Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
Corporal Rupert Gyrus sat and tried to hide his nervousness, but was uncertain how well he was doing so. If he was doing it as well as Corporal Justine Iglesias, who was seated next to him, he probably looked almost as uneasy as he felt. A glance around the long table in the nondescript conference room showed that Private Te'Inti Li-He appeared even more uncertain, her expression bordering on outright fear. On the other hand, Captain Amanda Benson's greater experience was evident as she sat calmly farther up the table, and Private Halan il-Pesek was as completely unemotional as he always was.
The past few months had been stressful enough for the five of them. During the Invasion they had chanced to run upon the Personal Guard units of the King, Queen, Heir, Duke Avalon, and Heir Consort and had aided in the defence of those Noble personages. How much help they actually had been was debatable, since they had also been present to witness Lady Alleandre's extraordinary actions that had taken out an entire enemy platoon single-handedly. Gyrus still had dreams about the event—or nightmares, depending on whose side Lady Alleandre was in those dreams.
Afterwards, the five of them had been debriefed very thoroughly, and then set almost free. There had been few official restrictions on their actions, but they had also been watched very closely by other Guard teams, who had made no pretence at concealing their activities. The implied warning had been obvious, and the result had been a kind of self-imposed house arrest that had been broken only by the summons to this room in the new Common Guard Headquarters today. Gyrus wasn't certain what the results would be. While it was highly unlikely that he and the others would conveniently "disappear", there were plenty of other ways to remove inconvenient witnesses to places where they would not be heard. Manning listening posts in the far-northern Canadian Arctic, for example, or assignment as Intelligence Officer on a tiny surveillance submarine off the coast of California. Gyrus hated the cold, and got very seasick, but the Powers That Be were unlikely to care, and even if they did, the other options for disposal his imagination had come up with were many and varied.
Corporal Gyrus' thoughts were interrupted by the door opening and he jumped to attention and saluted along with everyone else as the person they were waiting for entered. The officer in question waved them back to their seats with an absent, "As you were," but Gyrus still waited until she was seated before returning to his own chair. Major—no, Colonel Theodora Nixon was unassuming, almost frail-looking, but it was well known that she had, in fact, beaten both Sir Arthur Ramirez of the Heir's Guard and Sir Adun al-Raziq of the King's Guard in full-contact hand-to-hand sparring on several occasions, and anyone who could boast that was definitely not to be taken lightly.
The Colonel placed two stacks of folders, and another stack of envelopes on the table and leaned back. "Captain," she greeted, nodding at Benson, then continuing around the table, making eye contact with each of those present and subtly emphasising her authority as she did so. "Well, inti and eni, you're probably wondering why you're here," she continued when she was finished, smiling slightly. She was answered by a series of nervous grins. "First of all, I'd like to commend you on the reports you filed regarding the incidents that took place during the Invasion." She tapped one pile of folders. "What I have here—" She touched the other pile. "—are the new reports that each of you will read, sign, and re-file. These new, more efficient reports place less emphasis on the actions of Lady Alleandre during the incidents in question."
Gyrus blinked, but wasn't terribly surprised. This was one of the scenarios he had come up with in the last few months. A glance to his right at Corporal Iglesias' cough showed that she appeared less comfortable, likely because of the implied dishonesty of such an action. Colonel Nixon noticed as well, and smiled flatly. "You may rest assured that your original documents will remain on file as Eyes-Only for the Director of the Guard. Those that you re-file will be for the benefit of those who are focusing on the more… pertinent aspects of the Invasion."
The committees and investigators digging into the background of the Invasion, Gyrus translated. People who don't need to be trusted with what could be considered extraneous details.
Now the Colonel held up one of the envelopes. "Once you have signed your reports, you will each receive one of these packets. In them you will find your options for your own future dispositions." Now Gyrus tensed again, and felt the others do the same. "In section Alpha you will find the required paperwork to return to your regular units and service. If you take this option you will also sign a comprehensive Oath of Confidentiality, with severe penalties for Oathbreaking. Good luck, enjoy your life, and I sincerely hope we never hear of your name again in relation to this incident." Colonel Nixon's hard glare drilled each of them, though her tone remained matter-of-fact. After a moment she continued. "On the other hand, in section Bravo you will find the documentation needed to transfer to the Heir Consort's Personal Guard… under myself as commander."
Now Gyrus almost gaped in shock and only barely stopped himself. Colonel Nixon's appointment as Master of the Heir Consort's Guard had obviously followed the death of Captain Emil al-Rahan, the previous Master, who had survived the Invasion only to tragically die in a car accident six weeks later. There had been several rumours over who might replace him, and while the newly-promoted Colonel Nixon's name wasn't among those Gyrus had heard, it wasn't surprising. Corporal Iglesias raised her hand tentatively and voiced the shock they were all feeling. "Uh, Ma'am, can we do that? You usually need a lot of seniority to be assigned to a post like that, and we're… well, not. Senior, that is. Except for Captain Benson, Ma'am, and she's not Guard; she's Navy." Iglesias fidgeted as she pointed out the obvious.
