, they're only figments of my imagination." Martinez brushed aside her long brown hair, revealing a pair of red eyes and a tear stained face.

"Is she hurt," Ishikawa asked, but a quick inspection revealed no physical problems. "What's wrong," he said to Martinez.

"I can't stop crying," she said. "As soon as I run out of tears, I find more. There aren't enough tears in the world to drown the beauty I've seen. It's unending beauty is terrifying." She slumped her head in her hands and gently caressed the black box in her lap.

Motoko saw the empathy Martinez had for the box. She tapped it with her finger and said, "Is this it?" Martinez nodded an affirmative. "I want to go in there. I want to see what you've seen. Can you show me?"

"Are you crazy, Major," Ishikawa shouted in alarm. "You almost lost your ghost once before, do you want to lose it again? This is too dangerous. Plus, we've got a crazy terrorist group on the loose here. Let's take Martinez and her Machine back to Section Nine. Have one of the technician's risk their life."

"You haven't seen what I've seen, Ishikawa, the other realm of presence just past our minds. We always thought we were in this job for the money, thrills, and cybernetic parts. But we brushed against too many mysteries accented by an elegance that's almost planned. I think this is a chance to learn answers. Don't you want to know if there is a god, Ishikawa?" Motoko lifted the Machine from Martinez's hand and stared at her own distorted reflection. "Vocatvs atque non vocatvs deus aderit," she whispered.

Corrigan stepped into the room, and a menace casually filled the air. "You ask if God is present, Major Motoko," he said, "But with my own ears, I have heard you deny him. That would be a sin, Major. One that you may be held to account."

Martinez's eyes filled with dread at the sight of Corrigan. "That face," she screamed. "I have seen that face! He was one of the Almighty - the anger, the pain, the disappointment, the justice, and the wrath! He has come to judge me for tearing the veil asunder and gazing upon the Lord."

Motoko and Ishikawa raised their Seburos towards Corrigan. "Stay there, Corrigan," Motoko said. If he wasn't already dead, Corrigan would have been worried. Motoko's eyes glittered with malice and her McArthur/Homma matrix was loading a series of lethal attack variants into her cortex. She was prepared to kill him, perhaps she had anticipated it, but she wasn't prepared for the truth behind Corrigan.

Corrigan didn't motion to surrender. "I'm not your enemy, Major. I've only come here to see justice performed. Dr. Martinez is responsible for a terrible affront to human liberty. She tore the souls from 300,000 people and removed them from the grace of God. I don't expect you to understand. Both you and Ishikawa must realize Martinez must pay for her crimes. Believe me, you don't want to cross me on this." He slowly stepped forward, but barely made it a step before Motoko and Ishikawa unleashed a torrent of bullets. They barely affected him, and he continued to advance.

Motoko motioned to Ishikawa to stop firing. "How could you survive that," she asked Corrigan. "What are you?"

"Martinez is very close to the truth," Corrigan said. "I am, or was, a police officer murdered by gangsters in 1938. They put me a steel canister and filled it with concrete before tossing it into the river. I couldn't hear their scorn, but I could feel it. Feel it in every grain of concrete, in each gulp of water that filled my lungs as I gasped for air. All my life, I fought long and hard for justice - only to have it torn from me. Along with my life."

"Major," Ishikawa said. "This guy is full of it. Ghosts, real ones, don't exist. They can't exist. If anything, this is a tactile holograph - I've heard the Americans are working on the technology. Let's grab Martinez and get back to the Chief."

Ishikawa's suggestion was good, but it was far too late for Motoko to turn back now. She was on the precipice of something profound. "Okay," she said. "Why did you need Section Nine? You're a dead man's ghost. Why don't you do the decent thing and find a coffin and go spin in it?"

Corrigan stepped closer to Motoko. "When I died," Corrigan answered. "My soul went to heaven. But I was so enraged, I refused to be judged by the angels, until I saw justice - real justice - performed in the world." Motoko realized there was a lethal connotation to Corrigan's words. "So I was given a task to be God's justice and given power to see it done. Year's later, I learned that the power was actually the wrath of God - a power frightening in its avarice and desire for retribution."

