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Last of The Fallen, Chapter 17

Written by mechjok :: [Wednesday, 01 July 2020 03:44] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 02 July 2020 21:53]

Last of the Fallen

Alec Collins woke with a start.

The oversized book he'd been reading when he'd fallen asleep toppled from his chest, flopped to the floor. He pushed his glasses all the way off, rubbed his eyes, settled them back in place.

He sat up, stretched his arms overhead, yawned. He leaned off the couch, scooped his book back up, flipped the cover flap back into place. Alexander's Empire, by B.R Greymouth; he'd taken Greymouth for a Classical Greece class in college at USF. He'd finally written that book he'd been talking about then; unfortunately, he was still long-winded and pompous. Even in his writing.

Alec set it on his book table- his little label for the volume-covered workbench in one corner of his den- blew out another yawn. He checked his watch while he scrubbed his hair. Six-thirty. Time to get up anyway; he was supposed to meet Peter at Lucy's for breakfast.

He got to his feet, double-checked the manuscript still blinking on his computer. He saved the file, shut the Compaq down, flicked the lights in his den off.

He trotted up the shallow stairs to the top of his split-level rancher, got out his running togs. A day without a run wasn't a day at all.

He did his four miles, got home, showered, and shaved by 7:30, then walked in the door of Lucy's at a quarter to eight. Grover's Mill, Minnesota, was just waking up when he settled down for his first cup of coffee, Francie Walker pouring with a smile.

"Like clockwork," she murmured. "I have no idea how you do it."

He smiled back, patted the hand she rested on the counter. "Gotta have my sunshine every morning, Francie, or the day just isn't right."

She laughed, gave his hand a squeeze, went back to work. She'd been his first friend when he'd moved here from Sacramento, and they were still close, especially since Clay had come back around last year. Folks in these parts didn't take kindly to abusive ex-husbands from Minneapolis, least of all Grover's Mill's resident world-famous writer. Peter had dragged him off the man, then kicked him in the side of the head for good measure. Francie and Josh had slept over for a few nights, until Sheriff Garth Morris had shipped Clay off to the State Pen.

He sipped his coffee, waved to Ella and Bill Martin. Nothing like handling a problem for one of the town's favorite daughters to endear someone to local folks. Ella had left pies and cakes at his door for almost a month before he finally begged her off, claiming incipient weight gain. Of course, once his celebrity status had been affirmed- damn Entertainment Tonight anyway- there had been no stopping the flood of goodies, invitations to dinner, free rounds of golf, and the rest of it. It had lasted for six excruciating months.

He suppressed a laugh as Wayne Gillian came over, slapped his shoulder, sat three stools down. He could have just become a hermit, but every time he heard about a civic project or a school fund raiser or some such, he'd rolled up his sleeves and jumped in. He'd helped build the new steeple at the Episcopal church, got right up in the mud with Wayne and Peter and Garth to dig the Walker's new well, raised a half million for the new pool at the high school. No matter who needed help, all they had to do was call him.

Wayne unfolded his paper, slid the Lifestyles and Culture section down to Alec. "That Beuford at the Star doesn't know squat; he crucified you in his column. Again."

Alec flipped it open, sighed. Monty Beuford was a columnist at the Star for a reason; he'd taken to spewing venom at Alec in particular and Grover's Mill's other famous residents in general to make a name for himself. The AP had picked up a couple of his pieces, and had them met with such universal disapproval that now they wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole. Wayne was the only person in all of Grover's Mill to even get the Star anymore; Mayor Teddy Banks' wife Sally had engineered a drive to ban the paper from Grover's Mill altogether. The only reason Wayne still got it was so he could snicker at Beuford in front of everybody.

"Garbage in," Alec replied, folding it closed and sliding it down, "garbage out. Riley ready for Edgemont?"

Wayne nodded. "As he's gonna be. Kid's been throwing bullets all week."

"How's Gracie getting there? Me and Francie and Josh are going, so we can take her and Suzie if you need it."

"Appreciate that. Weather's supposed to take a turn here Friday morning."

"No problem," he sipped at his cup. "Let me know. Home all week."

Peter Matthews popped in the door, shrugging his coat off. "What, no press junket this week? I thought Sagittarius was hitting the stores Thanksgiving."

