by PsiDraconis

Chapter 9

Isi and eni, could I have your attention, please?”

The sudden voice, loud and commanding even without any kind of electronic augmentation, startled Yusuf Kilmarten as he sat at his desk. Looking around he saw he wasn't the only one to jump. Heads jerked and bobbed around him as his co-workers peered to see where the order had come from. By the main doors, a number of stern men and women in Guard uniforms were spreading out through the office, even while Gretchen Hayden, the Office Manager, hurried forward to meet them. The owner of the computer engineering company, Talia Birch, was already with the Guards, and looking pale and nervous.

“I would like you all to stand up immediately, and keep your hands in plain sight. Do not touch your computers, telephones, or any other object. Do not hang up any telephone calls you may be making. These orders are given under the full authority of the Thrones, the Common Guard, and Internal Security. Thank you for your co-operation.” The tone made it very clear that not co-operating would be a very unfortunate decision. The Guards were only armed with holstered sidearms, but their expressions showed they would have no compunctions about using them.

“Yusuf, what's going on?” Omani Baki, who worked across from him, whispered. Her face mirrored the uncertainty and confusion around them, along with a healthy dose of fear.

Kilmarten's own stomach was roiling with anxiety and not a little dread, although for far more reason than his co-workers. “I don't know. A raid?”

His orders had him prepared for such an event, however. Ever so carefully as he slowly stood, he reached for the tiny concealed button under his desk that was certainly not part of the official company equipment. A press of that button, and...

His fingers froze, millimetres from the button. Incredulous, Kilmarten strained his muscles, seeking to cross that final minute distance, but his hand could have been encased in concrete. Panicked, but still able to hide it, he glanced around, but nobody else seemed to have noticed that he was still awkwardly half-standing over his desk. Except for one of the Guards, a tall blonde woman who was staring right at him, her own fingers splayed ever so slightly at her side. The programmer shivered. He had heard of people who could look at you as though they were reading all your secrets—his own mother was quite adept—but nothing like the piercing grey eyes which now drilled into his head and stayed there.

He was still transfixed when a large hand clamped firmly on his arm, jerking him abruptly from his daze. The invisible cement holding his hand dissolved, and Kilmarten swayed back, off-balance. He looked up, stunned, to find a massive, bland-faced Guard holding him upright securely. The chance to press the button was long gone, even had he been focussed enough to think of it again.

“Yusuf Kilmarten?” the huge Guard asked, and even though it was obviously a mere formality, the programmer nodded. “We'd like you to come with us, Mr Kilmarten. We'd like your assistance in answering some questions regarding some unusual satellite activity.” Once again, the tone clearly said that co-operation was voluntary only in the loosest sense of the word.

Kilmarten nodded again awkwardly. “Alright,” he said meekly.

As he was being led out, surrounded by the baffled stares of his colleagues, he heard the remaining Guards informing the office that all computers, files, and storage media were being seized under the authority of the Thrones, the Common Guard, and Internal Security.

Nomi Gurabe, Agent-Colonel with the Atlantlan Internal Security Division, watched through the mirrored glass at the events taking place in the interview room on the other side, but kept one eye constantly on the tall young woman by her side in the darkened viewing room. Freed from its hiding place under a long blonde wig, Lady Alleandre's short brown hair was still several shades lighter and considerably longer than Gurabe's own. She had yet to change out of her Guard uniform, but seemed to have forgotten that she was wearing it. Of course, she was entitled to wear the uniform whenever she chose, including the Corporal's insignia, the inverted teardrop-shape that was part of the ankh which was Atlantl's formal symbol. The Lady didn't really have any authority in the Guard, at least officially. Instead, the Guard rank was an old tradition that allowed a Personal Guard to give orders related to safety to one who was far above them in social status.

