Modern Crusaders, Book 2
Disclaimers in Chapter 1
"Well, I suppose that's it." Claire looked around the tiny apartment that she and Corey had called home for the last ten months. Never opulent at the best of times, now it was positively spartan without even the few homey touches they had managed to add. Those touches, along with everything else Claire and Corey owned, were now packed in a few boxes that were waiting near the door. The meagre size of those boxes made Claire a little self-conscious as she cast a quick glance at her companion standing beside her.
"I suppose so," Ally said, not noticing the surreptitious look. "Not a lot to take, huh?"
"Well, if it ever came down to buying 'stuff' or eating for the week, there wasn't really much of a decision," Claire replied, unable to completely keep the defensiveness out of her voice.
Ally picked up on it, and looked at her in surprise. "Don't worry, I remember being a dirt-poor starving student myself. Actually, if you didn't count my books, at one point I probably had less than this. Of course, I've picked up a few more things since then." Like a mansion, two hundred million dollars or so, the Crown of the Heir Consort of Atlantl. Little things.
Claire waved away the explanation. "No, I'm sorry. I'm just a bit off today." In reality, she was half waiting for the other shoe to drop, still not quite believing how much her life had changed recently. From a single friend, an unquestioned outcast status, and an uncertain day-to-day existence, Claire now had at least two more easygoing friendships, a new living arrangement, and a sense of real hope for the first time in years.
Ally just nodded sympathetically, seeming to understand the unspoken words. She was well acquainted with sudden, unexpected changes in fortune. "Will you miss this place?" she asked.
"No, it's a rathole," Claire dismissed. "It's freezing in the winter, and broiling in the summer, as you can tell." That was true. The heat inside the apartment had both women glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. Claire couldn't help but notice how it made Ally's skin glow, especially since the other woman was dressed only in a tank top and shorts. She realised she was staring, and covered it by wiping her own hand across her brow. "And the alley out back lets in some truly interesting smells when the window's open."
"So that's what that is."
"Yep. So should we get outta here?"
"We should," Ally agreed, turning to the modest pile of boxes. She selected one that was filled with books, and Claire blinked as she lifted it easily. "This should only take a few trips." The tall woman headed out the door.
She must work out, Claire thought to herself, picking up a box of her own.
She made her way down the short, equally sweltering hallway, down the decrepit stairs at the end, and out the front door into the hot summer sun. A small older model car was waiting, and Ally was already placing her own load into the trunk. The vehicle was a loan from Jean, Sophia's co-worker. Ally's partner wasn't here to help, because said co-worker was currently at home with a stomach ailment, leaving Sophia to cover her shift. In an unfortunate coincidence, Corey was also filling in at the last moment for an ill compatriot, leaving Ally and Claire to deal with the moving on their own. Somehow, Claire couldn't find it in herself to be disappointed.
She knew she would have to deal with her attraction to the other young woman eventually, especially now that they would be living together under the same roof—and with Ally's lover, no less—but for now she at least had it under control. Mostly. Claire caught herself staring while Ally lifted another box smoothly into the trunk, and quickly looked away, almost missing Ally's sudden wince as she straightened.
"Are you okay?"
Ally nodded, gingerly massaging her back with one hand. "Yeah, I'm fine. I… hurt my back pretty badly about a year ago, and it acts up every now and then."
"Oh, sorry. Um, is there anything I can do?"
Ally shook her head. "No, not really. I just have to take it easy until it passes."
"Okay. Well, I think we just have a couple of small boxes left, so why don't you relax while I bring them down? Really, I can manage," Claire assured her when Ally looked about to protest.
"Well, if you're sure."
"Yep, no prob. I'll drop off my key while I'm at it. Save you from the misfortune of meeting my landlord."
True to her word, Claire was back a few minutes later, carrying the two boxes, which she quickly stowed in the trunk, now nearly filled to capacity.
Ally was leaning against the car, letting its sun-warmed metal soothe her back. "You survived," she said.
"Actually, he wasn't around," Claire replied. "I just slipped the keys under the door."
"A bonus." Ally opened the driver's side door and slipped into the seat, wincing at the oven-like temperature inside. Claire got in the passenger's side, and winced as well, although her discomfort was tempered by the relief at being out of the sun. She could already feel the lighter portions of her skin beginning to feel hot and tender.
They both rolled down the windows to allow a breeze through. Ally started the car, and then turned to her companion. "Well, did you want to go and unload this right now, or maybe stop for some lunch first?" she asked.
