"What about infrared?" Sir Arthur asked, his gaze never leaving the pile of photographs, schematics and files on the table in front of him.
"Oh yes, sorry, General." The Urban Surveillance specialist quickly flicked through the sheaf of papers in his hands and placed another set of pictures on the table. "Infrared confirms. Three persons have been in the room since we began watching, and they were joined about ten minutes ago by three two more. As you can see, these two--" He pointed out two vaguely man-shaped red blobs. "--are sitting, and the one on the right has a body temperature at least two degrees higher than the others. Since moderately heightened body heat is a common side effect of the sedatives Lady Alleandre was given at the hospital, we project a ninety percent probability that it is her."
Evelynne looked longingly at the red and orange blur that was the most she'd seen of her lover in hours, and she barely restrained herself from reaching out to stroke the picture. That would hardly have gathered herself any professional credibility from those around this table, and the Princess was very aware that the only reason she was even being allowed to attend these briefings was that she was not falling into hysterics.
" Right," Sir Arthur said firmly, nodding. "Anyone else have any new data? Comments? Suggestions?" Nobody answered. "Good. Then get your teams ready for immediate mobilisation. I want to be knocking down the door in ten minutes. Entry plan Sigma Four. Commander Ashurst, tell the Major that I want full deployment within thirty seconds of my signal. Anything moving within the Ops area is to be halted and detained unless it's wearing one of our uniforms. And effective immediately, any person or vehicle attempting to leave the town area is to be immobilised, even if they are wearing our uniform. This town is under lockdown until I say otherwise, understood? Avoid fatalities if possible, but if anyone refuses to stop, use of force is at your discretion."
"Understood, General." Commander Ashurst saluted and hurried off to pass the word to her own superior, Major Nielson of the local Army base, who was providing the soldiers who would be shutting down the city, and the flight of helicopter gunships who would be... dissuading anyone from fleeing by vehicle.
Evelynne shivered. It all seemed insanely surreal, and many would probably consider such actions to be draconian, but the situation was clear, and the response had been green-lighted by the King, the Queen, Duke Lyonesse, Count Entil, Baroness Lokasa, the Advisory Councils of all five, and the Mayor of the townâ•‰the last of whom had been more than eager to accede to the massive weight of such overarching authority and hurry off to hide until it was all over. Whether Ally would ever really accept it or not, she was part of the Royal Family now, and that meant a degree of concern for her safety that matched that for the President of the United States, the Queen of England, or the Pope.
"Captain al'Zaik, sniper teams now have green lights. Anyone appearing hostile is dropped. Clear?"
"General! We have movement at South One!"
In an instant, both Sir Arthur and Colonel Nixon were standing over Susan Martinez, who was listening intently to the headphones that were connecting her to every member of the surveillance teams around the building. "Male subject, unarmed, showing his hands. Appears to be wearing... Sir, it's Sergeant Gyrus!"
Five minutes later Gyrus had been scanned, searched, andâ•‰given the situationâ•‰restrained as a precaution, and was sitting in a small folding chair in an area near the command centre. The Guard looked tired, mussed, and shaken, but he was holding himself together remarkably well, considering his lack of experience.
"Sergeant, report," Colonel Nixon ordered brusquely.
"Yes, Ma'am. Ma'am, I am bringing a message from Mohammed al-Shan for Her Highness, Princess Evelynne deMolay." Gyrus' eyes flicked to Evelynne, who was standing unobtrusively slightly back from the scene. "al-Shan requests that Her Highness present herself to him within two hours. He is holding Lady Alleandre Tretiak and Mistress Claire Jones as guarantees. al-Shan states that he has no wish to injure or kill any more innocents than is necessary to... ah... 'bring about the Awakening.'"
"Is Ally alright?" Evelynne blurted, unable to stop herself. "And Claire?"
"As far as I could tell, Your Highness, Her Ladyship appears largely unharmed. She seems to be still sedated, but I saw no overt physical damage. She's receiving hydration and nutrients intravenously, and al-Shan seems to be paying care to her vital signs; I saw an electrocardiograph and a respiration monitor while I was there. Mistress Claire was with me when we attempted to escape, and she's being held as well. I'm afraid Captain Benson had not yet recovered the last I saw her."
A small part of Evelynne relaxed in relief.
"How many people did you see over there in all?" Nixon asked.
" I only saw four, Ma'am," Gyrus said seriously, "although I might not have seen them all. al-Shan and three male subjects, visibly armed. Light submachine guns and pistols. Standard-issue armoured vests, headset radio communications. They know you're out here, Sir," the Guard continued. "I don't know how, and I don't think they know exactly where, but they don't seem to be trying to hide."
"That makes a strange sort of sense," Sir Arthur admitted, "given that they want Her Highness there within two hours."
