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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 5

Written by mechjok :: [Tuesday, 26 May 2020 04:30] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 30 May 2020 18:51]

Last of the Fallen

Julia couldn't help herself. She gawked like a tourist, staring in awe at the vast corridor, the massive tapestries, the sprawling frescoes on the walls, all lit by torches that produced no smoke, an eerie amount of light. She almost bumped into Somack, the elderly Cleric standing in the center of the corridor, a wondering smile at his lips.

"Oh! Excuse me, My Lord," she reddened a bit, still unused to the Kalrist's seeming ability to mask themselves from her senses. Somack's smile changed from wondering to fondness, patting her hand gently.

"Please, Doctor, there is no need for such formality. Somack is more than adequate," he gestured her ahead of him. "I would imagine the Archon intends for you to join us in the Council Chamber. I shall summon one of my pupils, have some more appropriate clothing brought for both you and Arwyn, as well as have rooms prepared for you."

Julia glanced down at her mud-covered sweats, already three sizes too big, almost blushed again. Somack merely swept his outer cloak off, draped it around her shoulders as they walked, then snapped his fingers.

A figure appeared from seemingly nowhere, bowed from the waist. "Matsuhiro, please see to it that clothing is brought to the chamber for both Dr. Brooks and Arwyn. Also, have rooms prepared adjacent to the Archon's quarters, and have some refreshments brought."

The dark-haired man bowed low once more. "Immediately, Elder."

He turned on his heel and dashed away. Somack paused long enough to call to Arwyn, who stopped looking at everything and ran to join the two of them. "Plenty of time for exploring later, child. We have work right now. Come along."

He pushed the chamber doors open, ushered Julia and Arwyn inside. Alec was already seated at his normal chair; Somack approached the table, cleared his throat, pointed to the seat where Coriana used to sit. Alec studied it, shook his head, stayed where he was. Somack pulled the chair back between his seat and Alec's, gestured to Julia, led Arwyn by the arm to the seat on the other side of him. Alec rose without looking up from his viewscreen, waited for the two of them and Somack to sit, settled back down himself.

"Just because I'm not looking at you, Elder," Alec's quiet voice carried in the silence, "doesn't mean I can't see that smile. I am Archon by Fate; I earned the title of Cho'rist. I plan to keep it."

Somack inclined his head. "As you wish, Archon."

Alec grunted. "Yeah. Sure. Take a look at these intercepts, tell me what you see."

Somack tapped his screen alive, leaned back. Julia glanced at Alec; he looked at her, smiled, tapped her screen on. "You too, Doctor. Like I said yesterday, you're a damn sight smarter than I am."

She smiled, stretched her hand out and took his on the table. He gave her an affectionate squeeze, scratched at his hair with his other hand.

Thien entered the chamber, quickly followed by Gabriel, Frederick, and Sergei. They hadn't seated themselves before Morrigan, Torik, Sorala, Eric, and Byron entered, plopped down at the table. Thien carried a holoplate, set it in the middle of the table, flicked a switch, tapped a series of commands in to his keypad.

Pavel crept in, tiptoeing around the gallery area. Alec spoke without looking up. "I said come and watch, Pavel. You can't see anything from over there. Grab a chair and sit behind me."

The tension around the table eased quickly. Alec nudged Torik, sitting on his other side, pointed to the viewscreen as Pavel sat down between the two of them. "Isn't that the cell in Constantinople?"

"Yes," Torik leaned closer to the screen. "The blasted Turks are trying to dig their way in."

Alec grunted. "That's gonna be one hell of a shovel. The safehouse is under the catacombs. You couldn't dig it out with a nuke."

He looked over at Thien. "You got some stats for me?"

"Yes, Archon," he replied, then stopped dead at the look on Alec's face.

"Okay, next one of you who calls me that in here, gets dragged out in the hall and pounded on, and then gets to hand-wash my socks in the Khyber River."

Morrigan covered a chuckle with a cough. Thien grinned. "Of course, Alec. We correlated the locations of the Arion and Velorian energy signatures we could locate before your arrival."

The holoplate lit up, projected a globe. "Arions are in blue; several of the signatures are located in EarthFirst installations. There are two Velorian contacts, and what appears to be a proto-Velorian…"

"That's the Scribe's Significant Other, what's her name?" Eric said. "Delilah? Denise?"

Sergei sighed. "Who cares? She gets in our way, we waste her too."

Alec nodded. "Frederick?"

The man laced his fingers together, rested his elbows on the table. "The problem, as the three of us see it," he tossed his chin towards Byron and Eric, "is currently three-fold. Primarily, EarthFirst is not a mere mouthpiece for the Arions; they have managed to amass significant financial and political power, and are based almost exclusively in the US. Without the rally points, we're looking at long-distance strikes, and massive collateral damage. All of which, I am sorry to say, I am willing to accept right now.

