Written by mechjok :: [Sunday, 17 May 2020 18:05] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 24 May 2020 11:47]
Gabriel guided the Gryphon in to the path of a landing beacon, let the AI take over the grounding process. The nine people with him were unusually quiet, only five of them in Knight armor and carrying weapons. Robert Giscard nudged his elbow from the co-pilot's seat, pointed out the canopy.
"Looks like almost everyone's here already."
Gabriel nodded. "Don't remind me."
Robert studiously looked away. "We haven't landed yet. If you wish to change your mind, no one of us will argue. We stand ready."
Gabriel almost grabbed the stick, reefed the transport around. But then they were on the ground, the Citadel's shields snapping back in place. He looked longingly at the skies, swiveled his seat around to get up.
"Don't get too comfortable," he said quietly as he walked the length of the cabin. "We won't be staying very long."
Several people were waiting at the foot of the ramp. Morrigan's scowl leapt out at him immediately, flanked by Eric Gramm and Byron Halsport, the commanders of the Philadelphia and London cells. Frederick Mulabe, the single tallest man Gabriel had ever seen, from the Johannesburg cell. Sergei Kolovanov, from Moscow, still built like a hairless Russian bear.
The surviving human leaders of the Order.
Tight handshakes were shared by the men; this was no time for embracing. Morrigan sniffed angrily, her foot tapping.
"The Council awaits us, Herald," she said sharply. "Where do you stand?"
Gabriel dropped Sergei's hand. "In regards to what?"
Eric folded his arms. "Morrigan thinks we should approach the Council united, and demand they allow us to retake the US locations. An opinion I happen to share."
Frederick nodded, showing white teeth in that startlingly dark face. "As do I. What are we expected to do from here? The Kaldec can park artillery on the peaks, blow anything that tries to leave apart. And the Chinese Army brackets us to the east."
"My troops stand ready," Sergei rumbled, the voice of an earthquake. "We will drive these scum back to the stars where they belong. Otherwise, we have been training for nothing."
Gabriel glanced at Byron. "And you, my friend?"
Byron turned empty eyes to Gabriel. "They killed Emily," he said simply. "I want them dead. Every last one of them."
Morrigan's eyes softened at the man's obvious pain. Gabriel looked away. "Then we stand united. Let us demonstrate our resolve to the Elders."
He turned, led the small group towards the massive oak doors. They swung open at their approach, the vast entry hall echoing their footfalls. A whip-thin man in the robes of the Order came out of an adjoining hallway, fell in to step beside Gabriel.
"You made it," Duong Thien smiled slightly, keeping his eyes forward. "We were beginning to worry."
"Hmh." Gabriel glanced at one of the tapestries on the wall- the Battle of Kiendu Pass, thirteen hundred years before. "You may not want to be with us, Thien. We…"
The man waved him off. "I'm of the mind we leave the Initiates here to protect the Masters, while the rest of us go and deal with the Kaldec once and for all. The Home Guard is ready to serve.
"Besides," his smile got very wide. "I wouldn't miss this dust-up for all the tea in China."
The entry hall seemed to drag forever. Finally, the polished brass doors of the Council chamber loomed ahead. The four Knights on guard came to attention, then dragged the doors open.
Only the main table was lit. Gabriel led the others through the gallery ramp, watching the five figures already seated at the table. Master Torik had his hood pushed back, his red complexion twisted in a scowl while he read whatever was flowing down his viewscreen. The other four Kalrist still had their hoods on, but the sense of the room was one of anger, and fear.
Torik looked up, spotted the humans, waved them over. His scowl became a worried smile as he looked the group over, noticing for the first time one very conspicuous absence.
He plucked at Gabriel's sleeve, jerked his head away from the table. The two of them walked to the edge of the gallery seats, Torik pitching his voice low. "Archangel?"
Gabriel locked his eyes on the almost-glowing purple orbs. "What do you think?"
Torik nodded. "Boy's from the same mold you are. More courage than ten men."
"Maybe," Gabriel dropped his eyes. "I tucked my tail under me and ran to Mommy. He hung in there, refused to come."
Torik slapped his shoulder. "Save the passion for those who need to be swayed, lad. Let's get this farce back on track."
Morrigan was taking her seat when they came back to the table, staring daggers at Master Coriana, the diminutive Kalrist woman gazing back placidly. Sorala, Chief Activator of the Order, smiled at Sergei as the Russian took his place beside her. Eric and Byron sat to either side of Master Kon, last of the Triumvere, very pointedly not looking at him. Somack, the Cleric of the Order, watched everyone's faces with obvious concern, murmured something Gabriel couldn't hear to Thien as the smaller man sat down next to him, then leaned to whisper to Frederick.
Every eye drifted to the empty chair at Torik's right hand, where the Order's champion should be sitting. Instead, only two of them knew that champion was in the thick of battle already.
"Let us begin," Coriana said quietly, dropping her hood. Violet eyes peered out calmly, not even a hint of concern. The humans went on guard instantly; Torik and Sorala frowned. "Somack, will you lead us in…"
Morrigan's palm slapped to the table. "This isn't a prayer meeting!" she thundered. "Earth is besieged by the Kaldec, and you have called us to the Citadel?! Have you lost your courage or your minds?"
Thien laid a hand on Morrigan's arm, shook his head at her. Sergei cleared his throat, tried to mute the rumble in his voice. "While the tone is perhaps excessive, Morrigan makes a valid point. Why are we here, when the battle is not?"
"The situation is too much in flux," Kon responded. "We had not anticipated that Thoris and Fleaw would fall, nor that Troshala and Berum would be besieged. The latest reports indicate that a Kaldec force has grounded on Centauri Prime, and that the Order there is in heavy contact. It is prudent…"
"Why should we care?" Eric said softly.
Kon stopped in mid-sentence. "I beg your pardon?"
The man laid his hands flat on the table. "Why should we care? So Thoris fell; so what? The Thorians never sent aid to us, why does it matter?"
"We have an entrenched force here," Byron added, voice just as soft. "We have three hundred Knights ready for battle, enough weaponry and armor in the Citadel to retake the West Coast, reestablish our presence on the Atlantic seaboard, catch the Kaldec in the American Heartland in a pincers movement. With the resources of the East Coast bases, we can then launch an offensive against whatever they have grounded in Europe."
Coriana shook her head slowly. "Impossible. The Arions…"
"Then it's time we dealt with the Arions."
