Written by mechjok :: [Tuesday, 26 May 2020 04:47] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 02 July 2020 21:55]
"This course of action," Torik rumbled from the floor, "is highly ill-advised."
Alec finished checking the charge on his neutralizer, slapped it in it's holster. "I send you and Somack, she'll punch first, ask questions later. Besides, I'm pretty sure I can pacify her if she gets too frisky. And I have Sundance watching my back."
Julia came out of the bathroom, tugging her hair back in a ponytail, and stuck her tongue out at him. She was back in the blacks and boots he'd given her the first night in San Francisco, saying something about them being lucky or some sort. It was still unnerving to have her flawless body on full display, but she didn't seem to mind all that much.
Torik gave her an appreciative glance, shook himself, turned back to Alec. "At least take a few of the Knights with you. The woman attracts attention like a celebrity, only her papparazzi tend to be heavily armed and in a bad mood."
Alec shook his head, giving his utility belt the once over. "I told her me and Julia. So that's who's going. So a bunch of Arions show up – so what? That many fewer to have to kill later. Maybe one of them will know who we need to hit at EarthFirst to put the skids on this barge."
Somack swept into the room, dressed in casual, human clothes, carrying a small black case. He bowed from the waist, offering it to Alec.
He took it. It was lacquered rosewood, gilded along the flanged lid, polished to a glossy shine. He opened the lid, saw a collection of brightly-colored spheres.
"The Archon's armor," Somack's even voice said calmly. "It is appropriate for you to begin wearing it now, as you take the first step towards our future."
"Why?" he lifted the armor-skin from the box, looking it over. It gleamed metallic cobalt, catching the lights in the room.
"You will not wear the Shal'kyrie, so this will suffice," Somack replied. "Consider it a necessary concession to leadership. It functions in precisely the same manner as a standard field-armor suit, and has had all the upgrades, but it carries a certain ceremony behind it."
Alec set the box down, pulled out the rest of the spheres, rubbed the cobalt one between his palms. As the material flooded down his body, he squeezed a crimson sphere, activating the shield-arm, punched a golden one and set it behind his neck.
Where there should have been black was metallic cobalt. His new shield-arm glistened crimson in the lamplight. Instead of a single crest along his forehead, two flecked crimson wings covered the earpads of his helmet, the eyeslit glowing electric blue instead of ochre. And sprawled across his chest was the eagle of the Knights of St. Michael the Archangel, rather than the sphinx of the Order.
Torik stood, buckled Alec's utility belt around his waist. The metal shifted color to match, except the steel-gray of his warlance and battlesaber.
The Kalrist master stepped back, nudged Somack in the ribs. "Boy looks good, eh, Cleric?"
"Indeed," the Elder replied, clasping his hands behind his back. "The raiments of a leader. Now you are properly outfitted to meet the Protector. Remember, lad, you are no longer Alec Collins, Knight of the Order. You are the Archon, and the Cho'rist, warrior without peer. You speak for the Order now. You are the Order, now."
Alec made his helmet slide down his back, reform into a sphere on his belt. He hooked his new tacglove next to it, checked his weapons case over a last time, hefted it. Julia was shrugging her way into her new coat, tying it closed. At a mental command, her blacks flowed up her legs, leaving them bare where they peeked out of her coat; Alec clicked an imager on his belt, making him look like he was wearing khakis and a polo under his jacket.
"Okay?" he asked Torik, getting a smile and a nod in reply. "Then we're off. We should be back before noon."
Isamu had unloaded a Raptor from the Gryphon, the nimble little craft perched near the front of the hangar. Alec parked the Lexus, led Julia to the Raptor, stowing his weapons case in the fighter's belly, taking a few moments to assemble a grenade launcher and slide it into a weapons port.
Julia looked the cockpit over, climbing in the back seat. It wasn't a lot bigger than a typical full-sized car, the wings and fuselage lined with a gleaming row of something that was hot to her enhanced eyesight. A commset hung in front of her; she put it on, the circuit coming alive when she dropped her hand from it.
"Like it?" Alec slid in the front seat, clicking the canopy closed. "It may not win the luxury award, but it's faster'n hell and armed to the teeth."
"Really?" she asked, looking the control system in front of her over. "With what?"
"An EM pulse system – we call them blazers – covering everything except the extreme rear of the fighter. It can be set to discharge any EM range energy," he was tapping a touchpad steadily, hooking a set of leads in his helmet. "There's a plasma cannon in the nose, and those stubby things under the wings? They fire particle bolts. Kinda like a little fusion bomb. They pivot to fire behind us."
Julia shook her head. "Now I know why you don't like jumbo jets. No armaments."
He laughed. "There might be some truth to that. Actually, I like these babies 'cause I get to fly them."
He finished the pre-flight, bringing the engines up. The whine was muffled, the little fighter rising off the concrete while the hangar doors slid open. Alec goosed the throttle, sending them out and up at a sharp clip.
Julia couldn't see much; a thick rain system had set in the night before, shrouding the entire Sound in rain and low clouds. Alec had checked the weather on their way to the airfield, confirming that LA was having much the same day.
In almost no time, they were above the clouds and heading south. Alec was quiet for the first ten minutes, then his face, without the helmet, sprang right up in front of her.
