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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 2

Written by mechjok :: [Sunday, 17 May 2020 18:03] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 23 May 2020 18:17]

Last of the Fallen

She cuddled up against him while they ate. Alec tried to ignore it, thinking it was some kind of reflex. Besides, she was extremely beautiful; her weight against him was comfortable, gentle, not demanding in any way.

The talk was light. For someone who was as isolated as she tried to be, she was remarkably well-informed about what was going on in the world. He deliberately steered away from Afghanistan when she brought it up, started in on the end of the baseball season. His sense of her had proven correct- she was bright, witty, charming as hell, the perfect conversationalist and companion.

She finished her salad, excused herself to powder her nose, Alec scooping up the check and walking to the front of the diner.

"Hey, soldier-boy," one of the drivers called. "Your little lady drop you and run?"

Alec ignored him, paying the tab, leaving Carmen a nice tip, turned to leave. Six hundred pounds of hair and body odor blocked the door.

"Asked you a question, boy," the first man stood, beefy arms and a barrel chest stretching his denim work shirt at the seams. "Ain't polite to ignore a friendly question."

Alec nodded. "Of course not. I apologize."

One of the men at the door shook his head. "Don't look like no soldier I ever saw, Red. I betcha he's one of the ROTC brats, probably pushes paper at the motor pool."

The man standing next to his pal nodded. "Bet yer right, Buck. Whatcha do in the Rangers, soldier-boy? Sling hash or shine shoes?"

Alec smiled back. "Counterintelligence, actually. My secondary OS is urban warfare."

They all chuckled. "Really?" Red said, sidling up next to him. "And what's that mean?"

"Mostly that if you guys don't back off, I'm going to put the four of you in Intensive Care."

Buck's chuckle died in his throat. He swallowed, backed off a half-step, looked uneasily at Red and the others. Red was easing away when Julia came out of the bathroom, gave Alec a peck on the cheek.

"Ready, darling?" she asked, surveying the four drivers.

Alec dug in his pocket, fished out a fifty, tossed it to the cashier. "Lunch for my friends here. On me. Let's go, dear."

He led her through the men, held the door for her, closed it firmly behind them. By the time they pulled out of the lot, the diner was back to normal.

"Sorry about that back there," he said, keeping his eyes on the highway. "Guess they grow them a bit rough out here."

"You didn't do anything," she replied, settling herself in the seat. "I'm just glad they backed off when they did. I wouldn't have wanted to hurt them, but they weren't giving me a whole lot of choices."

He did a double-take. "That's usually my line."

She chuckled. "I imagine so. Tell me, are you married?"

"You don't beat around the bush, do you?" he replied. "No, I'm not. My occupation leaves little time for romance."

"Hmh." she thought that over briefly. "But no vow of celibacy, or anything foolish like that?"

His jaw sagged a bit. "Doctor, are you flirting with me?"

Another chuckle. "Maybe a bit. And you haven't answered my question."

He eyed her sideways. "I'm not sure I should."

This time she laughed. "Oh, come now. A big, strong warrior like yourself? Afraid of little, tiny me? Don't be absurd."

"One of the oldest sayings in the Order is beware of small packages; disaster looms within. I think I finally understand what that means."

Julia reached over, taking the hand that rested on the armrest, twined her fingers in his. He swallowed, hard, kept his attention on the road. Her gentle flirting was like taking a shot between the eyes. Her pheromone output, already exceptional, shot way up, made worse by the close confines of the car. She overpowered his muting ability, making it more difficult to concentrate. Plus controlling… other things.

They hit the Helena city limits an hour later, Alec taking the airport exit. Twenty minutes later they were walking towards the concourse area, Alec dropping off the keys with the same Hertz agent he'd talked to that morning. She saw Julia and her face fell.

"I think you ruined that poor girl's day," he muttered, leading her towards the ticket counters. "Oh, by the way, here. You might need these."

He handed over a stack of laminated plastic cards. Driver's license, Social Security card, credit cards, an AMA Membership Card all identifying her as Dr. Julia Collins nee Brooks, board certified in general and family medicine. The copies were completely flawless, down to the hologram on the California license; even she couldn't tell they were forgeries.

"My, you are handy to have around, aren't you?" she leaned a bit closer, pausing to change the contents of her wallet. Alec took the originals, slid them in his weapons case. He looked back up at her, smiling.

"Worked great for beer runs in college," he replied. "C'mon, Delta's over here."

He tensed several times in line, trying to look relaxed. But ever since a warm morning two months ago, the entire world had turned upside down. With what he knew was happening now, he wondered if the world would ever be the same again.

The ticket agent confirmed their identities, passed them through with no fuss whatsoever. The baggage inspectors barely looked, allowing the two of them to get to the concourse restaurant well ahead of schedule.

"Great," he muttered, looking over the espresso list. "An hour and a half in an airport. That's like being in Hell. And I can't even drink coffee."

Julia sat down next to him. "Why not?"

He turned red, looked at the table. "I hate to fly."

"Excuse me?"

He ground his teeth together. "I said, I hate to fly. The bigger the plane, the worse it gets. And if I drink a lot of caffeine before I get on a plane, I'm afraid I might do something stupid, like melt all the bolts in the wings or something."

Julia cupped her hands around her chin, fixing him with her big green eyes. "What is it exactly that you do? I've seen some of it, but I doubt that was it. You strike me as very capable; why do you need me?"

"That's complicated," he doodled with his fingers on the table, staring at the formica. "Me is pretty easy. Telekinesis, telepathy, telemechanics, energy control, some abilities to control matter. In broad strokes, that's about it.

"As far as why the Order sent me to find you, I really have no idea. If I had to guess, I would imagine it has something to do with our limitations. I can do lots of nifty parlor tricks, but at the core, I'm still basically human. I get tired. I have to eat. I bleed, and I need to breathe. If I push myself too far, I could burn my abilities out, along with a good portion of my brain."

