Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 01 June 2020 20:33] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 06 June 2020 21:22]
Arwyn rubbed her eyes sleepily, padding into the living room of the suite. Somack's head turned to greet her, the Cleric's eyes warm and bright for so early in the morning.
She glanced around, frowned. "Did they go already?"
Somack nodded. "Do not worry, child, they will be fine."
She flopped on the couch next to him. "So what are we supposed to do?"
"Oh, I have a thing or two in mind," he spun the laptop in front of him to face her. "How about a bit of exploring?"
She grinned. "Like, say, the old Seattle site?"
"Ah, dear child, you read my mind."
She went to work, then abruptly frowned. "Somack, what is this?"
He scooted closer, his breath caught, and he leapt to his feet. Three quick strides put him at the suite door, the man flinging it open. "Torik! Willem! Isamu!"
Doors all over flew open, unshaven men pouring into the hall in shorts and t-shirts, more than a few armed. Willem Schauble shoved his way through the pack, carrying a neutralizer, Isamu right behind him. Torik's gruff voice barked an oath, Knights parting like reeds to let him trot down the hall.
"Back to your rooms, make yourselves presentable," he snapped, following Somack into Alec's suite. Willem was already sitting beside Arwyn, narrow eyes staring at the holoimage she'd set up.
"Are you certain this is correct?" he asked quietly. He was one of the Order's best tacticians, a fact that had earned him a spot on the trip as third in command. He also had a rep for being an iceman in sticky situations
Arwyn nodded. "That's what Skyweb's saying."
"Then we should check it out," he replied. "Excellent work, Miss Arwyn."
He swiveled his head to Isamu. "I need secure comms set up so she and you can walk us in. I do not like the way this looks."
Torik studied the image, grunted softly. "I would suggest teams at each major access point, then split those teams for both cover and reconnaissance."
"I wanna go," Arwyn said sharply. "I can help."
Willem shook his head. "If I let you go in there, the Archon will skin me alive with a rusted butter knife, and then do something painful."
"Arwyn is correct; she located the anomaly, she has the right to explore it," Somack's voice allowed for no argument. "I will take responsibility, as I will be going as well."
Willem's voice never even flinched. "Unacceptable. I am charged with protecting the both of you, and I have every intention of doing so. Your pardon, Lord Somack, Miss Arwyn, but if that means tying you up and leaving you under armed guard, I will do so."
"I can follow orders, Willem," Somack affirmed.
Arwyn just looked at him with pleading eyes. The German sighed.
"I will have a Knight on each of you," he replied. "The instant either of you fails to follow instructions, that Knight will stun you and drag you out of there. Am I understood?"
Somack inclined his head. "Agreed."
Arwyn squealed, hugged Willem around the neck, his broad face softening into a smile.
It took an hour to get set up, but soon enough they pulled up outside a fairly new martial arts dojo, designed to look like a cross between a pagoda and gymnasium.
Willem surveyed the landscape, the building, and the street in front of them. "I thought the Seattle facility was under a laundromat."
Torik leaned forward. "It is."
The bigger man sighed. "I figured so. Donner to Teams, arm yourselves, prepare to move in."
He wheeled the Taurus in to the parking strip, a second Ford pulling in behind him. Two more drove past, turning right down at the corner.
Willem swung his door open, slid out, Arwyn scooting out from the seat behind him. Somack and Torik walked around the car, four Knights following from the other car.
"Hans, Miguel, you stick to these two like glue. Something even thinks about smelling bad in here, you run like the Devil himself is chasing you. Understood?" Willem pulled his coat off, an imager glittering on his belt. "Master Torik, you have the rear guard. Francois, Caslav, you take the point."
The two sprinted forward, moving quickly and silently up the footpath. Once they were behind the shrub-line, imagers flicked off and helmets came on.
Willem led the rest of them up the path, halting thirty meters from the door while Francois checked it out. One of the divided-glass doors slid open, Caslav slipping inside, Francois right behind him.
By the time the rest of them got there, Francois had reappeared. "Nothing here, Willem. Looks like a dojo. Except for the door in back."
Willem nodded. "Stay close, everyone."
Caslav was working the door when they arrived. He turned his head to glance at Somack. "Standard door, My Lord."
The Cleric nodded, stepped forward, placed his palm on a slightly gray square next to the door. A dim light flashed, part of the wall dissolving to reveal an elevator.
"Go hot," Willem drew a plasma rifle off his back, as did Caslav and Miguel, Francois and Hans lifting ion guns. Willem stepped through first, motioned the others in, Torik unlimbering his warlance in the rear of the car.
The descent was quick, the car opening on a standard safehouse, well-lit, tube-shaped corridors, seamless steel plating. Willem slid his helmet in place, started out.
"Lord Somack, Miss Arwyn, remain here with Master Torik..." he paused, glancing around, "and guard the lift."
He led Francois and Caslav in, the three moving carefully. Somack folded his arms, nodded to his watchdogs.
"Well, go on, I will remain here," he said sharply. "I give you my word."
The two Knights followed after, Willem motioning them around the first corner. Torik drew a second warlance from his belt, tossed it to Somack. He extended it, watching the left, Arwyn settling to the floor and waiting.
"Hmh. This facility appears intact," Torik mentioned idly. "I wonder what Chan was up to."
