Written by mechjok :: [Saturday, 11 July 2020 22:05] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 18 July 2020 09:24]
Once she'd recovered from the crying and screaming, Sorala had dragged him to Medical, sitting him down in an isolation room, then summoning Cordy to run the medicomps while she delved him more deeply than anyone ever had before.
Cordelia stopped staring, went over the comp readings a third time. "Masters, he's fine. Down about ten thousand calories, but otherwise normal."
Sorala dropped her hands from his head, nodded. "He's intact. Hungry as a spring bear, but intact."
"It's a miracle," Somack murmured. "Praise God."
Alec struggled to his elbows. "Can I please eat now? Somebody?"
Cordy hopped up, went to the replicator. "What would you like, Archon?"
He twisted his lips up at the replicator. "From that? Nothing. You guys tweaked it so people would stay sick in Medical."
Somack chuckled. "Adam, go to the commissary, fetch the Archon something palatable. Meat, bread, potatoes, noodles. Quickly, lad."
The boy bowed, ran off. Alec sat all the way up. "Thien, I want you to go up to the West Tower, kick down the door to his prayer cell, and drag Sergei down here. And for the love of God, make sure he's properly dressed, in what befits a Knight of the Order, not some desert wildman."
Thien bowed as well. "At once, Archon."
Alec swiveled to Jian. "Go and fetch Gabriel. No more of his foolishness. If he backtalks, slap him around."
Jian nodded, left. "Did someone roust Connor, or is he still passed out in the Cathedral?"
The man in question stumbled into the room. "'M okay," he mumbled, staggering to a chair. "Just need a minute. Hey, you're not dead anymore. Good for you. When the world stops spinning around, I'll give you a hug."
Stephen came in just then, carrying the Shal'kyrie. Torik trailed after, wobbling when he spied Alec. Somack grabbed his arm, held him up.
Stephen ignored the Kalrist, dropping to his knees before Alec. "Your sword, My Lord."
"Thank you," Alec took it, strapped it on his back. "Now get the hell up off of your knees. Why is there no training going on, Master Torik?"
The Kalrist stuttered. "Ah, we were in… mourning, Archon."
"I see," Alec slid off the biobed, shrugged the swordstraps around on his shoulders. "One man falls and the Order slams to a halt?"
Somack's eyes narrowed. "But it was not any one man…"
"Irrelavent. War is being waged, in case all of you have forgotten. We will stand silent no longer. Master Torik, please reinstate all training regimens immediately. What movements have the Kaldec made?"
Torik glanced at Somack, opened his mouth. "Nothing, since Gabriel opened fire on Alpha Point."
"I see," he folded his arms. "Has anyone interrogated our prisoner from Kualu Lumpur?"
"Not yet, Archon," Somack's voice was a touch subdued.
"What of Coriana and Kon? Have they been put to the Question yet?"
"Again, Archon, not yet."
Alec nodded. "Then we will rectify that immediately. Stephen, summon the Elders, have them join us in the brig. They will want to see this."
Adam hurried in, carrying a tray heavy with food. Alec took it from him, looked the boy up and down. "My disciple, huh?"
Adam drew himself up. "Yes, Archon."
"Go with Torik, draw armor and weapons. Once I finish interrogating the prisoners, we will begin your training," the scent of the food almost made his knees buckle. "First, though, I'm going to eat. I'd like some privacy, if I may."
Everyone took the hint, except Somack. He waited until the others were gone, sliding himself on to a stool. "You seem… perturbed."
Alec sliced a piece off a slab of replicated beef. "What did you expect? What have you done while I was… indisposed?"
"Little," Somack acknowledged.
"Exactly. There is some excuse for Julia, Arwyn, and Kellehendra; there is none for you, or Gabriel, or any of us. We are the Guardians of this world, Somack. Once we chose our path, there was no turning back. We all knew what we were getting into, what Honor costs. You forgot once before, and it cost the Compact. The next time, it may cost this world and everyone on it."
Somack nodded slowly. "You are correct. Of course, you are correct. Again, I prove that…"
Alec slapped his fork down. "You prove what? That you have become as human as the rest of us? No one expects from you what you expect from yourself. Swallow your pride, Somack. The time for nursing our wounds, huddling against our own pain is gone. This world and it's people depend on us to protect them."
Somack sighed. "I have grown weary of loss. This last…"
"The time has come to stand firm, Master. The war has come. We must stand together now. Losing you would be the only insurmountable tragedy. Because of who you are, not what you are."
"Will you lead?"
"Will you?" Alec countered. He waited for Somack's nod, then blew out his breath. "Then I will as well."
Somack managed a watery smile. "Eat, then."
Alec dug into his meal. Less than three bites later, the door slid open, a blonde and dark blur racing in, tackling Alec fiercely.
Arwyn was crying and babbling and muttering all at the same time. She barely pushed him against the bed before Julia piled on the both of them, cupping his face in her hands, kissing him wildly. Somack chuckled softly, stood, made his way out, sidestepping Kellehendra before he left.
The Kalrist girl halted before the wriggling mass of humans. Alec looked up, held his hand out to her, pulled her into the embrace with the others.
"You came back," Julia laid on the bed, his head on her stomach, playing with what there was of his hair. Arwyn snuggled on one side, Kel the other, both just watching his face. He nodded.
"How could it be Heaven," he answered. "without all of you?"
Julia chuckled deep in her throat, hugged him tightly.
"We're glad you're back," Kel said, burying her face in his chest. Arwyn nodded, reaching up to caress his cheek.