"Second, we have no idea when the Denver cell was turned. At this moment, everything to come out of there, period, has to be completely suspect. Especially now that we've determined that the destruct sequence was falsified, and we're completely locked out of the net."

Arwyn slowly raised her hand. Alec covered his mouth with his hand. "Yes, Arwyn?"

"Uhm… I can get you in…" her voice was very small, her shoulders hunched over. "Maybe not… not in to the 'frame itself, but… uhm, definitely into the exterior sensors. So, you know, you can… see what's going… on, and stuff."

Thien's mouth sagged. "Who are you?"

Alec sighed, leaned forward. "She's Arwyn."

Everybody's mouths dropped open. Except for Somack, who sat perfectly still, and Julia, sitting next to him. For a very long second, there was silence, then a tangled shout rose from the table.

"Synthroid…"

"Are you crazy…?"

"Outlawed…"

"Lunacy…"

"What have you done…?!"

"Silence!!"

Somack's palm slapped down on the obsidian table, the Cleric pulling the same amplifying trick Alec had in the courtyard. The report brought instant quiet, the Elder on his feet, eyes flashing, Arwyn sobbing quietly beside him.

"After the events of the past few days, I had expected that bigotry would be the least of your flaws! You would dare presume to challenge the Archon here, at this table?! In front of me? Over an innocent child?!

"You dishonor me! You dishonor the Order! You dishonor your God! And I will not tolerate it! Not! One! Second!"

He lifted his Staff, held his arm to Arwyn. "Come, child. The stench of self-righteousness grows foul in my nose. We are not needed here."

He strode from the chamber, comforting the crying girl. Alec waited until the two of them had gone, then motioned to Pavel. "Go on ahead, lad. This is something you don't need to learn."

Once he was gone, Alec leaned back from the table. "We are not in the position of picking and choosing here. We are up against the wall, and this… this bullshit is going to stop. Right here, right now. The Compact is gone, the old ways are gone. Fifteen thousand years didn't give us the answers; it's time to rewrite the rules. If you can't do it, then I'll find people who can. Now get out of my sight; I'd suggest you decide how you are going to atone to Lord Somack."

Several heads were bowed as they rose; he caught Gabriel and Frederick up by eye, motioned them to sit, laid a hand on Julia's arm.

Gabriel took the chair next to Alec, propped his chin on a palm. Alec stared at him. "How can you hate me so much you would do this to me? Are you still pissed because of that chicken I mailed you from Bangkok?"

"You just demonstrated why you are the only fit choice," Gabriel shrugged, then sighed. "Truthfully, you are the only one who is going to get us through this. None of the others, myself and Shaka Zulu here included, are flexible enough to consider alternatives. Follow them, yes. Consider them, no."

Frederick stayed standing. "Arch… Alec, I must apologize…"

Alec turned cold eyes his way. "Yes, you do. But not to me."

"Of course," the man replied stiffly. He handed over a datapad. "My report. In detail."

"Thank you, Frederick," he took it, set it down. "You may go. Please inform the rest of the Council that we will reconvene in four hours, and that I expect Lord Somack and Arwyn to be present. Am I clear?"

"Perfectly," he bowed from the waist, turned and departed.

Gabriel stood as well. "I must speak with Lord Somack as well. By your leave?"

Alec growled at him. He smiled, left.

Alec's head fell to the table. "Oh my God, that was an utter disaster…"

Julia finally spoke. "You were kind of harsh with them, weren't you?"

"Sixty years ago," Alec replied, head still resting on the table, "if Thien had said to my daughter what he said to Arwyn, I would have been honor-bound to drag him from this table by his hair and kill him in the hallway, then throw the carcass out on the mountain for the vultures to pick it over."

He lifted his head. "Lots of things are cheap in this world, Julia. Honor is not one of them. You pay the price for that in full, every time. There is no compromising on some things, as Lord Somack has just proven."

The screen in front of him chimed. "Yeah?"

"Si… Arch… angel…?" a flustered Tech sputtered a bit. Alec groaned, cut him off.

"Sir will do, Technician. What do you need?"

The man breathed far more easily. "Pegasus One is reporting in, sir. They've reached the wormhole aperture."

"Patch me in," he leaned forward. The screen shifted to a sprawling starfield, a shining red and brown sphere in the distance. Julia peered over his shoulder; he pointed at the picture.

"That's Jupiter; they're about halfway between the asteroid belt and the outer planets."

Her eyes shone. Alec grinned. "Pegasus One, this is Archangel. Status?"

"We're mapping the event horizon now, sir," a voice replied. "We should be able to begin mining the wormhole in twenty minutes."

"Proceed, Pegasus, but be careful…"

Almost on cue, another voice jumped on the circuit. "Uh-oh. I'm reading elevated neutrino levels… we have something coming through…"

The screen flashed white, then a second ship was on the display. It hung in space for a few long seconds, silent, then a flare formed on the back of it's length.

"It's a Dagger-class frigate, sir," the pilot reported. "It's gotta be heading for NEC – which we blew up a few hours ago…"

Alec decided very quickly. "Pegasus, splash it."

