Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 01 June 2020 20:35] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 06 June 2020 21:30]
Alec pulled them up to the parking strip, recognizing the other vehicles from Alternate One. Caslav Milosof trotted down the steps, clad in civvies.
"Doesn't it ever stop raining here?" he asked, his accent still stubbornly thick. "This is worse than being in London."
Alec shook his head. "It's only been two days, Sof. Give it a chance."
"If the choices are here and Tibet," he replied wryly, "I'll take Tibet. Me and some of the guys are gonna go pack us up, check out; we'll be back in an hour. Willem and the Masters are inside."
Alec nodded, went up the walk. Julia trailed along, face set.
He let her go ahead into the lift, the doors sliding closed. Slowly, his hand reached for hers, held it tight. Before it stopped, he bent down, kissed her cheek; when he walked out, she didn't let his hand go.
Somack waited at the junction, smiled at them both. "The Protector?" he inquired lightly.
"Later," he motioned to Ops. "What's going on here?"
"Several things have developed…"
They walked into Ops, three new faces peering back at him. Somack stepped around Alec, folded his arms into his robes.
"Archon, Technician Anterion, Knight McNamera, and Activator Reynolds," he intoned. "Children, Alec Collins, Archon of the Order."
Eyes bugged out, all three falling to their knees. Alec's expression mirrored their own.
"Who the hell are these guys?" he snapped. "And who the hell authorized a back-up facility here?"
"One of the developments," Somack pitched his voice down, urging Alec to do the same. "They have orders, properly coded by the First Triumvere."
Alec ground his teeth together so hard Julia thought they would break. "You three, get up. Save the kowtowing for a Triumvere. Where is Torik?"
"He and Willem are surveying the facility," Somack chose his words carefully. "It appears to be three times larger than the San Francisco safehouse."
"I see," Alec turned to the Tech. "Mr… Anterion, correct?"
The guy almost fell over bowing. "Yes, Lord Archon. Michael Anterion."
Alec sighed. "One or the other, Mr. Anterion, not both at once. This computer work?"
He flushed red before he answered. "Yessir."
"Good, I need a comm line to the Citadel, please," he studied the other two while he sat down. "Knight, huh? You any good?"
"I'm a Knight, sir," Brennan looked a little spooked, and a little sullen.
"That's one answer," Alec grinned. "Go find Master Torik, ask him to spar with you. Tell him I sent you."
He bowed from the waist, turned on his heel, all but stalked out. Alec returned his attention to Paige. "When we get a few more people here, young lady, I would imagine Lady Sorala would like to chat with you. Until then, would you be kind enough to give Dr. Brooks here a tour of the safehouse?"
"Of course, My Lord," she stammered, dropping a deep curtsy. "Doctor? This way."
Julia followed, Alec spinning to the computer. Michael Anterion finished setting it up, took the hint, faded away, the chamber closing when he left.
Alec exploded. "What the hell are you doing here?! And you brought Arwyn too?! Who gave Willem stupid pills this morning?"
"I insisted…" Somack began. Alec cut him off.
"You're the one telling me I don't get to risk my life anymore!" he retorted. "Well, newsflash, you don't either! Read me?"
The Cleric inclined his head. "As you command, Archon."
Alec snorted. His command would last exactly as long as it suited Somack, and they both knew it. "Other than stumbling over an intact safehouse, what else is going on?"
"Frederick is on his way here; there was an incident at a high school in Chicago, involving both a possible Supremis and an emergent. His team should arrive in ten minutes; otherwise, Operation: Achilles was a complete success. The Arions have been almost completely eliminated.
"Torik ordered Coriana and Kon arrested and imprisoned. I spoke with Sorala," Somack's kindly voice took on an edge of tempered steel. "Coriana admitted complicity with the Kaldec. In front of her, Thien, and ten Knights."
Alec slammed his clenched fist into the polycarbon panel, winced at the pain; he'd shucked his blacks before the ride over. He ignored it, flexing his fingers. "What else?"
"Casimir asked that you call him immediately upon your return, something of great importance," Somack reached out, took Alec's hand. "Breaking your hand will not accomplish much."
He let the Cleric heal him, nodded thanks. "All right, Cas is up first."
"You spoke to Mazar? The Augur Mazar?"
Cas shrugged. "He walked right in here, asked to speak with you. I told him where you were, and he told me he wants you to come down to the Vault when you get back. He said it would be of great interest to you."
