Arnold Schultz was not having a fun night. He was wet, and cold, and tired, and wanted nothing more than to go home to his very warm wife. The freezing rain got everywhere, even through the bright yellow rain slicker he wore, but at least he had a whole work crew sharing his misery. That was some small comfort.
"N'Tas, secure your end! I don't want a fricking chewing gum job. Not in this fricking wind."
The hapless Jurom N'Tas scurried to obey, arc welder at the ready. There was no complaint. The entire repair crew was saving their energy for shivering.
The repairs to this bridge over the Valassi River had been going on for a week now. It had been damaged in the spring, when a hidden explosive device somewhere in the Police Patrol shack at one end had gone off. Eight people had died when the bridge had partially collapsed, along with two police officers who had been in the shack. The bridge had been swiftly repaired—it was one of the main thoroughfares linking Sennac and its sister city Olan-Tal across the river—but later engineering inspection had shown several potentially dangerous faults in the hasty repairs.
That was the reason Schultz and his crew were out on a horrible night like this, trying to make their repairs while traffic was at its lowest. He had sworn that none of his crew were going home tonight until a set of cross-braces had been secured in place, and that was proving to be a great incentive for the workers.
"Andrews and Ombani have got number three up, Chief," a crewmember hurried up to tell him. "They're doing prelim tests now, but it looks good so far."
"About fricking time," Schultz growled, although he was quite pleased with the news. For a newbie, Ombani was proving to be a natural at joining and welding, with a near-supernatural ability to spot faults in the welds. Not that he'd ever tell her that, though. "When they're done, tell them to get down to number six."
The worker nodded and jogged off, leaving Schultz alone on the ground once more as he watched a crane lower the final girder into place above him. Sighing, he turned on his thankfully-waterproof electronic notepad, making a note about the latest completed tasks. Far too many still blinked up at him from his To-Do List, but a lot of those were fiddly things; most of the real work would be done once the girders were in place.
Distracted, Schultz looked around, wondering if someone had spoken to him, but the closest was a dozen metres up, and would barely be heard over the sound of the crane. He shrugged and went back to his pad.
This time an unexplained lash of fear, a sensation of danger, struck his mind, and seemingly of their own volition his eyes tracked upwards.
Without another thought, Schultz dived to the side, just as a massive crack sounded across the worksite. One of the higher girders, put in place the week before, slowly and with ponderous grace, broke free from its moorings at one end. It bent, the join on the other end striving to sustain its weight, but it wasn't designed to take such torque, and with a screeching sound gave way. The massive piece of metal dropped, narrowly missing the support currently being held in place, to crash down right where the foreman had been standing.
Yells erupted, and the emergency claxon sounded, bringing the site medic from her place in the wonderfully heated confines of the trailer. Schultz pushed himself upright, spitting mud and water.
"Roll-call!" he bellowed. "Get everyone down! Right frigging NOW!"
The crew straggled in with commendable speed. Many were shaken, and Ombani was white as a sheet. One by one they reported in, and Schultz sighed in relief when none were missing. Amistejad sported a quite spectacular bruise above his right eye, but it appeared that his was the only injury.
Things would have been very different if Schultz hadn't experienced the strange mental impulse, but he didn't waste time considering the fact that he was lucky to be still three-dimensional.
"What the fricking hell happened?" he shouted. "Which beam was that? Who was working it?"
Hesitantly, Jurom N'Tas raised a hand. "That was mine, sir," he stuttered. "I was--"
"Good. You're fired," Schultz spat. "Get off my site. Everyone else, I want a full report of what else may have come loose. I'm suspending new construction until we go over every single fricking seam, weld and bolt on this rig. Ombani, I want you to pay special attention to everything touched by that idiot I just fired. Andrews..."
As he continued to bark orders, he completely missed seeing a dark shape detach itself from the top of one of the bridge supports and float away into the night.
Thirty metres up, Ally's face was intent as she expanded her senses onto the scene below. Suddenly she laughed. "Good for you," she chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Evelynne asked from her position securely tucked into the curve of her lover's arm.
Ally's eyes were invisible behind the glasses on her face, but amusement came through in her voice. "That foreman. He's determined to get back to work. No thanking God for saving his life, no thought to whatever made him think to run when he did. It happened, so now he's going on to other things. Important things." She laughed again. "It's kind of refreshing, seeing someone who isn't suddenly experiencing some kind of spiritual crisis, or abruptly getting religion. Just practical."