"As much as I'd love to lay here all day with the three most beautiful women on Earth," he said, wriggling off Julia's stomach, "there is work to be done."
Arwyn slid off, pouting. "Can't it wait?"
"It's waited two days already, dear. I have tolerated the Kaldec on my world long enough; the time to be rid of them has passed," he paused to peck her forehead. "We'll catch up tonight. After I start training Adam."
"I want to train too."
He stopped dead at that, studying Arwyn. "Absolutely not."
"Why not?" she asked, sliding her legs off the bed. "I'm strong, tough, smart. I can fly, the energy bolts…"
"Because it's bad enough Julia's out there, I don't want you in the line of fire, too," he stopped, wagged a finger at Kel. "And as for you, Don't. Even. Think. It."
Kel huffed. "My place is on the lines, fighting for this world… fighting for all of my people!"
"Stirring," he'd pulled the Shal'kyrie off when the three of them had mauled him; he lifted it, put it back on. "But futile. No."
"But…" they started together. Alec held up his hand.
"This discussion is over. No."
Arwyn crossed her arms. "We're already in it, Daddy. When they come here again, don't you want us to be ready?"
"The first Kaldec to lay his hand on either of you ever again," Alec replied very evenly, "will do it with my dead hand clamped around his neck."
"Kara wants to let her daughter train…" Kel groused. He smiled at her.
"That's her choice to make. The same way telling you two no is mine."
"And mine," Julia interjected, standing, hugging Alec around the waist. "The battlefield is no place for either of you. It isn't a place for any of us."
Both of the girls opened their mouths. Alec shook his head. "I'm older. I can be stubborn longer. Give it up."
Kel stuck her tongue out at him. Arwyn snorted, turned away, flopped back down on the bed. "This sucks. Totally."
"Yes, it does," he bent down to give her another gentle kiss on the forehead. "But life's tough on everybody."
He started out of the isolation room. Before he was five steps from the door, all three of them were milling around him. "What are you doing now?" Arwyn asked, taking the hand Julia wasn't holding.
"Gathering information," he replied. "We have three prisoners. It's time to pick their brains. By any means necessary."
They walked past Medical. As they passed, the door opened, a lithe, blond-haired woman peering out the jamb at them. "Are you… you're the Archon, aren't you?"
He stopped, turning around. "You must be Xara."
"I prefer Dani," she replied, coming slowly into the hallway.
"Of course. How are you?"
She shrugged. "Okay. Thanks to you."
"Good," he turned back to the hall. "If you'll excuse me…"
"Wait, please," she trotted a couple of steps after them, stopped when he glanced her way. "I wanted to ask you something."
She tilted her head at him. "Why did you save me? I mean, you… died… and I don't even know you."
He nodded. "You needed to be saved."
He smiled, once again moving away. "There isn't a better reason, Dani. I'll see you around."
They left her in the hall; when they turned the corner, Alec saw her standing there, watching them. But then they were on their way to the brig; Alec motioned them all off as he neared the gigantic iron door.
"Go on ahead," he intoned quietly, his voice hard. "I'll be along shortly."
The door swung open. The girls and Julia traded looks, walked away, Alec entering the brig.
They'd taken to calling it that centuries before, finding dungeon too harsh a word. Torik had recently mused about stripping the cells back down to bare stone and thickened steel chains, particularly given the two occupants of the brig at the moment.
Kon sat dumbly on his bed, staring away at nothing. His neural paralyzer glittered around his bald head, matched by the flashing telltales on his wristbands. Coriana still wore her placid arrogance like a robe, folding her arms defiantly when Alec entered, though her eyes burned at the sight of the Shal'kyrie strapped to his back.
Both sat in cages too comfortable for their betrayal- food replicator, padded bunk, access to the general database. The lighting system simulated normal sunlight, allowing them to keep from becoming paled, withered wretches. Sometimes being humane was overrated.
One Knight stood watch, snapping to his feet when Alec came in the door. "Archon!" he shouted, saluting. "My Lord, you've returned!"
"Hello, Vincent," Alec gave him a small smile, gestured to the cells. "These giving you any trouble?"
"The human woman has been testing the strength of the shield, My Lord," Vincent said, matching Alec's smile, "but I believe she has found her strength wanting."
Alec tossed a glance at the third lit cell. A gray shape flung itself against the barrier, bounced off, crashed against the back wall. Alec clasped his hands behind his back, stepped into view.
Brooke Leathers sneered back at him, wrenching herself out of the dented rear wall. Her replicator had been ripped from the wall, lay on the floor a crumpled mass; her bunk had been equally shredded. While he stood there, she hurled her shoulder against the barrier once more, rebounding off to collide with the rear wall in exactly the same spot.
"You're in a force cube," he said, shaking his head when she lunged again. "We developed Zeriphium fields twelve millenia ago; this is a bit more resilient than the portables you used against us in Kualu Lumpur."
She dragged herself up, dusting iron flakes from her leather jerkin. "I'll get out of here. And when I do…"
She gasped in mid-sentence, dropped bonelessly to the floor. Alec watched her fall. "Sure you will."
He took a couple of steps to his left, stood in front of Coriana. "I figured you for a coward, but I never would have believed a traitor."
"It is not treason to seek to protect my people," her tone was still the same, arrogance wrapped in self-assurance. "You pathetic humans cannot protect us. Only we can protect ourselves."
The brig door opened. Yamar, Vona, Romvey, Krennit, and Furmal, the Kal Elders, came slowly into the bloc, all eyes fixed forward on Alec. The three Augurs followed, then Somack, Torik, and Sorala.
