Archive for category: Monday Fiction

Monday Fiction – The Irregulars 1 – Irregular Investigation

13 Feb
February 13, 2017

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.”

Monday Fiction on Hiatus

22 Jun
June 22, 2015

Monday Fiction is going to go on indefinite hiatus because life has gotten a bit hectic around here. I just don’t have the time to write that I would like, and what time I do have I want to devote to finishing the novel I’m currently working on.

I hope to have the novel ready for sale (yes, actual sale) by the first quarter of 2016.

If I can go back and finish up Avalon, I will. Until then, this will be where things will hold.

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 8

15 Jun
June 15, 2015


“Wow, this place is small,” Corrie said as Erik led her into the apartment. “I thought Anya was exaggerating when she talked about it.” Erik ignored the flash of pain from Corrie’s words. She was just making conversation, not trying to remind him of what he had lost.

“Yeah, well they won’t look for you here,” Erik replied, “The master bedroom is at the end of the hall. You can use that one.” He walked into the second bedroom and started peeling off his gear and armor. He stopped as he noticed that Corrie was standing in the doorway and watching him. 

“This is your place, why don’t you take the master?” Corrie asked. 

“For the same reason I haven’t been to this place for a couple of years,” Erik answered, trying to keep the pain out of his voice. He wasn’t as successful as he thought, because Corrie strode into the room and gave him a sisterly hug. Erik braced as her arms came around him, but relented and let him enjoy the warmth of the physical contact. He didn’t care how long they stood there. He had missed Corrie’s comforting presence.

“I’m surprised you kept this place,” Corrie said, finally breaking the silence. 

“I didn’t,” Erik answered, finally shrugging out of her embrace. “It’s owned by one of my family’s companies. They’ve just been nice enough to let me use it again.” He gave her a crooked smile. “You should go get cleaned up.”

“I’m not the only one,” Corrie said, punching Erik in the shoulder, “You’re a bit whiff too.”

“If I may remind you, your highness, I was doing that until you came in and interrupted me,” Erik shot back. 

“I did not interrupt you. I was checking on the well-being of one of my subjects. My concern is never considered an interruption,” Corrie said in a lofty tone. “I will now tend to myself while you make yourself presentable for such august personage, such as myself.”

“If you’re not careful, I’ll make you cook for yourself,” Erik said. Corrie stuck her tongue out at him as she walked back to the master bedroom. They spent the next few hours getting cleaned up followed by cleaning their gear and weapons. They worked in a companionable silence that Erik felt relaxing, especially considering the tension of getting off of Battle Island. Dodging delvers and their minions was bad enough, but they also had to evade the Army patrols out doing search and destroy missions against the Dark Towers. Having to cart around Ensign Bartley as well just increased the difficulty. 

“I hope that girl will be okay,” Corrie said as if she was reading Erik’s mind. 

“She should be fine,” Erik said, “You did a good job on the emergency patchwork and the ship’s captain said he’d make sure that she made it to the Hospitallers.” He turned back to look at Corrie as he heard her stop working.

“Seriously Erik, how long do we have before someone finds out that I’m not dead?” Corrie asked. There was an odd spike of determination in her emotions when she asked the question. Erik frowned as he realized she was planning something. He mentally frowned, careful not to let the expression on his face. Corrie wasn’t exactly known for the timidity of her plans.

“Probably twenty-four hours,” Erik answered, “It could be fifteen or it could be thirty. It’ll depend on when the Hospitallers call the base to tell them they have one of the Army’s ensigns. Even if it’s fifteen, we should be long gone from Battle City by then.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Why?”

“I’ve been going over what happened in my head,” Corrie answered. “I was at five thousand feet doing a wide sweep when my wing suddenly exploded. At first, I thought it was just a structural failure because nothing the Dark Towers has should be able to hit a plane that high up. Then, I was too busy trying to survive my plane disintegrating to figure out what happened.” Corrie went silent, and Erik could feel the determination building in her as she mentally prepared herself to lay out her plan. 

“Whoever did this is waiting to find out if I’m dead,” Corrie said, “This may be the best window we’ll have to find out who’s behind this and why they’re trying to kill me.”

“I thought intelligence was my job, not yours,” Erik said. 

“No, intelligence was Samantha’s job. You’ve always been more of a well-trained thug,” Corrie said in a teasing tone. Erik just rolled his eyes. Corrie’s expression grew serious again. “Listen, whoever is behind this must have had some help from inside the Army. How else did they know I was flying and where? It’s not like pilots have a set schedule.”

“Granted,” Erik said, not liking the spike of excitement in Corrie’s emotions. 

“I know my fellow officers,” Corrie said, “They play the political game almost as hard as they fight the Dark Towers in the field. Probably more so in the Air Forces than the ground pounders. If one of them set me up, they’re going to keep the evidence of who they’re working for until I’m confirmed dead. They’d need the leverage on their partners if the Imperial Guard came looking.” Erik took one look at the excited light in Corrie’s eyes.

“You want to go get that evidence,” Erik said, with a resigned tone.

“Of course,” Corrie said, a predatory smile spreading across her face.

“Corrie, I just pulled you off that island so that we could get you someplace safe,” Erik said, “A lot of work has gone into getting you back to the palace, and a lot of people have put themselves on the line for you. I’m sure the Saint is going to tear the fort apart looking for whoever was behind you getting shot down. Can we at least wait until we have you back behind a wall of Imperial Guard?”

“Erik, if I show back up at the palace, the bastards behind this will circle the wagons and we’ll never find out who it was,” Corrie said. “Erik, please. You’re the only one I’d trust to help me do this.” He sighed and felt Corrie’s soaring excitement.

“You said the same thing when we stole your father’s car because you had to go talk with Jamie Harrington,” Erik shot back. Corrie smiled at the jab. She knew that if he was bringing up their past capers, then he was already mentally preparing to go on another.

“That would have worked if you hadn’t missed the turn,” Corrie said, standing up.

“You were the one who was driving and managed to crash the car into Harrington Keep,” Erik protested.

“Which I wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t missed telling me the turn,” Corrie said as if that should have evident even to a small child. She gave him a wide smile.

“I’ll make some calls and see what I can arrange,” Erik said, reaching for his phone. 

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 7

08 Jun
June 8, 2015


“Thanks Aunt Belinda,” Anne said as she hugged the short, round woman in the doorway. Anne smiled as she spied the twelve-gauge Remington leaning in the corner of the doorway. Aunt Belinda was still the practical woman Anne remembered. That was one of the reasons that Anne led the group this deep into the old city.  

“Oh, it’s no bother. I do so love having company these days. Even if it’s under rather unusual circumstances,” Aunt Belinda said, ushering the group into her small, comfortable house. “Anne dear, did you know that there’s a BOLO out on the four of you?” 

