Written by mechjok :: [Tuesday, 26 May 2020 03:00] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 30 May 2020 18:50]
Tran tracked the signal down, dipping the Gryphon into the southwestern Coast Mountain range. He skimmed the treetops, pointed out the grounded Gryphon, sighed heavily.
Morrigan groaned. "Land. Quickly."
Tran complied, grounding them twenty meters from the other Gryphon. A hole had been carved out of the starboard hull, an armored Knight hanging out the breach. The rear hatch was warped off it's runners, steam boiling out of the hydrogen tanks.
"Warlances and stunners," Morrigan called over her shoulder. "Archangel seems to be somewhat... perturbed with us."
The rear hatch dropped, Knights spilling out. Morrigan trotted down the ramp, ran to the side of the other Gryphon, climbed in the hole.
Jimmy Harmon shook his head, pushed himself up off the deck. Sorala helped him up to a seat, tapped the seal on his helmet, ran gentle fingers over his bloodied head. Three others lay sprawled on the floor, four more in various states of pain on the rows of benches. Cordelia McKenney was tending to one of the men on the floor, Vu Kieu helping another.
"What happened?" Morrigan said softly, kneeling in front of Dieter Heinreich. The burly German was bleeding from his shoulder, both of his eyes already starting to blacken.
Sorala grimaced wryly. "Archangel awoke, and had some issues with these gentlemen, which he expressed rather forcefully."
Dieter shuddered as Morrigan pressed a healpatch to his shoulder. "He kicked our asses is what he did. Beat Hans and Deng down with his bare hands, got his hands on Jimmy's battlesaber, tore into the rest of us. He nearly kicked Isamu through the flight console, then cut the side of the Grif open, grabbed a suit, lit off with the girl."
Somack clambered in the side of the Gryphon, muttered an oath, knelt down to tend to Ettore Ciampi. Morrigan straightened, walked to the back of the cabin, wedged her fingers in to the bent ramp.
The metal bent away from her hands, squealed, then tore free under a firm push. She hopped to the ground, tossed the ramp aside. Most of the Knights from her ship were spreading into the woods; she called them back with a sharp whistle.
They circled up, fingering stunners, balancing warlances. "He's gone to ground. He's got a set of blacks and a helmet, so move in groups of three. He hasn't killed anybody; make sure you aren't the first. He has the girl with him – any of you injures so much as a hair on her head, you will answer to me. Go get him."
Torik held his helmet under his arm, watched the fifteen Knights break into teams, enter the woods. He glanced up at Morrigan, snorted. "He will eat them alive. They will not last ten minutes."
Morrigan nodded. "If that long."
"Somack!" Torik called. The Cleric's head appeared from the back of the gutted Gryphon. "Bring the sword and follow us."
He nodded, vanished back inside. Torik set his helmet on his head, closed the visor. "Come along, Morrigan. Let us go catch our fallen Angel."
"You said groups of three."
Morrigan craned her neck. Julia stood a few feet away, arms folded. Torik sized her up, nodded to himself.
"I did, indeed," he replied. "Very well, Doctor. Follow me."
He trotted to the treeline, Julia behind him, Morrigan bringing up the rear. She sent a mental command to her helmet, activating tracking beacons in each Knight's helmet, watched the teams spread out.
Team One went first. All three beacons went from gold to red in a span of three seconds, less than five minutes in to the search. Morrigan ground her teeth together, Torik already angling that way, when Team Five, a kilometer and a half the other direction, dropped off the screen as well.
"Trap, feint, or the girl?" Morrigan said.
Torik grunted. "All three, most likely."
Team Three was four hundred meters ahead and three hundred to the left. The clash of metal on metal sounded, a sharp, brief explosion, Julia's hearing picking up grunts of pain, the thud of dropping bodies. She left the two behind, raced off in the direction of the fight.
She broke through the underbrush, stopped in the center of a tiny clearing. The lone standing Knight whipped his warlance around, grounded the butt when he saw her.
His helmet flowed off, Alec's eyes wild. "Are you all right?"
Julia nodded quickly. "They said they want to help you..."
"Yeah, I'll bet," he retorted. "That's why there's a pack of Knights running around the woods armed to the teeth."
He tossed his head angrily. "Take Arwyn and go. Head north; there's a Jian Wa Chang in Seattle. He's in the book; tell him what's happened, that I sent you. He'll help you as much as he can."
A branch rustled. Arwyn's head appeared, the girl jumping nimbly to the ground. Alec gathered her up in a quick hug, put her hand in Julia's. "Arwyn, take Julia, get to Seattle. Jian's there; he can help you."
Her head jerked, mouth set stubbornly. "Most of them are already down. We can steal the other Gryphon, get out of here together."
"Or, the three of you can calm down, and we can talk about this like civilized people."
Torik dashed from the bushes, Morrigan right behind him. They stopped twenty feet from the trio; Morrigan holstered her stunner, grounded her warlance, Torik letting his helmet slide down his back.
"Right," Alec snarled. "Let's sit around and talk, while the world goes to hell. Because talk is all we do."
Torik winced. "I cannot argue with that judgment, much as it pains me."
"When are you going to learn, Torik? How many millions have to die before you figure it out?" Alec kept his lance up, holding it in both hands. "You can't sit back and let them come! Our sitting here has condemned this entire planet to death!"
"To my shame," the man replied softly, "I cannot refute that either."
"Then go home. Bury your head in the Citadel, surrounded by the rest of your cowards. I have no time to waste playing tag in the woods with these morons, I have a world to save."
"Alone?" Morrigan asked. "You must allow us to atone for our lost honor, Champion."
"I didn't see you running to the call, Morrigan," Alec snapped. "Instead, you sent me away from the safehouse, then left Doctor Brooks dangling in the wind while you hid in the Citadel alongside the Elders. You dragged a civilian in to this mess and then abandoned her. So don't lecture me on honor."
The woman flushed a spectacular shade of red, bit her lip. Alec shifted his lance to one hand. "Do as you will. But stay out of my way."
"I cannot allow you to fight alone..." Torik began. Alec snorted, cutting him off.
"You don't have a choice," he turned away. "Come near me again, and I'll kill you."