"Wha… never mind, you don't know either," he rubbed at his eyes, blinked them clear. "Is Gabriel there?"
"Here, Alec," the man leaned over Cas's shoulder, face tight. "What do you need?"
"Scrap the Seattle plan. Reroute the Achilles teams back here, get everyone saddled up and out here by morning our time. Bring as many Crusaders as you can; I want to give the Kaldec a couple of different looks."
"Understood; we'll begin leaving in three hours. What else?"
Alec paused for a moment. "Bring Sorala and some Activators, and a full Tech team. We're gonna make this place the new Citadel."
Gabriel grinned wickedly. "Understood. Citadel out."
Alec closed the circuit, stared at the panel for a minute, dialed up a number from memory.
It took a few seconds. "Hello?" a woman's voice said.
"We met this morning," Alec said quietly. "Things went poorly. I'd like a chance to try again, on a better note."
A pause. "I imagine that's possible. Where and when? You asked me last time."
"Are you free in an hour or so?"
"I can be. Where?"
"The Oregon coast. The item I gave you this morning will direct you in," he leaned back, almost smiled. "I'll even bring lunch."
The voice laughed. "Done. An hour."
"Good-bye," he killed the line. Somack smiled.
"You'll learn diplomacy yet," the Cleric said. "Even with the Supremis. The Velorians are far more open-minded than the Arions."
"How long does it take for the wisdom to come?" Alec scrubbed his eyes. "'Cause I could sure use some right about now. All this havoc and we haven't even really squared off with the Kaldec yet."
"Eliminating the Arions was a good first step," Somack argued. "We have an established foothold. We have rooted traitors from our midst. We have begun relations with the Protector. We have a team observing the Kaldec command point. The war is only three days old; it was far worse in the first few hours."
"I guess," Alec stretched out of the chair. "I have some cooking to do. What do Velorians eat, anyway?"
Alec settled for a portable food faber, digging out his own cookbook datapad, swapping the memory components. He stuffed the faber in an old-fashioned wicker basket, figured a checkered blanket would be too hokey, humped the basket to the hangar.
It was full of gleaming Raptors, Gryphons, the medium fighter Shrikes, a row of skimmers. He twisted his lips into a snarl; Coriana had obviously had something big in mind for this place. This place, and the twenty-three kids she'd pulled in here.
He lifted the basket in to a Raptor, flipped the system up to standby. Julia was standing behind him when he slid down to the apron.
"Are you… you're going to go see her again, aren't you?" she folded her arms, tapping her foot.
"I'm going to try to make right," he replied, meeting her eyes, "what I did wrong this morning. It's better to try before too much time has passed."
"Hey," he came closer, making her look up at him. "I'm going for a meeting. I'm coming home to you. That's the way it's gonna be, here on out. And you get more than equal time, always."
"Yeah," she turned away, he dodged in front of her.
"You tell me what I gotta do," he said, stooping down to look her in the eyes, "and I'll do it. No questions, no complaints, it'll just happen."
He couldn't read her eyes, but something flashed through them, and she relaxed a touch. "Okay. Deal."
She wrapped her arms around him, pulling him to her with almost ferocious strength, kissed him hard and full on the lips. He hugged back, kissed back, both of them easing away at the same time.
"Wow," he gasped, rolling his jaw a bit. "That was some kiss…"
Her cheeks flushed a little. He gave her a soft kiss on the forehead, climbed back up to the cockpit. She backed up enough for him to lift off, guide the Raptor out the launch tunnel.
Somack awaited her at the hangar entrance. He offered a shoulder, let her lean on him. His gentle fingertips brushed away a tear. "Listen to me, child. No matter what you think, I have peered into the boy's mind. Regardless of where he looks, what he sees, where he is, he thinks only of you."
She nodded, let the Cleric lead her back inside.
The storm was breaking.
Alec watched the clouds begin to separate, sea air rushing over his face while he sat on the wing of his Raptor. The winds were starting to ease a bit, rain finally blowing itself out.
He expanded his mind, feeling for minds and the Green. Plenty of flora, but no minds singing back to him, at least not close…
He smiled, eyes still closed. Well, maybe a couple…
A pack of marmots scrambled out of the dunes, hopping up on the wings, climbing in his lap, scurrying around furiously. He laughed as a pup clambered up his back, nuzzled his way into the neck of his sweatshirt, furrowed around looking for snacks.