“Been listening to the police scanner again, Aunt Belinda?” Anne asked as she shut and bolted the door. Anne did a quick check around the neighborhood to see if they had any followers. The street didn’t have any unusual cars or lights on.  

“Well, I like to keep my hand in the game, you know,” Aunt Belinda answered as she scurried from the door and down to the short hallway to the kitchen. Anne, Samantha, Princess Anya, and Veritas followed her back. Anne felt part of her relax as the smells of home-baked brownies and coffee floated down to them. 

“Sit, sit,” Aunt Belinda said, motioning to a worn kitchen table and chairs. Steaming mugs of coffee and a plate of brownies seemed to materialize the moment the four sat down. 

“We should not relax yet,” Veritas said, “They are bound to be checking all of your family to see if they are harboring us. We probably don’t have a lot of time.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Aunt Belinda said, “It’ll take a few days before they’ll think to look here. Besides, we should at least have a couple of hours warning before they show up at my front door.” Anne smiled as Samantha and Veritas did quick re-evaluations of the elderly woman. 

“You have my most heartfelt thanks, madam,” Princess Anya said. Aunt Belinda’s eyebrow crooked the tiniest bit upward at Anya’s accent. Anne restrained the giggle, but Aunt Belinda must have heard something because she bestowed one of her rare glowers on Anne. 

“Okay, Veritas, time to spill,” Anne said, looking at the elf, “What in the hell is going on?”

“Language, Anne. A lady shouldn’t speak like that,” Aunt Belinda reproved. Anne gave the older woman a look of contrition. 

“With all due respect to our host, I can’t discuss this in front of her,” Veritas said, and gave Aunt Belinda a small bow. The respect in the elf’s voice and gesture caught Anne off-guard.

“Aunt Belinda can keep a secret,” Anne said, “We’re trusting her not to report us to the authorities.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Anne. I’m not offended. After all, if I don’t hear what’s happening, I can’t testify about it later,” Aunt Belinda said, “Help yourself to anything in the kitchen, just please make sure to clean up after yourselves. I have some knitting to attend to.” She patted the three woman on the arm and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Okay, Veritas, talk,” Anne said, sharply. The elf looked back down the hall before turning back to the group. He looked like he wanted to ask about Aunt Belinda. Instead, he took a deep breath and looked down at his wristwatch.

“Three hours ago I discovered two men trying to place a bomb below the bedroom of the prince,” Veritas said. Princess Anya gasped. 

“We didn’t hear anything about that,” Anne said.

“Of course not, because I didn’t report it through the normal channels,” Veritas said.

“Why not?” Anne asked. Veritas gave her an exasperated look. 

“Would you stop interrupting, Detective?” Veritas asked. Anne folded her arms beneath her breasts and nodded at the elf. 

“I interrogated the two men who were setting the bomb,” Veritas said, “They were just local mercenaries in the city’s criminal ecosystem. They were hired through a local middleman named Yamin. They had no idea where the money originated and were even provided the explosive to be used. The device was one of the Navy’s medium limpet mines. Used properly, it would have easily blown through all of the normal and magical defenses surrounding the prince.”

“Wait, the American Navy or the Imperial Navy?” Samantha asked. 

“American,” Veritas answered. Samantha let out a string of curses that surprised Anne.

“So, someone on this side of the gate wants my husband murdered?” Princess Anya asked, confused. “I thought the purpose of these negotiations was to cement a stronger relationship between the Emperor’s government and the American government.”

“No, your highness, it wasn’t the Americans,” Veritas said, “Or at least, those of us in OSI don’t believe it was the American government.”

“Well, if it wasn’t the Americans who set this in motion, then who?” Princess Anya demanded. 

“The Saint believes that there is a coterie among the aristocrats who are not happy about your father-in-law seizing back his traditional powers,” Veritas said. “Not surprising considering the Emperor destroyed a hundred years of precedent that gave most of his power to the House of Lords.”

“If they didn’t want their powers taken away from them, then they shouldn’t have cowered behind their walls while the Commandante was wreaking havoc across Avalon City,” Princess Anya said with the first hint of true malice Anne had heard from the woman. Samantha snorted, and the princess glowered at the psychic. Veritas cleared his throat to continue.  

“That may be true, your highness, but it doesn’t change their actions,” Veritas said. 

“So, how did that bomb figure into Kurt giving us the ‘go-to-hell’ code?” Anne asked.

“I rendered the explosive in the mine inert and then enlisted the aid of Mr. Schneider and Agent MacMurtry. I thought it would be better if they discovered the bomb, considering the current tensions between the various security teams. If people on this side of the gate alerted the security teams to the presence, it was doubtful that the Americans would have been behind it. Plus, we were hoping that it would flush out the conspirators. Such was not the case.”

“Are Kurt and Jason okay?” Anne asked, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. Veritas nodded and Anne felt like she could breathe again. She hadn’t realized exactly how worried she’d been about Kurt. 

“It seems someone else alerted the security teams about the bomb,” Veritas said. “Fortunately, the responding team of the Imperial Guard assumed the three of us had just stumbled onto the criminals and took them down. It was through them that we found out that the reported target was not the prince, but you, your highness.” Princess Anya paled and held her hand to her mouth. “Once Mr. Schneider found out the target, he asked me to get you out of the building.”

“Why would they want to kill me?” the princess asked.

“Because then they can get their own choice as the prince’s new consort,” Samantha answered without a hint of compassion for the princess. “Everyone knows that Prince Rupert is easily swayed. Having their own princess tow whisper what they want in his ear?” Princess Anya looked about to unload another salvo, but Anne held up her hand before the two women could even start to bicker. Much to her surprise, they both backed down. 

“So, as far as everyone back at the hotel is concerned, Kurt and Jason were just in the right place at the right time?” Anne asked. Veritas nodded as he sipped at the coffee in front of him.

“Won’t they learn otherwise from the two who were setting the bomb?” Princess Anya asked. 

“They didn’t survive interrogation, I’m afraid,” Veritas answered. Princess Anya stared at the elf in shock. Anne was also startled by the elf’s casual response, but Samantha didn’t seem surprised. Anne guessed that the death of certain prisoners was considered a normal outcome for those in the Office of Special Investigations. It was those kinds of revelations that rubbed Anne’s nose in the fact that her friends came from a very different culture. Anne out those thoughts away and pondered on their current situation for a long moment. 

“We have no idea who was behind the attempt?” Anne asked, finally breaking the silence.

“Not really,” Veritas answered. “OSI thinks Earl Dorn of Oyster Bay is the leader of the coterie, but we’re not sure if he is involved in his members more energetic plans.”

“Not surprised,” Samantha said, “Earl Oyster Bay is one of the staunchest conservatives in the House of Lords.” 