Before Alec could even acknowledge them, they all fell to their knees. "The Archon lives!" Yamar cried, pressing his face to the floorstones. "Praise the Creator!"
The others cried out as well, pressing their faces to the floor, weeping openly. Vona tried to scrabble forward, seize his ankles. Alec squatted down, taking hold of her wrists.
"Please, My Lady, please rise," he tugged her to her feet. "All of you, get up. This is… there is no need for this."
Vona tried to wrest her hands free, drop back to her knees. Alec held her firmly, raised his voice. "I said get up!"
Eyes rose from the floor. "I am the same man I was two days ago! I am no spirit incarnate! I have not given my life to the Order to have Kalrist bowing and scraping before me! Now get up!"
Yamar rose slowly, eyes still downcast. "My Lord Archon, we are not worthy…"
"Yamar, that's your first mistake."
Yamar looked up at that. "You want unworthy? It stands before you. Caged, like the animal it is."
He turned hateful eyes upon Coriana. The former Triumvere went purple. "Yamar, wh… what are you…?"
"You betrayed us," his voice was harder than the steel caging Coriana. "The Kaldec came to the Colony…"
She recoiled. "No…"
"Six hundred and forty-eight of us died in the battle. Had the Archon and the Knights not been there, we all would have died."
"You arrogant sow!" Vona hissed, starting forward. "You attempted to deal with the Kaldec?! They drove us from our home, wiped out our people! Tried to destroy our culture, our identity, our future! You are not only blind, you are an idiot!"
Coriana collapsed to the floor. "They swore to me…"
"You stripped us of our guardians!" Romvey's snarl might have been canvas tearing. "You distanced us from the Order! You made us break faith with our human brothers! You have forsaken the Brotherhood!"
"And still, after arrogance, and betrayal, and lies, they stand firm!" Krennit's eyes flashed angrily. "You make me ashamed to own myself a Kal, kril'naret, here in the home of the Order! You have defiled our entire people!"
Furmal gazed at her, nothing but contempt in his eyes. "We will see you burn, traitor."
Yamar turned his back on Coriana. "Take what you will, Archon, by any means you deem necessary. We will not object. She is already dead to us. When you are finished, we will end this as honor demands."
Mazar stepped forward. "We will deal with her, Lord Archon. We will pick her clean; this buffoon as well."
He nodded his chin towards Kon, staring pale-eyed at the gathering. At Mazar's voice, Coriana jerked erect, eyes huge in her face. Mazar smiled thinly. "You may stay and observe, if you wish. I plan on this interrogation being… most unpleasant."
Alec held his hand up. "We are the Order, Lord Mazar. We do not torture our prisoners; we are above that."
Geserac's eyes widened. "Lord Archon, she left you to die at the hands of the Kaldec! She imperiled your… our entire world!"
He shook his head calmly. "We will not defeat the Kaldec by becoming them. No torture."
Croslax folded his hands in his robes, the faintest of smiles creasing his lips. "You should drop to your knees, give thanks to the Lord our God for the fact that this man has learned better than what you have taught him."
Mazar nodded, stepping to the shield. "As the Archon commands. We will be… somewhat careful."
"Accidents do happen," Geserac's chuckle set his hair on end. "But we will try not to do any permanent damage."
"The Archon is as merciful as he is wise," Croslax dropped the shield, entered Coriana's cell. The woman shrank from all of them. "Unfortunately for you, we are not the Archon."
"Opaque," Mazar called. The shield darkened; the first snivels came out a few moments later.
Somack took Alec's shoulder gently. "Come, lad. Let us go."
Yamar and the Elders had already left. Sorala took Alec's arm, led him away, Somack and Torik trailing them. "They will pick her clean, Alec. A lot of what they were saying was just talk."
"And if she suffers…" Somack growled.
"… all the better," Torik rumbled. He looked back at Alec's mild glance. "She has betrayed us. She will die for it. The more painfully, the better. That is not harsh, Archon, that is the Code of the Warrior."
"Only the weak succumb to brutality, Torik," Alec replied, steering Sorala to Ops. "We are many things, but we are not weak."
"Lord Archon!" Yamar led the Elders to the quartet, all of them once again bowing low from the waist. Alec returned the gesture. "We would request an audience with you, My Lord. You, your consort, and your children. And all of the Brotherhood, all that have rallied to your banner."
Alec stammered for a moment. "Of… of course, Lord Yamar. May I ask why?"
The Kal shook his head. "I would prefer to leave that as a surprise, My Lord. May we convene this evening?"
"Excellent. The Augurs have prepared the Central Vault for us all. At moonrise… your eighteen hundred hours?"
Alec nodded once more.
"Thank you, Lord Archon," he bowed low once more. "By your leave, we will depart. Lord Somack, may we speak?"
Somack slipped away quietly. Alec watched them go, both men's heads bowed together. "Do either of you know what that's about?"
Torik grinned faintly. "As Morrigan says, they are all a little nuts."
Alec spluttered. Sorala smiled for the first time all morning.
Ops beckoned. Sorala dropped Alec's arm, followed him into the room. A cheer went up at his appearance, one that died when he raised his hand. "Status report."
Just like that, they went back to work. Cas stood, handed over a datapad. "BDA from Kualu Lumpur. Revised with the latest information."
He couldn't hide his grin; Alec reached over, chucked his shoulder without looking up. "Thank you. Alpha Point?"
"Page nine. We've been monitoring USM comm traffic since we hit it; they don't know what to make of it," Cas reached back to his station, produced a second pad. "It registered as a nuclear strike, but without any of the background after effects. This report has geologic, seismic, environmental impacts, prelim damage estimate."