He jabbed his friend's ribs gently. "Shut it with the junkets, okay? I told Mason Geddrick I'd kick his ass the next time I see him. No more reporters are coming to town."

He silently thanked heaven for small favors. No one had pieced together Jordan Sinclair and Tom Sheridan; at least part of his cover was intact.

Peter accepted a cup from Francie, warmed his palms on the mug. "Tourism went way the hell up last summer. 'Least, that's what Harvey was telling me last night. And Clark says he can't keep your Chronicles in stock over there at the Nook."

"Why are you checking on my book sales? Looking to get some Baen stock?"

"Always looking for a winner," Peter smiled. "Gotta start saving up for the baby's college education."

Wayne sprayed coffee across the counter. Alec dropped his cup. "You're kidding me. Ali's pregnant?!"

Peter's smile widened. "Yep. Got the test back last night."

"Congratulations!" Alec pounded him on the shoulder, pumped his hand. "About time, you bastard!"

Peter reddened, pulled a box of cigars from out of his overcoat. He handed one over. "Thanks, pal. Really."

Wayne tried to wrench Peter's arm out of it's socket, took a cigar as well. By that time everyone in the diner was crowded around, offering well wishes. Francie did too, after mopping up Wayne's mess. "That's wonderful, Peter."

"Thanks, Francie," he took a slug of coffee. "Now I'm glad I didn't go to LA Wednesday night after all."

Alec sighed. "How many more of those shoots you going to blow off, Peter? Jesus, that's the fourth one in two months. Why are you in on the Lear if you never use it?"

The man chuckled. "I took that job in St. Paul three weeks ago. Look, man, I'm happy being a homebody for right now, okay? Once the baby comes, and we get situated, I'll get serious about it. I promise, Mom."

Alec grumbled. "You know, Event Horizon is looking for a new producer; they're in New York for a couple of weeks, I could talk to McDonough, set something up. New York's almost a day trip- hell, take Ali with you. Like I say, it's top dollar, and short term. They want something quick."

Peter quirked an eyebrow. "What happened to Lukather?"

"Connor didn't say. But he went tits-up on them, so they're shopping around. I'm surprised they didn't already call you."

Peter thought it over for a minute, nodded slowly. "Sure. If they want to talk, I'll talk to them."

Alec smiled, turning to address the plate of ham, eggs, and browns Francie slid in front of him. "Good. Be home at twelve-fifteen; Hazelford's a nut for punctuality. They want you; I already greased the wheels."

He cut his eggs up, mixing them with his hashbrowns, reached for the ketchup. "And close your mouth, Peter. There's no sense in knowing people in the industry if you can't help a buddy out."

Peter complied, slowly, shook his head. "Man, you are a piece of work."

"Thanks. Speaking of your mom, how'd your folks take the news?"

Peter nibbled on his bacon. "Ecstatic. How do you think they'd be?"

"Good. Send the Lear, have them come for a visit," he forked up a bite, chewed it carefully, blotted his mouth with a napkin.

"I can't do that..."

"Sure you can. Chels's in the middle of a kiln-firing frenzy, Max's on hiatus until after New Year's and then he's going to New Zealand for three months, and Abby and I are both in the middle of books," he took a bite of ham. "So, we're all here for a while. Besides, one day won't kill anybody."

Peter got a funny look on his face. "Except maybe me..." he muttered, eating some browns.

"What was that?" Alec asked, eyes on his plate.

"Nothing. Hey, you gonna be home this afternoon?" he pushed some eggs up with his toast.

"Yeah, the new revisions came back. Why?"

Peter shook his head while he chewed. "Kinda private. Rather wait."

"Sure."

Wayne gestured to the TV above the counter. "Francie, turn that up, huh?"

Alec glanced up, studied the screen. "Aw, man, what now?"

"... Kualu Lumpur is digging out this morning following yesterday's unexplained attack on the city. Damage estimates are already in the tens of millions; death tolls at over four thousand and still rising. Malaysian authorities are remaining tight-lipped about what exactly went on in their capitol last night, but Secretary of Defense Brett Talbot cautioned the perpetrators to look elsewhere for targets."