Alec reached into the cockpit next to him, cracked open the emergency rations cans hidden under the seat. The tiny animals lined themselves up, raising on their hind legs and waiting patiently.
He spread the cans around, letting them eat to their hearts' content. Better them than him.
The pack elder ran up his arm, perched on his shoulder with a cracker in his mouth. You come, Brother of the Green, why?
Negotiations, Alec scratched his head, the critter pushing back against his hand. The cities are no place to do so; here, the Green thrives. Here, thoughts are clear, emotions controlled.
Who would not listen to a Brother? the animal was shocked by such an absurd notion. Or worse, seek to do one harm? Even Man is not so foolish.
My foolishness caused this mishap, he explained. The marmot snorted.
The Brothers rarely err. Wisdom comes from the Green, and from those who guard it. None are as steadfast as the Brotherhood, even those Men who proclaim the Green at the top of their lungs.
He climbed over Alec's head, ran down the other arm, gathering his pack with a yip. Listen to the Green, Brother. And follow where it leads you.
Alec watched them run back into the grass-topped dunes, pulled his warlance out of the cockpit, slid to the sand. He shucked his sweatshirt, extended his lance, spun it around.
He opened his mind, touching the Green, letting movement flow without thought. He danced his way through one kata, then a second, and a third, eyes closed, footwork certain. His muscles loosened, his mind cleared; for the first time since this nightmare had started, he felt in control, back in balance.
He sensed her coming. A strong mind, in a stronger body, her pure joy at unfettered flight, even after so long. Many other emotions; he shied away from probing and let his mind slip from the Green.
The whoosh around her body, the soft thud of her feet on the sand. He could hear her heart, hear the air flowing in and out of her lungs, smell her scent- the heady scent of a Virago, sweet and lush and feminine, to match the body that came with it.
"You like to be early, don't you?" he asked quietly. He could whisper, and she would hear him. Her laugh was musical, tinkling chimes in a curling breeze.
"An old habit, one I've found more useful than not."
"I'm usually late," he closed down his lance, reached for his sweatshirt. It leapt off the sand, landed in his hand.
She watched with interest. She was decked out in the full regalia- white halter, short red skirt, boots, cape. He climbed the shallow dune to his Raptor, dropped his warlance in, pulled out the basket.
Kara's eyes widened. "An actual wicker basket?"
"I'm a traditionalist," he fished a large blanket out, and a big umbrella. "Except I don't do checkered blankets."
She followed along after him. He picked a spot not too far from the craft, spread the blanket, set the umbrella against the gentling wind. He let Kara seat herself, sat opposite, pulling the faber from the basket.
"What's that?" she leaned closer for a better look; a human affectation.
"It's a food faber," he fiddled with the touchpad, made sure the cookbook was in right, sat back. "Tell it what you want, and it'll make it."
She looked skeptical. "You sure it won't eat me?"
"Computer," he paused, Kara feeling a faint tickle at her mind, "chocolate fudge sundae. Extra fudge, extra whipped cream."
It hummed, briefly, then flipped open, offering a towering sundae on a raised platter. She sniffed it, lifted the spoon- it even gave her a spoon!- took a careful bite.
Flavors exploded across her tongue, the fudge rich, ice cream smooth and cold, the cream textured as it slid down her throat. "Oh. My."
He grinned, crossing his legs at the ankles, propping his elbows on his knees. "Go ahead, it isn't laced with anything."
She took the glass, took a second bite. No fluke, it was as good as the first.
"Computer, pastrami sandwich with provolone, warmed, fries, raw pickle, and a Coke," it took the machine a few seconds longer, but sure enough, it was there.
He lifted his meal, set it in his lap, gave Kara another considering look. "Computer, cocoa, double chocolate, seventy five degrees Centigrade."
It complied while he took a bite of his sandwich, Kara giving him a dazzling smile. "I should have lunch with you more often. Like every day."
He ducked his head, staring at the ocean. "Well, after this morning, I guess that's a good sign. I wanted to apologize. You caught me on… a bad day."
Kara plopped her spoon in her sundae glass. "I was going to say the same thing."
… "I've been watching your career for a long time, ever since I joined the Order," he replied, turning slightly to stretch his legs off the blanket. "A lot of that had to do with the Arions, trying to decide what you would do when we had to move against them. After a while, it stopped being about … you… and started being about …The Protector… Bad things happen when individuals become titles instead of people."
