Symbiota Sapiens 3


Synopsis: Jeremey finds himself inducted, against his will, into an ancient organization that claims to protect and guide humanity with supernatural powers. But what happens when the price of that power is losing the brother he loves?

Disclaimer: This is science fiction. To my knowledge there is no such organization as the Guardians of Atlantis. Nor is there any such technology as the Esseren, although our scientists are working hard to correct that lack. If anyone knows something to the contrary, I'd be happy to hear about it.

Disclaimer: Contains incestuous and homosexual relationships between consenting adults, references to quasi-vampiric sexual acts, and may eventually include graphical descriptions of sexual acts (between males). If you are offended by this sort of thing, please do not read this.

Disclaimer: The aforementioned sexual relations will not occur for a while. This is a "plot" story rather than a "sex" story. There will be sex because the main character is a healthy, good-looking young man with a healthy (if somewhat confused) libido. And also because part of the plot involves his developing relationship with his younger brother, who happens to also be healthy, georgeous, and blessed with a similarly active (but not quite so confused) libido. All sarcasm aside, sex is part of life so it'll happen in this story.

Now, enjoy the story...



by Dean (email me at

I arrived at the small apartment I shared with my little brother with some trepidation. Despite our differences in age (I'm twenty-two, he's eighteen) we've always been very close. Since our parents died, I've taken care of Julian, and I am all that he has left. How could these Guardians expect me to "see to" him and then abandon him forever?

True, my little brother can take care of himself well enough. He's already technically a sophomore in college, despite his age. They had him doing college courses in electronic engineering his last two years of highschool, he's that smart. And he's definitely a responsible person - I've seen to that. I have no doubt that he will be able to take our trust fund in hand and deal himself a bright financial future on his own. He can take care of himself physically as well - he took the Junior Hand-to-Hand Combat trophy for the East Coast last year, and that's a no- holds-barred tournament (no martial arts form-fighting there)!

But I was not willing to dismiss myself as such an unnecessary part of Julian's life. I was his big brother, and I'd always been there for him for more than just financial support. We'd always depended on each other, and I wasn't prepared to just disappear on him now - no matter what the Guardians had to say about the matter.

When I found him curled up on the recliner with the TV off, I knew I wasn't going to have time to think up anything at all. His eyes sprang open even as I stepped into the room, and without saying anything he silently interrogated me as to my whereabouts for the last twelve hours.

"Morning Julian. Eat yet?" I asked, stalling. He didn't buy it.

"What's up Jerome?"

"Uh, I guess we're gonna have to talk." I said lamely. He just nodded, waiting. The kid obviously wasn't going to make this any easier for me. I could see that he'd already noticed the strange clothes I was wearing - finely made stuff that we both knew were well outside our monthly budget.

I momentarily panicked, thinking of what else he might notice that was different about me? My mind raced with old horror movies and bits of mythology that I'd been exposed to. Were my eyes red? Did my reflection off the mirror on the door behind me look weird? Did I smell like the walking dead? Did I have fangs? My mind considered each of these horrible possibilities and discarded them in quick succession. Surely the others would have mentioned it if there were obvious clues to my transformation. For that matter, I wasn't aware of any changes in myself at all - so why should anyone else notice? My head was starting to pound.

"I...met someone." I finally told him. "Or, rather, some people. They did something to me." I sat heavily on the other armchair. "I'm not sure what it all means yet, but I think I have to go away."

Julian was suddenly alarmed. He jumped up straight in his seat.

"Go away? Who did you meet? What happened Jerome? Tell me what's going on!"

"I think...they turned me into a vampire." I told him. The pounding at my temples was intensifying, making it hard to concentrate. "At least, that's what it sounded like, with the blood and all."

Now he was moving toward me, his curiosity peaked. I should have known better than to mention "vampire" around him - he eats up Anne Rice novels like they're God's honest truth.

"A vampire? Really?"

"No!" I tell him, raising my hands defensively. I noticed that the motion was a bit vague, like I was drunk - and the cursed pounding in my head wasn't letting up a bit. "At least, I don't think so - but something like it."

"Tell me!" He said urgently, now standing at my side. His was tentatively pulling at my collar, looking for bite marks. "What happened?"

Words poured out of me without control.