Evelynne smiled as well. "I suppose you're right. Somehow I think our Mr Foreman has a hard head." She looked up at Ally speculatively. "You know, it's been interesting learning just how you work. Nothing big, nothing dramatic. Just little bits of luck."
Ally shrugged in the air. "Making someone trip, a door sticks or unlocks, something moved a few inches into plain sight. After that you can usually count on people to take care of things on their own. You did well yourself. Just a simple message. Danger. Something he could easily have felt on his own, and he reacted quickly enough. No need for some glowing angel dropping down from on high." She grinned behind the strip of cloth covering her face. "Of course, I think you're a glowing angel anyway."
That earned her a slap on the arm. "Flatterer. Well, this angel has had just about enough excitement tonight. Now I'm ready to head to a nice warm bed and spend some time putting other thoughts into your head."
As Ally began to head back towards the Country House, picking up speed until the fine rain was a lashing torrent, she commented, "Have I told you yet how awesome these suits are? You have no idea how much hot water I used to go through back in Vancouver after a night flying around in the rain. I wish I'd met you years ago."
"I notice you didn't mention the ways in which Annie might have warmed you up. Very diplomatic of you."
"Alright, anyone want to start?" Lady Alleandre asked, leaning back in her chair, one of several occupied around the conference table. She was dressed neatly but casually in a loose-fitting blouse and slacks, and a large cup of spiced chai sat by her hand.
It was a far cry from the kind of structured, official briefings that took place in the ISA, Agent Nomi Gurabe mused, and likely just as different from a Guard meeting, if Franz Mendez' initial expression had been anything to go by. The Lady ran these meetings with an informality that would have been stroke-inducing to someone like the Commander of the Common Guard, but Gurabe had a suspicion that Mendez' reports back carefully edited out certain unimportant matters. Still, the Agent would have pulled the plug in a second if she had thought anyone wasn't taking these matters seriously, but Lady Alleandre generally steered the briefings with casual efficiency. She never forgot a single detail, and had a knack for narrowing in on a point that seemed minor at the time but ultimately proved of some pertinence to their investigation.
"I can tell you that we're narrowing in on the structure our Invisible Man must have been using within the Guard," Mendez spoke up, looking across at Gurabe, who nodded. The two would never be the best of friends, but they were quickly developing into a devastatingly effective team. "I can't go into details, but I can tell you there are definite signs of a shadow organisation within the Guard command structure."
"We're also seeing hints in the ISA," Gurabe added. "So far we don't think it's as pervasive as the one inside the Guard, but there is definitely a rumour or two."
"Does that make sense?" Lady Alleandre asked. "I would have thought that infiltrating two government organisations would be much harder than infiltrating one." Her tone was light, a simple request for clarification.
Mendez shrugged. "Yes and no. Infiltrating a command structure as highly regimented and controlled as the Guard is definitely not something that can be done quickly or easily. On the other hand, if you've figured out how to do it with one, the next ones become much easier. In fact, once you're in control of the resources of the first, utilising those resources to infiltrate the second might make it even easier."
"So now you have to worry about moles in every major—and minor, I suppose—government department," Chorus Tladi said from his place next to Gurabe.
"Unfortunately so," Gurabe said solemnly. "We're getting the required authorisation right now to use the Choir in a wide-scale search of all government networks. Can you have it ready?"
"That's not a problem," Islin said, nodding. "Just get us the parameters and we'll set her loose."
"Good. Boss, we'd also like your talents for a series of interviews we have lined up."
Gurabe smothered a grin at Lady Alleandre's long-suffering sigh, as well as the baleful glare she shot at both the Agent and Taldas. It was the Lady's former colleague who had begun using the familiar title, a holdover from their time working together on the Aztlan site, and Gurabe had picked it up along with Tladi. The only holdout so far was Mendez, who still seemed confused by the informality such a prominent figure insisted on. While Alleandre grumbled about the appellation "Boss," she seemed to find it far better than constant repetitions of "Your Ladyship." To Mendez' mind, however, the Lady was a great Noble, not to mention the most powerful being on the planet, and for her to seek less attention was baffling. He was slowly coming around, though, especially after the deadly and mortified look the Lady in question had fired his way after an accidental utterance of "Ma'am."
"How many this time?"
"Only three," Gurabe said. "We've also got the recovery room set up as you requested." That had been a requirement imposed by Princess Evelynne before she would let her Consort engage in any more extensive mind-reading: a large, sound-proof room, furnished entirely to Lady Alleandre's specifications as a place for the Adept to recover after using her telepathic talents. No fluorescent lights, minimal electronics, with a large window open to the sky, and a large selection of music, books, and art.