Lady Alleandre was incredibly intriguing in Gurabe's eyes, not least because of the abilities she had in her possession, abilities of which the Agent had only recently learned in a Pyramid-level classified briefing by the Director of Internal Security herself. The assignment as a liaison between ISD and the Lady's “team” had not exactly been voluntary, but even if it had, Gurabe would have jumped at the chance. Her grandmother had immigrated to Atlantl from the heart of the Congo, and Nomi had been raised on a hundred stories of shamans and witch-doctors, men and women who could speak with the spirits and cast spells that could bring life and death, change a person's shape, bring rain and drought. Lady Alleandre was far removed from a painted, hide-clad wise woman shaking her rattle and casting her bones, but, Gurabe thought pragmatically, even magicians had to change with the times.

Her powers were just as impressive as one of those spirit-keepers, though, even those few that the Agent had witnessed personally. The magician—the Adept, Gurabe corrected herself—was looking through the glass with half-closed eyes, and the Agent knew that her mind was extended and intertwining delicately with that of the man being interrogated by Lieutenant-Colonel Franz Mendez, Gurabe's counterpart and liaison from the Common Guard.

“We know you were doing something illegal, Mr Kilmarten,” Mendez stated flatly, and everyone could see the other man's flash of guilt, even though he hid it quickly.

“I don't know what you mean,” Kilmarten replied defensively, and Gurabe couldn't help but feel slightly impressed. The man was good. If she didn't know any better, she would guess he had some kind of intelligence training. For that matter, she didn't know any better. After all, one of the theories they were all working under was that some foreign agency had been instrumental in co-ordinating and planning the Invasion.

“Come now, Mr Kilmarten,” Mendez chided, his own expression stern but friendly. “Totally innocent people don't have emergency kill-switches hooked up to their computers, ready to fry the hard drive in an instant. Of course, some people might want that sort of thing for... certain intimate habits, I suppose.” The Colonel leaned forward conspiratorially. “I've downloaded the occasional, ah, risque picture at work myself, on occasion.”

Mendez was also good, Gurabe admitted with a hint of good-natured reluctance based in inter-departmental rivalry. Not as good as an interrogator from ISD, but good enough for a dumb bodyguard. If they were actually looking for a conclusive confession of guilt, Kilmarten would eventually crack. As it was, the questions were solely a means to guide the suspect's mind along the paths they wanted, allowing Lady Alleandre to pick out the important thoughts as they came.

“I can't go in and read someone's memories,” the Lady had said when explaining the limits of her talents. “I can only feel what someone's is thinking right at that moment. If they're remembering, I can read that, but I can't go digging. And it's confusing. Everyone thinks in different ways. Some people see pictures and hear sounds in their minds. Some are very literal. Just about everyone uses symbolism. Some literally talk to themselves. A few think in pure concepts, without words or pictures. And everyone connects their thoughts separately. The links between one thought and another are unique to each person. And unless their minds are very disciplined, they jump from one topic to another almost without warning. So I need time to figure out what's important and what's not.”

And so Mendez was doing his best to give the true interrogator that time, going back over the same topic time and again to give Lady Alleandre the chance to pick out the common threads in each thought.

“Well...” Kilmarten was squirming now. “I... did some programming for a... friend. A friend of a friend, actually. It was outside the company, but I was using company equipment. I could get fired for that.”

A soft sound from beside her drew Gurabe's attention, and she glanced to see Lady Alleandre with her head cocked to the side, as though considering a particularly puzzling riddle. There was a new faint tension in her tall frame that made the Agent take more notice of the interrogation. Obviously something had piqued the Adept's interest.

“Well, that doesn't sound so bad,” Mendez said, still playing the friendly face. “That kind of thing would be between you and your employer, wouldn't it? In fact, unless you were doing something really illegal, I don't think I'd even have to mention it to them.” He paused, as though thinking. “It's not really illegal, is it?”

There was silence, and even Gurabe could practically see the wheels turning in Kilmarten's head, even without Lady Alleandre's talent.