"I don't remember most of it. I was at a club, and that guy I barely beat at track was there and he...well, we...or rather I...I mean...well it doesn't matter cuz I ran out of there, but then there was a light, and I was naked and there was a woman there. They said they were going to cure me of death, and gave me some kind of shot."

I said all this blearily, trying to ignore the pain.

"Then they said something about Atlantis, and little robots, and then there was a fireball and..."

But my words had been becoming more and more slurred as I spoke, and before I could finish, I was in darkness.

Julian. The sweet little boy with cherry lips and an open, infectious smile. He isn't smiling now. In fact, his face is streaked with unheeded tears. I watch him, as I've always watched over him.

His eyes refuse to look at the gleaming mahogany of our parents coffins. Side by side, lined up for inspection. His hand is limp and moist in my own, I give him what I hope is a comforting squeeze. He looks up at me and I sink into a pew so that he stands between my legs.

"Julian." My voice cracks. "I...I guess it's just you and me, now, bro."

His lip quivers as he bites back a sob. I hold on to his arms, squeezing just above the elbows. He can't speak. I put my hand to his chin and cradle his face, wipe the water from his cheek with my thumb.

"It's okay to cry. Julian? Hear me? You can cry. I'm crying." I pull his face into my shoulder and wrap my arms around him as his shoulders start to shake, and then we're both crying openly. Shamelessly. Dad always told us real men know when it's the time to cry. We cry and hold on to each other like we'll never let go.

"What are we gonna do, Jer? Mom and Dad are...gone?" His voice is muffled in my shirt. I turn my face into him and kiss his head roughly, speaking into his hair.

"We'll get by Julian, I swear it. I'll be eighteen in six months. I'll take care of you. Haven't I always taken care of you bro?"

He leans back and we're face to face. He sniffles, nods.

"Yeah Jer, you're the best brother ever. I'm so glad I've still got you."

"You'll always have me, little bro. I'm not letting go. Not ever." I hugged him fiercely to demonstrate.

"Never let go."

And I wouldn't.

When I awoke, I discovered that my kid brother had somehow wrestled me out of the recliner and onto my own bed, where he had apparently started to undress me until he came upon something more interesting among my new clothes.

I could see him in profile, his sinewy neck bent gracefully, his teeth worrying his bottom lip as he toyed with a small object that I recognized as one of the large brass buttons that had adorned the coat I'd been given.

Perhaps I shouldn't use the term toying, as the term doesn't really give justice to the kind of scrutiny he was putting that button through. He had donned the ridiculous magnifying goggles that he always wears to work on circuitry (my little bro is a whiz with electronics) and was poking and prying at the thing with his little probes like it was the most interesting little processor chip in the world.

"Julian?" I blinked hard a few times, trying to get a closer look at his operation on the button - which seemed irrationally important to me at the moment for some reason. "What are you doing to my button?"

"Jerome!" He started as if the captain of the legions of hell had just tapped him on the shoulder. He pulled off the goggles, blinked hard, then turned to find me observing his odd little surgery. "You've got to see what I found in your clothes!" He indicated the button on the desk with a flourish.

"It looks like a button, Julian." I groaned, sitting up gingerly. "Are you gonna tell me it's more than that?"

"Oh yeah, lots more than that." He said enthusiastically. "It's some kind of computer chip, I think for some kind of data storage, but I haven't figured out how to read it yet."

"Great." I moaned, "Then do you think you could find the time to get me some water?"

He motioned wordlessly at the glass already sitting at the bedside table and turned back to his newest project. I took the indicated glass and drank while he chattered away excitedly.

"This thing is what you've just got to call really, really cool - I mean like uber advanced microchip technology Jerome." He beckoned me to join him at the desk as he went on. "I'm not sure what it's for yet, I guess they had to have given it to you on purpose, right?"

My head was spinning, this was all happening too fast. "Uh, yeah." I said intelligently. "They left that coat and all the other clothes next to the bed I woke up in, so I guess so."

"Well, maybe this would make some sense to you, then." He said, and pulled my sleeve until I reluctantly hovered over the object on the desk as well. "Right here there's something printed really small - it says 'Esseren version 1403.0, a User's Guide for New Guardians' what's that supposed to mean?"

I sagged at this revelation, and thumped my brother's shoulder despairingly as I sat back down on the edge of my bed. "It's for me alright." I sighed. "It's the manual."