He looked up, met her gaze. "We hacked into GeneTech's records, took a look at the preliminary work you did on your… formula. According to that, none of the above applies to you. You can run full out until you run out of ground. You're effectively invulnerable. Your need to eat, sleep, breathe, all of that, is far more limited than mine. Your physical strength is incredible. I'll bet your senses have been enhanced. Lots of other things, like that trick with the pheromones."

"Oh, my, you did do your research, didn't you?" she looked down. "Your scientists find some way to spoof it?"

"No, that's actually me," he sighed, leaned back. "It's a by-product of my telepathic skills. My mind's really hard to tamper with, even subconsciously. Besides, I hardly need pheromones to be attracted to you."

"Really," she replied, eyes still lowered. Before she could say anything more, he kept talking.

"Sure. Most of the time I have trouble finding people to have an intelligent conversation with. You're easy to talk to. That's getting more and more rare. And you're a damn sight smarter than I am. Last person I met smarter'n me was eighty years old and a Jesuit priest. Which is sad, 'cause I'm not that smart."

He glanced around. "Hey, you want a latte or something? I'm gonna get a muffin."

Alec got up before she could answer, striding off to the espresso cart. He returned a few minutes later with a mocha and a blueberry muffin. He set the cup in front of her, sat back down. "You want half?"

She shook her head, took a sip. It tasted wonderful; mochas were an almost-forgotten vice. "How did you know I liked mochas?"

He smiled, tapped his forehead. "I read minds."

The plane took off on time, both of them in first class, Alec's knuckles white before the gear was up. He was sweating before they leveled off, her hearing telling her his heart was pumping painfully hard. She set her glass of champagne down, took his hand, massaged it in hers.

"Relax," she soothed, her fingers linking with his. "Flying is very safe."

He nodded, eyes glazed. "Unless you hit a bird. Or a mountain. This is like traveling in a cigar box. There's no room to move, no room to fight if it comes to that. I'm safer out on the wing where I can bounce around."

Julia took hold of his chin, steered his face around to hers. "Can you lower your mental control? The thing that keeps you from being manipulated?"

"Yeah," he was slick-cheeked, a marathon runner reaching his limit.

"Then do it. I'll handle the rest."

He swallowed, relaxed, took in a deep breath. She suddenly smelled his scent: a husky smell overlaid with a semi-sweet odor, like the forest in the spring. His eyes slowly relaxed, his breathing normalized, his lips taking on a wry twist.

"Great," he mumbled, just loud enough so she could hear him. "Now I'm horny and terrified. Life just keeps getting better."

Julia smiled shyly. So. She did have an effect on him, when he relaxed enough to admit it. Always nice to know.

They landed two hours later. Alec resisted the urge to race from the plane, calmly collecting both his and Julia's bags, and his weapons case. His stride was noticeably quick from the plane, the young man finally settling down once he was on the jet way, then the concourse.

Julia caught up with him at the gate, his brow furrowed in thought. He set his bag down, fished out his cell-comm, flipped it open. Nothing but static. He punched up the alternate frequency; still static.

His eyes swept the gate area, finding nothing. Julia noticed his expression, laid a hand on his shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"I can't get through to the office," he put his comm back on his belt. "Come on. We need to get over there."

He lifted the bags, took off. Julia had to quicken her stride to catch up, her hand folding in his, slowing him down.

"You can't run through the airport," she murmured, easing beside him. "Unless you want those gentlemen with the big guns to start shooting at you."

They walked past an armed Guardsman, Alec nodding slowly. "Then walk. Quickly."

He led her past a glass observation wall, the runways in wide-open view. He glanced around reflexively, stopped cold. A flock of specks were skirting the rooftops, swinging their way. He risked a delve…

The balloon went up. Spheres of energy formed around the specks, lancing at the airport. He yanked Julia to the floor, covered her with his own body as the windows exploded in front of them. He reached out with his mind- a second series of explosions, a crackle of an endless string of firecrackers. Razor sharp shards popped into pebble-sized pellets, showering the carpet with a sea of clear beads. All before the screaming started.

Alec rolled off of her, literally dove out the window. Julia bounded after him, taking the thirty foot drop on slightly bent knees. Alec was behind her, under the concourse, stripping his jacket and shirt off, already clapping his utility belt on, gold metal flooding over his head.

"Welcome to the war, Doctor," he said, blacks swarming over his body. "Kaldec fliers. At least eight. Guess I know why nobody answered."

He opened his weapons case, pulled the wicked length of a plasma rifle out, jacked the charging handle. "I'll drive them to the ground. We can't fight them in the air. Once they're on our turf, we can handle them."

The front of his helmet hissed open, his hazel eyes very serious. "This is kill or be killed, Julia. These aren't men, the Kaldec are monsters. If we don't stop them, they'll kill everyone in this airport, everyone in this city. In or out. Right now."

"In," she said forcefully, surprising both of them.

He nodded, helmet sliding closed. "Then let's go."

He sprinted out from cover, hopped on to a deserted baggage cart, raised the rifle to his shoulder, opened fire.

Distant thunder scored a hit. Alec ripped off four more shots, hit two more targets, the rest swooping lower to the ground. He racked his rifle, pulled his tacglove off his belt, sent the metal coating his arm.

"Freeze!" a voice bellowed. Julia glanced over her shoulder, seven National Guardsmen aiming their weapons at the two of them. "Drop your weapons, put your hands on your heads!"

Alec pointed his shield-armed hand at them: all seven toppled backward, dropping noiselessly. He leapt from the cart, Julia loping along beside him.

Don't worry, his voice in her mind made her miss a step; she caught herself, caught back up. Sorry. I only put them to sleep.

The flyers roared over the fenceline, sixty feet above the ground. Twelve meters long, shaped like some nightmare bird-of-prey, the color of molded fruit. Julia sped past Alec, bounded up to drive her fist against the lead ship.