"It's Malaysia," Wayne hollered at the screen. "What the hell's in Malaysia? Besides a crapload of people?"

Peter had gone pale; Alec didn't notice. "They're terrorists, Wayne. They're not supposed to make sense."

He studied the images again. "Must've been one humdinger of a bomb to do that, though. Looks more like someone brought in a bunch of tanks, did a little urban renewal."

Francie clicked the sound back down. She shivered, turned away. "Long as they don't come here. 9-11 was bad enough."

Wayne got up, raised the sound on his own. "Alec, look at this..."

"... local sources reported at least one SuperFemme sighting, possibly more, leading EarthFirst chairman Donovan Young to issue a statement condemning what appears to be an alien incursion on a defenseless urban area..."

"Wayne, turn that crap off," Alec said angrily, again not noticing Peter's paling face. "EarthFirst. Nothing but a bunch of bigots and hotheads, spreading hate. And people eating it up. I thought we were past that."

Bill Martin had moved behind Alec, nodded his head. "No place for talk like that in these parts, Wayne. Don't imagine the little green men are going to come to Grover's Mill any time soon; when they do, they aren't gonna find a bunch of folks aiming guns at them."

Wayne flicked the station to SportsCenter. "Yeah, you're right, Bill. I'll say one thing, though, that Young knows how to give a speech."

Alec pushed his plate away. "So did Hitler, Wayne. There's no excuse for preaching hate, and that's what he does."

Wayne hung his head; Bill rested his hands on Alec's shoulders. "Nothin' wrong with neighbors havin' a chat, Alec."

Alec sighed. "You're right, Bill. Wayne, I'm sorry. But you know how I feel about those..."

He stopped, got up, started again. "Anyway, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it."

He stuck his hand out. Wayne took it, slapped his shoulder. "It's okay, man. I know better anyways- you're on target, he's nothing but a big mouth with a bigger pulpit. You still coming to the Edgemont game?"

"Sure."

Michael smacked a fist into his other palm. "Lucifer..."

As if summoned, he appeared, almost a twin for Michael, except the long black hair, blood red suit. "You called, brother dear?"

The Archangel rounded on him, grabbing a fistful of suit. "What happened to no direct interference? Why is he in Grover's Mill, Minnesota, of all places, writing books and flirting with waitresses?"

That odious oily smile. "No direct interference? I'm sorry, resurrecting a mortal doesn't qualify? Once you decided to bend the rules, he became fair game."

"I'll fair game you, you little guttersnipe..."

"Please do," Lucifer grinned. "I could do with teeing the Apocalypse off right this second; so many lovely souls to harvest."

Michael reluctantly let him go, seething. Lucifer smirked at him. "I made the usual provisions. I cannot attack the boy directly. And I don't want to- this is so much more entertaining. The Kaldec are attacking, and Somack's whelp is in the middle of nowhere, not even aware it's going on."

"He won't stay out of it forever."

Lucifer chuckled; it was still the most evil sound Michael had ever heard, putting his hackles up.

"He won't? Pay attention, brother- he has no idea who he is, or what he's supposed to be doing. No one does. No one for thousands of miles around. And even if they find him, then what? He won't believe any of it; until he does, he doesn't get to go back."

Another chuckle. "He did it to himself. His Constellations Chronicles are about the Order; if by some chance the Knights show up, he'll think they've stolen his material and call the authorities. No mere mind-play is going to restore him- he must accept it in his heart, or he will remain what he is.

"I should have thought of this before. Doom an entire planet by giving one man... everything he wants. No strings attached."

Lucifer vanished, his voice lingering. "And best of all, to get him to save them, they'll have to make him Hate. Every. Last. One. Of. Them."

Alec sat at his computer, typing away happily. Best of all worlds- a hands-off editor and millions of fans. Made editing a dream.

Aquarius was finished, ready for an editing pass. He was halfway done with the edit on Gemini, meaning it was going to go to press a month and a half early, earning him another bonus. Easily enough to convince Jack and Andy to give up that sewer of a city, move up to Sacramento with Mom. He'd already made some calls, gotten Jack lined up with an advertising firm in the capitol. What with all the weird shit going on in Frisco, it was a wonder Jack was still there.