“I’ll let you three deal with the politics. Do you have pictures of the two men?” Anne asked. Veritas produced a phone from inside his jacket and handed it to Anne. She recognized both men as freelance hitters, although they both tended to stick to working for one of the city’s mafia families. Anne paced up and down the kitchen as she thought over what had happened and what she knew. 

“Okay, we’ll stay here until tomorrow night,” Anne said. “Then we’re going to question who hired these two and find out who is behind this.”

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 6

01 Jun
June 1, 2015


Erik leapt from the truck to where Corry crouched over the wounded Ensign Bartley. Corry didn’t even look up at him as she snatched the med kit from his hands. Erik let Corry work as he stripped Bill’s corpse. Damn it, why did Call and Bill have to take the money? Why in the hell did they agree to assassinate the princess of the Empire? The whole plot against Corry made no sense. She wasn’t even the heir to the Imperial throne. So, why try and eliminate her? 

The snarl of orcs snapped Erik’s attention to the wall. Two of the eight-foot tall creatures perched above Corry and the ensign. Both were aiming their heavy crossbows down. Erik grabbed Bill’s pistol off the ground and emptied the magazine at the two orcs. The .400 Imperial cartridge did okay against goblins and draks, but it wouldn’t penetrate against the thicker hides of the orcs. That didn’t mean getting by a whole bunch of the bullets didn’t hurt the orcs. A crossbow bolt skittered off the asphalt while the other thunked into the shed above Corry’s head.

“Erik, would you stop them from doing that?” Corry ordered without looking up. “It’s distracting.” Erik knew better than to reply when Corry was in her working zone. He unslung his rifle. The two orcs tossed their crossbows, drew heavy swords, and leapt down off the wall. Erik stitched one with a burst as soon as it hit the ground. Its partner charged Erik with a bellow. Erik fired two more bursts, but the orc ignored the wounds and slashed out with its sword. Erik rolled to the side. The orc redirected his blade faster than Erik thought it could move. He barely managed to deflect the blade with a telekinetic push. The sword sparked as the orc dragged it across the asphalt. 

Erik rolled up into a crouch with his rifle leveled at the orc. He emptied the magazine into the monster. Twenty rounds tore the orc’s chest open. Erik dropped the spent magazine into a pouch before snatching a charged magazine and slamming it into the magazine well. He scanned around him, looking for more threats brought by the gunfire. 

He felt the alien emotions at the same time as he heard the heavy grunts. Two trolls rose up from behind the ruins of a small building. Trolls were twice as tall, twice as strong, and twice as tough as orcs. About the only good thing was that the ponderous monsters were about half as smart as an orc. Erik slung his rifle and jumped to the heavy machine gun on the back of Bill’s truck.

Erik had barely grabbed the heavy machine gun’s handles when the sun was blocked by a twelve foot section of wall one of the trolls threw at him. Erik made a quick calculation and jumped. There was a disheartening crunch as the wall flattened the truck. 

“What the hell just happened to the truck?” Corry called out from behind the shed.

“Trolls,” Erik answered as his mind raced with how to kill the two giant monsters. If he’d had another second or two, he could have brought the heavy machine gun with him. 

“Why’d you wake up the trolls?” Corry asked, with an exasperated tone.

“Because I was trying to save you from those two orcs, and I didn’t sense them sleeping here,” Erik shouted. 

“Don’t yell at me, Erik. Just hurry up and finish them off,” Corry said. 

“How exactly would you like me to do that without the heavy machine gun?” Erik asked as he dodged a six-foot metal bar as it whistled past. 

“Maybe that magic sword of yours?” Corry called out. 

“Don’t have it. Long story,” Erik said. That actually caused Corry to shoot a surprised look over her shoulder at him. Erik didn’t have time to enjoy catching Corry off-guard. The trolls were continuing to try and squash him with debris. He managed to knock the man-sized boulder off course so that it missed him by a foot or two. It still showered him with shards. 

“Well, what about Little Britches?” Corry asked. Erik thought about that as he dodged more improvised missiles from the trolls. That might work, but Erik would have to get in close to the trolls. Closing with trolls was generally considered a bad idea. 

Erik made some quick calculations, sprinted, and then pushed himself into the air. The trolls stared up at him. They didn’t react well to surprises, and humans weren’t supposed to fly unless they were in one of their contraptions. As Erik arched down, he drew Little Britches and aimed the stubby tri-barrel. Three feet above the troll’s head, Erik touched off the armor-piercing barrel. 

Erik had the barest instant to see the heavy dart pulp the troll’s head before Little Britches’ heavy recoil tossed him back away from the troll and straight into the second troll’s fist. Pain flashed as Erik was slammed to the ground. Erik pushed with a bit of power to slide out from the troll’s stomp. He swung the heavy weapon around and touched off Little Britches’ fragmentation barrel. The troll howled as a hundred and fifty flechettes sliced through the its foot. The monster staggered back, trying hard not to step on the mangled mess of its foot. 

Erik leapt into the troll and touched off the final barrel. The troll screamed as the white phosphorus landed into its hide. Trolls were vulnerable to fire and burning. The troll ran away from Erik with a loping gait. Erik popped open Little Britches’ breech and three heavy steel casing clattered on the asphalt. Erik slipped in three more six-inch long, two-inch wide cartridges.

“Can I tell you how glad I am that the Imperial Guard let you keep that weapon?” Corry said as Erik approached.

“I’m fine thanks. Just a few bumps, bruises, and scrapes,” Erik said flatly. 

“Why are you complaining?” Corry asked, “Aren’t you Jaegar the Troll-Killer?”

“Because I killed one troll with a magic sword!” Erik nearly shouted. Two more orcs dropped down. Erik turned, put them both down with rifle bursts, and then turned back to Corry. The woman had one of her knowing smirks on her face. 

“Hey, now you’ve got two more on your record. She’s stabilized, but we need to get her to a field hospital,” Corry said. “Give me that rifle and ammo pouch so I can cover is while you carry her.” Corry scanned the horizon as Erik unslung the weapon. “Where are we going?”

“Thirty-Fourth and Broad,” Erik answered. “I’ve got gear stashed there for you.” He concentrated on the moaning ensign and carefully lifted her with some power. This kind of fine work was always more draining. “We’ll need to hurry or we’ll miss the boat.”

“Boat, what boat?” Corry asked as they moved into the city. She shot another orc that tried to stop them. 

“The boat that’s going to pick us up at 1600 tomorrow at Green Cove,” Erik said as he guided the ensign’s body through the streets as fast as he could reasonably control. When they were a bit safer, he’d fashion a stretcher and carry her. 

“Why don’t we go to Fort Andrews?” Corry asked. 

“Because the Army may be complicit in you getting shot down,” Erik answered.

“Damn it. It can never be easy, can it?” Corry said as she covered their rear.

“That’s my line,” Erik complained as he covered their front with his submachine gun. 