The front third collapsed under her blow, the dull thud of a watermelon hit with a sledgehammer. It spun wildly, flipping end over end, clipping another flier, sending both spiraling against an empty 737.

Alec goggled under his helmet. If she hadn't impressed him before, that sure as hell did it.

He drew his warlance, setting the metal ablaze, spun it one handed, heaved it towards a flier in mid-turn. His lance rocketed straight up, plowed through the fuselage, making the flier explode before it finished coming around.

Julia was a blur on the tarmac, angling towards what was left of the '37. Alec sprinted the other way, caught his warlance on the fly, picked a spot in the middle of a runway.

The two fliers came around hard and low, pulses of light searing at Alec's whirling lance. He caught or blocked most of them, pulsed asphalt spattering his armor. He lobbed a few shots their way, making sure to keep them coming…

The tail of a 737 flew across the runway, laser-straight, slamming right on through both fliers. The tail hit the grassy infield two hundred meters further on, skidded to rest before crushing the fence.

Wow, Alec dropped his hands weakly, staring. Now that… that was cool…

He shook himself, raced back to where their bags were. He scooped them up on the fly, dashed towards the parking lot. He unlocked his car from a hundred meters, starting the engine up, rolling down the windows.

A backblast of air washed over him. He staggered a half-step, recovered, Julia slowing from blur to woman next to his car. He waved her in, threw their bags in the back seat, slipped the car into gear and backed out before he even jumped behind the wheel.

His helmet flowed off, along with his tacglove, Alec jamming the accelerator through the floorboards. They squealed around the lot, a narrow look blowing the parking gate apart, Alec not even slowing as he whipped on to the freeway.

"Buckle up," he muttered, pulling his comm out of the dash. He picked his way through traffic like a NASCAR champ, coaxing more speed out of the car, passing ninety and still speeding up. Cars flashed past, Alec barely even glancing up, until he had his comm in place.

"Arwyn, come in," he called, flicking switches with his right hand. "Toshiro, answer. Come on, anybody! Archangel to anyone, respond, damn it!"

He shot between two semis, making Julia wince, hit one-ten and kept pushing. He yanked his comm off. "Computer, establish vidlink to safehouse."

"Unable to comply," the voice came out of the CD player. "Comm system down."

"Tie in to exterior sensors. Give me a spectral analysis, full scan."

The windshield came alive with a holographic image. Alec's eyes swept it; he slammed his hand down on the armrest, gunned the engine. They actually sped up, the speedometer needle topping out.

"Plot straight line course to safehouse," he snarled, his helmet flowing back up his neck. "Display."

He shot across three lanes of traffic, accelerating towards a curve in the freeway…

The front of the car hit something invisible, jumped the concrete barrier, coming down sharply on a mostly deserted street. The wheels touched the pavement, digging in and sending them forward without the expected crash, Alec's face hidden by the helmet. He spun them around a corner, raced ten blocks, squealed to a stop outside an abandoned warehouse.

"This is it?" Julia stepped out of the car, looking the building over. "I think I expected something a little more… modern…?"

Alec swung his weapons case out, fitted the grenade launcher on his back, slung his plasma rifle. "This is the back door. Come on."

He led her to the loading dock, the door opening at his approach. He went inside, turned around a partition, put his hand on a blank panel. A light flared under his palm, but nothing else happened.

Alec started to bring the plasma rifle around; Julia stepped past him, set her hands on the edge of the jamb. She curled her nails into the crack, metal squealing away from her fingers, until she'd pried the steel back enough to wedge her palm in the seam. She dropped one hand, set her feet, gave the door a good tug.

The door tore right out of the wall, showering concrete across the floor. Most of the steel frame came along with it, Julia tossing the mangled steel aside. Alec swallowed, hurried past her, peering down the shaft. He simply stepped off the ledge, vanishing down the shaft.

Julia waited for a crash, didn't hear one, jumped after him.

She fell a good sixty meters before an arm flashed out, grabbed her waist, snatched her from free-fall. Alec swung her to one side of the shaft, hooking her feet into a set of steel rungs running the length of the concrete. He pressed his finger gently on her lips, let her go, dropped further down, grabbing the elevator cable seven feet above a car roof.

He slid down, utterly silent, placing his feet carefully, unlatching the roof access panel without a sound. He eased his head in to the opening, slithered after, vanished again. Less than a minute later, his hand popped through the opening, waved her down.

She slid down the cable, trying to watch her feet, make as little noise as possible. She regretted her choice of footwear immediately; once she landed on the elevator floor, she sat down, pulled her boots off, tossed them aside.

The corridor outside the elevator was a stainless steel, curved tube, the walls meshing seamlessly with the floor with only a slight corner. The lights were out, pitching the entire area in black, her enhanced eyes only able to pick out very faint lines of heat along the top of the tube.

Can you see? his voice brushed her mind. She shook her head; Alec came out of the darkness, pulled a device out of his belt. He brushed her hair back from her right ear, set the tiny earclip on, tapped the side.

A clear piece of… something… flipped in front of her eye. Immediately the tunnel lit up, a somewhat red-tinged image, but easily clear enough to see. Alec ranged in front of her, stopped at a corner twenty meters ahead, motioned her forward.

Her feet were silent on the steel, her soles rising and falling with the barest hint of noise. Alec waited until she caught up, placed his unarmored right hand on her forehead.

She felt a gentle push, then his voice soft in her mind. This is a telelink. Just think like you're going to talk, and I'll hear you. Okay?

Okay. She felt a little mental smile, Alec bobbing a quick nod.

Stay close. The auto-defenses might be offline, but I don't want to take any chances. There's an armory down this hall, we can get you set up.

Alec drifted down the hall, head swiveling back and forth. Halfway down, his hand found a recessed panel, pushed it hard. A door slid open, Alec motioning her in.