Morrigan stepped forward. "Archangel, stop being..."
His fist whipped around, crashed against her cheek, knocked her back a few steps. His warlance followed, meeting hers with a sharp crash. Alec continued his spin, dug his foot in the back of her knee, swung the butt of his lance around, whipcracked Morrigan off her feet.
She sprawled to the ground. Julia nudged Arwyn back, kicked Morrigan's warlance away, slapped her in a full nelson.
Torik swung his lance to first position, backed around the clearing slowly. Alec circled opposite him, spinning his lance from hand to hand.
"You understand," the Kalrist said quietly, "I must subdue you for your own good. And for the sake of this world."
"Yeah, yeah," Alec sneered. "Put up or shut up."
Morrigan stood up, lifting Julia off the ground, flipped her over her shoulder. Julia held on tight, flinging Morrigan over with her, digging her heel in the woman's stomach, heaved her away.
Morrigan splintered a pine trunk, pushed off the tree, came back swinging. Julia dodged one, another, stuck her hand out and grabbed Morrigan's wrist on the third. Morrigan hit her in the jaw, knocking her down, pounced on her.
Torik parried four thrusts, spun to the attack. Alec blocked five sweeps, feinted left, hit Torik across the jaw with a palm strike. His foot flashed up, hit Torik's warlance, the master ducking a butt-stroke. Their lances clashed together, Alec pinning Torik's to the ground, the two of them trading blows to the chin at the same time.
Julia rolled Morrigan over, grabbed one arm, dragged it behind her back, reached for the other. Morrigan got one knee under her body, heaved up, slammed the back of her head against Julia's face, flattening the both of them.
Torik reset himself, Alec whirling his lance. They each took a step forward...
Everyone froze at the sharp command. A glittering scabbard flew through the air, clattering to the ground between Torik and Alec.
Somack strode from the bushes, fixed Morrigan with a fiery stare. "I should know better than to send the two of you on a mission of diplomacy. Step away from Dr. Brooks, young woman, and keep your hands to yourself."
Morrigan hung her head, got slowly to her feet, backed away from Julia meekly. Somack turned his glare on Torik. "And you are no better. You do not negotiate with a warlance! Lower your weapon and back away. Now."
Torik flamed purple. He collapsed his lance, dropped it to the ground, took four steps away from Alec, sank to his knees.
Somack's face relaxed, the Cleric leaning on his Staff. The look he gave Alec was placid, easy. "So. You once again prove you are our champion. I trust you did not slay any of the others?"
Alec shifted his weight slowly. "They'll live."
"Of course," Somack inclined his head. "Your plans?"
"Drive the Kaldec from Earth. Kill any that refuse to leave peacefully."
Somack nodded again. "Ambitious. I have no doubt you will succeed. However, taking your place among us will offer a less painful route."
"I have no time for men who pay lip-service to honor."
Somack sighed. "Difficult to dispute, lad. A touch harsh, perhaps, but difficult to dispute."
The Cleric pointed at the scabbarded sword. "You know what that is."
Not a question. Alec nodded. "The Shal'kyrie. The Sword of the Compact."
"Correct," Somack replied. "Our symbol of faith with our Human Brothers. It now belongs to you."
Alec's eyes grew hard. "I will not lead."
"You already have," Somack said quietly. "The Compact has broken over this. The destiny of this world is humanity's alone, now. I elect to stand as an equal partner to my Human Brothers, as it should have always been."
The Cleric studied Alec for a few long moments, shook his head wryly. "I look at you, and I see the eager young boy who laughed at danger, dared anything, poured his heart and his soul in to everything he tried, unafraid to fail. Who reminded me of the fact that life is for the living, not the dead. I had forgotten that, long, long ago. I have never thanked you for that."
He walked to a rock, motioned Alec to follow him. Julia hesitated a moment, then trailed along, Arwyn's hand tight in hers. "We came to an Earth on the brink of civilization. The people of this land accepted us as their gods, at first; the Compact was our first step in ... humanizing ourselves, to make this a partnership, to coexist in peace. Then the Kaldec came the first time, and our human brothers took up arms and fought with courage and honor. Together we drove them back."
Somack lowered himself slowly; Alec took his arm, guided him to the rock. "Imagine, lad. An entire species capable of developing the disciplines, with the ferocity and desire to use those disciplines for justice. We had grown weary; humanity gave us something worth fighting for. Men and women came in droves, to become a part of something greater than what they were before. And somewhere along that road, we divorced ourselves from those who had literally saved our people from extinction."
He studied the Staff in his hands, rolling it gently along his palms. "I remember the man who forged this staff for me. Deng Long, the finest silversmith in the entire Western Provinces. One of my disciples, four thousand years ago. Deng was much like you are – fearless, devoted to honor, a protector of those weaker than he was. He died battling a Galen landing force when they came for the Scandanians; he killed four of them alone, wounded eight more. The Galen destroyed three square miles of forest to make certain he was dead."
He gripped the Staff in one hand, extended it to Alec. "Take it. I will not dishonor his sacrifice any longer. I have proven myself unworthy of his gift."
Alec met his gaze, shook his head. "I won't take your Staff, Lord Somack. It's as much a part of you as your arm."
"Then take my arm as well," the Cleric stood once more, as straight as he could manage. "We have betrayed the Compact today. We have put your world in mortal peril. I am the spiritual leader of the Order, the moral compass, and I did not prevent this from happening. The responsibility for that rests solely on my shoulders. Honor demands I accept the consequences."
He held up a hand, dropping his Staff to the ground. The Shal'kyrie rose off the ground, flew to his hand. He grasped it in both hands, fell to his knees, held it up to Alec on open palms.
"I submit myself to your authority, Cho'rist," he said solemnly. "As the human champion of the Order, you alone are fit to judge my misdeeds. You alone are worthy to mete out punishment. I bow to your wisdom, and accept your penalty without reservation."
He kept his head lowered until Alec took the scabbard, then stripped his robes to his waist. He tilted his head back against his shoulders, exposing his neck.
"The Compact was sealed with the blood of your forefathers. I offer my blood to restore it, and beg you to protect my people. From the Kaldec, from the Arions, and from themselves."