“Where do you think I got it from?” Corry asked. As they rounded another corner, she stopped Erik long enough to give him a chaste kiss on the cheek. “By the way, thanks for coming to get me.”

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 5

18 May
May 18, 2015


Anne raised the stubby submachine gun at Free-Elf Veritas. The tall elf regarded the muzzle of the gun as an annoyance. Anne felt the strong pull on the wild magic streams before the gun was ripped out of her hands. She hadn’t even seen the bindings the elf had done to pull the gun. The submachine gun landed on the bed with a soft thump. 

“I believe the words you were looking for are ‘Honey Gold’,” Veritas said, stiffly. “And now you tell me?”

“‘Green Branch’,” Samantha answered, shutting the door and pushing the other two women into the hotel room. “Quit being a dick Veritas.”

“She was the one who pointed a gun at me,” Veritas said, motioning to Anne. “For someone with her reported gifts, it was disappointing.” 

“You aren’t supposed to be the one who was meeting us,” Anne replied, trying to keep her emotions under tight rein. “Where’s Kurt?”

“Where is my husband?” Princess Anya demanded. 

“No time,” Samantha said. “Who’s after us?”

“Right now, everyone,” Veritas answered. “Unfortunately, the spider is also among that everyone.” The elf looked down at his phone and frowned. “It looks like they’ve shut down the hotel. Give me your official phones.” The three women handed the elf their phones and went to change into the outfits they’d stashed in the room. In a few moments, Anne felt a strong pull on the fire wild magic and the smell of melted plastic floated through the room. Another pull and the smell vanished. Anne was impressed by the elf’s finesse, and she wished she had time to see his bindings.

“I’m still not sure how we’re going to get out of this hotel with all of the surveillance,” Veritas said as he walked back into the room. “The Americans were smart enough to ward the cameras against tampering them with magic.” He sounded grudgingly impressed.

“Give me my burner,” Samantha said. She hit one of the speed dials and laid the phone on the desk. It didn’t even ring once. 

“Considering that your calling on your burner phone and that every security alarm in the hotel just went active, I’m guessing that’s why you called,” Joseph said with mock severity. “Why couldn’t it have just been phone sex?”

“You’re on speakerphone, love,” Samantha said, her face slightly crimson. Anne hid her own smile. Joseph, the team’s tech specialist and erstwhile hacker, had made a remarkable recovery since being paralyzed. Anne suspected some of it was due to magic that Veronica had binded to the wound, but a lot of it also had to do with Samantha and Joseph’s budding relationship.

“Damn it. I hate speakerphones,” Joseph grumbled. “You couldn’t have warned me?”

“Sorry, love, but we’re sort of busy at this end,” Samantha answered, and she couldn’t stop the smile spreading across her face. 

“Yeah, I can see that,” Joseph said. “Okay, they’re going to be shutting down the phones in a few minutes, so we won’t be able to talk again until you’re a few blocks from the hotel. I’m going to launch one of my pre-done routines that should give you a clear avenue. I’m sending the route to you and Anne. As far as the task force and Imperial Security’s electronics are concerned, you won’t exist.” Anne’s phone beeped as she received the map. “Sorry, but I can’t do anything if you run into physical security.”

“Don’t worry, love, we should be able to handle it,” Anne said, with a slight teasing tone. Samantha shot her an evil look. 

“Hi Anne. Can I say again how much I hate speakerphones?” Joseph said. “The routine should be good in a few–” The phone cut off abruptly. Anne looked down at her own burner.

“They’re jamming the cell frequencies,” Anne said. “You might as well link us up now, Samantha.” Anne felt the slight pressure of the telepathic link. As she opened herself up to the link, Anne could only feel the princess’s and Samantha’s minds. Anne shot a questioning look at Samantha.

Veritas didn’t want to be linked with the rest of us, Samantha answered the unspoken question. 

Well, isn’t that suspicious, Anne said. 

It’s not like that, Samantha said, Elves don’t always interact well with psychic abilities. It’s uncomfortable for them to join a psychic link.

It’s also a good way to keep us from finding out if he’s a traitor, Anne said. 

You can relax. I’ve known Veritas for years, Samantha said, I used to work with him when I was full time with OSI.

“If you three are done trying to figure out if I am with the conspiracy, may I suggest we depart,” Veritas said, “It looks like your hacker’s routine is working.” Anne frowned, but she moved up to lead the group out of the hotel room. The hallway was clear. Following Joseph’s map on her phone, Anne led the group down a flight of stairs and then into one of the hotel’s freight elevators. 

“Hit the button for the basement,” Samantha said as she entered the car. 

“We’re supposed to be getting off at the first,” Anne said. “The basement has no access out that isn’t heavily monitored.”

“Trust me,” Samantha said. As soon as the doors closed, Samantha walked over to the corner of the car. “Veritas?” The elf reached up and with a flash of magic, pushed up the access door.

“Your highness?” Veritas said, holding out his hand. The princess was lifted onto the roof of the elevator car. In a few moments, the rest of the team joined her. Anne felt Veritas pulling on the wild magic streams and the group started to hover above the elevator car. Anne was amazed at the intricate bindings. As the elevator continued down, they slowed until they were hovering in front of the closed first floor doors. 

“Anne, open the doors,” Veritas said. He hissed as she reached out. “With your magic, girl.” Anne bit down her rage. Who the hell was this elf to call her girl? She pulled on the wild magic and bound it. Anne released the binding and the doors slid open. Samantha was the first out. After making sure the hallway was clear, Samantha turned and helped the princess out. Anne followed with Veritas exiting last and dispersing his binding. 

“Sloppy, but interesting use of the streams,” Veritas said as the four walked out an unlocked access door onto the loading area. “I wouldn’t have expected the use of light in the bindings.”

“It kept us from being blinded when we stepped out,” Anne replied. She was annoyed – annoyed at Veritas for dismissing her and annoyed at herself for being pleased with the elf’s backhand compliment. 

So why did we do it like this? Anne asked over the telepathic link.

Joseph may have hidden the elevator’s movement from the computers, but one of the Guard was bound to hear the elevator going down, Samantha explained. This keeps them off of our trail a bit longer.

Guess that makes some sense, Anne’s replied.

Head to the clubhouse? Samantha asked as they walked towards the street.

Nope, Anne answered, I’ve got a better place.

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 4

11 May
May 11, 2015


“Well that place hasn’t changed much,” Erik said to himself as he crouched in the rubble. Much like Avalon City, the city that once stood proud on Battle Island had been built by the mysterious Cairen. Two centuries of constant warfare had pretty much reduced much of the city’s buildings to piles of rubble. The south end of the island was firmly in Imperial hands, but the northern tip was under the control of the Dark Towers. The middle of the island was a no-man’s land where Imperial and Dark Towers combat units maneuvered and fought. Much of it was small unit skirmishing, but every so often there was a massive battle that did little more than get a bunch of people killed. Battle Island was a meat grinder for both sides, but too strategically important for either to lose. Even after the front lines were pushed several hundred kilometers north, Battle Island was the one place that the Dark Towers could send in massive forces. Erik was looking at the reason.