"Usually, yes, a degree of seniority and experience is expected, if not strictly required," Colonel Nixon replied mildly. "However, these are extraordinary circumstances, just as Lady Alleandre is an extraordinary protectee. Frankly, the main reason you're being offered this chance is because you already know of Her Ladyship's special status. But that doesn't mean there aren't other good reasons. You are all good operatives, even if most of you are, as you said, lacking in experience and seniority. For that matter, given Lady Alleandre's talents, I'm unsure just how much use we would be as guardians in any case. But that is what we are going to find out. With these unique circumstances, chances are we'll be tossing a large portion of the regular Personal Guard manual out the window. We need to know which part, and it will actually help to have agents who are not totally bound by previous precedent. When it comes to the normal procedures and tactics, I can teach you. And believe me, if you decide to join you will be undergoing so much training there will be times you'll wish you hadn't." The Colonel's grin was predatory. "On the other side, I need you to come up with ideas and opinions that we will then test in simulation." She shrugged. "Some will work. Some won't. If it works you'll be commended. If it doesn't, we'll just go back to the drawing board." She smiled again. "I can guarantee you one thing: it will certainly never be boring."
Ally felt warm and relaxed as she lay curled up on the couch in the circle of Evelynne's arms. She thought they might look vaguely ridiculous, given the difference in their sizes, but the only other person in the room didn't look like she was about to make any comment. In fact, Claire's expression when she glanced at them from her own chair was preoccupied, as if she wanted to ask a question, but couldn't bring herself to do so. Claire saw that Ally was watching, and quickly directed her attention back to the television, where a rerun of The Simpsons was the evening's entertainment.
Ally sighed mentally. She knew what question Claire wanted to ask, and was torn about how to answer it. Ever since Ally had returned in disarray two days before, Claire had been obviously holding herself back from asking. It had been easy to avoid the next day, as Ally was bedridden with the effects of smoke inhalation, not to mention psychic exhaustion, and had spent nearly the whole day sleeping. The constant coughing as her lungs tried to expel the irritants she had inhaled had not been conducive to conversation. Corey, who had been much more vocal in his questions, had been working much longer hours recently, and had been relatively easy to avoid.
Today, though, Ally was feeling much better, although her throat and lungs were still irritated. Evelynne and Claire had spent the whole previous day tending to her and Ally was feeling guilty about her silence. That guilt was worrying her, because she felt a strong urge to tell Claire everything, and that was unusual, to say the least. The last person she had felt the urge to "come out" to had been Evelynne. Even Chorus, possibly her closest friend, had only discovered her secret by accident. For that matter, so had Evelynne, although Ally had intended to tell her before she found out. The last person she had intentionally exposed herself to had been Anabel Bourne, her first lover.
Ally saw Claire dart a look in her direction again. She looked up at her lover and asked a silent question.
*You want to tell her?* Evelynne replied. *What, exactly?*
*Not everything. Not about us. Not even about me, really. Just a little about the fire.* Ally saw Evelynne think for a moment, and then nod almost imperceptibly.
Not quite sure how to begin, Ally said, her voice still rough, "Claire, I just want to say thanks for helping me the last couple of days. I really do appreciate it."
Claire smiled. "It was no problem, really. I was happy to help." She frowned suddenly, worried. "I mean, I'm not happy you were hurt, or sick, but because you were I was glad to—"
Ally grinned at the near babble. "Claire, I get it. And thank you." She hesitated. "About the—the fire…"
"You don't have to tell me," Claire said quickly. "I mean, it's—Well, it's—"
"No, you deserve to know," Ally interrupted. A little, anyway. Well, actually, you deserve the whole truth, but we'll start with what I can tell you. "I—With the fire, I actually went into the building." Claire's eyes widened, but she didn't seem completely surprised. Yeah, I knew you were smart enough to figure that out. "I have this—Well, a therapist I once had called it a 'Superman Complex'. Or maybe 'Wonder Woman Complex'." Ally felt a burst of amusement over her link with Evelynne. "Sometimes, when there are people in trouble I just go in and help them. I don't even think about it sometimes. I mean, I don't go around looking for people to save, but if there are I just… do it." Not just humans, either. There was that time on Mom's boat when I jumped into the Pacific because a porpoise was caught in that fishing net. Almost drowned there.
"Oh. Well, that's good of you, isn't it? I mean, it just shows that you're really brave."
Ally shook her head uncertainly. "Well, not really. I think to be brave you have to decide to do it. I don't. I just react. And it really isn't good, because a lot of the time I don't stop to think about how dangerous it might be. Like, going into that fire wasn't really brave.Iit was stupid, really. I did manage to pull one person out, but…" She coughed, and shifted. "I almost didn't." She felt Evelynne's arms tighten around her. "In retrospect, it was one of the dumbest things I've done in a long time." We'll ignore the fact that that girl basically called to me empathically, and if she'd died while she was in my head I would have felt it.