"Julia, when we get there, I want you to…"
She crossed her arms. "Nope. I'm going with you."
"You don't know what you're getting into," he kept his voice calm, even though the look he gave her said he wanted to throttle her. "A Protector is exceedingly powerful. Zor'el is an exceptional Protector, and has undergone another enhancement. I'm not certain anyone can quantify exactly how strong she is."
"Tell you what, babe," she said coyly. "I plan on finding out if she even looks at you the wrong way."
He rolled his eyes, the image following suit. "Reign it in, She-Ra. You don't need to wallop the Protector to prove to me how tough you are. Let's try to get through this without a fight."
The image glanced away briefly, then back to her. "By the way, you look amazing."
It vanished before she could answer.
They got to Los Angeles in a little over twenty minutes. Alec steered them over the Santa Monica pier, the Raptor's sensor array announcing that the Protector had already arrived.
"Huh," he commented over the comm. "Already there. A shocking example of distrust. What is the world coming to?"
Julia giggled reflexively. He was crazy, acting like this was breakfast with an old friend rather than a confrontation with a hostile alien. But she appreciated the effort on her behalf…
He leaned his head over his shoulder. "Actually, sweetie, I'm really that crazy. Hang on, we're gonna land."
They lowered to a nearby roof, a low-rise office building deserted at this time of day. Alec had the canopy rising before the engines had cycled down, setting the holomatrix to cover the fighter.
Julia hopped down first, her enhanced eyesight picking out a single woman on the pier. Alec stayed in the cockpit long enough to pull his helmet off, adjust his imager, then swing down to the roof.
"That her?" Julia pointed. Alec just nodded.
Julia snorted. "Representative of the Planet of the Bimbos. Do they all look like that?"
"Pretty much," he trailed away, leading her to the side of the roof. "Personally, I like my supergirls brunette. With green eyes. And amazing legs."
He dropped over the side, bouncing his way down the side of the building. Julia watched him thread his way down, then simply stepped off the roof to drop to the street, taking the sixty-foot hop on bent knees.
"Show off," he flicked some dust off his jacket, offered his arm.
Kara Matthews studied the ocean, waiting as patiently as she could for her mysterious contact. The cloud cover and steady rain all but assured privacy, but she hadn't wanted to press the point by arriving late.
The wind was picking up. She ignored it, cursing at herself for choosing to fit in instead of dressing for potential combat. Her skirted business suit, boots, and leather trench were suitable for the nasty weather, but hardly appropriate for fighting hostile aliens.
"Hello," a voice called.
She spun, trying to hide her surprise. The two of them were standing less than thirty feet away, a man and a woman, completely unremarkable, sheltered under an umbrella. The woman was balanced on her toes, ready for her to try something, while the man had one hand in his pocket, studying her like she were a particularly interesting bug in his window. And they'd managed to sneak up on her without her hearing them.
"Kara Matthews?" he inquired politely. "Or would you perhaps prefer Kara'Lynn Zenerha-Shar Zor'el? Or might it be SuperFemme? It's been some time since I've conversed with a Supremis, so I'm afraid my manners are a touch dated."
Shock after shock. His accent was flawless, Kara unable to place a province to his speech. He'd previously conversed with a Supremis?
"Arions, mostly," he eased his way to the railing of the pier, keeping himself between Kara and his companion. "Not much for small talk, I'll admit, but when the opportunity presents itself, I try to take it. The chance for it has been rare enough, these last few years."
She was back on her heels, shooting blindly for balance, but she stayed calm and composed. "And why is that?"
"Too busy killing them," he replied coldly. "We figured out a few years ago that the Primes were too arrogant to look for a deal, and the Betas tend to know little, so it's become more… efficient to seek intelligence from other avenues, and simply dispose of the Arions."
"We?" she echoed. Now he was talking about exterminating Primes like cockroaches. "Who are we? For that matter, who are you?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," his face split into an honest smile. "Alec Collins, Archon of the Order. It's a pleasure to meet you."
He extended his hand. Kara stared at him for a long minute, then at his hand, realized her tachyon vision couldn't see through him, walked forward, took his hand. "Kara Matthews. The pleasure is mine."
They shook, taking each other's measure, Kara careful with her grip.
His voice stayed very even. "I've looked forward to meeting you for a long time."
"Uh-huh," she leaned her hip against the railing, keeping a few feet away. "Gehemite? Galen? Diaboli? Somebody else?"
"Terran," he replied.
She cocked an eyebrow. "I see."
The woman beside him smiled, hiding it in her hand. Collins appeared non-plussed.
"Which part do you find hard to believe, Protector? The fact that I'm Terran or the fact that I'm not afraid of either you or the Arions?"
"Both, frankly," she crossed her arms, still leaning against the slatted wood. "I haven't met many humans like that in my experience. And I don't think I know anyone who isn't afraid of the Arions."
His smile came slowly. "Then I would suggest your experience is limited. Two days ago I ordered the destruction of the Sar'Aiel, the Retribution-class medium cruiser the Arions had in orbit."
Kara stopped leaning.
"Two hours after we scorched the Near Earth Command, a Dagger-class frigate came through the wormhole junction just beyond Jupiter," he continued, voice even. "Unfortunately for them, we were in the process of mining the wormhole. The frigate was also destroyed. And the Supremis's only means of getting to or from Aria or Velor is now laced with cobalt limpet implosion mines and a tachyon collapsor bomb, in case the Arion fleet decides to come calling."
