Monday Fiction – The Irregulars 1 – Irregular Investigation

DEREK NOTES – Hey, look I wrote something! Actually, I wrote this about six months ago, but the place I submitted it to decided not to use it. So, now you’ll just have to read it here.

If you like it, then let me know! I wouldn’t mind continuing in this world.

I hate New York. The city is dirty and drab. The people are rude and condescending to anyone who isn’t smart enough to live within the five boroughs. Even the bright, sunny day and warm spring weather weren’t enough to make the city feel more inviting. My biggest complaint is probably the Freedom Tower. Okay, something was needed to replace the destroyed Twin Towers. So, instead of constructing another graceful skyscraper to grace the skyline, New Yorkers were content with parking that ugly alien wreck of a battlecruiser on the old World Trade site. I’ll grant that it was the biggest trophy of the war against the aliens, and maybe almost three-quarters of the world’s population die in the past ten years drained some of humanity’s creative energy. My despising of the Freedom Tower could also be influenced by the small fact that the last time I was on that alien warship, I was desperately fighting what became the final battle that pushed the last vestiges of the alien forces off of our world and out of our orbitals. At the time, I was just trying to survive and keep as many of my friends alive.

I picked up my pace. I wanted to get this meeting over and done with. I didn’t know why Kate suddenly called me out of the blue after seven years. The message only said that she needed my help. Most likely, that meant it wasn’t going to be a paying job. At least the meeting was going to be at McKillop’s. I didn’t know how Kate managed to swing a reservation in my favorite restaurant in New York. At least if I wasn’t going to get paid, then I was going to have a good lunch. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts, I didn’t even seen the uniformed man step out from his alcove.

“Stop,” the Relief Force constable said, holding up his hand. The constable’s accent was French, which made him one of the EU contingent. Well, that at least lessened the chance the constable was going to shake me down.

“What can I do for you, constable?” I asked in my most solicitous voice. The constable just thrust out his hand in silent demand. I carefully reached inside my jacket, pulled out the synth-leather folio, and gently placed it into the constable’s waiting hand. The constable shuffled through the various identification cards.

“You are Kevin Mitchell,” the constable said. “Caucasian. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. One hundred and seventy-seven centimeters. Eighty-five kilos.”

Oui, Monsieur,” I replied. Sometimes the constables went a little easier if you used their native language. At least, that worked more often with the Europeans. The South Americans and Asians acted as if any sign of submission was license to shake you down for all your scrip. Then, the constable’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re a freelancer,” he said, flatly.

“Yes, I’m on my way to meet a client,” I answered. Most RF constables disliked freelancers. The common sentiment among the constables was that freelancers earned more scrip doing jobs that the Relief Force should be doing in the first place. Then, there was also the small matter that freelancers were authorized to carry weapons. In the eyes of the constabulary, Americans couldn’t be trusted with weapons.

“You’re also a demi,” the constable said. Demis. Short for demi-gods. I’m not sure where the name came from, but it sort of stuck for those of us with powers. I wished some other name would’ve caught. Even infected. Demis made it sound like we were bragging.

“Only a minor one,” I said. “As you can see from my registration card, I’m just a bit tougher than the normal human. I couldn’t even lift that car over there.” The constable glanced down at the forged demi registration card. For a long moment, I was convinced he was going to call for a Praetorian, the government’s own demis. That would not be good. I’d served with too many of them during the war, and they knew I wasn’t a minor demi. They also thought I was dead. Fortunately, the constable closed my folio and thrust it back at me. I graciously accepted my identification cards back.

“People like you have caused trouble for the Relief Forces recently,” the constable said, “We will be immensely displeased if you do anything to draw our notice.” He curtly motioned for me to continue on my way. Overall, it was relatively uneventful encounter with the RF Constabulary – which was the most infuriating part of the whole thing. At least the constable put my cards back in order.

I thought you were jamming all of those demi detectors, I thought to Delph.

You also told me to make sure that the RFC didn’t know I was in their system, a soprano female voice answered in my head. I can’t disable every hand-held detector if I’m keeping a low profile. And that guy turned his on just before we walked into range.

Sorry Delph, I apologized to the AI. I know you’re the best.

That’s alright, I understand, Delph said, I’d be nervous too if I was meeting my first love.

I thought I told you to keep out of those memories.

You were dreaming of her all last night, Delph said. My cheeks burned as flashes of the dreams floated up into my memory. Kate and I had been barely teenagers and fighting for our lives against the aliens. Hormones and adrenaline kindled a very fiery first love for both of us.

Fine, let’s just drop it. Okay, Delphi was only an AI, but she was a very perceptive AI. Something to do with her being specialized in infiltration and data analysis. I did not want her trying to help me with my unresolved issues with Kate. Well, not again.

Kate Thomas and I met when we were both recruited into the Irregulars. As the world’s governments fell under the aliens’ onslaught, bands of people and demis rose up to defend their homes and lands. A loose confederation of these militias and what could charitably called hero teams formed. The Economist gave us our name before it ceased publishing with an article titled “These Irregular Heroes.” The confederation strengthened under the Chairman in the face of the rising Liberation government and its corps of Praetorians. Sometimes the groups fought the aliens alongside each other, but Liberation didn’t like demis not under their control. That led to some spectacular throw downs between the Praetorians and the Irregulars – including the one that killed me. Well, mostly killed me. Needless to say, Kate felt more than a little betrayed when I showed up years later in the big final battle with the aliens. She made that perfectly clear while we were fighting for our lives on the battlecruiser that became Freedom Tower.

She hadn’t contacted me once since that day. Until now.

“Thank you for meeting me,” Kate said after we were seated. I made what could have charitably called a grunt of agreement. Kate was just shy of thirty, with long chocolate brown hair that matched her eyes. She still had that “girl-next-door” beauty that first attracted my attentions. That beauty was now accentuated by a new confidence she exuded with every movement. It also didn’t help that the blue dress she was wearing did everything right for her very feminine curves. I was trying very hard to focus on business and not stare.

“You’re staring,” Kate said, never lifting her eyes from the menu. I quickly flicked my eyes down at the menu.

“Uh, yeah, sorry about that,” I said, feeling my face heat, “You look good. I’m not used to seeing you all dressed up like that.” She gave me one of her half-smiles that told me she appreciated my klutzy compliment.

“Well, this place has a dress code that doesn’t include costumes or combat gear,” she said. “You don’t look too bad, either. Not so sure about the new name. I liked Todd.”

“So did I, but you know how Liberation looks at demis coming back from the dead,” I said. Kate’s eyes flashed with anger. Of course she knew. Most of the Irregulars were living under assumed identities since the end of the war. Fortunately for me, a waiter appeared and took our orders. I used that time to regroup. I needed to focus on business.

“So, what do you need my help with?” I asked.

“I need your help finding a pair of second gens that dropped out of our network,” Kate said. Second gens were the children of demis. Some of them were coming into their powers as they hit puberty. The results were proving unpredictable. Some second gens had no powers. Some developed similar powers to one or both of their parents. Then, there was the tiny minority that seemed to have concentrated their parents’ power levels into something much stronger than any first generation demi. Having two second gens missing was potentially very dangerous.

“I’m not a detective,” I protested. “I can get you in touch with a couple of people that I would recommend.” I started to pull up contact info when Kate reached out and put her hand on my comm.

“Kevin, it’s the twins,” Kate said, and my protests died. My mind flashed to two, small, blonde girls dressed in black looking down at the graves of their parents. Parents who’d been friends in my first life. Parents who saved my life on more than one occasion. A promise made over two graves that I would do whatever I could for those two little girls. If Kate thought I could help her, then she was going to get everything I could bring.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They ran away from their foster parents two weeks ago to come to New York,” Kate said. “Then they just fell off the face of the earth.”

Two weeks?” I asked, barely keeping my voice under control. “And you’re just coming to me now?” Kate’s face went stormy.

“Goddamit Kevin, it’s not like we stood around with our thumbs up our asses when the twins ran off,” Kate said, stressing my current name. “As soon as we found out the girls were gone, the Chairman sent Pablo to find them. Two nights ago, Pablo sent a data file to the Chairman saying he had a lead. The next morning he was ambushed by the Praetorians and murdered. That was the day before yesterday.”

“Pablo’s dead?” I asked. My mind reeled. The stubby Mexican always seemed invincible. It was hard to think anything could kill him, much less a Praetorian patrol.

“The bastards aren’t even pretending to try and capture us anymore,” Kate said. “The Chairman didn’t even want me coming into the city to meet with you.”

“As much as I hate to say this, he might have been right,” I said. The thought of Kate being killed was unbearable.

“The twins are too important,” Kate said. We both fell silent as our food was delivered.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said after picking at my food for a few moments. “Where can I get a copy of the information Pablo sent you?” Kate slid over a slip of rice paper. I scanned the slip and tossed it into my water. The slip quickly dissolved. We ate in silence.

The world didn’t realize it was under attack at first. The aliens – the Omnisen and the Demnisen – were fighting a bitter intergalactic war. Our solar system just happened to have a semi-critical jump point for both sides. Rather than waste resources terraforming Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons, both sides decided the most expedient thing to do was just exterminate Earth’s sentient race and use the planet as a staging area. And in one of the biggest cosmic jokes, both the Omnisen and Demnisen released their plagues on the same day. A quarter of the world’s population died from the pure strains. That would have been bad enough, but then, the two plagues combined into a brand new disease. That would end up killing half the remaining population.

The scientists came up with a alpha-numeric designation, but the name that stuck was Purgatory. There was no immunity. Every human caught the disease. A lucky few suffered a very bad cold. Most of us started with the cold for a week, before going down with fever, non-stop coughing, and the pox – painful blisters that leaked a horrible smelling pus. A little over a quarter of those who came down with Purgatory mercifully died after a few days. Those of us who didn’t die were stricken with symptoms for the better part of a month.

