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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 13

Written by mechjok :: [Monday, 15 June 2020 03:08] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 13 June 2020 18:09]

Last of the Fallen

Family

Carter slowly took the offered device. "This isn't going to melt my brain, is it?"

"No more than any other cell phone," Alec settled his thumbs behind his belt, strode away. Carter watched him advance on the women, standing over by the car, was jarred out of his thoughts by a too-familiar voice. "Ryan here. Who's this?"

This one statement cinched everything Alec had told him solidly in his mind. Carter cleared a suddenly-dry throat, tilted the phone to his ear. "Tom, it's Carter. Something has happened. Something… something huge."

Jamie had filled her sisters in as rapidly as possible, all three deciding to leave Carter to his negotiations. Until Alec strode away from Carter and approached them.

He stopped a few feet away, balanced, ready, certain. He walked, and stood, like the Delta commandos that had trained them in hand-to-hand combat, except that he seemed to radiate the danger and a sense of calm at the same time. Self-possession, a man who didn't believe in backing down from anything.

He looked them over, hands at his belt. Finally, he gave them a wry shake of the head. "NSA. I might have guessed. Stansfield never did care much for the consequences of his actions."

He tossed his head in Jamie's direction. "As your sister probably told you, I know all about you three. The creator of the formula the NSA stole…"

Jeannette's eyes flashed at that. "It was appropriated! For national security…!"

"You stole it!" Alec snapped back. "You had no idea what it was, what it might do, no regard for potential consequences, but you first stole it, and then used it!"

Jeannette shriveled under his stare; he turned it on Josie and Jamie. "As I was saying, the formula's creator is not very happy with you right now. And, unless I miss my guess concerning both Dr. Sheridan and Dr. Ryan, in about three minutes the three of you are going to be out of a job."

Jamie and Josie traded very significant looks. Jeannette returned her gaze to Carter, absently nibbling at her fingernails. Alec paused for a moment, his stare slowly easing into a more even expression.

"Hmh. Now that's a surprise. Do your superiors know you three have fallen in love with the Sheridans?"

His simple statement made them all jump, looks of shock replacing the guarded expressions they had before. Alec clucked at them. "You should have told him, Professor Hamacker. You may have blown your shot; as for you two, there is going to be fallout from this little misadventure."

Jamie swallowed, stealing a look at Marcus. He saw her, studiously looked away, not noticing the tears welling up in her eyes. Alec noticed, though.

"You can't keep the powers."

Josie's lip curled away from her teeth. "Who's going to take them away? You?"

"Yes," he probed his way into all three minds at once. Jamie felt his presence in her mind, bringing an eerie feeling of familiarity, then a sudden weakness in her limbs. She sagged to her knees, Josie dropping limply to the grass. Jeannette slumped against the car, trying in vain to hold herself up.

Marcus came lumbering towards them, shouting at Alec. Carter turned, followed, closing the cell on the run. Alec drew a hypo from his belt, knelt next to Jamie, set it against her neck.

Carter grabbed Alec's wrist, Marcus flinging himself on top of Jamie to shield her. Alec glanced up at Carter, face stone. "You know?"

Carter nodded slowly.

"This is our technology, Doctor. Taking it away from them is going to keep them alive," Alec said. "Step aside and let me continue."

"Mr. Collins," Marcus stammered, on the verge of tears, "please don't kill them."

"Marcus, I'm trying to keep them from being killed…"

His ears caught a shrill whine. He glanced over his shoulder the same instant Jian flashed down the ramp, skidding to a halt beside Alec.

"Mikey!" he shouted, bringing out his warlance. "Kaldec!"

The darkness had shrouded their approach, four fliers- somebody at the Citadel had coded them as Strafers into the taccomps- streaked off the water, their prows already twinkling with pre-fire glows. Alec twisted around, his shield-arm blazing alive. He and Jian caught the blasterfire, splashing it aside, setting a number of trees on fire. They swooped around for another pass, a hulking grey shape breeching the water and crawling up the sand.

"Sonova…" his helmet slid up his chest, settling on his head. "Isamu! Deploy the Crusaders and take off! Horsemen, let's get 'em!"

Jian swung his warlance around, drew his neutralizer with his free hand. "What the hell's that? They mutating garden slugs now?"

Two more figures sprinted off the Condor, Isamu taking off, dropping the pods before heading to battle. Hulking Grendals roared their way out of the slug, armed with massive weapons pods, a pack of Hunters swarming past, and two new players took their places on the chessboard.

Four-legged figures leapt, snarled, snapped across the grass, flat faces, broad noses, bodies lumpy with muscle. Their massive eyes burned with hellish light, three-clawed paws setting grass smoldering with every gallop, saber-length teeth lining huge gaping mouths.

Following the snarling pack were four figures, astride larger, sleeker variants of the new animals. Each was cloaked in robes of midnight, faces hidden by deep hoods, their eyes glowing a sickly ochre in the night. Each carried a wicked scythe of a sword, heavy pommels adorned with spikes.

The Crusaders unfurled from their drop-pods, opening fire immediately. Two Grendals fell from neutralizer fire, the 'bots efficently driving the Kaldec forces down their center, towards the waiting Knights.

Connor unlimbered his plasma axe, a weapon Yokohama Ginji, the Chief Technician, had designed for him years before. He swung it around his palm, braced it, shield-arm crackling. "Looks like someone's been playing with the petrie dishes."

Gabriel made do with his battlesaber. "Alec, you see the riders?"

Alec nodded grimly, hand on the hilt of the Shal'kyrie. "They stole our gig. I don't know whether to be insulted or repulsed. Dr. Sheridan, you, Marcus and the women get in that car. When I tell you to, you floor the accelerator and don't stop until you get home."