"As do I," Somack tapped the butt of his lance on the floor. "Pity I will not have the opportunity to ask him."
"No guardbots have arrived yet," Torik rolled his shoulders forward a couple of times. "That suggests that the main computer recognized us."
A door slid open twelve meters away, a grimy figure dragging a heavy metal cart along behind him straggling into view. He spotted the two Kalrist and almost fell over.
Somack whipped his lance to on-guard, Miguel and Hans racing back around the corner, weapons pointed. "Halt!!" they bellowed together.
The man dove to the floor, hands above his head. Miguel sprinted forward, patting the man down expertly, rolled him over.
"It's a Technician," he called, then reached down to offer the man a hand up. Hans eased his ion gun a fraction, eyes still fixed on his target.
The Tech was rail-thin, eyes bright, a few inches shy of six feet. His coveralls were spattered with lubricants and silicate, a baseball cap twisted backward over short-cropped hair. He bowed low as Somack and Torik approached, keeping his head down until Somack spoke.
"Technician, please stand up," Somack kept himself between Arwyn and the man, Torik right beside him. The Tech straightened up, eyes wide.
"Technician Michael Anterion, My Lords. Chief Technician of the Seattle Beta facility," he scanned the Knights with wild eyes, then back to the Kalrist. "Is there a problem?"
Miguel's helmet crackled; he gestured to Torik, Somack. "Masters, Willem's found something."
Somack sat in the facility's Ops center, hands folded placidly in front of him. A Knight, an Activator, and Technician Anterion stood in a precise line, along with a small surprise. Or rather, four surprises.
Four very confused, wide-eyed young men.
Willem finished his study, cocked his head at Francois. "Frank, take these men down to the mess, get them some chow."
He nodded, smiled at the boys. "Gentlemen, please follow me."
They trooped out, several Knights trailing them. Willem waited until they were gone, leaned back against a computer console. "Now, then, suppose the three of you tell me what is going on here?"
Anterion dragged his cap off, twisting it in his hands. "We're establishing the Beta facility, sir. As ordered."
Willem started to speak, Somack raising a calming hand. "Whose orders, Mr. Anterion?"
"Sensei Zhang, of course, Master," he replied, voice nervous. "I saw the orders. They were countersigned with the Triumvere's Seal."
Torik's mouth grew very, very tight. Arwyn, out of eyesight of either Kalrist, winced.
Somack's face didn't flinch. He turned his gaze to the Knight. "I have not had the pleasure, young man. Who are you?"
He started. "Brennan, My Lord. Brennan McNamera."
"I see," his gaze shifted to the woman. "And you, I take it, are an Activator?"
"Yes, My Lord," she dropped a deep curtsy. "Paige Reynolds, My Lord."
The Cleric leaned back, raised an eyebrow to Torik. "Have you ever heard of any of these young people, Torik?"
He crossed thick arms. "No, Somack. I have not."
All three went white.
"Nor have I," Somack said carefully. "Yet the fact remains that they are members of the Order. I am curious, however, as to why none of you ever came to the Citadel."
"We were told..." McNamera began, paused, then plunged ahead. "We were told that until our initial training was complete, we were to stay here. Part of that training was to help Michael establish this base, and go out on a few recruitment runs."
"A few?" Torik echoed. "How many was a few?"
Paige cleared her throat. "These four are our eighth group, My Lord."
Somack choked down an oath. Torik's eyes blazed, the Kalrist storming from the room. Willem turned hard eyes on the two youngsters.
"How many, total?" he snapped, the ice gone.
Brennan jerked. "Twenty three, plus these four, sir."
Arwyn ran after Torik, the Master already opening his comm when she caught up to him. He glanced her way, shook his head once, keyed it alive. "Citadel, this is Torik."
Cas's voice came back. "Citadel here, go ahead."
"Technician Putin," he began formally, "get Commander Duong for me, immediately."
He had to wait three seconds. "Master Torik? What's wrong?"
"Thien, take twenty Knights and place Triumvere Coriana and Triumvere Kon under close arrest," he barked sharply. "The charges are treason against the Order, and willful and knowing endangerment of the planet Earth."
There was a pause, and then an ugly tinge to Thien's voice. "At once, My Lord. Citadel out."
Torik closed his comm down, flung it against the opposite wall. It bounced off, clattered back to his feet, the Kalrist turning hateful eyes on it.
Thien slapped the circuit closed, turned angry eyes around Ops. "Master At Arms! Assemble a guard detail!"
He bounded up the stairs, the Knight wearing a black band around his shield-arm already charging out the door. Cas watched them go, turned back to the main threat board and resumed his watch.
Less than three minutes later, a slim, bony hand tapped him lightly on the shoulder. Cas half-turned, still inputting some commands. When he rounded, he almost fell out of his chair.
The Kalrist's face was wrinkled with age, the man clad in the orange robes of the Augurs. His eyes sparkled bright violet, not even hinting at his awesome age. Cas had never seen one of the Augurs before- even here, at the Citadel, they were an enigma, an almost myth to the Order.
Only the myth was standing there expectantly. Cas slid off his chair, dropping to one knee, everyone else in the Pit overcoming shock to do the same.