Those of us that survived Purgatory were changed. Purgatory made us immune to infection. Any infection. Purgatory removed the threat of plague and disease from the human condition. Except that wasn’t the only change for a small sliver of us. Purgatory mutated us even further. We manifested powers beyond the understanding of the universe. In another time and place, we would be called superheroes and super villains. In our world, some scientist joked that we were more like the mythical demi-gods. The internet helpfully shortened it to “demis,” and the name stuck.

Many demis joined with the remaining governmental forces to fight the aliens. The world governments didn’t last long. Between dealing with the dead and the sick, the governments couldn’t react when the aliens started their actual attacks. One by one, the great lights of the world blinked out. The Irregulars filled the void where we could. The aliens were surprised by human tenacity, but it wasn’t enough to stop either side’s relentless push to conquer the world.

Liberation stopped the aliens. First in Europe, and then spreading out, the forces of Liberation organized the world’s resources and pushed the Omnisen and the Demnisen back. In addition to the most powerful army ever fielded by humanity, Liberation unleashed their own corps of demis. They were the Praetorians, led by the Praetorian Primus. In the beginning, the Praetorians tried to enlist the Irregulars into their corps. Some cells did. Others like mine, would fight side-by-side with the Praetorians against the aliens, but we wouldn’t join Liberation. We didn’t just fight the aliens. We protected people from the emerging world government’s abuses and from the demis who decided to turn to crime.

My own history during the war is complicated. As I said, I started out with the Irregulars. My powers didn’t lend me to being one of the big bruisers of our cell, but I was critical to some of our more sneaky ops. It was during one of those sneaky ops that I mostly died. I don’t blame my friends for leaving me. From what I saw later, they had good reason to believe I was dead. Fortunately (I think), I was just what the remnants of the American government needed. The Americans were fighting against the aliens and to remain sovereign against the Liberation Government. The Scorpion Project was supposed to be allow the Americans to fight on both fronts. My brain was fitted into a nifty new cyborg body made up of scavenged alien tech and the most cutting-edge stuff in the American inventory. I was also given a couple of AIs, a new identity, and a mission to infiltrate the Praetorians. Yeah, that was an interesting time in my life. Even managed the whole saving-the-world bit once or twice.

All of it came crashing down in the last battle with the Demnisen when both the Praetorians and the Irregulars found out who I really was and my real mission. Fortunately for my life after the war, it was only the small elite teams on both sides that found out the truth – and they both owed me at that point. Blackmail is such an ugly word, until you need it to save yourself from being turned into orbital debris. To say my relations with both sides is a bit strained is a bit of understatement worthy of a Brit. If there were any Brits left.

A light rain was coming down as we stepped out of the restaurant. I checked the road for constables before turning back to ask Kate if she wanted to split a cab. She was gone. Pain and relief warred inside of me as I stood there in the rain looking at the empty street. After a few moments, I trudged my way back to my apartment. It was one of the safehouses I kept in New York. Even after the city was depopulated to less than one percent of its pre-war population, New York was still the center of the demi world. That’s what happens when the largest Praetorian contingent and most of the big-time freelancer firms are headquartered in a city. I just wish they’d chosen someplace other than a shattered city filled with annoying people.

Delph kept the Relief Forces’ demi-detectors from pinging on me as walked the ten blocks to the apartment. The complex was one of the newer towers built after the end of the war. It catered to corporations who needed discreet places for meetings and liaisons, or people they just wanted to stash away from the prying eye of the Liberation Government. So, of course the management never noticed when my contractors installed all of the little safeguards to keep the Praetorians from noticing me. Just as long the exorbitant lease was paid promptly and in full.

Finally! I get to stretch out! Delph said as she flooded the apartment’s private network. Lights illuminated the great room and attached kitchen. Part of me wanted to just walk down the hall to apartment’s single bedroom and crash for several hours, but time was critical. I grabbed a bottle of tea out of the fridge and walked over to the glass-topped desk in the great room’s corner. A lithe, elfin woman appeared in the desk’s holo-projector. By elfin, Delph included the long, pointed ears. She thought it was cute, and I had to agree.

“So, should I start accessing Pablo’s data?” Delph asked. Holographic screens appeared above the desk.

“You’ve already broken his encryption, haven’t you?” I asked. Delph gave me a flat look. Of course she had. Delph was named for the Oracle of Delphi. She was, hands down, the best infiltration AI the American government could devise. Like the rest of me, Delph was a product of merging recovered alien technology with the best of human tech.

“There’s a lot of data here, Kevin,” Delph said. “I found some on the twins, but there’s a bunch more on other disappearances of second gen demis.” Pictures of children and teens flooded the holographic screens.

“Pablo, what the hell did you stumble into?” I murmured as I waved through the pictures on the screens. “He had information on all of these kids?”

“Full packets on some of them,” Delph answered. “The others he only had the constabulary’s or local police reports of the disappearances. They’re from all over the North American sector. There’s something I think you should see first.” Delph pushed up a video in a new screen.

“Is that Grand Central?” I asked, recognizing the rebuilt concourse. Liberation spent a lot of time and money rebuilding and improving the rail network. They preferred their citizens using rail than driving their own vehicles. It kept the roadways open for important people and projects. Grand Central was the main hub for passenger trains in the northeast. The fifteen-foot tall statue of the Praetorian Primus dominated the glass and tile concourse.

“Yes,” Delph answered. “Although, I’m not sure how Pablo managed to acquire this.” As the video played, Delph highlighted the twins. They’d grown up. The last time I’d seen them, they were two squealing girls in pigtails. They’d grown up into beautiful blonde teenagers. They looked like two cheerleaders going out on the town. They looked so much like their mother it hurt. The twins stood in front of the Primus statue for a few minutes before a blonde man in an expensive blue suit walked up to them. From their reaction, they’d been waiting for this man to show up. The twins looked nervous and excited. They talked for about a minute before the man ushered them back down the hall. Delph froze the video as the man turned around and I could see his face.

“What the hell is he doing there?” I asked.

“I’m not sure that is him, but he should know his double is walking around New York snatching second gens,” Delph said. I picked up my phone. The phone rang twice before a pleasant female voice answered. I cut off her scripted greeting.

“Tell Rene I’ll be in his office in twenty minutes.”

Rene Descartes, President and CEO of Descartes Solutions, pretended to be happy to see me as I stormed into his office. I pretended to be grateful that he was willing to clear some time off of his busy schedule to speak with me. It was the nature of our relationship. He ran the largest freelancing firm in the North American sector. Sometimes he needed my unique skill-set, and sometimes I needed his lucrative paychecks. More than I liked, I worked for him because I needed his paychecks.

“Based on the terse tone of your demand to see me, I very much doubt you came to take my offer of full time employment,” Rene said. I placed a still of his double and the twins at Grand Central.

“Please tell me that’s not you,” I said. Rene studied the picture for a few moments. His warm facade disappeared. He let out a fast string of curses in French.

“No, that’s not me,” Rene answered, “I assume you have an interest in the pretties?” I bit down my anger at the slang. Pretties were young women willing to trade their virtue for assistance from more established men.

“You could say that,” I said. “Who’s the guy in the picture?”

“Am I returning the favor I owe you?” Rene asked.

“Oh hell no. I’m hanging on to that for a while longer,” I said. He wrote down a number on a piece of paper and slid it across his desk. I glanced down at the amount. “That’s highway robbery.”

“Are you good for it?” Rene asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, thinking of what I would need to sell in order to make the price.

“Are you sure?” Rene asked.

“Have I ever welshed on you before?” I asked, letting my anger slip a bit.

“Of course not,” Rene said. “I only ask because I happen to have a job that could use your unique touch.”

“I’m not doing a job for you for that amount,” I said. Rene looked offended. He was very good at that look.

“I would never do that to you,” Rene said, “Usual rates. I’ll just take this off the top.” Rene smiled beatifically as I stewed. I needed the money, but damn it, the twins had to come first. Then again, I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t have operating cash. Especially in New York. Even the beggars required bribes.

“Fine, what’s the job?” I asked.

“That man is my brother Bernard,” Rene said, pointing at the man with the twins. “The last I heard, he was in Marseille working for the European Office of the Interior Ministry. I need you to find out what he’s doing here in New York.” The offer smelled too good to be true.

“You’ve got a dozen investigators in your firm. Most of them a hell of a lot better than me. Why do you want me to look into this?” I asked.

“Because Bernard is a Liberation toadie,” Rene answered. “If he’s doing something, it’s going to have the government’s fingerprints all over it.”

“And you can’t jeopardize your government contracts by possibly running afoul of Liberation by using your staff,” I said.

“I’m glad you understand,” Rene said. “I’ll give you everything I have on Bernard. After that, you won’t get anything else from my firm. Normal disclaimers.” Essentially, he’d throw me to Liberation’s wolves if his firm needed protection. To his credit, Rene probably wouldn’t like doing it, but business was business after all. Freelancers couldn’t take those kind of things personally.

“I’ll get back to you when I have something,” I said.

“Kevin, my brother is a loathsome creature,” Rene said, “I wouldn’t be surprised by anything he may have gotten himself in to doing. Still, I’d prefer if you could avoid killing him. Family is family, after all.”

“Do you really think that’s a possibility?” I asked. Rene gave a Gallic shrug. I left the office with a paying gig, information, and a sinking feeling. Yep, this was going to be one of those jobs.

Bernard Descartes really was a loathsome man. If anything, loathsome was too kind of a word. In the six months Bernard was stationed in Marseille, he racked up three disciplinary actions for abuse of his position. The language on each was standard bureaucratese, but I could read between the lines enough to tell Bernard was extorting sexual favors for special treatment from the refugees. Considering what kind of hellholes the refugee camps were, Bernard must have been a special kind of monster to get three write-ups. Those should have been enough to at least demote Bernard, if not send him to some obscure posting. Instead, he was in New York. Even if Bernard took a lower pay grade, he shouldn’t have been able to get a job in the city. New York was one of the Liberation Government’s preeminent postings.

The first item was to get an idea of where to intercept Bernard for some quiet questioning time. Delph sent two of her children to dig up Bernard’s routine and get into his files. Even if Bernard wasn’t security conscious, that would take at least a day before anything useful could be found. Delph would act as my clearinghouse for anything her children brought back.