Claire looked like she disagreed. "I don't know. I think it's 'cause you care. I mean, maybe jumping in without knowing how dangerous it is might be kind of unthinking, but I think the reason you do it is because you feel for people," she concluded with emphasis.
That's what Evelynne said, Ally thought. And Mom and Dad. Although Dad did yell at me first for being stupid that time with the porpoise. I just don't know how to explain that it isn't really because I feel for people, but more just because I feel them. "Yeah, well. I just thought you should know kind of what happened," she said uncomfortably.
Claire smiled at her, then at Evelynne. "Thank you," she said. She looked at them quizzically for a moment, as though she knew there was more to the whole story.
But the whole story is for another time.
Evelynne looked up as Jean walked around behind the bar, dark glasses still on despite the dim light. "Jean, you're here," she said.
The other woman noticed her for the first time and peered at her over the top of her glasses. "Sophia, hey," Jean replied. "Sorry I'm late."
"That's all right," Evelynne said, smiling. "Just give me a moment, all right? I need to give back some change." She hurried off, returning a few minutes later slipping a ten-dollar bill into her pocket. She mentally shook her head bemusedly. She had rarely handled cash before leaving Atlantl, and she certainly didn't need the money now.
"I didn't think you'd be in today," Jean said when she returned. "I thought you had the day off."
"I had a banking errand," Evelynne replied vaguely. "I just stopped by to see how things were and Narmin roped me in. So, what happened to you?" she asked, taking in Jean's appearance. Her co-worker looked exhausted, despite the makeup that had been applied in an attempt to hide the fact.
Jean winced as she tied on her apron. "I stuck around after work last night, just to hang out, you know? Well, I drank way more than I should have, and picked up this woman and went back to her place. At least, I think that's what happened, because I honestly don't remember much before waking up in her bed this morning. I actually didn't drink that much, but there was this one drink… Whew, I don't know what was in it, but it sure kicked me in the head."
Evelynne smiled in sympathy, although internally she frowned at her friend's promiscuous attitude. She had nothing against anything that went on between informed, consenting parties, but personally couldn't even conceive of having sex with someone she wasn't in love with. There was a certain fantasy appeal to daydreaming about various other people—she had finally managed to coax some of Ally's fantasies into the open—but actually going the next step was baffling. "Well, I hope you were safe."
"Oh, if the remains lying around this morning were any indication, we were certainly safe," Jean assured her. Changing the subject, she asked, "So how's your other half today? She feeling better?"
Evelynne shook her head ruefully. "Oh, she's feeling better. I left her and Claire engaged in deadly combat." Jean looked at her blankly. "Some sort of game where they each have a fighter and proceed to kick and punch each other into oblivion. At this point I don't even think they know I'm gone." Ally had been ahead when she'd left, a result, Evelynne suspected, of her lover's enhanced mental processes, but Claire had been developing an almost prescient ability to counter Ally's attacks, and was quickly closing the gap.
Jean laughed. "Ah, the joys of geekdom. No offence to Ally," she said quickly. "Really hot geekdom, anyway."
"That's all right. Ally was the one who explained to me what a geek is. She even has a membership card for ‘Nerds Incorporated'. And I certainly agree with the 'really hot' part."
"Mmm…" Jean looked glassy-eyed. "You wouldn't consider sharing her, would you?"
Evelynne chuckled. "With you? N'at-kar, as we say in Lantlan. Not a chance. We're waiting for Angelina Jolie, you know."
Jean snapped her fingers and sighed dramatically. "Damn. Just have to stick with 'Little Ally', then."
Evelynne's brows rose. "And just who is 'Little Ally'?"
"She's the companion of 'Little Sophia', of course." Evelynne kept looking at her. "Oops, can't talk now," Jean said, grabbing a stack of menus. "Customers in my zone."
"What do you have, Jordan?" the well-dressed man asked as his second-in-command walked into the hotel suite. He lounged back in his armchair and returned to his newspaper.
"We have a location, sir," Jordan replied, causing his superior to look up quickly. "Our source inside came through with this." He held out a folder.
The other man snatched the file and leafed through it. "When can you confirm this?" he asked, not looking up from the contents.
"Already done, sir," Jordan opened a large envelope and offered a series of photographs. "These just came from a contact in the area."
The photographs were inspected carefully. "It certainly looks like her. What about the other one? Do you have—Oh, never mind, here she is." A new set of photos were scrutinised. "And everything else checks out?" The well-dressed man pointed to one picture. "And she's actually doing this?" He shook his head. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen."
"It seems so, sir. And we've been able to corroborate as much as we can. You know how they've boosted security." Jordan shrugged.
The semi-apology was waved off. "Oh, I know. That maniac they've got in charge of their investigation now is effective, I'll give him that. Three quarters of my sources in that organisation have either been nabbed or been keeping a very low profile. It's… vexing."
"Yes, sir. Shall I prepare the lads, sir?"
"Do it." The well-dressed man caressed a photo showing a smiling red-haired woman. "It's time to earn our princely wages."
Continued in Chapter 12
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