Collins paused, running his eyes over the frothing wavetops. "This planet is in peril, by something far more dangerous than the Arions could ever hope to be. Your brethren seek conquest – the Kaldec seek to engulf everything that lives. And they attack civilizations in such a way as to render the Velorian Enlightenment ineffective."
He kept his shoulder to her. "Your Prime Directive is laudable, but it hinders you in regards to the Arions. Velor is losing the war. The Protectors Council is reconsidering the viability of your Enlightenment. Your people are perched on the edge of throwing the entire Galaxy into complete anarchy. But the danger is so much greater than that."
His head lowered towards the water. "The Kaldec just kill. Everything. Everyone. Annihilating cultures, absorbing genetic structures, purging biospheres of life. The Arions grind down peoples beneath their heels, but at least they let them live."
Kara's voice was firmer than she'd have thought, the Protector steeling herself. "If these… Kaldec?… are such a threat, why hasn't anyone ever heard of them? Why is there no record of them anywhere?"
Collins reached slowly into his jacket, produced a flat object the size of a paperback book, the thickness of a jewel case. He set it on the blacktop, pushed it towards her, led his companion away until Kara came close enough to pick it up.
"That's one of our datapads," his voice carried easily through the wind. "I've keyed it to your unique genetic structure. Feel free to examine it; you'll find it several generations of technology ahead of your own. Obviously, this conversation is getting us nowhere. Examine the data the pad contains. Verify what you can. Decide what you cannot. When you're ready, give me a call, and perhaps we can try this again."
He turned his back on her, began to walk away. His companion paused long enough to give Kara a measuring look, then caught up with him, linking her arm in his, ducking her head back under the umbrella's shelter.
Alec hadn't realized he was holding his breath. Once they were away from the Protector's line of sight, confident in his armor to shield them both from her tachyon vision, he stopped long enough to wipe some water from his hair, give Julia a wan smile.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" he dug his free hand in his jacket pocket, letting himself lean lightly against her. "Please tell me that didn't go as poorly as I thought it did."
Julia's voice was soft. "She seemed somewhat convinced, though. You had the right names, knew what was happening on Velor, all of it."
He nodded to her, brushed a lock of wet hair from her eyes. "Let's get out of the rain. I'll buy you breakfast."
They found a small cafe on the boardwalk, welcome shelter after the blustery morning. Alec held Julia's chair, sat down himself, accepting coffee and fresh orange juice while they studied the menu.
"What looks good?" he asked quietly.
"I think…" Julia trailed off, glancing up. "Alec…"
"I know," he replied. "Just keep reading the menu."
Kara Matthews walked up to their table. Alec set his menu down, stood up.
"May I," she paused, studying Alec with hawklike eyes, "may I join you?"
Alec inclined his head, gesturing to an empty chair. "Please."
He waited for her to be seated, signalled the waitress, who bustled over with juice and coffee. Alec handed Kara his menu, sliding his chair a bit closer to Julia.
The Supremis ran her eyes over the menu, set it aside. "I had a chance to look over the storage device you gave me. You are either what you claim to be, or you are the most accomplished liar on this planet."
"Nice to be recognized for something," Alec sipped his juice slowly, his eyes never leaving the Velorian. Kara unbuttoned her trench, shrugging it off her shoulders, letting it spill over the back of her chair.
The conversation paused as they ordered, both women's eyes wide as he ordered steak, eggs, and a double order of hash browns. "What? Some of us actually eat, you know."
"I eat," the two women said simultaneously. Alec grinned. The tension eased a bit, Alec leaning back, resting his hand on the back of Julia's chair.
"So," he began. "I take it you want an answer or two?"
They stayed for more than an hour, Alec keeping his voice even, quiet, reasoned. An admirable feat as he replayed the last eighteen thousand years of galactic history, and the Kalrist and humans' role in it.
No one asked them to leave, the waitress barely paying them any attention at all as she refilled coffee, checked with them to see if they were all right. Alec sent her off each time with a smile and a kind thank you, the inflection in his voice barely changing.
Kara tried her best, but it was hard to not shout out, run gibbering from the restaurant. The story was incredible, but every single piece fit. From this man's intimate knowledge of the Galen, to the locations of Velor, Aria, and Daxxan, to his certainty of the whereabouts of every Supremis on Earth.
"The Kaldec influenced the Galen-Diaboli War from the onset," Alec said. "Otherwise, neither one would have ever conceived of the Edict. Their intention was to create a situation where one side or the other would develop an overwhelming advantage that could then be turned against the Kalrist. But instead of working towards a stalemate, both sides went for the genocidal jugular. The Diaboli were shoved to the brink of extinction. The Galen – well, I doubt I have to tell you what happened there."
He paused long enough to take a sip of coffee. "We were already here when the Galen came for the Scandanians. The Order tried to fight them off, but we were still too centralized, the human populations of the time too dispersed. We destroyed a number of ships, slew several Galen here on the planet, part of which gave rise to the later mythology of Skierta's Curse, but we weren't fast enough to stop them completely. Something that has had rather dire results for the entire Galaxy."
Kara leaned her elbows on the table. "That's something of an understatement."
