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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 1

Written by mechjok :: [Sunday, 17 May 2020 18:00] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 23 May 2020 18:12]

Last of the Fallen

A monastery hidden in the Tibetan Himalayas:

Rough-hewn stone towers reached towards the sprawling mountain peaks. Millennia of wind, snow, and rain had worn the walls smooth, except the glistening bronze medal hanging on the central spire, a sphinx etched in raised relief.

The building had been ancient when Babylon was born. Endless generations of men had stood the watch from this place, preparing for Those Who Conquer to finally come. Bastions of order had fallen on other worlds, the reigns of galactic power had changed hands repeatedly, but Those Who Defend had stood fast, here, on a handful of other worlds, preparing. Watching. Waiting. Fearing.

The monastery was vast, the highest number of Initiates in centuries walking the corridors now, barely filling a tenth of the expanse. Copper-banded oaken doors opened and closed quietly, men and women walking the halls in silence, the occasional hooded figure mixed in among the humans, the masters observing their charges.

Hidden in the labyrinth of halls sat three calcified men. Wrapped in orange robes, staring at a pit ringed with scrolled stones, flames from an eternal pyre leaping ten feet towards the fifty-foot dome, the only movement in the room were the dancing shadows and the rise and fall of their chests.

Even the masters weren't sure how old the Augurs were. They simply… were, having taken up their station as soon as the central Vault had been completed, twenty years after the Exodus. The pyre burned with no source of fuel, no one had ever seen them eat, they spoke only once about every century or so. Among the mythic, they were an enigma shrouded in a mystery, sitting, watching, waiting.

The last time one had spoken had been twelve years before, to direct Those Who Defend towards a spectacular potential. Mazar, the Speaker, had lapsed into silence immediately after making his wishes known to Master Torik. Twelve years before.

Flowing script had been delicately etched in the polished obsidian, work done by no mortal hand. Writing in no human language, a language that had almost died fifteen thousand years before. Desperation had saved it. Desperation wasn't going to be enough this time.

In unison, three heads bent to the ceiling, three pairs of eyes rolling back into their heads, three mouths opening, one voice echoing through the Vault.

"They come," the voice said. "She comes."

Presidio Park, San Francisco, California. November 10, 2001:

Sixty-two degrees. Light breezes blowing off the Bay. Sunlight filtering through light clouds. A perfect day for football.

Except for the wet grass.

Alec Collins stretched, fingertips just barely snagging the pebbled skin of the football. He snatched it from the air, tugged it close, already bracing his body for the impact. Santiago Villigatos tried to slow down, skidded on the wet grass, plowed right into Alec, both of them sprawling to the ground, sending roostertails through the air. Alec rolled over, sliding on his back, the football raised triumphantly as he slid over the goal line.

The sidelines erupted in cheers. Jack Collins pumped his fist in the air, hopping up and down in front of Aidan Marks, the other man staring at the ground, hands on his hips.

"The first four rounds, Marko!" Jack bellowed, face lit with a huge grin. "Again!"

Aidan grinned, shoved Jack playfully. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what else is new?"

The traditional taunting was in full swing, alumni from the University of San Francisco's Schlatter Hall in the faces of their counterparts from Holmgren Hall. For the last ten years, the second Saturday in November had been the Bay Bowl, a time for old friends to keep the ritual of mindless athletics alive. What had started as a handful of men running around the grass had become something so much more, a chance to remain in touch, keep abreast of what had happened in the six months since the annual softball game in the same park.

Families lined the field, sitting on folding chairs, perched on coolers heavy with food, the next generation of USF alums racing around on the playground equipment Santiago's architectural firm had donated specifically to this park.

Alec offered the lanky man a hand, hoisting him up. Santiago grinned, grabbed Alec up in a head-lock, applied a noogie. "Next year, squirt. I'm gonna own your ass."

"Yeah, sure," the younger man pried Gato's arm loose, slipped free. "You been saying that to me for the last five years, man. Just give it up."

"Whatever," he swung a companionable arm around Alec's shoulders. "You better come see Mariah before you hook up with Jack and Andy, or she's gonna come to your house and drag you over by force."

Alec smiled. "Okay. You brought towels, right?"

Jack trotted off the field, Andrea Collins hopping out of her chair to give him a big hug- and a towel. Aidan clapped his shoulder, gave Andy a peck on the cheek. "We brought subs and a pot of smokies. Whatcha got?"

Andy hoisted a big insulated bucket to the top of their cooler. "Chicken, twice-baked potatoes, and Alec's world-famous Barbecued Ribbon Steaks. All in this handy warmer, also courtesy of the brother-in-law."

Aidan surveyed the contraption. "That is pretty slick. What, he built this himself? Why didn't he call me up? Farmer's would snap this up in a heartbeat."

Jack shrugged, handing both Andy and Aidan a soda from the cooler. "You know him. He tinkers something like this together while he's writing, then forgets about it when he goes back to the book. He only brought it because I reminded him about it three days ago."

The man in question came over just then, helping Santiago lug his Coleman. Aidan shook his head. "Hey, squirt! What's the deal with the heater here?"

"Oh, the Hot Box?" he lifted his loose arm in a shrug. "I already sold the patent."

Aidan's jaw dropped. "Without calling me first? Are you kidding?"

Another shrug as they walked past towards the picnic tables being pulled together. "Your boss seemed pretty happy about it. Especially when I told him you put the bug in my ear about it. He said something about a promotion and a raise, plus profit-sharing."

Jessica Marks stood up at that. "What? Profit-sharing?"

Alec switched hands, walking backward. "That's usually how it works when the patent's in your name. C'mon, I'm hungry. Let's eat."

Jack spluttered the sip of soda he was chugging across the grass. Aidan's eyes went wide, his Coke slipping out of his grip. Jessi squealed, clapping her hands over her mouth. Alec just turned around and kept walking. "Whatcha got in here, Gato? Rocks?"

Aidan hefted his own cooler, almost running after the two, catching up as they hoisted the big blue cooler up on to a table. He dropped his load, almost spinning Alec around to stare at him. "Are you… you cannot be serious…"

"Sit, man, you look like you're gonna have a stroke," Alec pushed him down, took the soda Santiago handed him. He flopped down next to Aidan, smiling. "I don't need it. You got three kids and a wife. I'll build something else next week, do it all over again."

Aidan was sputtering incoherently. Alec spun around, facing the table. "Hey, anybody bring any fish?"

Holly Smithton nodded back from three places down. "Crab cakes and some smoked salmon."

"Whoo-hoo!" he leaned her way. "Load me up! I'll be right back."

He scooted off the bench, ran back to help Jack and Andy with their stuff, a dumb-struck Jessica trailing after them. He collected the Hot Box, took an end of Jack's cooler. "Will you hurry up? I'm hungry!"

By the time they got to the tables, Aidan had almost recovered enough to speak. Alec set the Hot Box next to Aidan's cooler, opened it up. "I got hot chicken, and ribbon steaks! You all line up for the grub!"

Aidan got up, started to say something, when the beeper on Alec's belt chimed. His smile vanished, replaced by a frown in an instant. He plucked the beeper free, checked the number, slapped it back.

Andy stopped right beside him. "What is it?"

He shook his head. "I gotta go. Tell Peter I'll stop by tomorrow."

"Alec, wait…" Jack grabbed his arm. "Where do you need to go? We're supposed to go to Tommy's later…"

He pulled away. "I'll try, Jack. Best I can do. Later, everybody."

He grabbed his gym bag, trotted off towards the row of cars, more than a few faces frowning as he left. Santiago rested his arm on Jack's shoulder. "Who the hell beeps a writer?"