"You guys finished refitting a Gryphon as a Crusader carrier?" Alec's eyes flicked back and forth from each pad; he handed the first to Torik, pointed at a line. Cas waited for him to look up, nodded.
"Yeah. We have four Myrmidon-class transports ready to go; the fabers are churning them and the Condors out as fast as we can send them."
Alec chuckled. "Good name, Cas. Fire two of them up, deploy to Alpha Point. I want potential human contact kept to a minimum," he traded Torik pads, again pointing at something, handed the first to Sorala with the same emphasis. "You outfitted the 'bots with full-field sensors, right?"
"Of course, Archon," Cas snapped his fingers. Four Techs leapt up. "Graydon, you heard the Archon. Move 'em out."
The Tech saluted, trotted up the stairs. "Each Myrmidon carries thirty-five Crusaders; that should be enough to run a full sweep."
"Excellent," Alec watched Torik curse under his breath. "Where are we at with the treaty negotiations?"
"On hold, Archon," Cas shifted slightly. "There was, ah…"
"Never mind, Cas," Alec grumbled, sweeping his eyes around Ops. "Master at Arms, please go and get Dr. Sheridan, bring him here. Time in Washington?"
"Nine-twenty last night, Archon, " Li piped up immediately. Torik frowned.
"The time differential is working against us; perhaps it is time to consider Operational relocation to Seattle."
"It's funny you should mention that," Alec began. "because I was thinking of something along those lines, just a bit more… radical…"
Thien came into Ops, all but dragging Sergei behind him. The huge Russian had found his armor, but apparently not his dignity yet. Before Thien could haul him to the Pit, Alec caught the other's eye, motioned his head towards the Council Chambers.
Thien caught the hint, changed course, Alec spotting Jian and Connor out in the hall before the doors closed. "Cas, the Council, minus Lord Somack, is about to convene. I want you to keep all traffic out of there until we're done…"
Sorala and Torik made up the stairs, leaving Alec with the Tech for a second. "… and I want you guys to start a practicality model on this."
He bent over Cas's station, fingers blurring over the inputs. Cas watched, whistled silently. "Holy God… you don't want much, do you?"
"I just want to know if we can do it," Alec said.
"Of course we can; that isn't the point- where? And what if someone shows up in the middle of it?"
Alec shrugged, heading for the stairs. "Crunch some numbers for me. Then we'll look at those. And find something to keep Sheridan occupied until I get back."
Adam rose quietly from his heels outside Ops. Alec flashed a look his way as he passed. "You find what you need?"
"Good. Come along," the boy heeled him, exactly a pace behind and to the right. When they neared the Council doors, Alec reached back, yanked his sword off his back. "Here. Hold this for me."
Adam blanched, taking the weapon. Alec smiled, pointed to the gallery, made his way into the center of the Chamber. More than one set of eyes bugged out at his arrival, but he held up his hand, coming to a halt in front of the gathering. "What the hell have you all been doing?"
Feet shifted. Alec bored in on Sergei first. "Locked in a prayer cell. Are you kidding me? I swear to God Almighty, Sergei, if you have stripes on your back when you report to Medical after we're done, I'm gonna run your ass until you drop and puke."
He swiveled to Gabriel. "So you blow up Alpha Point. Good. Where was the follow through? Why aren't there troops swarming all over the place? And would you care to explain to me why your command codes have been rescinded?"
Byron and Eric were next. "Why haven't you made any progress on the treaty? Every second we give them to dope out the database is a second too long. You are backing us into a corner no one, you, me, or even them wants to be in. Can you understand that?"
"What about you?" he folded his arms, targeting Morrigan. "You're ten thousand years old. You've been the fighting spirit of the Order for nine thousand. You mean to tell me you fold it up because one of us falls? Is that it? So how come you came back out of the gate after the Culling full of piss and vinegar?"
Frederick had hung his head. "What would you have wanted me to do if it had been you who died in Kualu Lumpur? Would you have wanted me to just quit?"
"I wouldn't have sacrificed myself," Frederick responded angrily, "to save a Velorian harlot and her bastard child."
Alec got right in Frederick's face. "Then you don't know what honor is."
The man pulled back, turning white. Alec kept right at him. "Honor is doing the right thing, every time, No. Matter. What. I saved two lives. It doesn't matter who they were, they were two lives that needed to be saved. If you can't understand that- worse, if you don't believe that- then you have no business wearing that armor."
He stared down the rest of them. "And, for your information, whatever you think of the Protector, her daughter is one of us. Lucas overstepped his bounds when he had his dealings with the Protector."
Frederick blanched even whiter. Sorala gaped; Torik shifted his feet slightly. "That would explain why he was so eager to leave for Daxxan."
"All of you," Alec's temper was rising, his voice just the first sign. "You're supposed to be the best of us. Well, newsflash, boys and girls- get your shit together, and start acting like it! Because if you can't, I am by God going to find people who can! Buy into it, right the hell now, or Walk! Away!"
He shoved his face right into Frederick's one last time, despite the man's foot height advantage. "And if you ever, ever, talk about someone's, anyone's, child like that again, you and I are going to have one hell of a major problem. Something we'll step outside to settle. Are we clear on that?"
Frederick swallowed, nodded.
"You decide. Right. Now. But I will tell you- each of you has a hell of a long way to go to prove yourselves to me. So, you can either start on that path, or step aside, and let someone who understands what it is we fight for do the job.