I continued to dig through Pablo’s files. There were fifteen second gen demis that were missing. They ran in ages of eighteen down to eleven. Eight girls and seven boys. Seven whites, four Hispanics, two blacks, one Asian, and one Sioux. Only the twins were from within a hundred miles of New York. The only thing that connected them were that they all demis that had just come into their powers in the past six months. All of them ran away from home shortly after, and all had shown up in New York and met by Bernard. After that, the kids vanished off the face of the planet.

“So why are they all coming to New York?” I asked. “If they wanted to be famous, they’d go to Vegas.”

“To join the Praetorians?” Delph suggested, her projection appearing at my elbow. “The Chairman would never have let the twins join the Praetorians. If the girls bought the Liberation Government’s propaganda, they could have run to New York.” I looked back through Pablo’s files.

“That makes sense for the twins, and these two,” I said, pointing at the black girl from Dallas and the Sioux girl from South Dakota. “The rest of the kids weren’t children of Irregulars. If they wanted to join the Praetorian Academy, all they’d have to do is walk down to the local Liberation office and demonstrate their powers. Do you see any other connection?” Delph was quiet for a long moment.

“Not so much a connection, but a lack of one,” Delph answered.

“Delph, you’re being cryptic again. We share headspace, but I can’t read your mind,” I reminded the AI.

“Did you notice that, except for the twins, none of the missing children’s powers share both family and direction?” Delph asked. I sat back up and looked at the files. Damn it. This is why I wanted Kate to find a real detective to find the girls instead of me. Picking up clues wasn’t exactly one of my strong suits. I was more of the killing people and breaking things type of freelancer.

Much to the annoyance of the scientists (who preferred more precise terminology), demis classified their powers by being in one of seven families – earth, air, fire, water, light, mind, and body – and having either an internal or external direction. Asking a demi if he or she is an innie or an outie has a completely different connotation. Low-grade demis’ powers manifest from a single family and a single direction. Mid-levels could have another family in the same direction or both directions in the same family. The highest level demis have powers from more than one family and in both directions.

“So, why would someone need all of those second gens?” I asked.

“Whatever it is, we need to find out quickly,” Delph said. “Whatever they want the children for, they now have a full set.” I hated when Delph pointed out those kinds of things.

I stepped in behind Bernard as he walked out of the restaurant. He was oblivious to my presence. After all, why should he worry? He was safe in the middle of the Green Zone that encompassed lower Manhattan. He didn’t need to worry about street crime, much less someone hunting him through the streets.

To hunt Bernard, I was camouflaged in the uniform of a Relief Force technician. With Delph keeping the demi-detectors off of me, I was essentially invisible. RF techs were all over the Green Zone. The plan followed the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid. One of Delph’s children cracked Bernard’s personal calendar. Seven o’clock, dinner with another bureaucrat followed by a nine o’clock appointment at one of the “comfort houses” on the edge of the Green Zone. Bernard wasn’t high enough to warrant a personal car, so he was forced to walk to his appointment with the Relief Force’s sex workers. Between the restaurant and the comfort house, there was a beautiful bottleneck in front of the skeleton of a new apartment building about three blocks from the comfort house. Bump Bernard into the construction site, and we’d have all the time in the world for a question and answer session. It’s not like the sex workers would miss him if he didn’t show up for his appointment.

As the twenty-story latticework of steel loomed over us, I picked up my pace. The electronic lock on the construction fence blinked from red to friendly green. That was my cue. I took two quick strides. Bernard just caught me out of the corner of his eye an instant before I shoved him through the unlocked gate. He let out a string of French curses as he rolled on the dirt.

“You better run now!” Bernard said defiantly, pulling out a small device out of his jacket pocket. Bernard effortlessly combined arrogance and stupidity. It was an attitude I’d encountered often when dealing with Relief Force bureaucrats. I wonder if Liberation holds training on how to project that attitude.

“Very nice. You remembered to hit your panic button,” I said, “So, that gives me, what, at least two minutes before the RFC shows up.”

“It won’t be the RFC that comes to deal with you. It will be the Praetorians!” Bernard shouted. Well, that was interesting. He could’ve just been bluffing, but I didn’t think Bernard was that smart. No, he was boasting. Time to pop his bubble a bit. Bernard’s confident expression melted a little as a predatory smile spread across my face.

“You’re so precious. First, your little boast just confirmed that you probably have the answers I want,” I said, “Minor bureaucrats don’t rate a Praetorian response unless they’re involved in some very interesting projects. Then, there’s the second thing.”

“What’s that?” Bernard asked, his face paling.

“Your distress signal is being rerouted from the Security Directorate to the Sanitation Directorate,” I answered. “So, unless you think the garbage collectors are going to come riding to your rescue, we have all the time in the world.”

“How in the devil did you manage to accomplish that?” asked a new voice in a cultured, British accent. Bernard and I both looked up as the veil was dropped. Four people stood on the steel girders above us. All were dressed in the tight, black uniforms of a Praetorian Covert Action Team.

“Fucking ninjas,” I murmured. Intense pain hit me as Maestro seized control.

The Americans that created my cybernetic body gave me a couple of AIs to help me succeed in my mission. Delphi was designed to give me an electronic warfare and intelligence capability. Maestro is the other AI in my head. His job is to make the hodgepodge of human and alien technology work together under combat conditions. Maestro is very good at his job, but he doesn’t cope well in peaceable society. Convincing him of that nearly killed us, but in the end we came to an agreement. Part of that agreement was that he could come out of his electronic box if there was a significant threat of death. Being surprised by a ninja team easily cleared that threshold.

My skin was ripped apart as my nannites pushed through to form armored plate. There was a moment of darkness as the featureless glacis plate slide across my face. An instant later, the augmented reality HUD snapped to life. Maestro scanned the four demis. Three men and a woman. One looked like a meat wall, but the others didn’t have anything that tagged them as any specific type. At least one was had to be a light-external to hold that good of a veil.

“Holy shit, it’s the Metal Ghost,” Leader Ninja said. The others were slack-jawed. It’s always nice when your reputation precedes you. Maestro’s calculated odds and a combat course appeared on the HUD. My cybernetic body was tough as a tank and strong as most powerhouse demis, but my real power lay in my nannites. The molecule-sized machines could be formed into a variety of armor and weapons. They flowed down my arms and formed into particle pulse pistols.

Delph, shut down their comms! I ordered, Maestro, course approved! Rapid pulses of super-heated particles raked the girders above the ninja team. The steel flashed white hot in an instant. The latticework groaned as the structure buckled. The ninjas leaped down to the ground. Leader Ninja and Meatwall both landed with that odd grace of the demi-powered strong. The woman vanished, which made her the ninjas’ cloaker. As the last ninja landed, my heat sensors flared. A fire-external most likely. That one jumped to the top of Maestro’s threats. Maestro immediately pivoted and attacked. Fire-ninja was shredded from dozens of pulsed beams. Even demis don’t react as fast as Maestro.

“Bobby!” Cloaker screamed with that particular anguish of seeing a lover cut down in battle. She reappeared four yards to my right and unleashed a massive laser beam. Maestro snapped up a particle shield that deflected most of the laser. Pain and alarms blared in my head as photons dug holes in my armor. Maestro returned fire while tasking nannites to repairing the damage. Cloaker vanished behind a new veil. That’s when Meatwall charged.

Maestro fired a barrage of pulses at Meatwall, but they were deflected by the head to toe crystalline armor that suddenly appeared. Maestro dodged to the side as Meatwall sliced down with a diamond sword that materialized in his hands. The two beam pistols disintegrated into their component nannites and reformed into a monomolecular katana. Whoever programmed Maestro’s sword program spent way too much time watching samurai films or anime.

Boys, Bernard is escaping, and the RFC’s noticed the comm blackout, Delph reported. They’re sending an SRT. I really didn’t want to deal with a Special Response Team. Neither did Maestro. The HUD showed Maestro’s updated combat course. Ruthless was probably the kindest word I could use to describe it. Maestro doesn’t worry about things like bystanders and collateral damage.

I’m taking over Maestro, I said, feeling my mind slipping back into my body. I dodged Meatwall’s slice. He wasn’t the dangerous one of the team. The katana melted into a smaller cutlass in my right hand and a beam pistol in my left. Delph, have you found their comm circuit?

I’ve narrowed it down to half a dozen, Delph answered as I parried a flurry of strikes from Meatwall. He was grinning behind his clear face armor. He wouldn’t be for long.

Disco ball all of them, I ordered. I felt my power reserves dip as Delph blasted all of the comm circuits with a range of electronic noise. Meatwall’s sword vanished as he gripped his head. I slammed my cutlass into his chest. The monomolecular blade punched through his crystalline armor like it was silk. Meatwall’s eyes went wide in shock and pain before the light went out of them.

I spun to fire a stunning blast at Bernard, but Maestro overrode me and jumped into the air. I bit down my protest when the dirt below us melted into black glass. A targeting reticle popped up on an empty patch of dirt. A light-external can bend light, but she couldn’t stop Delph from triangulating her with the disco ball attack. I let Maestro aim and fire. Cloaker’s veil dissipated as her body fell to the ground. Her chest was dominated by a six-inch-wide hole.

I turned back to Bernard, half-expecting to see him gone. He was on the ground with the Leader Ninja standing over his twitching body. The air around the pair shimmered. Maestro helpfully painted the ninja with several targets with expected percentages for disabling the ninja. I fired two pulses. Leader ninja somehow dodged the light speed blasts. There was only one way that could have happened.

Maestro, take the shot, I said, surrendering control. Leader Ninja gave me a quizzical look an instant before Maestro bisected his throat with a pair of pulses. Goddamn mindfuckers. Goddamn ninja mindfuckers. I knelt next to Bernard. His eyes were rolled up in his head and he was humming a French nursery rhyme.