Jack forced a grin. "You should meet his agent before you ask that question. Let's eat."

Alec jumped behind the wheel of his Mitsubishi Eclipse, gunned the engine to life, squealed out of his spot. Once he was on the Embarcadero, he flipped the blank panel above his CD-player open, pulling out a small earclip. He fitted it on, a slender microphone extending out near his mouth.

"Archangel, online," he said, flicking an innocuous switch on the dashboard. "Message received. Confirmation requested."

The earbug hissed briefly. "Negative confirmation. Await arrival."

He grumbled, snatched the earbug off, slapped it back in it's cubby. Whatever the hell was going on, he'd find out soon enough.

Twenty minutes later, he pulled into the Boulder Mountain parking structure, eight miles from the Presidio. He stopped at the entry gate, flicked his badge at it, the gate sliding open- along with a half-hidden wall straight ahead. He drove through the holo, stopping inside the safehouse's freight lift.

The lift slid closed, started to descend. "Good afternoon, Archangel," a throaty voice responded. He smiled.

"Hey, Arwyn. What's going on?"

The computer clucked. "Unknown. Sensei Toshiro requests you join him in Command immediately. Your weaponry and armor has been laid out in your room."

The lift stopped. He gunned the engine. "Thanks, Arwyn. Tell him I'm on my way."

He parked, grabbed his bag from the passenger seat, walked quickly to the safehouse entrance. A voice called to him, a figure hopping off a motorcycle and hurrying to join him.

Joshua Sturgis dragged his helmet off, holding his hand out to Alec. The man grinned, clasped his friend's hand, pulled him into an embrace.

"What the hell?" he asked, backing off. "I thought you were in Tibet. When did you get back?"

Joshua groaned, running a gloved hand through his hair. "About three hours ago. I'm hating life right now. I flew commercial, too."

Alec winced. "Eww. Not smart."

Joshua fell into step beside him. "Better than getting shot down by a Chinese MiG. The nexus keeps fouling up the stealth systems, and the PRLA has been running exercises in the border area."

Alec stopped at the entrance. A thin laser flashed out, performed a retinal scan, another multispectral laser washing over his body, sampling his DNA. Arwyn's voice purred from the speakers. "Recognize Archangel. Admission granted."

He stepped through, allowing Joshua to get probed. "Recognize Jericho. Admission granted."

Joshua stretched as he came through. "I need about five hours. Think I'll get it?"

"Don't look at me. I have no idea what's going on," he slapped his quarters open, tossed his bag on his bed. "Can't be too good if Sensei hauled you outta bed for this."

Bryce Helms dashed down the hall from the motor pool, slid to a halt when he saw the other two men standing there. "Holy shit, is he calling in everybody?"

He embraced each in turn, dropping his own bag on Alec's bed. "I was supposed to leave for Dallas in an hour. I got beeped at SF-Oak while I was sitting on the concourse. What's going on?"

Alec shrugged, turned down the hall. "Let's find out."

"Dunno about you, bro, but I am officially scared right now," Joshua stopped at his room long enough to shed his jacket and gloves, drop his helmet. "Bryce's Dallas trip has been planned for a month."

The door to Command slid open, the short, wiry Asian man at the console swiveling around. "Unfortunately, gentlemen, it appears all of our long-term plans are now on hold. The Kaldec are here."

Four words. It made all three feel very cold. Alec shook it off first, settling into a chair and sliding over to the computer. "Sensei, are you sure? I mean, the Arion cruiser is still in orbit; they could be up to something…"

Toshiro Miyagami snorted. "There is no mistake. The energy signatures are definately Kaldec in origin. The Arions have their hands full with Kara Zor'el; they have no knowledge of us as yet. The Masters intend to keep it that way."

He reached past Alec, tapping a few touch-pads. "We have three confirmed contacts: Dallas, New England, and Wyoming. The San Antonio cell is already moving to support the Dallas cell; Boston, New York, and Baltimore are all sending teams to New England. They appear to be moving for Grover's Pond in Vermont."

Bryce looked the display over. "Let me guess. We're going to Wyoming."

Toshiro shook his head. "No. We are going to full alert, to defend against a possible feint. Once the others arrive, we will commence strategy and tactial briefings. Except for you, Alec. You have a very special mission to perform."

Toshiro tapped a few more keys, squeezed Alec's shoulder. "Gentlemen, let's go. There is much to do."

As soon as they were gone, the comm system blinked alive, resolving into the image of a high-cheekboned, red-haired woman, sapphire blue eyes gazing down at Alec from the twelve-foot screen. Her full red lips parted in a slow smile, showing rows of gleaming white teeth. "Archangel."

He nodded. "Morrigan. A pleasure, as always."

She chuckled. "I doubt it. How are you, boy?"

"Well, gee, I just found out the Kaldec are here," he replied, letting a hint of anger in his voice. "How about you tell me?"

Morrigan blew out a breath, allowing her face to relax. "The Arion presence prevented us from attacking the Kaldec in orbit. No amount of stealthing in the Arm would have been enough to cover the battle; the last thing anyone needs is the Empire and the Enlightenment getting into the war. They're wrecking the galaxy well enough on their own, they don't need our help."

He grunted. "You ask me, we should've taken out the Arions years ago. We could blame the entire incident on Skietra's Curse, and they'd be none the wiser. Problem solved. Except the Protector and that loony Scribe."

Morrigan sat back, studying him with eyes turned thoughtful. "You've grown a bit of an edge since I last saw you. It suits you. I'll forward your recommendations on to the Triumveres. But now, to business."

Her body stretched as she reached for her panel, the screen dividing in half. A series of gene-maps scrolled down the blank half, Alec catalouging everything for future reference. Morrigan spoke up while he was reading.

"Around four years ago, a Doctor J. Brooks was hired by GeneTech International to develop a rhinovirus application for cosmetic and injury victim usage. In theory, the project was designed to provide maximum celluar regeneration of the dermal and epidermal layers of the human physiology, with a potential eye towards more widespread, radical procedures."

He glanced over from the numbers. "Reactive cellular regeneration on a body-wide scale. Effective invulnerability."

"Precisely. However, in the course of the project, Dr. Brooks apparently developed something far more than anticipated. The details are sketchy, but something happened in that lab. Something involving Dr. Brooks."

Gene scans halted, resolving into a massive industrial complex. A smoking hole had been blasted in the side of one of the lab buildings, ruined equipment scattered all over. The image switched to the inside of the lab; every piece of lab equipment was gone, telltales on the walls and floor saying they had been ripped from their mountings by something- or someone- very, very strong. A lone, four-foot wide steel ball sat in the center of the room.

He whistled. "Have you gone into the lab-wrecking business, Morrigan?"

She chuckled again. "I'm afraid not. Intelligence indicates Dr. Brooks did that. That being the case, we want you to locate and recruit the good doctor."

It was Alec's turn to laugh. "Are you insane? Thrust somebody with no background in combat at all into the middle of a shooting war? With the Kaldec? Besides, I thought the Elders outlawed genetic engineering after the Schism; this violates like half the Mandates. Which one of the Triumveres lost their mind this week?"

"I wish it was just that," she replied grimly. "Look, they're scared, Alec. Thoris and Fleaw have fallen. The Arions are redoubling their efforts, ever since they developed the Tset'Lar. All that's keeping them in check is their dependence on the Wormhole Network. The Dracon are rumbling out in the Rim. Now, the Kaldec show up, almost out of thin air, and land three different spearheads in the States.