The three functioning gates stood tall and glowing. The Dark Towers fortress in front of the gate was only fifteen years old. That was his fault. The fortress had been only build as a reaction of when a very young Erik Jaegar chased Arem into the one of the then four gates and detonated a twenty kiloton nuclear device on the other side. Erik didn’t really care about the fortress except for its proximity to his objective. 

His comm vibrated the preset alarm. It was twilight – the critical time. Erik lowered the faceplate on his helmet and dashed out from his spider hole. The camp was set out just like a human prisoner camp. Erik didn’t know when the two commands on Battle Island started prisoner exchanges, but it was the only front where that happened. Maybe it had something to do with the grinder the Island had been for both sides. 

Erik used a bit of power and leapt over the concrete wall as soon as the guard walked past. Orcs weren’t the most observant of guards, especially in the confusing light of twilight with a light sky and dark ground. Erik used a bit more power to land silently on the packed dirt. Orcs patrolled the walls, but goblins and draks patrolled the internals of the POW camp. Erik pulled a small charge from his ruck and attached it to the wall. If all went well, Erik wouldn’t need the bomb disguised as a glow panel. If not, then Erik at least could make another way out or use it as a distraction. 

Erik jumped on the roof of the nearest building. He oriented himself to the camp’s layout and started jumping towards the women’s barracks. Knowing Corry, she’s already in charge of one of the barracks, Erik thought to himself, And she wouldn’t even need her lofty status. He smiled. He had missed Corry these last couple of years.
Erik was in the middle of a jump when he heard the clack-clack of a suppressed rifle. He pushed down to the nearest building and ran to the noise. Peering over the edge of the roof, Erik saw a man in armor shooting a drak patrol with a suppressed assault rifle. Erik brought out his suppressed submachine gun and took down two of the small humanoid lizards as they tried to run. With the draks dead, Erik rolled off of the roof and landed next to the freelancer.

“Jaegar, why am I not surprised?” Roland Call asked. Erik knew Call. The two had worked together frequently when Erik had been a freelancer on Battle Island. The military liked using freelancers as deep scouts and to supplement their own forces. “Who are you here for?”

“I imagine the same person you’re here for,” Erik answered. He didn’t have to wait for Call’s grunt to know he was correct. 

“I didn’t think they would send another freelancer,” Call said. The pair sprinted away from the battle towards the centermost women’s barracks where the officers were kept.

“Neither did I. Look, I’m doing this as a personal favor for my step-father,” Erik said, “I’m not here to jump your contract. Hell, I’m not even being paid more than expenses on this job.” 

“Yeah, those personal favors are a bitch,” Call said with a humorless chuckle. “Well, since you did step in with those draks and because of our previous relationships, I might be willing to cut you in on 10% of my contract.” 

“Ten percent of how much?” Erik asked. 

“Half a mil,” Call answered as the pair ducked past a goblin patrol. Both kept very still as the squat humanoids trundled past. Goblins weren’t much in a fight, but they were very good at spotting intruders. Plus, they’d bring all sorts of trouble down on the two freelancers. 

“Deal,” Erik said. “What’s the extract plan?” The two crept towards the lit barracks. Call was point while Erik covered their rear with his submachine gun. 

“South culvert,” Call answered. “Bill’s sitting there with a technical to cover our extract.” Erik nodded. Bill was a steady hand with heavy weapons, and he’d created a little niche in the freelancer world as a “sidekick for hire.” 

“There’s the final problem. You didn’t happen to bring Little Britches with you?” Call asked. 

“She’s too loud for this kind of job,” Erik said. He looked at the pair of hobgoblins standing outside the barracks. It would have been so much easier if he still had *Far’ling*. He holstered the submachine gun and unlimbered his rifle. “I’ll take right.”

“You always take right,” Call said as he sighted his own rifle on the left hobgoblin. “Target.”

“Target,” Erik said. Three heartbeats and both rifles coughed. Both hobgoblins dropped as the back of their heads were blown out. The two freelancers dashed forward. Before they could grab the handle, the door to the barracks opened. A stern-faced woman in prisoner togs frowned at the pair. From her bearing and the gray hairs in her neat brown hair, Erik judged her to be the senior officer of the women prisoners. 

“I can guess why you two are here,” the senior officer said in a whiskey voice. “Lieutenant Kinsey, front and center.” A beautiful black-haired, blue-eyed woman rolled off of her bunk and walked to them. Like most men, Call was momentarily transfixed. Erik raised his faceplate.

“Erik! I wasn’t expecting you to come for me,” Corry said in a rich voice. 

“You didn’t think I’d let one of my best friends langur here for long, did you?” Erik chided her as Call pulled himself together.

“Are you only taking her, or can you take another?” the senior officer asked. Call looked over the officers in the barracks. 

“I suppose we could take another,” Call said, his voice a careful neutral. 

“Ensign Bartley, you’ll be going with these two.” A doe-eyed blonde was quickly rushed next to them. “Follow their instructions to the letter and they’ll get you back to our lines.” Erik could feel the young officer’s terror with an undercurrent of determination. Erik guessed she was having a hard time in the Dark Towers’ hands. She had that look that the delvers liked in human women. 

Without any further words, the quartet scurried back into the darkness. Erik guessed they had maybe another fifteen minutes before one of the other patrols ran into either the dead draks or the dead hobgoblins. Fortunately, Call had the guards’ routes mapped. The Dark Towers never really understood the need to vary their guards routes or times. A tense ten minutes and the quartet was at the culvert. The stench of the putrid water filled the area.  

“The bars under the water’s surface are cut away,” Call said. “Just keep your eyes closed and feel your way through.” 

“Don’t worry Ensign, just a few moments of nastiness, and we will be free of this hellhole,” Corry said in her most soothing voice. The ensign nodded, screwed up her face, and slipped into the water. 

“You’re next, your highness,” Call said when Ensign Bartley splashed out of the other side of the wall. 

“Just think of the vermilion fields,” Erik said to Corry as she walked into the water. 

“Vermilion?” she asked, in a cool tone. Erik nodded. “You know, I always hated the vermilion fields.” As soon as Corry was underwater, Erik pressed the button. The explosion was loud enough to be heard from across the camp. A fireball lit the night sky. 

“What the hell?” Call asked a moment before Erik put his rifle in Call’s face. The freelancer didn’t even bother looking surprised. “Damn, I was hoping to get you at least outside the wall.”

“Who hired you?” Erik asked. 

“You know I’m not going to tell you that,” Call said. Erik felt the freelancer’s resigned emotions. “I thought I’d hid it from you better. You never even let on that you were suspicious.” Erik fired a burst. As the body crumpled to the ground, Erik swore. He hated having to kill people he considered friends. 

