Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 15 June 2020 03:06] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 13 June 2020 18:09]
Cain Grailmore swallowed nervously, watching the special elevator descend below street level. The war wasn't going quite the way it was supposed to; he doubted the Empress was going to be pleased with that. No, she wasn't going to be pleased at all.
His ride halted, opened on the Chamber. He stepped out, glanced around quickly, steeled himself.
"You should not be afraid."
Cain tried not to jump; he hated it when she did that. She was so… alien… to everything he'd experienced before…
A slender shadow drifted past him, trailing long-nailed fingers gently along his cheek. "Oh, come now. Am I that alien? Am I not beautiful?"
She was, he considered, as she stepped into the pool of light. Flawless skin the color of cream, sparkling cobalt-blue eyes, wavy tresses as dark as the night, cascading down her back. Her dress clung to every womanly curve, as if she had been carved from flawless stone than a woman of flesh and blood. Tight black boots clung to her magnificent legs, a necklace of massive diamonds catching the dim lights, drawing his attention to her amazing breasts. She replaced her fingers with her lips, planting a soft kiss on his cheek, catching his hand in hers, slender fingers barely long enough to twine with his.
"You alone, young Knight, you and your Forsaken, need never fear me," she whispered. Her hand tightened around his, bones flexing instantly, pain controlled, precise, and overpowering. "Respect me, yes. Worship me, yes. Desire to fulfill my every whim, yes. But fear me? Never."
He winced, glad when she released his hand, mentally counting fingers. She chuckled, low and throaty. "Dear sweet boy, I forget how fragile you are."
She gave him a second peck on the cheek, rubbing his hand gently with both of hers. She favored him with a small smile, turned away. "Oh, no, dear Cain. You needn't fear me. I leave that for others. Those who fail."
Her boots clicked on the steel plating, the Empress vanishing back into the darkness. He heard a distant whimper, then a choked scream, a figure hurtling from the shadows to crash at his feet.
Cain recognized a Dracon's form, Chelios, one of Masric's lieutenants. The big figure tried to push himself up, the Empress following from the darkness.
"Majesty, please," Masric himself stepped into the light, his face contorted. "The fault was mine. He did nothing…"
She clucked at him, reaching down to grasp Chelios' neck. Her tiny fingers could barely cover the front of his massive throat, until she dug in, ripping scaled hide away, hoisting all six-hundred pounds up as if he were a feather. "But you must learn, Masric. You must learn not to fail me. You are too valuable to me; this one must suffice."
Chelios clawed at her hand, his huge fingers snapping, cracking, finally breaking against her slim arm. The Empress closed her hand slowly, getting first a choked gasp, then a scream, then a sharp snap as she crushed his larynx. Chelios went limp in her grip; she flicked her wrist, flinging his carcass away, so far Cain had to train his senses to catch the distant thump.
Masric dropped to both knees as she turned, pressing his face to the steel floor. She idly gathered an edge of his cloak, wiping her hand clean, sighed heavily. "Rise, Masric. I trust your lesson has been learned?"
"Yes, Trindara," he mumbled, face still flat on the floor. "Yes, My Empress."
"How could you fail to capture the Archangel?" she folded her arms, cocking her hips. Cain ignored the effect her incredible body was having on him, shook his head fiercely. "One man against all of my Forsaken, and he defeats you. One lone Knight against the Corruptor, and he defeats you. One man rallies the Order to his side, displaces our allies, and drives the humans to war. He destroyed the Arions, beat the two of you to Brooks, has even enlisted the Velorian to his cause! And you both failed when you had the chance to take him!"
Trindara flexed her hands, took control of herself, smoothed her hair. "Now, there are reports that he and a handful of Knights beat back our attack on the Shamballah Colony, while the assault on the Citadel has been completely repulsed. These humans were not supposed to be this troublesome."
She turned away, motioning Cain to follow her. "We waited for millenia to take this world, end the struggle with the Outcasts once and for all. We have crushed their resources across the galaxy, whipped the Arions into a frenzy of conquest, weakened the Protector's Council on Velor, turned the Kintzi loose on the galaxy, kept the Gehemites secluded where they cannot get into mischief. I will not be denied by one mere human!"
"Then you will fail."
Another shaft of light slashed down, illuminating a second woman, sitting crosslegged in front of a silver sphere. Her face hooded, floating three feet off the ground, long fingers manipulating the smooth face of the sphere, questing for something Cain simply couldn't see. The hood rose, two glowing crimson eyes spearing Trindara.
"You believe the culmination of the Order's quest is a mere human?" her voice, ghostly, ethereal, spilled over him, a chilling wind shredding at his mind. "Archangel will fight you to his dying breath, Trindara, and then he will strike at you from beyond the Veil. You have faced twenty millennia of foes, but you have never faced anything like him before."
"No more riddles, Rune," Trindara's voice was soft, a certain sign of impending doom. "Fear him? A mortal, human man? I have vanquished Galen, Velorians, Arions, Kintzi, Dracon, Centauri… we have conquered most of the galaxy!"
The woman she called Rune's laugh was even more chilling than her voice. "The Disciple of Somack. Cho'rist of the Order, the vanquisher of Morrigan. A man the Arions call the Silent Death. Prophecy fulfilled. No mere human. Far from it. No, Trindara. The path to ultimate victory runs through him; underestimating him would bring the designs of centuries to ruin."
Rune sighed, letting her fingers slide from her scrying sphere. "He amasses an army to defy you, Empress. The Protector, Brooks, the scattered ranks of the Order. He doesn't fear you, or your Corruptor, or your legions. He is relentless, incorruptible, and determined to do one thing- see you dead."
"Hmph," Trindara replied. "Age has made you fearful, woman."
The red eyes flared with their own light. "Hubris makes you blind. Heed my warnings, Empress. Or you will suffer the consequences."
Cain swallowed, throat dry, opened his lips slowly. "Majesty, the soothsayer speaks truly. Even Coriana and Kon respected Archangel's skills. I have seen him in battle; he is not human. At least no human I have ever seen."
Trindara flipped her hair back with her fingers. "Nor am I, Cain."
Before he could even blink, she stood before him, hand extended, flicked a lone finger at his chin. A thunderbolt of pain lanced through him, hurling him backwards almost fifty feet. Cain landed on his shoulder, seeing stars, then Trindara's face as she knelt beside him to peer down at his face.
"I am the most powerful being in this galaxy, Cain," the same hand that had so casually flung him aside now caressed his face. "I will crush this pathetic resistance to our destiny alone, if I must. If I have to tear this world apart with my bare hands, I will. Tell me now, my Forsaken, if that is the way it must be, why would I let you live?"
"N-n-n-no, Empress," he gasped, trying to control his trembling. "I will not fail you. Not ever again."
She smiled; it was a thing of stunning beauty in a face of ancient, innocent evil. "Good. Then go forward, find him, and slay him. And anyone, or anything, that gets in your way."
He leapt to his knees, bowed all the way to the floor, grasped her boot and kissed it fervently, then jumped to his feet and bolted from the Chamber. Masric kowtowed as well, taking the opportunity of her preoccupation with the Knight to take his leave. Trindara barely noticed his going, rounding on Rune once the Chamber was emptied.
"You ingrate," she snarled, fists balled on her hips. "You know what I want from Collins. You deliberately engineered that, so I would send Cain to kill him."
"I must do what I must do, Trindara," if the soothsayer was even slightly unnerved by Trindara's rage, it didn't show. "Your plans for the boy are beyond foolish; he would rip himself to atoms just to spite you, no matter what you offered him."
"Eternal life? Limitless power? The arm of the most powerful woman in the galaxy?" she snorted. "I am a god, Shayera. I offer more than his mind could possibly imagine."
"You are not his God, Trindara," Rune replied forcefully. "He is of the stock that gave rise to Aria, Velor, and Daxxan, shaped on the anvil of the Order, honed by the will of Somack. You remember Somack, don't you? The God Slayer? Skietra's killer? Do you delude yourself into thinking he would not forge a blade powerful enough to stop you?"
Trindara laughed. "No mere man can resist me, Seer. Least of all one of these human mongrels. Wait, and watch. You will see. He will come to me, and he will kneel to me, and together, we will rule this Galaxy. Forever."
Brennan hadn't stopped staring at Jian since the group had returned to the Gryphon. Jian finally got tired of glaring at both Sorala and Somack, neither Kalrist willing to meet his stare, turned his eyes on Brennan. "What're you looking at? What the hell is this, you sending them out before they're out of diapers?"
"That chip on your shoulder gets any bigger," Gabriel replied, sitting opposite him, "and we're gonna make you ride outside so's there's enough room."
Alec sat at the back of the ship, Julia beside him, Kara on the other side. They'd spaced themselves out by unspoken agreement. Gabriel fingered his battlesaber while he watched Jian, still armored up, his helmet dangling at his belt. Jian watched Gabriel as well, his own saber rolling over in his palm. Alec kept his eyes from the both of them, studying Kara while he stroked Julia's hand softly with his thumb.
"You've perfected hostility, Jian," he called softly. "Ease off the kid. He's a kid, just like we used to be. It isn't his fault he had crappy teachers."
By unspoken agreement, both Jian and Gabriel relaxed, setting their sabers aside. Jian finished looking Brennan over, sat back. "Well, he isn't a complete loss, I suppose. Looks like he's in decent shape. Is he any good?"