"The Masters want to take no chances. We need allies. The Enlightenment is out; allying ourselves with them would be the equivalent of throwing gasoline on the fire. Earth is turning into the last Kalrist stronghold; we have to hold them here. Or it's over. Skietra's ghost isn't going to protect this world from them."

She sighed, leaned into the pickup. "Dr. Brooks may be able to duplicate the formula. Combining that kind of power with the disciplines will give us the edge we need to end this, once and for all. Unless you want to run the risk of fighting a Kaldec-controlled Arion Empire thirty years from now. After they eradicate the Enlightenment."

He scrubbed his hair with his hand, a nervous habit he'd picked up from Joshua. He sighed. "Where do I start looking?"

Morrigan smiled. "I'm transmitting the most probable coordinates. The Montana Rockies, several hundred miles from Helena."

"The Rockies?! In November?!" he moaned, buried his head in his hand. "Can't you send Grayson? He likes the cold; he's from Anchorage."

She shrugged. "It's you or Gabriel from Paris. You're closer, plus you're less likely to be overwhelmed by Dr. Brooks' powers. Even if you were in Paris, I'd advocate sending you."

He plucked the microdisk from the slot, slid it in his beeper. "Yeah, okay. When do I leave?"

"Tomorrow. First flight's at 6 AM. You've registered already," she paused, fixing her eyes on his. "The Kaldec cannot be allowed to capture Dr. Brooks, Archangel. If you cannot convince Brooks to ally with us, do what is necessary to prevent the Kaldec from doing so. Up to and including sanctioning, if needed. Understood?"

"Understood," he reached for the comm panel. "I have a briefing to attend. Archangel out."

Morrigan nodded. "Luck and the Fates favor you, lad. Citadel, out."

Jerry Montague, Chief Technician of the San Francisco safehouse, fell in to step behind Alec when the briefing broke up. Alec clapped the tech on the shoulder. "What's going on, Jerry?"

"Got some stuff for you, sir," he replied. He followed Alec into the latter's quarters, unslung the rigid-bodied case at his side. "New configuration for the pulse blasters, and a somewhat lighter body on the plasma rifle. I fitted your blacks with a new AI, as well as some new sensor packages, in case the delves stop working. Also, as you requested, five tanglers, five narcos, five thermals, and five scramblers, all in a back-launcher."

He laid the stuff out on Alec's worktable, let the other scan them briefly. "Looks good, Jerry. Nice work." he lifted the plasma rifle, checked the balance. "How'd you reduce the mass?"

Jerry shrugged. "Switched the regulator coils to a molybdenum-titanium alloy. Reduces the heat-transfer index by like forty percent, giving twenty percent more power per core to the longevity. I figure you guys would appreciate that."

"I do, indeed," he set it down, surveyed the weapons case. "This standard too?"

"Yep. It'll spoof any magnetometer in any airport in the world. Combined with the holo matrix and the sensory-mimic field, no one other than an Adept is going to know this is anything other than a suitcase."

"Good," Alec fitted everything back in the case, snapped it shut. Jerry watched, arms crossed, leaning against the table. Alec grinned. "Say what's on your mind, Jer."

He sighed. "Lotta firepower to lug around on a search mission, man. And the others, they're drawing the heavy stuff, too. It makes me wish for the days when a battlesaber was considered excessive force."

"You're dating yourself, Jerry," Alec replied, turning to pack a handful of tennis ball-sized spheres into his carry-on bag. "That was during the Civil War, before breech-loaded firearms. And a plasma rifle was a weapon of mass destruction."

The tech grunted, levering himself off the desk. "Yeah. The good ol' days. You be careful out there, Alec."

"Thanks, Jerry. See ya in a couple of days."

He stopped at Jack and Andy's on the way home, Peter dashing through the door to leap in his arms. Andy kissed his cheek, regarded him soberly from arm's length.

"What's going on?" she said, searching his face. Alec shrugged, looked away, took the beer Jack handed him. "You know, for someone in your line of work, you are a wretched liar."

Alec shrugged again, turned away. Andrea took the hint, tousled Peter's hair. "Sweetie, go play in your room, okay?"

The little boy made a big show of pouting, then scampered off, the sounds of Scooby-Doo coming from his room a few minutes later. Alec shook his head, took a sip of beer. "A five year old with his own TV. You guys are gonna melt the kid's brain."

Andy folded her arms. "Don't change the subject. What happened?"

He sat down, leaned his head back on the top of the couch. "The balloon's going up. The Citadel recorded three confirmed contacts this afternoon. There are teams en route as we speak."

Jack sat down heavily, Andrea parking herself in his lap. "Oh, God. I never thought it would happen. At least, not now… it's been so long. I was starting to hope they wouldn't come."

Alec sipped his beer, studied the bottle. "Two more worlds fell. According to the Intel network, seven more are under heavy siege, three of them also involving the Arions. I guess the Imperative figures now's the time to take a run at Earth."

Jack shook his head. "What about the Velorians? Surely, you can come to some kind of alliance…"

Alec shrugged. "Sure. If we want to turn Earth into a free-fire zone. The Arions have a battlecruiser in orbit, ready to be used. The Velorians have the single Protector, and that crazy Scribe Best. There are three hundred of us. We'd be outnumbered like twenty to one. Even taking into account technological superiority, we have no tactical aircraft, limited ability to maneuver and lift our armor and heavy weapons- so we'd be fighting like the most heavily-armed and armored infantry in the Galaxy, in the middle of the fifty largest cities on Earth. Besides, the Kaldec will just hang back, dust off whoever's left standing. War over."

Andy wore the worried frown he recognized so well, Jack stroking his chin. Of all the people in the world, they knew almost as much about the state of affairs as Alec did, more than enough to see the patterns unfolding. And the patterns weren't good. Alec set the bottle down, turned intense eyes on the both of them.

"I talked to Jerry," he said quietly. "If something happens and they come here, you guys need to head for the safehouse. Don't take anything, don't tell anybody, just go. Toshiro will let you in; you'll at least be safe for a while. Maybe long enough for us to figure out what we're going to do."

Jack just nodded. Alec got up. "I have to go. I'm leaving for Montana first thing tomorrow."

Jack stood as well. "What's in Montana?"

"Hope," Alec replied, giving Jack a hug. "Kiss the squirt for me. I'll call from Helena."

November 11, 2001:

He rose early; technically, he told himself, one should sleep before one can rise. He crawled out of bed, flicked the kitchen lights on, started to make breakfast. A small figure ran from the bedroom, climbed nimbly to the counter, chittered softly at him.

Alec turned from the griddle, smiled in the soft light. "Sam, you should still be asleep. Go find Milo and go back to bed."

The monkey sat down, folding her arms across her chest, mimicking Andy from earlier. Alec chuckled, reached over to pet her. "Now, now. I'm only going to be gone for two, maybe three days. Cindy's coming over to watch you, everything will be fine."

Samantha got up, ran across the counter, bounded to his shoulder, cuddling against his neck. He chuckled again, rubbed her back. "Of course I won't leave you alone. Don't be silly. Now go back to bed, or you'll be grumpy when Cindy gets here."

The monkey complied, hopping down and racing back to his room. Alec whisked some eggs together, dropped them in the hot griddle, folded some shredded cheese and pre-cooked ham inside. Bagels fresh from Bergman's the night before, toaster hash-browns. Not much, but better than airline food. One benefit of the insanity that was a daily occurrence around him, he never had to worry about cholesterol, weight, or salt intake. He could eat as he did in college and never gain a pound, something Jack hated him for.