The pair of gunshots sent Erik flying over the wall. He quickly found Corry from her psi-scent. She had Ensign Bartley behind a shed. Across from them was a small flatbed truck with a heavy machinegun mounted. Bill, the other freelancer, was crouched behind the truck door aiming a heavy pistol at the shed. Erik pushed against the wall a bit harder. Bill realized too late that there was someone above him. Much like Call, the freelancer wasn’t afraid, just resigned. Erik fired twice with his rifle. 

“Corry, let’s go,” Erik shouted as he landed on the cab of the technical. He knew something was wrong from Corry’s emotions. 

“That bastard shot the ensign,” Corry shouted back. “Bring the med kit or we’re going to lose her.”

“It can never be easy,” Erik gritted through his teeth as he grabbed the olive green pack and darted towards his friend and the orcs screamed in the night. Well, Corry was safe and he had Little Britches. 

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 3

04 May
May 4, 2015


“Well, I’m glad that’s finally over with,” Princess Anya said as she walked into her bedroom trailed by Anne and Samantha. It surprised Anne to learn that the prince and princess had separate bedrooms, but the Avalonians considered it perfectly normal. From what Anne had gathered, it was traditional than an indication of any marital problems between the prince and princess. Avalonians had some weird customs. 

From Anne’s perspective, the royal couple looked like they had been cast in the roles. Prince Rupert was six-two with the lean, muscled lines of an active man. His blonde hair and blue eyes were perfect accent to the handsome face and tanned skin. The prince reminded Anne of that Aussie who starred in the *Thor* movies. The princess was also tall, around Anne’s own five-nine. She was slender, but not thin, with soft curves that reminded Anne of the young professional women that worked in the city’s financial district. The princess’s heart-shaped face was dominated by large, brilliant blue eyes and elegantly-styled curly brown hair. Anne could certainly see how Erik had fallen for this woman.  What Anne couldn’t figure out was how this woman had fallen for Erik. If she got the time, Anne wanted to hear that story. Erik and Samantha refused to speak of the relationship. 

“I hope we have enough time for me to explore your lovely city,” Princess Anya said to Anne as the princess lounged on the couch. 

“I’m sure we can arrange something, your highness,” Anne replied. Samantha curtly nodded. Princess Anya’s eyes narrowed as she stared at Samantha. The Avalonian psychic just stared back. Anne could feel the tension ratchet up between the women. 

“I’m getting very tired of your attitude, Samantha,” Princess Anya said. “You’ve been treading the line between barely proper and outright insubordinate since I arrived.”

“What did you expect when you asked me to be your personal gofer, your highness?” Samantha asked, not bothering to hide her sarcasm. “I thought I made my feelings very plain the last time that we talked.”

“That was over a year ago, Samantha,” Princess Anya said, “I had hoped your initial anger over what happened had cooled a bit. Samantha, you were one of my best friends. I don’t want what happened between Erik and me to come between us.” Samantha’s brown eyes blazed to the point Anne almost thought they had turned red. 

“I spent the better part of the last year trying to put Erik back together,” Samantha said through gritted teeth. “Do you have any inkling how badly he was torn apart by what you did to him?” Princess Anya took a step back at the sheer fury in Samantha’s voice. 

“He seemed fine when he called to congratulate me on my wedding,” Princess Anya said. Anne couldn’t stop the bark of laughter from escaping. The princess spun to face Anne with a look of anger and betrayal marring her pretty features. 

“Your highness, I’ve known Erik for less than a year, but even I know that he is a master at showing someone only what he wants to see,” Anne said. 

“I know that,” the princess snapped, “I saw exactly how much he had hidden from me during the Winter Solstice party.” Anne had no idea what the princess was talking about, but whatever it was incensed Samantha even more. 

“When he saved your life?” Samantha nearly screamed, “When Erik took on twenty armed men to save you and your family?” Samantha stopped and her eyes hardened. “That’s what happened? He killed the man holding you hostage, and it horrified you?” 

“Stay out of my mind,” Princess Anya nearly shouted.

“Right now, that’s like asking me to stop listening to you while you’re shouting at the top of your lungs,” Samantha shot back. 

“Maybe we should all calm down now,” Anne said, stepping between the two women. Anne traded harsh looks with both of them. Normally, Anne would have been all for getting things out in the open, but neither Samantha nor Princess Anya seemed ready to more than just argue. Before Anne could say anything, one of her phones rang. She froze as she recognized the ringtone. 

“Get up, both of you,” Anne said, in a command tone, “Samantha, get the go bags. Get her highness into something less observable.” Samantha was already moving. She knew what that ringtone meant as well. There was a yelp of protest as Samantha grabbed Princess Anya and pulled her over to the wardrobe. Anne swore as she cautiously stuck her head out in the hallway. 

“Well?” Samantha asked, as she finished dressing the princess. The princess was in a causal creme dress suit. It was something Anne might have worn to court, but on the princess, it looked downright casual. Samantha was putting on her sidearm when Anne joined them. The psychic handed Anne a messenger bag. Anne slipped the bag over her shoulder and grunted at the weight. 

“Hallway’s clear,” Anne said as she repositioned the messenger bag. “We use the stairs to get down three floors and into the safe room. Samantha, link us up. Just us for right now.” Anne felt the familiar slight push in her mind as Samantha established a telepathic link between the three women. 

What is going on? Princess Anya asked over the telepathic link. 

Someone is coming for you and security is compromised, Anne answered, We’re going to get you to a safehouse. The princess nodded with understanding. Anne was both surprised and grateful that the princess didn’t bombard her with dozens of questions, most of which Anne didn’t have the answer for. 

The three women walked out of the room with the princess between Anne and Samantha. Anne had to force herself to walk casually as she led the trio to the emergency stairs. Her own questions were swirling through her mind, but she clamped down on them. They were less than a dozen paces from the metal fire door when a pair of Imperial Guardsman stepped into the corridor. Both looked like they were straight out of a casting call for Secret Service agents. The only noticeable difference was one was slightly taller than the other. The two Guardsmen held up their hands. 

“I’m sorry, your highness, but there’s been an incident involving his highness,” the shorter one said in a calm baritone. “We need you and your aides to return to your room until this has been resolved.”

“Where is my husband?” the princess asked in a commanding tone. 

“We’re sorry, but–ARGH!” said the shorter one. Both Guardsmen grabbed their heads and grunted in pain. After a few seconds, they were on the floor. Anne just looked at them in shock. 

Anne, we need to get down the stairs, Samantha said. They’ll recover fast. Anne slipped a key in the alarm and disabled it. Pushing the heavy door open, Anne motioned Samantha and the princess through.

What did you do to them? Anne asked as the three women hurried down the stairs.