"Do stand up, Technicians," the voice was full, hearty, not at all what anyone expected from the stooped man. He waited for them to rise, eyes scanning the room. "Magnificent. Our human brothers never cease to astound me."
Cas snapped his mouth closed, tried to wipe the stunned expression off his face. "Wha..., what can I do for you... My Lord?"
The ancient Kalrist smiled. "It is my understanding that a new Archon has been chosen."
Cas bobbed his head. "Ye...yes, My Lord."
"I would appreciate it if, at his convenience, he could come to the Vault and speak with myself and my brethren," he folded his hands together in the sleeves of his robes. "It is a matter I believe to be of great interest to him."
"Of...," Cas paused, cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon, My Lord, but the Archon is currently in America. I believe he is conversing with the Velorian Protector as we speak."
The Kalrist patted Cas's hand. "I know, lad. But if you could convey my message, I would appreciate it."
Li looked at Cas as if he'd been anointed by God Himself. The Tech drew himself up. "Of course, My Lord. As soon as he checks in."
"Thank you," he bowed from the waist, turned spryly. "A most impressive installation. You men are a wonder."
He walked up the steps, vanished. The doors slid closed, everyone in the Pit sagging back into seats.
Li groaned. "I tell you, Cas, there's been more weird shit in the last week than in the last ten years."
His Russian friend grunted. "No kidding, Li. When the Archon checks in, let me know."
Coriana unfurled from her afternoon meditations, placidly replacing her hood over her features, as tradition demanded.
This farce would not last much longer. A mere human, commanding the Order? Outrageous. Somack had clearly had his mind addled by age.
Collins would lead them merrily to disaster, and then she would step in, resume her rightful place, and set things right. After all, she had a plan already in place...
Her door flew open, Duong Thien at the head of ten Knights. All of them leveled weapons, Coriana's quarters filling with the harsh whine of priming plasma rifles.
"By order of Master Torik, under the authority of the Archon," Thien growled, "I hereby place you under arrest."
Shock slipped past her composure. "On what charge?" she demanded, arms at her sides.
"Treason," the word grated out past clenched teeth. Fingers tightened fractionally on triggers. "Place your hands on top of your head, Triumvere. Now."
"I am not some common criminal..." her voice sharpened, rising in pitch. Thien cut her off.
"No, you are a traitor. Place your hands above your head, or we will open fire."
Numbly, she obeyed, three Knights rushing forward with an inhibitor harness. In a few moments, she was shackled, a neural paralyzer on her head. A Knight stood at each side, escorting her to the hallway, where ten more escorted Kon past her room, the Triumvere's face ashen as he stared at the floor.
Sorala followed them, stopping to study Coriana contemptuously. "You have betrayed us. Your own people! And the Brotherhood! How could you?!"
Seven decades of planning unraveling before her eyes, powerful human minds battering her with unfettered hate, and the humiliations of the past few days finally snapped. Her eyes flared, meeting Sorala's gaze. "The humans were not powerful enough to protect us! I did the only thing I could to protect our people! The Kaldec promised me our survival!"
The Knights around her recoiled in disgust. Sorala's face went purple, her hand flashing out, striking the other woman with staggering force, drawing purple blood.
"Judas! Betrayer!" she snarled, Thien stepping between her and Coriana. "I will see you burn for this!"
"Lady Sorala!" Thien's voice cut through her anger. She subsided long enough for him to jerk his head, send the Knights on their way. Coriana was babbling incoherently by the time they reached the lifts, then they were gone.
Sorala's shame was manifest, but Thien forced himself to look away. "Come. We must warn Frederick, then speak with the Archon."
Marcus Sheridan rolled over as his alarm went off, scrabbling for the snooze button. His fingers fumbled in the dark, missing the switch, knocking the radio to the floor.
He sighed, found his glasses, snapped on the light. No sense in trying to catch some extra sleep now. He slid out of bed, plucked the clock-radio off the floor, set it back on his nightstand.
He glanced out the window. Rain and dark. Like that was a shock in Chicago in November.
A light tap came at his door. "Marcus?" a voice called softly. "You okay?"
"Yeah," he called back, scrubbing his hair. The door opened a crack, Josie Hamacker's head poking through. She flashed one of her dazzling smiles at him, opened the door the rest of the way.
"Missed the alarm, huh?" she asked, settling on the bed next to him. He sighed, nodded. She chucked his shoulder lightly. "Sorry. I know you probably wanted..."
"Nah," he kept his voice low. "I gotta get up now anyway. Gotta get to school early."
He got off the bed, headed to his bathroom. Josie took the hint, closed his bedroom door behind her.
Marcus climbed in the shower, got clean, stared at his reflection in the mirror while he brushed his teeth. Cursed with his father's fine hair and his mother's gentle bone structure, he looked younger than sixteen, an image not helped by the lack of beard on his face.
He spit his mouthful out, dried his lips, got dressed. This time of year just plain sucked.
Surprisingly, Carter Sheridan was at the table when Marcus came down, pouring over a thick file of... whatever it was Dad did. He looked up at his oldest son, smiled gamely.
"Hey, champ, how's it going?" he slid a foot or so aside on the bench next to the table, making room. "Up kinda early, aren't you?"