Torik's eyes glittered as he glared at Coriana. "The humans are correct. This is not a time to sit and wait; the time has come to stop speaking of resolve, and demonstrate it. Three volleys from the quantum cannons and the Arions are a memory. They'll all be dead before the fire-flash clears."
Coriana's voice barely concealed her shock. "And how do you propose we deal with the fleet that shows up to find out what happened to their Near Earth Command?"
Byron shrugged. "We kill them the same way. Until they stop coming."
Kon snorted. "And plunge Earth into the middle of the Supremis War? Ludicrous."
"We're already in the middle of the War, Kon," Sorala said hotly. "You are merely too blind to see it."
Frederick leaned between the two Kalrist. "If I may- the elimination of the Arion battlecruiser is a necessity under any circumstance. We cannot undertake any type of full-scale operation if we are concerned with Arion interference. Nor can we allow for the chance that the Kaldec may manage to corrupt the Arion force in orbit. Arion psychology being what it is, the only course of action is to destroy them."
"You yield to emotion," Coriana said sadly. "All of you do. I may understand that in the humans, but Torik, Sorala, I find your resistance to our course…"
"Don't rebuke me as if I were a child, Coriana," Torik snapped. "And let us be clear here. You chose this path, the rest of us did not."
The slender Kalrist straightened her shoulders. "I am First Triumvere. It is my duty to lead…"
"You are First," Somack acknowledged quietly, "simply because Torik elected to devote his efforts to the defense of Earth. Something you have found increasingly… distasteful."
The humans went silent. Torik leaned back, flashed a mouth full of teeth at Somack. "The Cleric speaks."
Somack ignored the Master, fixing his eyes on Coriana. "You may lead, but I am the spiritual head of the Order. And as such, it is my responsibility to inform you that your reasoning is flawed in this instance."
Kon lowered his voice. "Brother, not in front of the humans…"
"Thank you, Kon, for illustrating my point," Somack said wryly. "Fifteen thousand years we have had the Compact, and you still act as if we are on Kaldor. Do you remember who drove us from our home? Have you forgotten who received us with open arms? You dishonor the Compact with your hubris."
Kon's red skin flushed a deep violet, Somack ignoring him as fully as he had Torik. "This is not our world, Coriana. It's theirs. We surrendered our world to the Kaldec a long time ago. Don't presume to make the same ignorant decision here."
"You all yield to emotion," Coriana replied serenely, propping her elbow on the table. "Fortunately, I do not."
"No, you simply presume much," Somack snarled, heat tinging his voice. "I was there when we left Kaldor, woman. You were a far-off glimmer in your mother's eye. I have earned the right to question your decisions; you have yet to earn the right to question mine."
"Enough," Gabriel rose from his chair. "You have made your decision. Now we make ours. We refuse to abide by your command. We will fight the Kaldec without you."
He reached to the center of the table, seized the sphinx of the Order, slammed it down on the polished obsidian. It shattered, scattering pieces of clay across the table.
"You have broken the Compact," he said contemptuously. "We stand alone now."
Morrigan stood, turned on her heel, followed Gabriel from the Chamber. The rest of the humans followed.
Torik stood before they were gone. "Fifteen thousand years, and you demolish it in less than fifteen minutes. Bravo."
He strode away, Coriana standing and shouting after him. "Torik! What are you doing?"
"Salvaging the future," he shouted back. "Cower here if you wish. I will not."
"Nor will I," Somack pushed himself up. "I may be old, but I can still wield a warlance, show these pups what a warrior truly is."
Sorala rose as well. "Lead, Cleric, the Activator Corps will follow."
The two of them strode from the Chamber, leaving Coriana and Kon staring at each other.
Morrigan matched her pace to Gabriel's, lowered her voice. "Well, that was interesting. What now?"
"Frederick," he called over his shoulder. The man quickened his step, came up on Gabriel's other side. "Assemble a strike force. Thirty Knights. We are going to retrieve Archangel and Doctor Brooks, and if necessary, liberate San Francisco."
"Done," he peeled off, took a turn and vanished.
"Sergei, Thien, I think it's time we ended the Arion presence in this system. Plot the Sar'Aiel's orbital course and prepare the quantum cannons for transatmospheric firing. Once they enter the firing window, take them out. And prepare a team to take a Pegasus to mine the wormhole."
Thien smiled savagely. Sergei slapped Gabriel's shoulder, followed the smaller man away. Gabriel stopped, surveyed Byron and Eric.
"You gentlemen up to planning an offensive? I want an overall strategy ready by tomorrow evening, with contingencies for Kaldec counterattacks."
Byron blanched. "From here? That's an awfully long flight, old man."
"Unless one of the safehouses survived intact, we have no choice. Prepare for that; we'll know more when Alec gets here."
Before the two men could leave, Torik strode down the hall. He had dropped his robes, clothed himself in blacks, a shield-arm, and a tacglove, carried a warlance. Somack followed behind him, Sorala next to him. The Cleric still wore his crimson vestments, but he too carried a warlance, the Activator her Staff of Office. They stopped four paces from Gabriel, each bowing low from the waist.
Torik rose from the bow first, spun his lance so he held it in both hands, dropped to his knees. He bent his head, held the lance up on open palms.
"For fifteen millenia we have stood by your side," his gravelly voice voice intoned slowly. "Today we have broken faith with our Human Brothers. I have forgotten Honor's Price. I beg you, have mercy upon me, that I may earn the right to expunge this stain on my soul by fighting by your side."
"Rise, Master Torik," Gabriel said quietly. "You need not explain yourself to me. Save your plea for he who will lead us to victory; he is more deserving than I."
The Kalrist didn't budge. "This warrior humbly asks that he be allowed to join the party that goes to his side."
Gabriel looked at Morrigan, who nodded silently. "As you wish. I would not deny the man who trained me."
"I follow, Chiliarch. Direct my sword."
Morrigan sniffed loudly. "Stand up, Master Torik. You dishonor yourself; be not overproud in your submission."
The desperation in his voice was so totally alien to the man they all knew it jerked at Gabriel's heart. "I must atone…"
"We all must, Master," Gabriel replied. "But while we stand here feeling our shame, he we must atone to faces the Kaldec alone. Morrigan, take command of the strike team; Frederick will be needed here."