"That's for you to decide," Alec leaned his head on top of Julia's. "He's your new disciple."
Jian looked back, now running a practiced eye over Brennan. The younger man straightened slightly under his gaze, Jian's lips creasing in a faint grin. "I've seen worse. I guess he doesn't look too bad, all things considered. You got a name, boy?"
"Brennan, sir," he replied quickly. "Brennan McNamera."
"Jian Wa Chang," he stuck his hand out. "Good to meet you."
The boy's eyes widened, taking Jian's hand almost reverantly. Jian sighed, settled himself again. "Enjoy tonight, Mr. McNamera. Tomorrow, you enter hell. And I'm your tour guide."
Brennan swallowed hard. Alec and Gabriel both laughed.
"Some things never change," Gabriel said fondly, crossing his ankles. "You scaring the hell outta the newbies is one of them."
"No sense sugar-coating it, now is there?" Jian stretched his arms, folding his hands behind his head. "Besides, I'm waiting until morning."
"Point taken," Gabriel smiled at Brennan. "Don't worry, boy. He's mellowed a lot in the last five years; the last time he had a nugget, he dragged the kid kicking and screaming from the Gryphon and made him run five circuits of the ramparts."
"That is a gross exaggeration," Jian snapped back. "Sven only ran three. And it was only ten PM when he got to the Citadel."
"He flew in from Norway, Jian! It was a five-hour flight!" Gabriel chuckled. "The Russians were running ABM tests and they had to loop down over the Med!"
Alec grinned at the two of them, tightening his grip on Julia's hand. Kara was smiling wanly at the banter, staring off at nothing. "Are you all right?"
She started, met his gaze. "Me? Yeah, sure. I'm fine."
"Uh-huh. Even if I wasn't a telepath, I could see through that," he sat up a bit. "Wanna try again?"
Kara smiled, Alec noticing her eyes drifting to Julia, then back to him. "Don't worry about me. I'm great. Really."
"Buckle up, folks," Isamu called from the cockpit. "Coming in."
Torik was waiting at the foot of the Gryphon's ramp when it descended, head bowed. Alec stayed in the ship, watching Jian walk down, Gabriel right behind him.
The Kalrist glanced up at the wayward Knight, opened his mouth, then slowly closed it. Jian gave him a nasty look, hiked his bag higher on his shoulder, walked on past.
Connor, still perched on the edge of the cockpit to his Raptor, sighed, reached in, dragged out his own bags, dropped to the floor, trotted after Jian. Gabriel waited for Alec to rise, nod, motion him off. "Get the both of them settled, Gabriel. Officer's Row, between us."
He walked away smoothly, catching up as the other two left the hangar. Sorala and Somack finally came down the ramp, both downcast. Alec looked them over.
"What did you expect?" he demanded. "He's right. You sold him out."
All three of the Kalrist flushed, Sorala on the verge of tears. Alec looked away, fixing his eyes on a point on the hangar wall. "Give it a while. We'll talk to him. No matter what's happened, he's still the same man he was when he came here. Maybe a bit more bitter, a little less trusting, but he's still the same."
Alec strode away as well, leaving Julia behind. Somack watched him go, dropped heavily to the edge of the ramp.
"It didn't go well, did it?" Torik sank down next to Somack. The Cleric shook his head.
"Our four finest pupils, at each other's throats because of our mistakes," he bent his head towards the floor. "The fighting was as real as it could have been without bloodshed; only their brotherhood prevented that. We are out of control, Torik. Alec had to scream at me to get me to stop arguing with him, and then I openly defied his orders."
"I see," the Master rumbled. "I do not think we grasp it yet, Somack. The humans are standing without us now. He accepts our aid, and our council, out of a sense of duty; we are still reacting as if it is our due."
Julia crouched next to Somack. "My Lord, that isn't the reason."
"It isn't?" he glanced up at her, Torik as well.
"Alec trusts you. He trusts all of you," she got up. "The question is, do you trust him? Because if you do, right now, you sure aren't acting like it."
She walked away. Kara, Isamu, and Brennan followed, leaving the Kalrist alone.
Connor's eyes swept the halls, switching his bag from one hand to another. "Huh. Sure built it to spec for a fake base. You guys figured out what was going on?"
Gabriel shrugged. "The entire Denver cell attacked Alec, Julia, and Arwyn the morning after the Purge. They had a Prime with them as well…"
"Denver?" Jian snapped. Gabriel nodded. "That cocksucker Grailmore. I never did trust him. Figures he'd ally himself with a Supremis; that's almost as bad as being a Kaldec patsy."
"Y'know, you're going to have to watch that stuff, man," Gabriel paused, catching Jian's arm. "Yeah, we all know about the Arions, but the Protector is an ally of ours now. Alec went to a lot of trouble to get her on-board; we need to respect that, despite how we might feel."
"Only problem I have with the Velorians is their lack of guts," Connor had stopped as well. "Admittedly, most of the Protectors I've heard about don't fit the mold. Okay, sure. What difference does it make? An ally is an ally. At least she's attractive."
Jian's eyes were steady. "Alec brought her in, huh?"
Gabriel nodded. Jian returned the gesture. "Okay. I'll quit with the Supremis digs, I promise. At least when she's around. Anyway, Connor's right; she is pretty."
"Alec figures we're going to need to approach things differently," Gabriel started walking again, pointing at two hatches side-by-side. "You guys'll bunk here. Alec's next door, I'm on the other side, and the Protector and Dr. Brooks are across the hall."
"Across the hall?" Connor leaned into his room, threw his carry-all and weapons case on his desk, leaned his guitar case on his leg, rested his back against the jamb. "He gave her his own room? What's up with that? For that matter, who is this lady?"
Gabriel reached out, laid his fingertips on Connor's forehead, closed his eyes. Connor did the same, letting the flood of memories wash past his mind's eye, whistled noiselessly. "Wow. Supremis lite, huh? He teaches her to fight, she'll be something else. Strength, speed, agility, invulnerability, endurance. Not bad."
Jian took the same gesture, nodding to himself. "Impressive. She's human, though? Some kind of formula?"
"That's the claim," Gabriel hooked his thumbs on his utility belt, rocking slightly on his heels. "Like I was saying, Alec figures we gin up a bunch of these Ultrafemme, it'll change the odds in our favor. Seeing as how I doubt a few shiploads of Velorians are going to show up and join the war."
"That's pretty sharp thinking," Connor pushed off the jamb, lifting his guitar, his door hissing closed. "I bet Morrigan hates her."
"Safe bet," Gabriel started walking. "Alec shipped her off to scout Alpha Point as soon as he could. I gather she and the Protector have had some issues as well."
Jian tapped Gabriel's arm. He swiveled to look, watched Alec shove the doors to the lounge open and vanish inside. All three of them followed.
The huge vidwall was on, an automatic sequence when the room was occupied. Alec had the sound off, sitting on the back of a sofa, staring blankly at the basketball game that was playing. Gabriel walked over, slid over the top of the sofa, sprawled himself out on the cushions. Jian followed, flopping down on an armchair next to Gabriel's elbow.
Connor laid his guitar on the pool table, opened the wall-mounted fridge, dug out a cooling case of Samuel Adams. "Good stuff. Who does the shopping?"
"Michael," Alec replied, not even flinching. "He's the Tech Chan had squirrelled away here."
Connor came around, plopped the case on the table in front of the sofa, handed beers around to everyone. Alec accepted his without looking up, twisting the cap off.
"To the Horsemen," Gabriel lifted his bottle, tipped it to each of the others. "Back together again. The way it always should have been."
They clinked bottles, drank deeply. Alec tipped the neck down from his lips, shook his head sadly. "At least the nickname fits now. Back together just in time to stave off the Apocalypse. Too bad that's what it took."
Connor set his bottle down, leaning his arms on his knees. "Goddamn, you have become one morbid son-of-a-bitch, haven't you? Alec, you need to pull yourself together. You can't lead like this…"
"Then you do it, Connor," there was no emotion in his voice, very even and very flat. "You want the sword? Take it."
"Connor," Gabriel said quietly, waiting for the younger man to glance his way. "Leave it. You weren't here. You haven't seen it. Alec caught it face-first."
Jian put his beer aside, touched Alec's knee. "Tell me. All of it."
He drained his beer in one long swallow, tossed the bottle over his shoulder, took another. "Where do you want me to start? The Thermopylae? Jerry lying in pieces in San Francisco? The fact that our First Triumvere for the last eight hundred years has been in league with the Kaldec? That that same woman hid an entire Kalrist colony from us? And then sicced a Kaldec huntpack on defenseless women and children? Maybe the fact that I ordered the deaths of every Arion in the system? Or maybe the fact that an entire cell has turned against us? Where do you want me to start, Jian?"
He uncapped his second beer, chugged half of it.
Gabriel laid his head over the sofa back. "The Kaldec landed five days ago. The Denver cell went to Alpha Point, giving them the cover to position troops at the locations of all the safehouses. The other two North American landing sites were attacked and destroyed; the Kaldec caught the teams coming back, wiped out everything not physically on the Eastern Coastline.
"Coriana seemingly panicked, ordered a Thermopylae defense. Everybody else came back, everyone except the deep-cover team. And Alec."
Alec nodded slowly, finished his second beer, picked up another. "Yeah. I was out thrashing the bushes for Dr. Brooks. The mighty Archangel, an errand boy. I should have refused."