"Acknowledged, Command," a harsh whine filled the air. "Quantum cannons armed, torpedo batteries online."

Space around the newcomer flared brightly. A second later, fiery comets slammed home, hitting the hull, followed by more flashes of light. In less than ten seconds, the new ship was gone, barely any wreckage at all.

"Survivors, Pegasus?" Alec said calmly.

"No, sir, but we're sweeping the area with ionic lances, just in case. We'll begin mining in twenty minutes; we'll be home in four hours."

"Well done, Commander. Citadel out," he tapped a touchpad. "Technician, the compliment of a Dagger frigate?"

"Three hundred forty, sir, excluding passengers; no more than four hundred."

"Thank you," he killed the circuit. "I just killed four hundred people. I've had this job for less than three hours, and I already hate it."

Alec pushed himself to his feet, the darkness he seemed to constantly radiate suddenly a physical presence in the room. "One of the Knights will get you settled. When we come back in here… somebody'll be around to bring you down…"

Julia was worried about him. He could tell. Another error in a long, long list of them.

Alec sat on top of the bell tower, on the other side of the Citadel's battlements. The flat top was the perfect resting spot, a fact he'd taken advantage of several times when he'd been in the Citadel for training.

The pressure was mounting. An entire cell, turned. The US network, gone, just like that. The Order cowering in the Citadel, none of them motivated to drive to action, take the offensive. They'd blown the Arion Near Earth Command to atoms, piling the galaxy's largest imperial power at the top of the list of enemies. Their second-greatest asset had been reduced to incoherent tears; their first greatest was wondering what the hell she'd gotten herself in to.

And every bit of it was his fault.

Someone grunted behind him. The trapdoor sprung open, Lord Somack's head easing up to the roof, illuminated by a faint rectangle of light. He smiled at Alec, finished his climb, toed the door closed.

"I thought I might find you up here," he settled himself down, laying his Staff down behind him. "Have you found the answers you seek?"

"No, Master," he replied. "All I've figured out so far is that I'm the wrong person to be in charge."

"Hmh," the Cleric seemed noncommittal. "Perhaps. Who would you propose instead?"

"You, for starters," Alec said.

Somack chuckled. "I am far too old to be storming castle walls, lad. That is for the young and the courageous, not the ancient and decrepit."

"Master, you have more courage than any twenty Knights in the Order. All I've done so far is drag us even closer to the edge, and put two uninvolved lives at risk," Alec stretched his legs out in front of him. "As if the Kaldec weren't bad enough, I go and goad Gabriel into picking a war with the Arion Empire. Not a testament to intelligence."

Both were silent for a while. Alec listened to the trees on the mountain slopes sway in the breeze, the first faint hints of dawn starting to color the skies, then spoke again. "Will you accept Arwyn as one of your pupils?"

Somack inclined his head. "Gladly."

"Will you support my decision about Dr. Brooks?"

"That would depend on what it is," Somack said softly.

Alec studied the tiles lining the roof. "Mindwipe, return her to Montana. Find another way."

"I see. Have you discussed this with her?"

He didn't raise his head. "Of course not. She'll refuse."

"Should it not be her decision to make?" Somack fixed his eyes out on the darkness above the courtyards.

"Maybe. But this will be easier."

"On her or on you?"

Alec grunted. "Me. I can't speak to her needs. But I'm certain she doesn't need me."

"And your need for her? What of that?"

Another grunt. "I am a Knight of the Order. Death follows me like a shadow. I stink of it. Why would I subject someone to that?"

"I see," Somack paused. "So, will you succumb to rage or despair first? Or perhaps both?"

"Why does it matter?" Alec flexed his toes inside his blacks. "One more or less will make little difference. You saw what I did; they're not flexible enough to make this work. They don't comprehend the magnitude of the danger. Sure, earlier they were all full of piss and vinegar, but as soon as an immediate threat is dealt with, they revert to type."

"While you," Somack finished, "stared into the eyes of the dead. Smelled the burning flesh. Fought your way to freedom. These others cannot claim that. It takes a strong man to face Death down, to bend Fate to his will."

The Cleric plucked absently at his sleeve. "It takes a stronger man to not let that change him. To not let the close touch of oblivion make him consider his own mortality, or worse, lessen his concern for it."

Somack stood. "I have known you for half your life. I watched you grow from boy to man. I taught you honor, you taught me to laugh. Along the way, you taught me the truth of honor; I implore you, learn to laugh again."

San Francisco:

Jack Collins had been glued to the television all day, watching a very familiar apartment building swarming with feds. He hadn't heard a word from Alec, or from Jerry, had been afraid to leave the house after the mayor had declared the terror alert. He'd chanced a quick trip to the store to stock up on some necessities before the rampant paranoia set in, but otherwise he'd been close to home.