Où sont les enfants?” I whispered to Bernard as my hands pulled everything out of his pockets. “Where are the children?” He just continued to hum his little song, completely oblivious to my words.

The RFC is almost here, Delph said. I’m going to drop the comms blackout so I can hide you from their sensors.

No, give me another five minutes before dropping the blackout, I said as I walked over to the Leader Ninja. The heat from the particles cauterized the holes as they opened up the ninja’s neck. Good, he wasn’t bleeding all over the place. I checked his suit. Yep, Covert Action was still using the same model of combat suit. Damn good thing too. I pulled the suit’s backup computer as well as the power supply. I reached around his side until I found the small yellow button. I held my finger over the button.

Delph, work your magic, I said. I could feel her annoyed huff before she dipped into the device.

Done, all of their data is scrambled, Delph reported a moment later. By the way– Maestro tried to seize control to take out the two RF constables coming up behind. Ninjas were one thing. I wasn’t about to murder beat cops who weren’t doing anything wrong. Maestro felt my adamant resolve on the issue and threw up a new combat course.

Do it, I said. He spun around. Nannites formed metal batons in hand. The two constables’ eyes went wide as Maestro was suddenly between them. The batons hummed and whistled as Maestro first knocked the constables’ sidearms out of their hands before striking them across the head. The low-energy pulses from the baton strikes stunned the two constables into unconsciousness. Both sank to the ground. I didn’t wait around for the next batch of constables to show up before sprinting into the night.

The steel door hissed open. An unwelcome whiff of musty air wafted across me as I walked into the old staging area. The Americans built a few dozen of these staging rooms across the North American sector when they thought I was just going to be the prototype for dozens of cyborg infiltrators. Liberation quietly destroyed most of them after they destroyed the remnants of the Americans after the war. During the war, there three of these staging points in New York. The ones in Queens and Brooklyn had since become compromised. My last one was in upper Manhattan. I guess Liberation’s counter-intelligence group couldn’t conceive that the Americans would have the audacity to stash one of their facilities under one of their own buildings.

The staging areas were designed to recharge my internal batteries, repair my battle damage, and regenerate my skin sheath. It was dominated by the cradle, which looked like a metal dentist’s chair plugged into a first-generation mainframe. I plugged the lead ninja’s power pack into the cradle. I don’t know the physics of the cradle’s power plant, but the thing needs a significant jump to get it running from dormancy. I felt more than heard the thrumming of the cradle spooling back to life. Satisfied I could at least recharge the energy I spent fighting the ninjas, I checked on the material reserves. That’s when I discovered the cause of the musty smell. Two of the three skin vats had become contaminated and purged since the last time I was here. There was enough left for maybe one or two skin sheaths. The nannite reservoir was little better. At least I had enough metal reserves to replenish the nannites I’d expended.

“We need to find out what’s on these comps,” I said, plugging the ninja’s comp unit and Bernard’s smartphone into the isolation jacks. Those jacks allowed me – or more specifically, Delph – to examine them without worrying about a virus attacking the rest of the staging area systems. Delph plunged into the staging site’s computers like a swimmer into a lake. She emerged in one of the holo projectors.

“You want me to do it fast?” she asked.

“No need,” I said, querying my internal systems, “I’m going to be on the cradle for the next twelve hours. Hopefully you’ll have dug up a lead by then.”

“And if I haven’t?” Delph asked, voicing my fears.

“Then, we’ll figure something out,” I answered.

“You know, when you say that, things have a habit of getting destroyed,” Delph said, “Or people get killed. Or both.” I sat down on the cradle’s chair. Restraint clamps locked down.

“Then, you better find something,” I said as the cradle whispered my mind to sleep.

There are some things a person should never wake up to. A world-wide plague. Alien ships raining fire down on cities. Your lover trying to kill you in your sleep. The leader of the North American Praetorians patiently waiting as you emerge from cradle-sleep. It took all of my will to keep Maestro from seizing control and shedding my just regenerated skin sheath.

“Hello Brian,” I said, hoping my voice was calm. His smirk told me that I managed it.

“Kevin,” he replied. Brian Stellum, better known as Primus Novus Americana, has been described on more than one occasion as an African-American version of Superman. Just under six-and-a-half feet tall, built like an Olympian, and movie-star handsome, Brian’s the warm, smiling face that all demis see when they go in for registration and recruitment. To be fair, Brian is probably the most honorable man I know. He was also my closest friend. Even after I blackmailed his boss and team to pretend I was dead. Fortunately, that was just after we’d killed the Demnisen general and pushed both fucking races off our world. They were a bit more willing to listen to my proposal at the time. To my relief, he wasn’t wearing his Praetorian blues, but just a simple red t-shirt and blue jeans. I was talking to my friend, not the strongest demi on this side of the world.

“You know, you screwed up,” Brian said, with that warm, melodious voice known all over the North American Sector. “You left those two cops alive. After what you did to that guy, I’m surprised you showed any mercy.” There was a gentle probing in his voice. I hesitated a moment before I answered.

“What were you told about what happened?” I asked.

“My team was notified when two constables identified the Metal Ghost as the demi who stunned them when they were responding to a blackout of all communications in a four-block radius. I’m assuming that was you, Delphi. You’re the only one I know who could play that much havoc with our systems.” Delph’s holographic form beamed with the compliment. “They reported finding a minor bureaucrat whose mind was reduced to little more than mush.” He looked away as I stood up from the cradle. “Um, could you do us both a favor and put on some clothes?”

“Brian, you know me,” I answered as I slipped into a unitard. “I’m not physically capable of doing something like that. Ruining someone’s mind, I mean. I can put on clothes just fine.”

“Okay, so who did that to Bernard Descartes?” Brian asked. “And how did you know Bernard?”

“I was doing surveillance on Bernard for a job,” I answered, “And no, I’m not going to tell you my client. As to who did that to him, it was a ninja team.” Brian’s eyebrow crooked up.

“So why didn’t CA report that one of their teams ran into the Metal Ghost?” Brian asked. “You’re still officially deceased. At least for the moment.”

“You’d have to ask whoever’s heading up the Covert Action Directorate these days,” I answered, “When you do, you might want to ask him or her why they’re covering up having one of their teams wiped out.”

“What?” Brian asked, “You killed an entire CAT?”

“There were only four of them,” I answered, “And they weren’t expecting to face me.” It wasn’t bragging. I wasn’t a match for Brian, but I was easily in the heavyweight class among demis.

“What is going on, Kevin?” Brian demanded. I could see the anger and fear in his eyes. I pondered the question. What was going on? There were missing second generation demis. It looked like they covered each of the major expressions of the demi power families. When Pablo started poking around, he ended up dead in a confrontation with Praetorians. The one person known to be involved with the kidnappings was attacked and turned into little more than a human vegetable by a Praetorian ninja team. I didn’t like where the facts were pointing. I made a quick decision and hoped Brian would forgive me.

“I can’t tell you,” I answered.

“What the hell do you mean you can’t tell me?” Brian asked, his voice barely under control. I hesitated for a second. Brian never swore – unless he was really pissed. I mean, I can count on both hands the number of times I’d heard Brian swear. Even when we were in desperate fighting against the aliens. I could tell Brian everything, but I knew how he would react. Brian would move heaven and earth – maybe literally – if he knew about the missing kids. Brian reluctantly compromised his morals with some of the shadier things the Liberation Government did because he believed the government was doing more good than harm. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if Brian found out that the Liberation Government was involved in luring away second gen kids away from their parents. Even if their parents were Irregulars. I wasn’t a fan of the Liberation Government, but I feared more what would happen if wasn’t Brian leading their Praetorians in North America.

“Brian, you need to trust me,” I said.

“Trust you?” Brian asked, his voice menacing with skepticism.

“Yes, trust me,” I answered. “If I thought you could help, I would tell you. Right now, it’s better if you don’t have any knowledge. Also, probably better if you didn’t tell the Primus Novus Americana that you saw me.” Brian let out a dark chuckle.

“If you want me to ignore you and whatever you’re doing, then get it done fast and quietly,” Brian said. “I assume you don’t want me to ask hard questions to Director Bennington about her missing team?” My head snapped up.

Anne Bennington is the Director of Covert Affairs?” I asked, and a chill went down my spine.

“I guess you didn’t get the memo,” Brian said with an almost satisfied dryness in his tone.

“Well, now I feel less guilty about taking out those ninjas,” I said. “It is one less team she’ll send after me.”

“I’m sure she’s too busy running her directorate to pursue an almost decade-long grudge,” Brian said.

“Are we talking about the same Anne?” I asked. “The same Anne who tried to murder me in my sleep?”

“To be fair, you did sort of provoke her,” Brian said. In the spirit of true wit, I flipped him the bird. Brian laughed, and I knew we were good again.

“Do me a favor Kevin. Will you try to stay below the radar?” Brian asked.

“Fully intend to,” I answered.

“You always fully intend to,” Brian replied.

Of course it was raining. Anytime I staked out a building, I never got decent weather. Since it was summer, the rain started pouring five minutes after I set up on the roof across from the warehouse. At least this time I brought a poncho. Less to protect me then to protect the gear I lugged up to the roof with me. I just got to be cold and wet. That never gets any better. You’d think the Americans would have been nice and turned those sensations off.

Much to Delph’s annoyance, the ninja’s computer fragged itself the moment she touched it. The ninjas’ combat suits may not have been upgraded since I left Liberation service, but their on-board computers had a bunch of brand-new security systems. Bernard’s smartphone wasn’t much better, but it yielded up an address to Delph’s careful touch. An address that belonged to a Mazarin Corporation. I would’ve considered that a dead lead if Brian hadn’t told me who was heading up the Covert Directorate. Anne was slipping if she was reusing an old cover name. I hoped that this was where they – whoever they were – was holding the missing kids. Looking at the dilapidated warehouse, it didn’t seem likely.

“Well, whatever they’re doing in there, they’re making sure no one barges in on them,” Delph said from the monitor of the surveillance camera. “They installed an Altheon 9102 system with all the bells and whistles.”