"Anyway, in the last thousand or so years, the Kaldec have redoubled their efforts. Several Kalrist strongholds have fallen, including eight significant attacks against Earth. Then, in the last three months, they've put the pedal to the metal. Four worlds have fallen, three more are under siege, and they have landed three spearheads on Earth."
He turned hard eyes to Kara. "The Arions have become a liability. The Velorians are considering eliminating the Prime Directive. There are new players on the board, only a few of which the Supremis are aware of. The Galaxy is spiraling towards chaos. The time for sitting by while we wait for the Kaldec to come is over. The Order is finished hiding."
"But you're talking about open warfare," Kara said softly. "Here, in the streets of Earth. Every Arion on the planet will jump into the frenzy."
"No, they won't," he replied. Her eyes narrowed.
"Are you mad? Of course they…"
"They won't, because they'll all be dead," Alec tipped his cup up, leaving his elbow on the table. He set it back down, eyes still hard. "That's the first step. We are already in position to eviscerate the Arion presence on Earth."
"What, you guys are going to kill them all?"
He nodded. "Yeah. That's the plan."
Her jaw dropped. "That's blatantly impossible."
"Not for us. And then, we're going to expose EarthFirst for what it is, a pack of Arion dupes who've been suckered into playing the wrong side of the fence. There isn't going to be room for rabid xenophobes running wild while the Order tries to fend off the Kaldec."
Alec ran his hand through his hair. "We… I came to you out of a sense of duty, and a measure of respect. I've followed your career for some time, and I felt we owed you an opportunity to understand what was going to happen before it did. But understand me. We are going to do this. If you choose to oppose us, then you will face the consequences. Should you choose to ally yourself with us, then you run the risk of defying the Prime Directive, and setting yourself at odds with the Protectors' Council."
Kara started to speak; Alec raised his hand slightly. "Don't rush into this, Protector. As I said, this is a courtesy, not an ultimatum. I have no need for an answer immediately; there's still another individual I have to… discuss matters with."
The Protector smiled. It lit up the room, almost as much as Julia's would have. "Ah, yes. The Scribe."
"You know her, then?"
Kara shook her head. "Only by reputation. She's rather… colorful… in her own way."
Alec chuckled slightly. Kara leaned away from the table, crossing her legs. "Tell me, Archon Collins, what it is you aren't saying? Your story's a very compelling one, filling in all the gaps, but there's something more. Something, that has to do with you and your friend here, who hasn't said three words since I sat down."
Alec's face went very blank, Julia's seemingly carved from stone. The Supremis chuckled herself. "Oh, come now. I'm several hundred years old. I've been on Earth for almost sixty years. I can play poker with the best of them."
Julia reached over, taking the Protector's wrist in her hand before Kara could move, and squeezed. The woman's grip was firm enough for Kara to feel the pressure, then slowly increased. Kara tried to jerk her hand away, mindful of her massive strength, her jaw creeping open when her first attempt barely made the woman's hand move.
"Julia," Alec said softly. She released Kara's wrist, the same hand delicately lifting her coffee cup to her lips. Kara turned shocked eyes to Julia, then abruptly found herself unable to move.
You asked why I wasn't afraid of you, Protector? Collins' voice was clear in her mind, his lips not even twitching. This would be the main reason why. I would imagine you are having a bit of difficulty moving just now. Don't be alarmed, this is a temporary measure.
As swiftly as it happened, it was gone, Collins' face completely placid. "Yeah, I guess I left a thing or two out."
Alec snapped open his umbrella, handed it to Julia as she and Kara stepped out the door, went back in to settle the check.
The two women eyed each other silently, Julia not comfortable with the Supremis' distinct height advantage. Both of them edged as far from the other as she could while still staying under the umbrella.
Kara spoke first. "You have unusual tastes in friends."
"More than friends," Julia interjected. "And I'm willing to bet even you would admit he's not the average man on the street."
"Point taken," Matthews replied. "Every time I think I have these people figured out, someone new jumps into the picture."
Julia's eyes glittered. "I can see how that might be… disconcerting."
"Really?" Kara's expression changed ever so slightly.
"Really," Julia affirmed. "I won't pretend to be an expert on… whatever it is you are, but I do know people, at least in these parts. Starting to be too sure about who they are and what they want can be a mistake."
"You sound as if you speak from experience."
"Enough," Julia's voice quieted. "Enough to be able to tell the difference. What's in a person's head and heart is more important than what's outside. If he were fifty pounds overweight and losing his hair, I'd still be attracted to him. Because of how he makes me feel, as opposed to what he can do. Too many times, I wasted my time with men who were the exact opposite."
The Supremis considered that for a few moments. "They're a strange lot, these Terrans. Or should I say, you Terrans?"
It was Julia's turn to grin. "You make it sound like a bad thing. If you really think that's the case, hang around with Alec for a while. You'll learn differently."
Alec slipped out of the cafe, his hands in his jacket pockets. Julia gave him a warm smile, Kara a measuring, thoughtful glance.
"Well," he began. "This has been… informative."
Kara bobbed her head. "Indeed. In more ways than one."
"Keep your head down," he advised, casting a glance at the shoreline. "They'll come for you. Sooner before later."
"We'll see. Good day, Archon."
She ducked out from under the umbrella, made her way off, heels clicking in the rain.