Alec slapped the portable faber he'd snatched from the safehouse together, plugged one of the glowing tubes in the power supply module, fired it up. It hummed quietly, green telltales lighting up along the control panel.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed absently at his eyes. He glanced at the clock above the stove, pulled the computer matrix and his laptop closer, ran a dataline to the base of the matrix.
"Computer, tie in to skyweb system," he tapped a few keys, bringing up a map of the United States. "Give me an energy anomaly overview, continental United States. Search parameters… one hundred thousand megawatts, plus or minus twenty percent."
Julia shot a worried glance at Arwyn. "Is he always like this?"
"Pretty much," she glanced his way, stroking Sam's ears gently. "He's a touch… intense … sometimes. That's why he's the cho'rist, the Champion of the Order. Warrior without peer, unmatched dedication, amazing control. The first Knight in nine thousand years to best the former cho'rist."
Julia shook her head, walked around the couch. "Alec, you need to rest."
He grunted. "Get plenty of rest when I'm dead."
She reached over his shoulder, took gentle hold of his hand. "To keep that from happening tonight, you need to sleep."
Her grip was unbreakable, his wrist wrapped in a silk-covered steel vise. He sighed, nodded. "Okay. You win."
She released him; he twisted off the stool, rubbed his hands together. His blacks retracted, reforming into the little black sphere, leaving him standing there in running shorts and a tank top. "Julia, you can have my room. Arwyn, you go ahead, take the other bedroom. I got the couch. But first, I'm gonna shower."
"I'm fine right here," Arwyn replied.
"Guest room's fine, I don't want to kick you out of your own bed," Julia said.
Alec heaved another sigh. "Whatever. I'm too tired to argue. Sleep wherever you want."
He ducked his head under the stream of water, let it flood over his ears, down his back. He felt like absolute shit, was secretly glad that Julia had bullied him in to resting.
One day. The whole world had gone straight to hell in One. Fucking. Day.
Recruit Doctor Brooks, Morrigan had said. We can win. Yeah. Right.
Images of the slaughter in the safehouse flashed back. The smells. The sounds of scalded flesh still covered in acid. Dead friends, because he hadn't been there. The curse of perfect memory.
He growled, punched weakly at the shower wall. Masric. He should've killed him when he had the chance. Too much to hope he'd died when the safehouse went up. But he'd wanted him to suffer, to die as painfully as possible. Being crushed by a million tons of rock was a good way for that to happen.
He was on the verge of losing control. He knew it, honestly wasn't sure if he cared or not. The warm embrace of rage loomed. Rage fueled vengeance. Yet rage led to carelessness. Carelessness got you killed, usually in some remarkably stupid, incredibly brave fashion. Too often the brave were mistaken for the foolhardy.
He had little to live for. Maybe it was time to trade courage for stupidity. Fighting the Kaldec alone certainly qualified as stupid.
With him dead, Julia and Arwyn would have no choice. They would have to go to the Citadel. Maybe it would be enough to jerk those idiots into action, make a decision to fight…
The bathroom door opened, closed softly. Alec poked his head out of the shower, saw Julia standing in the middle of the bathroom. "What? What's wrong?"
"I don't… nothing. I just…," she stopped, folded her arms. "I don't know how to take this uniform off."
"Just rub your palms together, like when you put it on," he slid back behind the curtain. "The boots'll come off at the same time. I'll be out soon, if you want…"
Julia drew the shower curtain back enough to slip in the tub, closed it behind her.
"… to shower…?" he finished weakly. Her body was on full, beautiful display, proof God had designed the human form to be perfect. Every centimeter was sleek, sculpted, flawless. Slender muscles played along centerfold legs. Her lush bosom defied gravity, perched firmly above well-defined abs. She'd twisted her hair up and away from her tapered neck, watched him through lowered eyelashes.
His mind went into warp drive. Several parts of his anatomy responded unbidden; he swallowed, hard, backed away. "Wha…. who….what are you doing?"
She smiled slowly. "Conserving water."
Her pheromones went ballistic, Julia slowly stepping forward. Alec slapped the water off, tried to climb the wall behind him. "Doctor Brooks, wha…. why…. this is really…."
"Shhh," she laid her finger on his lips, stood very close to him. "Don't talk. Just kiss me."
She went up on tiptoes, brushed his lips with her own. A tingle raced down his chest, her touch electric, her scent full and sweet and strong. He felt his knees buckle, grabbed for the window sill. Julia smiled softly, opened her mouth just a little under his, flicked the tip of her tongue in to his mouth.
Alec moaned softly, tried to back away. Julia pulled back, laced her fingers behind his neck. "What?" she whispered. "Don't you… want me?"
"Oh, God," he gasped, flushing. "More than you could possibly imagine."
The smile came back, still gentle. "Then why…?"
He turned his head away. "I've never…" he took in a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I don't know what to do."
Her jaw sagged fractionally. "Never?" she echoed.
He nodded, flushed even brighter.
He turned back to her, eyes very calm. "I've never been in love before."
"We met this morning," she replied. "How can you…?"
Alec tapped his forehead. "I read minds."
He reached up, gently eased her arms from his shoulders. "I don't expect you to feel the same way. I know how it works…"
Julia pushed her arms back down, took tender hold of his neck. "But I do. Kiss me."
She didn't wait for an answer, pulled his head down to her lips. The second kiss was more passionate, less hesitant, even more electric. Alec flapped his hands in the air, unsure of what he was supposed to do.
Julia eased her lips from his. "Put your hands on my back, silly boy."
"But…" his breath was ragged. "but you're naked."
"So are you." an edge of laughter tickled her voice.
She left one hand in place, took hold of his left hand, placed it on her bottom. He tried to snatch it away; she slapped it gently, pushed it back. "Now squeeze. I won't break, I promise."
Julia kissed him while he complied, sending a shiver along his body. She pressed her body against his, smiled at the reaction, nibbled lightly along his neck.
"Pick me up," she whispered, "and take me to bed. Your bed."
The first hint of dawn was peeking over the Bay when he finally stirred. Julia was nestled against him, pressed against the curve of his body, his arms draped over her shoulders. He disengaged himself very carefully; Julia mumbled something, reached out, drew his hands back over her breasts.
"Rest," she said softly, snuggling her bottom in to his stomach. "Stay with me, and just rest."
An hour later she rolled over in his arms, big green eyes full in her face. He kissed her forehead, she hugged him tightly against her. "Good morning," she whispered.