The animals- whatever they were- simply charged at them. The tacnet came alive while the four Knights set themselves.

"Let them up, man," Jian's voice had that tense quality it always had right before it hit the fan. "Three Ultrafemme changes the odds- we let these jokers whack the Sheridans, the feds'll hunt us until doomsday."

Alec growled under his breath. "Fire plan Green Eighteen. Let's thin the herd before we slug it out with them."

Jian, Connor, and Gabriel aimed their neutralizers, opened fire. Their shots rammed home, the creatures exploding on impact, showering the meadow with flaming shrapnel. Alec stayed where he was, his shield still up, until one critter dashed past the Knights and leapt at him. He slashed it's chest open, knocking it aside. The dead carcass thudded to the roof of the Taurus, exploded, taking the car with it.

Ahhhhh- Alec mentally ground his teeth together. SHIT!

More Hunters and animals were surging from the slug, racing to envelop the Crusaders. Alec drew his neutralizer, aimed, fired, sending three full-power pulses into the gaping maw staring at him from the sand. The slug shrieked, turned coal-black, slid drunkly to one side, black smoke belching from the body

Choices were being made for him. He hated that, even as he crouched to the ground, keeping his shield up.

The pressure on the three women relaxed, all three sitting up immediately. He didn't give them time to think, jamming his armored face in theirs. "Listen to me. You need to do exactly what I say or these two are going to die. Along with anyone within a three-mile radius. And the three of you will pray to die."

Their faces were set. He gave them a brief nod. "Jamie, take Carter and Marcus and run when I tell you to. Don't stop until you get to the Rand building."

She nodded, taking Marcus's hand in hers. "Josie, you and Jeannette are going to be our back-up. You keep anything that gets past us from getting away until one of us can kill it. Contain only; do not attempt to fight them. Understood?"

More nods. "When I tell you to run, head for the Rand building. We'll cover you. These guys aren't interested in you; once the Sheridans are clear, they'll want the four of us."

He spun to his feet, pointing Josie and Jeannette to flanking positions, holstered his neutralizer. He activated a command channel, tying himself into the Crusaders.

"Prepare to fall back, take containment positions," he ordered calmly. "Fire plan Blue Four. Spartan option. Execute now."

Jumpjets fired, lifting the 'bots out of the swarm, dropping them in a line behind the two women. They reaimed, opened back up, the Knights racking firearms and drawing melee weapons.

"Horsemen, advance!" he shouted. "Jamie, go!!"

The four of them charged. Jian and Alec on the left, Connor and Gabriel going right. Spinning, slashing, ducking, punching, a brutal, lightning fast dance of death. Hunters lunged forward eagerly, dying on warlance blades and a flaming axe, monster dogs carving open on shining battlesabers and a glittering broadsword.

The Knights were thinking, moving, fighting with one mind, three steps ahead of the attack, making the advantage of numbers evaporate in seconds. Three telelinks ran through their minds, one joining Jian and Alec, Connor and Gabriel in the other array, Alec's strength flowing through them all. It was something even Somack had never been able to quite fathom, four minds so intimately matched it made them the four instruments of one brain. No opponent could face them- what might beat one or two, could never hope to match all four.

The attack sputtered out, the Crusaders rattling off the remnants. Connor paused in his rampage, glanced back over the swarm. There were more than one hundred bodies scattered on the meadow, spewing acrid smoke and spittles of acid. The four of them had carved their way through them in a matter of minutes, leaving a pitiful handful of savaged figures being mowed down by the Crusaders.

Alec skidded to a halt on the grass, raised his voice. "Jeannette! Josie! Go!!"

He lowered his voice, the others forming up on him. "We'll deal with this."

The Condor dispatched the last of the Strafers, winged it's way off towards downtown Chicago. Silence descended on the park, the Crusaders closing down their weapons, moving in a wider pattern to contain what was coming.

The riders nudged their mounts, spreading themselves out as well. The hooded faces studied the four humans, hands shifting fractionally on hilts.

"Impressive," it sounded like an open grave decided to speak. A subtle probe danced across Alec's shields; he batted it aside contemptuously. "We were told you would be a formidible opponent. However, we were not told there were others like you."

Connor whirled his axe around. "Shit happens, pusswad."

"Indeed," one of the others agreed. "Much becomes clearer now. Our existence, for example. As if a further testament to Kaldec supremacy were needed."

"Tread carefully, brother," a third advised. "The one wields the Rahl'Mak. He marks himself as the Archon."

The fourth snorted. "How desperate they must be to entrust this whelp with their leadership. Let us deal with them and be done."

Gabriel shifted his feet a touch. "Talk is cheap. Let's see what you got."

They charged. No one even saw them heel their mounts, they just started to move. They split into pairs as quickly as the humans did, wheeling through each pair to keep them seperated.

Alec parried a slash, slammed his fist into the steed's side, toppling the beast. It's rider slid off, never even missing a beat, dropping a second slash at Alec's head. Jian vaulted up, crashed shoulder first into his opponent, dumping them both to the grass. The spiked pommel flashed up, ripped his shoulder open right through the blacks, bowling Jian off.

Gabriel hopped back a half-step, leapt up in a magnificent leap, twirled and kicked his rider from his mount. At the apex of his vault, Connor threw him his axe, drawing his warlance in the same fluid motion; Gabriel caught the haft, sent it spinning at the rider rising to carve Jian in half. It thudded heavily into the rider's back, tumbling him to the ground. Connor swung his warlance wide, swept his leg out on the backswing, toppling his foe to the ground.