"Damn it!" the senior Guard swore. "So much for a surprise penetration. Alright, we need a new plan, and we have two hours to come up with it."
"What if I went in?" Evelynne heard herself ask. "Maybe I can talk him out."
"Not a chance, Your Highness," Colonel Nixon said instantly. "You are the one thing we know for sure al-Shan wants, and he's already helped kill thousands of people trying to get to you."
" So why give him the chance to kill any more?" Evelynne pleaded. "Gods damn it to the Duat, Colonel, that's my fiancee in there, not to mention one of my best friends and a member of my personal Guard! If I can just buy some time, maybe keep him off-balance, get him into a more vulnerable position..." She stopped. And I'm not totally helpless, you know. I can tell you exactly what the layout is inside, and al-Shan will never know I'm doing it. I can open up options you'll never have otherwise.
"Your Highness, it's simply unthinkable," Nixon reiterated. "Even if we put you in the best body armour we have, we have no guarantee that he won't simply shoot you in the head the instant he sees you. There's simply no way we can--"
"We will protect her. I will protect her."
Everyone present looked around, startled, to see Martina Lowes standing a few metres away, where she had moved without anyone noticing.
"Excuse me?" Nixon asked.
"I... can protect her," Lowes said again, her face and eyes vaguely unfocused. "There are things that I know... I don't know how I know them, but they're there. A part of me... of us... is..." She trailed off, shaking her head in confusion, then held out her hand, fingers spread, and palm down. There was a moment of silence, and then metal rang on the cement floor as Sergeant Gyrus' shackles clicked open of their own accord. "I know things, and I can protect her."
"Isis," Evelynne breathed, walking over to look up into Martina Lowes' eyes. She stretched forth her mind, and once more there was the overwhelming feeling that her lover was standing right in front of her. "Ally? Can you hear me?"
Martina shook her head. "I'm not Ally, but she is... a part of her is... there is an echo of her that I can hear, and it..." Lowes shook her head again, and then looked up. "She loves you so very much. That I know most of all."
"You have a go." Sir Arthur's voice was low.
"Sir--" Colonel Nixon began, shocked.
" I said that Her Highness has a go, along with Ms Lowes." The older Guard looked at the Colonel and smiled ruefully. "I have... Call it a hunch, and in this environment I think it would be crazier not to trust it."
Matthew Johnson shifted uncomfortably, trying to avoid the accusing gaze of the oddly-complexioned woman handcuffed to one of the chairs along the wall. To be honest, her expression was more terrified than accusatory, but that was almost worse. And somehow Johnson couldn't get the thought out of his head that Lady Alleandre, unconscious in her bed though she was, was looking at him with even more disapproving eyes... and that God Himself was watching him with something approaching condemnation.
It was an incongruous location to imagine God watching over affairs. Once, the room must have been a completely ordinary office; nothing special, just a ten-by-twenty foot room, stocked with a desk, bookshelf, set of file drawers, and several moderately-uncomfortable chairs. In fact, all of those accoutrements were still present, but most of them were pushed aside to make room for the hospital bed which held Alleandre Tretiak, and the monitors and IV stands which were caring for her. The large window which had once looked out onto the street outside had been boarded up, leaving the only light emanating from the stark fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling.
Anthros, the man who seemed to be al-Shan's second-in-command, slipped into the room and hurried over to his leader, and Johnson straightened at the energy in the man's stride. Anthros murmured several words to the older man, who nodded in satisfaction.
"Evelynne deMolay is coming to us," al-Shan announced. "As I knew she would. She is accompanied by one other; not a Guard, or so Anthros assures me." al-Shan frowned. "I had not expected anyone else, but..." He shrugged. "There are still parts that must be played, and I don't know exactly who will fill them. In any case, Anthros, please go and show our guests up. Master Johnson, you will stay with me, please."
"Yes, Sir," Johnson said, somehow keeping the uncertainty out of his voice. "Ah, what's the plan, Sir?"
"I don't exactly know, but I trust in the Gods to provide. The Awakening of the new Dynasty must take place."
"Yes, Sir," Johnson said again, but al-Shan wasn't listening.
Minutes dragged on interminably before the door to the office opened once more and the forbidding Anthros ushered Princess Evelynne and the unknown woman into the room.
The Princess was smaller than Johnson had expected. Not tiny by any means, but much smaller than he had imagined someone of her importance to be. Her hair was much shorter than in any of the pictures he had seen of her recently, but just as red, and exhaustion and strength battled in her eyes. She also couldn't stop the low gasp that left her lips when she saw her... lover, lying motionless amidst medical equipment.
"Evelynne, I'm pleased you came so promptly," al-Shan said. "I knew we would meet eventually, but I never knew whether you would come of your own accord. I'm glad that--"
"Claire, are you alright?" the Princess interrupted, ignoring al-Shan completely. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm okay, Evy," the other woman replied, her own voice shaking. "I'mâ•‰Yeah, I'm okay."