He washed breakfast down with three glasses of OJ, looked longingly at the coffee pot. Probably not a good idea right before flying. He might freak out, blow the bolts out of the airframe. End his career in a blaze of glory.

He snorted, dropping his plates in the dishwasher. Plenty of time to go down in flames after finding this Brooks character. Keep your mind on business.

He showered, dressed, brushed his teeth. He glanced in the mirror while he shaved, brown eyes and a perpetually wrinkled forehead looking back at him. Arwyn thought he was handsome, Morrigan and a couple of the Activators in Tibet had made the same comment, though Morrigan's had been a touch more… pointed… than he was used to. Andy's friends did too, although he had done his best to foil his sister-in-law's numerous attempts at match-making. He barely had time to pay the bills, who the hell had time for a woman, children, family?

Alec knew Jack secretly craved the action, the excitement, that went with his job. He wondered if his brother knew Alec would trade places with him in a heartbeat. He also knew that Jack's craving would die a screaming death the first time it hit the fan, and he would want his safe, quiet life back. It had happened to Alec the first time in harness. It happened to everybody.

For the sake of peace he had gone on a couple of dates she'd engineered, had some fun, but nothing had ever developed. He was too intense; he knew that. What gave him an edge in his vocation kept him separate from the people around him. Honor's price. He didn't dare lose the intensity; it was starting to look like he wasn't going to find anyone to share his life with.

He tossed his head, finished shaving. Goddamn, lack of sleep was making him lose focus. Now was not the time to go tripping down the Road of Might-Have-Beens. There was a job to do, a world to protect. Nothing else mattered. Nothing.

Polo. Jeans. Heavy jacket. His weapons case, an equipment bag holding his clothes he would carry on. Packed light, except for the ordanance. Anything that could handle what he was carrying would make short work of him. He hoped one of those things wasn't Dr. Brooks.

Surprisingly, the line for Horizon Flight 567 to Helena wasn't that full. Who wouldn't want to go to Montana in November?

He grunted. Me, for one.

The line to check-in was blessedly short; four o'clock in the morning was apparently a good time to travel. Not that he was going to make this a habit.

No problems with airport security, as expected. He lifted his case, shouldered his bag, walked on to the concourse, nodding absently to the uniformed MP at the gate. The soldier nodded back, went about his business.

Alec broke down, bought a latte at a stand, settled in a chair, pulling the latest Robert Parker paperback from his jacket. He'd hit the newsstand before the flight, get something for the trip.

He kept his reading speed down, enjoying the language, making mental notes. He was weak on his own dialogue, figured maybe Parker's patented snappy patter would give him some pointers. Small Vices was engaging, well-plotted. He almost lost track of time, rising to stretch and hit the newsstand twenty minutes before the flight.

New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, a Chronicle for the comics, a pack of Licorice Whips. He fished in his pocket, handed over a twenty, swept his purchases up and headed out.

The plane boarded on time; Morrigan had thoughtfully arranged for the first row of first class, so his white-knuckling would go mostly unnoticed. He had his head buried in the Post before takeoff, focussing on the news rather than the flight itself.

Bryce and Derrick still laughed at his phobia, especially since it was limited to flying commercial airlines. The skimmers and the flight pads, no problem; a massive jet-powered wide-body scared the hell out of him. Especially with two hundred people around him.

He chewed obsessively through his pack of licorice, then a pack of gum, trying to ignore the airframe vibrating through his shoes. Fundamentally, he knew it was lunacy- someone with his skills should be able to conquer a simple phobia without too much trouble. It was a matter of concentration, discipline, control.

But he still hated to fly.

Mercifully, the flight was short, only a couple of hours. He relaxed, finally, as the plane touched down. If it crashed now, he was twenty feet above the ground, as opposed to twenty thousand. The difference between landing safely and making a pancake.

Alec all but leapt from his seat, hustling his way out to the jetway, then the concourse. The Helena airport was a tad rustic; he wondered where they put the big wind-up keys for the puddle-jumpers. He watched a Cesna struggle off the runway, shuddered, turned away.

Hertz had his Blazer ready, the little brunette walking him to his car, handing the keys over with a charming smile. Alec smiled back reflexively, slid behind the wheel, pulled out with a wave and a nod.

Someplace in the Rockies, between Missoula and Butte. He grumbled, flipping the HUD topography map out. It clicked alive, spreading a map of the area out on the windshield.

"Enlarge, upper right section," he said softly, one eye on the road while he studied the map. Heading north seemed a good place to start. Get the thick snow out of the way first. Might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. One person in the Rockies? This was nuts

He tapped the topography map closed, slipped his AI link out of his belt, stuck it on the dashboard. "Arwyn, patch me through to the skyweb system."

"Acknowledged," she replied. He kept his eyes on the road, accelerating up to ninety-five. Praise the Lord for unlimited speed limits in this wilderness. He wished he could put his helmet on, save the time with the visuals on the windows. This was almost as bad as using a sextant and plotting on paper…

"Skyweb access confirmed," Arwyn said. "Coordinates?"

"Geolock on Helena," he considered for a moment. "Limit search radius to fifty kilometer radius. Hunorm energy signatures, plus or minus… thirty percent. Execute search."

"Search in progress, stand by."

He drummed his fingers on the wheel, watching the trees whiz by. It took almost two minutes, a seeming eternity.

"Search completed. Downloading to topographical HUD."

The map flashed back up, dotted with red, blue, and yellow dots. He studied it for a moment, slid his eyes back to the road, then abruptly back.

There.

A blinking blue dot, surrounded by three red dots, near a still-flowing stream. "Arwyn, hi-res, grid location Epsilon-Nine-Forty."

The image zoomed in, energy overlays fuzzing the main image. Electrical activity, both UHF and VHF signals, a microwave reception system, cellular phone squeals. Unless the bears up there were watching ESPN, he'd found somebody.

"Map energy signatures, same location," he murmured. "Match within search parameter and reinitiate search."

"Acknowledged," the computer replied, then a very prompt, "No match found."

"Understood," he replied, clicking the map off. He knew where to go. "Inform Sensei Toshiro I have located Dr. Brooks. Contact in… three hours."

Optimism. The true opiate of the masses.

He hit snow as soon as he started to climb off-road. The damned Blazer humped it's way up the mountain, slowing down more and more the higher he climbed. Time to dump the mechanical monstrosity, head up on foot.

He found a covered ledge, almost free of snow, a heavy granite overhang protecting it from the weather. He parked the Blazer, dug in his bag for the four spheres, hopped out, stripped down to his undershirt and boxers. He rubbed the foamy black one between his palms, letting the ebon folds of armor flood down his body. He studied the steel-gray sphere while he squeezed the silver one, letting it flood up his left arm, molding itself to his muscles, surface shifting as he moved his arm, mimicking the movement of every tendon.

Alec smacked the golden orb with his left fist, set the spreading mass at the base of his neck. It morphed along his head, covering his face, molding itself into an archaic, high-crested helmet, three flutes running the width of the pointed faceguard. The single eyeslit resolved, then glowed dim ochre.

He popped the back door open, opened his weapons case. He slid the sensor and AI upgrades into his helmet, pulled out two narrow cylinders, one nine inches long, the other six. He hung them both on his belt, withdrew a third rod, clapped it on his back. He assembled the plasma rifle, studied it for a moment, put it back in the case. No sense in making a poor impression by trying to recruit someone at rifle point. Besides, he was a fan of the old ways, just like Jerry.