"Gotta prep for a presentation," he replied, fetching a box of Wheaties and the milk, then sitting down opposite his father. Carter set his file down, reached across the table, straightened Marcus's tie.
"I see," Carter leaned his elbows on the table. "You got plans for the weekend?"
"No," he started to eat.
"How about we take in the Blackhawks game Saturday night?"
Marcus shook his head. "I have three papers due next week, Dad."
"A few hours Saturday night won't kill your academic career, Marcus."
He set his spoon down. "Dad, I just want to mope, okay?"
Carter nodded. "I understand, son. But it's been two years, Marcus. You have to start moving on sometime."
Carter dropped his eyes. "No. I haven't yet."
Marcus picked up his bowl, carried it to the sink, flushed what was left down the compactor. "I'm not ready yet, Dad. I'm sorry."
"Me, either, kiddo," Carter said. "But we're going to have to start trying. If not for you and me, for David. And Mom."
Marcus shrugged, a helpless gesture he'd become very adept at these last couple of years. "I guess. I'll.... I'll think about the game, Dad. I promise. I'll see you tonight."
He left, his car starting up a few minutes later and pulling out of the drive. Carter watched him leave, went back to his file.
Josie came into the kitchen, hair still glistening from her shower, in a polo and jeans, spotted Carter. "Good morning, Dr. Sheridan. Can I make you some breakfast?"
"No, thank you, Josie," he replied, getting up. "And Marcus has left for school already."
She sensed his mood. "I'll take a run at him when he comes home, Dr. Sheridan."
Carter gave her a gentle smile, patted her hand. "Thanks, Jos. I appreciate it."
His driver pulled up, Carter grabbing his briefcase and heading out. Josie watched him go, started to make breakfast for the littlest Sheridan. This assignment was getting complicated- no one had said anything to any of them about Erica Sheridan before they were sent in. Josie wasn't trained to be a grief counselor, nor were any of the others. And no one had counted on three of the NSA's best getting personally attached to the Sheridans.
David charged down the back stairs, leaping up to give Josie a big hug. She caught the boy, swooped him around, hugged back, took the big wet kiss he planted on her cheek.
"And how is my best guy this morning?" she said brightly, swinging him over to the table.
Marcus sat in his car in Jesuit's parking lot, watching the rain bead on his windshield. The car radio was on, tuned to something mindless, Marcus tuning it out.
Pulmonary embolism. He'd had to look it up in his dad's Physician's Desktop, some stupid clot in his mom's lungs that just took her away. And ruined his whole life. And Dad's, and Davey's. And... everything.
Mom was the one he could count on. Dad had to work a lot, and to be fair, Mom did too, but Mom was always there when Marcus needed her, for the little things that made life so hard. Dad pulled his weight, had done even more since Mom had gone, but it wasn't the same.
Mom understood about comic books and baseball cards and basketball and how stupid and crass other kids were. Mom knew what he was feeling, when he had needed a cookie and a glass of milk or just a kick in the ass, or a shoulder to cry on. Advice, or sympathy, or soft criticism. Mom just knew.
He hadn't given Dad a chance to fill in, because it still hurt too much. And Josie- well, she was good for Davey, and that was all that mattered. Real men, like his dad, and like he was trying to be, made their way on their own.
Two years ago this week. Not long enough.
The second bright face of the morning appeared at his window, smiling like the missing sun. He rolled his window down, Jamie Ross leaning in.
"What're you doing in the parking lot?" she demanded, a grin plastered on her smooth face. Marcus tried to smile back, failed.
"Watching it rain," he replied.
"Oh. Can I watch with you?"
He shrugged, rolled his window up, unlocked the passenger side. She slid right in, shaking her umbrella out and tossing it in the back seat.
"Hi." she whispered, leaning over for a kiss. Those familiar, soft lips, her sweet breath- cinnamon this morning, he kept meaning to ask how she did that- a tender stroke of his arm. "How are you?"
Another shrug. He tried to pull away, her hold on his arm firming.
"Marcus, I know. And I'm here, okay?"
She gave him another gentle kiss, let his arm go. He smiled, finally, then winced, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Another migraine?" worry in her voice. He nodded, fished in the driver's compartment between them, dug out a bottle of Aleve. He sucked down three, looking for all the world like he was going to puke.
"When are you going to go to a doctor for that?" she demanded, no grin in it now. Her hand was tight on his arm, her big blue eyes open and shaken.
"I did," he replied, putting the bottle of pills away. "They did all kinds of tests, but nothing came out. Dr. Barnes thinks it's growing pains. And it isn't my prescription, either, at least that's what Dr. Carmen said."
"Then go to somebody else, Marcus."
He shook his head. "They ran every test they could think of, Jamie. After Mom, nobody's taking any chances, least of all my dad."
She let go, reluctantly, crossed her legs. The uniform's short skirt emphasized her model gorgeous legs, a pair of gleaming boots her choice of footwear today. "Let's go play hooky today. We could go into the city, have lunch, go to the museums, maybe a movie. How does that sound?"
"I have a presentation in Ancient History," he took a drink from the water bottle next to him. "Great Pyramids."
She smiled slyly. "The Egyptians will still be dead tomorrow. Josie will call in for you."
"And if I miss this presentation, Father Wilmer will make sure I'm dead tomorrow," his humor was coming back. "Maybe another time."