He sampled his pickle, sighed. "Stupid thing still can't make a decent dill."
He dropped it back on his plate. "Lot of pressure, I would imagine, being a Protector. The line between protecting and interfering can get pretty thin."
"Sometimes," she sipped her cocoa. It was as good as the sundae. "You would know as well as I do."
He grunted. "I don't have a Prime Directive. Our Edicts are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. My…our mission is the defense of Earth. How we do it is our business. But we have a few Kalrist running around, making sure we don't go overboard."
"The Kalrist are here?" she dropped her spoon, eyes wide. "For how long?"
He shrugged, lifting one shoulder. "Fifteen thousand or so years, thereabouts. I told you, the Order fought the Galen the first time they came. A couple of the other times too, Lord Somack wasn't very specific when I asked him about it."
"How would he know and you wouldn't? Isn't it all in the same database?"
"No, Somack was there when it happened," he paused for a bite, chewed thoughtfully. "Torik was too, but he won't talk about it at all."
Kara goggled. "But that… that was five thousand years ago!"
"So? Somack's almost twenty; Torik turns seventeen in 2010," he sipped his Coke, set it back in the sand. "Somack was on Kaldor before the Schism, helped plant some of the other Orders during the Cataclysm. He was First Triumvere when the Compact was made."
"Twenty thousand years old?" Kara breathed. "Wow. That's old."
"He moves pretty good for a fossil," Alec laughed. "Couple hundred of him around during the Schism, the Kaldec would never have taken over the planet. Maybe some of this could have been avoided."
He paused, looking at the ocean. "So many worlds, so many lives, for so long. Like being a Protector, only worse. Training warriors to fight, only to watch them die, unable to stem the Kaldec tide. Fighting them himself, until he came here."
She could sense the deep respect this unusual man had for his alien teacher.
Alec shook himself, set his plate down. "Anyway, I came to apologize. I'm not generally an arrogant, swaggering ass; it's been a particularly unnerving few days. But that's really no excuse."
His sincerity touched her. "Apology accepted."
He inclined his head gratefully. "Thank you."
"What are your plans?" she asked quietly, setting her sundae aside. "Besides the Arions?"
He shrugged. "We've already dealt with them. We missed seven or eight, but not for very long. We intercepted some intelligence that suggests the United States government is aware of some of our activities, but beyond that, we're going to find the Kaldec, and ram our fist right down their throats. After that, we deal with the fallout."
Kara stood up, dusting sand from her rump. "I've given this a great deal of thought. And I've decided that it isn't a violation of the Prime Directive to help an indigenous force repel an incursion. And if it is, screw the Council. Count me in."
Alec got up as well, accepted the offered hand. "Done. Welcome aboard, ally."
Julia pushed herself away from the microscope array, frowning at the results. The girl from Chicago lay on a table in an isolation booth, the small glass-walled room sealed and shielded.
Somack sat beside her, his lined face equally grave. He'd demonstrated the equipment for Julia, then sat back and let her work. Fearing the result that now spun around on the holopod.
Somack didn't know what to say. He studied the DNA strand in the holoimage, marveling to himself at the complexity. Then he noticed something, his eyes narrowing, but his lips staying fixed closed.
Julia slapped her palm down on the counter, denting the polished steel. "Who the hell is this girl, and what the hell is she doing with my formula?!"
"I do not know," Somack replied, rising to his feet, "but it is past time we found out."
A pair of shadows stirred from the corners, two Knights lifting weapons as they stood. Somack motioned one forward as he entered the confinement room. "Raphael, please come with me."
The towering Italian holstered his neutralizer, shucked his helmet, revealing finely-boned features and stunning blue eyes. He heeled Somack through the door, positioning himself at the girl's feet while Somack stepped to the head of the table.
"You will need to keep her still," the Cleric settled his fingers lightly on the girl's smooth brow. "This will not be pleasant."
Raphael nodded. His eyes glazed over, a faint blue sheen surrounding his head, then the girl's body. Somack's face tensed, a gray glow around his purple eyes, fingers tracing along her forehead.