"Lunch is good." Claire nodded.
"We can go pick up some sandwiches and head over to Faith Park," Ally suggested, putting the car into gear and pulling out.
Faith Park was a local municipal area, which straddled Meshoppen Creek, a modest local waterway that eventually joined up with the larger Susquehanna River about a hundred kilometres downstream. It was a beautiful, popular locale, frequented by many of Horton City's inhabitants, who took advantage of the cool river during the hot summer months.
Claire hesitated. "That sounds good, but maybe we could go somewhere else instead?"
"Why?" Ally asked. "It's got plenty of shade, so you don't have to worry about the sun."
Claire smiled uncertainly, her pleasure at Ally's consideration warring with the real reason for her trepidation. "Yeah, it's not the sun," she admitted. "It's just that there are always a lot of people there, and it can get uncomfortable."
"Really? You've had problems?" Ally sounded surprised.
"Not really problems, but people tend to stare, and it's just not fun." Claire shrugged dismissively, but her real feelings were obvious.
"Oh, okay," Ally said. "Well, there's another place close by that's usually deserted. Ev—Sophia and I found it a couple of weeks back." She cursed herself mentally for the near slip, hoping her companion hadn't noticed.
"Okay," Claire said, apparently oblivious to the stumble.
The next twenty minutes were spent stopping at a local deli, where they picked up a couple of submarine sandwiches, and driving to the secluded spot by the river. It was as Ally had promised: a secluded wooded area, free of other people, but close enough to Faith Park that the shouts and squeals of children could still be heard. It wasn't quite as comfortable, lacking the tended lawns and facilities of the Park, but there was still enough shaded grass for Claire and Ally to sit and relax.
"Mmm, I'm starving," Ally murmured, stretching her long legs out in front of her and leaning back against the maple tree. Claire watched in awe as she reached into the plastic bag and drew out an enormous sandwich.
"Obviously." Claire looked down at her own much more modest lunch. "Well, you deserve it," she said. "I think you took all the boxes of books down." Ally just shrugged, her mouth full of bread, salami, lettuce, pickles, olives, onions, banana peppers and cheese. "Talking of, how's your back?"
Ally chewed and swallowed. "Okay, now. Don't tell Sophia, though." She grinned. "If I play it up I can probably get a massage out of it."
Claire laughed as well. "My lips are sealed. So how did you hurt it in the first place?"
This question caused Ally to shift uncomfortably, and she delayed answering by finishing another mouthful as she considered her response. "I… um… got in a fight," she said finally.
Claire gaped incredulously. She wasn't expecting an answer like that from a woman as apparently gentle and self-effacing as Ally. "A fight?" she blurted. "You?"
Ally blushed deeply. "Yeah. It was… Sophia was in trouble, and I—I sort of came to the rescue."
Ah, Claire thought, now that I can see. Anyone threatening Sophia would have to watch out. She nodded. "So what did they hit you with?"
Ally looked even more uncomfortable. "Um… a bullet."
Claire's jaw dropped again. "You're kidding me." She saw the obvious discomfort on Ally's face. "You got shot?!"
"Yeah." Ally was looking anywhere but at her. "Do you mind if we don't talk about it? It's just…"
"Sorry, yeah. I never—Sorry."
"It's okay. I just…"
"No, really. No problem."
The two women lapsed into a slightly uncomfortable silence, choosing instead to concentrate on eating. Wow, Claire thought, still stunned. She was shot, saving Sophia from… something. That's so romantic. She glanced at her companion, seeing remembered pain in Ally's faraway gaze. Or maybe not. It must have been excruciating. And terrifying.
There was silence, broken only by the quiet rush of the nearby river, until Ally cleared her throat. "I managed to find a copy of that book you recommended. The one on Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem?"
Claire took the change in subject in stride, happily falling back into their normal, casual friendship. "Oh, yeah? What do you think?"
"It's interesting. I like the way the author brings so many topics together. Math, art, music, literature. It also has some really interesting implications for physics, too…"
"Whew, just made it," Corey gasped as he flopped down into his customary seat next to Claire in their Advanced Real Analysis class. "A customer knocked over a display of canned soup, and I had to stick around to help clean up."
"No problem," Claire replied. "You're actually about five minutes early."