Alec stared. He glanced at the sword in his hand, drew it partly from the scabbard, then to Torik, kneeling silently twenty feet away, then to Morrigan, staring at the ground, barely breathing. Then he glanced at Julia.
Her green eyes were calm. She held Arwyn's hand tightly, simply watching, not making a sound. But he found what he needed to find.
"Stand up, Lord Somack," he shoved the blade back in it's sheath, let it fall in a limp hand to his side. "Enough innocent blood has been shed already. I won't spill more."
Purple eyes met brown. The Cleric bowed his head forward until it touched the ground, open hands at his side, then straightened up, rose slowly. Alec again took his elbow, helped him up, stooped down to retrieve his Staff, handed it back to the aged Kalrist.
"Lead, Archon," Somack said, accepting his badge of office, his voice once again the voice of authority. "We will follow."
Alec twisted his lips at the Shal'kyrie, grumbled under his breath, nodded grudgingly.
"Others await judgment, Archon," Somack gestured with his Staff at Torik and Morrigan, the three Knights now struggling from unconsciousness. Alec studied them for a few moments, then shook his head.
"Not from me, they don't," he buckled the sword around his waist; it was heavier than he'd expected. "I'm fool enough to lead; let the wise judge them. When one wiser than you arrives, let me know so I can hand him this stupid sword."
Somack inclined his head, drove the butt of his Staff against the rock next to him. "Rise!" he shouted. "The Archon has spoken!"
Julia walked to Alec's side, Arwyn wide-eyed at everyone. Alec was scrabbling his scalp as if his hair would fall out. "What just happened?" she whispered.
Alec shook his head. "Later," he murmured. "It'll take a really long time to explain, and I'm not entirely sure I know..."
Torik kept his eyes on the ground until Alec was almost next to him. He opened his mouth to speak, Alec cutting him off. "Kinda hard to teach new Adepts when you're staring at your feet. 'Least, that's what you used to say to me."
The master raised his head, a smile finally creasing his face. Alec kept walking, Julia behind him, Arwyn alongside Somack. "Come on, Morrigan," Alec called as he entered the trees, the three Knights in front of him. "We need to get back to the Citadel."
She paused for a few moments, held her hand out to catch her warlance, then trotted after the small group.
Julia quickened her stride, matched Alec's pace as they picked their way through the forest. She nudged him, gave him a worried look when he glanced at her. "You seem even sadder now than before. Are you all right?"
He shrugged. "You ever heard an old Japanese saying? Goes, Death is light as a feather, duty..."
"... duty is heavier than a mountain? Yes, I've heard that one."
He plucked at the sword hanging from his hip. "I just picked up Mount Everest. Still a bit much to get a handle on."
She walked with him for a few moments, spoke again. "Would you have killed that man?"
"No," he shrugged again. "But he should still thank you. I didn't mostly because you told me not to."
"I didn't say anything."
He looked at her very pointedly. "Yeah, you did."
He started up a small incline, held his hand out to her. She took it, let him heave her up, held his hand tightly. "This another of those mind-reading things?"
Alec glanced down at her hand holding his, smiled slightly. "Nope. You just looked at me. It told me what I needed to know."
She tugged him closer, squeezed his hand just a bit. "Just spit it out, you jerk!"
He stopped, faced her. "The look that told me you knew I'd never lift a hand against that old man. It reminded me that I wouldn't, and all of the reasons why."
She smiled a little. "That's a lot to read from one look."
He tapped her nose. "Book's pretty deep."
Somack labored his way up the incline, Arwyn guiding his arm. He stopped at the top, leaned against his Staff for a moment. Alec frowned, came back over. "Lord Somack?"
The Cleric drew his sleeve across his forehead, blew out a deep breath. "Merely getting old, Archon. I am nearly twenty, remember."
"Twenty?" Julia echoed. Alec nodded.
"He means twenty thousand."
Julia's eyes went wide. "Years?"
The aged Kalrist smiled, eyes twinkling. "By most accounts, Doctor."
Alec slid his arm under Somack's shoulder. "Lord Somack was First Triumvere when the Kalrist landed on Earth. He was the head of the Order until, what? The beginning of the Minoan Dynasty in Crete?"
"Somewhere in there," he replied, leaning against Alec. "It was not long after the Egyptians finished Khufu's pyramid, if I recall correctly."
He took in a few deep breaths, eased himself off Alec's arm. "Thank you, lad."
Alec drifted off. Julia stood by Somack until he started to walk again, kept alongside. "You've seen civilization grow from the ground up. That's... that's amazing."
He laughed, gallantly offering her his arm. "The amazing part is that, after fifteen millenia on this world, humanity never ceases to surprise me. It has been my honor to teach some of the most remarkable men and women your world has ever known, and every year that passes, another, even more remarkable human shows up at our doors."
Julia glanced fondly at Alec's back. "Your latest will be a tough one to top."
"I suppose," he replied, patting her arm. "Unless you consider who he has brought to our door today."
Arwyn walked with Alec, her arms folded across her chest. The Knights had loped on ahead, supposedly to start getting everyone loaded. Torik and Morrigan trailed the pair, both still silent.
"Did he say anything?" Alec asked quietly.
She shook her head, staring at the ground.
"You'd sort of figure he would, if he felt something strange about you," Alec lifted a branch from her path, followed after. "Like, I don't know, if the person walking next to him had no soul, or some such."
"But I'm just a machine..." her voice was very small. Alec took hold of her arm, stopped.
"Arwyn, you were never just anything," he murmured. He sighed, ran his hand through his hair, let Morrigan and Torik stride past. "Jerry loved you as much as he could have loved his own flesh and blood. We all did; I still do. That's why we did this."
She sniffled, kept her eyes down. "All I want is to know who, and what, I am."
He laughed. "Kiddo, I'm twice as old as you are and I don't know who I am. Lord Somack is almost twenty thousand years old, and I'll bet he doesn't even know for sure. Being human doesn't come with an owner's manual; we just figure it out as we go along."
He brushed her cheek, wiped away a tear. "Machines don't cry. People do. Machines don't have auras, or minds that sing, or worry about whether they like bagels with cream cheese. Only people do. And only people have other people that love them."
Arwyn nodded. "Do I get to call you Daddy?"