"The manual? Like, an operating manual?" He asked, excitedly. "So you were serious about robots, then?"

I only nodded, and he babbled on with implacable enthusiasm.

"Well, where are they? What can they do? How do you read the manual and start using them?"

"Julian." I said, and there must have been something really dreadful in my voice because the flow of babble ceased abruptly. "I think the robots are in me, in my blood."

"Oh-" was all he could get out. "The vampire thing, I almost forgot."

"Yeah." I said. We sat there for a minute, considering "the vampire thing" for a while. Finally he thought of another question.

"So, how are you going to work the manual?"

"I dunno." I told him, and thought for a minute longer. "I guess, these robots are in my blood already - doing whatever they do, right?"

"Sure." He said, uncomfortably.

"So, maybe the chip has to hook up with the robots somehow?"

"That makes sense." He said, pointing at something on the chip that was way too small for me to see without the super glasses he was wearing. "This thing has a little spring-loaded needle that shoots out the side when you touch it - I guess you were supposed to prick your finger on it by accident and read the manual."

"Well, if we're going to figure this out, I guess I have to be the guinea pig, right?" I gave him my best confident big-brother smile. I think it wobbled a bit. He took a deep breath and carefully picked up the chip with a pair of forceps.

"Ok, I'll poke you with it, and take it away really quick if anything scary starts happening to you, right?"

"Julian," I hesitated, my finger poised to press against the needle. "I think whatever is about to happen is probably going to be pretty scary no matter what."

"Yeah." He gulped. Then my finger was up against the smooth button, and I felt the tiniest little prick in my finger and suddenly I was somewhere else.

I was in a perfectly spherical room, the one round wall painted a uniformly disgusting shade of green, and accompanied by three old men in flowing robes and long white beards. "You can pull that button off my finger any time you're ready, Julian." I thought darkly, but I stayed right there in the room.

"Welcome, new brother." The men spoke in unison, which was quite unnecessary since I was already thoroughly weirded out by the room and their appearance anyway.

"What is this?"

"You have made your way into the Guide, where you will learn how to function properly with the Esseren you have been implanted with." They continued to chant in unison, a habit that I knew would become increasingly irritating the longer it went on.

"Am I going to have to drink blood?" I wanted to know that right away.

All three men frowned at me in disapproval.

"The time for questions has not yet arrived, young one. But no, you will not need to drink blood. You will need to keep your body nourished, however. The Esseren will keep you in good health, but they must have the materials to work with if this is to be done."

"Uh, th-thank you." I stammered, relieved that blood was not going to be an issue here. "What about-"

I was interrupted in my second question by the sudden prospect of all three men reaching towards me, their withered hands trembling as they grasped my arms.

"Now you must be introduced to the Symbiotic Web, which connects all the Esseren together inside your body and controls them." I suddenly became aware of billions of connections running throughout my body, countless streams of electrons transmitting information in what felt very much like a very complex and tangled web.

"You are now aware of the existence of the Web, but your mind has not yet connected to it." The creepy old men were becoming insistent now. "Reach out for the Web with your mind, connect yourself to the Esseren!"

So I did reach out towards the tiny threads of communications, following them until I came to thicker strands and then clumps and tangles until I had found what seemed to be the main nerve center of the whole network.

"Good, you have found where the Esseren prepare themselves to connect to your physical brain." The old men droned. "It is time to form the attachment, simply...reach out to them."

Even as they spoke I did reach out, and then my whole body felt like it was on fire! I was suddenly aware of the activities of the tiny robots all throughout my body. They were still repairing the damage I had done during the previous twenty-two years of life as a normal human being - cleaning out arteries, organs, and detoxifying my blood. Even so, they had found time to set up a complex network of substations and communication lines throughout my body, and were busy constructing various implants whose use I had no idea of. Yet as soon as I thought the question the answer was retrieved from somewhere and placed in my mind.

That oblong structure there was a detoxification plant, which would render any poisons or diseases impotent in my body. The odd latticework being constructed across the surfaces of my bones was a pure carbon support structure, which would make all my bones virtually unbreakable. And the round, flat structure being built inside my cranium, right up against my brain was a sort of transmitter (though not of radio waves) that would allow a kind of telepathic communication with others like myself! I quickly ensured that that device could not be activated unless I intended it to be before the old men interrupted my discoveries.