He silently thanked God for the Veteran's Day holiday, leaving Peter and Andrea home from school, him home from the office. His boss had already called, giving him a few days off, since it looked like the Stock Market was going to be closed until the mess got sorted out.

Andy carried in a breakfast tray, set it down on the coffee table. She handed Jack a plate of eggs and hash browns, sipped her coffee. "They saying anything yet?"

"No, but the news crew panned up a little bit ago; there are a bunch of people in Alec's apartment," he took a bite, kissed her cheek. "He's the only person of interest in that building. Unless Gennady's brokering weapons out of his loft."

Andy chuckled grimly. "And if they find something?"

"You know him," Jack took a bite of toast, chewed, swallowed. "The apartment'll probably blow up."

"They think he's a terrorist," Andrea said softly. "They're going to come here, and they're going to try to hunt him down."

There wasn't any point in lying. Jack nodded. "Yeah. Pretty much."

"What are we going to do?"

The phone rang. Jack reached across the couch, picked it up. "Hello?"

"Jack?"

"Little Brother, there are feds all over your apartment," Jack blew out a long breath. "Wherever you are, stay there."

"Yeah, Jack, I know. Hey, put me on speaker, okay? And make sure Peter's there – I want to talk to him."

Jack hollered for Peter, clicked the speakerline. Alec's voice carried through the room. "Hi, Andy. You guys okay?"

"So far, Alec," she replied. "How about you?"

"Just fine. Peter, are you there?"

The little boy raced in the room. "Hi, Unca Alec."

"Hi, Peter. Tattermadelion."

The line went dead. Jack shook his head, shrugged, set the phone down. "Huh. Wrong number, I guess."

The Citadel:

Alec clicked the cell phone closed. Let the feds come. They wouldn't get squat.

He stood, stretched. Big time hero. The going gets tough and he runs and hides on top of a church.

Enough fucking around. Time to get serious. About everything.

The trapdoor opened again. Julia poked her head out, bounced up and through. She'd gotten a shower, fresh clothes – what looked like an Activator uniform, blue shirt and pants with gold piping, a new pair of shoes.

Her smile was infectious. She came over, gave him a big hug, laid her head on his shoulder.

"What's all this for?" he asked. "I'm not complaining, I'm just curious."

"Can't a girl tell her guy she loves him?" she replied. "You were so depressed earlier. I wanted to make you feel better."

His heart leapt into his throat. The most beautiful woman on Earth was calling him her guy. He took in a loud, deep breath, trying not to sit down and cry.

"Lady, you are something else," he said quietly. "What are you doing hanging around with me?"

She smiled up at him. "Every girl wants to feel special. That's how you make me feel."

"You are special," he slipped free. "Too special to be cooped up here waiting for the Apocalypse, surrounded by a bunch of supposed warriors who can't seem to decide if they're going to fight or not."

Julia shrugged. "I'm not complaining. You'll convince them to do the right thing. Besides, I came to be with you."

"Oh, yeah, the great cho'rist," he snickered. "Yeah, I'm something to chase after, all right. Hang around a bit longer, maybe you'll get to see me splatter myself across the countryside."

"Why are you so hard on yourself?" Julia sat down, patting the roof next to her. "I've known you for what, two days? You've been in five or six fights, and every time, you've been outnumbered at least three-to-one. But you never stop, you just plunge on ahead. Those guys from Denver, there were eight of them, and you chewed them up and spit them out. Me, I have to have Arwyn save me from one psycho chick."

He folded his legs under him, dropped to the roof. "The Arion?" she nodded. "You beat an Arion Prime down with your bare hands, Julia. She could have wiped out an entire army by herself – Jesus, she is an army – but you took her on, alone, and stopped her, alone. There are Velorian Protectors that haven't done that. That was the coolest thing I've ever seen."

Her eyes lit up. "Really?"

Alec lifted a shoulder. "Sure. I mean, I was impressed with you the minute I met you, but that… man, that was amazing. That took some real guts, hanging in against a Supremis, especially an Arion."

"We make a good team, Alec," she said, looking at him very closely. "I know you only want to protect me, but please, don't send me back to Montana. I can take care of myself, and I want to stay with you."

He hunched his head down. "Good God, I can't even trust my priest to keep his mouth shut…"

"Lord Somack did what he thought was right, Alec," she touched his arm. "He's worried about you. He has a right to be. You cared enough about my welfare to ask me to come with you, instead of just picking my mind clean for the formula and leaving me out there for the Kaldec to get me. Why won't you care that much about yourself?"

"I know what I signed up for," he studied the roof between his feet. "My life is the Order's, it isn't mine anymore."

"But now, you are the Order. What happens if you just throw your life away now?"

He thought about it for a moment, then laughed. "Huh. I hadn't considered that."

He heaved the trapdoor open, swung his legs down the hole. "Come on. I made a decision before you came up."

She let him lift her down, gave him a quick peck on the lips. "Lead, Archon," she whispered, hands behind his head. "I will follow."