Gabriel kept his voice even. "Alec, it wouldn't have made a difference…"
"We'll never know, will we?" he downed a third of his fresh beer, sighed, set it aside. "I can't even get drunk."
Gabriel sat up, studied Alec for a moment, hunched forward. "When we got to the Citadel, the other section commanders had decided to challenge the Triumveres. The meeting went… poorly."
"How poorly?" Connor's beer was forgotten.
"We broke the Compact," he glanced at Jian. "There was no other way. Now, we know why Coriana and Kon wouldn't make a decision. Then, well, it seemed the only way. Most of the rest, you guys already know."
"Holy shit," Connor stared at the floor. "Why weren't we recalled?"
"Oh, come on," Jian snorted, finishing his beer. "Pull the covert team right before the War tees off? You, maybe, I can see; everybody else needs to stay where they're at to be able to effect events."
Gabriel nodded agreement. "Coriana has always been afraid of us. Alec in particular, but the rest of us as well. Jian was neutralized, Alec was tromping around in the Montana forest, you were in Quebec, and me… where is good little Gabriel always at? Running to do the Triumveres' bidding."
"Hey," Alec kicked lightly at his side. "Nobody's saying that."
"I am," he drained the bottle in his hand, reached for another. "I never had the guts to buck the system like you guys. Look what it may have cost us."
Connor stared mournfully at his beer. "I should have just come home when I saw you on TV, Mikey. I gotta take some responsibility for this too."
"All bucking the system got me was benched," Jian settled back, resting his beer on his chest. "Maybe…"
"Forget it, Jian," Alec replied, swinging his feet around to slide off the sofa. "All of you, just forget it. I'm the all-mighty Archon. The fuck-ups land at my feet."
He dragged his hand through his scalp, put his hands on his hips. "We've been training for this to happen for fifteen thousand years. And then, once it starts, we fall apart. That doesn't say much about our chances, now does it?"
"We beat the assault on the Citadel back," Gabriel argued, laying an arm on the sofa back. "We salvaged most of the colony, and we've eliminated the Arion factor."
"Balanced against losing the entire US network, having a cell turn traitor, and finding out the Triumveres are Kaldec sympathizers," Alec countered. "Oh, yeah, we broke the Compact too. It's been a busy week."
"Okay, then, Archon," Jian said slowly, "what do we do? We gonna bury our heads in the sand, or we gonna come out fighting?"
Alec glanced his way. "You in, Raph?"
"What's it sound like, dumbass? You think I like to hear you bawl like a little girl? Of course I'm in."
"What about you, Uri?" Alec turned to Connor. The man grinned.
"You kidding me? Miss this?" he finally emptied his beer. "I have been waiting for this my whole life."
"You know where I stand," Gabriel turned away, rolling his bottle in his palms. Alec came back over, slid backwards over the sofaback so his head was resting on the floor.
"Then we fight. And we win." he paused for a few minutes, all of them silent, then Alec swiveled his head to Jian. "How's Claire?"
"In New York," Jian took a healthy swig, set his beer aside. "Angela didn't want me around very much after the inquest. The two of them moved a couple of years ago; things have gotten a little better lately, we're starting to work things out. It helps that I can fly to New York for a weekend, thanks to somebody giving me their Raptor."
Gabriel crossed his legs at the ankle, stretching them under the table. "It was laying around. We didn't need it taking up space."
"What about you, Gabriel?" Jian laced his fingers together, set them behind his head. "Anyone new in your life these days?"
The Knight blushed, lifted his beer to his lips. "Sort of."
"What's that mean?" Jian prodded. "Is it someone we know?"
Gabriel hesitated. "Yeah."
"Well, come on! Spill it!" Connor tilted his bottle to his lips
Gabriel sighed. "It's Morrigan."
Connor sputtered; his beer sprayed artfully across the room. Alec fell over forward from the couch, thudding to his stomach, shock on his face. "Are you serious?!"
The other three traded incredulous glances. "Holy shit!!" they chorused.
"Our Morrigan?" Jian chortled, leaning forward. "Redhead, six-one, bad attitude?"
"No way!" Connor laughed, rocking towards Gabriel. "You dog!"
"Ohmygod, how the hell did you keep it quiet?!" Alec pushed himself up, a huge smile on his face. "Especially at the Citadel?"
Gabriel was beet-red, folding his arms defiantly across his chest. "Look, it's no big deal! She's a lady, just like any other, okay? A little older than me, sure, but that just means she has… more experience."
Jian laughed. "Yeah, except she can rip your head off if you piss her off. Even yours."
A sly grin spread on to Gabriel's face. "She is… athletic. In some… remarkably surprising areas."
The others recoiled. "Eww," Connor blanched. "That's more than I need to know. Come on, she may be your girlfriend, but she's still Morrigan."
Alec had that distant stare on his face again. "Morrigan having sex. Now there's an image that's going to haunt me."
"Oh, right," Gabriel snorted, chucking Alec's shoulder. "You're a fine one to talk. Your girlfriend beat a Prime into submission her first shot out of the gate."
"Speaking of which," Jian rubbed his hands together gleefully. "Details, Mikey. Lots of details."
Alec turned a remarkable shade of red, ducking his head. "What can I say? We sorta… clicked. That's all."
"Mother of God," Connor's eyes widened. "I have now seen everything. Archangel is in love."
Alec looked right at him, smiling gently. "Yeah. I am."
"More importantly," Gabriel interjected, his grin as big as Alec's, "the good doctor feels the same way."
Connor let out a whoop at that, laughing wildly. Jian leaned forward, clapped Alec's shoulders, knuckled his scalp. "Good for you, Little Brother."
He blushed even redder, looking back at the floor. Gabriel laughed, then paused. "Uh-oh. Morrigan's here."
He barely finished saying it before the lounge door burst open, Morrigan's face a thunderhead when she strode menacingly into the room. The instant she spotted Gabriel, her face lightened; she crossed the room in four quick strides, Gabriel rising to meet her.
"We heard about the battle at the Citadel," she said quickly, keeping her voice low. "But none of those idiots would say anything about you. Are you all right?"
He nodded, cupping her cheek in his palm. She relaxed against it, heaved a sigh. "I was… very concer… I was scared to death. I couldn't hear you in my mind."
She put her own hand on top of his, holding it in place. He gave her a cheerful smile. "I was busy. I'm sorry; I should have called to you. But I'm fine."
Her eyes were still worried; he dropped his palm from her cheek, caught her up in a massive hug. She closed her eyes, leaning against him, until her eyes flitted open and spotted the other three men sitting there watching.
"Archon!" she stammered, trying to pull away from Gabriel. "Uhh- uhm…"
The look on her face was priceless. All three men gazed placidly back at her. Alec smiled. "Relax, Morrigan. He told us."
Her walls were almost as high as Julia's; she floundered for a moment, warring between her self and Gabriel, then she nodded briefly, relaxed. Then her eyes narrowed as it hit her who she was looking at.
"Chang? You're back?" she whispered, then spotted Connor. "Oh, no. Not you too. Haven't we enough trouble without you around?"
Connor gave her an impish smile, a little wave; she rounded the table, grabbed the both of them. When they finally pulled apart, Jian wiped gently at her cheek, dabbing away a tear.
"You getting soft on us, Morrigan?" he asked.
She glowered. "Not for one second, Chang."
He grinned at her. "Too bad. Oh, well, we'll give Gabriel some time, you'll come around."
She shoved him away playfully, regarding Connor. "As for you, little mister, no jokes! You understand me?"
The man spread his hands. "You wound me, dear lady. I am innocence itself. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind."
"Right," she drawled, glancing back around to Gabriel. For a moment she merely gazed at him, then hesitantly held out her hand to him. He took hers in his, smiled, pulled her to the couch, dropping beside her.
"Ahh," Connor quipped. "Young love. Isn't it a beautiful thing?"
Jian and Alec laughed. Morrigan quirked an eyebrow his way.
The door opened once more. Julia slowly put her head in, Jian spotting her and waving her over. "Dr. Brooks. Please, join us."
She came in slowly, Alec smiling brightly at her. She smiled back, curling up next to him on a loveseat. "No punches being thrown this time?"
Connor chuckled. "I apologize for that. The last time we saw each other, we left on… poor terms."
Jian nodded soberly. "Part of being family is being able to haul off and deck them when you need to. True families are the ones where they take it, then hit back."
"We're a lot of things, Jules," Alec said quietly, giving Morrigan and Gabriel a fond look. "But first, foremost, and always, we're family. That's what the Brotherhood, what the Compact itself, really means."
"And the four of us," Gabriel finished, squeezing Morrigan's hand, "are walking, breathing proof of that. No matter what happens, where we are, or what we do, we're family."
"We're as different as night and day, each of us," Connor offered Julia and Morrigan each a beer, settled himself back in his chair. "But at the core, we're more alike than we are different. Kinda a microcosom of the ideals of the Compact."
"Ooohh, microcosm," Jian's voice was edged with a laugh. "Somebody swallowed a thesaurus for breakfast."
"Lissen, wisenheimer," Connor flicked his bottle cap at Jian. "Just because I don't teach English at a university doesn't mean I'm an idiot."
"The hair does the majority of that, Uri," Gabriel opined. "You forget what a barber looks like? Oh, wait, you'd probably go to a hair stylist."