Alec tapped his sin'cho, slid forward, drove the Shal'kyrie down and through the wounded rider. Jian drew his neutralizer, fired one pulse, taking out Alec's dance partner. Gabriel flung his battlesaber at Connor's target the same instant Connor's warlance whirled away. They hit their targets at the same instant, pinning them to the scorched earth.

The four steeds reared up to pounce…

Plasma bolts seared them down. The Crusaders trotted their way to surround the Knights, plasma cannons smoldering.

Connor stepped over the steaming carcasses, bent down to retrieve his axe. "Kaldec supremacy. Right. Pull the other one."

Jian stood up, holding his arm. Gabriel slung his saber, plucked the blacks away from the wound, watched Jian wince. "Next time, duck."

"Bite me," the curse carried little snap. "It's been a while, remember?"

Alec sheathed the Shal'kyrie. "That was way too easy."

"Don't knock it," Gabriel replied, fingers glowing pink over Jian's wound. "We've fought them before; the Crusaders were designed to squash the Grendals."

Connor closed down his axe, hung it back at his belt. "Well, that was fun. What do we do for an encore?"

Alec groaned. His helmet slid down his head. "This is battle number three for me today, guys. I wanna go to bed."

Almost on cue, the Condor swung back around. The Crusaders ran back to their drop-pods; they buttoned up, boosted up, locked back on the ship. Isamu dropped the ramp, keeping the fighter a few feet off the ground, letting everyone clamber aboard. Connor slapped the hatch closed, dropped in the closest seat, Isamu driving them for home.

Alec supposed he should have been surprised at Carter, Marcus, Josie, Jamie, and Jeannette all sitting there in the cabin, staring expectantly at him. Somehow he wasn't.

"What are you doing back here?" he demanded, hanging the Shal'kyrie back in a locker. "I thought I told you to run for home."

Jamie hung her head. "I didn't want to leave… I've never run away from a fight in my life."

"Bad reason to come back," Alec growled. "I hope to God you follow NSA orders better than ones that'll save your life."

Marcus turned white. "NSA?" he whispered. "What… what does he mean?"

Before Alec could open his mouth, Isamu's voice crackled over the speakers. "Archon, I have an incoming call on your cellular frequency. The computer's piping it through to your portable now."

The phone Carter had clutched as desperately as a life preserver suddenly trilled. He glanced at Alec, handed him the phone. Alec flicked it open. "Yeah."

"This is Dr. Thomas Ryan, National Security Advisor to President Roger Durling. To whom am I speaking?"

"This is Alec Collins," he replied. "Archon of the Order of Saint Michael the Archangel."

"I see," the mild tone hid nothing; Alec's mind's eye conjured up an image of Ryan's eyes leaping out of his head. "Dr. Sheridan has informed me of your… requests. I have been in touch with the President; he wishes for me to convey to you his desire for a more formal, structured meeting on this subject. One he wishes to attend personally."

"That's nice, Dr. Ryan, but I have my hands full at the moment. Nor am I too eager to have a demonstration of the US State Department's ability to fillibuster. The deal's on the table. Take it or leave it."

There was a pause on the other end; Gabriel's face tense as he watched Alec. Silence stretched for so long Alec almost checked to see if he'd lost the signal. "We'll take it."

"Excellent," Alec pumped his fist in the air. "As to the meeting with President Durling, that can be arranged. However, let's try to keep this to under a cast of thousands, okay?"

"I imagine that can happen."

"Time and place?"

Ryan paused again. "I'll need to get back to you on that. Say nine AM tomorrow?"

"Done. I'll await your call," he clicked the phone closed. "They took it!!"

Connor let out a whoop. Gabriel and Alec slapped a high-five, followed by Jian. Alec's grin was so big Jian could have sworn the cabin walls were flexing. Quickly enough, they all subsided, their grins staying in place.

Carter studied each of them in turn. "That story you told me- you were serious, weren't you?"

Gabriel leaned back. "Dr. Sheridan, we are currently travelling at Mach Three-point-Five over Illinois. NORAD has no track on us, Air Traffic Control has no track on us, and no one more than forty feet away from this craft can see it. In the event someone caught a whiff of us, we could outrun or outfight anything the US could put in the sky. If we weren't who we said we were, every human being on this planet would be enslaved or dead."

Alec reached down to his armrest, flipped it open. A small comp blinked on. He tapped in a few commands, pulled his commset off his belt. "Seattle, this is Archangel."

Torik's gravelly-voice came back immediately. "Seattle. Go ahead, Archon."

"We are inbound with five guests. Please have a guard and quarters prepared for their arrival. I'll also need the Council, the Colony Elders, and the Augurs assembled by hololink; we have an urgent matter of state to discuss. Arwyn and Kellehendra at the Citadel, Julia and Kara at Seattle."

"Understood. Seattle out."

Carter had fixed his gaze on Alec. "Matter of state?"

Alec didn't look up. "The Order is the oldest republican state on Earth, Doctor. Gabriel's an historian; ask him."

Carter swiveled his gaze to Gabriel, leaning back lazily in his seat. He shrugged. "It's no big deal. The Kalrist had a republican form of government when they arrived on Earth. We merely adapted their theories to our own needs. That, and having to function under a military command structure."

"How long ago was this?" Carter asked.

"Well, let me see… Jian, the Compact was forged in what, 12,890 BC?"

The other man nodded slowly. "In there. You aren't off by more than twenty years."

"So, roughly fifteen thousand years ago," Gabriel considered it for a moment, frowning. "Yeah, that's right. The Order itself is a military organization, as I said. But we also have elections, that type of thing, for stuff that has nothing to do with our tactical operations."