Julia held tightly to his hand while they ran down the belltower, then across the vast warren of hallways. He stopped outside the only futuristic doors in the entire Citadel, burnished steel so brightly polished she could see her reflection in it.

"Ops," he said quietly, tapped a panel beside the doors.

It was like stepping on to the Enterprise. A floor beneath them, two more rings of computers and monitors and all manner of things above them. Alec nodded to the two Knights flanking the door, led Julia down to the bottom floor, a dark-haired man leaping to attention at their approach.

"Hey, Cas, how's it going?" Alec said, looking the bank of screens over.

"Archon! My apologies, My Lord, we weren't informed you would be coming," he turned red, shoved the remnants of his dinner off his console, into a wastebasket, snapping his fingers at everybody else in the pit. Eyes sprung open wide, a quiet scramble to get the place clean.

"Cas! Quit with the cleaning!" Alec snapped. "We used to sneak down to the mess hall and reprogram the replicators! So don't call me My Lord and answer the question!"

Casimir shuddered, took in a breath, sat back down. "Right… uhm…"

"Alec, Cas. Somebody doesn't like it, you send them to me."

"Okay, Alec," he finally grinned. "We have Pegasus on the way back; they've mined the wormhole with proximity cobalt limpets and a failsafe tachyon imploder. With the fusion cells they have strapped to them, the mines'll be enough to stop anything smaller than an entire fleet coming through."

"Good," he tightened his hold on Julia's hand. "The IQT system up and running?"

Cas glanced up. "Well, yeah."

"How about on the Local Group worlds?"

He turned back to his console, ran a query through it. "Fleaw, Thoris, Breum, Troshala, Centauri Prime, Centauri Minor, Skartis, and Mineat are all still up. If we boost the gain, we can hit Hrish, Klewdon, and Coljar as well."

"The situation on Centauri Prime?" Alec's jaw was getting tighter.

Cas shook his head. "They can't hold. There's an Arion fleet in orbit, and the Kaldec are hitting them from all sides. The only good news is the Arions will have to go before the Kaldec can engulf the population."

Alec nodded slowly. "Bring the IQT up, Cas. Turn everything that isn't in this room off and dump the power to the transmitter."

Ang Li tapped a commpad. "Attention, prepare for power down. Secure all positions."

Cas went to work on the system. Alec patted Julia's hand, let it go. "What are you doing?" she whispered.

"Making history," he replied. He leaned forward, staring at the screen next to Cas's shoulder. "Archimedes, online."

A faint rumble made the room tremble ever so slightly. "Archimedes activated," a ghostly voice coming from seemingly everywhere, like the voice of God in the old movies.

"Recognize Collins, Alec P, Archon of the Order. Authorization, Archangel Alpha Zero Seven."

"Code recognized. Greetings, Archon."

"Archimedes, encode the following message for widespread broadcast, all remaining command codes accepted," he reached down to the touchkeys next to Cas' station, began inputting commands. "Route through any and all active comms in each target area, and repeat every thirty seconds for the next fifteen minutes."

"Command acknowledged. Awaiting message."

Cas handed him a commset. Alec clicked it on, held it up to his mouth. "Attention, all Order personnel. Anyone who can hear this message, please listen carefully.

"I am Archon Collins of the Terran Order. I am hereby offering each and every member of the Order sanctuary on the planet Earth.

"I understand your desires to stay and fight, but too many of you have fallen. We have an entrenched, equipped force in position, limited contact with the Kaldec, and no Arion presence in our system.

"We can and will accommodate any and all survivors who can make it to our shores. This offer of sanctuary also extends to any and all Kalrist ships, communities, and individuals within range of this broadcast.

"To anyone who cannot escape, or who choose to stay and fight – hold fast. Stay alive. We are coming, and we will find you."

He dropped the commset. "Archimedes, transmit message, along with navigational coordinates for Earth."

Alec tapped Cas's shoulder. "I want a booster station sent out to…" he tapped some keys. "… here. Capernican point Navajo Seven. As soon as the Pegasus gets back, you take four Tech teams, a crew detail, and the Exodus and get out there. You run into any Arions or Kaldec, blow them to atoms."

Cas just nodded, mouth hanging open. Alec looked over at Li. "Li, you, Stefan, and Yoshi are now permanently assigned to the IQT. I want one of you guys on the transmitter twenty-four, seven. I'll spell a couple more guys later today to give you a break, but there is someone at this console from now on. Got it?"

Li nodded quickly, sliding his chair around Cas to take Alec's spot. Alec cleared his throat, raised his voice. "Ladies and Gentlemen, as of this moment, the Kaldec's existence in this galaxy is in serious jeopardy. We are going to beat them down, until they can't ever get back up again."

Lord Somack's voice boomed through Ops. "The Archon, and victory!!"

A deafening cheer went up, shaking the walls of the chamber.

Somack's smile was enormous, creasing his ancient face like a child. He raised his Staff as Alec turned, the cheer becoming thunderous.