Stimulated their pain memories, Samantha said. They were remembering the worst pain they’d ever felt in their lives. Anne gave the psychic a cautious look. She’d never seen Samantha doing anything use her powers so offensively before and wondered why 

Anne reached into the messenger bag and drew out the small submachine gun. Holding the weapon at her side, Anne opened the door. The corridor was clear. Anne motioned for the other two to follow. The room was only a dozen paces from the stairwell. If things were going according to plan, Kurt would be waiting for them with changes of clothes, new IDs, more weapons, and hopefully, answers as to why he made the “go to hell” call. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the door handle. Anne could spot the small identifier mark saying that the room was clear. 

Kurt wasn’t waiting for them in the room. Instead, Free-Elf Veritas was sitting on one of the beds with a dark expression on his too-pretty face. 

“So, butterfly, exactly where did you think you were running off with the princess?”


Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 2

27 Apr
April 27, 2015


“It is a great view at night, isn’t it?” said the man as he stepped out onto the catwalk. Erik didn’t bother acknowledging the other man’s presence. He’d come up to the top catwalk of the Temerity Pylon to get away from everyone, and Erik was annoyed that his solitude was broken. The man put his hands on the railing and looked down at Lower City. From twelve hundred meters up, the neighborhoods of the lower level of Avalon City looked almost peaceful. Both men knew the reality of Lower City. 

“Your father wants to see you,” Colonel Michael Hastings said. Hastings, better known to the masses as Post Primam, was the senior officer of First Battalion of Whiteguard – the psychics and sorcerers that guarded the Emperor. As the Post Primam, Hastings was expected to be the finest example of the beyond-natural humans in the service of the Emperor. The Avalonian version of Captain America. 

Erik knew Hastings better when the two were roommates at the Preternatural Academy. Erik, Samantha, and Hastings had been better known as the Terrible Trio that had terrorized the faculty with various pranks and jokes. Sam had even dated Hastings briefly after graduation. Erik and Hastings kept in touch over the years, but that had changed in the last year and a half. Erik had been avoiding his old friend since nearly getting Hastings killed during the ending of the Commandante Affair. Many of Hastings’s friends were killed when Erik unwittingly sent them into an ambush. Much to Erik’s relief, he didn’t sense any resentment or hatred coming from his old friend. 

“My father’s dead, Michael,” Erik answered, flatly. He could feel Hastings’s frustration. Well, that was his own damn fault. Hasting knew Erik’s feelings on that subject. 

“Your step-father then,” Hasting said, “Erik, quit being an ass. Do you think I would have been sent to find you if this was just a routine errand?” Erik stepped back from the rail and looked at Hastings. Erik probed harder with his empathic senses. There was an undercurrent of fear and worry running through him. 

“What’s going on?” Erik asked.

“Not here,” Hastings answered, lowering his voice. “Your step-father’s office.” Erik looked out at Lower City. He could go down to the street and take the next lift up to the Upper City, but that would take at least a half-hour. Erik grinned maliciously at Hastings. 

“What is going through that head of yours?” Hastings asked as soon as he saw the smile. He knew Erik far too well. 

“Practiced your flying recently?” Erik asked, and Hastings blanched. In terms of raw power, Hastings’ telekinesis easily eclipsed Erik. That being said, Hastings never learned the fine control that Erik had with his telekinesis – and flying was all about control. Erik pushed off of the catwalk and felt the welcoming familiar sensation of falling. Telekinetic flying required creating “columns” of telekinetic force to push and pull against much heavier objects, such as buildings, pylons, and the ground. Most telekinetics strong enough to lift more than their own body weight were taught the basics of flight at the Academy. Of those, only about half ever became proficient. It just required too much concentration. Then, there were those like Erik who excelled at it. Erik luxuriated in the sensations as he soared out beyond the walls of Avalon City and up to Upper City. His powers were too weak on Earth to really fly. He missed it more than he realized.

In less than fifteen minutes, Erik landed gracefully in front of his stepfather’s mansion. Like all of the buildings in Upper City, the mansion looked more like a small fortress. Reinforced arms reached out from the gray stone building to four sentry buildings. From the air, it had a passing resemblance to a Maltese Cross. All of the Upper City buildings had the same drab severity on their exteriors due to the occasional windstorms that tore through the streets when the invisible wind shields periodically turned off. Like so much of Avalon City, no one knew why the shields went down, but when they did, the winds were strong enough to knock a lorry off the side of Upper City. The aristocracy and those wealthy enough to afford homes in Upper City had learned long ago to reserve their opulence behind the stout walls of their homes.

“You’re a jackass, Jaegar,” Hastings said as dropped to the cobblestones with a meaty thud. Erik wordlessly shrugged his shoulders. “Well, let’s not keep them waiting. They’re waiting for us in your stepfather’s office.”

They’re?” Erik asked as they walked through the visitors gate. Erik had been expecting a servant to be waiting for them. Instead, one of his stepfather’s armsmen was waiting at parade rest. The soldier/bodyguard motioned for Erik and Hastings to follow him. His stepfather kept his office in the main house, just inside from the visitors gate. It was efficient and pragmatic, unlike many others of the aristocracy who made a person tramp all over the house just so the visitor would see all the expensive knick-knacks in the house. 

Stephan Luugard, Duke of Amwell, High Counselor of the House of Lords, and Mayor of Avalon City sat behind his antique oak desk. He was a tall, thin man in his early fifties dressed in a conservative suit of navy blue. Erik’s mother must have picked out the green silk tie that set off the suit. Luugard’s dark eyes narrowed as Erik walked into the room. Absently, he began to stroke his thick gray-streaked beard with a long fingered hand. Erik could feel annoyance, loathing, and – relief? – coursing behind his stepfather’s impassive facade. In the time Erik had known his stepfather, the man had never once felt relief at seeing Erik. 

As surprising as his stepfather’s emotional mix was, Erik’s eyes were drawn to the small, bookish man sitting in front of Luugard’s desk and sipping on a glass of amber. Thinning black hair and an off-the-rack gray suit made the man look like a mid-level manager or a slightly senior bureaucrat. The man’s perpetual bored look enhanced the image. Erik knew better. Vincent Paul was the head of the Grayguard’s Office of Special Investigations. In the ten years Erik had worked for him in Blackguard, Paul had been known as the Saint.

“Stephan, what’s going on?” Erik asked his stepfather. 

“Much to my own annoyance, I’m just playing host for Mr. Paul,” Luugard answered. Erik turned to his former employer.

“What do you want Saint?” Erik asked. “What could be so important and secret that you had to appropriate the mayor’s personal office?” The Saint flicked his hazel eyes up at Erik. The Saint was one of the few people whose emotions Erik couldn’t feel. The small man was also a past master at controlling his body language. 

“I don’t need anything from you,” the Saint answered cryptically. “Princess Corrine, on the other hand, is in desperate need of your services.”