He snorted, walked away. "Only if you want to die in the next five minutes."
She ran after him, hugged his arm. "Poppa?"
She giggled. "Father?"
"Do I look like a priest to you?"
"How about, Big Brother?"
Alec smiled. "That I can live with."
She beamed at him. "Thank you, Alec."
The two of them walked in to the pasture where the Gryphons were landed. One of the Knights coughed; warlances extended, and each one dropped to one knee, head bowed, lances braced erect. Morrigan and Torik hurried forward, stopped just behind Sorala, knelt to join them.
Alec buried his head in his hands, wanting desperately to cry. Or laugh. Or go crazy. Or better yet, go home and forget today had ever happened.
Somack's strong hand settled on his shoulder. Alec looked over, saw a hint of commiseration along with the hint of laughter.
"I felt the same way the first time, son. It will get easier. Sooner or later," he paused, tried not to smile. "Generally later, in my experience."
"Who in their right mind would want this?" he asked plaintively. He pinched the bridge of his nose, started forward. "All of you, get up. I've been afflicted, not anointed."
Harry Grey rose smoothly. "Yes, sir..."
Alec stopped and stared him down. "Next guy calls me 'sir', walks back to Tibet. Strip the wreck, pack up, let's get moving."
Dieter Heinreich cleared his throat. "Already done, si... Archangel."
"Gonna be a touch cramped, all of us in that crate," Jimmy Harmon said quietly.
"Beats walking. I can hack the floor for a couple of hours. Let's saddle up."
It was more than a little cramped.
The Gryphon wasn't built for thirty people, not with all their weapons and the field equipment they'd brought along. Alec settled himself on the floor of the drop bay, knees hugged to his chest, Somack sitting tatami-fashion next to him.
Julia shot him a dirty look before they lifted off. She, of course, was seated comfortably on one of the padded seats; the Knights had refused to so much as move until all of the women were seated and comfortable, then the people Alec had plowed his way through escaping the other Gryphon had taken the rest of the seats following a sharp snarl from Alec.
Leaving ten Knights sitting on the floor in the open drop bay, just inside the rear ramp. Alec shifted uncomfortably, jerked the Shal'kyrie off his waist, shoved it in a storage locker.
"This deal just keeps getting worse," he thumped his forehead against the locker door, sighed heavily. "Anybody got a deck of cards?"
Dieter rummaged in the locker behind him, pulled out a fresh pack. He grinned. "Poker?"
Bodies shifted, Somack sliding along next to Alec. More than one eyebrow raised his way; the elderly Cleric looked shocked. "What? I never play because no one ever asks."
"Stakes?" Gerald asked, shuffling the deck adroitly.
"Winner writes the duty roster for the next week," Alec replied. "Low hand washes this beast when we get home."
Half an hour later, they were racing past Hawaii, and Alec was leaning against the locker again. Dieter had his elbows resting on his knees, shaking his head.
"He has to be cheating somehow," the German grumbled. "Or he's the luckiest guy in the whole world."
Alec grunted. "He's twenty thousand years old, Diet. You think he's gonna be fooled by Gerald trying to bluff him?"
The Cleric chuckled again, a fourth round of groans sounding around the circle. "Thank you, gentlemen. The sanctuary has needed a good cleaning for some time now."
The intercom chimed. "Archangel," Tran called from the cockpit. "There's something up here you'd better come see."
Alec got up, picked his way through the drop bay, then down the crowded aisle, crouching down at the cockpit door. Hirotohashi Isamu grinned up at him, handed him a commset.
"What's going on?"
Tran tapped the touchpad in front of him. "I'm pirating this off of Fox News, man. This is live."
A tactical screen flickered on in front of Alec, Patti Ann Browne's face filling the screen. The banner under her face read America Under Siege; he blanched, tapped his commset alive.
"... reports continue to flood in from across the US of suspected terrorist activity. The most prevalent sources are coming from San Francisco, Dallas, and Philadelphia, with confirmations coming in now of pitched battles having been fought in all three locations by unknown factions. Catherine Crier is standing by in Dallas, where the attack yesterday leveled eight square blocks of office buildings in the downtown area. Catherine, what's the latest?"
"Holy shit..." he looked up. "Isamu, hack into CNN, MSNBC, Headline News, see if you can get a line on a SkyNews bird."
Tran leaned back. "Citadel on freq eighteen."
He nodded, tapped his commset again. "Archangel."
Thien's voice crackled back. "You watching what I am right now?"
"Fox; Isamu's hacking his way into the rest of it."
"It gets better," Thien noted. "CNN is doing a live remote on top of the DC cell; Greg says it looks like the implosion device misfired. The brownstone that's the shell for the cell is completely intact."
"Well, that's just fucking great..." he scrubbed his eyes. "What are the chances they'll find a way in?"
Thien repeated the question, got a noncommittal answer from whoever he was talking to, growled something Alec didn't catch. "We're not sure, exactly. Frankly, I'm more concerned with what's going on in San Francisco. From the looks of it, half of the Federal agents in California are swarming around your apartment building. The other half are picking over the ruins of Ferdinand's Warehouse."
Alec snarled wordlessly, then went white again. "Denver. Has anybody said anything about Denver?"
"Not to my knowledge. Wait one," Alec could hear Thien talking to some other people, then he came back on. "That's strange. Nothing so far on any of the major networks. Everywhere else is at least mentioned, but..."
"Is Cas on the board?" Alec interrupted.
"Have him try to bring up the Denver mainframe," Alec closed his hand around the mike, twisted his head back to the cabin. "Arwyn, come here."
She stood up, came forward. Alec snapped his fingers at Isamu. "Commset."
Thien came back on. "He's trying, but it isn't responding."
"Let me see the frequency patterns from the signal," Alec scooted to one side, handed Arwyn a commset, pointed at the screen. A set of squiggles flashed up on the screen, Arwyn's eyes narrowing as she looked them over.
"This mainframe's still up," she murmured softly. "The frequency access pattern has been altered, but it's completely intact. See the ku and theta bands here? It's sending out standard housekeeping instructions – I can see vats, fabers, interior defenses, exterior defenses, vehicle codes. Everything. Where is this?"