“Does that mean you can’t blind it?” I asked, with a slight challenge in my voice. Delph frowned at me. She hated when I used that tone of voice.

“I can, but not quickly,” Delph said. “I sent a few children to lay the groundwork. If you have to go in before tomorrow night, the most I may be able to do is delay the RFC from responding.”

“You might need to do that,” I said as a blue panel truck drove up to the warehouse. I focused the surveillance camera on the truck. The driver was wearing the uniform for an RF vehicle driver. What would the Relief Force be bringing to the warehouse? I pointed the camera at the back of the truck. The screen went white. Whatever was in the back was shielded to the nines. The driver backed the truck up to a loading dock. A tube extended from the back of the truck until it was flush with the loading door of the warehouse. That sort of thing falls into my “suspicious” category.

Maestro, don’t shed my skin unless I fucking tell you or we hit a critical threat, I told the combat AI. Maestro grumbled, but reluctantly agreed. I didn’t want to waste my limited resources if I didn’t need to do so. Those kinds of things were expensive when you didn’t have the backing of a government. I judged the distance between my roof and the warehouse’s roof. Maybe thirty feet. I hated long jumps.

Delph, do what you can, I ordered as I took a running start and bounded into the air. The AI screamed something about my recklessness as the wind whipped around me. The warehouse’s roof rushed up to me. I braced for the landing. The metal roof of the warehouse made an odd gong as my boots hit. Then the roof buckled, and I plummeted into the warehouse.

I was momentarily dazzled by the sudden shift from dark to brilliant light. As my eyes focused to the interior of the warehouse, I slammed into the floor of the warehouse. Maestro informed me that the ground was concrete and there were minor faults in my legs and spine from the impact. Also, there were a dozen targets surrounding me. True to his word, Maestro didn’t take over and shed my skin sheath. Instead, he helpfully overlaid targeting data on my vision. My head ached with the new data. Flesh eyes were not designed for all of that additional stimuli.

“What the fuck?” screamed a male voice to my right. I turned and saw a ninja flanked by two Covert Action commandos. Well, all parts of the Covert Action Directorate were being well represented. The rest of the people were in standard RF work uniforms. Except for a target that was standing in the shadows near the loading dark. Maestro highlighted that one as the priority target and screamed to let him take over.

“I really want to make a joke about dropping in, but ninjas have bad senses of humor,” I said. The commandos leveled their submachine guns at me.

“Case in point,” I said. The RF workers dashed behind expensive-looking equipment. They were the smart ones.

“You told me this was a secure location,” the shadow figure said, and I froze. The voice was a pleasant-sounding, computer-generated male voice. Underneath, I heard the slight click-clacking of inhuman speech. Alien speech. “Witnesses are not to be allowed.” Maestro screamed to take over, but I ignored the AI. I wanted that fucking alien alive. I wanted to know why they were back and working with Liberation.

Maestro flashed a warning. I jumped towards the two commandos as they opened fire. Even highly trained soldiers don’t react well to fast moving targets coming at them. A few bullets buried themselves in my heavy jacket. I reached under and pulled out a pair of pistols. Usually, dual-wielding pistols is just an exercise in making noise with occasionally hitting your target. Usually. Unless you have a combat AI using advanced sensors to guide your fire using a cybernetic body. Both commandos were cut down as 10mm rounds punched through their visors. I wasn’t paying attention to them. I was watching the ninja.

The ninja stepped back as his two subordinates went down and waved his hands. The warehouse went black. Not dark, as if all the lights were turned off, but the blackness of all light being extinguished at once. My headache intensified as Maestro overlaid the thermal imaging feed onto my vision. I stopped to let my vision settle down – which was when the ninja attacked.

I barely caught the ninja’s heat signature as he attacked from my left. His fist slammed across my face, and I heard him yelp from the sudden pain. Yeah, I was wearing a skin sheath, but my jaw was made of a titanium/alien alloy. I’m sure it felt like punching a foam rubber covered metal bar. My face throbbed with pain. That was the downside to keeping my skin sheath. I fired twice to open up the distance between the ninja and me. He shrugged off the 10mm slugs. For fuck’s sake, who was this guy? Two power families, and he could do an interior and exterior of a body power? I thought I knew all of the high-powered demis. There weren’t exactly a large number of us.

The ninja lunged, and I dodged to the side. I didn’t even realize my mistake as I moved right into the alien’s blaster. Intense pain flooded everywhere. Maestro and Delph went silent. All of my HUD displays vanished. Something hard pushed up against my body. I realized it was the concrete floor. I didn’t even remember falling. I felt more than saw the two figures standing over me.

“On second thought, don’t kill him,” the alien said. “Put him in a capsule and make sure he’s with the test subjects.”

“Why? The subjects we have now should give you everything you need,” the ninja said, with an annoyed tone.

“You gave me examples of the mutations we caused, but this one is something else entirely,” the alien answered. It crouched down next to me. “And I’ve so wanted to see the Metal Ghost in person.”

Well fuck, I thought as the blackness took me.

As I emerged from the blackness, my mind was flooded with information from my sensors. I barely kept from screaming as pain quickly followed the data flow. Maestro usually filtered my sensor feeds so they weren’t overwhelming, but I couldn’t feel the AI in the back of my head. I couldn’t even sense Delph. Panic flooded me. I needed my two AI helpers to fully function. And they were my friends. Well, at least Delph was.

Get a hold of yourself, Kev, I thought. It’s been a while, but you’ve worked without Maestro before. The Americans made it a part of the initial training with my then-new cybernetics. I hated them for it at the time, but I was grateful for the tortuous session when I fought with Maestro for control of our body after the war. I forced myself to tame each individual sensor feed at a time. In a few minutes I had a picture of my surroundings. I was in some sort of enclosed pod that shielded me from outside data, such as GPS, radio, and Internet signals. Dozens of small probes were embedded in my skin. They were conducting some sort of low level disruption that screwed with my cybernetics and kept me immobilized. Best guess was that they’d slapped me into a med coffin (but don’t ever use that term when medical professionals are around). Damage from the alien’s blaster was repaired, but my material reserves were dangerously low. Any further damage meant time in the cradle and then finding more materials. Some of those were rare. As in, need to break into a Liberation lab to “acquire” more, rare.

Since it didn’t look like I was going to be mobile anytime in the near future, I contemplated my predicament for a moment. An alien was meeting with a very powerful ninja, but I didn’t know why. It sounded like the children were being collected for the alien, but again, why? The aliens didn’t leave because demi powers were superior to alien tech. The aliens left because we bled both sides to the point neither wanted the planet. So what the hell was going on?

A strong jolt yanked me out of my thoughts. The med coffin pivoted and stood upright. The locks whined, and the entire front of the coffin swung open. I blinked at the sudden bright light. Sensor data tried to overlay my vision, but I pushed it back. I looked down. Oh good, I was naked. I always liked to face my enemies with my package flapping about. Hands reached into the coffin and pulled me out onto a bizarre cross between a gurney and a dolly. I was strapped down before I realized that the disruptors were gone. One sensor feed helpfully told me that the straps were designed to hold demis.

For a moment, I thought I was in an ICU. The room was large, but there were no windows. Twenty med coffins were arrayed in two rows. Nurses in scrubs walked among the coffins making notations on the tablets in their hands. At the end of the room was a glass door. Beyond the door was a large machine that looked eerily similar to my cradle. Instead of the chair was some kind of transparent pod with a metal slab and restraints. My attention was ripped from the machine as the alien and two human doctors – a man and a woman – walked into the ICU.

“Would you like a robe?” asked the alien in that synthesized voice, holding the item out. Aliens were very human-like. Except for the yellow-tinged skin, translucent hair, and being about half a head taller than most people. Oh, and the pincers that came out of their mouths. Other than all of that, they looked just like humans. The alien wore a simple black unitard and a white lab coat. Where did an alien get a lab coat in its size?

“I probably should so that I don’t embarrass your friend there,” I quipped. I normally didn’t go for dick jokes, but my wit was a bit dulled with the pain of trying to keep the data streams manageable. The male doctor’s eyes narrowed, but the woman doc chuckled. The alien draped the robe over me. It was a plush one, like the kind you get at expensive hotels. I might have accidentally acquired a couple on jobs for Rene.

“What is that?” I asked, nodding at the machine in the other room.

“I thought you were going to ask where you are first,” the alien mused. He motioned to the human doctors. They walked over to one of the coffins. Satisfied with the readings on the display, the two doctors and a few nurses rolled the coffin out of the ICU and over to the machine in the other room.

“That wasn’t an answer,” I said.

“True. Showing you would be better than explaining,” the alien said, motioning me to follow it. “I’ve been told by my colleagues that I tend to lapse into technical speak when speaking about the procedure.” An orderly helpfully wheeled me through the glass door as the alien walked beside me. The other room was cold. My sensors informed me that it was fifteen and a half degrees Celsius in the room. Maestro despised imperial and defaulted all of my sensor feeds in metric. My best guess was somewhere around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. The other room was much bigger than the ICU. It was easily forty or fifty feet high and nearly three hundred feet wide. The left side of the room was a glass-enclosed control room. The ninja I’d fought was in the control room standing next to a thin woman with auburn hair and a sour expression. Her flashing brown eyes were all the confirmation I needed that Anne Bennington, head of the Praetorian Covert Action Directorate, still wanted me to die horribly. The feeling was mutual. I have a hard time forgiving people who try and kill me.

“Sukarat Fellion, what is he doing here?” Anne asked, the slightest accent from her days at Oxford. She called the alien a Sukarat, but that wasn’t a military rank in either the Omnisen or Demnisen militaries. Exactly who was this alien?

“His particular power manifestation is unique among the demis. It fits into so many different families and directions, it has never been properly categorized. We need to test the procedure on him as well to ensure that it works as we’ve promised. I’m sure he will support our work once he sees what we’ve accomplished,” the alien said. “He served your government during the war. Quite admirably, according to our reports. Although, your reports say he was killed when your forces took down the Demnisen flagship. Very curious.” Anne started to say something, but visibly stopped herself. At least my blackmail was still holding for the moment. Of course, Anne was at her most dangerous when she felt cornered.