"Good. And Ally?" Evelynne asked, taking a single step towards the sleeping woman, but halting when Anthros stepped between her and the bed.
"Lady Alleandre is fine," al-Shan answered smoothly, drawing the Princess' attention to him once again. "I never had any desire to harm her unnecessarily."
" And what about everyone else, Mohammed?" Princess Evelynne spat at him. "You've helped kill thousands of Atlantlan people. Indiscriminately. You've tried to kill my entire family, and I don't even know how many others you've injured. And for what? Greed? Power? What is it that you want?!"
"Power, yes," al-Shan replied, his face drawn and serious. "But not for myself. And yes, I am responsible for the deaths of thousands, but some changes require sacrifice, even of one's soul. The French and American Revolutions, the Communist takeover of Russia, the Unification War of the Congo... all of these cost thousands, millions of lives, and all were spent willingly, though not with joy, in order to bring about a change that some saw as absolutely necessary. And the change which I must see into being casts those petty conflicts into shadow."
" A new Dynasty? With yourself as King Mohammed the First? Or perhaps you want to be President al-Shan? Is that your goal? The jihad of democracy? Vote or die?"
" You're not listening, Evelynne," al-Shan said, shaking his head in frustration. "I told you, I don't want or expect power for myself. In fact, I have no illusions about my place in the times to come. I have committed terrible crimes, and I shall be punished for them for an eternity. I shall see none of the great things I have helped create come to pass fully, but they were necessary! I have seen many things, and one of them is that my part in this is almost over."
"So then who are you working for?" Evelynne insisted. "If you don't want power for yourself, then who?"
" I have seen many things," al-Shan repeated. "I see signs everywhere; in my dreams, in a glass of water, in the stars. I have seen the last branch of the Tree of deMolay tremble and fall. I have seen the entire Realm of Atlantl shed its blood. I have seen you, Evelynne, come to me, brought by the Herald. These things and more I have seen, and they have either come to pass or soon shall. There are other things I have seen, and I do not know how they shall come to be. I have seen Jamaz on a moonless night, lit as bright as day. I have seen an Angel fall to Earth, and be caught by Samson Reborn. I have seen the healing lightning warm the injured and dying. I have seen... I have seen miracles. And most of all, I have seen Those Who Sleep. Once all else that I have seen has come to pass, I have seen that They shall awake, and Atlantl shall Rise. The Gods, Evelynne! The Gods shall walk the Earth once more! And They shall rule! Uresh senebu nu peter!"
There was dead silence for long heartbeats, as everyone present stared at al-Shan, his face ablaze with fervour.
" The Gods?" Princess Evelynne asked, breaking the silence. "You did all this for the Gods?!"
" There shall be a new Great Age, as there was in aeons past. The new Dynasty shall not be mortal, but shall live on for ten thousand years and encompass the stars themselves! But there cannot be two Dynasties, Evelynne," al-Shan continued, and his sorrow seemed entirely genuine. "The al-Heru deMolay line must end. I truly wish it could be otherwise, Evelynne, but your blood must flow for the Gods to Awaken."
Matthew Johnson seemed surprised by his own voice. "No," he said again. "This isn't right. This isn't what I believe in. I might not know God's will, but I know that this isn't it. I won't let you do this." The barrel of his gun swivelled to train on al-Shan and Anthros.
al-Shan appeared oddly unruffled by the sudden switch in allegiance, and smiled wryly. "And three Disciples shall face two Prophets, and one shall find deliverance," he said, sounding like he was quoting from some source. "And here you are, named after Matthew, James and John. I knew you had to be here, and so I arranged for it. Perhaps you have found deliverance. Or perhaps I have. Either way, I am grateful." Then his hand was up like a snake, and the pistol gripped in it cracked once.
The darkness was becoming frustrating. Beloved souls were nearby, their vibrancy laced with fear and worry, and They wanted nothing more than to go to them, embrace them, feel their warmth. Her/Their physical form stubbornly refused to move, however, and had They been less... detached from Their surroundings They would have snarled in frustration. There was danger nearby, and disturbing flickers in reality that were somehow familiar, but fractured as well.
A part of Them was nearby as well, and, speculatively, They shifted Their consciousness into that part of Their shared waveform, and then They could see. There was relief as They could finally see the loved onesâ•‰Evelynne and Claire, the part of Them concerned with such labels addedâ•‰and they were unharmed so far. Others were present as well: one was wracked with a perfectly sane sense of confusion and uncertainty, while another was cold and calculating. The third was sharp and brittle, a chaotic mixture of deadly certainty, fanaticism, and a tiny voice of fear crying out.
It was this last entity who raised a hand and fired a small slug of metal.