"Take note, the Esseren are capable of greater things than the working of these tiny wonders within your body - for with the Symbiotic Web they create great power of another kind - the power of a computer, to analyze, to process information and to find logical conclusions. This great power of the mind should be of great help to you in discovering new tasks for the Esseren to perform - to grant yourself ever greater physical Powers."

At this moment, I felt for just a fleeting fraction of a second a connection with this powerful computer - and for those few nanoseconds I felt my mind expand in a way that was quite indescribable - in this vast structure I could hold all the knowledge that is in all the libraries of the world! Yet the vastness of that power scared me far more than all the bizarre events of the past several hours ever could have, and I recoiled in shock.

I returned to myself to find my younger brother just pulling the button from my finger.

"Well, it took you long enough to decide I was having a bit of trouble!" I snapped at him. "Another fraction of a second and I'd be chewing my tongue and barking like a dog while I spat bloody froth at you!"

His wide-eyed concern took me aback, and I realized that he was still in exactly the same position he'd been in before the episode.

"I took it off right away, Jerome. Your eyes rolled back into your head as soon as it touched you and I pulled it right off!" He said anxiously. "It was on barely a second, what happened?"

"It was a bit longer than that, to me." I settled down some, and told him a bit of what had happened. "I guess it served it's purpose, I learned what I needed to know."

"So you can do it?" He asked.

"Do what?"

"Can you, you know, control all the little robots?"

"I guess I can. I mean, I'm not all that anxious to try it again." I told him a bit sourly. I was still a bit shaky from the whole episode.

"Well, see if you can!"

I nodded and took a deep breath. There in the back of my mind I could still feel the connection tickling me, and I carefully reached for it - and was back in that microscopic world again. I heard Julian's voice as if from very far away, trying to tell me something.

"Not so deep, man! Can't you do it without going comatose on me?"

I levered myself up and carefully tread a balance between the real world and the virtual one that spun about my body in a microscopic web. I nodded carefully, and raised my hand, palm facing the ceiling, between us. Taking another deep breath, I made my first attempt to actively control my new symbiotic friends. Working feverishly, the tiny robots began cutting carefully at the small blood vessels in my palm. In seconds, a perfectly circular ring of bruises was visible on my palm, the size of a quarter. I reset the robots to repair the damage and watched as the dark circle began to fade.

"Ok, so you can draw on yourself." Julian was obviously disappointed. "You've got to be able to do way cooler stuff than that!"

"Well, why don't we try healing?" I asked, bolstered by my ability to control the bruising. I picked up my folding knife from it's place on the bedside table. Carefully I cut a long, deep slash from elbow to wrist. I didn't even have to control the little robots, they were on that disaster instantly. We both watched as the slash quickly closed up and my skin knitted itself back together. The only evidence of damage was the bloodstain on my pant leg.

"Ok, that was pretty neat." Julian said at last. "So you can heal yourself really fast. Can these robots build any kind of machine inside your body?"

"I guess." I told him. "You just have to know how you want them built."

"Well, maybe we could install a flamethrower or something like that - something really flashy so you could really-"

"Julian." I interrupted him. "I think you're missing the idea here."

He froze, and I knew he hadn't missed a thing - he was just avoiding the topic. I said it anyway.

"This isn't a game. They want me to join their secret society full-time, with no family or friends to be brought along. I think they only let me go for now so I could make arrangements for you, put my house in order."

"So, what - you're going to leave, then?" He asked, and I was so proud of him that he could keep his voice steady. "This is goodbye?"

"I...I don't know." I said. "I don't see how I'm supposed to do this."

"Well, bro-" he swallowed hard, and then I saw his face harden as he set his jaw. "I guess the best thing we could do is fake your, you know, like you died. That way, then there'd be life insurance."


"Then, there's still the trust fund - if you disappeared I could go live with Aunt Erica. Or I could-"

"No." I said again, louder, and harder.

"Well, I can get a good job in electronics. That guy who judged my project practically offered me one last-"

"No!" I almost shouted it this time, and now he shut his mouth with a sharp click. "This is insane - they can't possibly expect me to just, just leave like this. I won't do it."