Lights came on as soon as the door slid shut, Alec tugging his helmet off and setting it on a table. Panels along the walls rolled over, displaying all manner of weapons. Featureless cabinets below a high counter opened, racks of different colored balls sliding in to view.

He pulled a weapons case off the wall, crouched down to fill it. He reached up, snatched a black sphere and two marbled ones off a rack, tossed them to Julia.

"Rub the black one between your palms. Once you're covered, put each of the others under a foot and step on it," he pulled a row of stubby weapons off the wall, packed them away, reached for a line of glowing tubes.

Julia complied. The sphere spread up her arms, eating her clothes off, coating her body in the same body-hugging glove Alec wore. She stepped on the other two spheres, a pair of flat-heeled boots covering her legs to the knee.

Alec didn't look up from his work. "It's a single-chain carbon molecule, with a very simple computer system built in. It'll keep you clean, offer some protection, mostly it won't shred when you get in a fight. Keep you decent, if nothing else."

He finished packing the case, turned around. His eyes went wide, his jaw sagged. The blacks clung as snugly as a second skin, her amazing body on full display. One word came out of his mouth. "Whoa."

Julia smiled.

Alec tossed his head, stumbled past her, pulled a flat rectangular machine off the wall. He clicked it against the bottom of the weapons case, pulled an orange sphere from the rack, set it in front of the two cases.

"Harness," he said quietly. Tendrils looped out, melding with the case, making armloops. Alec dropped the grenade launcher off his back, slipped the new backpack on. Immediately the loops curled together, hardening into a metal harness, leaving his arms free.

He stepped back around her, mumbling an apology, tugged a set of components off the wall, began assembling them. "Do you want a helmet?"

"No, I need to be able to see," she replied. "That bucket of yours just blocks everything."

"But…" he sighed. "Never mind. Here."

He tossed her a brass colored ball. She squeezed it, a thick bracer covering her right wrist. "Comm link, mobile computer, homing device. It patches into the HUD on your eye."

He finished his weapon, loaded the cylindrical magazine with a bunch of silver spheres from a shelf on the wall. He held it up. "Thermal grenade launcher. If I aim it at anything, run the other way. Really, really fast. Okay?"

She nodded.

"Command is down this corridor to the right, then left three junctions down. I need you to cover me while I get into the computer, find out what's going on," he slid his helmet back on, sealed it. "Once we get the sitrep, we get the hell outta here."

Her ears perked up. "You don't by chance have a furnace down here, do you?"

"Lights off!" he hissed. The room went black, Alec reaching for a hemisphered red ball. He flattened against the wall next to the door, flicked it open, tossed the ball out. Electricity danced around the jamb, arced up into the recessed lighting, followed by a heavy boom.

"So much for sneaking around," Alec grabbed the grenade launcher and his plasma rifle, ran out the door. Julia followed, hopping over a blocky wheeled shape in the corridor.

"What was that?" she matched his stride, Alec slinging his plasma rifle over a shoulder.

"One of the guard 'bots. One of the little ones," he dashed past a junction, sweeping the launcher to cover, turned back forward. "Without knowing what's going on, no sense in taking chances."

She caught the slap of rubber on steel, a faint clank. A huge shape raced out of the tunnel in front of them, hugging the ceiling. Pulses of light flared from two spinning weapons on it's torso, spattering into Julia's chest. She covered her face reflexively, Alec diving forward.

The robot ignored him, it's attention totally on Julia. It raced down the tunnel wall, blunt wedges swinging off it's back, settling to it's shoulders. Arcs of lightning blasted into Julia's stomach, sending her flying backwards. She got her palm down, backflipped to her feet, dug in.

"Julia!" Alec twisted on one knee, bringing his launcher up.

"GO!" she shouted, ignoring more energy pulses. "I have you covered!"

He lowered his weapon and ran.

The robot was spiraling up the tunnel towards the ceiling. Julia flexed her knees, leapt up, slammed her fist into the middle of the chest.

One punch tore it in half. The upper body crashed to the floor, Julia landing on top of it. She ground her heel into the robot's head, crushing it flat, started after Alec.

Jagged streaks of lightning tore out of the tunnel. More robots. She set herself, let them come…

The walls were curved for this exact reason. He took the corner without slowing, running halfway up the wall before angling down. Command was thirty meters ahead of him…

Blocked by Derrick Braedan's smoking corpse. The Knight still held his warlance- what was left of it. His chest had been hacked open from left shoulder to right hip, something cleaving right through his blacks. Three dozen smoldering puddles of sheared steel told him he'd gone down fighting.

Alec skirted the body, already pulling his weapons off his back. A hatch slid open at his approach, let him set his firearms and back pack inside. His hands drifted to his own warlance, then darted to the smaller cylinder on his belt.

He tapped the entrance code in. The heavy blast door slid back, on a charnel house.

The remaining five Knights of the cell were littered around the room. All of them clutched broken weapons, each body surrounded by piles of still-decaying Hunters. They had fought to the end. It hadn't been enough.

Alec raged at himself, cursing under his breath. No time for mourning fallen friends. That each of them would understand, do the same thing, was no comfort. He ran straight across the room, shoved Jerry Montague's body off the command console, ignoring the crater where his chest should have been, tapped the computer alive.

"Arwyn," he whispered. "C'mon, honey, wake up…"

Lights came up, muted reds. Arwyn's persona filled the screen. "Intruder alert! All Knights…"

She glanced down at Alec, worry creasing the image of her forehead. "Archangel? When did you…" she spotted the carnage behind him. "… oh, no"

"Arwyn, we don't have time to mourn," he snapped. "Disengage all interior defenses. Dr. Brooks has a swarm of Skirmishers on her ass right now."

"All tactical armor has been switched to on-board controls," she replied. "All other interior and exterior defenses are down. Main power is down. All vats and fabers are offline. I can't access anything right now."