He'd settled down a bit when Alec led Somack and Julia down the hall towards the Council chambers. Not much, but a bit.

Alec kept his eyes forward, face devoid of expression. Julia drifted closer to Somack, touched the Cleric's arm. "What is going on?"

"For the first time since the Exodus, a disciple of the Order has assumed leadership of a faction," Somack said quietly, mindful of Alec only a few steps ahead of him. "And now, that non-Kalrist leader has commanded that the Order reform. In it's entirety."

Julia simply looked puzzled. Somack smiled. "No one has dared what he has in eighteen thousand years, Doctor. You remember the… episode… in the Council chamber earlier?"

She nodded.

"For our wisdom, for all our accomplishments, we have yet to defeat the scourge of zealotry. Within each individual species, we have had a measure of success, more here than anywhere else, but it is difficult to preach solidarity when your own species is under assault from the Kaldec," he paused, stopped walking.

"The Kaldec drove us from our home because we did not fight them together. One faction went on to create the Order; another tried a more… direct approach. And found that the mightiest of technology is no match for limitless numbers. The Kaldec wiped them out before we made it to Earth."

Somack sighed, bowed his head. "All that we have done, all we have been through, and we still do not learn. Instead, we delivered a hundred different races to their destruction at the hands of our… brothers. Our indecision when the Galen arrived has led to horrific consequences for the entire galaxy. We even remained passive while the Arions began their incursion on to this world. And yesterday, we broke the Compact."

Alec stepped between Somack and Julia, grabbed the old man's shoulder. Somack looked up into eyes more intense than he'd ever seen. "And today, we end this. Once and for all. If I have to fight and kill every Kaldec in the galaxy alone, I will. Remember that."

He released Somack's shoulder, eyes still ablaze. "Steel yourself, Cleric. I am about to teach the Kaldec what fear is."

Alec turned on his heel and strode away. The Kalrist inclined his head slowly to the floor. "Praise God," he murmured under his breath.

Tyrell Biological Enterprises, Los Angeles, California:

Kara Matthews watched the elevator indicator slide to the top floor. Neil Caine, one of her executive assistants – among other things – shifted his feet nervously, wishing the elevator would just get there.

Kara smiled slightly. "Neil, would you relax? No one's angry with you."

"Begging your pardon, ma'am," he replied fervently, "but I've seen you upset before. I have no desire to be anywhere within twenty blocks of you when that happens."

That earned him a laugh. "I promise, no temper tantrums."

The elevator opened. Erica Carmen, another of her assistants, was waiting with an armload of documents, including three videotapes. Kara gave her a warm smile, led them both into her office, pointing at the plush chairs in front of her desk. "All right, you two, let's have it."

Erica shifted slightly, tugging her skirt down a tad. "Ma'am, all we're certain of is that Bryan Mulrooney and Mickey Sanders didn't show up for the planned meeting this morning. Neither of them are answering pages, or calls to their homes. As far as we can tell, they haven't been home for at least two days."

"Might they have decided to take vacations on short notice?" Kara nibbled at her fingernail.

"Both of them at the same time?" Neil shrugged. "I suppose. But beyond the Agency, they had no contact whatsoever with each other. It would be an odd coincidence."

She sighed. "Keep looking. Try their… girlfriends? Parents? Siblings? Anybody."

"Yes, ma'am," Erica bobbed her head. "As requested, everything we could amass on the last two days. All ready."

She slid the thick pile toward Kara. The woman sighed, shook her head. "Lovely. Bedtime reading. Thanks, you two. Enjoy the rest of the day."

They both left. Kara flipped the first folder over, clicked a hidden switch, a small pad rising out of her desk. She set a videotape on it, setting the compiler to read the magnetic tape, clarify the information, and create a three-dimensional hologram.

Her presence activated another system. The desk in front of her lit up, sensor imagery from her ship routing through to the holomatrix.

"Attention," the computer intoned quietly. "An Arion command vessel in Earth orbit has been destroyed. No survivors were cataloged."

Kara was halfway into a sip of coffee. She sprayed it across the desk. "What?! When was this?"

"Three hours, fourteen minutes, seventeen seconds ago. Protector Zor'el was unavailable until recently for the report."

She had turned it off, not thinking a few hours would matter. "What happened?"

"Sensors readings inconclusive. Cause of destruction unknown."

She sighed. That could mean literally anything had happened…

"Attention. Energy surge of unknown composition detected. Source unconfirmed. Omni-directional dispersal. Pattern unknown."

Her fingers tightened on the edge of the desk, making the wood squeal in protest. Some thing was happening. And Earth's Protector didn't know what it was.

The Citadel:

Alec sat alone in the Council chamber, reading over Frederick's analysis. Much as he hated to admit it, the man was right. Depending on the Citadel for sanctuary was a losing proposition. They needed to spread out, to let them hit the Kaldec from multiple corners.

He stared at a map of the US. Dropped his eyes away, then back.

There. Seattle. Perfect.