"Let Dicky know when you need me," Alleandre said. "At this point she knows my schedule before I do." She looked around the table. "Next?"
"Well, Boss," Islin began after an exchange of glances with his companion, "Chorus and I have come up with something. It's not anything concrete; more of a theory than anything else."
"Oh? What's that?"
"Well, it's about this Invisible Man." That had been the unofficial name that had become attached to the person or persons behind the Invasion. At this point, none of them knew if it really was a man, or if there was only one, or anything else, but that very lack of knowledge made the monicker somewhat appropriate. "There are just some things that don't make sense."
"A lot of things don't make sense," Gurabe said wryly.
"True, but this is more basic. Essentially, it seems like this guy has all the makings of multiple personality disorder. Things just don't add up. Take the Invasion. It was well-planned, incredibly well-supplied, but it was also about as subtle as a sledgehammer. And since then, everything he's done has followed suit: killing the decoys, the attack on Ally's mother..." Islin smiled apologetically at the Lady. "It's all been really effective, but there doesn't seem to be a hint of restraint to it. In fact, everything after the Invasion has the feel of... desperation. Like from that point on it was all improvised. Like he really had no plans for what to do if the Invasion failed."
"You have a point," Mendez said. "Some of our analysts are suggesting the same thing."
"Well then, it just seems bizarre to me. For one thing, why would anyone go to the incredible effort of planning and launching the Invasion and then have absolutely no backup plans in case everything fell apart? Unless there's something incredibly subtle going on right now that none of us can see, it's as though he's dropping big rocks from the top of a cliff and hoping they hit something. That doesn't speak very well to great planning to us. And then there are all the attacks themselves. They've all been big. Huge, really. Big, noisy, messy and visible. Now please tell us if we're wrong, but I always figured you spy types hated big, noisy, messy and visible."
"You're not totally wrong," Gurabe admitted. "There are times when big and noisy is necessary, but it's usually as a last resort." She frowned. "You're right. To have so many... explosive operations all at once definitely isn't the mark of a career operative. It's practically instinctive for us 'spy types' to avoid linking ourselves to any operation, and the easiest way to do that is to make it so that the operation didn't actually exist."
"This could all be smokescreen for something else," Mendez pointed out, although it seemed he was merely playing Devil's Advocate. "Distraction from the real goal."
"What real goal?" Chorus asked. "If he's after power, all the New Blood since the Invasion must be like an apple farm to him. He has a hundred new, inexperienced Nobles he could influence in a million subtle—or not-so-subtle—ways. And in that case, why keep going after Ally and Evy?"
"It's personal." Lady Alleandre broke her silence abruptly. Her gaze was intent, eyes flicking back and forth through data only she could see. "The effect was widespread, but the intent of all his operations has always been personal. The Royal family. But the King and Queen are the two most heavily protected people in the Realm, so he had to go after Evelynne. Now he's obsessed. She's escaped him at least twice so far from attacks that should have been fatal. The question is, what were his plans before it became a vendetta? The Invasion means it's political, and that means power. However, a part of the Invasion plan was specifically an attack on the Royal family. That means he wants the head cut off, and the only reason he would want that is if he has some means of filling the power vacuum that he assumes will appear. Perhaps himself, or perhaps some other figurehead. I heard someone suggest that the reason behind the Invasion was to destroy the aristocracy and install a 'democracy' in its place. There's no easier system for an unscrupulous person to gain political power, and then keep it, than a democracy." The Lady shook her head briskly. "It's not clear. So, perhaps a figurehead, or maybe direct assumption of authority.
"You're also right about the methods. For all his resources, he's clumsy. He spent immense amounts of time, effort, and money preparing for the Invasion, but he was also either arrogant or naive enough not to even consider it might not succeed. So he's had no contingency plans, and all his efforts since have been playing catch-up, trying to force matters to the conclusion he wants. No professional in the intelligence community is going to be so... limited in his planning. I don't know a huge amount about espionage, but I know that it involved plans, upon plans, upon plans. Contingency planning as far as humanly possible. So there's a dichotomy: someone with all the resources of at least one major intelligence agency to draw upon, but without any of the training or mindset. That means that whoever is in charge is not in the Guard, or the ISA, or even any foreign agency. What it does mean is that he has practically infinite access to at least one of them. Somehow, he can get them to do what he wants, with enough authority to cover his tracks very effectively behind himself." She paused, eyes still flashing back and forth in her faraway stare. "Or maybe not covering his tracks," she murmured. "What if, instead, he's using someone else's authority? Using the authority of a perfectly legitimate figure, someone who is expected to be involved in the intelligence community, albeit from a civilian standpoint. The operations continue with all the efficiency and strength of the Guard, say, but they're being ultimately run by someone who is an amateur, at best. A two-year-old at a supercomputer."