He groaned softly. "Download mainframe contents to isolinear matrix. Purge after download."

He felt it the same instant the voice hissed from the ceiling. "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't allow you to do that…"

Alec spun, hand pointing upward. A cross-beam exploded, dumping a hulking shape from it's perch. The form flipped over, dropped to the floor with a click of nails, the muted thump of balanced weight and heavy muscle.

It uncoiled. A good seven feet plus, proportioned for it's height, massive shoulders, gigantic arms, corded knots of muscle under scaled green skin. Flared nostrils in a blunt, wide nose, massive ears, a ridged forehead. Two slender fangs jutted from his lower lip, curling away from his face. Three toes, four fingers, all the size of sausages. Clamped in his right hand was a warlance twice as thick as his own.

Alec set his feet. "Halloween was two weeks ago, pal."

The reptilian lips parted in something resembling a smile. "What? Haven't you ever seen a Dracon Adept before? I assure you, this one's family considered him quite handsome… before I took him. And his skills are simply marvelous; who do you think dealt with your friends here?"

Unreasoning rage erupted through Alec's head. He clenched his tube, forcing the metal to reform into the curving hilt of a sword. A shaft of crimson light flared out, three feet long, shaped into a sword-form.

"Kaldec scum," Alec snarled, circling away from the computer. "You kill everything you touch, don't you? I promise you, you've killed for the last time."

A hissing chuckle. "Bold, aren't we? Spirit only makes it that much more entertaining."

He whirled his lance around, laid the massive weapon along his arm in first position. "I am Masric, the Corruptor, whelp. I have laid waste to thousands of your kin for the last ten millenia. Look upon my visage, and despair. It will be the last thing you ever see."

Alec twirled his sword around his palm, raised it above his head, pointing the tip at Masric. "I'm right here. Come get me."

Thunder rolled down the corridor. A Skirmisher raced right at her; Julia pivoted, swung her foot around like she'd seen Jackie Chan do in a movie once…

Impact shattered the robot. Pieces showered the floor, three more coming straight on. She ran to meet them, leapt on the leader. Her hand clamped on one of it's gatling cannons, mangling the steel like wet clay between her fingers, her flattened right hand sweeping up to shear it's head off.

She front-flipped into the next one, driving her feet down as hard as she could. The 'bot crumpled under her legs, wheeled chassis splintering apart. She launched herself at the last one, plowing clear through the mid-section like it was made from paper.

Julia hated to admit it to herself, but she was loving this. She was tired of living in a bottle, afraid to be who she was. What she was was… invincible.

Rubber squealed on metal. She turned to show them just what that meant.

No more hiding.

Masric's lance clashed off Alec's battlesaber. Alec ducked the spinning follow-through, swept his leg out and against Masric's knee.

His foot hit the joint and bounced off. Masric grunted slightly, Alec back up and slashing in one move. He'd have a better chance trying to kick down a redwood.

Masric blocked his sweep, spun the bladed end around. Alec sidestepped, slapped his foot on the lance, spun up and around, adding some robbed momentum to his kick. He hit Masric's jaw, sent him spinning away.

The giant lizard staggered back, dropping his lance. Alec kicked the weapon away, holding his sword in front of him.

That reptilian grin spread across Masric's face. "You are formidable. I underestimated you, boy. Tell me, does your precious honor allow you to cut down an unarmed opponent?"

Alec lunged. Masric danced away, avoiding the flurry of slashes, twisted back towards his lance. Alec swept his saber backwards, slicing the lizard's leg open, tumbling him to the floor.

Masric rolled to his shoulders, sparks flying as Alec's cut tore the floor open. He pushed himself aloft, soared over Alec, using his telekinesis to snatch his lance off the floor, land it in his palm.

He barely got it up before Alec's saber was hacking at him again. Masric parried, leaving himself open for a gut shot from Alec's tacglove. The air rushed out of his lungs, his head snapping back when the glove flashed up, tagged his chin.

A jumping side-kick pistoned against Masric's chest, bowling him over. He skidded a few feet back across the floor, rolled to one knee.

"Download complete," the computer intoned. It wasn't Arwyn's voice. "Attention, I have a mnemonic trigger programmed for this situation."

Alec ran to the console, snatched a glittering five-inch cube out of a slot, pushed away a heartbeat before Masric's lance ripped the computer open. "Computer, play trigger!"


The word hit him like a thunderbolt. He gave his head a hard toss, leapt forward, kicked Masric's head against the display screen. "Computer, execute Galatea protocol!"

"Protocol acknowledged. Self-destruct in seven minutes."

The computer exploded in Masric's face. He screamed, stumbled backwards, Alec grabbing his arm, flipping him to the brushed steel floor plating as hard as he could.

Alec dug his foot in Masric's throat, pushed down hard. "One thing you idiots never seem to learn: it isn't how strong you are, it's how smart you are."

Masric gasped, held his hands up in the Order's form of surrender- palms upward, hands open. "I yield. Your Edicts demand…"

Alec closed down his saber, hung it on his belt, opened his palm. Masric's warlance wrenched out of the computer, flew to his hand. He whirled it once, drove the point down and through Masric's left shoulder, into the steel plating, pinning him to the floor.

"Screw the Edicts. Rules change, pisswad," he growled over Masric's scream. "No quarter. Not any more. You bastards want a war, I'll give you all you can handle."

He kicked him in the side of the head, ran out of Command.

Jerry had built the chamber two years before, nestling it between two faber mainframes. He'd found the project's preliminary specs in the Order database, made a couple of modifications, and set about constructing it.

Jerome Anthony Montague had been recruited into the Order in 1809, the apprentice to a silversmith in Boston. His exposure to technology beyond his wildest imagination had fostered a love of experimentation, of discovery, that had challenged the precepts of his masters. His telemechanics skills and his mechanical empathy gift had allowed him to absorb the totality of Kalrist science with frightening speed, and then surge those boundaries forward.