"We haven't had an Archon in a long time," Jian interjected. "I suppose we should have some manner of vote concerning it, but it wouldn't change the outcome. One of the benefits of a group of telepaths. Most things are by acclimation even if we don't bother with the shouting."

Carter was having trouble speaking. Jeannette, who had drifted down to join them when Carter had started asking questions, looked equally poleaxed. Gabriel placidly watched them, Jian hiding a small grin. "Doctor, Professor, come now. You both have been studying the Supremis for a long time; surely this doesn't surprise you. If two species can be duking it out on Earth with only a select group of people knowing about it, doesn't it follow there could be someone else here as well?"

Carter swallowed audibly, shook his head. "I honestly… never even considered that."

"Of course you didn't. We made sure of that," Gabriel grinned. "We've been here a very long time. We've learned a thing or two about keeping a low profile."

"I would imagine so," his eyes darted to Jeannette, his shocked expression quickly becoming a frown. He covered it immediately, returned his attention to Gabriel. Jian quirked an eyebrow, said nothing. "What are you going to do with us?"

"We're returning to one of our installations for now; if you'd like, we can send a team to collect your younger son and your mother," Gabriel glanced at Alec, got a nod. "Beyond that…"

"Beyond that, for the time being, I will need an intermediary for the negotiations," Alec finished what he was doing, looked up. "I offer you a few days as our guest. I imagine it might be the learning experience of a lifetime. Give you the opportunity to view one of those complicated extraterrestrial cultures up close. After this is over, you can add Ambassador to the Kalrist to your resume."

Carter smiled in spite of himself. "That… I think I might be able to handle that."

"Good," Alec propped his head in his palm. "Which leaves only the matter of you three."

Marcus and Jamie had been talking quietly at the far end of the cabin, near the ramp. The boy abruptly barked a sharp shout, stood up, stumbled away. Jamie tried to rise, follow; Connor put his hand up, stopping her cold. Carter hopped up, Marcus flinging himself into his father's arms. The two moved away, settling down forward, the three other Knights sliding down to make room.

Alec scowled. "Well. No harm, huh? You should have told them."

Jeannette sighed. "We were under orders not to. How would he have reacted? You just saw how Marcus did."

Josie nodded. "We became… this… to protect them. We knew the physical risks, but we didn't count on the emotional ones."

"That's unfortunate," Alec replied. "But also irrelevant. You have no business having these abilities, nor can we trust you to use them…"

Hang on a second, Gabriel's voice chimed up. The man was watching the three women, no expression on his face. They might prove useful.

No.

This is no time for pride, Gabriel's "voice" stayed even. I understand Dr. Brooks is going to go ballistic, but the fact remains that these three are trained, competent NSA agents as well as enhanced physical specimens. We can make their participation an element of the negotiations.

Alec snorted. We don't conscript soldiers. Certainly not ones we cannot trust.

Then put it to them as an offer, Gabriel persisted. Alec, I'm telling you…

All right, Alec grumbled. You nag like an old fishwife.

He studied the three for a moment longer, sighed himself. "We'll table this discussion for the time being. However, you are only technically my guests; I expect you to behave yourselves."

They traded looks, then nodded in unison. Alec grunted, sat back in his chair.

Seattle Safehouse, November 15, 2001, 8:00 PM PST:

Isamu brought them in neatly, drifting down into the launch corridor on easy thrusters. Marcus and Carter were both glued to the viewports, watching everything with wide-eyes. The corridor opened into the hangar, Carter's eyes bulging wider every second.

Isamu parked them next to a newly-arrived Gryphon, Ngyuen Tran in the process of cinching his craft down. He looked over, gave the Condor a jaunty wave, clambered down the side to salute when the ramp dropped, Alec walking down.

"Welcome, Archon," he added a little bow, winking when he was sure their guests couldn't see.

"Hey, Tran," he clapped the man's shoulder. "Just getting in?"

"Yes, Archon," he straightened, glanced at the dozen armored Knights marching precisely into the hangar. "We returned with a compliment of thirty Knights. The Activators and Techs will arrive in the morning; Commander Duong needs them to care for the wounded, shore up the defenses."

"Very good," he turned, motioned Carter and Marcus down. "This is Doctor Carter Sheridan and his son Marcus."

Tran's face split into a welcome smile. "Doctor. Your fame proceeds you. It is an honor."

Carter took the offered hand. "Thank you."

He gasped before he let Tran's hand go, Marcus goggling as well, Jeannette clapping her hands to her mouth.

Somack strode into the hangar, his Staff tapping in time with his stride. Alec flicked his eyes at the Knights; two peeled off, put themselves in front of and aside of Somack as he approached.

The Kalrist smiled slightly, came to a halt a few feet from the group. He bowed low from the waist. "Welcome home, Archon."

Alec dropped to one knee, head bowed, Gabriel, Connor, and Jian following suit. "We return, Lord Cleric, unbeaten, unbowed, undetered."

They rose at the same time, Somack stepping forward to embrace him. "Ran into a spot of trouble, I see. What happened?"

Alec jerked his head towards the five people at the ramp. "Later. Lord Somack, may I present Dr. Carter Sheridan, his son Marcus, Professor Jeannette Hamacker, and her sisters Josie and Jamie."

The aged man nodded to each. Alec continued. "Ladies, gentlemen, Lord Somack, High Cleric of the Order, Triumvere of the Kalrist, warrior, sage, and friend."

Somack snorted gently. "Nothing so grand, I assure you. Dr. Sheridan, it is a pleasure to meet you at last. We have followed your career for some time; I have looked forward to this meeting."