What he really wanted was to get Jack to move out here. He knew his brother would never go for it- Andy may have been from Oklahoma, but Jack would have a heart attack at the first decent snowfall. Besides, there wasn't much call for a hotshot ad exec in Grover's Mill. And he'd never swallow being paid fifty grand a year to be Alec's assistant.

Jack was too damn stubborn for his own good.

As long as he got the three of them the hell out of San Francisco, he didn't really care. That was all that mattered.

He plugged away at it for another hour, then called it quits. Morning work done. Time for a break. He got up, padded to the kitchen, surveyed his provisions.

Not as well supplied as he could be. He found his shoes, got his coat, hopped in the Explorer to head for the store. The perfect diversion.

Grover's Mill was as small-town Americana as a Norman Rockwell painting. It was safe enough in this town to leave your front door open all night long- not unlocked, standing wide open. Back in March, Marcella and Todd Hamilton had left for Duluth when Marcella's mom had gotten sick, leaving the house wide open; Wayne had driven by, spotted the house standing empty, gone in, locked everything up, taken the laundry out of the dryer and folded it, gone back every day to water the lawn until Todd came home a week later.

The biggest crime in the last ten years had been Clay Harris the year before; Garth had shipped him off more to prevent his being lynched than for any threat he'd posed the community. The people in Grover's Mill didn't care much for crime, and weren't afraid to let the criminals know it. Sometimes at the tops of their lungs.

Gramercy's lot was barely a quarter full; thank God for Wednesdays. For a town of barely ten thousand, Charley Gramercy did his level best to compete with the big boys in the neighboring towns, like that Wal-Mart in Princeton. Besides, he was a good guy, working hard to keep people happy- he deserved their support.

The thin crowd allowed him a quick trip, loading up on essentials. Mary Camden slipped him a wink while she was ringing everything up. "You planning a party?"

"Only a party if you come, Mary," he teased, glancing at the newsrack by the checkstand. "Thinking of throwing Peter and Ali a little bash. You up for it?"

She gave him a nod and a dazzling smile. "Time and place, big fella."

"My house, Friday night. Be a good cap off after the Edgemont game. Round everybody up for me?"

Another nod. "I expect to see about everyone by tomorrow. No problem."

"Thanks, Mary," he watched Bryce London finish with the bagging, wheeled the cart off. "See you Friday, Bryce?"

The boy nodded. Alec took off.

Peter arrived at three, looking a little subdued. Alec gestured him in, gave him a searching look. "For someone who's having a kid, you don't look very happy."

"I'm not," he admitted, hanging his coat on the rack by the door. Alec led him to the kitchen, opened the fridge, handed him a beer. "Thanks. It doesn't have anything to do with Ali or the baby."

"Then what's the problem? I thought you said your folks were happy about it," he uncapped his Sam Adams, tossed the bottle opener to Peter.

"They are," he opened his beer, took a healthy swallow. "It's... it's my sister."

"Krista? She's still in South America, right?" Alec straightened from the counter. "Did something happen down there? She okay?"

Peter shook his head. "Not Krista; she's fine. No, this is my... other sister."

"I didn't know you had another sister."

"It's... complicated," Peter took another drink, fiddled with his bottle's wrapper. "Phenomenally complicated. I haven't seen her in fifteen years."

Alec set his bottle down. "That's not complicated. That's dead. What the hell? Why? She some kind of drug addict or something?"

"Kara?" he smiled very faintly, without much humor in it. "No. She's not an addict. Just... different. Very different. When we were kids, she was the Queen of Weird Shit. It's my understanding that it's only gotten worse in the last fifteen years."

"Peter, you just aren't making much sense," Alec said firmly, lifting his bottle again. "Just tell me, straight out. It'll make you feel better."

The man shrugged. "Okay. My sister Kara is SuperFemme."

Alec laughed. "Yeah. Right."

Peter quirked an eyebrow. "I'm serious, Alec. Dead serious."

Alec set his bottle down again. "You aren't... ohmigod, you are serious! Peter! What the hell?"

He shrugged. "We found her when we went camping one summer; she just dropped out of the sky. And my folks decided to bring her home with us... and the entire thing sounds completely insane to anybody who wasn't there. But, from the time I was thirteen, until she ran away when I was eighteen, SuperFemme was my sister, Lisa Kara Matthews."