Corrigan continued, "Now, this Spectre of anger hasn't seen eye to eye with me on occasion. It would have just swept in here and changed Martinez into something very breakable. Against ordinary criminals, that approach works pretty good, but if someone's got an ace up their sleeves we usually end up in a mess of trouble. Martinez's machine would have sucked up my soul and even I don't know what's in that gadget."

"We were just cannon fodder," Ishikawa said. He was flabbergasted. "For God, no less. Corrigan, take a message back to your big boss and tell him to clean up his own affairs. He shouldn't need us to do it."

"Einstein also refused to believe God placed dice with men, Ishikawa," Corrigan replied. "Trust me, he didn't win that argument in the afterlife." He pointed at Martinez. "Why don't you let me have Martinez and her Machine and I'll be on my way."

Motoko stood her ground and refused to give up the device. "Forget it Corrigan. You can have this Machine once I'm good and satisfied with your explanations. There are too many things about this world that I want to know. I've seen the supreme diversity and power of human destiny and this machine may play a part in it. Why have you been sent to retrieve it? Can you really see God in it?

"You've got the wrong prophet pegged, Motoko. I told you I don't know what's inside the damn thing. The Machine probably messes with your mind so much you could see elephants fly if you wanted it. Maybe its an electronic Tower of Babel. The Old Testament is filled with God striking down mortals who overstep their bounds. Maybe it's because Martinez is responsible for the death of 300,000 individuals. That's certainly enough circumstance for me and the Spectre."

She didn't believe his words. It may be that Corrigan was a foreigner - in a profound sense of the word, or because he seemed to lack conviction in his own answers - Motoko wasn't sure why she didn't believe him. These answers were like tin - convenient and disposable, but wholly insufficient for the ageless questions she was asking. "That's not enough," she said. "Why do YOU need this machine"

"Somethings are just acted on faith, Motoko. I wasn't told that I need the Machine. It's only a hunch. Call it a fundamental attraction between two supernatural poles. "

Motoko considered his words. They still seemed inadequate for this debate. The mission was supposed to be simple: the retrieval of a mad scientist and the acquisition of her equally mad device. But now she and her men were confronting a visitation from beyond and questioning the veracity of that visitation. Ishikawa wasn't much help. He was impatient to end this stalemate. "Okay, Corrigan. I'll give you the Machine, but only after I get to use it. Let me try to contact the divine. I want, maybe need, to know what is behind reality. What fuels humanity. Give me the chance to talk with the beyond."

Before Corrigan could answer, a man stepped confidently into the room. He displayed no fear as Motoko and Ishikawa pointed their weapons towards him. "Words are subject to interpretation, Major Kusanagi," he said. "And, as such, they cannot embody the absolute truth and authority of the Lord Almighty. The truth evades words. If you think you can converse with the infinite, you will be torn and shredded like paper before thunder. My name is Kulha Gangri, and I command the Lord's Thunder."

"Listen, Kulha," Corrigan said. "I recommend you take whatever's left of your buddies and hike it back home to Bhutan. I finished off the rest of your men in the store front, and I'm sure the Major and Ishikawa can eliminate you."

"Of that I have not doubts, American." Kulha looked them over - searching for a sign of weakness. He was sure Motoko and Ishikawa could kill him before he unholstered his weapon. Corrigan was an unknown quantity. It was true that contact had been lost with the storefront 15 minutes ago, but radio silence was a standard operating procedure when combatants were in close proximity. Kulha had thought his men had silenced themselves, but he was beginning to believe Corrigan's deadly words. If true, he would pay for their lives.

"You want answers, Major," Kulha said. "Well, I can give you some of them. One of our country's great icons is Guru Rimpoche, who traveled across the world subduing evil spirits and concealing his teachings and wisdom. These hidden treasures are known as termas and can only be found by tertons, or enlightened treasure hunters. It is said that Rimpoche had the ability to destroy the world's illusions and reveal the world as it really was. Before he ascended to the Buddha, he placed this power in the lightning and thunder that give my country its name. Martinez has accidentally tapped into that power. I am a terton and know this device to be one of the termas of Rimpoche. It should not belong in the hands of philistines."

"That's the biggest load of …" Ishikawa tried to say, but his ridicule was cut off by the sound of shattering glass from behind him. Another member of the Lord's Thunder had crawled down the outside wall to ambush Motoko and Ishikawa. A spark of lightning leapt from his hands and fell Ishikawa in one stroke. Kulha reached for his taser, but Motoko was still too quick and fired her weapon at him. He was forced to drop his taser as he jumped for cover.