Carter still couldn't find his voice, but he shook hands gamely enough. Somack's smile never faltered. "Be at ease, Doctor. We are all friends here; we seek common ground, to assuage fears, begin to lay the foundation for a bright future together."

The Knights eying the three women didn't lend much credence to Somack's proclamation, but Carter either didn't notice or didn't care; Alec wasn't sure at this point. He shrugged it off, started out of the hangar. "Is everything prepared?"

Somack fell into step alongside; the rest of them followed, the Horsemen trailing Marcus and Carter, Knights flanking the three women, fingering weapons openly. Somack cast a quick look over his shoulder, frowned, snapped his attention back to Alec. "Yes, Archon. The Citadel's contingent is awaiting us in the Conference Room."

"Good," Alec stopped at the first juncture. "Dr. Sheridan, will you join us? Jian, Gabriel…"

"I don't have much to say," Connor interrupted, watching Marcus. "I think I'll stay out here, show our guests around."

Alec nodded slowly. "Okay…"

Carter blew out a deep breath. "If I may, Mr. Collins, I'll… I might need Professor Thurm… I mean, Hamacker, to assist me in the negotiations."

Alec stroked his chin, nodded once. "Of course. Gabriel, could you go ahead, make sure things are settled in the Conference Room?"

He took off without a word. Connor patted Marcus's shoulder, steered him away, keeping him away from Jamie. Once they were gone, Alec jerked his head at the three Knights hanging around, started away again.

Somack's mind brushed his. I take it Dr. Sheridan was unaware of the situation?

That's the diplomatic way of putting it, Alec caught a glimpse of Carter very studiously ignoring Jeannette, sighed inwardly. This keeps getting harder.

Only in one sense, Somack touched his arm, gave him a small smile. The seeds you sowed before your departure have borne fruit.

Alec grunted, nodded, dug in his belt pouch, pulled out a small device. The entourage halted before a pair of massive doors bearing the sigil of the Order. Alec stepped to Carter's side, gently placed the gadget behind his ear.

"What's this?" he murmured, not flinching.

"Universal translator," Alec replied, jiggling the fit. "Not everyone who will be participating in our deliberations speaks English."

Carter stared wide-eyed at that, Alec grinned, Jian producing a second unit he attached to Jeannette. "There. Now, shall we?"

The doors slid open. Somack strode in, Carter and Jeannette right behind him, not looking at each other, Jian heeling them both. Alec paused, caught Motaru Mumba's arm.

"Go find Brennan and the newbies," he pitched his voice low, watching the other four get settled, "and have them watch from the gallery. And keep those two women out of trouble."

The man nodded, saluted, trotted away. The other two took up positions at the door, Alec letting it slide shut behind him.

Somack had stayed standing; when Alec entered, Sorala and Torik rose. Instantly, the holomatrix sprang to life, fifteen figures resolving on the inner ring of the conference table. Nine of them were Kalrist; as soon as they had firmed into crystal-clear replicas, the Kalrist all bowed deeply.

Alec returned the bow, picked his chair next to Julia. "If you all are done, may we begin?"

Everyone settled; the holoplates were on the inside of the table ring, mirroring the seats at the physical table in Seattle. Carter sat down opposite a barrel-chested man who looked as real as Carter's hand. The man studied Carter for a moment, nodded. "I would assume, Archon, that this gentleman is Dr. Sheridan?"

"Correct, Sergei," Alec didn't look up from his compstation; Carter was three seats down, past Somack at his left and Torik beyond him. "Dr. Sheridan, allow me to introduce…"

Carter held up his hand. "Please… Archon. I'll never keep everyone straight."

Yamar, opposite Alec, nodded sagely. "There will be time, Archon, for introductions in person."

Torik leaned to Carter, murmured something to the man, handed him a datapad. Carter gaped for a moment, shook himself, handed the pad absently to Jeannette.

Alec glanced up. Julia sat at his right, Gabriel next to her, then Morrigan, Kara, Sorala, Jian, and Frederick. He reached out, patted Julia's hand; her eyes were red-rimmed, but she graced him with her amazing smile, catching her hand in hers.

"Thank you," she whispered, giving his hand a loving squeeze. "I'll say it better later, but… thank you."

He nodded. She kept hold of his hand; Yamar smiled at the two of them.

"All right," he turned his attention to the table. "I realize this is a bit unorthodox, but we have a unique opportunity before us. With Dr. Sheridan's help, we have managed to secure a tentative agreement with the United States government for the return of the Denver facility and all of it's contents. In exchange for… certain considerations."

Sergei and Thien both frowned. "Certain considerations?" Thien echoed. "That sounds ominous…"

Alec shrugged. "Depends on who you ask. I took the weapons and the virology tech off the table. But I did offer everything else."

Somack and Torik both nodded thoughtfully. Thien crossed his arms, pursing his lips. Byron, sitting facing him from the far side of the ring, scratched at his head.

"Bold," Sergei leaned forward, eyes giving nothing away. "Do you suppose… what about everyone else?"

Every eye, human, Kalrist, or otherwise, turned to Carter. He was in the middle of a sip of water; his hands shook as he carefully set it down, cleared his throat.

"In my opinion," he said slowly, "with what you are offering the world, I cannot see the technology in question being reserved solely for the United States. If for no other reason than civil rights groups would crucify President Durling for withholding what is, in essence, the salvation of the human race."

For three eternal seconds, every gaze weighed Carter, until Alec shook his head slightly, turned away. "Right. I suppose we'll approach that in the negotiations."

Carter flushed slightly. "You don't believe me?"