Connor gave him a hurtful look, running his hands through his hair. "I'm cultivating a look here, man. I have an image to maintain."
Julia nudged Alec's arm. "You're doing it again. You four were using those names before. Who's Uri? And Raph and Mikey for that matter?"
He smiled down at her. "When we were coming up, we had a… penchant for practical jokes. We managed to get almost everybody, except for Somack, at one point or another. Following one very memorable prank, involving all the Triumveres, Somack started to call us the Four Horsemen."
Jian shook his head. "I still think that was uncalled for. It was only a pie, it wasn't like it was a bomb or anything. Okay, a mild explosive, but not a bomb."
"Anyway, that was before we got access codes. So, since calling ourselves War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death seemed a touch heavy handed, we decided to name ourselves after the four Archangels," he paused for a sip of his beer. "Later on, we got different codenames, but among the four of us, the nicknames stuck.
"Gabriel didn't get a choice about his, so he picked for the rest of us. Jian's Raphael, Connor's Uriel, and I'm Michael. Or rather, Gabe, Raph, Uri, and Mikey. And please, spare me the Turtle jokes, Connor."
"What?" he spread his hands. "All I ever said was Donny's better than Uri; do I look Russian to to you?"
"Do I look like a Leo to you?" Gabriel retorted. Connor grinned.
"Nah, man, you're a Pisces, everybody knows that."
Julia winced. The others booed, hissed, and threw bottle caps at Connor, who hunched himself up against the assault. "Hey, hey! Careful there! You kill me here, who knows what might happen? Great Hero Slain by Brothers, Universe Destroyed as Result."
"At this point, Omen," Morrigan replied archly, "it might be worth the risk."
Alec laughed. Julia tugged his arm around her, leaned against his chest. "You're finally laughing. That's good; I was afraid you'd forgotten how."
"I did, for a while," he replied, pecking the top of her head. "But then you made me remember."
Connor coughed, covering his grin at Alec and Julia. "I'll tell ya, if the weepfest is done, let's have a party. Get to know the new blood on the team. Where's the Protector? Last Supremis I talked to was that Arion Jian and I gutted in Calcutta."
Julia recoiled reflexively at his casual statement; it was a shock, still, to sit here with perfectly normal-seeming, intelligent, compassionate men and hear them talking about killing and mayhem as if it were a fact of life. Both Jian and Alec glanced at her briefly, then Alec rose.
"I dunno. I'll go find her. Gabriel, how about you round everybody else up? If we're gonna have a party, might as well include everyone. And Morrigan, why don't you give Connor a haircut?"
She laughed and pounced, bowling him over in his chair, pinning him to the floor while she reached to her belt, pulled out an old-fashioned dagger.
"Not the hair!!" Connor shrieked, trying to fend her off. "Anything but the hair!!"
Julia followed after Alec; he waited for her in the hallway, letting the door close on Connor's screaming, smiled at her.
She smiled back. "So, who's Jack?"
"Jack's my biological brother," he held his hand out to her, heading down the hall. "He's married, has a son and a daughter on the way, lives in San Francisco. He's also one of a handful of people outside of the Order who knows about us."
She considered that for a moment. "Oh, the people in the picture on your desk. They look lovely."
"Jack's great; he's kinda the Fifth Horseman by default. Attitude."
She laughed. He watched her for a moment, pulled her to a stop. "Look, I don't wanna be a buzzkill here, but what's the deal with you and the Protector?"
Julia sighed. "Nothing. Just a… personality clash, that's all."
"Okay," he thought it over for a second. "I don't think of her the way I think about you, Julia. I never could."
"It isn't about you, Alec…" she stopped when she saw his raised eyebrow, lowered her voice. "Okay, maybe a little is about you. But it's mostly about her."
"Hmh," he glanced at the floor, shuffling his feet a little. "You two make a good team; if you both hadn't come in the valley, we would have been wiped out. But I wanna minimize the friction if I can; do you want me to send her away?"
Julia shook her head. "Don't be ridiculous. You told me yourself she could be a great asset. The Order needs her."
"And I need you," he replied, still looking down. "Right now, that's more important to me than Kara is. I figure it's going to stay that way, too."
"I could say the same thing," she whispered, stroking his arm.
"Then tell me what I need to do to keep you here, with me. If it means Kara goes, then I'll do it."
Julia gazed in his eyes for a long minute, shook her head. "Don't do anything. I'll get over it. I promise."
A firm nod, one so firm it even surprised her. "Yeah."
Kara had found her way to the library. The systems in the facility were extremely user-friendly, the housekeeping program directing her to her destination without any hesitation.
She scanned the walls. As many leather-bound volumes lined the shelves as paperbacks, a staggering diversity of topics, covering an area as large as the hangar. One entire wall was covered in microdisc cases, the majority of them in a language she didn't recognize.
"It's Kalrist," Alec called, sliding into the room. He walked over, followed her glance, picked out a jewel case. "Meditations on Conflict, by Jamar, son of Lews. It's kinda dry, but you might enjoy it. I can have the computer translate it for you if you'd like."
Kara tried a grin. "No, thank you. This is some library."
"We try," he swept his arm around. "It isn't as big as the Repository at the Citadel, of course, but it's well-stocked. Most of the major works of humanity's various cultures are here, along with a few other things. Kalrist, members of the Order, some Galen works, even a few Velorians and Gehemites."
"Impressive," Kara said, thinking how much an understatement that was. Alec didn't seem put off, wandered down the stacks a bit.
"If you don't care for Jamar," he said, tapping a row of gold-colored jewel cases, "you might find these interesting. Come have a look."
She did, pulling in a deep breath when she read the first title. In Velorian.
"You have Chronicles?" she demanded. "How many?"
Alec shrugged. "All of them."
"All…?" she echoed. "How did you get ahold of them?"
Another shrug. "The Kalrist are everywhere. Even on Daxxan. We couldn't take the chance that something would happen to the Gehemites; Somack took steps after Skietra's death to keep us informed."
Kara ran her fingers over the cases. "But you all seem to hate the Supremis. I can understand that, but why do this?"
Alec hopped up on to a nearby table, thought about his answer for a minute. "We're warriors by necessity, Kara. But we're scholars and clerics and writers and all sorts of other things by desire. I don't define myself in one-sided terms; I don't think you do either."
He gestured to the wall. "Each of those Chronicles is a testament to courage. We don't hate the Supremis, we hate the Arions; we hate them for what they do, not what they are. The Gehemites, for example; I don't think I care what they do, unless they get in the way.
"But every one of those Chronicles is about a woman who did everything in her power to protect a world. Some made mistakes, some were overwhelmed, and some… some just had bad luck."
He studied the carpet in front of his dangling feet, choosing his words with care. "We've been here a long time, Kara. Preparing for and fighting an enemy that's more like us than we want to admit. We've made mistakes, but we try to learn from them, if for no other reason than the ones we've made have been so very, very costly. Part of that is trying to learn from other people's mistakes as well as our own."
Kara stopped surveying the wall, turned to him, arms crossed over her chest. "We have no sense of history. As a people. Everything is about the here and now, even for the Scribes. Once a Protectorate falls, that's… that's it, unless we can retake it."
"As a species, as a culture, Velor is also very young," Alec replied. "One very young, and one very much driven by the tragedies that followed from the birth of the Supremis. The Kal culture has been around for forty-five thousand years, Kara. The Schism was the defining moment in the history of Kaldor, but it was also eighteen thousand years ago. Since then, well, things have changed. The Kalrist here on Earth, and the ones coming from the rest of the Local Group, are all different from the ones who lived on Kaldor. In some cases, like Somack, Torik, and Sorala, very different. The Order has it's own culture, it's own moral code, it's own values, unto itself- in a sense, we have developed our own civilization beyond that of the rest of humanity. Beyond, but never separate from."
He smiled. "Like Connor told me a while ago, it's about family. Even when it's a case of comparing Kalrist, human, or Velorian, inside we're more alike than we are different."
Kara had an odd expression on her face. "Do you believe that?"
"Of course," he sighed. "What, does this have something to do with you being a clone? So what? Arwyn used to be a computer. What difference does that make? She's family, she's my daughter. The hows and whys don't matter, the reality is all that does."
"I wouldn't know," Kara's voice softened. "I don't have any parents. Or family for that matter."
Alec snorted. "Sure you do. The Matthews."
"Jesus," she snarled. "You people are thorough, aren't you? Although, in this case, maybe not thorough enough."
"I told you once before, Protector," he retorted evenly. "I know everything about you. I know what happened that night in their house. I know why you ran away. And I also know who kept Dan and Denise Matthews from dying that night."
He sighed, dropped from the table, walked aways down, came back with a pair of books. "Tell you what. You think about what I said, about family, about everything. Take a look through this, and this one too, and then we'll talk again."
She turned them over in her hands. One was simply titled The Order; the other was An Annotated History of Kaldor: Her Children and Her Legacies. Both were thick, heavy leather books.
"These were written by humans, members of our Society of Clerics. Bear in mind, they tried to be objective, but it didn't quite work out that way. Still, it'll give you an idea," he jammed his hands in his pockets, turned away. "We're having an impromptu party. You should come. If not, the computer'll direct you to your room."
Kara glanced up, watched him go. "Wait. You said you know how Dan and Denise survived. Who was it? I want to thank them…"
"You're welcome," he called over his shoulder, turning into the corridor. The library door closed behind him.