“There were some unconfirmed rumors that he somehow managed to survive, but nothing concrete until now,” Anne said, coolly. “I’m surprised that he did not make himself known to the Liberation authorities. It makes a person suspicious.” A malicious smile spread across Anne’s face.

“I was burned out after the war,” I said, “I needed time away from everyone.”

“Really? You match a freelancer that has been operating since the end of the war. Well, I’m happy that you decided to drop into our little clean-up,” the alien said. “You are a such a unique case among the mutations. There’s never been anyone like the Metal Ghost.” Everyone in the room tensed as the alien said my old demi name. The ninja took a step in front of Anne as two others stepped closer to her. Like I said, sometimes it’s nice when you’re reputation precedes you. This wasn’t one of those times.

“Why did you attack us?” the ninja asked. I looked at him for a long moment, and then over at Anne. She knew me too well to try any subterfuge. It wasn’t my strong point anyway. If it had been, she wouldn’t have figured that I was a spy the night before we infiltrated the Demnisen ship. Of course, I never did find out why she didn’t tell anyone after her failed attempt at murdering me in my sleep.

“Kids were going missing,” I said, shrugging my shoulders within the limits of my restraints. The ninjas tensed at the slight movement. That was interesting. I was all tied up, but the ninjas were still worried. At that point, something occurred to me. These were all relatively young ninjas. All they knew about me had to come from the old war stories the older Praetorians. I’d heard enough of them in passing to know the stories were like any good war story – embellished to the point of fantasy. These fuckers had no real idea of what I could and couldn’t do. At that point, I’d take any advantage if and when it came down to a fight.

“The subjects? I thought they were all volunteers,” the alien said, looking at Anne.

“Most of them are,” Anne answered. “We needed to use alternative methods to recruit the latest batch.”

“Oh. I’m sure they’ll be happy after the procedure,” the alien said.

“What procedure?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” the alien said, his pincers spreading wide in a horrific version of a smile. He motioned for two orderlies. They opened the coffin and lifted out one of the missing kids. I recognized her as the Sioux girl – Rebecca Gonzalez. The girl was maybe thirteen, and in that awkward stage of going from girl to woman. If I remembered correctly, Rebecca was the fire-internal that manifested as a pillar of fire. Her body had that limpness of the heavily sedated. The two orderlies opened the machine’s pod and strapped the girl onto the metal slab. As they closed the pod, it rotated upright. The girl was hanging from her restraints in some sick re-creation of a crucifixion.

The alien nodded to the techs in the control room. The machine hummed to life and hundreds of tell-tale lights winked to life. A second later, Rebecca jerked violently against her restraints. It looked like she was having some sort of seizure. From the alien’s pleased expression, everything was going just as he expected. There was a moment of panic when the girl stopped moving, but then I could see her chest rise and fall with steady breathing.

“Relax, Metal Ghost. Or is it the Metal Ghost? Your language is overly complex. As I was saying, please don’t worry. The girl is all better now,” the alien assured me.

“What are you doing to her?” I demanded, unable to keep the anger out of my voice.

“We are helping her. Now, she will be able to live a normal, happy, and productive life,” the alien answered, confused by my anger. My stomach plummeted as an idea flashed through my head. They couldn’t be doing something like that, could they? I kept my mouth firmly shut as the machine continued to hum away. The next ten minutes felt like ten hours as I watched Rebecca’s limp form. Finally, the machine wound down, and the pod laid back down. The orderlies opened the pod and undid the restraints. A doctor made some routine checks on Rebecca before sticking a hypodermic in the girl’s neck. A few seconds later, Rebecca screamed in terror.

WHERE AM I?” Rebecca shrieked as she leapt off of the table. The two orderlies stepped cautiously towards Rebecca. I smiled as the girl fell into a fighting stance. Her face scrunched up in concentration, and then in shocked terror as nothing happened.

“As you can see Director Bennington, the procedure is a complete success,” the alien said.

“Her powers are completely eliminated?” Anne asked from the control room. Rebecca froze as she heard the question. The two orderlies used her distraction to attack. Before Rebecca realized what was happening, the girl was restrained and on the floor. To her credit, Rebecca still struggled and tried to take a bite out of the orderlies.

“For all intents and purposes,” the alien answered. “Technically, part of the process suppresses the subject’s powers until the gene-scrubbing takes full effect over the next eight to twelve months.” The alien walked over to the struggling girl. In the blink of an eye, the alien took a sample of the girl’s blood. Aliens were fucking fast in close quarters. The alien put the sample into a handheld device and examined the screen.

“As expected, her demi powers are suppressed and the nannites are replacing the mutated genes responsible for her power manifestation. The mutations for improved disease resistance are completely unaffected,” the alien said. “Using this process, we should be able to clean up that nasty effect within two years without making them susceptible to all of the nasty diseases running around this planet.”

“How did you take my powers away? Why would you do that?” Rebecca demanded. The alien cocked his head in confusion at the girl’s questions.

“Why would you want those horrible mutations?” the alien asked, “Why would you want to be so different from your fellow human beings? How could you hope to properly assimilate in your society?” She screamed in frustration as she struggled to free herself.

“Don’t bother trying to explain, Rebecca,” I said, “Aliens can’t understand why people would want to be different.”

“Enough!” Anne barked. “Take the girl down to the holding room. Social Services will deal with her and get her reintegrated.” Anne smiled down at me. It was a predatory smile. “Sukarit, perform the procedure on the Metal Ghost.” Thankfully, the alien’s gasp was louder than my own.

“Director, I must protest!” The alien said, “I have not been able to take any proper samples from him. I need time to study him.”

“You’ve had him in a coffin for twenty-four hours,” Anne said, “Are you telling me you gathered no data in that entire time?”

“We found out he has a metallic skeleton, but other than that, our sensors found nothing more about him,” the alien answered. “I suspect the disabling field and his skeleton were causing interference with the sensors. We need him in a proper lab to fully explore the Metal Ghost.”

“I appreciate your scientific curiosity, Sukarit, but that one is too dangerous to be running around with his powers,” Anne said, with a smile. “Unless you don’t thing it won’t work?”

“It’s been successful so far in over seventy cases with a wide variety of power manifestations,” the alien said indignantly, “His powers should be suppressed and removed with the procedure.”

“Fuck no,” I murmured. See, here’s the thing. I’m sure that you’re thinking that I should be doing my best Briar Rabbit impersonation. Please Briar Fox, don’t throw me in that briar machine! After all, everyone except a small handful of people know that my powers stem from this nifty cyborg body packed with nannites that the American government whipped up from alien scrap and DARPA’s toy box – and Anne wasn’t one of them. Except the entire truth is a bit more complicated.

There’s a very good reason that I was the only successful outcome of Project Scorpion. Before becoming the six-billion-dollar man, I was a demi. Among the Irregulars, I was known as Whisper. Why? Because I’d made a joke that I was a technology whisperer, and like all good nicknames, it stuck. And well, there was the whole shy thing, particularly around girls. Give me a break, I was only fourteen when I hooked up with the Irregulars. The gist of this history lesson is that it’s my demi power that allows me to control my cybernetics without being torn apart or driven insane. So, in a very real sense, Anne throwing me in that damned machine was going to strip my powers away from me – and probably kill me to boot.

I didn’t survive this long by letting things try to kill me without doing everything I could to return the favor. One of the orderlies hauled Rebecca out of the room, while the rest of the orderlies wheeled me over to the power-stealing machine. I closed my eyes and focused on what my sensors were telling me. The restraints were designed to hold demis, but they were brittle as well as strong. At least at the molecular level. I found the nannite control. Memories surfaced from past training sessions. I felt my demi power flow over my body and the nannites responded to its touch. I told them what I wanted and let them go to work. Then, I looked through my sensors. Without Maestro, I wasn’t going to get the full performance out of my body, but I’d picked up a few things over the years of watching the combat AI work.

Wait for the restraints to loosen, I cautioned myself as I set up the course of action. Fighting without Maestro was sort of half pre-programming and half-improvising on the fly. Fortunately, the Americans left some combat templates for my use buried in the control systems. I selected one, made some minor modifications, and waited for my opportunity. I didn’t have to wait for long.

I felt the tiniest slack in my right restraint and executed the course of action. First was the intense pain as my skin sheath melted off and the nannites formed my armored shell. The armored glacis slid over my face and the HUD snapped to life. Two monomolecular blades formed in my hands and slit the restraints with the simple waves of my hands. One blade swept down to free my legs. I launched the other at the alien with as much strength as I could muster. The blade lanced through the alien’s head like a ballista. A geyser of pale, yellow fluid burst from the alien’s head as it collapsed to the ground.

I leapt from the dolly and bounded across the tiled floor to grab my sword. As soon as my hand touched the hilt, the nannites flowed back into my body. At that point, my pre-programming slammed into reality. I expected the ninjas in the control room to join the fray, but they all just stood next to her. For a brief moment, I thought Anne was going to face-off with me herself. Just as I was relishing the thought of going up against her again, the two CA teams in the room dropped their veil.

Without programmed actions, it took more effort to get my systems to do what I wanted. Particle pulse pistols formed in my hands as four black-clad Praetorians attacked from all sides. I sprayed energy blasts to open up some fighting room. Two of the ninjas went down with cauterized holes in their torsos. The other two shrugged off the blasts and kept coming. The bigger one lunged, and an icicle shot out of his hand. I barely dodged the icicle – and ran right into the second’s attack. Smaller ninja got his hands on me and electricity surged painfully through me. Alarms blazed in my head as some of my systems went down as the surge protectors snapped into place. I smacked the ninja with a pulse pistol. He went down in a heap. Those kinds of demis weren’t called glass cannons for nothing. I turned back to Iceboy.