She scooted a bit in the bed, gave him a lingering, opened-mouth kiss. She tasted like cinnamon, a hint of mint, smelled of her, sweeter than any perfume. She gently broke off, leaned against his chest, sighed.
"Did I," he paused, cleared his throat. "Did I do okay?"
Julia tilted her head up towards him, smiled brightly. "You were terrific."
His smile was so shy she almost giggled. She favored him with another large kiss, pouted when he slipped his arms away and climbed out of bed. He dug in his bureau, pulled out a couple of pairs of sweats, a pair of t-shirts, tossed one set on the bed. He came over, sat down next to her, cupped her cheek in his hand.
"I'm going to go shower, then rustle up some breakfast."
She nodded, held her arms up like a toddler asking for a hug. "I need to shower too."
He lifted her from the bed, carried her to the bathroom.
Arwyn was curled up on the couch, Sam hugged to her chest. Alec smiled as he walked past, quietly opened cupboards and the refrigerator to put breakfast together.
Sam's head poked over the top of the couch. She scampered over to the counter, climbed up next to Alec. He scratched her head, handed her half a banana. She settled on the counter, began to eat, chittering at him.
"Yes, Arwyn is very nice," he replied, looking for his whisk. "And Julia is too. You're just upset because you didn't have her fawning all over you last night."
Indignation. Sam folded her arms and glared. He laughed softly, patted her head. Mollified, the monkey returned to her breakfast.
Julia emerged from the bathroom, drying the ends of her hair, clad in Alec's sweats. Arwyn sat up, blinked herself awake, stretched her arms over her head. She looked around until she spotted Alec, smiled sleepily. "My middle hurts. Why does my middle hurt?"
"I'd imagine you're hungry," he opened the bread box, fetched the bag of bagels. "Come have something to eat. I'm making breakfast, but you can start with that."
Arwyn stood up, came around to the counter. She had a worried look on her face. "But I'm not human. How can I be hungry?"
He shrugged, split the bagel, spread cream cheese on both halves. "Who says you aren't human? I don't know exactly what Jerry did, but I don't think we should take any chances."
He put the plate in front of her, Arwyn still looking at him. "But I can fly. And I'm so strong. And I'm still me, in my mind. At least, I think I am."
"Let's have breakfast before we get existential, okay?" he poured Julia a cup of coffee, set it at the stool next to Arwyn. She smiled at him, sat down, sipped at her cup.
"Do I like bagels?" Arwyn looked doubtfully at the plate, picked a half up.
"Eat it and find out," Alec started sauteeing ham and crumbled bacon in a pan, dropped a couple of handfuls of shredded potatoes in a hot skillet. He dug some sausages out of the fridge, tossed them in the skillet with the potatoes.
Arwyn nibbled at the edge of a bagel, her eyes widening as she chewed slowly. "I guess I do like bagels… what else do I like, Alec?"
He whisked a half-dozen eggs together, poured them over the ham and bacon, folded in some shredded cheese. "Tell you what, Arwyn, give me five minutes and we'll find out."
He finished the omelet, cut it into three semi-equal portions, put sausages and potatoes on each plate. Alec served each of the ladies, started to dig into his plate…
Julia dropped her fork. "Someone's on the roof…"
Alec's utility belt flew from the back of an easy chair, slapped itself around his waist, his warlance leaping into his hand…
Three figures crashed through the skylight. Alec leapt over the counter, grabbed Arwyn's shoulders, flung her over the couch while he twisted to land on his feet. Julia dove sideways, Alec's lance springing to life.
They wore Knight armor- sort of. Instead of the silver shield-arms, their armor was flat, non-reflective black- except for the bone-white faceplates, morphed into skull visages. And no emblem. They all carried warlances, but not steel-gray, the same flat black of their armor.
Not talkers, either. The first one to touch the floor bounded forward, Alec side-slipping the charge by inches, his bladed hand crashing against the Knight's neck. He flew over the couch, smashed the coffee table. Arwyn rolled over her shoulder, sprinted for the bedroom.
"Leave the girl," one of them rasped. His modulator lowered his voice by an octave or two, but Alec knew what he was up against. He backflipped, landing in the middle of the living room, spun his lance to first position.
The one he'd whomped rose slowly, the other two skirting the counters to bracket Alec in. "Two of them, Archangel?" the one who'd spoken asked. "Making up for lost time, are we?"
"How about we drop the masks, Cain," Alec replied calmly. "You really aren't tall enough to pull off Darth Vader. Might want to rethink the helmets, too; you look like refugees from that movie with Lundgren and Langella."
The speaker laughed, his helmet hissing down his head. Cold gray eyes sparkled in deep-set sockets, a few days growth on a strong chin. "Should've known I couldn't fool the Angel. But appearances are everything, especially when you're working for a new employer."
"And here I was wracking my brain about who sold us out," Alec took a slow step backwards. "I might have guessed you, but I thought you died with the rest of Denver."
Cain Grailmore shrugged. "Who said we died?"
Alec's eyes got very hard. "Then let's rectify that, shall we?"
A telekinetic ram spun out, caught Cain's chin, flipped him over the counter. Alec swept right, then left, his first lunge meeting a lance, the second nailing the man he'd hit before in the chest. He staggered backwards, Julia grabbing his shoulder, spinning him around, a lightning fast uppercut sending him back up through the skylight. Alec changed his grip, slashed his lance down like a blade. His opponent parried, Alec vaulting over him, driving his foot against the back of a knee. He snagged his arm around the man's neck, yanked him back against his hip, flipped him down on the counter.
Cain bounded over his comrade, lunged at Alec. Alec parried easily, twisted into a legsweep, flashed the butt of his lance upward. Cain dodged the sweep, took the butt in his stomach, fell backwards as Alec was up and slamming his fist against the side of his head.
Alec's warlance blade settled against Cain's throat. "Tsk, tsk," Alec sighed. "Maybe you should have taken that blood money the Kaldec gave you, used it to invest in some better talent. Three of you losers and you didn't even lay a finger on me."
Cain swallowed, grinned at Alec. "Fight ain't over yet."
His hands flared white, blinding both Alec and Julia. Alec stumbled back, sweeping his lance in wide arcs, heard the familiar rush of bodies cleaving the air. He blinked his eyes rapidly, his vision clearing, snatched his helmet off the wrecked counter. He smacked it, laid it on the back of his neck, leapt up through the skylight.