Suddenly coming back to herself, Alleandre shook her head, smiling sheepishly around at all the stares being directed her way. "Sorry," she said. "One of the people you had me scan last week was an analyst, and I think bits of her are still running around in here somewhere." She tapped the side of her head with a knuckle.
"Oh, don't be sorry," Gurabe said, shaking herself out of her fascinated daze. "I definitely think you're on to something."
"Taldas and Chorus came up with it," Ally objected. "I could just see some of the spaces around the shapes."
"That's what half of intelligence analysis is," the Agent said. "Just seeing the shapes that should fit in the blank spaces." She looked at Mendez. "You know what this means."
The Guard nodded unhappily. "If this person really is just using the Guard, or the ISA, we're not going to find him through our direct investigations."
"Not necessarily. He's communicating with them somehow. Once again, we just need to look for the pieces that fit in the blanks."
Matthew James Johnson had prayed more in the past nine months than he had in his entire previous life, and that was saying something. Born in Alabama, Matthew Johnson had been raised as a devout Baptist, he had paid far more than lip service to the teachings of his Church. He had believed, not blindly, but with the true devotion that can come only with constant introspection and questioning. He had believed not just in his God and his Saviour, but also that America truly was God's country, the greatest of nations, tasked with standing up to evil and tyranny around the world. And so, after still more soul-searching, Matthew had joined the Light of Truth, a fellowship of like-minded individuals who had chosen to take up arms against the Devil's Own.
Interestingly, that vigilance had not involved taking battle to the enemy, slaughtering the unbelievers in God's Name. Instead, the Light of Truth offered their services as a kind of religious security force, protecting churches and parishioners in some of the most Hell-born places on Earth. It had been important work, and Johnson knew he had found his calling. However, it seemed that no matter how hard Matthew and his brothers fought, there was always evil, still entire nations that had forsaken the Truth, not just spiritual, but moral and ethical.
Places like the Realm of Atlantis.
The place actually still sanctioned religious prostitution in their Enneadic Temples, and that was nothing to the fact that prostitution in general was not merely legal, but unionised. They still practiced slavery, as well, although they were careful to cloak it in propaganda about "indentured servitude as punishment for crimes." And, of course, such a nation naturally steadfastly refused to allow the rule of true democracy. It was an unrepentant dictatorship, a "monarchy," the people wholly under the thumbs of a feudal system that should have died in the Dark Ages. The mere fact that so many of them worshipped pagan gods was disturbing, but Johnson was less militant about converting the heathens through fire and the sword than many of his brethren. Once freedom reigned in Atlantis there would be time to slowly and gently bring God's True Word to her people.
So when word had quietly spread that the Light of Truth was considering aiding in an operation to bring the rule of God and the people to those benighted isles, Matthew had hesitated only an instant.
It had become more difficult upon actually arriving at Atlantis, after being smuggled in on a pleasure yacht. Not all of his fellow liberators—very few of them, actually—had shared his vision of God's Plan. Far too many were motivated only by greed and a lust for destruction. However, Matthew had told himself, sometimes God needed to use the crudest of tools to enact His work. Vigilance would be required once Atlantis was freed to guard against this new corruption.
He had been isolated in the months leading up to the actual Liberation. All that time had been spent training and practicing in a remote mountain base along with the true Atlantean patriots who had originally formed the Hy Braseal Liberation Organisation. At first, Johnson had been leery about integrating into another organisation, but he eventually realised that it really would be important for Atlantean citizens to know that this was actually an army of liberation, under their own flag, not a group of invaders.
Then the day had arrived and everything had changed.
Matthew's blossoming skill and discipline earned him a place with one of the squads tasked with deep infiltration of the Royal Palace itself. It was at that time that he learned that secret operatives were planning to capture the entire Royal family, so that they could be turned over to a legitimate authority and tried for their crimes. A coded frequency was provided in the event that those operatives required assistance to subdue their targets.