Julia watched her go. "I wasn't that bad, was I? The first time we met?"
"No," he shrugged. "She'll at least stay out of the way, keep her brood out of it as well. I can't ask for more than that. I didn't expect more than that."
Julia paused, keeping still in the downpour. "She's very strong. I could sense it, like it was sitting there with us."
"Hmh?" Alec looked back at her from the ocean. "Oh. Well, yeah. She's a Velorian Virago, and an exceptional one at that. In physical terms, probably the only beings in the Galaxy stronger than she is are the Galen, and maybe the odd Velorian."
"Is that…" she stopped, tried again. "Is that what it's like for you when you sit next to me?"
"What?" his eyebrows went up. "Of course not. What a silly thing to say."
"Is it so silly?"
He stepped under the umbrella, tipping her chin up to look him in the eyes. "Yes, it is. You don't go around scaring people. You exude a kind of… life, an energy around yourself that makes people feel comfortable, at ease, attentive. The Protector – it's more like a poke in the eye, or a thrown gauntlet. She's an intimidator, a warrior who doesn't bother to hide it. You have the same kind of strength, but it's subtle. More a matter of confidence, as opposed to aggressiveness."
Alec clasped his hands over hers, gave a gentle squeeze. "And I would pick you over her any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Assuming the most self-sufficient woman on Earth needs something as useless as an ordinary man hanging around her."
"Stop," she snapped. "You're no more ordinary than I am. And even if you were, I'd love you anyway."
"Me, too," his voice was fond. "So, what do you want to do? We can hang around for a while, or we can go back to Seattle…"
His telepathic senses screamed at him the same instant Julia's ears picked up a shriek, wind whistling around falling forms. He yanked his hands from hers, started to run down the boardwalk. Julia tossed the umbrella aside, easily caught up with him in a few quick strides.
"Or," he said gamely, a sort-of grin on his lips, "we could get in a big old fight…"
Kara felt like walking for a while.
Collins' story was a lot to take in. She had the datapad squirreled away in her overcoat. But somehow, hearing it had made it all seem more real. If nothing else, it gave her some things to think about.
She wasn't one to play by the rules, if she could avoid it. Earth was her sixth world. The rest had fallen – or in Kingthat's case, been destroyed – no matter what she had done. She had even let the defense of Earth slip while she had indulged herself in a decade of reclusiveness. Since then, she'd worked twice as hard, forestalling dozens of Arion plots, upending carefully-crafted long-term strategies, done her best to protect this world. Even learned a grudging respect for the human spirit – but the fact remained that they were frails, in need of protection. Her protection.
Now some yahoo came out of nowhere, and told her to keep her head down. Her? Keep her head down? Who did this guy think he was?
The all-too-familiar whistle was almost lost in the wind and her tangled thoughts. Battle honed reflexes snapped her around and on-guard, her arm coming up to blunt a Prime's hurtling fist.
The man howled, following up with a shot to her ribs. It connected, her breath gasping out, staggering her. He bounded out of the way, a limber female form slashing down and slamming against Kara, lifting her off the boardwalk and to the sands lipping the tides.
She rolled the woman off, hurling her into the ocean. She was up, stripping her trench off, shredding her skirt at the same time, feet moving nimbly on the sand. Five Azizi Primes, clad in Destroyer uniforms, and an unknown Prime who could fly… perhaps an Aerie? Either way, not good odds…
"Velorian sow!" one of the male Primes bellowed over the winds. "To think you could attack us with impunity?! Now, we finish what we should have done years ago!"
A black streak raced past the Primes, bowling all of them over, sending them face first into the sand. The streak looped around, resolving back into Julia Brooks, while a man in blue and red armor hopped up on to the boardwalk railing, a barrel-snouted weapon poised in his hand.
"Hi there," his voice carried over the wind and pounding surf, flawless Arion. "How about the bunch of you Arions crawl back under the rock you came from, and we forget this ever happened?"
The male Prime snarled, a sharp, ugly sound. "Terran scum! Flee before I rip your woman's heart from her chest and shove it down your throat!"
"Okay. You die last."
The weapon in his hand fired, slashing into the lone Azizi woman. She doubled over, screaming, a swirl of energy spiraling off her body, fusing the sand around her into quartz.
Julia vaulted the railing, plowing into a second Prime, knocking the man from his feet, her palm hitting his chin like a cannonblast. She hit him solidly in the stomach, lathered his face with a flurry of punches, an elbow smash flinging him to the sand.
Alec flipped forward, holstering his neutralizer and drawing his warlance on the fly, his weapon extending as he landed. Julia dashed at a second Prime, the Destroyer flying out of the surf, boring for Kara. He upended the last Prime, slapped him on the forehead, making him black out, stretched his mind to the Protector's.
Choose a partner, his mental voice hinted at a mild amusement. You want the Prime or the Destroyer?
His utter indifference was astonishing. Are you crazy?! This isn't a game!!
Sure it is, his weapon danced around his body. There's only six of them.
His empty left hand, clad in a shield-arm, pointed at the diving Destroyer, a psi-bolt knocking her out of the sky. Okay. You take her. Holler if you need help.
His weapon continued to spin around his body. He spared a glance for Julia, beating the absolute hell out of the third Prime, advanced on his opponent, switching to English. "You got a name, there, Sparky? So I know where to send the body?"