"Really?" Corey peered at his watch and tapped the face. "Damn, this thing's fast again. Oh well." He began to take his notebooks and pens from his bag. "So did you manage to get everything moved okay? Sorry I couldn't help you, by the way."
"No problem," Claire repeated. "It ain't like we had a whole lot to move. Besides, Sophia had to cover for someone at her job, too, so it was just Ally and me."
Corey grinned suggestively. "Really? That must have been fun."
Claire shot her friend a dirty look. "It was, actually. Just not in the way you're implying. And informative, too."
Claire looked around and, even though nobody was paying them the slightest attention, leaned towards Corey and dropped her voice. "Did you know she was shot?" She felt a little guilty revealing something that Ally obviously did not want published, but knew that Corey was the soul of discretion, at least when it came to "important" topics.
Her friend gaped at her, much as she had looked at Ally that afternoon. "You're kidding me. Ally?"
"Yeah. I didn't get any details, but apparently she was hit in the back protecting Sophia in some kind of fight. It still bothers her sometimes."
"Holy shit," Corey breathed. He stared into space for several minutes. "So she was just hit once?"
Claire frowned. "I think so. It's not like she offered to show me her scars or anything," she said defensively.
"No, I just thought for a moment… Never mind. Sorry. And don't worry, I won't say anything to anyone." Corey smiled reassuringly.
"Thanks." Claire smiled back.
Just then the professor came in, pre-empting further conversation in favour of concentration as they strove to understand the challenging subject.
"Here we are." Claire looked at the now-familiar door to Ally's and Sophia's apartment and hesitated. "Do we knock? I have a key."
Corey shrugged. "We're living here now."
"Yeah, but still…" Coming to decision, Claire reached out and knocked lightly on the door.
There was silence for a moment, and then the sound of footsteps could be heard moving towards the doorway. Ally opened the door a second later. Ally was casually dressed in shorts and a loose Babylon 5 T-shirt.
"Claire, Corey, you're here. Please, come in," Ally greeted in a quiet tone, holding the door open and beckoning them inside. "You didn't have to knock, you know."
"Yeah, well…" Claire shrugged as she and Corey divested themselves of shoes. "It felt a little weird to just barge in."
"Well, from now on, our home is yours. Damuk'ne damuk't'es." Ally frowned. "I know I'm mangling that final glottal stop, but I just can't get it right." She shook her head to clear it of the tangential thought. "Anyway, come on in."
She led them into the middle of the living room, giving Corey a chance to examine the room. He had seen it briefly a few days previously, but hadn't had the opportunity to take in the full effect.
It was actually a modest space, a square roughly six metres on a side, with a set of patio doors directly opposite the main door. A simple but comfortable-looking brown couch faced the left wall, in front of an impressive entertainment system. A couple of other matching armchairs bracketed the sofa around a low glass-topped coffee table. Several framed picture prints, at least two by well-known Atlantlan artists, graced the walls, attesting to Sophia's touch in the decorating of the apartment, although at least one, an abstract work which made Claire dizzy if she looked at it too long, showed Ally's influence. It was a comfortable room, Claire decided, although she couldn't shake the feeling that it was still only a temporary residence, as though its inhabitants knew they wouldn't be staying long.
On the right, a doorway, and a large counter-topped opening, opened onto the small kitchen/dining room, while a hall on the left led to the bathroom and bedrooms.
"Say," Ally said, "are you hungry? I made some macaroni and cheese, and there's still quite a bit left."
"Sure, that sounds good," Corey replied, and Claire nodded as well.
"Okay, I'll go and heat it up," Ally said, walking into the kitchen. "Make yourselves at home. Just keep the noise down, okay? Sophia's already gone to bed."
"Sure thing," Corey agreed. "Is she feeling okay?" he asked from the doorway to the kitchen.
Ally shrugged a little uncomfortably, and continued stirring the pot on the stove. "She had a bad day at work today. They were shorthanded and it was a long shift. She had some problems with a couple of customers, too. And she came home and we—Well, we kind of had a bit of a fight. It was just not a good day."
"Oh. Are you two okay?" Claire asked tentatively. She felt a little surprised at how bad she felt that they were fighting.
"Yeah. It's just been one of those days, you know? The chi just hasn't been flowing right." Ally waved in the direction of the living room. "I was just doing some kung fu forms to try to get it flowing again."
"Well, do you want to go and be with her?" Claire asked. "We can settle ourselves in if you'd like."