She shrugged. "They didn't blow the base. But someone has altered all of the command codes. Anybody could be in there."
"Who is on this net?" Thien asked quietly. "And where did you learn so much about our mainframe tech?"
"Never mind. We have an answer for who betrayed us. The entire Denver cell tried to kill Dr. Brooks and myself two hours ago," Alec ground his teeth together. "And they brought an Arion Prime along with them."
"That's nice," Thien replied. "Two hours ago I blew the Sar'Aiel into space dust. So I would imagine that solves most of the Arion problem."
He paused for a moment, then spoke again. "Alec, the American military has been collecting information on the Supremis for the last three decades. If they have access to the Denver facility, we will have a very serious situation on our hands. Not to mention, if the Denver cell has turned, EarthFirst is as likely an adversary as the Kaldec."
Alec nodded grimly. "Assemble the Council. I want all the current data on EarthFirst, the Arions, Zor'el and that crazy Scribe, anything we can dig up on what the military might have in mind. Use the Skyweb, locate as many Supremis signatures as possible before we get back. And have every spare Tech working on neutralizers. Lots of neutralizers."
"Understood. Citadel out."
Alec jerked his commset off, fired it the length of the cabin. Nobody said a word, the crack of shattering plastic thundering in the stillness. He leaned up to Tran. "Goose some more speed out of this bird. I don't care if you two have to get out and push, just get us home quickly."
FBI Special Agent in Charge Warner Caslet parked his Crown Victoria two blocks from the action. He stretched from his car, pulled his windbreaker from the seat next to him, shrugged into it as he cleared the line. Agent Chip Kelley finished talking with one of the SFPD officers, spotted his boss, walked over quickly.
"Hey, Chip," Warner ran his eyes over the scene. Blasted out cars, multiple craters in the street, several more in the sidewalks. "The homeboys starting to carry RPGs now?"
"I wish it was that simple, sir," the young agent flipped his notebook back to the beginning; Warner noticed that a good bit of it was filled. "Witnesses say, if you can believe it, that it started with a bunch of guys in armor pounding on each other, and ended up with some kind of monster ripping the street apart, until some more guys in armor blew him up with laser guns."
Caslet grunted. "Loaded at seven in the morning? In this neighborhood?"
"Fifteen separate witnesses tell pretty much the same story, sir. So, we're looking at either mass hallucinations..."
"Or the Martians have landed," Caslet finished. "What's SF CSI saying?"
"Whatever blew up these cars," a slender woman in a SFPD jacket said, walking across the street, "was not a gas-propelled firearm. Nor a rocket-propelled one, for that matter, unless someone's using projectiles that leave no residue whatsoever."
"Good morning, Dr. Menendez, and how are you this fine morning?"
She nodded. "Agent Caslet. Walk with me. You'll find this interesting."
Esme Menendez dug in her jacket pocket, extracted a laser pointer as she led Caslet to one of the burned out hulks. "See this?" she asked, flashing the beam at a scorched pucker near the gas tank. "What's that say to you?"
He crouched down. "The mother of all bullets. That's got to be four, five inches across. What are you telling me, Esme? Somebody's carrying around portable artillery?"
"Only there's no bullet, Warner. Look," she led him around to the other side, gestured to the opposite fender. "No through and through. It didn't come out, and there is no damage whatever to the sidewalk or the building behind this vehicle. No powder residue. No fragments. Nothing. What torched this car, torched it and left nothing behind. Except this."
She stepped back to the hole over the gas tank, produced a magnifying glass. "See the concentric circles around the hole?"
"Yeah," he replied, then looked closer. "Wait. These circles, they go all the way out to the end of the frame. But that doesn't make any sense at all..."
"No firearm in the world leaves a spread pattern like that, Warner," she said. "And it sure as hell doesn't do it without leaving some forensic evidence. But hold that thought – it gets better."
Esme led him further down the line. A Cadillac's roof had been caved in; she took him around to the sidewalk, where he saw an oddly-shaped dent in the driver's side door.
"This was a body, possibly more. The angle of impact suggests that it fell from at least the sixth story of this apartment building," she paused, glanced up. "What I think is that one person, probably more, fell off the roof, and slammed through the roof of this car. However, I can't prove that."
Caslet leaned over the side, checking the roof. "Why not?"
"No blood? From an eighty-foot drop?" Caslet took his own look at the building. "That is impossible."
"I'm telling you, Warner, that whoever it was who hit this car, they got up and walked away from it. At least long enough to have their head shoved in to the door. And if they're dead from it, they are nowhere in a ten block radius."
Caslet studied the dent. "This isn't a facial impression."
"Correct," Esme's lips twisted in to a small smile. "They were wearing a helmet."
He groaned as he rose. "Armored yahoos with ray guns? Come on, Esme, don't tell me you're buying that crap too."
She shook her head. "I don't believe in anything I can't prove, Warner. But check this out."
She knelt down, trailed her pointer along a crease in the sidewalk. "This crease here? It was made by a blade of some kind."
He knelt down himself, staring. "How can you tell?"
She pulled a ruler from her pocket, set it at the far edge, slowly drew it towards them. As she trailed it along the seam, the ruler sank deeper and deeper in to the crease. "The edges are sheared through, smooth. No residue. A ten-inch blade, and it carved through the concrete like it was butter. I ran a magnet over this seam, Warner. Nothing came out."
Caslet got up, dusted his knees off. "All of this stuff, Esme, it's just not..."
"Possible?" her smile came back. "Warner, you are preaching to the choir. But like the master said, when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the answer. You know as well as I do, the military has been working on portable lasers for twenty years. And right now, from what I've seen, someone's beaten them to it."
Caslet knuckled his chin. A voice called from the steps of the apartment building. "Keep digging. Some of my S&T boys are on their way down; put them to work."
He walked over to Regan Malone, standing at the top of the stoop, talking to a man in a bathrobe. She finished with him, thanking him for his time as Caslet climbed the stairs. She led him inside to the elevator before she said a word.
"We made a rather interesting discovery when we were canvassing the building, sir," she folded her notebook up, slid it in her suitcoat pocket. "One of the residents in this building is Alec Collins, lives up on the sixth floor. One of the big lofts."