"But you might not have a choice!" Julian protested. "They might kidnap you, or I might have an accident so I'm out of the way! They're not going to just say 'Oh well, so you don't want to be a part of our exclusive and extremely secret club. Well, now that you've got all our secrets and gadgets and aren't interested I guess we'll just move on - have a nice life!' "

"Then we'll just have to make sure they don't get the opportunity to try anything." I said, my own jaw now set with stubborn determination. "Get your stuff, one suitcase, only what you need. We're gonna run for it."

The airport terminal was full of tired-looking businessmen in rumpled suits, ambling about like zombies on auto-pilot, their suitcases rolling along behind them. This was dead hour, just past three o'clock in the morning, and the only people who were wide-awake were the ones who'd just come from another time zone - and they'd get theirs when jet lag set in in a few hours. Rare exceptions to this dead hour rule of thumb were the habitual night-owls like Julian, who was as alert as can be. The other obvious exception to the rule would be vampires like me, or Guardians if you please, who (as I was finding out) do not need regular sleep - just the occasional fainting spell now and then, hopefully only necessary to repair severe trauma.

Despite the benefit of the rapidly spreading Esseren, I was envious of Julian. Not so much his alertness at this most ungodly hour, I was fine there myself - thank you robotic parasites! What I envied was his nonchalant, even adventurous attitude about the whole thing.

I didn't know what lay in store for me if we were caught trying to sneak away like this - it was possible that I'd be deemed unstable and killed, but what our pursuers (if they realized we were gone yet) really wanted was for me to join them. Julian's fate was more likely to be something really bad if we were caught. He was in the way - something that was preventing me from doing what they wanted me to do. I had no expectation that they would hesitate to get rid of him if it suited them to do so. But there he was, grinning like an idiot, off on a big adventure.

We carefully made our way to the appropriate line, me carrying the duffel bag that held a change of clothes for each of us and Julian clutching his laptop case as if it held the crown jewels. Several minutes later, after the necessary formalities with the x-ray machine and the wooden sticks had been completed, we were on the plane waiting for takeoff.

Julian was peeking excitely out the window like a little kid. I realized he'd never been on a plane before. Too expensive. The insurance money our parents left gave us a decent living, handled in a trust for us - but I'd always been tightfisted, fearing to splurge and get into debt. Watching my brother's innocent enjoyment of the pre-flight rituals I felt a surge of guilt. We could have gotten out more. I should have made sure he got to experience more of the thrills of life. I turned to him with a smile.

"Enjoying yourself, bro?"

He caught me watching him and ducked his head in embarrassment, turning his eyes from the window with a visible exercise of will.

"It's okay to look, it's your first flight, dude. Takeoff is a real rush."

His face lit up with a trademark grin and he turned back to ogling the window. Moments later the cabin lights dimmed, the engines screamed, and we were pushed back in our seats by the acceleration of takeoff. Julian's head was glued to the window until we leveled off.

"Oh wow, this is really cool, Jer. I can't believe we're really flying!" he enthused.

"We're flying." I informed him.

He squinted at me in mock distrust.

"So you say."

"Don't believe me? Look out the window."

He grinned and turned back to the window. Couldn't possibly see much, it was the middle of the night. I watched him as he watched the lights below.

I never get tired of watching him. I've practically raised him the last few years, and even before that he was always like my shadow. Now it was like looking at a younger version of myself, almost. And I loved to look.

My little bro is beautiful. He's an athlete like me, lean and hard and densely packed with explosive strength from his fight training. But his face is delicate and...sweet. As he peers out the window I trace the curve of his jaw with my eyes momentarily.

My bro is going to grow up to look almost exactly like me. I feel so gifted. I've never felt burdened taking care of him, more like honored. Maybe a bit scared I'll screw up. But the way he idolizes me...well, I idolize him the same way. There's no way in hell I'd give him up for some cult left over from Atlantis. We'd beat them, somehow.

I left off staring at my brother and closed my eyes to think. Something in the back of my mind told me that our little escape had been accomplished far too easily, surely initiates had tried things like this before.

But even as I thought this, a few other things occurred to me as well. The last convert these people had made was Lance, who was apparently a master of the harpsichord. That would put him somewhere in the 17th or 18th century when they made him one of them - well before mass transit and human flight became the norm. What would a man do to run away then? Probably jump astride the fastest horse he could find and ride all night. But now I could just jump on an airplane and be on the other side of the world in less than a day! Could it be that easy?