The Prime drew himself up, every muscle in his chest flexing, grating angrily in Arion. "Kresh'tek, worm. The name of your death."
Under his helmet, Alec grinned. "Litrfaul, Pale."
The Arion bellowed, lunged. Alec stepped aside, an armored foot slicing up and against the Prime's stomach. The blow should have done no damage, but Kresh'tek doubled over, his intestines twisting in painful knots, suffused with floods of energy. He collapsed to the sand, groaning in pain, Alec waiting for him to get up.
"What's the matter?" he called, his feet skipping back and forth in place. "Got a tummy ache?"
The Prime heaved himself up, launched himself at the annoying Terran. The man dodged a complex blow combination, holding his ground, brought his weapon up and around, slashing Kresh'tek's cheek open.
The pain registered for a brief second before another agonizing wave of cramps wracked his stomach. The Terran ducked under his guard, grabbed a wrist and an ankle, flipped the Arion to the sand.
Kresh'tek hit hard, pain lancing up his arm, down his leg. The Terran was hobbling him somehow…
Alec collapsed his warlance, hung it on his belt. "C'mon, Sparky, get up. I put my big bad stick away, so it's a bit more fair now."
Julia hadn't bothered with anything like form, despite Alec's generous offer of something called a neural initializer. She was faster than the Prime, perhaps not as strong – an opinion that was open to some interpretation – and almost as resistant to damage. So, she just wailed away on him, pressing her advantage.
His attempts at defending himself looked like slow-flowing molasses. She ducked, dodged, or turned every blow, landing four for every one that the Prime launched. Her fists hit him harder than artillery shells, punishing his vaunted invulnerability, each punch shoving him backwards.
His right cheek collapsed, finally, after a hundred punches at blinding speeds, teeth and blood spraying over the sand. A pair of ribs went on the next punch, then his left knee under a lightning-fast legsweep. She twisted around behind him before he could do more than stagger, grabbed both sides of his head, yanked her hands in one terrible lunge, his neck snapping like so much kindling.
He went limp in her grip, blood spilling over his red and black uniform, the Prime falling forward into the sand. Julia realized her own heart was pounding in her ears, took a half-step back from the body, then sped towards the first Prime she'd tackled, climbing to his feet.
Kara pounced on the Destroyer, one knee digging into the woman's spine while her arm locked around her throat, jerking backwards. Whatever Collins had done to her, she was disoriented, unable to mount much of a struggle, feeble fingers clawing blindly at her arm. Kara yanked back, good and hard, snapping the Destroyer's spine and neck at the same time.
This was unreal. Brooks was pummeling her second Prime into submission, Collins had leveled three with one shot each, and was now fighting a fourth bare-handed…? And she, she had just dispatched a vaunted Destroyer as easily as a Betan.
Brooks cracked her opponent's face open, blood flying, crushed ribs and a shoulder with ferocious power, finished him with a bladed hand to the neck. Undisciplined, lacking form, but extremely effective. Kara found herself being impressed.
Collins let Kresh'tek lumber back up, bent over in pain, waited patiently for him to attack. The three blows missed entirely, Collins snapping a kick into the Prime's shoulder, sending him back to the ground. He rolled on the sand, screaming in pain, unable to rise. Kara moved closer, hugging herself as a slight shiver ran up her spine.
Collins dropped to one knee next to the writhing Arion, his helmet hiding his face from view, said something to the Prime. She perked her ears, trying to pick the words out of the thunder of the surf, but something was blocking her super hearing.
His unarmored hand stretched out, slapped against Kresh'tek's neck. A flare of light, spinning to the cloudy skies, and the Arion was still on the sand, his skin a deep, carbon black.
He rose smoothly, kept his gaze from Kara, skirting her to toe the motionless body of the Azizi woman he'd struck down. He turned his back on her, surveyed the two Julia had slain. He walked slowly to her side, laid a hand on her shoulder, whispered in her ear, got a nod in reply.
His helmet hissed open while he squatted next to the lone survivor. The Prime stared up at the sky, eyes glassy, rain pattering his face with no reaction at all. Kara moved much closer this time, watching the Terran and not the Prime.
"I have a message for you," he said softly, barely audible over the wind and waves. "When you get up and limp your ass home, you tell your commanders and anyone else who will listen, how two Terrans wiped your attack force out in under a minute. We destroyed the Sar'Aiel. We destroyed the Shen'deria. Send twenty Primes, a hundred, a thousand, and we'll do the same. From now on, Earth is the place Arions come to die. This is your people's only warning."
He stood, the Prime limping up. He turned wild eyes on Alec, sprinted off down the beach as fast as his legs could carry him.
"What did you do to him?" she gestured at the carnage. "To all of them?"
Alec shrugged. "I don't make idle threats. And I rarely lie. We met force with force – mine is just a bit more subtle than a punch in the nose. And I'm not limited by having to be reactive."
He keyed a relay in his helmet, a commline chiming alive. Frederick's face appeared in the holo in front of his eyes. "You all set?"
The man nodded, the slight hesitation in his movement telling Alec he was armored up and on the move. "All targets accounted for. Except for four or five…"
"I know. Implement Operation: Achilles. Make it a clean sweep, Frederick."