His feet touched the roof, Alec immediately bounding straight up. Energy whipsawed across the roof, Alec tapping ley lines at the top of his arc, slid down the web.
He was very proficient at the sin'cho, the Dancing of the Lines, dropped at a forty-five degree angle to the roof, invisibly fast. No one could track his speed, the man seeming to vanish, reappear an instant later next to one of the turncoats.
His conversation with Masric flooded back in a heartbeat. His warlance flashed, the first blow crushing a knee, the second shredding the Knight's mid-section open, the third barely turned aside by his helmet, the dull wet snap of crunching bone sharp in the morning air.
The Knight fell, Alec spinning his lance around to block a strike from a flaming battlesaber. Corey McRae snarled, tried to slash at Alec's stomach, took a kick right at his throat. He flipped over backwards, landed on his chest, Alec stomping his head against the roof.
"Surrender NOW!" he shouted, lance whirling. "Don't make this worse than you already have!"
Two more sprinted at him, leaping the skylight…
Julia streaked out of the ruined window, bodily slamming into one, snagging the other's foot. She landed on top of the first Knight, slapped the other to the roof by the ankle. Concrete cracked under his chest, the man jerking once, lying still.
The other Knight tried to kick her off; she snorted, drove her open palm against the front of his visor, cracking his helmet open and breaking his jaw.
A battlesaber flared to life out of the corner of her eye. Julia twisted sideways, ducked under, Alec resolving back into view right above her, his foot catching her attacker in the shoulder. The man spun around as Alec flew past, Julia up and grabbing his sword arm. She twisted at the wrist; bone snapped, the man bellowed, dropped to the roof when her elbow crumpled his faceplate.
Leaving three. Alec's feet brushed the roof, letting him get some altitude. Then the weird blur, and he was hitting the last two Knights, hands clasped together on the center of his warlance. All three bowled over the edge of the building.
The final Knight growled, ripped her helmet off. Her hands balled into fists, the woman setting herself. "You must be Dr. Brooks."
She sprinted forward, hit Julia's chin, actually knocked her down. Julia rolled with the punch, got her feet under her in time to leap another swing. The woman's fist hit the roof, shattering an eight foot section, ripping Alec's kitchen to the open air. She jerked her hand back, bounded up to grab Julia, both of them tumbling to the roof next door.
Alec recognized Hagan Grimm, said hello by kicking him in the face. He twisted his warlance around, jammed it against Cain's throat, rode the shorter man right through the roof of a parked Lincoln. Hagan hit the windshield of a Buick three cars down, tried to drag himself free.
Alec yanked Cain out of the wrecked car, his foot already coming up and around. The blow hit Cain at the base of his neck, flipping him to the pavement. Alec jumped after, swinging his lance at Cain's head like an ax.
Cain rolled aside, Alec's lance ripping the sidewalk open. Hagan was there suddenly, his own lance sweeping in. Alec parried, then again. Right, left, right, left, left, thrust, Hagan unleashing a crescent kick…
Alec twisted his lance around Hagan's ankle, dropped his elbow on his exposed knee. The blacks slid aside at his mental command, letting him hit the knee unprotected. The man's patella shattered, his femur ripping through the skin. Alec slapped Grimm's lance away, grabbed the back of his neck, drove Hagan's head half through the Caddy's passenger door before the man could so much as scream.
Cain had his lance back, swept it to first position. Alec kicked Hagan aside, balanced himself. "You and me, pisswad. Let's see if you've learned anything since the last time I kicked your ass."
Julia broke the woman's grip, slapped her away. She flew across the roof, hit a four-ton air conditioner, crushed it on impact. She pulled herself free, ripped the ruins from their mooring, hurled it back at Julia.
Julia shot forward, snatched the wreck out of mid-air, swung it around and hit her opponent right in the face with it. What was left shattered, spraying parts over four more roofs, knocking the woman over Alec's building, furrowing a trench along the next one over. Julia leapt after, caught a knee in her chin when the woman jumped to meet her. Julia grabbed the woman's leg as she fell, dragging her down with her.
The roof collapsed this time, the two women tumbling over a leather couch. The couch's owner jumped aside with a yelp, snatched up a heavy trophy, swung it at the woman.
She caught the black man's heavy arm above the elbow, sneered at him. "Terran worm! Attacking a Prime?"
She squeezed. His bicep exploded, immediately followed by the report of shattering bone. Julia pounced on her before she could deliver a killing blow, the two of them crashing through the front windows. Julia heard a faint whoosh, pushed the woman off a bit, then drove her forward as they hit the pavement.
Cars leapt off the asphalt, two trucks right beside them flipping over. Julia yanked her opponent up, hit her in the face as hard as she could. The woman flew away, plowed through a car, skidded to a stop in the middle of a park.
Julia covered the span in a heartbeat, slipped the woman into a headlock, trying to cut off her oxygen. The woman snorted, swung both hands back, slapping Julia over the ears, stepped back, flipped her over her shoulder with killing force.
Julia got her hand out, handsprung away, twisting away from a lightning-fast follow kick. The woman overshot, landed a hundred feet away, spun back around, charged again. Julia blocked the eight punches that followed, the woman's foot crashing against her ribs, knocking her down.
Fingers of unearthly power clamped around her throat, began to squeeze. The woman sneered at her. "Such power, and such utter stupidity. You protect these feeble humans when you should demand their worship? I'm saving you from a lifetime of disappointment. In honor of your skill and power, I grant you a quick death."
Cain put up a better fight than the rest of them had. He ducked Alec's thrust, swung his lance around, lances clashing angrily, then Alec's foot hit his shoulder.
It barely knocked him off-balance, but then there was a lance butt in his gut, a haft slamming upward in to his neck, a blade shearing his shield-arm open at the elbow. Alec hooked his leg around Cain's neck, twisted his hips, flipped him against a parked car.
The roof collapsed under Cain's weight, windows blowing out. Alec bounced up, rammed his warlance through Cain's left shoulder, dragged it free, readied it to slash his throat.
Arwyn's voice rang out. "Arion bitch!"
A blast of heat lanced out from Arwyn's eyes, crashed against something in Gorman Park. Alec left Cain bleeding, ran towards the park.
Arwyn had a hundred emotions running through her head. Shame that she had bolted from the fight, fear, panic, confusion. When she heard the fight crash through the building next door, the shame won out. She ran out of the bedroom, flew out of the ruined skylight, dove in the hole in the roof the same instant Julia crashed out the front window.