Leaving only one problem. The American military. And, potentially, the Protector. Her, he could deal with. The military, that wasn't going to happen.

His screen buzzed. "Yeah?"

"Sorry to disturb you, Archon, but we've managed a tap into the Denver exteriors," Shamus Kelley said. "I assumed you wanted to see the imagery."

"Patch me in, Shamus," Alec leaned forward. A screen full of green trucks were swarming around the entire four block radius of the Denver facility.

"Kinda answers that, I would imagine, Archon," Shamus said quietly. "We're having some difficulty getting exact numbers, but it's substantial. And no way of knowing how long they've been there."

"No civilians?"

"None, Archon. Everybody in the pictures is wearing a uniform."

"Thank you, Shamus, keep me appraised. Good work to all involved," Alec clicked the circuit closed. That settled one problem.

The chamber doors opened. Sorala whispered in, carrying a tray. She glided through the gallery, rounded the table, set the tray in front of Alec.

"What's this?" he asked absently, reading over another datapad.

"Food," Sorala replied, sitting herself next to him. "You must eat."

He smirked. "Begging your pardon, My Lady, but first I must destroy the Kaldec."

She reached over, took the pad away from him. "One follows from the other. Eat, Archon, or I shall summon your consort to feed you."

"She isn't my consort," Alec lifted the steel lids. Thick beef slices, warm bread, roasted potatoes, an ear of corn. All fresh from the replicators. He picked up a fork and knife, went to work.

Sorala laughed, high and silvery. "As you say, Archon. I have lived long enough to be able to tell."

He pointed his fork at her. "Now don't you go and meddle. You're worse than my mother. Or Andy."

Sorala's face was innocence itself. "A humble Activator? Interfere in the personal relationships of the Great Archon? Such a thing would never happen. Never."

The mother-confessor of the Order smiled at him brightly. Alec sighed, went back to his food. He'd have an easier time trying to move the Citadel with his bare hands than swaying Sorala from anything she decided to do.

"The child hardly needs to be coaxed," she leaned back, voice light. "Anymore than you do."

Alec hunched his shoulders. "May I finish my meal before you plan the wedding, please? Perhaps save the Earth first?"

"Do not so focus on waging war that you forget the rest of your life, Archon," she said softly. "Love comes for us in it's time, not our own."

Alec set his fork down, pushed the tray aside. "Then it chose a really rotten time. This world is about to run to overflowing with Kaldec blood, and my hand is on the blade. There's no stopping it this time, this one is for real."

Sorala nudged the tray back in front of him. "Eat, warrior."

The Council was seated. Alec was not.

"I've read Frederick's report," Alec said slowly, pacing the edge of the pool of light around the table. "And I had a chance to look over Eric and Byron's preliminary strategy. It's good, solid, and definitive. But here's what we're gonna do."

He paused by his chair, flicked a switch. The holoplate in the center of the table lit up. "A covert ops team will assess the Wyoming site. I would imagine that since the Kaldec went to the trouble of engineering a landing where the Denver cell would go, that's the spot. Morrigan, take command of the team."

She inclined her head.

"We need a foothold in North America. So, we're gonna take one."

The city of Seattle resolved above the table. "Close enough to the Citadel to do for now. We can transport the necessary equipment, material, and troops without drawing too much attention. However, until we can establish a proper base, we're gonna be somewhat vulnerable. So, while we set things up in Seattle, Eric, Byron, and Sergei are going to make some noise in Boston."

Sergei leaned back, stroking his chin. "Make some noise? Like what?"

"Clobber drug dealers, take out gangbangers, run the Mob outta Boston. I don't really care. What I care about is that you make it look like you guys are taking the criminal element out of the city so you can establish a working base."

Eric nodded. "It'll draw the Kaldec like flies to honey. If we're ready for them, we'll have no problem."

"You'd better not. I'm sending half the field force with you," Alec typed in some more commands. "As well as all the urban armor we can move in one lift. And one more little innovation."

The holoimage changed, to a roughly human-sized robot. Three legs, two arms, the forearms curved in an arc, the arc ending in weapons snouts behind the four fingered hands. The heads were shaped like Knight helmets, the torso slender and armored.

"This is a Crusader-class combatroid," he paused behind Torik's chair, leaned his hands on the high back. "I found the designs in the archival computer. Highly mobile, heavily armed, more resistant to damage than any human Knight. And, thanks to Jerry Montague, now an effective field unit, particularly for urban combat."

He reached to his utility belt, pulled out a small metallic square, tossed it across the table where it skidded to rest in front of Thien. "A Montague-type artificial intelligence chip. Synaptic response capable, open-ended neural network learning capacities, and a nine hundred terabyte memory system, running on a four hundred gigahertz processor. All easily integrated in to a Crusader's neural network."

Thien lifted the chip, studying it closely. "This is amazing. Something this small?"