They watched curiously as the bullet inched through the air, and there was a sense of disassociated wonder as They observed the physical properties of the tiny piece of metal. Mass, energy, momentum, charge, spacial location: all were observed with a directness that Schrödinger would have wept to experience. And it was just as fundamental to shift Their own quantum waveform to encompass that of the bullet and simply pluck the momentum from its equation. There was a moment of outrage from the universe as the stolen energy existed in uncertainty for a length of time far longer than Heisenberg had ever imagined possible while They tried to decide where to put it. That energy had to go somewhere, and so They released it back into the atoms of the metal, where it was sufficient to excite the electronic energy levels enough to emit visible light and more than a little heat.
The danger no longer imminent, They could turn her mind to speaking. Her/Their own vocal cords were still stubbornly unresponsive, so They reached out once more...
There was dead silence in the aftermath of the shot, as nobody present could tear their eyes away from the bullet that was floating in midair inches from the point between Johnson's eyes. One heartbeat, two, and then the deadly projectile began to glow cherry red, and the erstwhile soldier flinched back from the heat emanating from it. He flinched again when it dropped abruptly to the floor, making the carpet smoulder.
"It appears--" al-Shan's voice was hoarse, and he had to clear his throat. "It appears the Gods wish you to live."
"I don't know about the Gods, but I figured nobody else had to get hurt today," Lowes spoke up, dragging everyone's attention to her. Her voice had an abstracted, ethereal quality, and as they watched an series of undecipherable expressions crossed her face. "This is very strange."
al-Shan forgotten, Evelynne took a step towards the reporter before halting herself. "Ally?" she said uncertainly, looking over her shoulder to the unmoving woman on the bed. Once again she had the absolutely overwhelming sensation that Ally was in two places at once.
"I... yes. I think so. I am... borrowing Martina's eyes and vocal cords. Mine don't seem to be working." Martina/Ally glanced down at the bullet which was still making the carpet smoke. "It's interesting just what you're capable of when you're no longer using processing power in keeping your body in motion. Probably explains at least part of Stephen Hawking." Once again her eyes swept the room, past Matthew Johnson who had sunk to his knees on the floor, over Anthros who was cowering in the corner, over al-Shan who was standing gaping at her, and came to rest on Claire.
There was a click as Claire's bonds released themselves, and then Martina was helping the other young woman to stand. She seemed a little surprised when Claire took her hand without hesitation, and spent a moment searching the other woman's face.
"You're not afraid," she said after a moment, seeming slightly startled at the observation. "You're not afraid of me." Her head turned to look at Evelynne. "Either of you."
"Of course not," Claire replied simply. "You've never scared me. We love you, and we might be scared for you, but not of you." She smiled wryly, looking up into Martina/Ally's eyes. "Which isn't to say that we're not a bit freaked out."
"That's very true," Evelynne said from where she had walked to the bed containing Ally's physical form and was now holding her lover's hand.
"Hmm." Distracted once more, Lowes' gaze moved to Johnson, kneeling on the floor. "You're not afraid of me either."
" No... Your Ladyship," Matthew replied. "There's a lot I don't understand, but there are some things that are very clear to me now. I still don't know if you are God's Hand or not. My mind is my own, though, just as He intended, and I can only make my own decisions. And I choose to trust you. And even if I am making a mistake, even the Devil cannot take my soul away from me, because that belongs to God."
Martina/Ally smiled wryly. "Well, just don't expect me to try to read God's mind. From what I hear, She plays her cards really close to Her chest."
A hint of a smile quirked Matthew's lips. "So I've heard."
Martina's smile faded as she looked at al-Shan, who sank to sit on the floor, his face and body slack. Evelynne tensed as Ally, in Lowes' body, faced the man who had caused so much pain, but made no move to interfere. So she was shocked when Martina/Ally dropped to her own knees before the King's onetime secretary and took his limp hands in hers.
"Mohammed al-Shan," she murmured softly, "I am so very sorry."
The man looked up at her, and there were tears on his cheeks. "Was I wrong?" he asked brokenly. "Are you one of the Gods? Is the Great Age truly to come? Or has every terrible thing I've done been for nothing? Have I damned myself for no reason at all?"
Ally/Martina shook her head. "I wish I could tell you," she said quietly, sorrowfully. "I know that you've seen things, but whether those things are true... I don't know. And I'm sorry. Such a powerful mind, so much potential that I can see, and it had no chance when it began to turn on itself, did it? I have been where you are, Mohammed, after a fashion. And even now I can see your mind folding in on itself. I see your world collapsing, and I can't stop it... and I wouldn't if I could. Sometimes the soul has to withdraw into itself, to heal or not. I don't know when or if you'll emerge. But there is one thing I can give you." She leaned in and whispered into al-Shan's ear.
When she moved back, Mohammed looked back at her with pitiful gratitude. "Thank you... My Lady," he said, and then his face went blank.
Continued . . .
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