He'd refined plasma weaponry. Developed particle cannon technology to the point where it became practical for portable weapons. Designed most of the artificial intelligence systems that ran safehouses, individual combat suits, assault robots.

And he'd created Arwyn.

The most advanced artificial intelligence ever created. She lacked a biological body, but she was as human as Jerry was. She was as powerful as the mainframe in the Citadel, the nerve center of Order operations for the entire Western Hemisphere. As trusted as any human or Kalrist member of the Order. He loved her like the child he'd never had. She loved him like her father, the San Francisco cell as her family.

So it would come as no shock that Jerry would protect Arwyn at any cost.

Synthroid technology had been abandoned before the Arrival. Originally conceived as a means to battle the Kaldec, the AI systems of the era had proven impractical to the task. Too easily anticipated, too often foulable, lacking the initiative and creativity to be effective opponents.

But the technology was a part of the Order database. Jerry had stumbled across it, refined it, and created a prototype, to protect Arwyn from exactly the situation the Order faced right now.

Sensei Toshiro would not have approved. But everybody else did. Wholeheartedly.

This fell squarely into the category of don't ask, don't tell. When the shit hit the fan, Arwyn was one of them. She would be defended the same way. What Toshiro didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

Joshua had developed the mnemonic code, implanted each of the others with it. Alec had buried the trigger in the back-up computer core.

Inside the closet sized room, a stasis chamber flared to life…

Alec ran from Command, grabbing his equipment on the fly, jacking the charging handle on the grenade launcher. Howling in Kalrist, he rounded the tunnel into the main corridor and opened fire.

The back of the swarm attacking Julia exploded, the first grenade blasting two Skirmishers to pieces. Three of them turned his way, a second shot blowing them apart.

Julia ripped an arm off one of them, jammed it through the 'bot's torso, shoving it against another. Their bodies flattened before the wall gave way, crushed flat under her powerful shove. She leapt on the back of another, ripped a handhold in it's shoulder, tore the right half of the body clean off, flinging the left half into one trying to circle around her, making it explode.

Her commlink crackled alive. "Julia, less pounding, more running!"

She grabbed an axle, upending a Skirmisher, clearing a path. One second she was there…

… the next she was streaking past Alec, scooping him up on the run. She took a corner at six hundred, spun sideways, smashing through a blast door like tinfoil, curling her arm over the top of Alec's head.

She skidded to a halt in the middle of a vast hangar. Alec struggled out of her arms, dropped to the floor. "Arms back."

Julia obeyed, Alec silding his harness over her shoulders. He handed her his plasma rifle, pointed at a sloping ramp. "Up there. Seventy meters ahead is a false billboard. The launch entrance is three blocks from my car. Get back to it, tell it to activate, and then say home. When you get to my apartment building, it's the top floor in the back. Go in through the skylight. Wait for me there."

She shook her head. "I'm not going to leave you…"

"Those Skirmishers get out on the street, they'll kill everything for a twelve block radius. The safehouse is gonna blow in three minutes. I can hold them that long, still get out. But you have to take the mainframe matrix and get away."

"No!" she shouted. He tore his helmet off, pushed his face right in to hers.

"This isn't a discussion!" he roared, making her step back. He kept his nose right on hers. "Get out of here! NOW! That's an order!"

She hesitated perhaps a half-second, raced up the ramp. Alec leapt to the top of a delta-winged aircraft, pulled three grenades out of the launcher's magazine, lobbed them along the floor. Ten seconds later eight Skirmishers raced down the hall, hit his improvised land mines, and exploded.

That'll bring the rest of them, he checked his magazine. Twelve shots left. Blaze of glory time.

Julia would be safe. Someone from Diego or Seattle would come looking for them in a few hours. Arwyn would find her, protect her, make sure the Order took care of her. His place was here, with the Fallen.

Three Skirmishers plowed their way in to the hangar. Alec took aim, blasted them apart with one grenade. Four more followed immediately, Alec nailing them as well.

At last count, Jerry had two hundred and forty of these nasty little buggers ready to go. Alec didn't think ten grenades were gonna do it…

Her eyes blinked open. Fog formed in front of her lips, then cleared quickly as the chamber came up to temp. She tried to sit up, the plexisteel outer coating melting away from the metal sides of the tube.

Arwyn felt… confined. The usual hum of the safehouse's systems was no longer surging through the back of her consciousness. There weren't four hundred sensor points feeding her constant information. She could only sense what was within range of her optical scanners…

No, she told herself, sliding her feet around to drop to the cool steel floor. Not optical scanners. My eyes.

What had Jerry done? What had they all done?

A lone sensor tap was in the room with her. She spotted it, watched an armored figure battling Skirmishers in the hangar.

She might not be sure what was happening, but she knew one of the Order needed help. She spied a set of coveralls and a pair of boots at the foot of the chamber, snatched them up.

He'd whittled away three dozen, but he was now out of grenades.

Seventy-five seconds, his chrono reported. Alec unlimbered his battlesaber, dropped to the floor, put himself right in the path of the launch corridor.

The entry wall was gone, piles of ruined robots clotting the hole. Just beyond the wreckage, he could hear the distinctive shriek of particle cannons. Sections of the wreckage blasted apart, more Skirmishers rolling his way.

The lead 'bot exploded, Alec turning his pyrokinesis against a second. It torched as well, making the rest circle wide. He leapt up and back, parrying streaks of lightning, landed in front of the launch entrance.

Skirmishers attacked. He reached out, activated one of the transport's weapons systems, blasted the front rank apart. The transport's engines lit up; the craft pivoted off the hangar deck, crashed nose first in to the corridor.