"National… Security… Agency…" he murmured, voice eerily hollow. "Special Agent Jamie Hamacker… protection detail… Dr. Carter Sheridan… Special Adjutant to the National Security Adviser… Extraterrestrial Phenomena…"
His fingers tightened. "Experimental project… data culled from GeneTech… frozen lab rat… gene sequencing… unauthorized genetic development… physical enhancement… trio of test subjects…"
Somack broke contact, heaved a massive sigh. "There is not much more there. The neutralizers are inhibiting her synaptic pathways. We will know more when she awakens, when we can question her in a more conventional manner."
He glanced out of the confinement room, and Julia was gone.
Everyone else had packed and gone. Julia sat by herself in the suite she'd shared with Alec, staring at nothing in the darkness, one leg stretched out on the bed, the other knee tucked up against her chin.
More mistakes. She couldn't get away from them…
"I told Willem to leave the suite for us for a couple of days."
She had, of course, heard him at the elevator when he got off on their floor. She didn't even blink at him.
He left the lights off, his footfalls so silent she wouldn't have heard them if she hadn't been listening for them. Alec sat in a wing chair, ten or so feet from the bed, leaned back.
"Somack said you left."
"I needed some air," her chin bobbed on her knee as she spoke, eyes still fixed on nothing. "And when I was done, I didn't want to go back to the hole in the ground."
"Okay," he replied, rising. "I'll get my stuff and get out of your way."
He started for the door.
"Do you think I'm a horrible person?"
He stopped. "What kind of question is that? Don't be absurd. Of course not."
"Are you sure?" she asked. "How much do you really know about me?"
He shrugged. "Enough."
Alec sat back down. "You love Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Ice Cream. Your favorite movie is To Kill A Mockingbird. You thought Jurassic Park was ridiculously contrived, but admit to liking Independence Day and Men In Black. Your favorite real book is The Prince of Tides, and you also like Jordan Sinclair and John Grisham, but you prefer to read every medical journal and genetics paper you can get your hands on. You are fond of Shakespearian drama, were at one time an avid theater connoisseur. You hate opera, country music, and rap. You have an unhealthy fixation on 1980's rock and pop bands, having actually paid money on repeated occasions to see various reunion tours, exemplified by the fact that you own every album Huey Lewis and Rick Springfield have ever produced. Your father's name is Anthony, your mother's is Anne-Marie. You have one sister, Caroline, who has two daughters."
She sighed. "How deep did you go?"
He smiled slightly. "Most of it I gathered from when I was in your cabin. The rest, well, when you aren't concentrating, your mind tends to broadcast a little. I just paid attention."
"Well, I guess you made me out to be wrong," she replied. "I guess you know me better than I figured."
"It isn't a contest."
"Maybe it should be."
He leaned towards her just a bit. "What is bringing this on?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Just thinking. That you were right. I shouldn't be in the middle of this."
"Okay," he stood up once more. "I'll get my stuff. Stay as long as you want to, it's taken care of."
He scooped up his suitcase, popped open the closet, tossed a few clothes in, zippered his bag shut and walked out.
"Just like that?" she called from the bedroom, following him out to the sitting room. "I say I'm going and you leave?"
"Pretty much, yeah," he switched hands on the suitcase, balancing himself. “If you want to leave, why shouldn't you?"
"You have all the answers, don't you?" Julia hugged herself, turning away. "Whatever."
"I want you to stay. I think you're confusing that with wanting to make you stay," he set his bag down, moved away from the door. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Everything. This was supposed to be the cure-all. All it's done has been one disaster after another."
He sat down on the sofa. "Sometimes getting the keys to the kingdom isn't all it's cracked up to be."
He paused, finding his own nothingness to watch. "First thing I learned as a Knight was how to kill. Barehanded, with my mind, with a variety of weapons. The second thing I learned was that life was sacred, taking it was a last resort. What sets us apart from the Arions or the Kaldec."
She had wandered to the window, staring out at the breaking gloom. "I grew up plain, did you know that? I was the girl who was the wallflower, who never had a boyfriend, never went to dances, none of those things. Just Julia. That was me.
"I had it all. Asthma. Nearsighted. Clumsy. Insecure. Too smart, but too stupid to hide it. I was a piece of work."
"Don't do this," his voice was on the edge of pleading. "People make judgments on so many stupid levels, especially children."