He killed the line, drew his sidearm, let his senses and scanners sweep the skies. He spotted a target, aimed, and fired.
An Arion assault shuttle sputtered into view, lurching drunkenly as it spiraled out of the sky. Alec took aim, fired again, blowing the rear engine housing to pieces, slapped his weapon back in it's holster.
The shuttle slammed into the waves seven or eight miles out, sending a foaming fiery column shooting into the air. A dot skimmed the wavetops, Alec bringing his battlesaber out, the blade lighting off.
"A Tset'Lar," he announced calmly, his feet shifting slightly in the sand. "'Twoud appear the Arions really want you dead."
Kara nodded sharply. "That's a nice gun you have there. Packing a nuke by chance?"
The helmet bobbed in time with his shoulders, a silent chuckle, Julia easing up beside him. "Now what would be the point of that? These clowns are already overmatched; no sense rubbing their noses in it."
The Tset'Lar roared towards shore; Alec's new shield-arm sparked, a wall of energy springing up around the three of them on the beach. X-rays splashed against the barrier, linear generators sucking the energy up greedily, recharging his weapons pack. He twisted as she flew past, keeping the shield between them and him.
The Arion dropped to the sand, face twisted in rage. Clad in the skin-tight blue, black, and silver of the Tset'Lar, including the cape, facing her attackers.
Alec brought his swordarm up, blade pointed down in front of his helm, feet spread. His exterior speakers came on, booming clearly. "I am Alec Collins, Knight of the Order, champion of humanity, defender of Earth. Withdraw, and live. Attack, and die. The choice is yours."
At any other time, anywhere else, he was certain his announcement would have been met with laughter. However, given that he and his companions were standing in the middle of four dead Primes and a slain Destroyer, it wasn't an empty threat.
But Arions were Arions – arrogance ran deep, and nowhere deeper than their fearsome Tset'Lar corps. Her raven tresses reaching to between her shoulder blades, tossed her head angrily.
"Are you brainwashing these human fools into grandiose delusions, Protector?" she sneered, the gutteral chatter of Arion. "You hand one an e'saber and he thinks he's a match for one of us; you clothe a Terran sow in the blacks of a Prime and her head swells."
Before anybody could say anything else, Alec vanished-
– reappearing next to the Arion. His saber flashed left and right, scoring diamond-hard flesh, flipping her to the sand. The woman rolled aside, x-rays burning from her eyes.
Impossibly, Alec bent backwards, one hand finding purchase on the sand. The blast seared into the surf, a cloud of plasma searing Julia's eyes, Alec twisting clockwise, foot coming up and around.
An instant before the blow hit, the Arion watched his foot accelerate, slamming home with crushing force at the base of her neck. She flipped over, skittering a few feet along the sand.
Julia streaked past, lowering her shoulder as she rushed the brunette, lifting them both off the sand. Alec brought his saber around, Kara circling around to support Julia.
Julia knew the Tset'Lar could fly. She grabbed the woman's face, slammed it against the sand, followed with her other fist. Speed was her only edge, speed and agility. Four blows landed in rapid succession, three more to the midsection, five rabbit-punches into her jaw.
The Arion bellowed, sweeping her arm around. Julia caught it, twisted, yanking the woman from the sand, her knee thundering up against the Arion's stomach.
It was worse than kneeing a tree. The Arion's abs barely flexed on the first blow, a little more on the second, more on the third. Julia knew she was going to be black and blue in the morning; of course, unless she finished the Space Amazon, she might not make it to morning…
Kara closed in, adding her phenomenal strength to the fight. The Arion's head snapped back, then rolled forward as Kara chopped at her neck. Julia backed off, circled around, ran right into the Tset'Lar's back at the moment Kara unloaded on her chin.
Julia wrapped her up in a full nelson, letting Kara get a solid handful of blows in. Each one boomed like thunder, Alec balancing his saber and waiting for an opening.
The Arion broke Julia's grip, seized her shoulders, delivered a knee of her own. Julia folded over the woman's leg, her breath rushing out. She saw stars, the Arion hauling her up, smashing her across the face.
Julia slid away, rolling over. The Arion had a look of… pleasure on her face, lips peeled back from her teeth. She shouted something Julia didn't understand, something exultant and ugly, raced to leap at her…
Kara hit her head-on, trying to drive her back. The Tset'Lar's power was astounding; she suspected Julia was incredible, but the two of them weren't going to be enough. They crashed to the sand, locking arms in a bizarre wrestling hold, neither one able to grab the other.
Julia set her feet under her, flashed at the Arion, hitting her in the neck with her elbow. The alien woman choked, Julia piling on with all her strength Kara right beside her.
One blow scattered them both. The Arion leapt up, an armored form charging right in.
His mind rang with the one word, silent beratement as he drove the Tset'Lar back, all of her combat skills doing little more than keeping the energy blade from her neck. He advanced, anger fueling each sweep, one eye on Julia while he pushed her back.
Big man, his mind taunted. Wanting to show off for Julia, that you were the toughest kid on the block. That you weren't afraid of the terrors of the Galaxy. Maybe get her killed in the process…
It wasn't about strength, it was their invulnerability. A Tset'Lar was a quantum leap in resistance over a Prime, able to take lots more damage. He'd been cocky with the first group, giving them all vertigo and impairing their thinking… While you stand here and dance with this idiot…!