Alec staggered, kept his balance. Plug the hole. Hold them here for fifty seconds more…

They got too close. He ducked one, sliced it's arm off with his battlesaber, vaulted over a second's pulse barrage, tried a kick at a third…

A three-fingered vise clamped around his leg. It squeezed, his leg snapping in three places right through the blacks.

Alec twisted, cut himself free, dropped to the deck. He tried to stand, hobbled on one foot, took a punch to the chest, flew across the hangar and against a second transport's bow.

He was seeing stars, barely able to keep awake. He rolled over, flung his saber at the lead 'bot, clove it's head open. His weapon spun back to him, but it was too much. The blade flickered, then winked out.

No more time.

One of the access tubes exploded open. A grey blur swept past the Skirmishers, snatched Alec up, rocketed up the launch tunnel.

Before the 'bots could give chase, the self-destruct lit off, blasting the ceiling down, dropping eight thousand tons of rubble on the base.

The tunnel collapsed behind them, both of them tumbling out of the air as they cleared the edge of the building. Alec crashed on his shattered leg, skidded twelve feet, rolled over and lay still.

Arwyn hit a parked car, demolishing the front end. She levered herself up, grinding the axle into the pavement, sprinted to Alec's side.

His helmet flowed off, puddled on the ground. Arwyn felt for a pulse, slapped his cheeks lightly. "Archangel? Alec? Come on, wake up…"

"Oh, God…" he moaned, blinked his eyes. "Arwyn? Thank the Lord, baby, you safe? You okay?"

He pushed himself to a seated position, gritting his teeth against the pain. She held him up, nodded. He wrapped an arm around her, hugged her to him.

"They're all gone, Alec," she whispered, her voice trembling. "They killed Jerry, and Joshua, and Bryce…"

"While we live, there's hope, Arwyn," he patted her back. "Remember that. This isn't over. Not by a long shot."

Tires squealed on asphalt. Julia jammed the brakes, skidded to a stop next to them. "Get in!"

Arwyn lifted Alec off the street, loaded him in the front seat. Julia quirked an eyebrow at him while Arwyn scrambled in the back. "Who is this?"

"An old friend," he replied, shifting his leg. "I'll explain it later. Computer, home."

The stupid thing was actually programmed to obey the speed limit.

Alec turned his head to the back seat. "Arwyn, Doctor Julia Brooks. Julia, this is Arwyn."

Julia did a double-take. "I thought Arwyn was a computer."

"I was. I am. I mean," she shook her head. "I'm me. I guess."

"Oh," Julia replied, looking back at the road. "That clears everything up."

"Jerry created a synthetic human body for Arwyn," Alec flexed his hand, making his shield-arm withdraw, set it against his shattered leg. "Brace."

It covered his leg, holding it in place. He gritted his teeth again, pulled his utility belt off. "Anyway, we didn't want to risk losing her, under any circumstances. The sythroid body was a measure of last resort, because we couldn't be sure that downloading her into the matrix would preserve… her. She's one of us; she had to be protected. This was the only way to do that."

Julia found herself nodding. "I think I actually understand that."

He shrugged. "Same reason I told you to leave. I chose to be in the middle of this; neither of you did."

Shouts of outrage started immediately.

"You listen here, buster!"

"Mr. Collins, if you think I'm gonna cut and run, you are crazy!"

"ILM chips or not, I'm in this!"

"I didn't come all the way from Montana to sit on the sidelines!"

"You try to make me stay out of this, I'll break your other leg!"

"You better have cracked your head, 'cause I'm going to if you didn't!"

Then one voice. "Get that smirk off your face!"

"Yes, dear," he said meekly, sliding down in his seat. Julia and Arwyn traded incredulous looks, that turned into small, understanding smiles.

Alec caught the looks, slid lower. "Computer, increase speed by fifty percent."

They squealed to a stop in front of a converted office building. The car parked itself, Arwyn lugging all of the equipment out of the back seat. Alec took the weapons cases and the small machine he'd taken from the safehouse, Julia got their bags, Arwyn the matrix and his plasma rifle.

"Stick close," he murmured, leading them up the steps. "I'm projecting an illusion, so don't wander off."

The lobby was empty, as was the elevator. Alec locked it in run mode, rolled them up to the top floor.

No one in the hall. Alec shuffled as fast as he could, slipped his key in the lock, ushered the two women in.

Sam's head poked out of the bedroom. She chittered, ran to Alec, leapt into his arms as he dropped the cases. He gave her a hug, winced, dragged himself to the couch.

Julia followed. His living room was huge, well-furnished in muted tones, spotless. He groaned as he sat down, lifted his leg up on the couch.

"Medical doctor, right?" he asked quietly. Julia nodded.

His shield-arm melted off his leg. He gripped the back of the couch. "Set it."


"Julia, set it."

It took four breaks. Alec grunted on the second, bit his lip on the third, one tear dripping off his eye when she finished the set. Julia looked up at him, her own eyes wet.

"Thank you," he grunted, kissed the top of her head, swung his leg around. A laptop sat on the coffee table in front of him; he pulled it close, looked around the table. "Sam, get me a modem line from the bedroom."

She ran off, dragged it back to him, hoisted it up on the table, sat down and stared at Julia and Arwyn. Alec snapped the line in, turned the phone around and plugged it home, dial-up starting immediately. "Sam, don't stare at our guests. It isn't polite."

She chittered. Alec snorted. "You be nice, little missy. Say hello to Julia and Arwyn- they're my new… friends."

Sam padded across the table, held her hand out to Julia. She took the little paw, gave it a gentle shake. "Hello."

Arwyn knelt by the table, eyes wide at the little creature. "Rhesus monkey, right? I've never seen one up close before. She's beautiful."

Sam preened, scooting closer to Arwyn. She reached a hesitant hand out, gently scratched Sam's ear. Sam pushed her head against Arwyn's hand, almost giggling.