"Fantastic. Outstanding police work, Regan. Superb," he twisted his lips into a scowl. "Who the hell is Alec Collins, and why should I give a crap that he lives here?"
Her cheeks flushed a bit. "Sorry, sir. Have you heard of Jordan Sinclair?"
"The writer?" the elevator stopped, the doors sliding open. "Of course I have. My wife thinks he's the new Ernest Hemingway. Dragged me to a signing at Waterhouse last month for his new book."
Regan led him down the hall to an open door, cordoned off with police tape, an armed cop at the jamb. He nodded the two of them in.
The place was well-furnished, if you discounted the shattered skylight and smashed counter. Breakfast remains littered the floor of the kitchen, but the floor was otherwise spotless. Caslet came in a bit further, saw that the rug on the living room hardwood was tangled in clear runs, vaguely in the shape of a foot.
Regan carefully stepped around the forensics team, lifted a bagged photograph. "I asked all eight neighbors. They verified that this is Mr. Collins."
Caslet studied it. Taken at a park, with a man, woman, and little boy, the other man and the boy obvious relatives. Brown hair, solid chin, good build. Dressed like a regular everyday guy.
Except the eyes. It took him a minute, because they weren't immediately obvious. But he looked closer, saw the eyes. The eyes that were staring at something with a ferocity that was unsettling.
"Got it?" Regan asked. He nodded, handed the photograph back. She took a couple of steps to the desk, tapped the answering machine. "Something happened in here, so we checked the machine. Take a listen."
It rewound, the first message playing. A high, nasally Brooklyn accent. "Sweetheart, this is Janice. I just talked to Ron again, and he is very interested in you making the tour for Random Elements. Now I know you are set on not doing it, but he wants to get together with you next week, try to convince you to give it a go. If nothing else, he'll spring for dinner at the Four Seasons. Call me back. Bye."
Regan paused the machine. "I called Random House. They confirmed that Jordan Sinclair's next book is Random Elements, and that the author has submitted the completed manuscript. Plans are being made for the promotional tour to begin in February."
"But that isn't Jordan Sinclair," Caslet replied. "I met the guy. About five-eight, twenty pounds overweight, pushing sixty, looks a little bit like Santa Claus. The man in the picture isn't any older than twenty-five."
"Yes, sir," Regan nodded. "So I kept listening. This is message three."
Another voice. Deeper, more articulate. "Alec, Phil Jacobs. What can I tell you, kiddo? They loved it. Abe Goldberg wants to sign you to a five book extension with a three hundred thousand initial advance. Telling them you'd take a percentage of the back-end beyond the advance only made them happier. Abe wants to confirm it in person, he says name the time and place. He also says to bring Brandon with you, to set up some new publicity shots. Give me a ring when you get in."
Regan clicked it off again. "Clancy is running Phil Jacobs through the system right now. It won't take too long, he's got to be another publisher."
Caslet was looking the bookcase over. He reached out, plucked one off the shelf. "Don't bother. Tell Clancy to call Baen Publishing and ask for Phil Jacobs or Abe Goldberg."
He held the book up. Capricorn, by Tom Sheridan. "My son reads these. He says they're incredible, all his friends love them. They're almost as popular as those wizard books, mostly because they only come out in paperback. It isn't setting Mom or Dad back thirty bucks to get a copy. And there's a new one every four or five months."
Martin Gerard, the other agent on the scene, fished his cell phone out, tapped a speed-dial key, took a couple of steps away. Caslet finished with the bookcase, wandered over to the entertainment center. "So what have we got here, Regan? A writer who cranks books out like he's crapping paper, reads Locke, Plato, and Nietzsche in his spare time, has two pen names, complete with phony stand-ins to do his book signings, and watches... kung-fu movies?"
He picked up the tape, read the back. "This isn't subtitled. It's actually in Chinese. All of these are. So, he speaks fluent Chinese too..."
Martin finished his call, cast a glance at the wall. "And has a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of San Francisco? With a Bachelor's in philosophy? Who the hell is this guy?"
Caslet shook his head. "That is the question of the day, Martin. Call USF, confirm this paper."
Chip Kelley ducked under the tape, stepped on a piece of egg, slid in to the counter. He steadied himself, mumbled an apology to the forensic tech, stepped carefully around to Caslet's side.
"Warner, you gotta see this," he held up a videotape. "One of the witnesses across the street says he got it on tape. Only, he didn't."
Chip stooped down, popped it in the VCR in Alec's entertainment center. The tape clicked on, then showed nothing but lined static.
"It's been erased, Warner," the young agent said. "Not only that, but everything else in the man's video collection is gone too. Everything. Home movies, pre-bought tapes, even his audio cassettes. Wiped clean."
He pulled the tape out, held it out to Caslet in almost trembling hands. "I checked with four other people in that building. Their stuff's been wiped too."
Caslet tapped the tape he already held in his hand, then slipped it out of it's case, slid it in. A moment later, a picture flared up on the screen.
"Except, apparently, for Mr. Collins' movie collection," he stopped the tape. "Get some more bodies down here. I want every square millimeter of this place gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Tag and bag everything that isn't nailed down, get it to the labs. The stuff that is nailed down, pry it loose and look behind it. Disassemble the appliances; if necessary, punch holes in the walls. Every. Thing. Now. Let's move it."
A throat cleared. "Actually, Special Agent Caslet, that won't be necessary."
A tall woman, red hair carefully pulled back, flashed a badge at the cop at the door, slipped under the cordon. "Shannon Carter, NSA. We're asserting jurisdiction in this matter."
"I don't think so, Agent Carter," Caslet replied smoothly. "Counterterrorism is the Bureau's bailiwick. Until we determine what it was that went on here, you don't have a jurisdiction."
Carter smiled slightly. "Director Stansfield told me you were tough. Here you go."
She held out a cell phone. He took it. "This is Caslet."
"Warner?" a familiar voice said. "Stephen Murray here."
"Good Morning, Director," he tried to keep his jaw from sagging.
"I realize that this is somewhat unorthodox, Warner, but I have a specific request from the Attorney General, countersigned by the President and the National Security Adviser, to allow the NSA to take the lead on this matter," Caslet could hear Murray's teeth grinding together. "You are to provide your facilities for their use, backstop them on all technical and investigative functions, offer them your full support. I am making these calls to each SAC in all the affected areas; I just caught you first. Understood?"