The world went white as God’s sledgehammer struck me across the back of my head. Shrill alarms blazed through my mind as damage and sensor reports went wild. My vision cleared just in time for a granite fist to slam across my face plate. Yup, granite. Fucking rock-armors. Why couldn’t Anne have stuck with just using sneaky power types as ninjas and leaving the bruisers in the straight line Praetorian teams?

I forced the nannites to form a plasma gun in my hands. Flashing icons warned me that a plasma gun would drain too much power from my already low reserves. What the hell? When had my power levels gotten that low? Damn it, Maestro always managed the power grid, and I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Well, fuck it. I’d rather go out being torn apart by Anne’s ninjas then from my cyber-systems trying to kill each other. I’d seen what happened to the Americans’ previous experiments.

I never had the chance to use the plasma gun. Anne appeared next to me. Without Maestro, I couldn’t move fast enough to get out of her reach – and she knew exactly where to hit me. There was the briefest flash of pain as her hand punched through my armor. Once inside, her real power hit sending all of my systems scrambling. Last time she did this, it took Maestro, Delph, and me working in an intricate concert to stay alive. This time the only thing that saved my life was the fail-safes shutting everything down to minimal load. Everything went black as my sensors shut down. I felt my body collapse to the ground, but it was detached. It was kind of like when a roller coaster drops with only a bit of shutter as it hit the tiled floor. My mind raced as I was picked up. I needed my AI’s back if I was going to have any hope of surviving the next few minutes. Except that alien’s disruptor blast destroyed them. Or did it?

My body was completely shut down to only the life-sustaining minimum. The fail-safes the designers put in kept the systems overloading when hit by energy blasts like Anne’s and that ninja of hers. Did the designers do the same thing for the sub-systems that housed my AI’s? I couldn’t remember. I’d never needed to restart my AI’s, but I still had my demi power. At least for a little longer. I reached out with my mind to the small computers where my AI’s “lived”. I poked and prodded until I saw how the sub-systems were put together. Switches? Could it be that easy? I flipped both – and nothing happened. Despair and desperation filled me. What else could I do? I didn’t even know how long I had. I couldn’t feel what Anne’s people were doing to me. I couldn’t even tell if the power-stealing machine was turned on.

Kevin? asked a wonderfully familiar female voice. Delph sounded like she was just waking up from a very long nap. Just after Delph spoke, I felt Maestro joining us. He was royally pissed off. That was a good thing. Maestro pissed off can be a terrible sight to behold.

Short time, I thought to the two AI’s and relaxed my normal mental blocks that kept the three of us out of each other’s personal thoughts. For the briefest moment, my brain felt like it was going to explode as the two AI’s ruthlessly shifted through everything that happened since the alien disruptor took them off-line. Maestro started bringing my body on-line. My batteries were dangerously low as were my nannite reserves. Sensors came up, and I found myself in the pod with the humming of the power-stealing machine spooling up in my ears.

Delph, can you get into that machine? I asked.

No hard interface and this room is locked down, Delph said. I don’t have enough resources to hijack anything. We need more power if we’re going to do anything useful. She was right. I couldn’t even fire a single particle pulse with my batteries reserves so low – and I needed my cradle to recharge my power systems.

Maestro chuckled. Both Delph and I stopped dead. Maestro doesn’t chuckle. Maestro barely registers amusement. Before either of us could form the question, Maestro flooded our shared mind with a schematic. Oh holy fuck, those Americans were scary. No wonder Liberation made sure that the American government was completely destroyed when it couldn’t be brought to heel.

Can we do that? I asked.

We’re kind out of options, Delph answered, If this doesn’t work, we won’t be able to do anything else. Maestro was annoyed that we were using up precious time instead of letting him act. He had a point. I relented and Maestro channeled all available energy to the nannites. The molecule machines flowed out of their reserves to my arms and legs.

“What the hell is he doing?” Anne demanded an instant before the nannites snapped into the schematic Maestro found. Alien nannites generally are locked down to only a few uses. It’s supposed to be a security feature against issues like gray goo or criminal use. I’ve always used my nannites to form weapons and armor or to do repairs, so that’s all I thought they could do. I was wrong. Very wrong. The American engineers managed to strip the alien controls on the nannites and substituted their own much looser controls.

The schematic Maestro used turned the nannites into essentially energy vampires. As soon as the power-stealing machine’s nannites invaded my body to gene-scrub me, my nannites stripped them of every sub-atomic bit of energy. My nannites didn’t stop there. They yanked every bit of power they could from the power-stealing machine itself, and then from the building’s own power grid. The room went dark as circuit-breakers snapped into place to stop the power surge as the nannites tried to pull in more from the city’s power grid. From the burnt electrical smell that filled the room, the circuit-breakers weren’t quite fast enough to prevent most of the computers from being fried. Even better, the power-stealing machine was leaking wisps of smoke. The restraints released, and for the first time in my life, I thanked the Liberation Office of Workplace Safety that required automatic medical restraints to be released when the power goes out. The nannites flowed back into me as my HUD filled with icons. I smiled at the power icon. Main batteries at full and my two spare capacitors were brimming with power.

Delph, Paul Revere! I ordered the AI. There was the briefest hesitation before I felt her “leave” as she found an open node. Next to deal with the ninjas before they realized I wasn’t restrained. I set up my parameters and let Maestro control the combat. Maestro immediately reformed the nannites into the pistols and sprayed the control room with particle blasts. Sparks and explosions filled the small room. Maestro turned the guns on the two ninjas standing in front of me. They had the barest instant to realize they were under attack before dozens of beams shredded their chests. The pulse pistols shimmered and reformed into blades. Four quick strokes and the front of the pod was on the floor.

Ninjas, as much as I deride them otherwise, are not simply demi-powered thugs in black suits. Thugs would still be standing around dumbfounded when the lights went out and the supposedly restrained prisoner was killing their comrades. Ninjas acted – and darkness was their preferred environment. Well, I was damned good in the dark as well.

Maestro, two behind have disrupters, I thought, looking at the sensor feeds. Maestro gave an exasperated sigh to let me know he already knew that. Okay, so why is your course of action aimed at the two in front of us? Maestro didn’t answer. Maestro was a firm believer in letting your actions do your talking. He kicked up the pane of lexan sitting on the floor and flung it at the two ninjas in front.

Both dived to each side. Maestro already had the pistols formed and fired into the ninjas’ paths. One jerked as the energized particles tore through his side. The other grunted, but kept going. He rolled into a crouch and then pounced. He was fast enough to surprise Maestro – which might have meant more if Maestro wasn’t a highly specialized combat AI. It took a fraction of a second for Maestro to recover from the surprise and alter his course of action. The pulse pistols melted into heavy punch daggers as Maestro dashed forward to meet the ninja. The ninja’s eyes sparkled with predatory gleam as he landed on us. Maestro let the impact force us to the ground. It was like getting hit with a cannonball (yes, I’ve had that experience, and no, I’m not going to talk about it now). This was probably the rock-armor bastard with the sledgehammer right hook. As we tumbled, Maestro and the ninja struggled to land effective hits. Grappling isn’t fun with an experienced opponent. I thought Maestro was struggling with the ninja – until he effortlessly spun the ninja into a disruptor blast. The ninja convulsed as the blast shorted out every neuron in his body. Maestro threw the now-limp body at the ninja who still had a charged disruptor.

The ninja effortlessly dodged the flying body – but not the grenade Maestro liberated from the stunned ninja. Nannites formed a curved tower shield as the room shook from the small ball of death exploding. Fragments pinged off the shield. The nannites flowed back into my body. The three ninjas were turned into shredded hulks. Grenades were great for reducing demis to ground meat. The orderlies and a couple of the other ninjas didn’t fare too well either. Best of all, the grenade put paid to the power-stealing machine. Delicate devices don’t do well with dozens of quarter-inch-wide holes punched through them. It was one of the reasons clearance teams during the Liberation War were very judicious in the use of frags. Couldn’t have all that valuable alien tech reduced to scrap, after all.

Maestro took cover behind the remains of the power-stealing machine. Sensors said that the last two ninjas on the floor were taking cover on the other side of the ruined machine. I checked my power reserves. Both spare capacitors were depleted, and the main was down about a third. Power was always the precious commodity in a fight. It’s why I needed Maestro to manage it.

You couldn’t have grabbed a couple more grenades? I asked Maestro. He grumbled, but didn’t argue the point. Maestro didn’t take well to having his few mistakes pointed out. Okay, try to kill these last two without using up too much battery. Maestro scoffed and reminded me of how he used the nannites to recharge us just a few minutes earlier. Yeah, and Anne’s probably got the power grid locked down now. She’s too smart to let us use the same trick twice. Maestro reluctantly conceded the point. The pulse particle pistols merged into a precision rifle. Take down the first one with the rifle and then kill the second with blades. Maestro was nothing if not efficient, if a little on the ruthless side.

“Stand down! Everyone stand down!” Anne commanded. She stood up in the wreck of the control room. Maestro screamed to unleash a stream of particle pulses at her, but I reminded him that Anne was off the kill-list for right now. Instead, he slid around the corner and took down both of the ninjas with quick blasts. They were dead before they knew they were under attack.

“Goddamn it, Kevin! I said stand the fuck down!” Anne screamed, outraged.

“In case you forgot Anne, one, I don’t work for you, and two, you just tried to wipe my powers,” I answered. “Why the fuck would I listen to any orders coming out of that mouth of yours?”

“Because if you don’t, I’m going to kill all of the remaining subjects,” Anne answered, getting herself back under control. “If you will stand down, I’m willing to negotiate.”

“If the deal doesn’t involve me walking out of here with those kids without further and future harm from you and yours, then I might as well finish killing all of your ninjas,” I said. “By the way, thanks for giving your ninjas frags. That made my job so much easier.”

“Kevin, you’re not that ruthless,” Anne said, “You wouldn’t have come this far unless one of the subjects wasn’t important to you personally. I know you, and you would not gamble with that life so recklessly.”

“What are you proposing?” I asked.

“You turn yourself over as a CA asset. I will let the remaining subjects go,” Anne answered.

“Why would you let the kids go now?” I asked.