Alec lifted the steel-colored ball, squeezed it in his right hand. A wicked-looking gauntlet unfurled over his wrist, blunt fingers under a bladed forearm shield. He flexed his fingers, made sure the tacglove fit, closed the Blazer door.

Enough fooling around. Time to pay the doctor a house call.

He focussed his mind, began a delve. The normal background of the sleeping green, a handful of animals, foraging for some food in the fresh snows. And one very powerful human mind. So far unaware of his presence, five, six miles away.

Alec started towards the tree line, activating his mosh'ra discipline. Easy to maintain, highly effective, especially in the wilderness.

He passed through the first row of trees, speeding up slightly. He left no footprints in the snow, didn't disturb a single leafless branch, loping easily up the incline. A family of deer watched him pass, the buck easing slowly in front of his mate and their doe, then went back to nibbling on the evergreens, the doe watching the Green Man lope onward.

A handful of squirrels chittered his way, one bushy-tailed gray pacing him for a half-mile through the branches. He sent the large male a mental wink and nod, skirted a small canyon, sped up a bit more.

Three miles from the contact, a limber form bounded from a snow-dusted outcrop, tawny fur sleek in the winter sun. The cougar sniffed the air as he approached, Alec slowing to let the cat pad alongside.

He smiled under his helm. Greetings, forest brother.

A whisper of a snarl, a faint rasp. Greetings, brother of the Green. Who do you seek? He was handsome, well-fed, a few months from seeking a mate. The Brothers of the Green were known to all in the forest-heart, the Men Who Guarded the Green. He was curious, somewhat wary of his presence, not yet afraid. He roved ahead a bit, testing the air, circling back and forth across his path.

Alec's grin widened. No Brother would face danger alone in this one's land; he was sure of that. An ally. The Green is imperiled; we gather to defend it.

The cougar halted, letting him close the gap, then trotted apace. Shall I summon aid? I may marshall forces quickly; wolves, several bears not yet asleep, some of my kind nearby. If the Green is in danger, we will come in force.

Not yet. The Brothers stand ready. We will test the enemy first, and they will not find us lacking. Should they overcome us, then they will face Man first while we rally.

A snort, tossing his head. Do not rely overmuch on Man, Brother. He is formidible, but too often blind, more often fickle. I can summon a pack of the wolves in a few spans; better to Fate the Green with those who understand.

Alec nodded. I seek allies. But you may guard the path down.

Done. The cougar turned, paused. Hunt well, Brother. We will come if called.

Hunt well, Brother.

The cougar loped away. His snarl pierced the air; Alec felt several minds come alive close by. A pack of wolves circled out of the shallow canyon he'd passed a while before, roused from a nap by an insistent shout, a second pack moving in from higher up the mountain. A couple of drowsy minds shambled out of caves, coming alert as the wolves raced past. The bears followed grumpily, until the cougar growled at them. The big grizzly stood up, sniffed the air, plopped back to the ground and rolled forward behind the wolves.

Alec sped back up, ranging away from the cougar, part of the descending pack trailing along behind him for a half-mile. He felt the gurgle of running water, a wide open expanse in the green. He waved the wolves back, delved again. The mind was close. Close and strong.

Thick evergreen shrubs lined the clearing, trees densely packed enough to offer cover. A lone cabin stood at the top of the easy slope, rock-grouted porch, the same for the chimney, smoke curling up from the stack. What was odd was what was in the river.

A dam, hooked up to a hydroelectric paddlewheel, feeding an industrial electrical converter. Lines of cable stretched to the river, a heavy ground cable feeding the cabin. A small satellite dish perched on the rooftop opposite the chimney. A windmill stood behind the cabin, also lined into the converter. He could sense the hum of an electric pump, knew a well had been dug. Whoever was here planned on staying for a long time.

Chittering from under a bush. A pair of glittering eyes twinkled, a long nose and chubby body scampering out into the open. The raccoon climbed up his arm, settled himself easily on Alec's shoulder. Alec dipped his hand in his belt pouch, pulled out some smoked salmon, handed it over while he studied the clearing. The little guy squeaked, took the treat, nuzzled up against Alec's neck.

You seek the she? he asked, nibbling at his salmon. The one who crafted the machines?

A she? Alec glanced over at his new friend.

Yes. One unlike the other shes of Man. Mighty, like the bear, only greater. She moves like you, silent as the stalking wolves. He finished his fish, groomed his whiskers. She leaves us in peace, only shouting at us when we play in her machines. But there are no other Men nearby, only the sharp squeals.

Alec pondered that for a moment. Only one? Are you certain?

The critter gave him a very human, level look. Of course. Here in the Green there is only the she. And you, Brother.

How mighty?

The raccoon extended his paw. The grove used to reach the river. She pulled the trees loose to clear the field, used the stands to build her machines. We have stayed away since, except to play in the waters, examine the machines.

Alec took the package of fish out of his pouch, unwrapped it, handed it over. For your mate, brood. Take them and go hide, I must address the she.

His friend hopped down, skittered away a few feet, turned back. Carefully, Brother. The she is not fond of visitors.

Alec grunted. His eyes continued to sweep the clearing, noting the dragged-over holes. Whoever this Brooks was, she seemed to be very careful in what she did.

The mind was coming out. He considered the visuals from the GeneTech lab, tried to decide what he was supposed to do now. Jesus, I hate contact missions!

The cabin door popped open. Alec's jaw dropped inside his helmet.

She was pulling long, silken brown hair back from her face, tying it into a ponytail. Full, firm breasts bounced slightly as she came down the stairs, every movement as graceful as a ballet master's, long, shapely legs rippling with taut muscles. Her torso curved into a slender waist, filled back out to rounded, full hips, her flat stomach counterbalanced by a tight, toned rump. She was clad in a sport-bra, short-alls, and a pair of hiking boots, barely noticing the cold, walking to the generator to check it over.

What the Hell is this?! Alec straightened, circling around towards the riverbed. Who dropped a J. Crew ad in the middle of the Rockies?

The woman walked over to the converter, flipping a fuse panel open. She fiddled with it for a few moments, her breath curling away from her lush lips, closed the panel, wandered over to the river.

A roaring bellow cut the early morning air. Alec whirled around, senses human and electronic sweeping the forest. His EM scanner detected the surge the same instant his delve did. He abandoned the contact mission, sprinting back down the mountain.

Grey-white forms rose out of the snow a few moments later, a half-pack of wolves running ahead of him. He overtook them in a matter of seconds, lengthening his stride, sliding the longer rod off his belt.

Smoke touched his nose, tinged with the scents of burning fur, scorched meat. He sprinted harder, covering the two and a half miles in two minutes, skidding out of the trees into a newly-carved clearing.

Three charred wolves, a still-smoking carcass of a bear, dozens of shredded trees. The cougar pounced on a featureless humanoid form, ignoring the smoke that boiled off his clawed forepaws. The big griz reared up, swatting two more, falling as an arc of lightning seared his side. Two dozen of the odd beings swarmed the clearing, locked in battle with the forest's protectors.

The forest's champion was here, now.

The tube in his hand hissed, extending, a half-moon slender blade at one end, a double-weighted butt at the other. Alec spun his warlance, tightened his tacglove into a fist, charged.

He ate the twelve meters to the edge of the battle with one bound, bringing his silver lance down on a sickly-green head. The blade clove the head and torso apart, a spinning back-fist with his steel gauntlet dispatching a second. He slew a third, lance whirling, pointed his gauntleted hand, made a fourth's head explode.

Me and my stupid honor! he snarled to himself, crashing a crescent-kick against the neck of a fifth. I leave my plasma rifle behind and run into a pack of Hunters! Smooth, ace. Really, really smooth!