"Yes, sir. Completely."
"Good," Murray paused. "Your dad still fishing for tarpon?"
"Yes, sir, when I speak to him next, I will give him your regards."
"Excellent. Get back to it, Agent Caslet."
"Good-bye, sir," he clicked the phone shut, handed it back. Carter took it, gave him another sympathetic smile.
"I don't want to step on any toes here, Agent Caslet," she said slowly. "And we are going to need to work together."
Caslet nodded. "Whatever you need. My team will head back to the office, begin preparing our reports. My forensics team will follow your instructions to the letter."
"Thank you," Carter replied, to Caslet's back. The three other agents followed after him, all of them quiet until they were in the elevator.
Martin leaned in close to Caslet. "What the hell is this, Warner?"
Caslet shook his head, held a finger to his lips. He led the group out of the building, beyond the police cordon, to stand next to his car. He pulled out his own cell, dialed up Washington. "Yes, Director Murray, please. This is Warner Caslet in San Francisco."
It took three seconds. "Warner, you alone?"
"Except for my team, yes, sir."
"Something here stinks to high heaven," Murray growled. "We have simultaneous terrorist incidents in eighteen of the largest cities in the US, crazy reports of monsters, men running around in armor, weird objects in the skies, and the Bureau is being pushed out of the loop by the NSA? And that order from the AG, it read like one of Fitzwallace's after-action reports."
Caslet chewed on his lip. "You suspect the military, sir?"
"It's a tough call, Warner," Murray replied. "Ryan is ex-CIA, but the Joint Chiefs think he walks on water. Moreover, the President does too, and honestly, I can't say a cross word about the man. If he's running this, he must have good reasons. However, I am not privy to those reasons as yet."
Caslet nodded to himself. "We've developed a couple of leads out here, sir."
"Then run them down, Warner. Quietly. Understand? And keep an eye on those NSA whackos; you so much as find one of them thinking about bugging the office, kick them to the curb, to hell with the AG."
"Get on it, Agent Caslet."
The line clicked dead. Caslet put his cell away, popped his door open. "Chip, you and Regan run this Collins character down. Friends, relatives, his agents, everything. Quickly, and quietly. I'm heading back to the office, you two are now on TAD. Get after him."
Martin hopped in with Caslet. "You watch these NSA goons, Martin. I'm assigning you as their liaison. Except for hitting the john, I want a step-by-step account of what's going on."
Josh Goodley straightened his tie, knocked once on the door. The familiar bark sounded from inside, Goodley opening the door.
Dr. Tom Ryan sat behind his desk, pouring over a thick stack of files. His close-cropped hair bobbed as he scanned a page, flipped it over, started on another.
Goodley cleared his throat. "Well, come in here, Josh, I don't have all day. And since when do you knock?"
Ryan never looked up, flipping over another page. Goodley set a fresh pile on his desk. "The preliminaries on Dallas, St. Louis, and San Diego, sir. Fresh from Langley."
"Anything new?" Ryan closed the folder in front of him, picked up another.
"Josh," Ryan said quietly. "I pay you to think. I want the party line, I'll call the Judge myself. Hit me with it."
"No, sir. Absolutely nothing new."
Ryan nodded. "And what is Fitz telling you?"
Goodley settled himself in a chair. "The Admiral has been reticent about conversing with me, sir."
Ryan grunted, picked up the phone, stabbed a key. "Nancy, get Admiral Fitzwallace on the phone for me right away, please."
He held the phone to his ear while he kept reading, then leaned back. "Fitz, why the hell do I bother to send my deputy over there if you aren't going to talk to him? I am up to my neck in reports from every freaking department of the federal government over this crap, and my number one guy is riding the pine! Now get him outta the dugout and on the field, you reading me?"
He listened for a few moments. "I don't care what Arthur is telling you. If he checks out to be the deputy National Security Adviser, he has a higher clearance than you do! You tell Arthur that from me, and if necessary, the President will confirm it. I'm sending Josh over there right now, and he'd better come back with one big suitcase and a Marine in tow, or I'll have the President bust you back to midshipman! Hear me?"
Another pause. "Okay. Thanks, Fitz. A.J.'ll handle the Judge. Josh will be there in an hour."
Ryan hung up the phone. His clear blue eyes fixed on Josh. "Have the Service spring somebody loose to drive you over to the Pentagon. As of right now, you are to draw a two-man detail; they will be assigned when you get back here. Do Not leave the Pentagon until an armed Marine is in the seat next to you, preferably with a very large weapon. Understand me, boy?"
Josh jerked his head quickly. "Then get moving. Get back as fast as you can."
The man hopped to his feet, darted off. Ryan picked his phone back up. "Hi, Margaret. This is Tom Ryan. Does A.J. have a minute? Good, I'm on my way right now."
He rose, shrugged his jacket on, tucked his latest report under his arm. The Secret Service agent twelve feet from his office got a friendly nod and a smile; Ryan was almost as popular with the Service as the President was. Mostly because he thought like they all did – if you weren't a friend, then you were an enemy.
Ryan cut through the bullpen, waved to Tobey Seaman, the communications director, had David Lyman scoot out of his office and trail along behind him.
"Dr. Ryan," he said gravely.
Ryan smiled. "Deputy Chief of Staff Lyman. Good afternoon. What brings you out here?"
Lyman grinned. "Just to hear you say my name, Tom, with those heavy overtones. What's going on?"
"Heading to see A.J. Things are heating up."
"Mind if I tag along?"
"Not at all," Ryan replied, shoving at the swinging doors leading to the West Wing. "Cabot's still got Josh on the sidelines. Another brain on the field'll help get the cobwebs out."
Lyman grunted. "I like Arthur a lot, but he takes this secrecy stuff just a bit too far. Josh Goodley would be a bigger asset to you if he wasn't wandering around wondering what was going on all the time. Don't worry about it, A.J. will lay him out. He hasn't torn into anybody in three-four days; you know how he likes to keep fresh."
Margaret Shepherd smiled as the two men came in. "He's on with Judge Cabot; he said to go on in."