The squad encountered only light resistance on the way through the Palace, most of the Guards uncertain and confused when men wearing Atlantean Army uniforms suddenly began their assault, having already penetrated deep into the building with the help of stolen security codes. They fought well, defending their rulers with admirable, if misguided, loyalty, and succeeded in killing two of the members of Johnson's squad. However, the Guards were too surprised, taken unawares, and fell quickly.
Then, by some miracle, the Army of Liberation received the signal that the Royal family was captured, and that the operative was holding them not a hundred metres away. They marched quickly, ordering the operative to show himself and the prisoners to surrender. Nobody could hide their shock when only a single young woman stalked towards them along the corridor like a predator.
Johnson himself ordered her to halt, to surrender herself, but she came on. Adrenaline and nervousness rattled him, and almost without his conscious thought he fired a single round from near point-blank range.
As though his own shot was a signal, the rest of his squad opened fire, filling the air with so many bullets that the woman should have ended up as a gory paste on the floor. But she merely stood there, untouched.
The guns fell silent, incredulous shock stilling even the most bloodthirsty soldier, and the woman raised her arms. Johnson took a step back as a single finger flicked, impossibly summoning a small statue to hover above her left palm. Eyes that could see into his very soul flicked his way, and the statue leapt like some obedient living creature to strike between his eyes. Matthew fell to the floor instantly, stunned but not quite unconscious, so he was able to see what the woman did to the rest of the soldiers.
The very Palace itself came alive at her bidding, hurling decorations, tapestries, statues and vases at her enemies, while she stood there, directing their wrath like an avenging angel. Nobody could stand against such power, and the squad tried to escape, all thoughts of attack forgotten, but she tore their own weapons from them with contemptible ease, clubbing man after man unconscious.
When Matthew Johnson had finally awoken, he had been stunned to find that not a single member of his squad had actually been killed. The woman, whoever she was, had shown them all far more mercy than they perhaps deserved. Instead, the twenty-eight survivors were currently locked up in a massively secure facility somewhere on one of the three isles. Despite the security, the facilities were clean, adequately comfortable, and the Guards had never once tried to abuse or denigrate their prisoners. They had been forced to subdue at least three Invaders—their name for what Johnson had called the Liberators, and he was beginning to see why—but that had been in response to unmistakeable threats of violence. The Guards didn't pull any punches, but they didn't go any further than necessary, either.
However, the prisoners had also not been allowed visitors or legal counsel of any sort, and Matthew could even understand why. After all, with someone—or something—who could do what that woman could, there was no way anyone was going to allow a prisoner to open his big mouth and blab it to the world.
And that woman was also the cause of Matthew's nearly continuous prayer. He had learned enough to guess that she was actually Alleandre Tretiak, the Canadian who had saved the Princess of Atlantis once before. She was also that same Princess' fiancée, something that Johnson found almost as hard to believe as her impossible abilities.
Ezekiel Masterson, who had also been with the Light of God prior to Atlantis, and had been present during that fateful encounter, had made his own opinions known concerning Alleandre Tretiak. The prisoners were not kept in total isolation from each other, and he had not been shy to speak up during their exercise periods. To him, she was, without question, an agent of the Devil. Her perverted so-called relationship with another Godless woman was proof enough for him that Satan himself had granted her infernal abilities far beyond any that were meant to be possessed by man. She was, in fact, probably the very Antichrist of Revelations, and a sure sign that Armageddon was upon the world.
Matthew Johnson was far less sure. Only God could grant powers like those He had bestowed upon His only Son. The Devil was forced to work in secret, in the shadows, carefully spreading corruption and evil. To be too obvious was foolish, risking attracting the attention of the Light to shine down upon his foul works. And while the actions in that hallway were far more violent than the conversion of water to wine, there had also been something ineffably... Divine. And the fact that Lady Alleandre, as she was now known to the Atlanteans, had also shown mercy, another of the gifts God gave to His children, was another weight on the side of good.
Yet on the other side, why would God bestow such gifts on a woman who sinned against His Word every time she shared her bed with her female lover? How could He overlook such a failing if she was indeed one of His servants? Was His Word wrong? Had He changed His mind? Was she a new message to His people? Was it even possible—Matthew could barely think it—that she was His Child, returned as promised, yet in the body of a woman? The very questions were blasphemous, but that didn't stop him from thinking on them nearly every waking moment.
Was Alleandre Tretiak the Christ, the Antichrist, or something... Other?
His eyes closed, kneeling by his small bed in his equally small cell, Matthew James Johnson prayed for some answer.
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