The creatures turned to face the greater threat; Alec urged the animals back, plowing ahead against the attackers. His armor shivered as they piled on him, smoke boiling from his blacks at their touch. He crashed to the ground, buried under five of them, scattered the pile with a telekinetic bolt, vaulted back to his feet.

One of the creatures hit a tree, impaling itself on a stubby branch. The tree began to decompose almost instantly, molded bark rolling off the rotted trunk, the top listing drunkenly towards the ground. Two more slammed headfirst against jutting rocks, granite smoking away, hissing angrily.

Alec carved a head off, ducked a whining bladed arm, slashed the owner's torso off at the waist. He was losing count of how many there were, bounded backwards to give himself room to move.

A hail of lightning bolts flashed forward. Alec parried a handful, caught the rest on his shield-arm. The charges hit the rippling armor, arced to his warlance, lighting it up. He spun it overhead, stepping into a throw, energy sparking off as it whistled through the clearing.

Four more Hunters fell. Alec lunged back to the battle, catching his lance as it whipped past, slamming his tacglove in another head. Numbers were down to half; he was going to win…

Howls rang out. The pack he had passed on the way in sped from the forest, spreading into a snarling line. The other wolves circled to his left, bracketing the Hunters in, the cougar and the grizzly's mate guarding the fallen bear, hissing and growling at the Blight.

Alec pointed his hand. Three more Hunters fell, heads popping apart. The remaining nine surged forward, swarming on top of him, driving him to the ground. His warlance skittered away, three frenzied hands pinning his tacglove to the ground. He hardened his aura, slicing a hand off, crumbled atoms smoking away from snow and frozen soil, the pile sinking into the Earth.

He focused… a searing ultrasonic wail ripping through his skull. His eyes rolled back, blood vessels in his nose bursting open. He struggled to get his leg under him, felt his aura buckling, howls of animals in pain melding with the squeal.

Abruptly, the weight on his legs was gone. A slender hand swatted the four on his chest off, letting him roll free, drive the blade on his tacglove through a nearby head. The squeal eased up, Alec calling his lance to his hand.

Dr. Brooks seemed to be taking everything in stride. Her hands balled into fists, she backed against Alec, keeping the scattered Hunters in front of her. Lightning flashed, Alec twisting his lance in front of her to block it, the woman ducking under his weapon…

As suddenly as she had ducked, she was next to the Hunter, her delicate fist hitting it's stomach, plowing right out it's back. Alec completed his spin, flinging the bolt at two others, splitting it as it lanced away.

Brooks sped on, decapitating two more Hunters in one blurring sweep, crashed against a third, sending him flying against- and through- a jagged boulder. Alec popped the last three, whirled his lance around, stretched a delve through the forest.

Nothing more. No more Hunters.

He collapsed his lance, hung it on his belt, ran to the wounded. The cougar shuffled away, laying down, licking at his paws. The grizzly moaned, Alec running gentle hands over the gashes torn in his side. He put his hands on the bear, channeled his thoughts, flooded the hulking animal with energy.

The wounds knit closed rapidly, leaving only faint scars, a couple of patches of bare skin in the fur coat. His mate nuzzled his neck, the bear lumbering to his feet.

Alec spared a glance for the three dead wolves, moved to the cougar. He gripped the cat's paws, healing them like he did the bear, scratched him behind the ears.

Your courage is boundless, forest brother, he told the animal softly, but next time, keep your distance.

The wolves circled around him, growling softly. Alec and his friend looked up, the cougar coming to his feet, snarling. Dr. Brooks approached slowly, put off by two packs of angry wolves and a growling cougar.

Alec got up, shushing the animals. Tend the fallen. Mourn your dead.

One pack moved away to do just that, the other settling to their haunches, watching silently. The cougar padded alongside him, his helmet flowing off while he came closer to the woman.

"Dr. J. Brooks?" he asked, patting the cougar's head.

She nodded. "Julia Brooks. And who might you be?"

His tacglove flowed off at a mental command, sliding down his arm to fit on his belt. He extended his hand. "Alec Collins. I've come to talk to you."

She gazed at his hand, back at his face. "I see. About what?"

Alec dropped his hand. "Saving the world."

Dr. Brooks folded her arms. "Uh-huh. Tell me, how did you get this far into the mountains without the men in the white coats catching up to you?"

"I assure you, Doctor, this is no joke."

She studied him for a moment. The cougar snorted, growled at Alec. The man reached down, scratched the big cat's ear. "Don't rush to judgment. This is a lot to take in."

From his position a few feet back, the alpha wolf snarled something. Alec sighed. "Gimme a break here. This is called negotiation. And no, you can't bite her."

Brooks shifted her gaze from the animals back to the man. "Are you… you understand what they're saying?"

"Of course," he replied, running his hand down the cougar's spine. "Just because they're on four legs doesn't make them any less people. Their language is simply a touch more… complex."

She assumed the stance of the unimpressed. "Exactly how long has it been since you last had your medications?"

Alec sighed. "Look, lady, you ever seen anything that looked like what we just fought? How about maybe you open your mind and close your mouth? I'm running on a tight clock here."

She shrugged, pondered that for a moment. She turned on her heel. "Well, Mr. Collins, come along. No sense talking out here in the snow."

Alec followed Dr. Brooks back through the forest, his new buddies trailing along behind him. He paused as he caught her prints from earlier, squatting down to study them.

Twenty feet or so apart. Right around five hundred or so miles an hour. That was… respectable… to say the least.

The wolves snorted. Greypaw, the alpha, nudged his elbow. The woman was standing still, watching. Alec stood up, waving the Ark off. They dispersed, reluctantly, Greypaw and the cougar settling themselves at the edge of her clearing, Greypaw's pack finding spots to lie down protected from the snows.

He trotted to catch up, a sheepish look on his face. "Sorry. Got distracted."

She tilted her head towards the animals. "What are they doing?"

He shrugged. "They don't like you too much. They're hanging around in case I decide to tear your throat out."

She arched an eyebrow. "Really."

Another shrug. "The wolves wanted me to do that fifteen minutes ago. They think you need a good shake by the scruff of the neck."

Dr. Brooks's face creased into a slow, small smile. "That may prove… problematic should you try."

The man actually blushed a bit. "I'm certain it would be."

She led the way to the cabin's porch, strode to the top, opening the door. Alec stopped at the threshold, draped his hands behind his back. She walked to the back of the cabin, came back after a moment. "What are you doing?"

He shifted his feet. "Waiting to be invited in."

The smile came back. "Are you a vampire?"

"No. Just polite."

"I see," she tapped her teeth with a finger, gestured him on. "Please."

He came in, cast a glance around. The furniture was modest, leaning towards the rustic, a new model computer in an alcove, a medium-sized television perched next to the fireplace, some landscapes hanging on the walls. The place was almost as clean as his apartment; he glanced down at his mud-soaked blacks, winced.

Dr. Brooks came back into the room, carrying a couple of glasses of water. Alec looked down from one of the paintings, accepted a glass. "You paint."

"Occasionally."

He took a sip. "You're very good."

She grinned. "Thank you. I rarely have guests, so my work goes unappreciated."

He watched her settle on the couch. "Unlike your genetic research?"

The smile vanished, her eyes hard as she twisted to glare at him. "And what would you know about that?"

He cupped the glass in his hands. "More than you'd think, I would imagine. Even if I hadn't seen you in action. I don't know many women that can run at five hundred miles an hour. Or that can squeeze every mechanical component in a fully-stocked genetics lab into a four-foot beach ball. By all accounts, you can."