Lyman's grin came back. "See? Told you."
They entered the Chief Of Staff's office, A.J. Bartlett in full-blown tear-down. "Arthur, it isn't my fault your people are dragging their feet over there! Josh Goodley sees the President almost every day; you cannot seriously consider him a security risk! I understand we want you to be paranoid, but this is a bit much!"
He held a hand up at Ryan and Lyman, pointed them to the chairs in front of his desk. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Tell you what, Arthur, why don't you come down here and say that to the President? Then, when the Secret Service drags him off of what's left of your body, you can look for work as dogcatcher in Des Moines. You're expediting Goodley's credentials? Thank you, Arthur, that's most helpful. You have a good afternoon too."
Bartlett didn't slam the phone down, barely. He flopped in his seat, slipped his glasses on. "David. Tom. Please tell me you have better news about what is going on."
Ryan wriggled in his chair. Lyman took a keen interest in a landscape above Bartlett's couch. The Chief of Staff sighed. "I'm gonna take that as a no. Lay it out."
Ryan opened his folder. "It looks like the best information is coming out of San Francisco. In addition to the explosion, there was a battle of some kind fought there this morning. Unknown numbers of forces involved. Edwards caught a couple of blips in the middle of it, sent a squadron of Eagles that way, but whoever was gone when they got there. The Bureau has already rustled up a bunch of eyewitness accounts, all of which say the same thing."
Bartlett nodded. "Armored troops. Carrying both archaic weapons and energy weapons."
"Exactly," Ryan spread some faxed photos across Bartlett's desk. "But this one was a little different. The eyewitnesses say that there were two groups of these guys. Eight men and a woman in the full armor, and one guy wearing sweats and a helmet, along with a woman in just sweats and a girl in coveralls."
Bartlett pulled his glasses off. "Now that's interesting. What else is being said?"
"The helmeted man was the target of an apparent attack, but his assailants bit off more than they could chew," Ryan sat back. "The man was outnumbered eight to one, and he beat the crap out of them. Three witnesses attest to it. Slammed one guy through the roof of a car, broke another one's knee into ground chuck, tried to push his head through a car door. Then the monster shows up, and things get complicated."
Bartlett studied the photographs. "These people are not Arions or Velorians, are they?"
Ryan shook his head. "No, sir. New players. Completely new."
"Denver," Bartlett said quietly.
"If I were to speculate, I would say, yes, sir."
"David?" Bartlett turned his chair slightly. His deputy grimaced.
"So far, A.J., they haven't been able to make heads or tails out of the place. Fitz has a bunch of Army and Navy tech-heads on their way out there now, but Carstairs and Hamilton are both still unconscious. If it is these guys, they aren't going to let us just have the place, either. And from what I've seen, I doubt we could stop them if they decide to take it back."
Bartlett nodded again. "David, get Fitz on the horn, have him get over here. Tom, I think it's time we briefed the President."
Tran shaved a half-hour off the trip, Alec sitting in the drop bay, a bit apart from the others, staring at nothing. He had given Julia a small smile on his way back through the cabin, then had barely moved the whole rest of the way.
Somack knelt between him and the other Knights, face placid, hands resting on his knees. When the Gryphon pivoted in the air, began to descend, he stood smoothly, picked up his Staff, opened the closet and handed Alec the Shal'kyrie.
The Knight grumbled, buckled it on, Somack raising his hand at the others until Alec was near the ramp.
They grounded. The ramp began to drop, revealing the entire Order massed in ranks on the Citadel landing field. Gryphons lined the exterior wall, rowed precisely, each Knight in full armor with a warlance in their right hand, the Activator Corps and the Technicians in blue uniforms, the Clerics in their robes.
Alec took one step on to the ramp. As soon as his foot settled on the steel grating, every member of the Order dropped to their left knee and bowed their heads.
Somack stepped to the edge of the ramp. "Well, Archon?" he whispered. "What do you say to this?"
Alec pulled the warlance off his belt, extended it, slammed the butt down on the ramp, amplifying the sound waves from impact. A boom as sharp as a thundercrack echoed across the courtyard, more than one figure jerking in surprise.
"Stand up!!" he bellowed. He waited until everyone had risen, threw his warlance down, yanked the Shal'kyrie off his waist and raised it above his head.
"This is not a crown!" he shouted, his voice carrying easily. "This is a sword, one I intend to use! I am a war commander, not some kind of monarch! So, stop with the God-forsaken bowing, the scraping, and the rest of it! And I swear to God, the first one of you idiots that calls me sir is gonna get my foot up his or her ass! Got it?!"
Nobody said anything. Except Somack. Smiling hugely, he stepped past Alec and raised his Staff. "The Archon has spoken! Heed him well!"
Alec followed Somack down the ramp, strode through the ranks. He spotted Pavel Bondarenko, one of the new Adepts from St. Petersburg, standing stiffly with Sergei. He stopped, motioned the boy out of ranks.
"Pavel, take this... thing... and put it back where it belongs," he handed him the Shal'kyrie, the youngster's eyes wide. "Then come on down to the Council chambers, watch what we're doing. You might learn something."
The young man took the sword reverently, then darted away. Alec glanced around the courtyard. "Well, what are you standing around for? Get back to work; we have a world to save!"
The first cheers started when he shoved the main door open and entered the Great Hall. Somack walked along beside him, still smiling.
"You are loving every minute of this, aren't you?" Alec said wryly. "You bullied me into this mess, and now you can just sit back and laugh your stupid Kalrist butt off at me."
"Perhaps," the Cleric conceded. "You must admit, the Lord is proving to have quite a sense of humor at this point in time. And I must say, as speeches go, that one was remarkably effective; I particularly enjoyed your choice of colorful language."
In spite of himself, Alec laughed. "Thank you, Dei'sho."
A look of heartfelt gratitude dawned on the old man's face. Alec kept walking, hiding a small smile, pushed the doors to the Council chambers open.
Knights were trickling in to the Great Hall, Morrigan, Torik, Julia and Arwyn among them, when Alec stuck his head back out in the corridor.
"What the hell?!" he shouted. "Was I blowing smoke out my butt in the courtyard? Move your rear ends in here, there's work to be done!"