"Do you mind? You know where your room is, and feel free to help yourself to anything in the kitchen." Although she obviously tried to hide it, Ally looked almost pathetically grateful for the opportunity.
"Go," Corey said firmly. "We can take care of ourselves."
With a final thank you, Claire and Corey watched Ally make her way down the hall. They listened as she made a detour to the bathroom, and then heard the door to her and Sophia's room open and close. A bit of almost inaudible speech followed, but it was soon replaced with silence.
The food now reheated, Corey spooned generous helpings into two bowls, then ran some water into the empty pot. He and Claire took seats at the tiny kitchen table and began to dig in. "I feel bad for her," Corey said quietly, mindful of the now silent apartment. "Sophia, I mean."
He nodded. "I saw on the news that they held the first mass memorial service for the victims of the Atlantean invasion today. I know she had friends who died, and I think she wanted to be there."
Claire felt a sharp pang of sympathy. "I wonder why she didn't go back."
"I don't know," Corey replied, although he had an odd, contemplative expression on his face. He shook it off. "It's gotta be hard for her, though."
"Inti, eni, please be seated," Queen Cleo of Atlantl said as she rounded her desk to seat herself behind it. "I'm sorry I'm late, but I had to make arrangements to go to I-Hul-Kan this afternoon."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Colonel Dame Grace Al'Tryg, the Queen's Intelligence Advisor, said, and the four other people present murmured similar responses. The fact that, at seven-thirty in the morning, the Queen was already half an hour behind schedule didn't faze any of them in the slightest. Even in the best of situations the Diarchs' schedules tended to be highly flexible, and the events of the last few months had exacerbated that condition exponentially. Certain meetings, such as this one, the Queen's daily intelligence briefing, were kept as close to their scheduled times as possible, but all too often the rest of her day's plan on paper bore only a passing resemblance to reality.
The Queen briskly looked through the small stack of papers and memos on her desk—it would grow tremendously as the day wore on—flipped through one file folder briefly, and then put it down and sighed. "Well, let's get started, shall we?" she said, placing a small device on her desk and pressing a button on its side, and a high-pitched whine filled the room, quickly rising beyond the range of human hearing. The sophisticated mass of electronics, designed to render any bugging devices at least temporarily inoperative, would have been considered overkill considering the amount of security surrounding both Diarchs' offices only a few months ago. However, before that time, nobody had even guessed the extent to which some group—still at large—had obviously penetrated that security. Now it had become another fact of life in the Palace.
"Of course, Madam," Dame Grace said, opening her own locked briefcase while the others present readied their own materials.
"All right. Jeffrey, what's the military situation?"
Admiral Sir Jeffrey Clayton, who had once commanded the entire Lyonesse Fleet before being elected the Queen's Military Advisor, nodded acknowledgement. "Nothing critical, Madam. So far we've discovered another fourteen pieces of unexploded ordinance left over from the Invasion." Those bombs had been intended—and had partially succeeded—to throw the country's emergency services into confusion when the armed invaders attacked. Not all had exploded, and now those same services were engaged in a massive hunt for the still-dangerous devices. "It's slow going, mostly because they can be anywhere. One of the latest we found was in a freezer on the RAS Hummingbird." He smiled without humour. "Frankly, Madam, I think it's unlikely that we'll ever find them all."
"I know, Jeffrey. We can only try."
"We will, Madam. On the strategic front, the American Sixteenth Fleet is continuing its war games near our territorial waters off Lyonesse. I've, ah, taken the liberty of suggesting Admiral Mulungi schedule a series of submarine torpedo tests out of Tolena Base. The information has been 'accidentally' leaked to the commander of the American fleet." This time his grin was that of a wolf. "We wouldn't want them to get too bored, Madam."
"Of course not," Queen Cleo said, and then turned serious. "What are the chances of there actually being an incident?"
"Low, Madam. The subs involved are under strict orders to take every possible precaution to avoid hitting anyone else. On the other hand, the dummy ships they are firing at will be easily visible to any of the Americans' reconnaissance aircraft, which should cool their commander's ardour."
"Good." The Queen made a note on her notepad in her own shorthand, which would certainly baffle anyone but the very best codebreaker. She turned to Dame Grace. "Grace, what do you have?"
"Helena will give you a domestic report, Madam," Dame Grace replied, and the woman in question, a sweet-faced, cheerful looking woman whom nobody would ever have guessed was the head of the country's Internal Security Agency, nodded. "I can report that we're still making very limited progress in tracking down the organisation behind the Invaders."