He sat by himself in his quarters, staring at his cell phone. After a long time, he picked it up, tapped a speed-dial key, put it against his ear.
He picked up on the second ring. "It's about time you called."
"Hi, Jack," he smiled. "It's good to hear your voice."
"Ditto, kid. Mom's freaking out, we had feds for two days looking for you. Once they were gone, the trigger kicked off, and Andy and I remembered. But you need to call her, tell her everything's okay."
"I'll call as soon as I'm done with you," he paused.
Jack's voice hesitated. "Alec, are you okay?"
"No, Jack," his own voice came out as a soft whimper. "I'm not."
Alec sat cross-legged on his bed. The Shal'kyrie was balanced on his palms, sitting in it's scabbard.
He rolled it in the dimmed light, watching the way it sparkled in the shadows. Of itself, it was a fine blade; it was what came with it that made him flinch.
His door chimed. Alec sent the sword floating back to its brackets, laid back. "Come."
Julia entered. She'd changed into the cocktail dress she'd worn their first night in Seattle, gave him a worried look while she walked to the edge of his bed. "The party's starting. Everyone wants to know where you are."
He shook his head. She slid closer. "Okay. No party. Can I stay with you?"
He nodded. She kicked her shoes off, curled herself up with him, propping her elbow on the bed so she could brace her head, watch him.
He was struggling with something, finally opened his mouth. "Do you talk to your folks much?"
She shook her head. "No. Not since the experiment."
"Were you close before?"
"Yes," she smiled fondly at the memories. "My daddy always told me how beautiful I was. No matter how bad things would get, he never stopped believing I was more than what I thought I was. And my mom, she's a rock. I've never seen anything rattle her; she just takes everything in stride, slides right off her back."
"Your dad sounds like a smart guy. What does he do?"
"He's a doctor, a GP in Grover's Mill, Minnesota," she frowned. "Why are you asking me about my folks?"
"I'm curious. What about your sister?"
Julia looked away. "We… don't talk anymore."
"Oh." his brow furrowed for just a second, then his eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, my."
"Yeah. That's why I was out in the Rockies," she slipped away, rolling off his bed. "I figured I couldn't hurt anyone out there."
Alec propped himself up on his elbows. "Everybody makes mistakes, Julia."
"Mine got people killed, Alec," she replied. "And the worst part about it was, I didn't really care. Until it was Deanna and Nicole."
She padded to the viewall, set to display the view of the lake from the back porch of the dojo. "That's why I don't like Kara. She has all that power, but she doesn't seem to care when, why, or how she uses it. She has some abstract limits, but beyond them, she does as she pleases.
"You guys, on the other hand, have massive powers, but you're selective in how you use them. You'd never think of competing on a high school football team with your abilities, not because you couldn't but because it wouldn't be fair. I've seen you take extreme measures to protect even one life, Alec. For you, every innocent death is a tragedy; that's how I want to be."
He sat up. "Family loves you because of who you are, not because of what you do. How long has it been since you last talked to your dad?"
She lifted her shoulder. "I… two years or so. Since I went into the mountains."
"Too long," he reached for his phone, flipped it open. "Call them."
"What?" her eyes bugged. "Just like that?"
Alec nodded. "Yeah. Just like that."
She took the phone, let it sit in her palm for a seeming eternity, sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, dialed the number. It rang a couple of times, then someone picked up. "D…Daddy? It's me, Daddy. Julia."
Alec tiptoed away, closing his bedroom door, snatching up his spare cell, punching numbers from memory. "Yes, hello? Is this Dan Matthews? No, sir, I'm afraid we haven't met, exactly. But… well, I'm a friend of your daughter's. No, sir, the other one."
He found Kara hanging at the edge of the party, keeping her distance from everyone. He nudged her, took hold of her wrist gently, tugged it to him. She didn't resist, letting him set a cell phone in her hand.
"What's this?" she called over the music.
"It's your dad," Alec replied, pushing the phone to her ear. "He and your mom want to talk to you."
She jerked back, staring at Alec as if he'd struck her, tried to drop the phone. His hand stayed where it was, Kara feeling an odd weakness in her limbs. "You've been whipping yourself long enough, Kara. You need to do this."
Tears filled her eyes. Alec didn't flinch, pushing the cell back to her ear and holding it there. "Family loves you for who you are, Kara," he said, just loudly enough for her to hear him. "That love doesn't come with a return policy. It's unconditional, it's given freely, and among us humans, it's the only universal constant. You aren't just a Supremis. Not anymore- the Matthews made you more than that. They made you truly human."
Her voice trembled as she pulled the phone close. "D… Dan… Daddy?"
The reply made her burst into tears. Somack appeared from a corner, softly put his hands on her shoulders, steered her from the room.
Sorala popped up next to Alec, watching the two of them go. She put her hand on his arm. "That was a kind, generous thing you did. You affirm our faith in you, that what we have taught you had value."
"Of course it did," he glanced over at her. "What brought that on? You waffling on me too?"
She shook her head, bit her lower lip. "Dr. Brooks said something that struck a chord… Alec, you trust me, don't you?"
"Sorala, what's the matter?" he took her hand in his. "Of course I trust you. With my life. Why would you ask me such a thing?"
"I wanted to tell you, we trust you as well," she said softly, standing up on tiptoes to peck his cheek. "With our lives. With our futures, with our children. We know, even if we haven't told you, you will protect us."
"We're the Brotherhood," he replied slowly. "Of course we'll protect you. That's what we do."
"Not the Brotherhood, Alec. You. You will protect us. The rest of the Order, they will merely follow where you lead. And Julia and the Protector and whomever else flocks to your banner," she pulled her hand gently from his, gave him a shallow curtsy. "You are truly our finest pupil, so much so that now you teach us of honor. I promise you, we will be worthy of your teaching."
Gabriel watched her go, his own face a mirror of Alec's puzzled expression. "What in God's name was that about?"
Alec grunted, turning away. "I flunked xenopsychology, remember? How should I know?"
"Alec!" Connor burst into the room, without his guitar case. Gabriel arched his eyebrows at him.
"We're playing canned music, man, while a rock star runs around playing pranks!" he joked, slapping Connor's shoulder. "What's up with that?"
"Listen to me!" he paused, swallowed, started again. "Do you know who's in Sickbay?"
"Yeah, some emergent. Heather's watching over him…"
"No, man! Do you know who that is?!"
Alec sighed. "What do you think? Just spit it…"
"That's Marcus Sheridan, Alec!" Connor almost grabbed his head in his hands. "Carter Sheridan's son!"
Alec's jaw drooped. "Doctor Carter Sheridan? The CIA's Doctor Carter Sheridan?"
"Yes!" Connor seized his arm, dragging him out into the hall. "I met the kid last year at a Rand Corporation fund raiser for cystic fibrosis! Come on!"
Alec pinned Gabriel with his gaze. "Get Jian. And Somack…, no, Torik, bring them to Sickbay."
"… I've run every test I could think of on him, Archon," Heather O'Dougherty's slight Irish lilt made the words sing in his ears. "Other than these bizarre psyphys readings, he appears to be fine."
Gabriel muttered under his breath while he read through the charts. "Look at this. This kid's a class fourteen Telekinetic, a class five Telepath, and a flatline on everything else. I've never seen a workup like this before."
Jian whistled. "Class fourteen? Geez, Alec, he's almost as strong as you are. And I've never met anyone else close to that strong, even us."
"Lemme see that," Connor reached for the chart, flipped through it. "This is blatantly impossible. Nobody develops as a class-fourteen anything with readings like this everywhere else. This is a low-variable class-five; any Adept outta Basic looks at him the wrong way, he's gonna fall over."
Jian shrugged; for all his bravado and wild talk, Connor was an intelligent, talented scientist, easily the match of most Technicians and even a few Activators for his knowledge of the sciences, particularly psychophysiology and empathomechanics. If he was saying it was impossible, it probably was.
Torik peered over Connor's shoulder, tapped at his ear. "Sorala will need to look at these scans, but I would concur with Connor. These tests appear to bear out a seemingly unlikely situation."
"I'm more concerned with who he is, rather than what he can do," Alec studied the sleeping boy through the glass. "What about the girl Frederick brought in with him?"
Heather spread her hands. "She is an Ultrafemme specimen, Archon. Her physio scans and her blood workups are a variant form of Dr. Brooks', but she is well within the range of what we conjectured the formula would do to a woman of her age."
"Marcus is sixteen," Alec said slowly. "How old is the girl?"
"Damn older women," Connor muttered. Jian punched his arm before Gabriel could. "Hey!"
"Shut it!" Jian snapped. "If she's twenty-four, what the hell was she doing in a high school?"
"Somack tried a mindscan when they first came in," Heather replied. "He said something about the NSA and her being his bodyguard."
"Computer, replay isolation room three records, time index one-one-one-four-dash-one-one-four-five," Alec called into the air. "Route to compstation eighty-nine."
They clustered around the screen, watched the replay, Alec pushing away from the crowd before it was over. "Heather, let's wake him up. Jian, Gabriel, go get the girl."
Heather prepared a hypo, waited for Alec. He studied Marcus's face, probing gently at his mind.
"You did good work on his scars," he murmured. "He was pretty beat up when he came in."
"Frederick mentioned another Supremis contact," she replied, giving him a dimpled smile at his compliment. "It may have been another Ultrafemme."