Somack sighed. "It isn't that simple, Doctor. We trust your opinion. But you're not a politician. Someone motivated by concerns other than the well-being of his fellow man. Which is one reason we have avoided this course of action. Until now."

Kara leaned forward. "Wait a minute. You guys… are you seriously considering offering your technology to the humans?! Have you lost your minds?"

Alec met her eyes. "Better they get it from us rather than what they can get from Denver. Infinitely better."

Sorala nodded. "As well, we'll need to examine the men they sent into the facility. It is likely, given what we've been able to determine, that the Pandora system was activated."

Kara stood up. "This is crazy!! You could imbalance the entire planet! Throw the human race into anarchy!"

Carter's eyes were ready to leap from his head. Jeannette had finally placed the blonde woman, squeaked, watched them all with enormous eyes. Alec ignored them.

"No, we won't," he replied calmly.

"How can you…?!" Kara burst out. Alec rode right over the top of her.

"We're not going to just hand them the technology, Kara!" he snapped. "We also don't have a choice! The United States military has the Denver facility. They managed to partially activate the decoding mechanisms. That's the equivalent of handing a five year old child an armed nuclear weapon, then telling him to press the pretty red button. We must have that technology back. There can be no compromise on that."

He rounded on Sergei. "Or do you want to do it the other way? Do you want to wage war against the US? How many of their military will die? How many civilians? How many of us? How long do you think it'll be before they fight back with plasma guns and ion cannons? Hell, why bother with the Kaldec at all? Let's just roll over, hand them Earth, and be done with it!"

He paused, took in a steadying breath. Kara sat down slowly; Sergei had flushed a spectacular shade of crimson, took the reprieve to stare down at his hands.

"Those are the only options open to us. I wish to God there was a third way, but there isn't."

Jian shifted slightly in his seat. "Something for the Council to consider, if the US accepts our offer, they will insist on our training them in the use of the technology. That affords us an opportunity to be certain it is used correctly."

Gabriel nodded. "The Archon is correct. There is no third option; given that, the only prudent course of action is the one he pursues."

Eric was already nodding assent; Thien glared at Sergei, lifted the datapad sitting in front of him. "The Archon's wisdom is beyond reproach. Lead. We will follow."

Sergei was mumbling something under his breath in Russian. Croslax, sitting next to him, leaned to his ear, whispered tersely. Sergei jerked, brought his head back up, Alec staring right at him.

"No, Thien," Alec replied softly. "This one is too big. We're talking about a radical course of action, one that will change the way we operate. The veil of secrecy we've depended on for millenia will be tossed aside. Unless the Council voices unanimous agreement, we will not pursue a treaty."

Faces around the table changed slightly. Sergei held Alec's eyes. "But the alternative…"

Alec lifted his shoulders again. "We'll give it time. Maybe we can think of something else."

The Russian's face fell. "No," he said hoarsely, then continued, his voice strengthening. "No. I stood by once before; one hundred of my brothers paid the price for my inaction. I will not do so again. Lead, Archon. I will follow."

The rest of the humans nodded agreement. Kara looked pensive, Morrigan studying her calmly. Alec gave his attention to Yamar. "And your position, My Lord?"

The Kalrist started. "Why would you ask? Have you not decided?"

"The Order has decided, My Lord," Alec worked at keeping his voice level. "But we will not decide for the Kalrist. We cannot."

Somack shifted in his seat. Mazar, across from him, narrowed his eyes. "Why is that, brother? What has…"

The Cleric couldn't make himself meet Mazar's eyes. "Coriana's treachery… she forced the humans to break the Compact…"

Every holoimage's head whipped to stare at Somack. Torik tried to sink below the lip of the table; Mazar's image stood, leaned towards Somack. "What have you done?!" he bellowed, his voice too full to be coming from the stooped, wizened man. "You have betrayed our brothers! You have betrayed your people! What have you done??!"

Geserac's lips curled away from his teeth. "You failed us, Somack. You failed the Kalrist, you failed humanity, and you have failed the Order."

Croslax stared daggers at Torik. "They received us unto their bosom. The humans protected us, fought for us, died for us, and asked nothing in return. And you repay them with betrayal, and lies."

Yamar ignored the byplay, gaze never wavering from Alec. "But you are the Archon. You are the Chosen One, the child of prophecy."

Alec shook his head. "I am the guardian of your people. Nothing more. I do not lead you, I protect you. Please don't ask for more than that."

Yamar glanced at Vona on one side, then at Romvey on the other. "We must discuss this. This… this changes everything."

Alec nodded. Mazar tore his eyes from Alec, singing the air between him and Somack. "This isn't over, Somack. You will answer for this. As will you, Torik."

"I suggest…" Somack paused, groped for his voice, tried again. "Perhaps it would be best to reconvene in an hour or so."

Alec didn't wait any longer. His hand slipped from Julia's; he pushed away from the table, strode out of the conference room.

Julia found him twenty minutes later, sitting in Ops, talking with Michael. A global map was displayed on the main holotank, coated in blue icons.

"… what about a tapeworm?" Alec was saying, leaning on his elbows. "Would that do it?"

Michael shrugged. "It'll eliminate the datafiles. But what about prototypes and hard copies? We're talking the military here; they do everything in triplicate. Besides, we've kinda tipped our hand as far as that goes, haven't we?"

Alec grunted. "Yeah. How about a surgical strike?"

"Where?" Michael replied. "Goes back to hiking up our skirts. They'll never concentrate the data in any one system because they know they can't stop us."

"There's gotta be something we can do…" he glanced up at Julia. "Oh. Hi. How are you?"

"Good," she slid into the chair next to him. "What are you doing?"

"Formulating options," he said. "Badly."