Corrigan raised his hand in judgment before the terrorists. "Don't worry, Motoko," he said. "Now that the Machine is out of Martinez' hands I can act without fear." A deathly figure slowly coalesced around Corrigan.

"But I don't need my hands on it," Martinez quietly said, as a feeling of gravity swept over Corrigan and Motoko. A peculiar attraction pulled at them, not physically, but metaphorically. Their perceptions dragged until the room became a distant horizon. Motoko's body fell limp and Corrigan disappeared into the Machine. Martinez knelt to the floor and picked up the black box. Its black metal was cool to her face, and whispered to it in with a voice full of joy. "Thank you," she said.

She looked up at Kulha and his aide. "Is it true what you told them," she asked. Kulha drew a slim blade from his side and stuck it under Martinez's chin. "I made that stuff up you, bitch. But I'm telling you the truth when I say I think I'll kill you right now. Jigme and Lhengye were good patriots. They didn't deserve to be fed to your greedy appetite."

"You won't kill me," Martinez said. "You won't for the same reason the Major didn't - you want to see eternity too. That's why I sought your group out, because you appreciate the weapon of knowledge - the sacred instrument that reveals the world as the way it is. You want to see God and become transformed by the vision. You won't kill me because I'm the only one who can show you how to work it."

"Woman, I've lost several friends this day. You've cost us much. I want proof of your claims."

She seemed pleased. "Well, luckily we have two volunteers already in the machine. I can hook you up to the box and you can experience the rapture for yourself."

Kulha was pleased by this. He turned to the aide. "Lyonpo, kill the Section Nine bodies. If anything happens to me, kill Martinez too." Lyonpo nodded and turned to dispose of Ishikawa and Motoko. Meanwhile, Martinez attached a neural shunt into Kulha and, within a moment, they journeyed to the inquisition of Motoko and Corrigan.

***
Motoko awoke inside a small room sitting on a short wooden bench. The little light available came through the cracks of a door frame. To her left, she could make out a window covered with mesh. Something moved behind it. "Yes, my child," it said. The voice was masculine and, although not friendly, welcoming. "What sins have you come to witness before the Lord?"

Motoko gave no response and waited. She was unsure of what to say or do. These surroundings were totally incongruous with her mission. She attempted to access her Brain Dive, hoping that it would help her navigate through this illusory world, but it gave no response - as if it didn't exist.

"Child," the voice said. "I can't offer consultation without your participation. Let me assure you, plain speak and honesty are favored. The confessional is a place where the heart of the matter is revealed. Where our pain and misery are lifted so that we may clearly see our Lord. Speak up. What are your sins."

Motoko looked around her and found no weapons on her person. She even lacked her personal body armor. Martinez must have dragged her ghost out of her body and into the box. "This must be the ordeal the marines went through," she thought. "But there doesn't appear to be any threat."

The priest rapt on the screen. His face was weirdly lit by the dim light inside the confessional and made his visage imperfect and imprecise. "Young lady, your taciturn and stubborn nature are winning no awards. Rather, they are signs of an unrepentant sinner. I implore you - honesty and sacrifice are the hallmarks of a true spiritual soul. If you do not open up then I am forced to use stronger measures."

She heard the soft creak of weight leaving wood and the opening of a door in the adjacent room. A series of soft voices approached the confessional. The door flung open and she could see four men outside. They were Americans, and one was clearly the priest - dressed in white and black robes. The others were young to middle-aged men. Sharply dressed in deep browns and blacks - as if for a funeral. The three men reached into the cabinet and pulled her out.

Motoko responded with all available fury. She dislocated the arm of one assailant and crushed the nose of another. The third man was quick and avoided a kick that would have shattered his knee. Motoko easily blocked his punch and prepared to shatter his neck when one of the men grabbed her from behind. She was shocked to discovered it was the man whose arm was dislocated. His grip was impossibly tight for an arm that should have no strength. But the reality was it did have strength - enough to immobilize Motoko.

Once Motoko was helpless under the men, the priest stepped forward. "Quell your anger, young lady," he said. "Peace! Peace! We only want you to speak your sins and accept holy absolution. How can you let Christ into your heart when foulness grips it like a weed?"