"Saturday?" she asked. He sighed, nodded surrender. "Good. We can get an early start. Can I hitch a ride home after school? Mom wants you to come over for dinner. And I want you to come for... other stuff."
"Yeah, okay." he was beaten, he knew it.
"Great. Lunch, right?"
Totally beaten. "Uh-huh."
"Good," she scooted a bit closer. "So now we can sit here until school starts. I wonder, what could we do to pass the time...?"
Her face bent up to his, lips pursed slightly. Her kiss was so soft, so tender, he wanted to melt into her arms and never come back up.
For Jamie, this had become so much more than an assignment. Somewhere along the way, she'd fallen in love with this gentle, thoughtful boy. He was struggling with things that had broken men twice his age, and doing it with composure, grace, and dignity. She was supposed to protect him; she wondered, if and when the ruse was up, how much he was going to hate her, if there would be hope for them after... this.
She prayed, every night, that there would be. He needed her; she knew that. But she wondered if he knew how much she needed him.
"Do I look okay?" she fixed her lipstick in the vanity mirror, glanced over for approval.
"If you looked any better, it'd be illegal," he replied. She smiled, patted his leg.
He reached back, pulled open his door as he opened her umbrella, walked around the car and opened her door for her. She took his hand, got out, huddled against him. She didn't feel the cold wind off the Lake, but she did feel the warm closeness in his body against hers.
She glanced at the glowing pendant around his neck, a gift from his dad last year. "Have you been able to figure out how that thing glows yet?"
"Oh, yeah, I forgot," his voice pitched up excitedly. "I ran a test in the Chem lab. There's calcified phosphorus in the stone, and when it gets enough body heat, it lights up. Cool, huh?"
She rolled her eyes. "Sure, Marcus."
"Sorry, geeked out for a second," he sighed. "More and more like the Old Man every day."
"Your dad's not a geek. How many Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Grad, Oxford Ph.D's do you know?" she replied, walking up the stairs with him. "Your dad's brilliant. And so is his son."
He shrugged. "Rand seems to take good care of him. I guess that's all that matters."
He shook the water off her umbrella, handed it over. "I'll see you at lunch. Have a good day."
She gave him a quick peck on the lips. "Keep your chin up."
Paul Robertson delivered Carter to the Rand Building, down in the Loop, nestled between The Tower, AT&T, and Champion Tower. Not as expansive as any of the others, it was still sixty-some odd floors above ground, and a few more underground. And more importantly, it was a nerve center for some of the nation's most vital operations. And Dr. Carter Sheridan was right at the heart of it.
The morning guard detail came to attention as he walked past the desk. "Good morning Harvey, Max."
"Sir!" they replied. Carter smiled. You could take the man out of the Corps, but not the Corps out of the man. He walked briskly to the elevators, sliding his key card into the locked shaft.
The car was waiting. He stepped in, a familiar voice bringing his head back out into the lobby.
Jeanette Thurmon clicked down the hall, folding her umbrella up. Carter held the elevator, let her sweep aboard before letting it go. "Good morning, Professor Thurmon."
She laughed, blue eyes twinkling. "Dr. Sheridan. So formal this morning, Carter. Rough night at home?"
"No more than usual," he replied, already opening his briefcase. "The anniversary is coming up Thursday."
"I know, Carter," she said quietly. "And I wish you'd take me up on the offer for dinner. It might help."
"Perhaps next week, Jeanette. This week is just... too rough."
He buried his head in a file. Jeanette sighed inwardly. The stubborn man was making her assignment nearly impossible, through the same combination of traits that made him so attractive. She'd spoken with Jamie about it, found her younger compatriot in the same boat she was in. Only Josie had escaped the lure, and probably because the youngest Sheridan was still a child. And she was as devoted to him as the others were to their charges.
"Carter," she said. "Lunch today?"
He met her gaze. "Of course. But I have Dr. Ryan and the Joint Chiefs first."
"Eleven thirty?" she persisted.
He nodded again. "Sure. We'll order in some Thai, give the commissary a break for once."
"Deal," she shrugged out of her trenchcoat, hanging it over an arm. "I'll see you later."
The car slid to a stop, the doors opening on a vast series of cubicles. Carter went one way while Jeanette went the other.
His secretary, Donna Hiller, handed him his messages and cup of Jamaica Roast on his way past, followed him into his office. "Good morning, sir."
"Donna, please stop calling me that," he shuffled through his customary stack of messages. "And do you happen to know why Tom Ryan has a bug in his ear at nine in the morning?"
"Dr. Ryan declined to comment, si... Dr. Sheridan," she replied. "But I would imagine it's the same thing that has Admiral Fitzwallace in a foul mood as well."
Carter dropped his briefcase on his desk, popped it open. "All righty then. Please call the Tank, have them set me up with teleconference link to the Sit Room. I'm on my way down."
Actual Marines in plain clothes stood guard at the teleconference center, the Tank as the locals called it. They recognized Carter on sight, but waited for retinal scans and his command code before greeting him.
"Chuck, you need to relax," he said to the one on the door this morning, signing in to the room. "Your men are making me tired just looking at them."
Lieutenant Charles Miller smiled back. "Yes, sir. I'll speak with the men."