"Oh," she looked the holoimage over, then back to Alec. "How important is the Compact?"

He chuckled. "That's like asking how important air is. It's something we've had for a very long time. Now, we don't. It makes things harder."

He studied the holoimage silently for a moment, got up. "I can't stare at this anymore. Will you… do you want to go for a walk?"

Julia nodded, took his offered hand. Alec nodded to Michael. "Keep it in the back of your head, and let me know if you think of… anything."

The Tech shrugged. Alec let it go, left Ops, Julia walking alongside. Before she could say anything, Alec steered them to the access lift, gestured her inside.

Both of them stayed silent until they reached the dojo above; once they stepped from the lift, Alec glanced down at himself and groaned. "I don't believe this. I forgot I was wearing my blacks."

He strode to a closet, pulled out a sweatshirt and pants, tugged them on over his blacks. He tossed a fleece jacket to Julia, flicked on the lights in the dojo's small garden.

He wandered out to the patio, settled on a oak-slatted bench. Julia followed, curling up next to him, her hand resting in his.

"How're your folks?" he studied the top of her head while he spoke, his fingers playing gently on her neck. She purred a little, pressed back against his fingertips.

"Fine," she replied. "A little shocked to hear from me, but they're okay. They want me… my mom asked me to come home and visit."

"Then you should go," he massaged the muscles in her neck a bit more firmly. "Nothing's more important than family."

She lowered her head. "Will you come with me?" she asked shyly.

He nodded. "Sure. If you want. When do you want to go?"

Julia chuckled softly. "I've barely gotten the nerve up to ask you to come with me. I haven't thought much further beyond that."

She moved her body closer to his. "This has been a strange week. Back to civilization, thrust into the middle of an ancient war, part of a hidden secret society, and finding the man of my dreams, all in one fell swoop."

The pressure on her neck vanished; she turned her head to gaze lovingly at him. "Yes, I meant what I said. Please don't stop rubbing, it felt good."

He snorted, reaching for her neck. "Some dream. More like a nightmare."

"Stop that," her voice heated, she twisted on the bench, pushed him back, knelt to put her face level with his. "God, I'm starting to hate that. You talk to me like I'm the most amazing woman in the world one second, then you turn around, bag on yourself the next."

He gave her a lopsided grin. "You are the most remarkable woman on this world. I'm just one of the guys."

"Mister Collins," she whispered, leaning in, "you aren't just anything."

Her kiss set his every sense alive. She had that way, able to make him feel like he was alive and whole and special with just one touch, no matter how bad he was feeling. He wondered if she could possibly understand that.

He kissed her back; her mouth opened under his, her tongue gently probing into his mouth. Intellectually he felt her phermones kick up three or four notches, physically not caring as his libido melded with them, stirred to match. She settled into his lap, leaning in even more, drawing his hand around and settling it on her rump. His other palm cupped her head, drawing her closer.

Slowly she drew back, still in his lap and happy to be there. "No guy would do what you did, Alec. No matter what you think. You are an amazing man. Even without the tricks and fancy weapons."

The dear man actually turned red. "You, Doctor, have had too much to drink."

She sighed. He would need work. Lots and lots of work. "Why are you like this?"

His face sobered. "I know three things, Julia. Duty, honor, and war. Nothing more. Everything else is window dressing."

"Not true," she argued, still perched happily in his lap. Her legs wriggled a little while she spoke, provoking a physical reaction. "You are a brilliant man, a great writer…"

His head was shaking. "That's the duty part. You can't protect people you don't understand. We can't divorce ourselves from humanity at large, we couldn't defend them as well, as completely as we have to. And we don't want to.

"The only reason we… I… even considered a technology trade was because of what we are the core. We aren't just humanity's guardians. We're also humanity's children, what we all want humanity to become."

He sighed. "We've been hiding in plain sight for millenia. Among the cultures of our home, watching, protecting, but not interfering. When what we should have been doing was showing the rest of the human race what being human really means. We aren't Velorians, but we sure acted like it for a long time.

"We argue amongst ourselves because of differing points of view, different experiences. Never because Sergei is Russian, Thien Vietnamese, Byron British, and me being an American. I speak roughly thirty languages fluently, know the cultural mores and traditions of twenty more, can converse with a street urchin in Calcutta as easily as the Queen of England. Sergei objected to my plan because he was afraid of that urchin not benefitting from our gift, not because I was offering it to the American President; if anything, he would have flatly refused had I offered the tech to the Russian Premier instead."

He gave her a soft smile, patted her bottom. "It's a strange world when the warriors are the ones determined to change it. I've been a warrior my whole life, but I pray every night for the day to come when I'm a curiosity in a museum. Now, it's time to make a start towards that."

A gentle tap sounded at the closed paper screen. Alec tilted his head towards it, Gabriel slowly poking his head out.

"I'm sorry," he flashed Julia a stunning smile. "I don't wish to interrupt…"

"You're not," Julia answered before Alec could. "We're just talking. And making out. Both of which can wait until later."

Gabriel's smile widened. "Ah-ha! That being the case, I'll come back later…"

"Gabriel!" Alec snapped, pinching Julia's bottom. She giggled, smirked at him. "What do you want?"

"I don't want anything," his smile faded. "They do."

He produced a holopod, tossed it underhand into the air. It floated in mid-air, sparked to life, Sergei and Thien appearing. They both bowed low. Alec slid Julia off, stood, returned the gesture.

"Archon," Sergei began, "Alec. I want to apologize…"

"For what, Serge?" he replied smoothly. "For speaking your conscience? For being a Knight of the Order? No. You don't have anything to apologize for."