“What happened to Corry?” Erik asked before he could stop himself. He felt Luugard’s flash of anger at the familiar name, but Erik didn’t give a damn. Erik had been part of a small coterie of children that had been allowed to play with the emperor’s son and daughter. Corry had been, if not his best friend, then a very close one. 

“She was shot down doing a reconnaissance flight above Battle Island,” the Saint answered. “From our best reports, she’s been captured by the Dark Towers.” 

“There’s more,” Erik said. Getting Corry out of the Dark Towers’ prisoner camps on Battle Island would be a job for the Imperial Guard, but from the intense frustration emanating from Hastings, they hadn’t been given the mission. Erik doubted they wanted him to go rescue Corry because of his prior relationship with the princess or his experience on Battle Island. 

“We have reason to believe that she was shot down by someone working for one of the other aristocrats,” the Saint said. It could never be easy. 

Monday Fiction – Avalon Chapter 1

20 Apr
April 20, 2015


Anne fought down the urge to smooth her skirt again. The light gray suit dress was a gift from Lady Maritza, and it was exquisite. Granted, Anne hadn’t put up much of a fight when Lady Maritza presented it to her last week. Just thinking how much it cost, much less the tailoring, made Anne slightly worried that IA would take a closer look at her relationship with Lady Maritza. Still, as both the Lady Maritza and Kurt stressed, it wasn’t everyday that she got to meet a princess. 

Anne contented herself with looking around the main room. Lady Maritza, as the senior diplomat for Avalon, was sitting in one of the leather chairs. Across an antique coffee table from her sat Helen Murras. Anne couldn’t remember the woman’s lengthy title, but she was the senior diplomat for the American side. Kurt and Samantha stood at Lady Maritza’s shoulder. Kurt was Lady Maritza’s security, while Samantha was acting as the older woman’s aide. Jason was in one corner of the room with Agent Privas. Jason had been assigned as the liaison between the American supernatural task force (which was always referred to as just “the task force”) and the Avalonians. The task force was providing the American portion of security, since it was unlikely the normal agencies such as DSS and Secret Service would know how to handle a supernatural attack. Two more agents Anne didn’t know were acting as security for Ms. Murras. The agents eyed Anne warily, like they weren’t sure what side she was on. Anne was assigned as the personal liaison for the princess. Anne still wasn’t sure exactly what she was supposed to be doing, but the princess had asked for her personally. 

“The advance team is here,” announced the agent stationed in the lobby of the Marcom Hotel. The Marcom was probably the finest hotel in the city and the building was considered a historic landmark. The Avalonian prince and princess had been given the presidential suite that took up the entire fifteenth floor. To be fair, the suite was designed not just for the designated occupants, but for their expected staffs as well. That was a good thing, because Anne had been told to expect to reside at the Marcom for the Avalonians’ stay. Her room at the Marcom was a closet compared to the rest of the suite, but at least she wouldn’t be stuck in traffic on the few off-hours she expected. It also helped that Lady Maritza helpfully made sure she was sharing the room with Kurt.

It also helped that during the Avalonians’ stay, Anne wasn’t being teamed up with her erstwhile partner. It was now an open secret in homicide that Jason was a federal agent being quietly “loaned” to the city. None of the rumors even touched that the real reason he’d been assigned was to help protect Anne from being captured by the Dark Towers and forcibly taken back to Avalon. Still, he’d been taking a lot of ribbing in the past six weeks from the other detectives. That, combined with a lot of animosity over what had happened during the Outsider Event (as it was being called by the task force), had made him bitchy and irritable. It was like working with someone constantly on her period. 

There was a sharp rap at the suite’s main entrance. Three men and an elf walked into the suite. All were dressed in suits and wore earpieces. The only thing that seemed to distinguish the three humans was hair color. After months of dealing with Erik, Anne didn’t expect Imperial Security to look so much like feds. Lady Maritza walked over and shook hands with all four of them before escorting them over to the assembled group. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Agents Barston, Sturm, and Calhoun of the Imperial Guard and Free-Elf Veritas of the Office of Special Investigations,” Lady Maritza said. If Ms. Murras had any qualms about meeting an elf, she kept her diplomat’s face as she shook the proffered hands. Each of the humans accepted Anne’s hand with the cool professionalism she’d expected. Veritas, on the other hand, almost seemed to sneer at her when they shook hands. As the elf turned to the next person, something dawned on Anne. Lady Maritza said that Veritas was from the Office of Special Investigations. That was the same outfit that sent Samantha, Erik, and Veronica to recruit Anne. She wasn’t sure, but Anne had a sneaking suspicion that Veritas wasn’t here solely to guard the prince and princess. Anne caught Samantha’s eye and the psychic nodded at Anne’s unvoiced question. 

“The prince’s party is expected to arrive here in four hours,” Agent Barston said after introductions were completed, “Agent Sturm and myself would like to go over the arrival plan once more with Ms. Murras and Agent Privas. Agent Calhoun and Free-Elf Veritas will need to speak with the Avalonian contingent and Detective Hearst about some last minute details about the princess’s visit.” 

“Anything we should be concerned about?” Agent Privas asked.

“No, it’s more clarification than anything else,” Agent Barston answered. 

“Well, if you two gentlemen will follow me into the command center, we can show you what we have,” Agent Privas said, motioning for the two Imperial Guardsmen to follow her down the hall. Ms. Murras and the rest of the feds followed the trio. As soon as they were out of the room, Samantha fixed Agent Calhoun with a hard gaze.

“You fucking traitor, Billy,” Samantha said with a cold anger.

“Good to see you too, babe,” Agent Calhoun said, equally as chilly.

“Are you going to have problems with everyone during this visit, Ms. Hart?” Lady Maritza asked. 

“Probably, but I do apologize for letting my temper get the better of me, this time,” Samantha answered in a contrite tone. She still shot daggers with her eyes when she looked over at Agent Calhoun. He ignored her and focused on Anne.

“Detective Hearst, you’ve been assigned as the princess’s personal liaison,” Agent Calhoun said.

“Yes. What exactly am I supposed to be doing?” Anne asked.

“Mainly acting as a combination aide and bodyguard,” Agent Calhoun answered, “In your off-time, Free-Elf Veritas will be helping you with your magic.” The elf just frowned at her. 

“Thanks, but I’m doing pretty well on my own,” Anne said. She didn’t bother mentioning that she’d accidentally set fire to the meditation room at the clubhouse a few days earlier. Something about Veritas made her uneasy. Besides, it had only been a little fire. 

“It’s not a request Detective,” Agent Calhoun said, “We need you to be more proficient with your magic.”

“Why?” Anne asked.

“We have a credible intelligence that someone close to the prince and princess will try to assassinate them during this trip,” Agent Calhoun said. Anne swore under her breath. Erik was right. It could never be easy.