Alec regarded him for a few long minutes. "Uh-huh. And how long have you been off your medication?"

"This isn't funny, man!" Peter slapped his hand down on the counter top. "When I was eighteen, there was an accident- she got out of control, almost killed my parents. They both went to the hospital in critical condition- by some miracle, they woke up the next morning just fine..."

Alec felt a slight chill, a faint sense of deja` vu, shook it off.

"... but I lit into Kara pretty good over it. She left home, never came back. No one's heard from her in thirteen years- she called me, once, and I hung up on her."

He studied the bottle rolling in his palms. "When I called my folks last night, they told me she called them two days ago. Some guy she'd just met made her make the call; she wants to try to come home."

"Dude," Alec breathed. "That's... that's monumental."

Peter snorted. "Yeah. Monumentally dangerous. She isn't like normal people, Alec. She's like all the sex and attitude and beauty and everything in every woman you've ever met or seen or dreamed of, all rolled up into one package. When I knew her, she could be the most caring person one second, and the most petulant child the next. Man, she gave me whiplash, and I was only her brother. The guys she dated, I honestly don't know how they lived through it."

He took a drink, set the empty bottle aside. "She had no regard for human beings, either. A lot of what she didn't do wasn't because she couldn't or wouldn't, but because it would be inconvenient: a lot of criminals she bagged back then are alive because it would have been too much of a hassle to kill them. She never said that outright, but man, sometimes it was terrifying to sit next to her at the dinner table."

Alec sighed, leaned on the counter opposite him. "Fifteen years is a long time, Pete. People change."

Peter shook his head. "Not Kara, Alec. I mean, c'mon, she's the most powerful woman in the world. The Army against her would be wiped out. Maybe a nuke, if they hit her, but that's no guarantee either. What would be her impetus to change? Who's going to hit her with a wake-up call that'll make an impression? Maybe one of your Legionnaires- how about you whistle one up for me?"

Alec laughed in spite of himself. "I don't imitate life, Pete. It's only a story- sorry."

Peter chuckled. "I suppose. But even if she wants to make amends, I don't want her in my life. There's... there's too much water under that bridge. And I have a family to think about- what happens if she loses it around the baby? Or Ali? That's just too much of a risk to take."

Alec nodded. "So tell your folks that. They'll understand."

"I don't know... for years, they always talked about Kara coming back- even last night, the first thing Mom said after squealing about the baby was how happy Kara would be to hear," he shuffled his feet. "I didn't have the heart to tell her then."

Alec reached over, picked up the phone, handed it to him. "Call them. Now. From here."

Peter looked from the phone back to him. "I can't..."

"You have to. Listen to me, you cannot, CANNOT, put your family in danger, period. If your parents can't understand that, then they have no business being around you or them. It's that simple.

"You're a grown man; you've made your decision. You want nothing to do with your sister, and you have valid reasons for that. If your folks don't accept that, then they've made their decision as well. But every decision has consequences- theirs may be to lose you until they come around. Call them."

Peter blew out a loud breath, took the phone, began to dial. Alec excused himself, going back to his den.

He was halfway through another chapter when Peter came in, flopped on the sofa. Alec looked his way, adjusting his glasses. "How'd it go?"

Peter shrugged. "Okay. They understand. Mom's not real happy, but I think Dad gets it. They agreed to not tell Kara where I am, or about the baby. And to not let anyone know when they come to see us."

Alec regarded his friend for a few long moments. "You okay?"

Peter shook his head. "No. I don't like this feeling at all, Alec. I should be a bigger person than this. But... she almost killed my parents, man, 'cause she was whoring around. And I can't get past that. Or the chance it'll happen again."

"Those are good reasons, Pete. Don't doubt your instincts; you have pretty good ones," Alec turned back to his computer, flicked it off. "Sometimes we all have to do things that kinda suck; driving your sister away was one of them for you. But you had a good reason, now you gotta stick to your guns."

Peter nodded slowly. "Thanks, man. I gotta tell ya, I don't know what I would have done if you'd gone to the farm on me."

Alec laughed. "You kidding me? I write science fiction for a living- weird's part of the job description. And, honestly, SuperFemme is pretty tame for me."