These comforting thoughts soothed me to a half-wakened state, in which I found myself cradled by the Symbiotic Web that was now nearly completed. There were a number of implants and subsystems waiting to be activated. Carefully, I looked at each one and activated them in turn. Enhanced Vision allowed me to see much more than the usual visual spectrum - and even allowed me to zoom in on things and enhance them for a better look. It was while I was playing around with this new toy that I noticed something peculiar about the woman sitting across the aisle from me. In the X-ray band I noticed a number of metallic objects scattered throughout her body. Zooming in, I found myself looking not at the metallic plates and splints I had anticipated, but rather at a set of fully functional implants - similar to those I had observed working in my own body from the inside!

My back stiffened in shock - so we had not gotten away after all! They had someone on the plane right now - watching us! I peeked back over at the woman. She didn't seem to be watching at all - she an old lady sleeping on the plane. And why not? We certainly weren't going anywhere for a while - I might survive jumping out without a parachute but Julian sure couldn't. Still, she hadn't seemed at all aware of us so far, and hadn't made any move to prevent us from getting on the plane.

Horrified at the trap I'd led us into, I hurriedly searched everyone else in the passenger cabin for implants - nobody else was here. But why the old woman? I decided to take a gamble, and activated the transmitting device that had been completed in my cranium. I watched the old woman jerk awake with surprise as I signaled her through the similar device in her head. I immediately felt a stab of pain in my temples as what must have been some kind of defensive reflex hit me back.

Her eyes rolled wildly, looking around at the other passengers in search of the source of that unexpected contact until her eyes caught the involuntary movement of my hand to cradle my aching head. So she hadn't even been aware of us at all. I watched her face sag momentarily as she relaxed back into her own Symbiotic Web and responded to my contact.

::Apologies, young one. You startled me. I had not thought that there were others on this plane.::

:Forgive me, I did not mean to wake you. It is only, I wondered if you had been sent to watch us.:

::To watch you? Why would the Guardians wish to watch one of their own? Only, you are not quite one of their own, yet, are you?::


::I can feel your anxiety over the link (Here I caught an impression of kindly concern over the link), you should be careful to guard your feelings when speaking this way, young one. Are you running away, then?::

:Of course not, why should I be- Well, is this common then? For new initiates to run away?:

::Very few do not, at first. (A hint of amusement) There are few who are willing to give up all that they hold dear in exchange for a life they did not ask for.::

:And they would have me leave my child brother on the streets. (Bitterly) How could I not run?:

::That is the way of it, indeed. (plaintively) My husband was on his deathbed when they came for me, the Black Plague, they called it - most terrible.::

:And you left him?:

::Not at all. (Grimly) I put an end to his pain before I left.::

:You killed him?:

::I put a pillow over his face and sat on it until he stopped moving. It was mercy, he would have struggled with the Plague for days...I saw what the others went through and decided - not for him, not for my husband, not ever.::

I recoiled momentarily from the link, and my gasp caught Julian's attention.

"What?" He asked, "What's wrong, Jerome?"

The old woman across from me eyed us complacently as she sent.

::You'll do the same for him, eventually.::


::You'll have to - eventually he'll be an old man on his deathbed. You'll be the same as you are now. You think he wouldn't notice if you didn't age? Oh! He knows now, doesn't told him everything, poor fool. It's always a bad idea to tell them, just makes things harder later on, you know.::

:I won't go back, we'll get away where they can't find us!:

::Oh, don't worry, they won't chase you. (ironic chuckle) You'll come back on your own, looking for them. That's how it always is. Some take a little longer than others, maybe it'll be after your little child brother there breathes his last and surrenders to the ash like they all eventually do (conspiratorial wink) but eventually you'll come seeking out your own kind.::

With a shudder, I snapped the link shut and glared at the old woman momentarily. She didn't move. I turned my back on her and faced my younger brother.

"Is that woman one of them?" The perceptive kid hadn't missed the exchange, even though he hadn't been party to the telepathic part.

"Yeah," I drew a shaky breath. "But she's twisted, evil somehow...I don't know. But she said they won't be chasing after us."

"Are you sure you can believe her?" Julian wanted to know.

"I think so. She said they'll wait for me to come back on my own."

Julian was silent for a long moment before he replied.

"I think that's scarier." He finally said.

"Yeah, me too." I agreed.