The poor man was bleeding to death, his right arm all but torn off. She landed next to him, reflexively put her hands on his mangled arm.
Pink energy flowed from her fingers. Bone reassembled, muscle tissue reconstructing itself, the man sliding from shock to a numb, empty sleep while his heart sped up a bit, red blood cells replenishing the loss under stimulation.
The pink light faded. Arwyn glanced out of the smashed windows, saw Julia struggling with the woman, felt something new.
She took three quick steps to the window ledge, her optical scanners- her eyes- reading the woman, matching genetic templates.
Homo Sapience Supremis. Arion off-shoot. One of their genetic overclass, colloquially called a Prime. Renowned for their lack of compassion.
Arwyn's anger spiraled higher. She crouched on the sill, shrieked at the top of her lungs.
The same energy that had healed the man behind her flashed out, in very different form. A heat blast equal to a plasma rifle shot from Arwyn's eyes, hit the woman in the side, flung her off Julia.
Arwyn leapt into the air, laced her hands together, swooped past Julia, unloaded on the Prime with all her strength.
The Prime flew away as if fired from a cannon. She hit a hundred-year-old tree, kept right on going, rolled, hit the earth face first. She dug her head free, snarling like a wounded animal, just as Julia's fist crashed into her face.
Julia poured every ounce of her strength into each blow, fists rising and falling in a continuous blur. She ignored the crater she dug, the shattered water main they plowed through, until they hit resilient bedrock, the Prime lying still at the bottom of the hole.
Her knuckles were bleeding, already starting to clot and heal, the Prime's face bruised almost beyond recognition. Julia drew a deep shuddering breath, stepped back slowly. The woman's chest was rising and falling sporadically, so she wasn't dead, but she was sure as hell hurt.
Alec's helmet appeared at the rim of the hole, sliding back to reveal his worried eyes. She felt a soft hand settle around her hips, lifting her gently out of the crater, the Prime floating up after. Alec pulled a clear sphere out of his utility belt, slapped it in his palm, dropped it on the Prime's chest. "Gold."
A tangle of golden threads spun around the woman, resolving into thick golden chains. A groan passed her lips, Alec ignoring her. He studied Julia, keeping his distance. "You okay?"
She nodded, looked a little pale. Alec opened his arms to her, she took a hesitant half-step, hugged him tight. Her breath was still coming in shudders, Alec's arm sliding free to pull Arwyn in close. The girl was shaking, sobbing; Julia pulled her close, hugged her to her shoulder.
Alec crooned softly to them both for a few moments, then backed away. He settled on his haunches, studied the Prime. "Arion or Velorian?"
Arwyn wiped her cheeks. "A Prime."
"Great," he left her on the ground, stood back up. "I said four years ago we should have put EarthFirst out of business, but does anybody listen to me?"
Four Technicians sat at Fire Control. Thien smiled thinly as he watched the target sphere drift across his plot, seated next to Casimir Putin, his "gunner". The skinny Ukrainian made a few minor adjustments, typed in a new command set, turned his head to Ang Li.
"All set?" he said quietly.
Li nodded. "Locked and cocked. Blow them outta the sky."
Casimir chuckled. He settled his hands on the targeting joystick, maneuvered the crosshairs over the single green target, tapped his comm set alive. "Manticore One, this is Olympus. Position check."
"Ready for mop-up, Olympus," Randy Harkness replied. "Ionic lances charged and ready, EVA team in position."
Casimir turned to Thien. "Ready, sir."
Thien leaned over his shoulder. "Fire."
Casimir pulled the trigger three times.
The roof of the central spire slid open, a forked, bulbed column rising out of it. By the time Casimir had pulled the trigger once, a pure white sphere of energy formed between the forks, crackled into an oval, and speared skyward. Two more shots followed, not even a second between each volley.
The Imperial Retribution-class Cruiser Sar'Aiel:
Tactical stations never even saw it coming.
Despite being at a constant state of readiness, the lack of any type of offensive capability on the part of the Terrans had lulled the two thousand Arions into a state of complacency. Combined with the typical Arion idea of their own racial superiority, they had taken to going about their routine with the minimum of spit and polish.
The first volley hit the engineering section dead center. The Laurentian drive core spun wild, lashing the aft third of the ship with massive gamma radiation, killing almost half the crew instantly. The aft section vanished in a silent fireball.
The second shot tore into the forward section, quantum bonds fluxing loose, flooding the bridge, tactical sections, weapons bays, shuttle hangers with enough energy to crack a planet. The handful of Primes on board detonated, helping the effort along; the ship's compliment of nuclear torpedoes going off in sympathetic explosions.
What was left of the Sar'Aiel took a final hit. Anybody still left alive died when the remains liberated their store of energy omni-directionally, shredding every atom in their path.
"Three direct hits, sir," Li reported quietly. "I'm not getting any returns at all on the meson scanners."
Thien blew out a deep breath. "Manticore, report."
The speaker crackled. "You guys drilled the hell out of that ship, sir. No life signs at all; there isn't a hunk left up here bigger than a baseball."
"Proceed with sweep, Manticore," Thien said firmly. "Tell those boys to be careful."
"Yes, sir. Will report in ten."
Thien turned to Casimir. "Launch the Pegasus."
Casimir tapped a touchpad. "Pegasus, you are go."
Thunder rolled through the Citadel, a new blip popping up on the plot. It arrowed straight up, shot past Manticore's position, kept on going. Casimir tapped another panel, switched his view to the PRLA exercise two hundred kilometers away.
"Wanna liberate Western China, sir?" he asked quietly. Thien slapped his shoulder.
"One thing at a time, Cas. One thing at a time."
Alec grabbed Cain by the neck, yanked him out of the junked car. Arwyn started forward, backed away to stand beside Julia when Alec shot her an ugly look.
Sirens were blaring in the distance. Alec shoved Cain against a lamppost, heaved the man off the ground by his exposed throat.
"You got one chance with me, asswipe," he snarled. "Make it fast, make it true, you die quick. Lie, you bleed out while I spread your guts from here to San Jose."
Cain spit bloody phlegm at Alec, strings of saliva sticking to pulped lips. "Fuck you, Archangel."
"'Kay," he drew his battlesaber. "Pretty sure you gutted like a trout'll loosen somebody's tongue."
His saber blazed to hot, angry life; Alec dropped Cain, drew his arm back.