"I considered that. I'm going to send Mason, Kevin, and a few more bodies to Chicago to piece this together," he glanced up at the holodisplay above the bed. "Let's wake him."
She nodded, set the hypo against his neck, injected him. After a couple of seconds, the boy stirred, his eyes fluttering open. A soft moan drifted past his lips, Marcus lolling around a bit on the bed. He finally blinked a couple of times, glanced up at Alec.
"Hello, Mr. Sheridan," Alec kept his voice gentle. "You had a bit of a rough time there, but I think we pulled you through it."
He moaned again, rolling his head around on the pillow. "I thought my head was going to explode. Then all of a sudden, it stopped, but I passed out."
Alec nodded. "That's generally what happens. Fortunately for you, there were trained professionals on hand to keep you going until my medics could get a crack at you."
That got his attention. "You guys managed to pin down why I was having migraines? What was it?"
"It's called preemergent neurotransmitter acceleration syndrome," Heather drew a stool away from the wall, settled on to it, picked up a medicomp, ran it along Marcus's body. "We call it emergence. You're a lucky young man, five more minutes and you would have had a total hypothalmic seizure, probably singed your entire median hemisphere."
Marcus blinked. "What?"
"Your emergent psychic potential almost melted your brain," Heather repeated calmly. "Archon, he's fine. The tridopazine is now being manufactured naturally. He'll be ready for training in a day or two."
The boy's mouth sagged. "Ohmigod, I'm hallucinating. I'm hallucinating and I'm in a Tom Sheridan novel."
Alec smiled. "No, tridopazine is a naturally occurring substance. It's generated by the adrenal glands of an individual with actualized psychic potential. It isn't harmful, just annoying, especially when you aren't producing enough."
"Psychic…?" Marcus snorted. "Yeah. Sure."
"Of course," Alec glanced across the room. A pitcher of ice water and a cup lifted themselves off a cart, flew over the bed to land in his hands. "Want some water?"
He poured, handed Marcus the cup.
Connor came in before Marcus was done blathering. Alec excused himself, let his brother handle it.
Jian sat on one side of the room, Gabriel the other. Jamie Ross sat in the middle, dressed in a pair of sweats and a t-shirt Gabriel had given her, hands folded in her lap, staring straight ahead.
Alec pulled his chair around, straddled it. "NSA, huh?"
She started at the mention of the holy letters, cringed at the slip in her demeanor. Alec grinned at her. "Miss Ross, your dedication to duty is commendable, but ultimately wasted in this instance. I would prefer to chat with you, rather than resort to other methods for the information I need."
She set her chin, an almost laughable gesture with her pouty lips and smooth cheekbones. "Do your worst. You can't hurt me. I won't talk."
Jian snorted. "You really don't need to. Jamie Hamacker, National Security Agency Special Operative, assigned to the protection detail for Dr. Carter Sheridan, Special Adjutant for Extraterrestrial Affairs to the National Security Adviser."
"Your date of enhancement was February Sixth, Nineteen Ninety Eight," Gabriel continued, studying Marcus's chart while he talked. "You and your two older sisters, Jeannette and Josie, accepted the procedure in the interests of national security in the face of what the United States government has termed the Omegan threat, undergoing an experimental enhancement to allow you to effectively protect Dr. Sheridan, his teenage son Marcus, and his five year old son David, from the Supremis."
He paused, holding the chart out to Alec. "Look at these neuron firing timings. How could they be that fast without an increase in activity in the Krennick region?"
"I dunno, let me see it," he took the chart, began to read. "Agent Hamacker, you were assigned to Marcus. You adopted the name of Jamie Ross, the agency supplied you with a pair of cover parents, and you enrolled yourself at Jesuit High School in Chicago, despite the fact that you graduated from Dartmouth in the spring of 'ninety-nine. You met Marcus under completely normal circumstances, essentially seduced him, and became his girlfriend. That pretty much cover it, or would you like more details?"
She had slowly paled while they chatted, wilting in the chair she sat in. Alec handed the chart back to Gabriel with a shrug, settled his arms across the back of his chair. "Now, let's have a talk, shall we? I want to know three things- what you know about the formula, what you know about what the government thinks is going on, and the most effective way to contact Dr. Sheridan covertly."
Her shoulders stiffened at that. Jian smiled. "She doesn't know squat about the formula. The NSA gave it to her without any background beyond what Somack picked from her before."
"She's blanking on the government, Alec," Gabriel murmured. "I don't think she knows anything. As far as Sheridan goes, here's a number."
Josie sat beside Carter, Davey cradled in her arms. The man hadn't stopped weeping for an hour, ever since the FBI had shown up with what they had on what had happened to Marcus.
The same unknowns that had been staging attacks all over the US had nabbed his son. And, apparently, Jamie, following some bizarre altercation at the high school.
None of which mattered to Carter. All that mattered at that second was his son had been taken.
His private cell trilled, the one the National Security Adviser used to call him. Reflexively, he rose, taking a few steps away from Davey and Josie, flipped it open. "Sheridan."
"Doctor Sheridan," an unfamiliar voice intoned quietly. "I am sorry about how we had to take your son. Believe me, it was necessary for his survival."
Carter choked on his tongue. "You bastard!" he screamed into the phone. "Give me back my son!"
"I will, sir. As soon as it's safe for me to do so. I know you can't understand this, but what is happening is for your son's safety," the voice paused briefly. "I give you my word, he is being cared for, as well as he could be. Do you wish to speak with him?"
The voice didn't wait for an answer; an instant later, a familiar voice came on the line. "Dad?"
Carter almost collapsed to the floor. "Marcus!" he shouted, bonelessly dropping to the couch. "Son, are you…?"
"Dad, this is gonna sound weird, but they're taking care of me. I was sick; if they hadn't come when they did, I would have died," another brief pause. "Dad, Jamie's here too. And we're both okay."
Carter nodded slowly, thoughts finally collecting. "Put Archangel back on the line, son."
The first voice came back immediately. "I'm impressed, Doctor. I would assume you have access to the Denver site? And it appears you've managed to decipher the coding barriers. That's quite impressive."
"Cut the bullshit, Collins," Carter snarled. "I know who you are."
"Doctor," the voice said calmly, "you don't know shit. And you're going to keep knowing shit if you don't calm down and listen to me."
Carter drew in a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm. Marcus rode on what he did right now. "Please excuse me. I lost my temper there for a moment."
"Your son is coming home to you, Doctor. As soon as I finish having him checked out, I will bring him to your doorstep if you want. But you and I have other matters to discuss. Chief among them are the Supremis, and the other matters that are going on. And what you need to do to keep the situation from exploding out of control."
"All right. Whatever you say," he grimaced. "Just… just not my boy, please."
"Listen to me, Sheridan," the voice snapped angrily. "I took your boy to save his life. I didn't even know he was your son until about fifteen minutes ago. I. Will. Bring. Him. To. You. Are you hearing me?"
Carter still couldn't believe it. "Yes," he stammered.
"Close enough," there was a pause. "Shoreline Park. One hour. No cops, no feds, just the nanny and Professor Thurmon. Leave David with your mother. Understand?"
"Good. I will see you in fifty-nine minutes."
The line went dead. Carter wasted ten seconds staring at the phone, leapt up. "Josie, we need to take David to Mom's, and then get to Shoreline Park."
Alec clicked the phone off. "Heather, I'm gonna need a tridopazine synther and another hypo. And some clothes for Marcus. Horsemen, it's time to saddle up; Gabriel, go fetch Isamu."
"Combat!" Connor shouted, wheeling off his stool. "It's time to kick the tires and light the fires! Hoo-RAH!!"
Jian grinned while Connor ran off, passing a bemused Gabriel, whooping at the top of his lungs. "He's an idiot, but he's a fun idiot. What do we draw?"
Alec sobered. "Blacks, shield-arm, saber, neutralizer."
"Neutralizer?" Jian echoed. "Holy shit, man, we aren't gonna level Chicago, are we?"
Alec shrugged. "Standard sidearms since the War started, Jian. Gotta carry a big sword if you're going to fight giants."
"Just remember, bro," Jian said walking away, "David slew Goliath with a sling and a rock. I'll see you in the hangar."
Alec turned back to Heather. "Bring the two of them to the hangar. I'll send a detail down to escort you; I gotta suit up."
Torik followed him down the hall. "You will approach Sheridan? What are you planning to tell him?"
"The truth," Alec led the Kalrist through the doors to the Armory; Jian was already suiting up, Connor finishing buckling his utility belt on. Alec reached for a sphere of blacks, rubbed them on. "He might be able to cut us some slack with the feds. I'd like to keep the opposition scorecard to under a billion if we can manage it. Maybe we can even negotiate something with the Denver facility."
He paused in his changing to tap a commpanel. "This is the Archon. I need five Knights to Sickbay to escort our guests to the hangar."
A handful of shouts came back, the pounding of feet echoing in the hallway. He grinned at Torik. "Nothing like hanging with a bunch of guys; there's always men willing to lend a hand."
The Master grinned back, handing him a shield-arm, stepping closer to drape a utility belt on. "I would prefer you arrayed in your armor, Archon. It befits the Lord of the Order to be properly accoutered."
"Blacks served for twelve years, Torik," he belted a holster on, checked the charge on the neutralizer. "Archon I may be now, but a Knight I will always be."
"As you wish," Torik inclined his head slowly. "By your leave, Archon."