One of the men whispered into Motoko's ear." I'm not going to fool you, lady. If you don't clean up your act right now you're going to Hell. I've got a one-way ticket in my back pocket."

The priest heard the comment and became quite incised. "Now, why'd you go and say that. It's not necessary to tell stories of Hades & fire." The priest leaned in close to Motoko. "Plus, this young woman is a fine soldier. She's been to war and probably seen more of hell than either you or me. She's got plenty of demons I bet." He licked his chops on the last line.

Motoko looked around her surroundings. She was in the rear of a Christian Church. The men held her near the middle of a long aisle, flanked by a hundred rows of wooden pews. Tinted light of reds, blues, and golds bounced through the room - coloring the hair of parishioners sitting among the pews. A plain marble altar stood stoically at the front of the aisle. Motoko was relieved to see no one she knew.

"Why would this Machine select a Christian church as a program template," she wondered. "This situation makes no sense - unless - this is all based on Martinez's delusions. She must believe this is the path to God. " She hoped they didn't pass around a collection box. "Where's Corrigan," she asked the priest.

He considered the question for a moment and looked over his parishioners. "I'm sorry, but we don't have any Corrigans here." He seemed genuinely sorry. "Perhaps, we've been going about this the wrong way. Tell us about your good works. Let us tally your virtues for St. Michael."

"I've been a very bad girl, boys," Motoko said. "Didn't you get the message with the broken nose?"

Her sarcastic comments filled the priest with consternation. "Gentlemen," he exclaimed. "If she won't voluntarily join the flock our only recourse is to save her from herself. Bring her to the altar." They dragged Motoko down the aisle. She yelled at the parishioners but not one person lifted their head - even the children ignored her cries. They placed her face down on the marble top and held her down.

Two doe-faced altar servers entered from the sacristy. One carried a muslin bag, and the other brought a tall, steel straw. The priest undid the ribbon holding the bag and uncovered two surgical knives. He blessed them. "This is the flesh of Major Motoko Kusanagi," the priest said. "Eat of it and you shall live forever."

Regardless of her screams and agony, the parishioners lined up before the priest and accepted small pieces of Motoko carved by the priest. She felt her legs sliced into fine fillets and watched as over a hundred mouths accepted her flesh. Each parishioner dutifully came before the priest and gladly accepted the bounty. As the line neared the end, the priest let his altar servers feed the lingering parishioners. He reached for the steel straw and placed its sharp end on her brow. "This is the blood of Major Motoko Kusanagi," the priest said. "Drink of it and you shall live forever."

But the straw would never find it's mark. Corrigan stepped out of the line and reached for the priest. "This perversion of a sacred rite ends here," he yelled - it was a promise and not a statement. Corrigan's fist become a mighty and pale club that knocked the priest over the altar. He stared at the three men holding Motoko until a ray of light broke through his eyes and turned them to rock. With a slight brush of his hands, the statues crumbled into dust - freeing Motoko. Corrigan lifted her into his arms, but then experienced a series of sharp pains in his back. He turned to find the cherub-like altar servers making six inch cuts into his body, but instead of slicing dead flesh these incisions hurt Corrigan. He used his powers again to fling the servers away, dash into the sacristy and close the door with waning strength.

Corrigan slumped against the massive wooden door and dropped Motoko to the ground. He reached behind his back and felt the wounds all prickly and sore. The knives had struck into his viscera and weakened him terribly. Motoko lay writhing in pain. It had been years since she had experienced extended nerve damage. Usually, she could shut down those areas in her cyborg body, but in this strange world the normal laws did not obey. But even here, nothing could stop her indomitable spirit, and slowly and methodically, she brought her essence under control. The pain eventually became a dull throb.

Motoko dragged herself to Corrigan's side and slapped him several times across the face. "You're a sloppy son-of-a-bitch, Corrigan," she said. "No wonder you needed nurse maids to tackle Martinez. You have a bad habit of getting stuck in the back - first by Martinez, and then by those kids. Did you think you were being smart when you drafted Section Nine for your dirty business? You're not smart enough."