Engines roared over his apartment building. The same mold-gray ship as they'd fought at the airport rose in to view, only much bigger. Ill-shaped figures dropped to the roof, scooping up fallen Knights, a single massive form dropping to the street.
Impact was like a bomb blast, Julia twisting to cover Arwyn. Alec shoved Cain aside, watched twelve feet of muscle uncurl from it's little crater in the middle of the street. The big and muscular wasn't too bad- the massive cannon cradled in two of the beast's four arms was a different story.
Alec recognized the wicked lines of a skimmer-mounted particle beam cannon the thing in front of him held like a pistol. He traded saber for warlance in a second, extended it right as Big Ugly opened fire.
He blocked the shot up, got blasted off his feet by the impact, hit a concrete stoop. Julia raced forward, hit the thing in the side, bounced off. It snarled, took aim, fired at her.
Arwyn shot past Julia, snatching her out of the line of fire. The shot ripped the street open, sparks setting cars exploding for a half-block. Alec dropped his lance, lit his saber up, charged into the street.
It swung around, trying to draw a bead. Alec jumped straight up, rounded off above the monster's head, slashed as hard as he could across the base of it's neck.
The cut bounced off it's thickened hide. Sparks showered, the creature bellowed, but that was it.
Alec came down, tried for a knee. His saber hit the joint, stopped dead, as if he'd tried to chop an oak down with a baseball bat. Both hands went numb; he skittered away when that big gun came around at him. He rolled under the first car, leapt as far away as he could…
His car went up, the ones on either end following. He shouted in anger, pointed at the creature, hit it with a TK bolt right in the forehead.
It snapped the thing's head back. And really pissed it off.
Julia jumped on it's back, Arwyn diving at it's knees. Julia tried to get her arms around it's neck; the lower arms reached back, yanked her off, piledrived her to the asphalt. Arwyn bounced off, collided with a car, struggled free to watch a cannon barrel point at her head from ten feet.
Alec's saber came down, carving the cannon apart above the trigger. He bounded off the ground, activated his sin'cho, plowed right into the thing's face.
His heel cracked in half, his entire right leg going dead. Alec tumbled away, skidded across the pavement, hacked at the massive hands reaching for him. Big Ugly dropped it's rifle, and Julia, bringing all four arms at Alec.
Arwyn heaved the car she'd totaled around, hit it in the side. Metal buckled around the creature's mid-section, one huge arm crushing the wreck in to the ground. Arwyn backed away, then rose in the air, hit it with a heat blast.
And then the cops showed up.
Three cars screeched to a stop, four officers piling out. They all goggled, but to their credit they sized the situation up, drew their sidearms, and opened fire. Lead bounced off, barely even attracting the behemoth's attention; it reached two arms for Julia, flicked a half-smashed car at the cops. It stopped in mid-flight, spun and hit Big Ugly in the back of the head.
Alec staggered against a burned-out husk, blood streaming from his nose. He felt his way in to the beast's head, tried to find a blood vessel to pinch off. It roared, flung Julia aside, ran towards him. The ground trembled with each step, Alec probing faster…
One of it's thick, three-fingered hands clamped down on his left shoulder. The bones crumbled, Alec choking down a scream, trying to reach the thing's head with his other hand. It hoisted him up, drove him to the pavement like a tent peg.
He hardened his aura just in time. He twisted his legs under him, tried to cushion the impact. His aura-shield snapped the same instant his legs did. His right leg shattered, pulpy muscle and crushed bone shifting under his skin. Alec's left tibia cracked in four places, the hip joint higher up snapping off at the bulb. He was unconscious before he saw the other upper arm pull back.
Julia wrapped both of her arms around the piling holding Alec, heaved. She managed to drag the hand away, pushed the arm up to block the punch that came her way instead.
But the stupid thing had four arms…!
It grabbed her waist, easily encircling it, hurled her at the cops. She hit a windshield, sheared the top of the car off, pulped the back end of the rig behind it.
One of the cops was screaming for back-up, switching clips in the minuscule nine millimeter pistol in his hand, his compatriots emptying their rounds as fast as they could pull the triggers. The monster turned their way, sniffed the air, let out a massive bellow.
More than one cop lost control of his bladder.
Beams of light flashed down from the rooftops, slashing at the monster's chest. Four Knights leapt from Alec's roof, led by a tall woman in more revealing armor, positioned themselves between the police and the beast, opened fire with long rifles.
Julia pushed herself free, looked up at an offered hand. Flowing red hair framed knowing sapphire eyes, a body as perfect as hers, if a foot taller, peeking from the edges of archaic plate armor, all lacquered green and gold. Julia took the hand, the other woman hoisting her up.
"Doctor Brooks, I presume?" her voice was faintly Gaelic, cultured, musical. "The files do you little justice. I am Morrigan, special operations commander of the Order."
Julia bit down a sharp reply, nodded thanks to the woman. One of the Knights shouted, two of them peeling off, shoving policemen to the pavement, the other two diving clear as the behemoth crashed his way toward the cars.
Julia leapt over him, Morrigan drawing a warlance and dancing back. "Medics, extract Archangel!" she shouted, skipping to one side, driving her lance against the beast's ribs. "Team Two, heavier weapons!"
Three of the four Knights took aim, fired. "For God's sakes, lads, kill it!"
One of the others grunted. "Right-o, Harry. Just tell me how!"
It reared, ignoring the particle beams slicing it's chest, started to come back around. Harry Grey's eyes widened under his helmet. "Locks off!" he shouted. "Empty the charge!"
Each beam tripled in size. They actually made it stagger back, lift it's arms to protect it's head. Morrigan cursed softly, skidded to a stop next to Julia, crouched beside a cruiser.
"What in Bael's name is that?"
Julia shook her head. "The Kaldec showed up, gathered the Knights from Denver, dropped this off to keep us busy."
"They've certainly succeeded," Morrigan replied. She drew her sidearm, leveled it, fired.
The weapons fire slacked off, stopped, the Knights drawing warlances. "Great," Morris Klicker muttered. "Popsicle sticks against Godzilla…"
"Gerald, get those bobbies out of here," Harry called, setting his feet. "We'll handle Mr. Personality."
More figures appeared at the rooftops, dropping to the street, unlimbering heavy weapons. One of them paused for a moment. "Commander, I suggest you move out of the line of fire…"
Their first volley was spectacular. Big Ugly shuddered, stumbled back, roared in pain. Morrigan dragged Julia along with her, ducked behind a car, craned her neck to watch the battle.