"Unless, of course, someone wishes to Challenge me?" he dropped it into sudden silence. "It is your right. If one of you believes they would serve better, step forward. Or, if all of you prefer, you may come together. All at once or one at a time, it makes no difference to me."
Torik broke the quivering silence. "I… I forbid you to fight amongst yourselves. If one wishes to Challenge the Archon, do so in the proscribed manner."
"That," Eric heaved a deep, heavy breath, then started again. "that will not be necessary, Lord Archon. There will be no Challenge."
No one met his gaze as he turned once around the circle. "As you wish. There's work to be done; get to it."
He spun on his heel, strode away. Adam hopped up as he passed, fell into step. "Did you learn something from that, Mr. Fah?" he asked quietly.
"And what was it?"
"What not to do, Archon."
"First lesson learned," he paused at the door to the Chamber. "Thien! Eric! Get over here!"
Both men came hustling over, looking remarkably subdued. "We have anything on the treaty?"
Thien nodded. "I spoke with President Durling two days ago, managed to put it off a bit."
"Sheridan hasn't been in contact with the White House in the last forty-eight hours," Eric broke in, "but he has been researching our political database, particularly the Tenets of the Compact and the Mandates."
"What do you think?"
Eric shrugged. "We send a full diplomatic party to Washington. Somack, Yamar, another of the Elders to negotiate for the Kal, one of us- or whoever- a couple of Techs, a couple of Activators, a security detail. Maybe twelve people all told, including the pilot."
"I agree with the initial group," Thien added. "But Durling will want to meet you at some point. Plus, having you there will help assuage anxieties- if we are willing to send our leader to Washington, the situation cannot be that bad."
"They think we nuked a point in the Midwest," Alec replied. "We can assume they know the situation is pretty bad. Before I forget, would either of you know why the Elders want to see all of us tonight?"
Thien halted in front of Ops. "I haven't any clue. They sent two of the young men up into the mountains a couple of days ago, right before you left Seattle. The two of them came back, but I have no idea what they were doing up there."
Eric gave him another shrug. "Man, I can't figure out human women, and I'm a telepath. The Kal, or whatever they want to call themselves- forget it."
"Hmh," Alec shook his head. "We'll find out soon enough. Let's get to it."
He led them both into Ops. Carter turned wide-eyes on him when he descended the stairs, shook it off, extended his hand. "I should be astonished. I think I've been around you people a little too long. Either way, welcome back."
"Thank you," Alec shook, dropped the man's hand. "What do you…"
"You know, this is the most remarkable experience of my life," Carter seemed to drift away for a moment. "I've learned more in the last two days than I have in the last two years. Particularly from this."
He held up a copy of The Order, the same tome Alec had given Kara in Seattle. "Of course, firsthand exposure helped there a great deal. But it doesn't change the fact that my whole world has been flipped upside down.
"Whatever happens, demand that your Techs be allowed to sweep the room for bugs. No more than the SecState, SecDef, Chairman Joint Chiefs, Tom Ryan, A.J. Bartlett, David Lyman, and their aides. No Congressional leaders, or you guys will be on every television on this planet before tomorrow."
Alec studied the man for a moment, nodded slowly. "You get that, Cas?"
"Yes, Alec," Cas pulled a datapad from his station, handed it to Thien.
"All right then, Dr. Sheridan, let's see about making a treaty," Alec motioned Thien over to the main screen. "Go get them, Ambassador Duong."
Thien jumped while the screen warmed up. "Who, me?"
"Washington coming up; linking to Oval Office…"
The package had appeared on his desk the day before. The Service had no idea what the heck it was or where it came from, only that it was sitting dead-center on his blotter when he came down Thursday morning.
S&T from the Agency had come over, checked it out, had been unable to learn anything from it. The only person who could move it had been Roger Durling himself, a thought that made every person in the room tremble.
He, of course, figured out who it was from before the Service had gone crazy. Roger Durling had clawed his way to the top of the ferocious Californian Republican Party, becoming the most celebrated California governor since Reagan, then parlayed that into a shot at the White House. He was tough. He was personable. He was fair. But most of all, he was smart.
Smart enough to know he was out of his depth with what was going on around him.
The Order had left this little gift for him. Knowing the uproar it would cause. Forcing him to parley all of the scientific, research, and technological resources he had available to figure out what it was. Prove to him, and only him, that they were not fooling around. All over something that was probably a Jack-in-the-box.
He'd moved it, personally, over the biggest hissy-fit he'd ever seen ten grown men throw, to a side table, so he could at least still look Presidential. Having guests into the Oval Office, photo ops, all of the business of politics in Washington. With that flat black box sitting on an antique end table from the Jackson Administration staring back at him, a constant reminder that this wasn't a game any more.
A.J. had just walked into the Oval Office; it was still relatively early, all things considered. He contemplated having Sam Lauer, his personal aide, rustle up some sandwiches, when the box began to hum.
It rose off the side table, glided across the room, flopped itself in front of the President's desk. Before either man could think of doing anything, a figure popped into existence.
It was grainy, a poor facsimile of a man, standing three-quarters his normal height judging from the proportions. He flashed a quick look around the Oval Office, smiled approvingly. He was some manner of Asian descent, clad in orange robes tied with a scarlet sash. He spied the President, bowed low from the waist.
"Mr. President, I apologize for the intrusion. On behalf of the Archon, and the Order, and as the duly-authorized representative of the people of Kaldor, I bid you greetings."