The big man's face changed, a look of relief washing over it. Thien chuckled, then calmed when he turned to face Alec.

"Lord Archon," he said formally. "On behalf of the Kalrist Colony of Shamballah, I bring greetings. The Council of Elders has asked me, as the ranking representative of the Order, to convey their desire for an audience with your august personage."

"Thien, what are you doing?" he asked quietly. The man's expression never changed, nor did his posture.

"May I relay your answer, My Lord?" he continued respectfully.

Alec nodded. "Of course. Tell the Elders I will arrive within the next four hours."

"As you command, My Lord," he bowed low, paused, then straightened. "Lord Archon, I am instructed to also ask that your consort, the Velorian Protector, and the rest of the Council come with you, if it so pleases you."

"Certainly."

Thien bowed once more. "We await your return, Lord Archon."

The holosphere clicked off. Gabriel retrieved it, tucked it on his belt. He shrugged at Alec's expression. "Don't ask me. We're talking about eighteen-thousand-year old Kalrist. They could want anything."

"I suppose," he grunted, sat back down. "Do me a favor, have Isamu prepare his Gryphon for the flight to the Citadel. And Tran and some Knights to fly shotgun in the Condor."

Gabriel nodded. "Who's going?"

Alec gestured at the holosphere. "Everybody he said. Plus the Sheridans and their watchdogs. Gonna freak the man out, might as well go full-bore."

Gabriel grinned. "By your command, Archon."

He bowed and left, cackling. Alec curled his lip back from his teeth, folded his arms. Julia sat back down in his lap, tracing her fingers along his forehead.

"You've got the growling down," she said lightly. "How much of that is show?"

"None of it," he said sourly. "If I could weasel out of this, I would. I have no interest in leading; my job's killing. Kaldec, Arions, Velorians, whoever. Jian, Gabriel, hell, even Connor would be better choices."

He glanced up at her startled expression, heaved another sigh. "I've told you, Julia, but you don't want to listen. It isn't what I do; it's what I am. I kill.

"I would have killed Kara if it came to it. I should have killed all of those Arions by myself in LA. The Sar'Aiel, that frigate, all of the Arions on Earth- I haven't lost sleep over any of it. The jury's still out on the Hamacker sisters; but if it needs to be done, I'll do it."

He slid from under her. "Can you understand? What kind of man… does that? Can be so callous about life that he kills and kills, but doesn't even bat an eye at it? Even the Velorians have a passing respect for life; they hold everybody else in contempt, but they at least worry about it."

He kicked at a loose pebble, turned away. "I gotta go get packed. I'll… I'll see ya later."

She was up, seizing his hand before he could leave. "You've learned the Kalrist teachings too well. You heap blame upon yourself in an unending stream."

Julia cupped her palm on his cheek. "You have never been anything but kind, considerate, and loving to me. Arwyn adores you; you adore her as much, if not more. You may not have noticed it, but even Kara looks at you differently than the way she oogles anything wearing boxers. You're a remarkable man; if you were so callous, you wouldn't worry about it."

She went up on tiptoes, kissed his other cheek softly. "Now. We both need to pack."

He had another surprise when they descended to the living floor. Julia paced right alongside to his door, smiling up at him.

"What?"

She giggled. "Michael made a modification to the sleeping arrangements while you were gone."

His door slid open. Julia's suitcase was propped outside the closet door, her dressing gown hanging on the bedpost. "I was sleeping in the wrong quarters. I belong here with you."

He twisted his lips wryly. "I think you have that backwards. Either way, you're right. As usual."

He pecked her forehead, went to work packing. Before either of them got too far, a chime sounded at the door.

Kara stood at the threshold, one arm caught behind her back. Alec gave her a smile, finished stuffing some clothes in his carry-all. "Hello. How're your parents?"

She came in slowly, her face expressionless. "They're… okay. As confused as I am, but they're okay."

"Good," he flipped open a rosewood box he'd noticed on his dresser. A new set of armor in the Archon's colors was inside; he set it carefully in the carry-all. "Did Gabriel find you? Are you going to come with us to Tibet?"

She started, made a noncommital gesture with her head. Alec stopped packing. "What's that mean?"

"Why?"

He shrugged. "Why what?"

She entered, perched slowly on a chair. "You called the Matthe… my parents. You said that you saved them the night I ran away. Why?"

He smiled, turning back to his packing. "You needed it. I told you once before, nothing's more important than family."

"But you don't even like me."

"Of course I like you," he tugged his utility belt off, stripped out of his sweatshirt, rubbed his palms together. "Even if I didn't, you're an ally; it's my responsibility to make sure your head's all the way into the game."

His blacks swelled up his arms, molded into a sphere. He tossed the ball into his carry-all, added a standard set of add-ons. Kara watched him for a few quiet moments.

"I can't figure you out," she admitted softly. "And I think that's starting to bother me."

"Not much to figure out," Alec stopped, eyes losing focus for a second while he thought something over. "Well, once you get past the stuff on the outside. I'm just a run-of-the-mill guy, trying to make his way."

Almost on cue, the Shal'kyrie floated from it's brackets, landed in his palm. He turned it over in his hands, set it on the bed. "Don't try so hard, Kara. It isn't that big of a deal."

"You know everything about me," she argued. Julia stopped her packing, straightened from the closet. "And I don't know anything about you. Beyond the fancy armor and the little innuendo. Like for starters, why none of you… react to me."

Alec chuckled. "Ah-ha. Now I think I get it. You aren't used to people doing things for you out of the goodness of their heart. As… disturbing… as that is, I can understand it."

He sat down opposite her at his table. "Ask away. What do you want to know?"

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