A Knight, considerably shorter than the others, crouched next to the two women. "Formidable. It appears our friends have been experimenting."
"That would be a major understatement, Master Torik," Morrigan replied calmly. "Suggestions?"
"Get it away from the area; there are too many civilians in this location. Killing it would be preferable to capture at this point," he held up a small silver sphere. "Would you wager the interior of the beast is as resilient as the outer?"
Morrigan's lips curled back in a nasty smile. "I keep forgetting how devious you are, old man."
He grunted. "Watch and learn, child. Dr. Brooks, may I have your assistance, please?"
Julia nodded. "What's the plan?"
"Hit the beast in the neck as hard as you can. Then run for your life," he poked his head over the edge of the trunk. "Blue Eleven! In five!"
He waddled to the edge of the car, motioned Julia behind him. "Three… two… now, child!"
Julia stretched in to a sprint, energy blasts shutting down, raced right at the beast. She dug her foot in it's stomach, drove both fists against it's throat with every ounce of strength she could muster. It choked, opened it's mouth to bellow, Torik right behind her. He shoved her aside with frightening force, two Knights holding forearms to catch her, hustle her under cover, both piling on top of her, covering her head. Torik dropped the sphere in the monster's open mouth, kicked the jaw closed, jumped off it's shoulder clutching his foot.
The thermal grenade detonated, blowing the beast's head off. Grey-green blood spattered everywhere, sizzling where it hit metal or asphalt. The headless carcass took a fumbling step, fell forward to the street with a boom.
Weapons came up before heads did. Morrigan came out from behind the car, her sidearm pointed at the monstrosity. "Stay back until we're sure it's dead!"
The two Knights on top of Julia rolled off, mumbled apologies, helped her to her feet. Both of them raised their plasma rifles, stayed between her and the body while Morrigan slowly approached it. She toed it with her boot, watched the muscles jerk spastically, waved Knights forward.
"Contain it," she ordered, holstering her weapon. "Let's get it ready to be moved. Quickly, we're going to have a lot of company very soon."
Harry was squatting next to the policemen, holding very still. Gerald Norman stood at Morrigan's approach. "He's working on them now, ma'am. But there are civilians everywhere; someone was bound to catch this on videotape."
Morrigan nodded. "Get back to the roof, activate Archangel's damper system in his apartment. Bring his monkey as well; we leave her in the middle of this, he'll hang my ass next to yours on the Citadel wall."
The man nodded, trotted away. Julia watched a blocky aircraft lift off the roof of Alec's building, streak off to the west. A gentle hand tapped her shoulder; she turned, glanced down at the Knight that had dropped the bomb down the monster's throat.
His bald head was the shade or two lighter than a tomato, a groomed goatee of glittering silver around his chin. Purple eyes danced in laugh-wrinkled sockets, three gentle ridges running up the bridge of his nose to his forehead. He smiled at her genially.
"Superb work, Doctor. You saved many lives here with your quick action."
He turned, hobbled away, brushing aside a Knight who offered a hand, began to climb the side of Alec's building.
Julia sighed, watched three Knights fitting thick metal collars around the monster's arms and legs. Maybe they were all crazy…
"Ready, gentlemen?" Morrigan waited for an answering shout, gestured Julia towards the building. "Doctor? Are you joining us?"
Julia nodded absently, bent her legs, propelled herself to the roof with one bound. Sam squealed when she saw her, pulled free of a Knight's arms, scrambled to Julia's shoulders. She patted Sam's head, followed the odd looking Knight into the back of another aircraft.
He hobbled to a seat next to another red-hued man, this one with a full head of silver hair, piercing eyes, and a face of utter calm. He glanced up at her, smiled slightly, gestured her to the seat opposite the two of them. "Torik, you are not a young buck any longer. You need to at least consider exercising caution once in a while."
The Knight snorted. "Caution is for the decrepit. Fortune favors the bold, Somack."
"One must be alive to enjoy fortune's favor, Master Torik," Somack replied, easing the other man's leg up in to his lap. "As a wise man once said, there is a thin line between being a hero, and being a memory."
The same pink energy Alec had used to heal his leg spilled from Somack's hands, washed over Torik's ankle. A few moments later, the energy faded, Torik flexing his ankle spryly.
"By Issha, Cleric, you are still the finest healer in the sector. Now if you would learn to use a weapon properly, there might be hope for you yet."
"I may be four thousand years older than you, pup," Somack growled, pushing Torik's leg from his lap. "but I guarantee I can still pin your ears back."
Torik chuckled; Somack turned his gaze on Julia. "Are you hurt, Doctor? May I offer healing?"
She curled her legs up to her chin, shook her head. Sam hugged her neck tightly, glared at Somack. "Please, Doctor, be at ease," the elderly Cleric said softly. "We have much to atone for, but we must start where we can."
A Knight stuck his head out of the cockpit. "Master Torik, we have confirmed fighters inbound from Edwards. Look like a full squadron of F-15s; chatter says to prepare for a suspected Omega-Zero engagement."
Torik nodded, hopped up. "Move it, you lazy pups! Company is on the way!"
Fifteen Knights scrambled aboard, lugging weapons. They stored them in fold-down racks, settled themselves on the remaining seats, three of them sitting on the floor to give Julia space. Morrigan ran aboard last, slipped in to the cockpit, twisting herself in to the copilot seat.
"All battened down, Tran?" she slipped a commset over her ear, patched in to the intership. The Knight at the controls nodded sharply, eased the stick back. The Gryphon lifted off, pivoting around the roof. He held the ship in place until a second Gryphon rose from the street, kicked in her thrusters and took off.
"Launching pulse… now," he murmured, then pulled up sharply, took off after the other craft. In less than a minute they were over the Bay, then diving towards the wavetops, holding position fifty meters behind the other transport.
"Ma'am," Tran said softly. "You'd better patch in to Grif Three."
Morrigan tapped a switch, her commset almost jumping off her ear. "… Holy God, where did he get the freaking battlesaber?! Get it away from him before…"
A number of crashes followed, then the distinctive sound of a helmeted head being driven against a control panel. Morrigan closed the circuit, set her jaw.
"Get us to their position," she growled, "Quickly."
Tran reefed the stick around, dumped some more fuel on the thrusters. They raced along the coastline, banking down towards Southern Oregon.