The voice was crystal-clear, a stark contrast to the image. The language was clear, uninflected English; it seemed to resonate around the office. Durling got up, returned the bow. "On behalf of the people of the United States of America, I accept your gracious welcome, and offer my own."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
Durling gestured to Bartlett. "My Chief of Staff, A.J…"
"Mr. Bartlett, it is an honor to meet you," the image said smoothly. He gave Bartlett a somewhat more shallow bow. "I hope to meet you again soon, in person."
The image turned back to Durling. "Mr. President, I realize the hour is late. But it is imperative that I speak with you."
Durling sat down. "Of course."
"The issue of our leadership has been resolved. The Order, and the people of Kaldor, are ready to open negotiations for a mutual development and defense treaty, in return for the contents of our facility in Denver."
"I see," Durling stroked his chin. "May I ask the nature of this resolution?"
"You may indeed. It appears," the image smiled wryly. "that the reports of the Archon's death were greatly exaggerated. That being the case, he is keenly interested in moving this process forward."
Bartlett did the gawking for Durling, letting the President focus calmly on his guest. A guest who didn't seem to be batting an eye at what he was saying- Carter Sheridan had confirmed that the man in question was dead. That realization sent shivers up Durling's spine. These people came back to life…!
"Certainly. How soon would you like to begin negotiations? In person, I would assume?"
"Of course," the image paused briefly, studying Durling. "We are prepared to begin tomorrow morning at nine. We realize that that may be too soon for you, but…"
Durling managed to find his voice. "That is a bit early- I haven't had a chance to brief my Secretary of State, have her put together a negotiating team-"
"Mr. President," the image interrupted smoothly; whoever this guy was, he was as slick as they came, "given the delicate nature of this situation, we have a tentative negotiating team that we are only willing to open talks with. I'm sure that, under the circumstances, this breech of protocol may be accepted with acrimony?"
"That may not be possible," Durling replied, seeing a hammer coming at his head. "given the American political climate…"
"Your political situation is well-understood, sir. But I believe you will find our selections acceptable. If I may?"
Durling wondered idly what would happen if he refused; the box would probably blow up, and these people would move on to the next politico. He was, however, intrigued. "Please, continue."
"Secretary of State Antonia Bretano. Secretary of Defense Brent Talbott. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Elijah Fitzwallace. National Security Advisor Dr. Thomas Ryan. White House Chief of Staff A.J. Bartlett. White House Deputy Chief of Staff David Lyman. Yourself, Mr. President, should you so choose. And, of course, their aides. But we would ask that no more than two aides per negotiator be assigned."
Bartlett stirred, nodding his head at Durling from his view out of sight. "I have no problem with this concession. I find it curious, but not out of order."
The image smiled again. "I realize that this is extraordinarily short-notice, sir. Given that fact, we would like you to select the venue that would provide you the most comfort possible."
Durling hopped on that. "Here. The White House."
"That may prove problematic, Mr. President," he didn't miss a beat, "given the nature of our technology, and that, by Order law, a dignitary may not pursue any type of negotiation without an armed bodyguard to and from the premises of the negotiations. By which, I mean they stand guard outside the conference room. Plus, I very much doubt the press will fail to notice our arrival."
"Suppose I concede to your requirements," Durling said slowly, making Bartlett go shock-white. "Would the Archon attend these proceedings?"
"Then I accept your stipulations. I will make the necessary arrangements immediately."
The image bowed low once more. "Your willingness to open these talks is greatly appreciated, Mr. President. We desire a rapid, mutually-beneficial solution to the current impasse; hopefully, this bodes well for just that eventuality.
"I hereby present you with a copy of our terms of agreement for you to study."
A flash of light covered the President's desk; when it cleared, a thick leather portfolio with a strange logo on it sat on his blotter. The image bowed one final time.
"Until tomorrow, Mr. President, good evening. Good evening, Mr. Bartlett."
It vanished. A puff of smoke twisted up from the front of Durling's desk, Bartlett shook his head as he approached. "That thing melted."
"I figured as much," Durling flipped the portfolio open. "It's on parchment. These guys are serious about this. So we had better be serious about it as well. Go assemble your negotiations team; send Toni in here as soon as she arrives."
Bartlett nodded. "Thank you, Mr. President."
Durling lifted the phone, punched a button. "Helen, I need you in here as soon as possible."
"Very smooth," Alec nodded to Thien. "Dr. Sheridan, you heard the President. Nine o'clock tomorrow, you go home."
Carter glanced down at his feet. "Respectfully, Archon, I would prefer to remain here. Given the events of the past few days… I believe I may serve my country best by remaining among the Order. I can imagine no safer place for me than within these walls."
Alec shook his head. "I'm sorry, Doctor, but that isn't up to me. You're a part of the US National Security team; I can't just allow you to hole up here."
"I'm the President's Adviser on Extraterrestrial Affairs," Carter persisted. "There's a viable extraterrestrial community right here! Where else should I be?"
"Ask the President," Alec replied. "Look, the best I can do is bring you along. What with the Hamackers' request for asylum, we don't have a lot of wiggle-room in the indispensable asset department."
Eric had brought him up to speed with a telepathic feed, preventing Carter from eavesdropping on the discussion. Carter sighed. "What about my sons? And my mother?"
"They are free to stay as long as they wish- Doctor, I'm not kicking you out, I'm telling you that the President is probably not going to allow you to remain here indefinitely. Should you choose to return for a vacation, as bizarre as that is currently striking me, we will not object."
Carter nodded slowly. "And Marcus?"
"What about him?"
"He would like to stay, to train to be a Knight of the Order. I told him I would ask you when we heard… well, when we heard."