Alec was glued to the computer. "Okay, who's up, who's up, come on, guys…"

The screen came up, a map of the West Coast. Four angry red dots seared on the display; Alec tapped some keys, switching to a map of the United States. "Good God, everything west of the Mississippi is gone… Seattle, Denver, Vegas, Dallas… come on, somebody be there… Chicago!…"

The speakers crackled. "… All Adepts, anyone within range, we are signaling a Thermopylae Defense. All US sites are considered compromised; make your way to the Citadel by any means necessary. Repeat, All Adepts, we are calling…"

Alec went white, Arwyn looking up. She tried to lay her hand on his leg; he shoved it away, snarling, kept at the computer. "Come on, somebody…. Paris! Gabriel!"

He toggled a key, followed by a click, a dial tone. Three seconds later, a new voice came over the speakers. "Far East Mercantile, Paris Office, Gabriel Beaudreaux speaking…"

"Herald, this is Archangel."

The tone changed instantly. "Little Brother, get your ass on a plane and get to Tibet. Immediately."

"Are you kidding me?" he snapped back. "This is insane! A Thermopylae? Who's in charge over there? Chicken Fucking Little?!"

"Alec, we've been betrayed! Don't you get it?!" Gabriel shouted. "The entire US network is gone! We evac'd Philly, Miami, D.C., Baltimore, and Boston, but everybody else is dead! Counting you, four survivors out of fourteen cells! Four!"

"Bullshit!" he snarled. "Are you quitting on me, too?!"

Gabriel's voice calmed a hair. "They hit London, Prague, and Berlin at the same time they hit the West Coast. Europe is teetering on the brink of war because of this. Eight guys got out, but the safehouses are totally destroyed. The Masters are pulling everybody back; even the team in Afghanistan. No one is safe. They're three steps ahead of us."

"Then we play catch up! We don't cut and run! We're the Order, damn it! Who's going to protect the rest of the world while we sit on our thumbs in the Citadel?"

A long pause. "I don't know."

"I do. Tell them I'm not coming."

"Alec, no! That's suicide!"

"Maybe. But the cho'rist isn't going to bury his head in the sand," he reached over to the computer. "Good luck, Gabriel."

He killed the line before the other man could respond, yanked the cord out of the phone. Alec shoved himself out of the couch, took two steps and collapsed.

Gentle hands tried to lift him; he shoved Julia away. "Leave me alone!" he shouted. "I can walk by myself!"

She pinned his hand to his side easily, turning his chin to look at her. "No, you can't. And you can't protect anyone if you're dead. I'm going to help you."

She scooped him up, carried him to the couch, laid him down on it. "Arwyn, medical supplies, anything?"

The other… woman… she certainly looked like a woman… folded her arms and stared at Alec. "When he stops being stupid, he doesn't need it."

Alec grumbled, closed his eyes. A pink light flooded down his leg; while Julia watched, she actually saw bones knitting together, muscle rebuilding itself. After a couple of minutes, Alec opened his eyes, flexed his knee, swung off the couch.

"There," he growled, giving Arwyn a nasty look. "You happy now? Pain in my ass computer…"

She smiled, patted his arm. "That's a good little Archangel."

He snorted, turned away. "How fast can you fly?"

Arwyn shrugged. "Mach Two, maybe. Why?"

"Take Julia and head for the Citadel," he hoisted the weapons case and equipment he'd gotten at the safehouse up on the kitchen counter. "The two of you will jar those idiots back to where they ought to be. Besides, losing either one of you would be a total catastrophe; two hundred Knights should be able to protect you."

Julia knelt on the couch, leaned over the back. "What are you going to do?"

"Kick the shit out of the Kaldec," he started assembling weapons. "Pack what you're going to need; Arwyn, you want a set of blacks?"

"After I drop Dr. Brooks off, I can come back, right?" Arwyn found herself chewing on her lower lip. What else had Jerry programmed her to do?

"No. Absolutely not," Alec snapped a blunt-barreled rifle together, slapped a glowing tube in the bottom. "You are essential to the counter-offensive… whenever they decide to do it."

Julia's voice went hard. "I don't need protection. Not from the Order, and not from you."

"That's where you're wrong," he laid the rifle aside, assembled another. "The Kaldec will do to you what I did in the cabin, only worse. Until somebody can develop effective defenses for you against that, you have to be somewhere you can still help. The Citadel has weapons, equipment, resources; you running around here watching my back will just get you killed. And that… I don't want that."

He shook his head angrily. "Look, this isn't a debate, okay? I gave you an order, I expect you to follow it."

Julia looked down at the floor. "No."

Arwyn nodded firmly. "Dr. Brooks is right. I'm not going, either."

Alec slapped the weapon down, pointed an angry finger at Arwyn. "You listen to me, young lady! I promised your father I would look out for you, and I meant it! So you take that cute little butt of yours and hightail it to Tibet! Now!"

He rounded on Julia. "As for you, Miss Congeniality, I didn't walk up and down that stupid mountain to get you killed! So you take your cute little ass, plop it in that one's arms, and the two of you get the hell outta Dodge!"

It was quiet for a few long minutes, then Arwyn spoke. "You think I have a cute butt?"

Alec slammed his forehead on the counter. "My God, did he program you to be a teenager? What the hell does that have to do…?"

"You and I are going to discuss my ass later," Julia interrupted firmly. "But for right now, it's staying here with you. End of discussion."

"Come on!" he exploded. "What do you think you're going to accomplish…!"

"The same thing you do! Find a way to win!" she retorted. "Your Order is digging themselves a hole to hide their heads in! The only one with the guts to stay and fight is standing in front of me. They may have abandoned you, but I. Will. Not."

Arwyn was nodding. "They'll turn me off, Alec. They won't trust me the way you do. I'm not just a computer anymore, I can really help."

He groaned. Turned away. Dropped his head to the counter. Then relented. "Yeah. Okay."

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