He vanished out the door. Jian finished dressing, extended a warlance for a couple of quick spins, set it back on his belt. "You've certainly gotten them well-heeled, Mikey. It's a little nerve-wracking though, seeing Torik walking small 'round anybody."
"Don't remind me," Alec led the two of them from the Armory, heading for the hangar. "You should have seen the Kalrist at the Colony. Now I know how Moses felt when he came down Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Kowtowing, crying, wailing, the whole bit."
Connor gave him a urchin grin, a poke in the ribs. "Wassamatter, don't you wanna be the fulfiller of prophecy?"
"I used to trip getting out of bed, remember?" Alec shoved back playfully. "If I'm the fulfillment of the Halconan Prophecy, we all better start praying for Divine Intervention."
Michael Anterion, the new Tech, spun around the corner, sliding to a halt in front of the three of them. His eyes bugged, the man trying to drop to his knees. Alec caught one arm, Jian the other, holding him up. "Michael!" Alec snapped. "Stop with the kneeling!"
"Y-y-yes-s-s my Lord Archon," he stammered, collecting himself. "I'm sorry, I just wanted to…"
"Never mind, Michael," Alec sighed. "Connor McDonough, Jian Chang, this is Michael Anterion, Technician First Grade."
Each offered their hand in turn. Michael looked like he was going to faint. He shook himself, twitched, drew a deep breath. "I finished a new vehicle for you to try out, Lord Archon. I wanted to show it to you before you left for Chicago."
He rushed away, the three Horsemen following. The hangar doors slid open on a sleek new shape, crouched on the launch cradle. Connor whistled, Jian loping forward to get a closer look.
It was about half the size of a Gryphon, with the sleek lines and general form of the bird-like Raptors. A single seat cockpit under a canopy, like that of a traditional human fighter, plugged on a streamlined fuselage, sporting twin tailerons and slightly down swept wings. Four aerodynamic pods rested fore and aft of the wings, nestled comfortably on the curving block of the main frame, itself boasting a typical drop-bay design.
"It's a Condor," Michael's pride was manifest. "It's a fighter-bomber, fast, agile, and tough, but she can also carry a full squad, and comes outfitted with four Crusader battlebots for ground-fire-support. The bots are in armored drop-pods so's they can fly right over a target installation and be deployed on a strafing pass.
"I armed her with four blazer turrets; three photobolt pods, one on each wing and one on the belly; two RFPBCs on the nose assembly; and two of these little babies."
One of the spherical armored shells on the wings popped open, a tube-shaped barrel extending from a rectangular housing. "Fighter-mounted neutralizer. One hundred eighty degree arc of fire on each side, full ninety degree vertical arc as well. And, of course, there are attachments for more serious weaponry, should the need arise."
Isamu clambered into view, kneeling next to the cockpit. He spotted Alec, his grin so wide his face threatened to split. "Are you seeing this?!" he shouted, pressing his face against the canopy. "This is the greatest thing I've ever seen!! Please, please, pleasepleaseplease, do I get to fly it??"
It took Alec a minute to find his voice; he finally clapped Michael on the shoulder, his expression one of awe. "Michael, it's… it's beautiful."
"Thank you, sir," he replied, toeing at the grating. "She's yours. I built it for you."
Isamu leapt halfway to the ceiling, coming down in the middle of the fuselage, swung open a hatch and clambered down, laughing like a child. Jian waited for him to cycle the drop-hatch open, scrambled aboard, Connor right behind him. Before they could get very far, Gabriel sprinted into the hangar, running right up the ramp. "Let me see too!"
Alec clapped the wiry Tech's shoulder again. "You're a hit, Michael. Do me a favor, forward the specs to Casimir Putin at the Citadel, tell him I said to start a production run."
Michael's eyes shone. "Yessir."
"Get on it, Technician Anterion," Alec started to the Condor, stopping as a detail came into the hangar. Marcus was in a hoverchair, Heather herding him along, Jamie ten feet behind him, shackled in an inhibitor harness. The head of the detail, Kevin O'Reilly, came to attention and saluted.
Alec returned the salute. "Thanks, guys. Head on back to the party."
Kevin hesitated. "Archon, Lord Torik suggested you might require back-up."
"I have back-up, Kevin," he gestured to the three men trotting down from the Condor. Eyes went wide at Jian and Connor, especially with Gabriel right in the middle of them.
Connor grinned widely at the other Knights. "That's right, fellas. You let the rest of the Order know the Horsemen are back. We'll be sending a notice to the Kaldec first chance we get."
Alec smiled. "All right, let's get moving. Miss Ha… Ross, Mr. Sheridan, in you go."
Heather handed Connor a hard-bodied case. He nodded, followed the two youngsters up the ramp into the belly. Jian and Gabriel ambled up as well, a sharp voice calling from the hangar doors before Alec could board.
Brennan raced in, bearing the Shal'kyrie. He dropped to his knees before Alec, holding the weapon aloft. "Master Torik told me to bring you this, Archon."
Alec winced, slowly took the blade. "Thank you, Brennan. You head on back to the party."
The Knight backed away. Alec slid the harness over his shoulders, started up into the Condor. Jian was waiting at the door; he gave Alec a poke, cycling the hatch shut.
"You wear that pretty well," he said, picking a chair, buckling up. The engines were spooling up, changing from a rumble to a whine. Within seconds they were screaming out of the launch tunnel, Isamu barrel-rolling the craft as they cleared the city.
"I hate this thing," Alec rumbled, hanging it from a weapons rack. "I care about killing Kaldec; I couldn't care less about being the Archon."
"I dunno," Jian studied his friend in the cranberry tactical lighting. "I think that you make a good Archon. You sure worry enough over it; you must be trying your best. Can't really ask for more than that."
Jamie was sitting by herself on the other side of Gabriel, Connor next to Marcus, the boy strapped in to a jumpseat. Connor held the case out to him.
"This is a tridopazine synther," he began, pitching his voice low. "You aren't going to receive training, so you need to listen very carefully to what I'm going to tell you. To prevent any more episodes, you are going to need to medicate yourself daily.
"This synther produces two doses of tridopazine per day; it'll last you for the next fifty years or so. There are two hypos in the case, one red, one blue. You take the red one when you get up, and the blue one when you go to bed. Don't worry about the timing, just make sure you take two doses every twenty-four hours, spaced fairly far apart."
He pointed at his own neck. "Set the hypo here, and press the trigger. In a few months, your body will be producing a normal amount of tridopazine, but you need to keep dosing yourself. Understand?"
The boy nodded. "What happens if I stop taking this medication?"
Connor shook his head. "You really don't want to know, kid. The extra dosage is going to inhibit your psychophysiological development, but you are going to experience some changes in the next few weeks. Primarily, your general health will improve dramatically; you won't be needing glasses in a week or so.
"You'll also see an increase in cognitive function- mathematical ability, language faculty, artistic expression. You aren't going to become an Einstein, but you'll come close. Other than that, nothing will happen. You simply will be unable to tap your telekinetic talents."
Connor leaned past Marcus to Jamie. "You need to make sure he takes this med, young lady. It is vitally important to his survival, do you understand me?"
She nodded sullenly. Gabriel hitched his leg up on his seat. "If I let you out, will you behave yourself?"
Another nod. The harness unlocked, dropped to the deck. Jamie chafed her wrists a bit, still unconsciously trying to play her part…
I didn't tell Marcus, Alec's voice echoed in her head, making her jump. But you might want to think about saying something.
She swallowed. Everything was going way too fast for her to make sense of what was happening. Marcus studied Connor carefully in the dimmed lighting.
"Why am I not going to be receiving training?" he asked. "Training for what? Don't I get a say?"
"The former and the latter," Alec replied, leaning forward on his knees, "because I said so and no, you don't. The median, the training would be to become a Knight of the Order."
The boy's eyes widened at that. "One of you?"
Connor snickered. "Kid's quick."
"Shut it!" the other three Knights snapped simultaneously. Connor subsided, a feigned look of hurt on his face. Alec shook his head, looked back to Marcus.
"We know who your father is, Marcus," he said carefully. "We refuse to put you in more danger than you already are."
Confusion flashed across his face. "My father? My father's an analyst for the Rand Corporation. They're a think-tank, nothing more."
"Your father is the Special Adjutant for Extraterrestrial Affairs to the office of the National Security Adviser, Marcus," Alec said calmly. "His immediate superior is Dr. Tom Ryan, whose boss is President Roger Durling."
Marcus's mouth sagged far enough for a normal human being to walk through.
Carter sat quietly behind the wheel of his Taurus. He'd called Jeannette on his way to his mother's, the woman never hesitating to come running, meeting them before he and Josie could pull out of the driveway. She was next to him, Josie sitting tensely behind them in the rear seat.
Carter found himself oddly composed. Once the initial shock had worn off, he'd thought back over what he knew about Alec Collins and his strange little band of maniacs. He had repeatedly made comments concerning Marcus's well-being, had let Carter talk to him, had even affirmed twice that his son would be returned to him safely, and that the taking had been in Marcus's best interests.
The unknown men who had been rampaging around the country the last week were equally enigmatic when given proper consideration. They had repeatedly avoided open confrontation, had fought only when first attacked by the strange monsters that had appeared in battle with them. During their assault on the Arions, they had been specifically targeting the aliens in question, actively looking to minimize human casualties. Yes, there had been some civilian deaths, but on balance, the individuals in question had been alien conspirators. They had gambled with their lives, and come up short.