They both laughed. Alec's phone trilled; he scooped it up. "Hello?"

"Love of my life, how are you?" a firm soprano gushed. Alec rolled his eyes, smiled at Peter.

"Fine, Lorelei, how are you?"

"Wonderful, anytime I get to talk to you," so much earnestness in such a tiny package. Lorelei Hammersmith was Phil Jacobs' assistant; his agent had selected her for the job after Alec had made an off-hand comment about how attractive she was. A comment she was working very, very hard at improving on. "Anyway, Mr. Jacobs wanted me to call and confirm your appearance on the Today Show Friday morning."

"I already told him... did you say confirm?" Alec stood up. "I told Phil no more press! Sonova... Lorelei, put him on right now!"

She squeaked, complied. Once Alec heard the phone click, he started in. "Goddamn it, Phil! I told you no more press, and I by God meant it!!"

"Now take it easy, Alec, I just found out myself..."

"Really? Hey, Phil, you know Random House is thinking about expanding their SF line- think they'd be interested in carrying Chronicles, get them off on the right track?"

The line was dead for ten full seconds. "You wouldn't."

"Try me. I'm already under contract to them- I can write anything I want. And you can't do squat about it- read my contract with Baen. Full creator rights; it was part of the package to bag Jordan Sinclair to do promotions for the Zodiac Conspiracy."

Phil was quietly choking.

"Think the kids'll care? Hey, I just had a thought- I could buy half the first Random House print run with my advance from Baen, hand them out for free at Times Square before Christmas. I have the blues- they could get them printed in a couple of weeks, all that has to be changed is the insignia."

The choking was louder.

"I think... yeah, I got John Ticknor's number right here... hang on a sec, Phil, I'm gonna put you on hold..."

"NO!!" the man gasped. "Okay, no press, I promise!"

"I dunno, Phil, you tried to trick me... I don't think I can trust you anymore... I sure as hell can't trust you with my work... maybe I better give John a call."

"Abe will call in ten minutes with the Today producers, explain the whole thing to them, I swear to God!"

"We'll see," Alec slammed the phone down, ignored it when it started to ring almost immediately. "Goddamn agents."

Peter finally burst out laughing. "Man, you are too much!"

"What? It's in my contracts- no press. Under any circumstances," he settled back down, watching the clock. "I like living in Grover's Mill, Minnesota, where it's quiet, and peaceful, and slow. Where I can go have breakfast at Lucy's, talk to my friends, go get a beer at the Caber without being mobbed by people who want my autograph."

Peter shook his head. "You just threatened to ruin Phil's career, Alec."

"No, I called him on breaking his word. There's a difference- Pete, how many times has one of your videos been fouled up because someone didn't show up?"

"Point taken."

He sat quietly, watching the clock. At nine minutes, the phone rang; he picked it up. "Hello?"

Abe Goldberg was falling all over himself trying to apologize. The Today Show producers had come prepared though- a familiar, perky voice chirped in before the suits could run away with the conversation.

"Mr. Collins, this is Katie Couric, how are you this afternoon?"

Alec had switched to speaker; Peter started to laugh, fell off the couch. "I'm fine, Ms. Couric, thank you. Nice try, guys. No press."

"Mr. Collins... may I call you Alec?" Couric said soothingly.

"Certainly. No press."

"Alec, this is a terrific news story," he gave her credit for being unflappable. "It's like a fairy tale come true- something heartwarming for the season. Your books have literally tens of millions of fans, all over the world, ranging in age from nine to ninety, spanning every demographic- the President has read your books."

"Thank you for that sales breakdown, Ms. Couric. I'll be sure to include those figures in my next contract negotiations. No press."

"Please, call me Katie. May I ask why?"

"You may. It's in my contract, I like my privacy, it's in my contract, there's a reason I use a pen name, and, finally, it's in my contract. One which, technically, Baen is currently in breech of, allowing me to shop my latest novel, which is on it's way to stores right now, to another publisher immediately, consequently halting those shipments."

Peter was howling in the background; Alec thought he heard Abe have a stroke, the suits from NBC muttering, probably thinking lawsuit- from both sides.