Alec looked at Thien, who dipped his chin once. "I… see. Well, I suppose we could arrange to test him… but it isn't a cut and dried thing."
"He understands that. But… you have children, if I'm not mistaken. You understand how something like this," Carter gestured around the room, "would appeal to a young person."
Alec chuckled. "More than you know, Doctor."
Carter grinned himself. "Well, then. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to go prepare to meet the President."
He ducked away. Eric watched him go. "Think he's on our side?"
"Ultimately," Alec bent back to Cas's station. He watched as a computer model he'd requested earlier sprang up, rotated for his benefit. He gave Cas a nod, turned back to Eric. "But we all know about politics. Whether or not Sheridan's on our side may not matter. Durling is the first stepping stone- and honestly, the easiest."
Thien smiled thinly. "It's almost enough to wish for the return of the divine-right monarchies. It would make this much easier."
"Eric, go and find Somack- he'll be taking the lead on this matter. Him, and you, Thien. Excuse me," he smiled. "Ambassador Duong. I can have cards printed up; Cas, how about you guys fit one of the Griffs with diplomatic plates…"
Thien swatted at him. "Very funny. I have no intention of surrendering command of the Home Guard; this is, at most, a temporary measure. Byron, once he gets his head on straight, is a better choice."
"We'll see. Name your negotiations group."
Thien tapped his teeth. "Multi-national is the way to go… Somack, Yamar, and Vona, if they are willing. Myself, you, and… Morrigan. Then Cas, Stefan, Cordelia, and Ariana. Plus three guards… the Horsemen. There. Perfect."
Alec sat down in a chair. "Interesting choices. Why the Horsemen?"
Thien chuckled. "Nothing like showing these politicos that even our rank and file are heads and shoulders smarter than they are. Besides, for something like this, your unique combination of abilities will be a definite asset. All three of them deserve a seat at the table; with them on the outside, no curve balls will come in off the outside corner."
"All right then. I'll inform Morrigan and the guys; Cas, you round up the Techs and Activators, put together a comprehensive matrix of the agreed-upon tech. It also might be a good idea to prepare Stefan and Cordy for potential medical procedures; I'll let Connor know too."
"Why am I going?" Morrigan demanded. "What am I supposed to do? I don't know anything about diplomacy."
She'd followed him back to his quarters, perched herself alongside Julia while the two of them watched Alec rummage in his closet. "I don't know. Sit there and leer at them. Act like yourself; you'll scare them all to death."
Julia patted her arm. "Cheesecake."
"I beg your pardon?" Morrigan frowned.
"Thien wants them off-guard. The Kalrist, or the Kal, whatever they're calling themselves now- they're not going to be enough. Alec walks in with you on his arm, they'll be so busy drooling they won't be able to think straight," she giggled, squeezing the same arm. "It's actually pretty sharp. They're too short-sighted to believe you're one of the most brilliant minds in the Order."
Morrigan mulled that over, then flashed one of her amazing smiles. "That actually sounds like fun."
Julia smiled back. "So, what happens after this? Full diplomatic relations? A Kalrist embassy on Embassy Row in Washington? Oooh- diplomatic immunity!"
"Hardly," Alec threw his hands up. "I'll have a suit fabered. No, the only way that would work is if I find a couple of Techs who are so desperate to do something different that they want to sit in D.C. and actually run an embassy. I try to assign any of the Knights to embassy duty, they'll come at me with lances drawn."
"Alec's right," Morrigan said sagely. "I would rather cut my own throat than do something so… tedious."
Alec went to the clothing faber, punched in a series of commands. "There. Now, ladies, if you will excuse me, I have a newbie to torment."
He kissed Julia's cheek, left. Morrigan followed. "I had an interesting discussion with the Protector this morning."
"Oh?" Adam had been outside the door, waiting; he fell into step with Alec, trailing them both.
"It seems her daughter has expressed a keen interest in receiving training. Specifically, from you."
He stopped. "Training in what? I'm a Knight of the Order. If what I delved off of her is correct, she's one-quarter Galen. I don't do unlimited strength."
"I mentioned that," Morrigan replied. "But the girl has her mind set. It isn't that outrageous a notion; you would be able to teach her a great deal. Discipline, control, technique. Not to mention the more esoteric matters- philosophy, ethics, tactics, things of that nature."
"You could do all of that," Alec pushed the stairway door open, waited for Morrigan and Adam to pass before stepping through. "Plus the strength component. Granted, she's a bit out of your league in that department…"
"A little?" Morrigan gasped. "The girl is stronger than me, both of the Protectors, Julia, and the Scribe put together. No matter- you are the superior teacher. You've proven that time and again. Needing you in the field is the only reason Torik didn't drag you back here years ago to handle Basic."
They exited out into the courtyard. The enviroshield was blunting the storm of the day, allowing a crisp edge to the air. Several senseis paused in their training to salute the Archon; Alec nodded back to each. "When next you see Torik, tell him that classes are not to be interrupted for foolishness. Saluting is at the top of that list."
"As you command, Archon," she replied glibly. "What should I tell the Protector?"
Xara- Dani- chose that moment to appear. She walked quietly across the courtyard, watching the various classes go about their training, perched herself on one of the carved obsidian benches near Alec. Those sparkling blue eyes locked right on to him, watching every move. He glanced her way, shrugged.
"Tell her… I'll think about it."
Morrigan nodded, bowed. "By your leave, Archon."
She withdrew. Alec gave Adam his attention. "Now then. What did they teach you?"
"Not much… what do I call you? Sir? Archon? Master Collins?"