"I just saved your soul back there, Major," Corrigan said. "Most people don't take that lightly. I would have been here sooner but Martinez had me in another church. It couldn't hold the Spectre, though. If I hadn't made it here in time, they would have cracked open your soul - like the other victims. This is all a bizarre masochistic ritual conceived by Martinez's disturbed mind."

"You're a useless detective, Corrigan. If you had figured this out earlier I would have eliminated Martinez on-sight." She sighed in disgust. They had come all this way for a mad woman's bizarre torture device. That was the secret of the Machine - torture, pain, and guilt. All the weights which drag on the human soul were concentrated within a six-sided box. It was pathetic really. Motoko had been distracted by the ancient promise of secret knowledge - of learning the hidden foundations of human consciousness. Instead, she found nothing more than the insecurities of a sad woman.

"What about your power," she asked Corrigan. "Can't you use it to get out of here? Or eliminate this papal nightmare?"

"I don't know. The Spectre is working funny here. Sometimes that happens when we enter a person's soul. They control the reality which leaves me defenseless to their attacks. Plus, I think my soul is susceptible to her device - her altar servers hurt me badly back there."

It was strange to see Corrigan so vulnerable. He had seemed alien and indestructible to Motoko earlier. She realized now that it was his arrogance - his presumption of being an agent of God - that made him appear invulnerable. "Do you know that you call yourself the Spectre sometimes? That's pretty odd, or is that some special distinction since your dead?

"No, that's because the Spectre is a separate being. It's a power on a fantastic scale, but a power with it's own thoughts and desires. It's gotten free once or twice in the past." Corrigan paused here and contemplated the crimes of the Spectre. "You've never seen malevolence on its scale. Nothing can compare to it. Everyone…everything is found wanting in its gaze. I've seen a whole country wither underneath its hands. Only when it's housed in a human soul can it be contained and directed."

Motoko carefully thought about Corrigan's words. "I have a way to get out of here," she said to Corrigan. "But you'll have to make a sacrifice. Martinez thinks this device rips open the human soul and reveals God. But that's a lie. She's so deluded that she only thinks she saw God. Like Kulha said, 'If you think you can converse with the infinite, you will be torn and shredded like paper before thunder.' I say we give her what she really wants. We give her God."

Corrigan began to think Motoko had gone insane from the pain. The suggestion made little sense to him. "How do you propose we do that. I can't call him up on the god-phone. I've only seen his emissaries."

"But you're an aspect of God or so you claim. Let the priest crack your soul open and unleashed the Spectre. We'll see if Martinez can withstand God's presence then."

The plan was good, and Corrigan was positive it would end only in death. Probably Motoko's. He considered telling her more about the Spectre's avarice - about trying to impress the severity of his wrath - but it seemed worthless. His duty was to end the threat of Martinez and her damnable machine. The Spectre would make certain of that.

It was difficult to stand up, but Corrigan was able to ignore the pain and open the heavy door. He voluntarily gave himself to priest and his parishioners. The three men lifted Motoko and brought her before the altar to watch. Corrigan was made of stern stuff and not even a whimpered escaped his lips as the priest carved into him. But the steel straw was his breaking point, and it's sharp point unleashed a flood of suffering that made Motoko ashamed. She expected armageddon but no demon or angry spirit escaped from Corrigan's brow. The only thing that came out was a dark, viscous fluid that was shared among each person in the church. They even brought a draught to Motoko and she dully sipped its contents.

It seemed hopeless now. Corrigan's shell was dumped to the side of the altar, and the priest began to eye Motoko with greed. The altar servers were close to her, and she was positive that she could grab the knives from them. The priest would fall first, and then the servers and her captors. If she was still up, she'd visit each of the parishioners and take back what was hers.

But this was not the end. The Priest suddenly clutched his stomach and cried in agony. In short order, the other members of the congregation joined him in a horrible chorus of pain. Motoko could feel something stir within her, too. It enflamed her innards, starting with her stomach and expanding outward. Finally, she could feel a tongue of flame flickered in her mouth, and as she gasped a tiny figure of a green and white escaped from within her. She stared at this curious man and looked into his eye's until they revealed the first and last judgment of mankind. Without warning, he called for his brethren, and then each person in the church exploded in fiery fury.