Carter endured the pat-down, clapped the Marine on the shoulder. "As you were."
The Tank opened up, a row of analysts already there. He strode into the center pit, seated himself at the long table dead center, Donna right next to him. The big screen in front of them lit up before they were all the way seated, Tom Ryan's brooding face in clear relief, surrounded by A.J. Bartlett, David Lyman, and Josh Goodley
"Good morning, sir," Carter said. "Tom, Josh, David. How is everyone this morning?"
"Been better, Carter," Ryan replied, a massive stack of manila folders in front of him. "Turns out that the Bureau has a line on a face. Alec Collins."
"And who might Mr. Collins be?" Carter leaned back in the tall swivel chair, resting an ankle on the opposing knee.
Goodley cleared his throat. "At last estimation, at least three people. Jordan Sinclair, Tom Sheridan- no relation, Carter- and someone who knows what the hell is going on."
"The writers?" Carter let his foot drop. "My older boy thinks Tom Sheridan walks on water. Sinclair, too."
"Get in line behind mine," Ryan shuffled some papers around. "Anyhow, the man is also mentioned in the decrypts that are coming out of Site Eighteen. Both by name and as something they call Archangel. We can't tell if it's a codename, or something else."
"Connection to the Supremis?" Carter raised his coffee to his lips.
Carter set the cup down. "I beg your pardon?"
Tom's eyes bored right into him. "You heard me. New players. And there seem to be a lot of them."
A flustered aide raced into the Sit Room, handed Ryan a single sheet of paper. "What in the hell...? EarthFirst offices all over the country are being attacked. Right now, all at once."
A.J. leaned back out of sight. "Get me Fitzwallace at the Pentagon, right now! Alert both the FBI and the NSA!"
The Marines outside drew their weapons. Carter leaned in to the pick-up. "They're thinning the herd, Tom. Trying to eliminate the Arions; they're the only thing anyone would want from EarthFirst."
"You're probably right," he replied, the Sit Room switching into hyperdrive. "Pack for a trip up here. I'll call you back."
The screen blanked out. Carter leapt up, leaning over the analyst stations. "Get me an address on the local EarthFirst offices, and get someone over there to gather some intel."
Less than a half-hour later, the Tank was back up, Tom Ryan alone and haggard.
"I can't believe it," Carter was reading over the twenty-page fax for the third time. "They got them all?!"
"That's what it looks like," Ryan replied. "In it's own way, it was brilliant. They eliminated a major threat with one move, before the Arions could even blink. These guys are like chessmasters, packing nukes."
Carter dropped the pile, lifted his glasses to rub his eyes. "Who are they? What do they want? Are there any clues at all?"
"Collins is it, and he's vanished. Until we get something from Denver, that's all we know. One face, and one name. Or rather, four."
The Situation Room's fax trilled, spitting out a sheet that immediately came to Ryan. "FBI in LA reports a multiple-Omega engagement. A spotted XTV, and six dead Supremis. They appear to be Omega-1s. The XTV hit the water and exploded, so figure at least one more Omega-2 down. But no communications breakdowns, and only a very mild background radiation increase."
"So, these new players," Carter said slowly, "kill Supremis, apparently without any type of fear regarding consequences, and do so in such a manner that they could throw down in front of the White House and nobody not watching would ever know it."
Ryan's face creased into a smile. "Throw down?" he echoed. "I thought Marcus had outgrown wrestling. Are you still partaking of that vice, Carter?"
"You caught me," he doodled on his pad, staring off into space. "Anything from Fitz?"
"Not yet; I gather they're still getting their ducks in a row," Ryan paused. "I need you up here. The President will need a brief, and you're the expert."
Carter frowned. "Thursday..."
"I know, but this can't wait," he leaned back. "I'm sorry, Carter, but it has to be now."
"Yeah. I'll call home, be on the next plane."
Alec winged the Raptor into the hangar, settled it down, ran everything to shut-down.
Julia popped her canopy, climbed alongside his cockpit and rapped on the plexiglass. He tilted it open, still dragging leads from his helmet.
"Why won't you talk to me?" she asked. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," he finished unhooking, tried to climb out, Julia blocking his path.
"I must've done something," she insisted, hands on her hips. "You haven't said a word since the pier. What did I do?"
"Nothing," he tried to step around her; she nudged him back with her palm.
"That doesn't wash, mister, now tell me what I did..."
"I DID IT!!" he shouted, ripping his helmet off and throwing it across the hangar. "It was my fault, okay? Not you!"
"What?" she shook herself. "You didn't do anything..."
"I didn't do anything right," he shouldered past her, dropping to the concrete. Julia followed, tugging his arm.
"Talk some sense, okay? What do you mean?"
He dropped his head. "I pranced around like an idiot. I went out of my way to antagonize the Protector. Making wisecracks, shooting off my mouth, playing around like some kind of clown fighting those Arions. Letting the two of you fight that Tset'Lar instead of dealing with it myself. Acting like it was a game."
His eyes raised to her. "I made you kill. I stood there, like an idiot, and let you become a killer. Because I wanted to show off for you, and maybe a bit to her. Instead of doing my job."
Julia forced her mouth closed. "I killed those Arions so they wouldn't kill me..."