"If you'd met me before, you wouldn't even…"
"I did meet you before. That was when I fell in love with you," he got up, stood beside her at the window. "I doubt you'd remember. It was seven years ago; I looked a lot differently than I do now. You were a speaker at a genetics symposium at Berkeley, Positing Genetic Breakthroughs and Conflicting Data. I forged some credentials and sneaked into the conference, because I'd read your paper on DNA resequencing in damaged tissues, and I thought it was brilliant."
He smiled at his reflection in the window. "I had dark hair five inches longer and glasses. I was three inches shorter and twenty pounds lighter. I thought you were the most beautiful woman in the world when I saw you speaking. I tried to talk to you after your speech. I couldn't get through the throng."
"I was frumpy and chubby and …"
"You're talking to someone who doesn't only see with his eyes, Julia," he took hold of her shoulders, steered her to the big mirror on the wall. His fingers traced along her cheeks, his eyes as intense as hers were sad.
Her reflection rippled, her features dulling, until the face that looked back was the one she had wanted to change her whole life.
"That is beautiful," his lips perched on her ear, his breath warm on her skin. "The outside is only the shell. You were so lovely, it made my throat hurt."
She tried to pull away. "No. NO. I was ugly, and homely, and… and…"
He sighed. "Keep watching. See what I see."
The reflection began to glow, a multitude of colors melding into an incandescent aura. It blurred her features, leaving only an image of a woman, made of a spectrum of light.
… He rested his chin lightly on her head. "You'd stand out like a rose in a field of dandelions. This is why. I love you for ……this……, the real you. Not what ……this…… is packaged in."…
Alec wrapped his arms around her chest, hugging her own arms under his. "I fell in love with you seven years ago. I wonder how different my life would have been if I had said something then. I do know one thing. I'm a better person because I got the chance to try again. Because you are the most amazing, incredible, truly beautiful woman I've ever met."
Julia looked at the image in the mirror again. The light was still there shrouding her body, yet for the first time, she could put an emotion to the expression on Alec's face.
"Sometimes," he said, pecking her head, "It's better to see through someone else's eyes. Prevents tunnel vision."
His hands slipped away. He took hold of his suitcase, started out the door.
"Stay as long as you need," he said, closing the door behind him.
… "… so Gabriel and the first group from the Citadel will arrive in an hour," Frederick handed over a datapad, smiled at Arwyn. "Ten Gryphons, sixty Knights, seventy ……Crusaders……."…
Michael Anterion nodded from his seat next to Somack. "Rooms and facilities are being prepared, Archon. I have also received the Crusader specs from the mainframe, have programmed our fabers to begin construction immediately."
"Good," Alec scanned the pad, slid it back. "As soon as Gabriel's group arrives, Frederick, I want you to signal Morrigan, tell her team to stand to. Then make preparations for an assault on Alpha Point. Eighty Knights, and every Crusader and Skirmisher we can cram on a Grif. Raptors, artillery, the works."
"Understood," Frederick tapping commands in to his pad.
"Lord Somack, Arwyn, and I are returning to the Citadel," his mood darkened, Michael swallowing hard. "There are a couple of matters to attend to. Gabriel will take command as soon as he arrives."
Frederick made a noncommittal sound. "Dr. Brooks?"
Alec blew out a breath. "Undecided. If she comes, let her in. If not, leave her be."
"Leave. Her. Be." the voice of command. Frederick straightened his shoulders, jerked his head in acknowledgment. Alec swiveled his head towards Arwyn. "Go get your things. We'll probably be gone until tomorrow."
She bounced up, ran off. Alec rose. "We'll be leaving in fifteen minutes. Anything else?"
Both of them shook their heads. Somack stood, followed Alec from Ops, his Staff tapping rhythmically as they strode down the hall.
Once they entered Alec's expansive quarters, Somack caught his sleeve. "When will you speak?"
Alec tugged his arm away. "Not now."
He stripped his sweatshirt off, tossed it in the autocleaner, then his sweatpants, rubbing his new armor on. "This is the wrong time to be love-struck. Twenty-five thousand years of warfare are coming to a head. I'm the point of the spear. Point's gotta get snapped off to ram the blade home, that's the price of admission."
"A spear without a point is not as effective," Somack laid his Staff on one shoulder. "A warrior who wastes his life does himself and his fellows a disservice."
"I won't waste my life," his shield-arm slid into place, Alec hooking his utility belt around his waist. "I'm not afraid to die, either."
