The thoughts which were hers-but-not-hers were more familiar now, more like the comforting buzz of friends than coldness of strangers. They danced and scampered, a rich-sounding kaleidoscope of every sense and feeling known to the unconscious minds of humanity. Some were awake, some were asleep, but all were aware. Certain aspects of their collective psyche echoed with that peculiar resonance that they had come to learn meant distance, as it was measured in the corporeal realm. Two facets, however, twined and touched each other with the strength of proximity, and there was knowledge that they would soon be together...
“Not far now. We're almost together again.” Martina Lowes' voice held a dreamlike quality, but still came clearly through Evelynne's headset over the roar of the helicopter's engine.
The Princess quirked an eyebrow at Sir Arthur, who was sitting across from her in the belly of the big troop transport chopper, and the Guard looked back at her with some bemusement. Lowes had been saying similar things over the past couple of hours, some of which had been rather disturbing. She referred to herself entirely in the first person plural, and somehow the way she said it seemed to imply that she was talking about far more than “just” herself and Ally. She had already made reference to “that part of ourselves which is in Outremer” who apparently had a firm bearing on Ally's location.
It had all begun when Evelynne, with Black Crow's assistance, had joined with the reporter in a deep, mind-linked trance, the psychologist-shaman's subtle workings urging that part of Lowes that was Ally to reunite with its whole in some unfathomable way. It had been even more disconcerting that usual for Evelynne, to have a sense of Ally both right in front of her and somewhere distant at the same time, and also have vague echoes just barely perceptible in several areas of the psychic realm.
Right now Lowes, Evelynne, and both Guard teams were flying over Lyonesse, following the directions of the woman who was linked to Ally, and giving those directions from the co-pilot's seat. All of the Guards were in full battle dress, and Evelynne herself was bearing the unfamiliar weight of an armour vest, helmet, and sidearm.
“There are three towns on this bearing,” Colonel Nixon said, looking up from where she and Corporal Li-He were hunched over a map. “Malisson, Sh!a-M!anu, and Westlake. The closest is Westlake, which we should be reaching in about ten minutes. After that we hit the mountains.”
Sir Arthur nodded to Lieutenant Martinez. “Susan?”
“On it, Sir,” the veteran Guard said, already tapping commands into her laptop. After a moment she looked up. “SatCom is tasking two birds into the area, and they should be in position in roughly thirty-four minutes. Our HASC should be arriving within fifteen.”
The High Altitude Surveillance Craft and its crew wouldn't have quite the same sensor suite as the satellites that were being moved into position, but it would be on site much faster, and its true advantage was that it was infinitely more manoeuvrable. Of course, finding a mere five people in even a small town would be an impossible task, but once they had a more exact location, the surveillance data would be invaluable.
Malisson turned out to be the town they were looking for, Lowes simply announcing, “We are extremely close.” That had been the signal for the helicopter to land at a Guard Post on the outskirts of the town, commandeer a couple of plain-looking vans, and head into the slumbering community as quietly as possible.
After that it had been a frustrating game of hot-and-cold, as Lowes had steered them towards the parent of the fragment of psyche she was carrying. At long last, the reporter stopped the van across from an utterly unassuming block of businesses and pointed to one of the doors. There was nothing to suggest that the four-storey law office was anything in the least bit unusual, but Sir Arthur didn't hesitate in accepting Lowes' claim. He gave the order for the van to continue down the street before pulling into an underground parking garage three blocks away.
Then the Guard teams had exploded into organised chaos, setting up radios, computers, and the rest of the command centre, while four Guards immediately headed out to keep the building under watch. Evelynne found herself gently shuffled to the background, torn between fear and relief.
“And make sure your men understand that there are to be no sirens, no uniforms, nothing to tip off the target,” Sir Arthur was saying into a secure radio when Evelynne edged closer once the bustle had subsided somewhat. “It is imperative that all assembling units be under absolute stealth. At this point, your only orders are establish a perimeter and monitor all traffic. Do not apprehend anyone without my direct order. I'm gathering Guard units from the local Post as well, and they should be moving into position within the half hour. Codename for this mission is Hek!au.”
“Understood, General. I have my men equipping now, and I'll be calling in all off-duty officers using covert channels,” Malisson's Police Commander replied. “Ah, I'm looking at my patrol routes now, and one of my cars should be doing a routine drive-through of the area in about twenty minutes. Should I call it off?”
“Negative, Commander. Keep to all your regular patrols on schedule. Just make sure that anyone going by the building in question are to do nothing to suggest that they are in any way suspicious. Tell them to keep an eye out, but not to break cover. I will want to debrief them on anything they've seen as soon as possible.”
“Yes, Sir.” A brief muttered conversation on the other end of the line paused the discussion momentarily. “Urban Assault Teams are good to go and awaiting your instructions.”
“Stand by, Commander. My second will be on shortly to give instructions.”