"And I should have dropped all seven of them before you lifted a finger!" he shouted back. "Instead of trying to be King of the Mountain, I should have been the Archon and done my Goddamn job!"
He lowered his voice, visibly taking control again. "I'm a killer. It's what I do, what I am. And I would never wish that on anyone else. Today, I not only wished it, I stood by and let it happen to someone I love.
"I'm not worthy to be with you. I never was. I just proved it."
His helmet lifted off the concrete, flew to his hand. He dug the car keys from his belt, tossed them to Julia. "Take the car. I'll arrange a flight and transport from Helena for you."
She slapped the keys away, seized his arm. "I told you before, I don't need to be protected. Not from the Arions, not from the Kaldec, and certainly not from you. And I also told you I won't go; it's time you stopped asking, because I'm not going. Not now, not ever."
Her grip was tighter than steel, Alec barely able to even flex. Her tone was harsh, uncompromising, certain.
"I'll stay where I please. I'll do as I please. And I'll help you any way I see fit. How long did you think I could stay out of this, Alec? Weeks? Months? I want to be with you, and I know what that means. And I accept it. I accept you."
His head hung. "I didn't..."
She tilted his chin up. "You are the sweetest, most chivalrous man on this earth. And I love you so much for it. Please, don't ever change. But stop torturing yourself. I'm in this. With you, not because of you."
A slow, grudging nod, and a twist of his arm out of her grip. He still didn't say anything.
Behold, the newly anointed queen.
Courtney Champion was on top of the world, literally. She'd been the cream of the crop before Daddy's little... present..., but now, there was no competition.
Her new body was drawing stares, and causing reactions, and getting her attention like she'd never dreamed possible. Instead of being the dowdy badge of conformity, her school uniform was tailor-made to display all of her new assets.
Enhanced ears and nose reported almost universal arousal in the young men clustered around her. Except for that dork Marcus Sheridan, hunched over in the back corner, as usual.
She had thirty requests for Saturday already, and second period hadn't even started yet. The hardest thing in her life, now, was going to be deciding who to have take her out.
That and gym, sixth period. Yeah, gym was going to be fun.
Then the door opened.
Father Wilmer looked up, smiled reflexively at Jamie Ross. She handed him a note; he read it over, motioned her in to the room. "The Egyptian Pharaohs, Miss Ross. Up to speed?"
She nodded. "What I'm missing, Marcus will help me with, sir."
She drifted past Courtney's desk, something putting both of their hackles up. The two girls stared at each other, the rest of the class oblivious to the byplay, until Jamie was past her and sitting down next to Marcus.
"What are you doing here?" Marcus whispered, trying not to squeeze his eyes shut against his headache.
"I checked my schedule," she replied, still watching Courtney with narrowed eyes. "I need to get a couple of more history credits for Vassar, so I rearranged my schedule. We have all afternoon together, now."
"They let you do that?"
She shrugged. "They let me. That's all I care about. The headache hasn't gone away, has it?"
"I'm fine," he pulled his glasses off, put them on his desk, rubbed his eyes. "I just need a minute."
The bell rang, everyone moving to their seats. Father Wilmer perched himself on the edge of his desk. "The Great Pyramids. Mr. Sheridan, enlighten us."
The bell rang again, everyone filing out, Courtney in the midst of the crowd. Marcus paused long enough to drop his paper off with Father Wilmer.
The Jesuit glanced up at him. "Good report, Marcus. But you look a little rough; go on down, see the nurse."
"I was at the doctor yesterday, Father..."
"I'll fix it with Helen. Head on down there," he ordered. "Miss Ross, could you get Mr. Sheridan to the nurse, please?"
Jamie took Marcus's arm, smiled at Wilmer, and dragged him out the door. "You heard Father Wilmer, hotshot. Let's go."
They emerged into the crowded hall, Jamie tugging him close. "See? I'm not just being paranoid."
"Yeah," he picked his way through the crowd, spun the lock on his locker open. "I'll go, I'll go. Just lemme get rid of my..."
"Nice report," Courtney Champion said on her way past, three football players in her wake, "dork."
Her hand settled on his back and shoved.
Marcus bounced into the closed locker next to his hard enough to collapse the door. His head opened up, blood spurting in a flood, a cry of pain slipping past clenched teeth.
Jamie just reacted. She seized Courtney's shoulder before the girl even gasped, flung her away. Her feet left the floor, the girl rocketing across the hall and through three lockers.
The crowd parted instantly, a chant of fight rising immediately. Jamie ignored them all, dropping down beside Marcus while he tried to pry himself out of the locker.
"I'm okay," he gasped, blood streaming down his face. "It's just a cut."
He didn't see Jamie's eyes flare red.
"You stupid bitch!" Courtney was up and charging. "You're in more trouble than you can..."
If anything, the backhand was even harder than the throw. Courtney was crashing against the opposite row of lockers before she even saw Jamie's hand move. And before she could pull free, Jamie was on top of her.
Jamie's first punch knocked Courtney against- and through- the wall behind her, both of them spilling into an empty classroom. Courtney got a foot on Jamie's stomach, heaved her over and off- and out the closed windows to the parking lot.
Marcus staggered in the room, watched Courtney throw Jamie outside. The pain in his head surged higher and higher, until he thought his head was exploding. His pendant flashed from a warm green to a searing red, and then back to green...