"Jerry managed to leave us several important gifts," he had drifted to Arwyn's chair, ran a gentle hand down her hair. "Genji's Techs are working on deciphering the Arwyn matrix now. He has already mentioned several new designs and breakthroughs, and begun production on a few of them. He anticipates having three hundred Crusaders ready for use in three days."

Alec stepped back to his chair, settled down. "Think you can take a hundred of these, put them to good use?"

Eric smiled slowly. "I would imagine."

"Good," Alec shifted his glance to Thien. "The Home Guard remains in place, augmented by a hundred Crusaders and the heavy armor. Which leaves one hundred Knights under Frederick's command. An advance team of thirty under Gabriel's command. And twenty more with me."

Another schematic sprang up. "My team will scout out the Seattle site, and try to find a suitable location. Gabriel's team will be the garrison force, along with fifty Crusaders; once the location is secured, Frederick will bring the bulk of the strike force along with the Technical command to establish the facility."

He sat back. "Any questions?"

Not surprisingly, there weren't any. Alec lifted a datapad, sent it sliding along to Gabriel. "Here're my team selections; Morrigan, you select a team of twelve. You are to observe, not engage the Kaldec. Under any circumstances. Gabriel, please see to my detail requirements; we'll head out in twelve hours."

The Archon's chambers were just this side of lavish. The mortar and blocky stone structure of the Citadel was mostly cosmetic; the interiors had long since been made as livable as Kalrist technology could make it.

His room was opulent for the sheer size of it. Plush carpet settled under his feet, four full rooms spread out for his use exclusively. When he'd been here for training, he'd shared one room half the size of his living room with Casimir Putin.

Now, a holoscreen half as big as his old room rested on one wall. A bedroom to his left, a den off to his right, a dining room beside it, already filled with a cherrywood table and fine porcelain settings. Even his own kitchen – maybe, whoever had been Archon before had liked to cook too…

Sam squealed, hopped down from a hand-carved perch, swarmed up his leg. He gave her a tight hug, a gentle kiss, carried her to the kitchen.

The Tech staff had stocked it – mango, papaya, pineapple, coconuts, a large bunch of bananas on the counter – despite the food replicator next to the stove. He plucked a mango out, handed it to Sam, set her on the counter.

He wandered into the bedroom. Next to a massive four-poster bed sat the Shal'kyrie, resting in gold brackets. He recognized the clean lines of a weapons vault, propped the closet doors open.

Rows of clothing. Most of it looked fairly casual, making him wonder how far in advance Lord Somack had known what would happen earlier. With the Augurs somewhere in the bowels of the Citadel, anything was possible.

He looked the clothing over, reached up to a shelf, dragged an equipment bag down. He started to pack it.

His door chime sounded. "It's open!" he shouted, rolling up three pairs of jeans and stuffing them in the bag.

Julia came in the room, took one look at the bed and smiled. "Now that," she said wickedly, "is what I call a bed. I trust we'll get to try it out before we leave?"

He flushed bright red. He tried to stammer a reply, but nothing came out but a choking gasp.

Gentle, powerful arms settled around his waist, Julia's cheek resting on his back. "Dear heart, you need to relax. I was only joking."

He leaned back against her slightly. "It isn't that… I was thinking the same thing. Like some kind of lewd pervert…"

Her laugh was as gentle as her grip. "No, it just means you're in love."

She lifted him easily off the floor, tossed him over her head to the bed. He barely had time to realize he'd landed before Julia lay atop him, pinning his arms to the bed with frightening ease.

Her face was barely an inch from his, her beautiful smile the only thing he wanted to think about. "You told me you loved me. Did you mean it?"

He nodded slowly, a Cheshire cat's grin spreading across his lips. "A Knight must speak the truth in all things… except when he lies."

Her laugh made her body gyrate ever so slightly against him. "So what is it, smart guy?"

His grin vanished. "If I loved you any more, my heart would burst from my chest."

"Good answer," she leaned forward, brushing her lips against his.

Her body rested against his, her chest rising and falling under his arm. He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.

"Listen…" he began, voice soft. Julia stirred a little.

"If you're going to ask me to stay here," she whispered back, "forget it."

She rolled over in his arms, her nipples brushing his chest. "You need me to watch your back."

He sat up, cupped her face in his hands. "I've waited my whole life for you," he said, watching her face soften. "If you got hurt because of me, it would kill me. I want you to be safe, and safe is here."

Julia sighed contentedly. "I've waited my whole life to hear someone say that to me. And you are the absolutely sweetest man in the world to want to protect me. But I really don't need to be protected anymore."

"I know that," he replied, "but the Kaldec aren't Arions. They won't attack you physically because they know they can't win."

She shook her head. "I'm willing to risk it. Until I can duplicate the original formula, I'm the only me you have."

"Then you should…" she put a single finger on his lips.

"Shh," she whispered. "Can't we just pretend we're two people in love for a while, and nothing else?"

He sighed surrender, nodded.

"Good," she rolled on to her back, drawing him on top of her. "Show me again how much you love me."

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