She was up, staring daggers at him, balanced on the balls of her feet. He simply looked at her. "Attacking me would be unwise. I have no interest in killing you."

"Who sent you?" she rasped. "GeneTech? The military? CIA? NSA?"

Alec snorted. "Hardly. I represent the Order; we are charged with the defense of this planet. From all threats, terrestrial… and otherwise. If I intended to harm you, I would."

"The Order?" she echoed. "What's that, some kind of cult?"

"Actually, we're a legitimate religious order. Sort of," he sighed, set his glass down on a table. "Doctor, I understand you might find some of this difficult to comprehend. But the fact remains that I am in desperate need of your help."

"Right. The little green men from Mars," she hadn't relaxed yet, on the verge of leaping at him. "They would be the otherwise threat, correct? Are you sure you haven't missed your Prozac treatment?"

He put his hands behind his back, meeting her gaze. "Very well."

Every light in the cabin blinked out. The computer and the television blared to life, the TV clicking through channels at breakneck speed, the modem in the computer connecting to the Internet. She turned in time to see IP addresses flashing by, downloading sites at ten times a DSL speed.

The single log in the fireplace burst into flame, flared white-hot, a pile of ash dropping to the stone floor. A white flame flared across the room, Alec holding his hand out, a sphere of heat and light dancing above his palm.

Dr. Brooks felt her feet leaving the floor. She gasped, stopped halfway to the ceiling, flipped end over end ten times, jerked to a halt horizontal to the couch.

She felt his mind in hers, brushing gently along her thoughts. Her arms extended out, her legs curled up against her will, she rotated around and upside down so she was pointing head down at the coffee table.

As you may have guessed by now, his voice said in her head, his lips not even twitching, I am hardly a baseless lunatic. If you'd prefer, I can start detonating furniture…

She tried to shake her head, found she couldn't budge it. She licked her lips. "I don't think that will be necessary. Please put me down."

He righted her slowly, set her gently back on the floor. He tossed his glowing sphere underhand at the fireplace; the log reformed, still burning, albiet much more sedately. "I apologize for the crudity of my demonstration. Some of my abilities are difficult to explain. You're, uh, probably going to want to purge your computer; I think I filled most of the hard drive."

Her mouth sagged slightly. "I have an eighty-gigabyte hard drive with another sixty as a back-up. You filled it in twenty seconds?"

"Sorry. It's sort of hard to control the process without a landline connection. I had to use the satellite dish to hit the Net," he retrieved his glass, finished his water. "My telemechanics skills still need some refining, it seems."

Dr. Brooks sank to the couch, rubbing her temples. "You sold me, fella," she said softly. "What is it you want?"

"For now, to come with me. Beyond that… I don't know."

She turned back to him. He appeared embarrassed. "I'm just the errand boy."

"I'm out here for a reason, young man…"

He nodded. "I understand that. But sometimes we all have to do things we don't want to. I'm afraid this is one of those times.

"Please, Doctor. Time is not a luxury we have a lot of."

She found herself nodding. "Yeah. Okay. I… I need to pack a few things. Give me five minutes."

Alec backed away, opened the door, stepped out on the porch. Once the door was closed behind him, he took a number of deep breaths, blowing them out of his mouth hard. His heartrate slowed, his mind following suit. Her personality was overwhelming: in addition to her stunning beauty, she was startlingly intelligent, her physical presence manifest. His delve of her had revealed much- a vibrant sense of humor, compassion, empathy, a bright wit, all combed over by a veil of sadness. Beauty within as vast as that without. A rare combination. He certainly lacked it.

He pulled his comm off his belt, settled himself on the stone steps. "Arwyn, this is Archangel."

"Arwyn online," came the reply.

"I've made contact with Dr. Brooks. We'll be returning to San Francisco immediately. Would you please make the necessary arrangements?"

"Of course," it sounded like honey dripping from a warm ladle. "Next flight from Helena? Your standard cover?"

"Please. Thank you, Arwyn."

The voice chuckled softly. "For you, love, the world. Arwyn out."

Julia Brooks stared at herself in the mirror, wondering where her brain had gone.

She was out here for a reason, damn it! She didn't want anything to do with people any more! And up until this… lunatic in a spandex costume had shown up, she had fully intended to stay away from civilization unless absolutely necessary.

Yes, occasionally she had to go to Billings for supplies, but that was infrequent, and done as late at night as possible. She could last a very long time on a carload of groceries; she hadn't even bothered to give herself any IM handles on the 'Net, content to lurk, nothing more.

The cellular phone service was paid by a dummy trust, as was the satellite hook-up. All of her power needs were fed by the dam, she had well-water- what the hell was she doing? Had he messed with her mind somehow?

The story was fantastic, his demonstrated abilities even more so. Julia had researched psychic phenomenon for a class in college, come to the conclusion it was a line of bunk. Right up until ten minutes ago.

She sighed, finished packing a gym bag. Several changes of clothes, some toiletries, her make-up bag, a few pairs of shoes. Admit it, she told herself, what's bugging you is him.

Since her transformation, she had taken to steering clear of men. The glory of being the center of attention had quickly paled next to the reality of life. Every man she had met in the last four years had one thing on his mind, more often than not needing to be forcibly shown the risk his insistence was running him. Early on, it had been a lark- mousy little Julia had gorgeous men flinging themselves at her, begging her for attention. She had dallied with a number, putting her new body through it's paces, reaching out and taking what she had never had before. And found out it wasn't as much fun as it had seemed.

She was in danger of becoming what she had despised before, none of the near-misses seeming to get through until the disaster in Clear Lake and a battle with GeneTech, less than three months after the incident with Nicole and Deanna. Julia had cut off all contact with anyone, other than an infrequent letter to Nicole, mailed from Great Falls. Too many had been hurt, scarred by her miracle discovery. Herself included.

And now, this maniac shows up at her doorstep, begging for help. Despite the powers, what was intriguing about him was the way he reacted to her. No drooling, no obvious signs of arousal, nothing more than simple interest, dedication to duty.

She shouldered her bag, chewing her lip. He wasn't going to leave; she wasn't sure she could make him. Better to just play along with him, then ditch him when it was prudent.

She walked through the living room, flipped a breaker panel open, cut the main power. Everything except a single clock and the refrigerator shut off. Julia lifted the computer case holding her laptop and five very special CDs, went out to the crisp November air.

Alec rose smoothly. Out of deference to him, Julia had dug a leather jacket from her closet; she set her gym bag down as she pulled it on.

He reached over, slung it over his shoulder, deliberately not meeting her gaze. She settled her jacket, gazed at him. "I can carry my own bag."

Alec ducked his head; she thought she saw him blush again. "I'm sure. But my father finds out I didn't offer to carry a lady's suitcase, he'll kick my ass."

He turned away, missing her raised eyebrow. "I have a vehicle down the mountain. We have airline reservations on the four o'clock to Frisco from Helena."

He started down the mountain. She waited for a few moments, then followed, catching up as he entered the forest. His cougar friend unfurled from the ground, moving on Alec's side, Julia at his right shoulder. For almost a mile, neither of them said anything, until Alec finally spoke.

"Pardon my prying, but may I ask you a question?"

Julia shrugged. "I suppose."

"Why are you out here?"

She chuckled. "That's a long story."

Alec grunted. "Bet it's a doozy."

"You're one to talk," she replied. "I don't think I've ever met an armed monk before."

He smirked at her. "Careful. My story's probably a tad longer than yours."

That earned him another small smile. "Really. Mine's four years."