Somack muttered under his breath, something stylized and lyrical. Alec ignored him, reaching for the kit bag he kept packed. "You cussing at me in Kalrist isn't going to make me any less…"
"Reckless? Foolhardy? Obstinate?" Somack's voice whipcracked across the room. "One life balances itself to yours. The potential for another rests in your palm. The fate of the Galaxy hinges on where you point. You will face down the rulers of the Galaxy. If the cost for that is your soul, then the price is too high."
Alec snorted. "This isn't philosophy any more, Somack. I've Crossed the Line. I will pay Honor's Cost. No matter what."
"A man is judged by the totality of his life, my son."
Alec slammed his bag down. "I damned myself the day I took hold of a lance, Somack. You know it. I stink of Death already. Before this is over, it'll be even worse. I can't care about that. I won't care about that."
He slipped his carry-all over his shoulder. "If you're coming to the Citadel, be in the hangar in five minutes."
Gryphon 27 crouched on the pad at the base of the launch tunnel. Arwyn scampered aboard, Alec behind her, Somack behind him, along with one other.
Julia had her bag over her shoulder, her arm linked with Somack's, the Cleric leading her to the transport. She broke away, walking to Alec's side, opened her mouth…
He laid a finger on her lips, caught her up in a hug, Julia squeezing until his ribs trembled. She went up the ramp, Somack on her heels. Alec pulled himself up the side, started to cycle the ramp shut.
"Supremis Incursion!" the intercom barked. "Defensive positions! Repeat, Supremis Incursion!"
Alec toggled his wrist comm. "Computer, belay alert! Open launch tunnel!"
The big hangar doors swung open, a pack of heavily armed Knights rushing in. Alec waved them off at the same moment Kara Zor'el dropped into sight, landing lightly next to the Gryphon. Her eyes widened at the hangar, and the ship, and the not-amused Knights pointing weapons at her, each in turn.
Somack's head came back out of the hatch. Alec crossed his arms, taking in Kara. "Next time, call first. The computer almost shot you down."
She shook herself, cleared her throat. "I did call. I got a busy signal."
"I was busy," a ghost of a smile crossed his lips, Knights filing back out of the hangar. "What can I do for you?"
"I wanted to talk to… where are you going?"
Now she was really confused. "What's in Tibet?"
"Come along," he said, ducking inside, "and I'll show you."
She trotted aboard as the ramp closed, glancing around at the four other people in the transport. "Hello."
Alec gestured to Somack. "Lord Somack, High Cleric of the Order, may I present Kara'Lynn Zenerha-Shar Zor'el, Virago, Protector of Earth."
He took her hand gently, bowed over it. "It is a pleasure to meet you, child."
She blushed slightly. Arwyn peered at her from next to Julia, smiled wanly when Alec nodded to her. "You already know Dr. Brooks. Next to her is Arwyn… Collins. My daughter."
This time Kara stared. Alec didn't even notice. "And this gentleman is Hirotohashi Isamu, our pilot."
Isamu looked her up and down, shrugged, climbed through a narrow doorway. Alec followed him. "Strap in, folks, let's get moving."
Somack steered Kara to a seat, Julia and Arwyn settling down opposite, the Cleric placidly hitching his seatbelt around his waist. He smiled serenely at Kara's stare, folding his hands in the sleeves of his robes, until they had banked out of the tunnel and were in open sky.
"If you have a question, child," he intoned, "please, ask it. I doubt you will surprise me."
She should be bristling at the child remark, but this man seemed to radiate a blanket of calm around him. She tossed her head, took in a breath. "Alec said… he told me you were twenty thousand years old."
"Yes," his eyes twinkled. "I remember the birth of your race. All three of them, in fact. I even… met… Skietra on a couple of occasions."
"But… why haven't you made yourselves known before now?" Kara asked. "We could learn so much from you…"
Somack smiled. "Your people chose their path long ago, Protector. We did as well. Those paths do not intersect. The Velorians have chosen to not interfere with the development of culture. We have entered into partnership with dozens of races to teach them to protect themselves. The goal is perhaps the same, but our methods are startlingly different."
Somack shook his head. "Our war was ancient when the Galen and Diaboli first clashed. Our philosophies have become the driving force of our existence; one of them is that we have avoided open contact with the progeny of the Galen and the Diaboli. Their folly taught us the danger of imposing our values upon others."
The aged Kalrist sighed. "We battled the Galen when they came for the Scandanians. We failed to move decisively, because we were uncertain of the correctness of our actions. There is no doubt in my mind we could have defeated them, but we did not. The Galaxy has paid the price for that error in judgment."