"You want a story, Ms. Couric? Here's one for you- I have three novels completed, besides the one that's supposed to come out next week. I am now terminating my agreement with Baen Publishing, citing breech of contract, and opening the floor for any and all bids for my work product. Any publishing house is free to offer me a contract.

"In addition, I will be filing a lawsuit against NBC by the end of business today citing malicious intent with forehand knowledge of extenuating circumstances in attempting to invade my private life. My reticence to appear in public or grant interviews is a matter of public record, and as such, I feel confident of a lengthy, sordid, and altogether nasty trial.

"Oh, one more thing- under my contract, if there is a breech of this nature, all printed copies of my work automatically reverts to me upon dissolution of the contract. Therefore, Abe, you call the distributors, have them ship every last copy of Sagittarius to me, or Baen will not exist when I'm done with you. Ms. Couric, I will be giving away free copies of Sagittarius in Rockefeller Plaza the week before Christmas; feel free to inform the public of that."

He reached up to the phone. "Thanks for calling, everybody. Have a nice holiday."

He killed the phone.

Peter struggled up, wiping tears from his eyes. "Ohmigod, hanging with you is absolutely hilarious!"

Alec grinned. "Wait for it. Couric'll call John, ask for confirmation- then he'll call here to find out. Meantime, I gotta call Ed."

He flicked his phone up, tagged speed-dial. It took three seconds. "Heya, Ed. Got a live one for you."

Ed Burton glanced up from the pile of contracts, grinned. "Oh, yeah, you got 'em by the short hairs, my friend."

Alec tossed him the cordless. "Good. Give 'em a nice hard tug, Eddie."

Ed laughed, went to work. Peter pulled back in to the driveway, ran around to help a blushing Ali from the car. Before they could make it up the walk, Francie pulled in, hopped out, Molly Vescey lighting as well. They hopped up and down, squealed, ran up the stairs and blew in to the house.

Alec met them in the front hall, finger to his lips. "Ed's busy digging Baen's grave. Keep it down."

Francie clapped her hands to her mouth. Alec led them all into the living room, related the earlier conversations. By the time he was done, everyone was laughing.

Francie sat down next to him. "You gonna get the books?"

He nodded. "I have to. If I don't, Baen will end up going down; all I'd have to do is call David Drake, or Dave Weber, maybe Bujold, tell them what happened. They'll drop Baen like a hot rock."

Francie shook her head in wonder. "Wow. Some afternoon, huh?"

The Citadel, Tibet, November 17, 2001:

"Scanners show nothing," Cas said softly, sitting across from Somack. "I'm sorry, Master. No intruders, no energy signatures, nothing. He's just gone."

The Kalrist bowed his head. Connor put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed. "What about Anderson and Kincaide?"

Cas shrugged. "Again, no energy signatures. Given that, and the fact that both of them were dead when they arrived, I have no choice but to assume they're telling the truth."

"Why would he send them back, and not come himself?" Connor snapped angrily. "Damn it, this doesn't make any sense."

Jian crossed his arms. "Maybe he couldn't come back."

Connor snorted. "God's gonna let a psychotic pseudo-Protector and a Velorian sex-toy come back and not Alec? Yeah. Right."

Torik stirred. "Alec has wrought great damage upon many lives, Connor. Yes, all of them demanded he deal with them, but it changes nothing. Least of all to him. He may have decided himself unworthy of Heaven."

Connor shook his head. "Even he isn't that stubborn. Something else must have happened. Something we're not thinking of."

"We're dealing with the Father," Torik replied evenly. "Literally anything could have occurred."

Somack raised his head. "How is Julia?"

"Devastated," Jian sighed, found a chair. "It might be best to keep her away from the Velorians for a few days. Arwyn... well, if such a thing is actually possible, is worse than Julia."

The Cleric nodded, stood. "Enough. We must persevere. Assemble an attack force; we will go to investigate Alpha Point."

The rest of them got to their feet. Connor shuffled slowly. "Who will be in command?"

Somack set his shoulders. "I will. Let us go."

Julia sat on the couch in Alec's rooms, staring out the window. She was trying to distance herself from everyone, afraid of the hate rolling around in her belly just this minute. For everyone not in these rooms.