“You’ve destroyed my machine and killed the Omnisen scientist who developed the process,” Anne answered. “Right now, the subjects only value to me is as a means to compel your cooperation. If I have your cooperation, then they are more valuable to me released.”

“You can’t honestly think I’d work for you,” I said.

“I didn’t say work for me. I said turn yourself over to CA,” Anne said. “I want to know what the American government did to you. The Sukarit was right. We should have studied you before trying to strip your powers. I let my feelings cloud my judgement. You know that I rarely make the same mistake twice.”

“I’ll make it easy for you Anne. The Americans did what every government does,” I shouted back, “Pretended to help me while fucking me over.”

“How very amusing,” Anne said. “Are you going to cooperate, or shall I just tell my personnel to kill the remaining subjects?” I was just about to tell her to go fuck herself, but there was a tingle in the back of my head. Well, it was about damn time.

“Okay Anne, let the kids go, and I’ll turn myself over to you,” I said. Her eyebrow arched in surprise. “I want proof that they’ve been released and safe before I stop killing your ninjas.”

“You don’t trust my word?” Anne asked, affronted.

“You tried to kill me once, Anne. Your trustworthiness went down in flames like a kamikaze after that,” I said.

“You are one to talk about trustworthiness. You were a spy and a traitor to Liberation,” Anne said in that terse tone she used when infuriated. “Unlike you, I never once lied in the entire time we-” Her jaw snapped shut. The room fell silent except for the sparking of destroyed electronics.

“You are not negotiating in good faith. You have no intention of surrendering to me,” Anne said, her temper under control. Damn, I was hoping to keep her pissed off for a little longer. “Give me one reason not to kill you and the subjects?” As if on cue, the building shook.

“What the hell was that?” Lead Ninja demanded. Anne frowned at her bodyguard’s lack of deportment. Another tremor rocked the building.

“It must be a demi of some sort,” Anne answered, coolly, “Not enough sound for an explosion.” She fixed her gaze on me. “You called in the Irregulars?”

“Actually, no,” I answered, “Descartes Solutions received a strong tip that kidnapped children are in this building, or at least, that’s what he’ll tell the net.” I returned her cool gaze. “Maybe you shouldn’t have turned his brother’s brain into mush.”

“I see,” Anne said. She was quiet for a few moments. “I’m assuming you have a solution percolating through that brain of yours.” I smiled under my glacis.

“Your ten percent should be in your account now,” Rene Descartes said, turning his monitor to show me the transfer. Rene maintained a policy in his company of giving any employee or freelancer ten percent of the value of a contract that he or she brings into the company. In this case, Descartes Solutions was given a lucrative non-competitive contract to be “on-call” consultants for the Covert Action Directorate. Of course, having a contract with CA meant Descartes Solutions was under a non-disclosure clause regarding any activities that the CA Directorate may or may not have been involved.

“That should give you operating capital for a while,” Rene said, “I have a strong feeling that you won’t be awarded any Liberation contracts for some time.”

“Well, not under of any of the current identities they know about,” I said, taking a sip from the glass of whiskey. Rene always knew where to get the good stuff.

“Speaking of which,” Rene said, handing over six leather folios. Each represented a clean identity. Or at least, clean in that they weren’t associated with me. I’d have to check each’s personal history before using them. I learned that the hard way, and Southern California had one less forger after the incident.

“I didn’t think my fee covered new identities for both the kids’ families and all of these,” I said, holding up the folios.

“It didn’t. It barely covered the cost of the six in your hands,” Rene said. “The kids and their parents I did out of my own pocket.” He gave a very Gallic shrug. “I feel somewhat responsible for their situation since it was my brother who led them here. I should have done something about Bernard years ago, but he was our mother’s favorite.”

“Thank you, Rene,” I said. “For everything.”

“I’m considering that favor I owe you paid. I’m not letting you hold that over my head after getting me to blackmail the CA Directorate,” Rene said, the smile on his face belying his harsh tone.

“As I keep saying, blackmail is only an ugly word when your life doesn’t depend on it,” I said, “And you’re not blackmailing the Directorate, I am.”

“Do you really believe Director Bennington doesn’t hold me as culpable as you?” Rene asked.

“Not enough to the point she would be willing to expend the resources needed to take care of you cleanly,” I said.

“I don’t want to know what was being done at the place, do I?” Rene asked.

“Your ignorance might be the only thing keeping you alive, right now,” I said.

“Director Bennington believes that I have no knowledge?” Rene asked, trying to pretend to be nonchalant.

“She knows how much I would have told you in order for our little conspiracy to work. She’s dealt me with before – and no, I’m not going to tell you that story,” I said.

“Please, it’s enough for me to know that the freelancer I’ve known for the last six years is actually the Metal Ghost,” Rene said. “Although, if you want to tell that story, there might be some cash in it for you. You know how I like complete intelligence files.” I finished off the whiskey and set the glass back down on Rene’s desk.

“Enjoy your contract, Rene,” I said, standing up. “Au revoir.”

The hundred grand was spent before I’d left the Descartes Solutions building. Between that and selling two of my safe houses, I had barely enough to resupply my New York staging area. Getting the organic material for my skin sheaths and rare metals for my nannites was expensive and required finding a supplier that owed me a serious favor. Several serious favors, actually. It couldn’t be helped. Liberation, or at least it’s North American Covert Affairs Directorate, was now officially aware that the Metal Ghost not only survived, but was active. Anne may have made a deal to keep her involvement with the Omnisen secret, but she didn’t forgive or forget. I knew I was going to get pulled back into her machinations at some point.

Kate sent me a picture of the twins and their foster parents in their new house. They were all smiling. Part of that old debt was paid. Kate also sent me a nice note, or at least nice for Kate. Something along the lines of she was glad I managed to get the kids out and not get killed. Kate never did the sentimental well, even when we were together. At least there was a hint that maybe, possibly, sometime in the future she might be open to becoming friends again. That made me happier than I expected.

My reminiscing was interrupted by the knock I’d been dreading all afternoon. Brian walked into my apartment. His smile was a bit wary. He’d been annoyed at my evasiveness over the phone, and I couldn’t blame him. As he sat down, I delayed a little bit longer by getting him a beer.

“Thanks. Rumor is that the Metal Ghost was involved in that rogue CA operation over in Battery Park,” Brian said.

“I thought that would keep quiet longer,” I said.

“It’s too good of a story. Even for CA,” Brian said. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“That depends how comfortable you are with keeping things from the Primus Novus America,” I answered. Brian’s smile disappeared.

“You know I don’t like that game,” Brian said, his voice devoid of any humor.

“It’s not a game, Brian,” I said.

“It never is. So, why don’t you tell me what you called me over here about,” Brian said.

“It started when a friend from my Irregular days called me out of the blue,” I started. I told him everything. Well, mostly everything. I shaded Rene’s involvement a bit and the fact that I had a stack of new identities. I loved Brian like a brother, but if things went sideways, I needed to disappear completely. Brian started scowling as I explained Anne’s plot. By the time I was done, the scowl a deep crease across his face.

“Goddamn it Anne,” Brian said, to the ceiling, “I knew she was up to something, but I never thought she would do something like this.” I watched my friend. Damn, I hate when people disappoint me.

“When did you find out that CA was working with the Omnisen?” I asked. His neutral expression told me all I needed to know. At least he didn’t try to lie to me.

“It’s not just the CA,” Brian said, “You asked me to keep this from my other half, so now I need you to keep this from the Metal Ghost.” Gods damn it, I hate when people throw my own words in my face.

“Fine. You’ve earned that much,” I said.

“Sort of what I was thinking,” Brian said. “About a year ago, Liberation was contacted by the Omnisen. Basically, they were offering assistance rebuilding our world. Liberation agreed.”

“After everyone we lost pushing those aliens off our planet?” I asked, barely keeping my voice under control.

“Kev, calm down. Please,” Brian said, “You aren’t the only one who made that point. Vociferously.” Brian sighed. “You haven’t seen the reports. Europe is still a decade before it will be restored to something like where it was before the war. North America is a little better, but not much. The rest of the world? At least twenty years. We would have an entire generation whose only experience will be refugee camps or Relief Force control. And all of it is going to require mountains of treasure.” I forced myself to sit down.

“Liberation needs to get us productive again,” I said, “Productive and paying taxes.”

“They haven’t said that last part, but yeah,” Brian said. “Omnisen help would exponentially increase our ability to rebuild the world. Not just rebuild, but give people a real chance at a better life than the ruins around us.”

“So what do you want me to do?” I asked him. He was very quiet for a long moment.

“Have you told the Irregulars about the alien?” Brian asked.

“No. There wasn’t an opportunity. They’ve been too busy hiding the kids from the government,” I answered. “They didn’t want me knowing where any of the kids were going.”

“You need to talk with the Chairman,” Brian said. “We may need the Irregulars to be a check on Liberation.”

“That’s an odd sentiment coming from you,” I said.

“I still think Liberation is the best hope for humanity,” Brian said. “What’s that old Arab proverb Saladin kept telling us? ‘Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel?'” We both chuckled. Saladin had been a good friend to both of us before he was killed during the final battle with the Demnisen.

“From what I’ve been hearing, Liberation has been cracking down on the Irregulars,” I said.

“Which is why I want you to talk with the Chairman,” Brian said. “If Liberation is worried about the Irregulars, then someone in the Directorates know that the Irregulars can be a threat. That makes the Irregulars the ones we need to have ready.”

Brian left not too long later. I watched the sunset across New York harbor. For the first time in seven years, I felt that curious mix of accomplishment and apprehension. Accomplished that the mission at hand was done, but tempered with the apprehension of knowing the slogging was going to go on for a very long time.

So, what are you going to do? Delph asked. Instead of answering, I walked from the window to the phone sitting on my desk. I pressed the speed dial.

“Yes?” Kate asked.

“I need to talk with the Chairman. The Irregulars may need to take down Liberation.”

1 Comment

  1. Nice. There are a few things I had trouble with, but over all good flow. You have my interest piqued

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