"Oh, Good Lord, no," Alec thought it over while he walked to a weapons rack, stripped the Shal'kyrie off, set it down. "Dei'sho. It means teacher of life's ways. Yeah, that'll work."
"Dei'sho," Adam rolled it around on his tongue. "Okay. Uhm, as to the teaching? Fugue state. Not much more."
"Good. That's a start," he considered the boy for a moment. "How much tridopazine they got you on?"
"Eighty cc's a day."
"Cut that down to one quarter, starting now," he drew his warlance, left it collapsed. "Now. Fugue state."
The boy nodded, slipped into a ready state, standing limply. "Can you still hear me?"
Adam nodded slowly.
"Good. Extend your mind, and find my thoughts."
Alec projected his mind towards the boy. Adam flailed for a moment, but he latched on to Alec's mind much faster than anticipated. "Very good, Mr. Fah. Now, streamline your thoughts, until it is one straight, hard line."
That took a bit longer, but he did it. Alec walked slowly around him, Adam snapping straighter. "Excellent. Draw your warlance."
Alec stood on his right, Adam pulling the narrow tube off his waist with that hand. "Extend your arm, and then extend the lance. Feel the metal, focus on it, and extend."
His hand wobbled for a brief second, then the tube hissed open. "Very, very good, Mr. Fah. Now, maintain your line, because we are going to learn to dance."
His own warlance hissed alive. "Move when I move. Let your mind's eye guide your steps."
They began to move.
An hour and a half later, Adam's shirt was wet with sweat; admittedly, Alec's was too, the younger man breathing harder. A small group had gathered to watch the two of them flow through forms, individual senseis pointing out technique to rapt pupils. Dani's eyes hadn't shifted from Alec the entire time; after about ten minutes Arwyn had shown up, Kel along with her, both choosing seats on the other side of the practice yard. Arwyn had sniffed once at Dani, whispered something she muted at Kel, who glanced Dani's way and frowned.
He let it slide, concentrating on Adam. He finally stopped moving, collapsed his lance. "Very good job, Mr. Fah. Stand easy, and come up."
He blinked his eyes, collapsed his lance, put his hands on his knees to suck in some air. "Keep your head down, Adam. It's going to be a week or two more before your metabolic changes kick all the way in. In the nose, out the mouth."
"It's only been an hour and a half," he wheezed. "I should be in better shape…"
"When you're in bad shape, I will let you know," Alec interrupted. "Now, in the nose, out the mouth. And keep your head down."
The boy's breathing normalized after a few minutes, Adam easing upright. "Okay?"
"Good. Now, we run," he started away, Adam on his heels. Before they were at the balustrade stairs leading to the battlements, Kel and Arwyn had joined them, Dani a few yards behind them.
Alec stopped. Both of -his- girls had shucked their sweats, stood there in running shorts and tank tops, Arwyn in bright red, Kel in blue. Adam averted his eyes, staring at the ground; Alec put his hands on his hips. "Do either of you ever listen?"
"Sometimes," Kel allowed, trading a look with Arwyn. "Well… yeah."
"You said no training," Arwyn replied, already starting to back away. "You didn't say we couldn't watch. Or run."
Alec growled in his throat. "Fine. But you, little missy, need one of these."
He tugged a small device from his belt, set it on Arwyn's waist. It extended a small fiber that wrapped around her hips, blinked twice. Arwyn staggered, then straightened up. Alec grinned.
"If you're going to do this, might as well benefit from it. Get a sweat up."
"Can I," Dani came closer, bit her lip. "Do you have another? For me?"
Alec glanced at Adam; the boy shrugged. "Yeah. Okay."
He set another inhibitor on her waist, turned back to the stairway. "Everybody who's coming, let's go."
On the way up, he glanced at Adam. "One circuit of the battlements is five-point-eight klicks. We're gonna do it easy- three laps. To start. Keep your breathing regular, keep your mind focused, maintain your sense of center. Let your mind do the rest."
Adam simply nodded.
"Good. Let's go."
If the boy, and the three girls, hadn't been impressive before, they were sure as hell impressive now.
Adam finished his third circuit, stayed up, hands on knees, breathing hard. Kel was winded as well, the two supergirls looking about ready to puke. But all of them stayed on their feet, breathing through it, walking in circles. Alec, barely winded, watched them keep their composure.
He stepped next to Adam. "Four days, max, and you'll be able to sprint an entire circuit. Two weeks, and it'll be two. Trust me. The first is the metabolic change; the second is learning to focus your mind. You did well; if you were any weaker, you wouldn't have been able to do what you have. Excellent, Mr. Fah. Simply excellent."
Adam gasped out his breath, glanced up at him. "How many can you do?"
He grinned. "Twelve. Sprinting. But I can run circuits all day."
Adam turned white. Alec slapped his shoulder gently. "In a couple of years, you will too. You're done, hit the showers, get some chow. Tomorrow, with Master Torik."
He bowed, managed to walk off. Alec patted Kel's head, bent halfway to her knees, smiled at Arwyn and Dani, slumped against the walls. "Not quite so easy when you're not capable of uprooting buildings, is it?"
Arwyn coughed, shaking her head. Dani managed a wheeze.
"You all did well. I'm impressed."
"Does that mean…?" Kel looked up. Alec sighed, shrugged.
"All right. Hand-to-hand, warlances, battlesabers. Kel, you and I will discuss firearms later; Arwyn, Dani, I guess that doesn't apply to you.
"Tomorrow, all of you will report to Sorala for mental training. When I get back from Washington, we will begin combat training."
Kel was too tired to do more than flop to the stone with a gasp.