The headache had faded slightly, but returned with a vengeance—and reinforcements—when Claire came up out of her own vision, leaving her bent over her knees and breathing harshly while Sergeant Gyrus tried to comfort her. Unsurprisingly, her clairvoyant ability had provided her with a plethora of visions which had swum into and out of focus maddeningly, and it had only been with utmost willpower that she had been able to concentrate on the single channel that was of importance.
“I saw Ally,” she gasped, while remnants of her visions flickered in her mundane sight. “She's... she's upstairs. An office, I think. She looks okay, but I'm not sure. I think she's still asleep, but whoever took us seems to be taking good care of her. She's in a hospital bed, and there are several IV's around her. I'm pretty sure one is saline.”
“What about enemies?” her companion asked. He handed her another plastic cup of water. “Could you see any of the people who took us?”
“There are two that I saw in the room with Ally,” Claire replied, “and I saw another one on the stairs outside the door. They had guns. Like Uzis, you know?”
Gyrus nodded. “What about layout?”
“Outside this door there's a hallway. We're on one side. Right across is another door, but I wasn't able to see inside. To the right is a freight elevator, to the left are the stairs, going up. Ally's on the third floor, so I don't know what the first two are like. She sort of... pulled me right up to her.” Claire shrugged apologetically, although she was too exhausted to show any hint of embarrassment.
Gyrus looked at Claire steadily, determination in his eyes, along with an apprehension he didn't even try to hide. “You know what I have to do.”
“I know.” Claire closed her eyes and swallowed, then looked up. “I'm going with you.”
The Guard didn't bother trying to argue. His own unquestionable priority was figuring out a way to his charge, where he would protect her with every drop of blood in his body. If he had been in the company of his team, or even the backup of a single additional Guard, the Sergeant would have happily locked the young Page in some secure room. However, in order to carry out his primary assignment, he would need every asset he could get his hands on, and deep down he knew that if Claire Jones stood behind him his enemies would have to use twice as many bullets to get to Lady Alleandre.
“So how do we get out of here?” Claire asked, looking around the bare room. There was nothing with which to force the door—even the cots were made of aluminum—and the ventilation shafts were barely large enough to allow a cat passage.
“I think I have an idea,” Gyrus said, walking over to the door. Claire hesitantly followed. “Are you sure there's nobody right outside this door?”
Stretching forth her much-abused power once more, Claire got a brief flicker of the corridor outside. It was only a flash, but it was enough for her to nod.
“Alright,” the Guard said. He knelt before the door and took several deep breaths. “Here's hoping this works.”
Carefully, the young Sergeant place his hands on the door, fingers splayed over where the lock should be. Narrowing his focus to only the painted surface before him, everything else slipped away. When the entire universe was nothing but grey metal, he began to build up a picture in his mind. Locks were made up of tumblers, levers, and switches, tending to vary only in terms of complexity and layout. However, at their core, the only thing that made a lock work was a small slab of metal embedded into the doorjamb. And it only moved a few centimetres.
Slowly an image of the possible interior of the locking mechanism formed in Gyrus' mind. It was likely not particularly accurate, but one of the things that the young psychokinetic had learned over the past months, especially under Lady Alleandre's tutelage, was that intent was far more important than precision in psychogenic work. After all, nobody knew the exact physics behind the Adeptus Major's ability to levitate, but that didn't stop her from doing so. Visualisation, the Lady had repeated to him again and again. Visualisation, intent, determination, and confidence. Then find your own path.
All that was needed was for the bolt to move, and Gyrus set all his concentration to that objective. The details would take care of themselves. For long minutes he focused, building up the energy within himself, and nothing happened. Then he relaxed abruptly, deliberately shattering his own concentration, and his power channelled forth. It was barely a droplet compared to the energies Lady Alleandre could summon, but it was all that was needed, and there was a click as the bolt retracted.
The day for Matthew James Johnson had begun in what had become, over the past months, a typical manner.
He had been awakened at the regular time, what the clocks assured him was 7:30, as the lights in his cell had come on, and the now-redundant voice over the speakers had announced that very fact. He had quickly performed his ablutions, washed his face in the small sink, and had been ready at his door when the guard had come to escort him to breakfast. Corporal Watkins had greeted him with the usual distant courtesy all of the guards showed all of the prisoners, and Johnson had waited while the others in his wing were also released.
They were the calmer ones of the entire group that had been captured during their “Invasion”, those that had proved themselves to be trouble having been left behind in the higher security wing. There were only five of the “passive” prisoners in this group: Matthew Johnson himself; Miguel Amilcar, who had first sold his services to South American coca growers in order to feed his family; Maurice Van Buren, who had once been a U.S. Army Major; Stephan Alison, who had come from a background similar to Matthew's, a small fundamentalist sect in the south of Arkansas; and Benjamin Pollack, who had been dishonourably discharged from the British Navy after some incident involving the smuggling of marijuana. They had always been the calmer, more rational members of their unit, even before the Invasion, lacking the bloodlust and vindictiveness of many of the others in the “Army”.