He strode ahead of her, the path narrowing a bit. "Not bad. Mine's fifteen thousand years. Short version."

Julia goggled, stopping short. Alec kept walking, twisted his head to watch her. "Are you coming?"

She shook herself, hurried to pace him. "Fifteen thousand years? Are you serious?"

He nodded, reached up to brush a hanging branch out of her way. "Watch your head, there."

She ducked under, kept walking. "I missed which planet you said you were from."

He finally laughed. It was warm, infectious. "This one, Doctor. Born and bred on good old Earth."

"Are you always this polite? My name is Julia; Doctor Brooks is what most people call my father."

He nodded slowly. "As you wish… Julia. Most of my friends call me Alec."

"Only some of them?" she repeated. "What do the rest call you?"

He smiled at her, this one full blown, the little boy inside creeping out. "That's part of the story. The last part."

Alec led her around the battlefield, a chorus of howls echoing off the peaks. His face tightened, jaw working noiselessly, then he continued on, his pace quickening. He seemed content to stay quiet, a marked difference from most of the people Julia had met in her experience. It was another mile or so before he spoke again, and then it was to steer her around a covered root.

Half an hour later, he scrambled down a rocky overhang, a car door opening. He started the engine, came back to offer his hand to her as she climbed down. Completely guiless, simply being polite. She took it, giving it a companionable squeeze, slid down to the ledge. Alec walked her to the passenger side, held the door open, slid around the car and hopped in himself.

He horsed the beast out of the ledge, got turned around, began the descent. If anything, going down was almost worse than coming up. The Blazer bounced wildly all the way down the mountain, Alec grinding his teeth together. Julia just sat in her seat, buckled in, acted like it wasn't any concern at all.

After an hour on the roller-coaster, they pulled on to the highway flattop, Alec flooring the accelerator as he headed back to Helena. He glanced at her once, then kept his eyes on the road. "Are you hungry?"

"Hmh?" she seemed startled, then nodded. "I could eat. What I need is someplace to change clothes. I think I'm a tad underdressed for the weather."

She plucked at her shorts, Alec trying very hard to not leer. He felt like an idiot, hoped she wasn't paying attention to him. Pretty women made him uncomfortable; beautiful women made his mind turn to goo.

He cleared his throat. "There's a truck stop like twenty-five miles or so on. We can stop there."

It took eighteen minutes. Alec navigated the half-full lot, pulling up right next to the bathrooms. Julia grabbed her bag, hopped out, Alec taking long enough to strip his shield-arm and utility belt off, stuff them in his weapons case. Then he took his own bag, heading into the men's room.

The lavatory was empty. Alec found a series of shower stalls, closed and locked one behind him. His blacks were covered in mud, tree splinters, Hunter residue. He rubbed his hands together, making the blacks sphere-up, toed the ball into the shower, turned the faucet on, washing them off. Once he smelled the smoke had cleared, he stripped out of his underclothes, scrubbed himself clean, killed the water.

Five minutes later he emerged, freshly washed, freshly clothed, looking like a man instead of a refugee from a garbage scow. He stowed his bag, pulled his cell-shaped comm out, tossed his beeper in the weapons case.

He flipped it open, the line coming alive. "Arwyn, you there?"

"Yes," he hated it when she did that; she sounded like she was laughing at him. The stupid woman thought he was funny.

"Any updates on the Kaldec landings?"

"The Dallas landing has been repulsed. The Vermont site is still being contested; three more teams are on their way from Miami and Philadelphia. Denver reports the Wyoming contact as a false reading; they have returned to base, awaiting further instructions."

Alec blew out a long breath. "Good. Thank you, Arwyn. I'll see you in about six hours; Archangel out."

She chuckled over the comm. "Hurry back. I miss you."

He slapped the comm closed. He needed to have a talk with Jerry, have her personality subroutines tweaked.

Julia came out of the restroom. She had wiped away the dirt that had collected on the trip down the mountain, changed into a modest denim skirt, a blouse halfway buttoned over a black turtleneck, a pair of knee-high boots. With her hair still pulled back in a ponytail, she looked like the world's sexiest school teacher. He must've hidden his grin poorly; she sighed as she approached, a wry look on her face.

"I tried to blend in. I really did."

He took her bag, slid it next to his. "It's not your fault. You'd stand out like a rose in a field of dandelions no matter what you wore. Unless you want me to ship you to Frisco in a cardboard box."

She laughed. "Not really."

She stayed where she was while he parked the truck, locked it, came over to her. He extended an elbow. "Would you join me for lunch?"

Julia nodded, slipped her arm in his. They walked to the small diner, Alec only letting go to open the door.

It took him all of a second to decide that this may have been a poor choice. Almost every head in the place turned when they came in, most of them the rugged faces of lumber and cattle haulers. The looks his way were… disparaging…, the ones directed at Julia something else entirely. But a waitress bustled up, all smiles, showed them to an empty corner booth.

The normal background noise picked up, Alec noticing a couple of Staties in another booth. He settled himself against the wall, where he could see the whole diner, only pretending to scan the menu.

Once their waitress had delivered water and coffee, Julia glanced his way. "Are you expecting something to happen I don't?"

Alec sipped his coffee. "I really hope not."

She set her menu down. "I can take care of myself, you know."

He nodded. "Of course. But you are under my protection, and thus my responsibility," his urchin's grin was back. "It's a monk thing."

Julia laughed again. "You are an interesting man, that's for sure."

"Whew," he studied the menu for a moment. "And here I was worried you'd confuse me for one of the guys."

They ordered, Alec twisting his face up when she ordered a chef salad, Julia looking shocked while he wanted a bacon-cheeseburger and double fries. And a Coke. Carmen, their waitress, made off, coming back a few minutes later with a Coke and an iced tea.

"You talk to animals and you still eat meat?" she whispered, stirring a packet of sugar into her tea. Alec chuckled, took a swig of his Coke.

"Last time I talked to a cow was four… no, wait, five years ago," he replied. "I could feel myself getting dumber over the course of the conversation. They're too domesticated; they don't think much beyond eating. Besides, it's the circle of life, we're just at the top of the food chain."

She smiled at him, took in a deep breath. That was when it hit her- she couldn't smell him, detect his scent at all. Her other senses reported he was there, but there wasn't a scent. Which would explain why he could sit so calmly across from her; the trucker three stools away at the counter was having a hard time handling her so close to him, even through the rest of the odors in the diner. Several of his compatriots kept looking her way; she could hear heartrates going up all over the diner.

Alec drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "I knew I shouldn't have dressed like a Young Republican. When in Rome…"

She shook her head. "It isn't you…"

The Staties finished their meal, got up and left. Alec watched them go. "Well, great. It's gonna be me in about a minute…"

It took less time than expected. A burly man shoved off the counter, a couple of his buddies trailing after, settled himself next to their table. Julia ignored them, keeping her eyes on Alec. Her hand reached across the table, took his, held it comfortably.

"Darling, I'm so glad you chose Montana for our honeymoon," she crooned. "I know after all that Ranger training, and being reassigned to Delta Force, you wanted some place peaceful. Cities and rude people, they make you so… cranky."

Whatever the log-hauler was going to say died on his lips. Carmen slid past him, setting the plates on the table. Julia hopped up, Alec following suit, let her scoot in next to him as he sat back down. She put one hand around his bicep, laid her head on his shoulder, started on her salad. Alec spared a single, level glance at the three men, who all but tripped over themselves trying to back away.

He waited until they were gone, patted her hand. "Thank you."

She left her hand where it was, smiled up at him. "No problem."

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