The armored warriors attacked and withdrew with military precision, but fought with restraint and control. Carter tried to imagine a US military assault on the same fortifications, winced at the collateral damage that flashed through his mind. Even using the weapons these men did, it would have savaged the sixteen largest cities in the US. In more than one instance, the only casualties were the Arions, and the people on the floors above and below the EarthFirst offices hadn't even known that anything had happened.
New players, he told himself, watching the skies after checking his watch. The Velorians have the Protectors; might these be some new race with the same idea?
A single twinkling light appeared above Lake Michigan, moving towards them at a sharp clip. Jeannette spotted it the same time Carter did, drew in a deep breath.
"Carter, if this goes wrong, you take Marcus and you run like hell, you understand?" she said quietly, sliding her trench coat off. "Josie, Jamie, and I will cover you as long as we can."
He did a double take. "What? Jeannette, what are you talking about…?"
"I'm an agent with the NSA, Carter," she breathed, keeping her eyes away from him so he couldn't see her heart break. "Josie and Jamie are, too. We were assigned to your family to protect you from possible alien retaliation."
He couldn't get his mouth to close. "Are you insane? How on Earth…?"
She pulled a .45 from her trench coat, held it out to him. She closed her hand around it, crunching it into a rough sphere in a squeal of metal. "That's how, Carter."
He tore his eyes away from the ruined weapon, finally looked closely enough at her to see what she was wearing. Spandex biking shorts and a sleeveless bodyshirt, in black, black high-top sneakers on her feet. He glanced back at Josie, saw she was wearing the same thing.
"I see," his voice turned cold, Carter snapping the engine off. "I might have known. Things were just a little too perfect to be real."
That tore her heart down the middle. "Carter…"
He held his hand up. "Whatever goes on here, neither of you will so much as flinch until Marcus is safely in this car. Do you understand me?"
She nodded slowly. "Good. Stay quiet, and let me do the talking."
The light had resolved into a sleek aircraft, one which settled noiselessly to the grass twenty yards from the edge of the lake. Carter slid from his car, walked quickly towards it, heart thumping in his chest…
A hatch opened, slid down, three figures coming down. Marcus, and Jamie, and the face he recognized as Alec Collins.
Marcus broke into a lurching run, collided with his father with bone-crunching force. They hugged each other for a long time, neither saying anything. Collins kept a respectful distance, shooing Jamie away. She walked around Carter and Marcus to the Sheridan's car, began to talk to the other two women in low tones.
Carter finally composed himself, held Marcus out at arm's length. "You okay?"
The boy nodded. "They took good care of me. The only reason they took me was to save my life; I think they were gonna bring me home even before they found out who I was."
He held up the case Connor had given him. "When we get home, we're going to have to have a real long talk, Dad."
"Yes," Carter replied. His gaze shifted to Alec, standing a dozen feet away. "But first, Mr. Collins, you and I need to have a chat."
The other man stepped forward, hand extended. "Alec Collins, Dr. Sheridan. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
The gesture so surprised Carter that he responded by reflex, taking the hand and giving it a shake before he even thought about it. Alec took his hand back, let it hang at his side.
Carter studied him. He was clad in some kind of sparkling spandex uniform, one arm coated in a metallic substance. A series of tubes and spheres hung at a pouch-laden belt, one obvious weapon strapped to his leg and the hilt of a monstrous sword peeking over his shoulder. His eyes were the same as those in the picture from his apartment, but his face was calm, as was his body language.
"Am I in the presence," Carter said carefully, "of a being from another world?"
Alec laughed. "No, Dr. Sheridan. I was born in San Francisco twenty eight years ago. As I gather you already know, my mother and brother still live there."
His voice softened. "I realize what today is, sir. Please, allow me to express my condolences on the death of your wife. I am very sorry for your loss."
His sincerity touched a nerve in Carter, and in Marcus, who dropped his eyes to the ground. Carter couldn't do much more than nod dumbly. "Thank you."
Alec inclined his head slightly, draped his hands behind his back. "So. You have some questions for me?"
"A few," Carter affirmed. "Two, to start. Who are you people, and what the hell are you doing?"
Alec shrugged. "Who are we? We're the Order. The Order of Saint Michael the Archangel. I am the Archon, or leader, of the Order.
"What are we doing? We're protecting the Earth from an alien incursion."
Carter swallowed. "The Omegans?"
"The Supremis, you mean?" he waited for a nod. "No. We've already dealt with them. Their presence here complicated what we needed to do. Besides, we find the Arions… distasteful. We have tolerated their arrogance on our world long enough."
"Someone else, then?" Carter drew in a long breath. "Good Lord, exactly what we didn't need. Another alien species, only this one we know nothing about. What do they want?"
Another shrug. "Genetic material, Dr. Sheridan. They want to use the human race as cattle."
"Cattle? For what?"
"Further conquest," Alec spread his legs slightly. "The Kaldec live to conquer. It's genetically programmed into their physiology. One mistake from many."
He shook his head, blew out a sigh. "Enough with the history lesson. We need to discuss Denver."
"The facility is yours?"
"Yes. We must have it back. And any information, technology, research, anything culled from it as well."
Carter shook his head. "That's impossible."
"No, sir, simply difficult," Alec's voice was very even. "I'm very serious here, Dr. Sheridan. That information must be returned to us. One way or another."
Carter shook his head again. "You want me to tell the Pentagon to give back the single greatest treasure trove of tech, weapons, equipment, and information in the history of human civilization? If you believe that'll happen, maybe you are from another planet."
"And not giving it back could mean the end of the human race, Dr. Sheridan," Alec replied. "There are races in this galaxy, the Arions foremost among them, that would lay waste to this world to obtain that technology. We are the most advanced technological entity in the entire galaxy; used improperly, whole civilizations could be annihilated by that technology."
"Do you understand, Doctor? Can you comprehend genocide on a galactic scale?" he said softly. "The United States refusing to return what is ours could cause a cataclysm that would make the Holocaust seem a simple street mugging. And, I promise you, the US will suffer the consequences first."
"Watch what you say, young man," Carter warned. "I am an authorized agent of the United States government; treason is a serious offense. I took an oath to defend this country…"
"And I took one to defend this planet!" his voice finally rose. "I am uninterested in nationalism when the stakes are the survival of the human species! The salvation of this world comes before your desire to be a good American!"
Alec stepped back. "The decision is yours. But we will have our knowledge back. We are technologically superior to you. We will defeat you if it comes to a contest of arms. We will inflict massive casualties upon your military forces. We will lay waste to your military infrastructure. And we are capable of fighting a devastating war on a strategically limited scale- we can do things you cannot imagine.
"If I must destroy the United States military to protect the Earth, I will. Be warned. As well, we will unleash the same attack upon any other nation-state that refuses to comply with our request. We have been among you since the dawn of human civilization, but we are all human. We think, and act, and fight just like you do. You won't outthink us, you won't outmaneuver us, and believe me, you won't outfight us."
"Dad," Marcus said softly. "Dad, he's not fooling around. He can do it. He will do it."
"Dad, we were there," Marcus rode right over Carter. "Dozens of troops, enough weapons and equipment to outfit an army, computers, medical systems, everything. And that's not even the beginning."
Alec watched the byplay for a moment. "Doctor, I must have that information back. However, I am willing to barter for it- provided I am given assurances of good faith."
"Barter?" Carter repeated. "With what?"
"Knowledge. I can decipher the entirety of the database; as yet, you cannot, and there are highly sensitive sections that you will not."
Carter's interest peaked at that. "Like what?"
Alec smiled slightly. "Faster-than-light propulsion. Specifications and designs for fusion reactors. Our pharmacopoeia. Most of the medical database. Weapons systems and design theory. And perhaps most importantly, the historical archives."
Half of that was a lie, but Alec needed to make his point very quickly. It seemed to work; Carter was all but drooling at each tidbit Alec tossed his way.
"I'm a pragmatic man, Doctor. I am also willing to deal on these subjects with two exceptions- limited knowledge of medical procedures in terms of epidemiology and virology. And no weapons. Period."
Carter opened his mouth. Alec held up his hand. "No weapons, Doctor. End of discussion. Regardless of what the Pentagon thinks, do you imagine President Durling might be interested in a cure for cancer? Perhaps AIDS? How about a limitless source of free energy? An end to world hunger? Global poverty? Would President Durling be interested in being hailed as the greatest leader in the history of this planet? The man who ended human suffering?"
Carter sagged. Alec stayed where he was. "I offer it to him. Openly. My only requirement is that you return what is rightfully mine. And I will offer two more concessions: knowledge. And alliance.
"In return for accepting our stipulation regarding weaponry, the Order will sign a mutual defense treaty with the United States of America. To defend it from any extraterrestrial force that might threaten it. As to terrestrial forces, that may be negotiated at a later date. But we are children of this world; we will not wage war against our brethren."
Carter's thoughts were reeling. The greatest opportunity in human history was being handed to him on a silver platter. If this was some manner of trick, it was being masterfully presented. Alec stood there, waiting; Carter decided then and there, no matter what would happen in the future, he would never gamble against the young man standing in front of him.
"I… I must consult with my superiors…" he stalled, trying for time.
"I thought so," Alec reached to his belt, produced a cell phone. "Here. It's ringing."