"You're still running into the same problems?"
"Yes, Madam. It was—is—highly cellular, and none of the cells knows much beyond what it has to. No one we've been able to interrogate even knows anything beyond their own immediate contacts. That usually means a long, involved chase as we work our way up the food chain, but in this case a lot of those contacts are simply gone." The Colonel shook her head, her face grim. "This is suggesting to me that someone is tipping them off that we're onto them. And that suggests to me that ISA and the Guard are still compromised. What I plan to do is do the same thing to them. I'm creating a special task force, headed by Colonel Ramirez and comprised of agents he picks. His reports will be for my eyes only, and will be hand-delivered by him as well. It will be a bit cumbersome, especially if he needs to head out into the field, but it's the only way I can guarantee the confidentiality of his reports."
The Queen nodded. Colonel Sir Arthur Ramirez had been at one time the Master of the Heir's Guard. He was also an empath and partial precognitive, although that fact was known only to a very few members of the Guard. Those talents had been invaluable as the investigation into the shadow organisation went on, with his ability to detect lies and guilt better than any lie detector. So far he had mainly used his gifts to clear certain members of the government and security agencies of suspicion, thereby creating a trusted core of officials who were in charge of investigating the attacks. Now it appeared that Dame Grace wanted to extend his talents into field work. While it would have been nice to have a dozen agents with his ability—or, better yet, Alleandre Tretiak's full mind-reading talent—the Queen trusted her Intelligence Advisor to make the best use of his skills.
"Very well. Now, what's the status of Project Geranin?"
"Well, Madam," the Advisor said, "there's nothing, absolutely nothing. We have nothing, at least in terms of positive results."
Queen Cleo's brows rose. She was surprised but pleased. In this case, having nothing in the way of data was actually a good thing. The Geranin Protocol, the guidelines under which Princess Evelynne and Dame Alleandre had gone into hiding, had several aspects. One, of course, was to hide the sole Heir to the Throne in a foreign nation, presumably safe from any domestic dangers. It was positively labyrinthine, planting many false trails and utilising every possible means of obscuring the truth of the Heir's location. However, the current situation was different, because the Queen's niece and her fiancée were not, strictly speaking, using the Geranin Protocol. Or rather, they were, but only as yet another decoy. In fact, they had not gone through the "normal" Guard channels, after the extent to which those channels could have been compromised became clear. Each of the Guard teams charged with laying a false trail and spiriting a false "Evelynne" to safety thought that the real one was with one of the others, when she was actually with none. There were only three people in the entire Realm who knew where the Heir and her Consort really were, and Queen Cleo was one of them.
However, another aspect of the Geranin Protocol was the creation of a special Guard project, reporting directly to the Diarchs and completely separate from the other sections, dedicated to finding out the location of the hidden Heir. It might have sounded odd to outsiders, but the rationale was that if a group of agents with the backing of the entire Guard at their disposal couldn't find the fugitives, it was unlikely, but not impossible, that another group could. On the other hand, if the Geranin Project was able to discover their location, additional security measures should obviously be taken.
"Nothing, Madam." Dame Grace's tone mingled frustration and grudging respect. "All I can tell you now is that they have not entered either Western Europe or North America through any legitimate channels: airports, seaports, border crossings. We've done complete searches, and neither their names nor faces turn up in any immigration records, photographs, or video footage. We're currently working on South American countries, Eastern Europe, and the League of West African Nations. We also checked out Botswana, based on Lady Alleandre's ties to Mr Tladi, but without results. Obviously just because there are no records doesn't mean there are no ways in, but it's rare to find a trail this devoid of evidence. Frankly, Madam, I'm impressed. I never suspected that Lady Alleandre was this resourceful."
"Yes, she is resourceful, isn't she?" the Queen murmured with an expression of bemused humour. "A very talented young woman." She shook her head. "So basically what you're telling me is that you know where she and my niece didn't go openly."
"Exactly, Madam. And, of course, once they're inside a country it's easy to disappear. They could rent a cabin in the middle of the Canadian Rockies and be virtually invisible."
"True." But because you know it you'll be looking especially in places like that. It's even easier to disappear into a crowd… the bigger the better. "Very well, then. Anything else?"
"Not from me, Madam. Helena's got the domestic side of things today."
"All right, Helena, what have you got for me?"
Continued in Chapter 8
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