He swept in close, saber slashing the Tset'Lar's neck open, blood spattering his armor. She fell over, struggled back to her feet blindly…
Alec was ready. His saber leapt to his other hand, his right palm clapping against the Arion's forehead.
The mak'ra. The Slaying of the Spirit. In a perverse irony, one of the first disciplines an Adept ever learned – because only knowing what the consequences of lapses of control caused could control be achieved. The Knights called it a brainburn.
His mind battered his way into the Arion's, shattering neural pathways, erasing memories, shredding tissue. Her heart stopped, her lungs collapsed, inky blood oozing from her eyes. She dropped from his opened palm, dead before she hit the sand.
The battlesaber came around, almost on it's own, plunged downward through the Arion's chest. Diamond-hard skin peeled aside, a second fountain of blood sizzling along his blade. She managed a spastic jerk, then lay still.
He ripped his blade free. Turned to Julia.
Julia spotted him, dragged herself up. She was sore, and tired, and her hands hurt from punching at the Arion, but they'd won.
He spared her a brief glance, the touch of his mind tickling hers, then ran off towards the pier.
One. Fucking. Disaster. After. Another.
Somack had drilled the evils of pride into his thick, stupid skull until it hurt. And first chance he gets, as the head of the Order, he flies off half-cocked and picks a fight with some Arions. Risks Dr. Brooks' life in a senseless brawl so he could show her how tough he is. Danced around like an idiot, drawing the fight out so he could upstage the Protector.
He dropped to his knees at the tide line, scrabbled at the sand, his helmet flowing off. Breakfast came heaving back up, puddling in the shallow hole he'd dug. He dumped his stomach, then a couple of mouthfuls of blood, leaving the foul iron aftertaste clinging to his teeth.
He pawed the pile of sand over his shame, let the tide wash up and over him while he stayed on all fours, empty eyes staring at the foaming water. He twisted around as the surf crashed in again, plunged his face into the water, sucking in a mouthful of salt tinged with lumber and human garbage.
He pushed up, spit the water out, felt gentle fingers at his shoulder, running through his hair.
The most beautiful woman in all the world knelt down beside him, concern etched on her face. She pulled him close, kissed his forehead, helped him get to his feet.
She shook her head. "I won't. Not ever. Come on, let's go."
Her arms were strong, supportive, her head leaning on his shoulder while she helped him walk. They slowly trudged out from under the pier, where Kara waited quietly.
He spared her a glance, then put his helmet back on. The electronics drained his voice of any emotion. "Not so crazy, huh? At least we kept some of the heat off of you."
She started to say something; he turned away, untangling himself from Julia. "Anyway, keep your head down. When you're ready to pick a side, gimme a call."
He staggered a bit as he walked away, but his step firmed, quickened the further he went. Both women watched him trudge up the sand to the boardwalk, heave his way over the railing, shamble up the boardwalk.
Julia shook herself, came back to the here and now. "There's… there's a comm system in the datapad," she said, wiping a lock of wet, sandy hair from her eyes. "In case he shuts off the cell. It'll let you reach… someone. I gotta go."
Kara caught her arm before she could run off. "Is he… is he all right?"
Julia bit down the retort that leapt to mind, shrugged, pulled her arm away and trotted after Alec.
Kara watched her go, flew down the beach, scooped up her jacket and flew off.
He retrieved his imager and jacket, slunk his way through the murk to the building they'd landed on, tugged his way up the brick face.
He hurt all over. Radiation burns, a couple of broken knuckles, what felt like a sprained ankle from kicking the Tset'Lar. All dumb injuries, something he'd chew an Adept's ass over in a simulation. For the Archon, no excuse at all.
Alec climbed up to the Raptor's cockpit, fired up systems, locked home commlines and HUD leads. He activated the comm system, getting Frederick immediately.
"Report," he said quietly, hoping Frederick couldn't hear the hoarseness in his voice.
"Operation eight-five percent complete," the South African replied, head bare to the comm screen. "We've had one small set-back, however. The Washington DC EarthFirst facility was more heavily defended than intel indicated. The assault team penetrated it, but were unable to account for all the Arion contacts, and there were significant human casualties as well."
Alec sighed. "Has it disrupted the operation?"
Frederick shook his head. "Not at all; we planned for a three percent margin of error. Right now we're running at under one. I anticipate that to remain the case."
"Good," he coughed, cleared his throat. "We ran into six Primes and a Tset'Lar. Six fatalities, one scared shitless and running for his life. Took out an assault shuttle too, one of their medium range crates. No civilian involvement."
"Understood; that accounts for some of our missing friends," he paused, tapping on something. "The Protector?"
"Undecided. Leave her and her brood out of it for now," he leaned back a little. "We could tell her we're coming at her and she still couldn't stop us. She's no threat."
"Acknowledged," Frederick turned back to the holo. "Alec, are you…?"
"I'm fine. I'll check in when I get to Seattle. Bye."
He killed the line. Leaned his head back on the seat, dozed off.
Julia climbing aboard woke him, his head snapping up, senses alert. He kept his face hidden behind the helm, checked to make sure she was snugged in, brought the engines up. In less than a minute they were airborne.
The flight to Seattle was very, very quiet.