***
Batou had crawled through a quarter mile of sewage pipes to find Togusa mortally wounded, and the terrorists standing over the prone bodies of the Major and Ishikawa. The grenade had thrown him deep and far into the river, but his prowess and ability had saved his life yet again. He was tired, smelly, and mad as hell. Someone had to pay.

The first round of bullets swept through the room and demolished the terrorist aide with ease. Kulha reacted with a swift kick that dislodged Batou's Seburo from his hand. He followed with a punch into Batou's kidneys but the blow was blunted by Batou's armor.

Kulha's moves distinguished him as a professional and Batou knew he shouldn't waste time on him. He brought his knee in hard and fast into Kulha's groin - a sharp pop accented the blow. Batou followed it with a blow to the jaw that knocked the cerebral shunt out of Kulha's head. "No," Kulha yelled. "So close! So close to God!"

A sliver of light glinted off Batou's knife. "Give my regards," he said as his blade clove neatly through a joint in Kulha's armor and deep into his heart. Batuo withdrew the knife and dropped Kulha's body like rubbish. He walked over to Martinez and examined her. She had no pulse. Batou put his ear to her mouth and was startled to feel the burning smell of brimstone singe his cheek. He pulled back his face, but when he checked again the smell and heat were gone. There were no bullet marks or any abrasions on her. She was dead, and it seemed her 'ghost' had left her long ago.


Epilogue:

The funeral for Pumpkin and Tanaka was well attended by their families, friends, and comrades. The reception was helped in large part by the weather which was gray but not menacing or cold. Togusa was the only member of Section Nine unable to attend - he was recovering in the Collision Shop from his injuries - but he had already met with Tanaka's family and paid his respects to them. It was an unpleasant experience for him, and he stammered and stuttered as he tried to find consoling words. In the end, his wife provided the words that needed to be said. She knew the language of heartache that is the province of mothers.

The ceremony for the two soldiers was proper and noble. Ishikawa and Batou didn't stick around to talk with the guests. They were still recovering from a 12 hour love affair with half a dozen bottles of scotch. It was left to Aramaki and Motoko to see the final guests down the lifts of the six story mausoleum. The pair took a last look at the marble blocks festooned with flowers and wreaths. Aramaki took his one good hand, the other arm was sprained, and traced the jagged edges of Pumpkin's name. His fingers came back with slivers of marble. He cursed at it and said, "Motoko, take some samples to Intelligence. Make sure this marble's not the cheap stuff - I don't want the mausoleum staff to think they can swindle us. We paid good money."

Once Motoko took a small sample of the marble, she and Aramaki walked back to the lifts and took one down to the ground floor. Aramaki pulled a series of papers from his jacket and handed them to Motoko. "I'm denying your request to give Togusa Special "A" Rank."

Motoko took the canceled request, but didn't bother to read it. "You know I'm not Togusa's biggest fan, but he really pulled his weight on this mission. He took out more of the Lord's Thunder then Batou did. That new chip really took him to a whole new level."

"Yes, he killed many of the terrorists, but I don't judge my men by their body count. Togusa's problem is mental. He has the necessary skills and talent. He only lacks that instinct to be in the right place and right time - that you and the others have. Look at Batou. He gets blown into a river and almost covered by a ton of steel and concrete. Yet he still used the situation to his advantage and took out the principal opponents." A soft ping announced their arrival to the ground floor. The doors opened to a large, grieving family who immediately milled into the lift, forcing Motoko and Aramaki into the back. The doors abruptly closed, taking the pair hostage, and proceeded to the sixth floor. Aramaki turned to Motoko and said, "I have given Togusa several merits on his performance report. Those will help him earn that Special 'A" Rank. So don't think I didn't consider your recommendations."

The doors opened at the sixth floor and the family quickly left the lift. Motoko moved towards the control buttons, withdrew a small set tools, and removed the panel. Aramaki stood in front of the lift's door and discouraged people from entering until Motoko activated the "close door" command. Once the door shut, she overrode all other lift requests and forced it to take them back to the ground floor. "Why are these places always so difficult to get out of," she said. A gentle hum vibrated through the lift as it began its express trip.

"That's the nature of mausoleums - they want you to stay, not leave," Aramaki said. "Don't worry, you'll find out eventually."

"I hope that's for a good and long time, Chief. There are too many things I want to accomplish in this life."