They had all had their own reasons for joining, of course. Johnson and Alison had been crusaders within their own minds, liberators who honestly believed that the best path for the Atlantean people lay behind the overthrow of their corrupt, autocratic rulers. Amilcar had simply been in it for the money, since the promised payment for the operation would have been sufficient to allow him to pay off the cocaine lords and get his family out of the country. Van Buren was simply a professional soldier, who had seen an opportunity to further his military career, having known no other life since he was eighteen years old. And Pollack had joined the “Army” rather naively, thinking it would be an “easy gig,” only to realise too late that it was far more serious than he had thought, and by that time he was trapped.
Breakfast was simple but filling. Every fear about Atlantean hell-prisons that had literally not changed since their medieval dungeon days had proved entirely false, yet another thing which had shaken Matthew's world-view. After all, “everyone knew” that Atlantean prisons were slave-labour camps, their inhabitants forced to work on personal projects of their dictatorial rulers. However, the accommodations were basic but comfortable, and the guards, while alert and quick to respond to any threat, were strict but polite, and the only physical violence Johnson had seen had been instigated solely by one of the prisoners.
It was all making the young man wonder on just which side he should have been fighting during the Invasion.
Still, it was a prison, with a largely unchanging routine, which was why it was such a surprise when, after the morning meal, one of the guards had announced that Johnson was going to be transferred for the day for “interviews” by local authorities. That had been new. Until then nobody had interviewed any of them in any length whatsoever, beyond ascertaining their names and countries of origin. The King himself, the guard explained, had decided, upon view of his good behaviour, that preliminary steps should be taken to finally decide his ultimate fate... whatever that might be.
So it had been in a whirlwind of activity that Johnson had found himself bundled into an unmarked prison transport, driven and guarded by soldiers he had never seen before, and driven out of a gate that he hadn't had passed in nearly a year. The world had suddenly seemed very big.
In the middle of all this sudden change, it had been an additional shock when, after driving though a sleepy suburb that, given the differences in home style and construction, could have been any town in the States, the small van had unexpectedly turned into an alley that ran behind a row of small businesses and come to a stop by a heavy metal door. Then the prisoner's erstwhile guards had opened the door to the van, unshackled him, and welcomed him back to the “Hy Braseal Liberation Army”.
Which was how, after a series of completely unthinkable events that had Johnson's mind spinning, he found himself out of a prison jumpsuit and into casual clothes once more, cradling an assault rifle whose weight had become unfamiliar, and tasked with keeping a lookout over the alleyway approach to the building. That in itself would have been enough to convince him that the whole thing was a dream, but later that evening a second van had pulled up, and Matthew had nearly passed out when he saw who these people were bringing in.
Two Atlantean Guards in full uniform and a young woman with the most startling skin deformity, all of them unconscious and being carried in without undue roughness and bundled into a storage room in the basement.
And Lady Alleandre Tretiak. The very same avenging angel whose incredible power had defeated him and his companions in the halls of the Royal Palace.
Except that this time she had been anything but powerful. Obviously drugged, and strapped to a bed, the young woman looked thin and drawn and, despite her drugged sleep, incredibly weary.
“She's the bait that will bring the Royals,” one of his new companions had said with undisguised satisfaction, and Matthew had been on the brink of blurting out a description of the way in which this “bait” had leveled forty soldiers without laying a finger on them, but some impulse had made him hold back, and the woman on the gurney had been whisked away to an office on the third floor of the building.
His mind stalled, Matthew Johnson could only stand his new post watching over the woman who had defeated him so thoroughly months before on the third floor of the building, and pray to God that he would discover what to do.
Claire held her breath as she crept out the door behind Sergeant Gyrus into the corridor. She kept expecting alarms to sound, and a legion of masked men to descend upon them at any moment. The young woman tried stretching forth her mind once again, hoping to be able to see the environment beyond her physical perceptions, but the combined effects of the knockout drug and her previous exertions had left her without the energy to see anything. So she had to rely on her more mundane senses, ears in particular straining to detect any possible threat as she and her companion padded down the hallway.
So far they had seen nobody, and their luck held as they reached the stairwell at the end of the corridor and crept upwards. Up to the landing on the third floor, and then Gyrus looked at Claire, pointing to his eyes and the metal door with a questioning expression. Obediently, Claire closed her eyes, trying to extend her perceptions beyond the door, but there wasn't even a flicker from her remote sense. Opening her eyes again, shook her head and shrugged apologetically. Gyrus smiled at her reassuringly, and then waved her back towards the wall beside the door.
He waited until she was out of the entrance before taking a deep, silent breath and carefully cracking open the door.
The three armed men on the other side did not look at all surprised to see them.
“Welcome,” the oldest of the three said, nodding slightly in disconcertingly polite greeting. “I had wondered which of you would be the Herald.”
Continued . . .
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