The pain in his head was gone. In one brief second, every object in the classroom exploded out the exterior wall, Courtney along with it.
Frederick led Mason Gedderick and Kevin O'Reilly across the roof tops, all three Knights moving deftly through the rain.
They'd accounted for three Arions at the Chicago EarthFirst office, managing no Terran casualties. And according to the section leaders that had reported in, the sweep was clean and complete.
The only disappointment had been San Francisco. One of their big fish, En'ya Ezet, had slipped away from the net, along with a couple of Primes and supposedly, a Tset'Lar. And the local FBI had been overly diligent in looking out for potential attacks; the first feds had arrived before the attack team had finished mop-up, almost causing a confrontation.
Come to think of it, there were an awful lot of cops on the streets even here. Maybe the word had gotten around quicker than anticipated.
Mason stumbled, tripped, skidded across a roof on his face. Frederick halted, coming back around while Kevin knelt to help the Knight up.
"Mason?" Frederick took his other arm, levering the man up. He gave his head a violent jerk, air rasping in and out of his lungs over his speakers.
"Sorry, sir," he gasped. "I just got one bloomin' huge psi-spike. Felt like an emergent."
Frederick spread his senses out, felt Kevin doing the same. Sure enough, there it was; no wonder the Dublin team called Mason the Bloodhound. "I have it too. Three miles due north. Let's check it out; I'll inform the others to move out without us."
Jamie grabbed the front end of a Blazer, swung it around and plastered Courtney across the face with it. The back end shriveled, Jamie tossing the useless wreck aside to finish the job herself.
Courtney pulled her head out of the front steps, Jamie's fist bashing her back down.
Jamie had been warned about this, had let her guard slip. Marcus's father was the authority on the Supremis in the US, possibly the world; he was too valuable to risk being in Washington, too valuable to be connected to anything resembling the US military or government, far too valuable to let run around unprotected. By extension, his children needed the same protection. And she'd just fouled it up.
Courtney tried to get up, got smashed back down. The girl was formidable, almost as strong as Jamie was. It wasn't going to matter, though- she'd been trained by Delta Force Green Berets in hand-to-hand combat.
Courtney's fingers found the base of the flagpole, ripped it loose, dropping it on Jamie's head. It crumpled over her skull, bounced off, Jamie landing another punch, windows shattering from the shockwave. Then another, and another, and another.
Courtney's face was streaked with blood, eyes wide. She dodged a final blow, jammed both feet out, knocking Jamie away, then sprinted for daylight, gone in seconds.
Jamie drew in a deep, shuddering breath, calmed herself down, remembered the mission. She ran back up the stairs to the building.
"What the hell..." Frederick bounded off the last building in front of a high school, dashed through a parking lot of wrecked vehicles. "This is Pathfinder. Possible Supremis contact, grid reference one-nine-seven by two-eight-eight. Moving to engage."
"Acknowledged," Micah Ben Jakob replied. "Support team on the move."
Frederick drew his lance, leapt the steps in two strides, Kevin right behind him. "Mason, perimeter!"
One kick knocked the front door down, Kevin hopscotching past him into the hallway. They leapfrogged each other to the stairwell, shoving children and teachers aside, charged up, spotted the emergent slumped against a wall, a blonde girl right next to him.
Neutralizers came out. "Step away from the boy!" Frederick yelled, teen-aged children diving out of the way. "Now!"
She hesitated. Frederick didn't. Two neutralizer bolts slashed out, blasting her down, the Knights rushing to the boy.
Kevin took the boy's head in his hands, delved him. "He's loopy, I think he's taccing. He needs an Activator, right now."
The screams were deafening. Frederick scooped the girl up, slung her over his shoulder, followed Kevin in to a classroom whose windows had been blown out.
A Gryphon hovered over the parking lot, sirens screaming closer. Mason took three running steps, vaulted aboard the lowering hatch, extending his hand to Kevin. He pulled the man aboard, reached out for Frederick, hauling him in and diving after.
"Hatch closed!" Frederick shouted through the cabin. "Micah, get us out of here!"
Three unmarked cars spun into the lot as the Gryphon pivoted, took off, suited men unable to draw weapons fast enough to even get a shot off. And the Knights were gone.
Frederick laid the girl down, opened an equipment hatch, slapped her in an inhibitor harness. Kevin eased his burden to a bench, Kieu Vu kneeling down next to them.
"Who's this?" full brown eyes swept the boy, her lip caught in her teeth, hands hovering an inch above Marcus's chest.
"The emergent. I got a really bizarre delve off him; you'd better check him out," Kevin slid his helmet off, caught Frederick's utility belt as the man slipped past, settled himself in the rear command chair. Frederick was a foot too tall to cram himself into a cockpit.
He lifted his commset, wired in. "Micah, what's the sitch?"
"Leaving Chicago airspace, Commander," the pilot replied. "No pursuit spotted. I've routed our flight plan directly for Seattle."
"Seattle?" Frederick said. "Why there?"
"Sorry, sir, this came in while you were out," he handed back a datapad, fixed his eyes out the canopy. Frederick read it over, nodded to himself.
"Okay, Micah, Seattle it is."