He rolled his Staff in his palm, staring back through the ages. "The God Wars. The Supremis Schism. The rise of the Arions, and their domination of the Galaxy. The Gehemite seclusion. The Kintzi. You alone have protected five worlds before Earth, you understand what I mean.
"There have been certain… moments of atonement," his voice abruptly took on an edge, just as quickly softening back into his soothing baritone, "but on the whole, we have proven unable to even protect our brothers from the Kaldec scourge, much less the Arions. Thus far, we have failed in our mission."
Alec's head craned from the cockpit. He flashed both Arwyn and Julia a smile, frowned at Somack. "Enough with the past. The Kaldec face us now. And they'll learn the same thing we've taught the Arions. Earth is the Mak'gra, so long as the Order stands."
He withdrew, the cockpit sliding closed. Kara raised an eyebrow, but it was Arwyn who answered.
"Mak'gra," she said stoutly. "The Killing Grounds."
Julia nodded. "We don't bury our heads in the sand, waiting for whatever traipses along to come to us. Kaldec, Arion, Kintzi, Velorian, it makes no difference. Earth is our home; we'll protect it, however we have to."
Kara studied the two other women for a few moments, then spoke. "Doctor, have I offended you in some way?"
"You have all of that power," Julia growled, folding her arms under her breasts, "and you haven't done a whole lot to stop the Arions from running roughshod over this world. You've been here for sixty years; the Order wiped out in an hour what you've let slowly grow for decades."
"The Prime Directive…" Kara began, only to be cut off.
"… is a convenient excuse. For when you don't want to get involved. You get to throw up your hands and say, it isn't my problem. Regardless of who gets hurt in the process," she retorted. "I've seen the films of the Bosnian battlefields, where the Serbs got their hands on some light Arion weapons from Zhatran Sultane. How many people died because of those arms, Protector? And where were you when this was going on?"
"Where was the Order?" Kara shot back. Arwyn stirred next to Julia, eyes hard.
"In the middle of the fighting," the girl's voice was brittle. "Saving lives. Healing the wounded. Trying to prevent the carnage from getting any worse. Ten of us died in the conflict; how many did you lose? Or in the Kaldec landing that happened at the same time? Do you want me to tell you how many of those ten died because of Arion weapons?"
"You want blame?" Alec rose from the cockpit, the hatch hissing closed behind him. "Then blame me. Blame all of us. We weren't hamstrung with a Prime Directive, the threat of a death sentence for doing the right thing. We weren't being hunted by the military. We still stood by, plenty of times, until it was too late to make a difference. The Order, Arwyn, is a far cry from perfect."
Somack opened his mouth, Alec riding right over the top of him. "This mess isn't the Velorians' fault, or the Kalrist's, or anybody other than us. We listened to the voice of command instead of the voice of our hearts. So, point the finger at me, but get the hell out of my way."
He stormed down the aisle, slapped the drop bay open, and stepped inside. It slammed shut behind him.
Somack waited for twenty minutes before he followed Alec into the drop bay. His prized pupil sat with his back to a bulkhead, legs crossed, elbows resting on his knees, staring at nothing.
The sight brought back fond memories, a young boy more intense than Adepts twice his age, questioning everything around him, striving to be the best.
Alec smiled up at the Kalrist, watched him lower himself to the deck. "You should be sitting somewhere comfortable."
"I am spry enough to handle a floor for a while," he smiled in reply. "You have developed quite the penchant for masochism."
"Sitting around arguing about whose fault this garbage is is a waste of time," Alec leaned his head against the bulkhead, eyes closing. "Fighting the Kaldec isn't going to be enough anymore. We need to do more. We need to take responsibility for what we have become. The guardians of this world, and the lives on it. Human, non-human, alien, whatever."
"Soon, the others will be coming. The Dracon, the Centauri, the rest of them. Once they arrive, they become my responsibility. Their lives are mine to guard. Doesn't it follow that the rest of the Galaxy is worthy of the same consideration?"
Somack crossed his own legs. "I am not certain. Why do you not tell me?"
Alec grunted. "Of course it is. Easy to answer, harder to do."
"Most things are."
Another grunt. "We're going to win, Master. We're going to beat them."
"Yes, lad," he said softly. "I believe we are."