She hated Somack. She hated Jian and Connor and Gabriel. She hated herself. She hated God. She even hated Alec.

But mostly, she hated Kara. And her sniveling daughter and sick friends.

Her hate was an inferno, looking for fuel. She'd locked herself in their rooms to keep from finding it.

Kara had come the first night, trying to choke out a simpering apology. Arwyn had gotten in front of Julia before she could lunge, brushed the Protector off. Then the miracle of the other Velorian and the Scribe's lover's resurrection had fired a spark of hope, one that had vanished when she rushed to the Cathedral, found his body... gone.

It was too much. She'd finally collapsed, screaming wildly, forcing Jian to sedate her. That had been last night; since then, everyone had kept their distance.

Arwyn was despondent. She'd barricaded herself in the library, refused to come out. Kellehendra was out of her depth, trying to cope not only with her own grief, but the telepathic battering she was taking from both Julia and Arwyn. She was in their room, trying to lock the minds out while trying to find... something... to calm herself.

Julia dipped her eyes from the hillsides, feeling tears coming once more. Didn't he love her? Didn't he love her enough to come back? He'd told her he would die for her... why couldn't he live for her?

The door to the library opened. Arwyn, bleary-eyed, disheveled, stumbled out of the room, spotted Julia, ran over to grab her arm.

"C'mon," she whispered hoarsely. "We need to go."

Julia didn't flinch. "Where?"

"The Cathedral."

Julia snatched her hand away. "I don't want to pray, Arwyn. God doesn't want to hear what I have to say right now."

Kellehendra came out of her room, took hold of Julia's other arm. "Not to pray. To listen."

"There's no way this will work," Gabriel said firmly. "Even with Raphael here, we can't do this. They're sight-blind, you know that."

His slightly-longer haired companion nodded sagely. "They turned their backs on listening to us a long time ago. Save Somack, and he is blinded with rage right now. Well, and the boy, but he's beyond our reach."

"I will not allow this to occur," Michael barked. "I will not allow Humanity's champion- OUR champion!- to be removed from the field in this manner. We will speak, and they will listen."

Gabriel sighed. "When they aren't listening? How do you propose we do that?"

The Archangel smiled. "We don't need them all. Just one. Or in this case, two."

Arwyn ran into the Cathedral, ran to face the altar, dropped to her knees, folded her hands. By the time Kellehendra dragged Julia inside, closing the door behind her, Arwyn was murmuring in prayer.

Kel tugged insistently, parking Julia at the first pew, took her place beside Arwyn. They bowed their heads together, praying in two different languages.

Julia watched for a few minutes, got up to leave. There was no solace here; there was no solace anywhere.

The crucifix behind the altar began to glow. Neither of the girls stirred, still praying. But a figure resolved from the glow, the rough outline of a man, dropped to the polished floorstones in front of the girls.

He studied them for a moment; Julia thought she saw a small smile. He stretched his hands out, placed them lovingly on each head, and vanished.

Arwyn raised her head. The tears there weren't of sadness; not anymore. She looked at Kel, mirroring her expression. They hugged tightly, got to their feet.

Julia could only stare. Kel walked past her, grabbing her arm to bring her along. "Come on, we gotta find a ship. And a pilot."

"Why?"

Arwyn smiled. "We found him."

By the time they got to Ops, Julia had pried only the most basic information from them. Arwyn ignored her completely, tugging on Cas's arm. The Tech turned, smiled slightly.

"Well, hello. You decided to come out?" he rose. "What can I do for you?"

Arwyn sucked in a big breath. "We need a ship. And a pilot. For an emergency."

Cas nodded. He studied Julia briefly, ran his eyes over a very-serious Kellehendra, back to Arwyn. "Of course. May I ask what it is?"

She nodded. "But you have to keep it a secret, Cas. Promise me."

He chuckled. "Of course, dear."

She went up on tiptoes, cupped her hand around his ear. "I know where Alec is."

He started as if bit, grabbed her wrist. He stared into her eyes. "What?"

All she did was nod, very slowly.

He let her hand go, scanned Ops. "Ivan, take the rest of my watch. Li, you're in charge; have the field prep the Condor for me, right now."

He pointed to the doors. "Ladies, after you."

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