"Well then, I hope you can be satisfied that some things are beyond your reach. I've denied your request to go into Martinez's machine." The doors of the lift opened as if to apostrophe Aramaki's point. Motoko reattached the control panel, and the pair walked to Motoko's waiting vehicle.

"I don't beg, Chief, but I am going to ask you to reconsider your decision. When I was in there, I was on the verge of reaching an otherworldly bridge between our world and whatever exists beyond it. Martinez may have been crazy, but her machine was really able to part the veils separating…"

Aramaki raised his good hand and abruptly stopped Motoko's speech. "Yes, Yes. I read it all in your report. - "the majesty of the fiery firmament beneath the seat of glory - the angels of holiness flying between the turning wheels - rivulets of fire, like gleaming bronze, flaming a radiance of many gorgeous colors, of marvelous pigments magnificiently mingled." It reminded me of those New Age, self-help books sold by former child stars. I also read how you closed you eyes at the final moment - when the priest and his congregation were immolated by 'the glory of the divine thunderbolt' that lived within Corrigan. I've tried to figure out why you did that."

They got into Motoko's vehicle and eased into the city's traffic. It was some time before she could answer Aramaki's question. "Fear. It's was simple as that. I was afraid of what I'd see - of what it would do to me. Of all the dangers I've faced, I've never encountered a creature that so embodied the unknown more than Corrigan. The divine has captivated humanity's attention for ages. First, it was embodied in magic, then religion, and finally science - but we've never honestly experienced it. I think we're just not built to."

"And you think this device is the necessary upgrade," Aramaki replied. "Firestarter God version 3.0?"

"Maybe."

"Major, there are answers to your questions, but that device won't give them to you. You want to know whether God exists, but forget that Corrigan was an aspect of God - as crazy as that sounds. Your report about what happened inside the machine seems to bear that out. Once the priest tapped into Corrigan's ghost, he unwittingly unleashed the fury of the Spectre. It killed Martinez in the end. I know what you want Major and its not that. You want secret knowledge and the power that comes with it. If you follow that path, I can guarantee you will end up like Martinez and those Bhutanese fools."

The words stung Motoko - more than she would ever admit. It was true. She wasn't after absolution or the promise of an afterlife. She was after the divine thuderbolt - the hidden power that could tear her enemies apart. It was intoxicating really. She didn't like knowing this about herself - it made her feel cheap and selfish. Was this what Corrigan went through when he received the Spectre force, she asked herself. Did he fool himself into thinking it was justice he wanted when it was really just the power to take revenge on his enemies? She would never know - Corrigan never returned from the machine. Motoko was too relieved to be back in her body to investigate his absence at the end of the mission. But there were clues. "Do you remember what Togusa said he saw in the emergency room," she asked Aramaki.

He snorted a brief laugh. "Yes. His report was almost as bad as yours. He claims that he saw a green and white figure appear above his gurney, and that the figure told him to relax - that the mechanics would bring Togusa back to life. I don't pay you or Togusa to be prophets. You're soldiers, and if you concentrate too much on the afterlife you're sure to end up there fast enough. Believe me, Motoko. There are reasons why we shouldn't learn what's beyond the pale."

Motoko and Aramaki pulled the vehicle alongside the edge of the Military Academy's training course. Batou was there screaming at a squad of soldiers. His head throbbed and his guts were on fire, but he was determined, more than ever, to train his recruits until they were perfect. There would be no more deaths like Tanaka and Pumpkin. He would work these men and drill the necessary skills into them even if it killed them. It was a vain and foolish wish really.

He forced them to crawl through oil traps or breath in sewage fumes. He used fear like a whip and pushed them past their own personal limits. It was a brutal thing with no breaks and no refreshment other than the soldiers' own sweat. But there was one moment, when a gentle breeze swept through the practice range, and it cooled the soldiers' brows and drowned out Batou's screams. It didn't smell like the city or the practice range. It carried a crisp smell of Autumn and blossoms. And it kept on blowing, until every single soldier knew that somewhere there was a god.

The End.

* Writer's Note - Jim Corrigan and the Spectre are properties owned by DC Comics. Ghost in the Shell, Major Motoko, Batuo, Aramaki, Ishikawa, Togusa, and the Puppeteer are all characters owned by Masamune Shirow.

 
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