“Well... it was some accounting software,” Kilmarten said eventually. “And they wanted some... features to make it easier to make adjustments to their records. I don't know what for,” he added quickly. “They just told me what they wanted, and I put it together for them.”

“He's lying,” Lady Alleandre murmured. “At least partly. He did send some software, but...”

Mendez made no sign that he had heard the soft words coming through the tiny speaker in his ear. “Accounting software doesn't sound so bad,” he commented mildly. “Unless it was being used for fraud, of course. But even then, it's hardly your fault that they were breaking the law.” The relief in Kilmarten's face was obvious. “The thing that I don't get, though, it that you sent this... program through what should be a secure military network. That you do need to explain.”

Kilmarten was tense again. “I swear, I didn't know it was going through a secure network. All I was told was a series of network addresses and some passwords. I thought it was just some company server.”

“Where did the passwords come from?” Lady Alleandre murmured, and Mendez echoed the question.

“Someone from the company, I assumed,” Kilmarten said. “Who else would know them?”

“He's lying,” the Lady said again softly. “What is Control-Eight-Four-Two-Seven-Omega-Blue?”

This time Mendez' eye twitched at the unusual question, but he repeated it to Kilmarten just the same.

Whatever they were expecting, it wasn't for Kilmarten to sag back suddenly in his chair in abject relief.

“He's what?!” General ab-Warat nearly shouted, surging to his feet to plant his fists on his desk and loom over those sitting in his office menacingly.

Colonel Mendez looked a little startled, but neither Gurabe nor Alleandre flinched. “Kilmarten is a deep-cover Guard agent, sir,” Mendez repeated, fully undertanding his superior's shock. “At least, he believes so. He claims to have been 'recruited' four years ago for something called 'Operation Rising Land.' An ultra-top-secret project whose ultimate goals were unknown to him. He's been sending data packets through a number of servers and networks on a very sporadic basis ever since. Months will go by between 'assignments.' He doesn't even know what's in the data he transfers. He gets the packet, and it's his job to put in into the right network without being traced. He's good, too. We probably never would have found out without the Choir. The phrase Lady Alleandre... saw, 'Control-Eight-Four-Two-Seven-Omega-Blue,' was his 'code word' to let him know he could break cover.”

It was a measure of ab-Warat's shock that he didn't even scowl at the mention of Chorus Tladi and Taldas Islin's infiltration program. With one of its creators being “Chorus” it was probably inevitable that “the Program” would eventually be renamed “the Choir.” The General's poor reception stemmed less from the name than the fact that such a powerful tool wasn't in the Common Guard's exclusive control.

“Isis, Osiris, and Set,” he breathed, sinking back down into his chair. “Can we confirm it?” he demanded. “Is this Kilmarten a Guard agent?”

“I've taken the liberty of checking the roster of all agents below Maze-level, sir,” Mendez said, “and nobody with his name or vitals shows up. I don't have the authority to check higher.”

“Well, I know every agent above Maze-level, and I can tell you that this man is not one of them.” ab-Warat glared at the picture in the file on his desk as though staring hard enough would make it change. “I'll double-check, of course, but there are only a very small number of agents, so I doubt I'm wrong.”

“I was watching, sir, and I don't think he's a real agent. His reactions were too open. What about a second- or third-party cut-out?” Gurabe asked. “Could he be a contractor, rather than a direct agent?”

“If he is, he's not a part of this... What was it? 'Rising Land?' I know for a fact that there's no operation by that name, either on or off the books, that's been authorised by this office.”

“Then we have a much more serious problem, sir,” Gurabe said.

ab-Warat scowled at her. “I realise that, Agent,” he said quellingly. “There's a good chance that one of the big boys of international intelligence has managed to get its claws deep into our backyard. CIA, MI-5, Mossad, WADI. That's going to make the international situation that much more delicate.”

“Actually, I was thinking that there might be a rogue operation, or rogue agent at the very least, at large within the Guard. Something that doesn't even come near your office. Someone not only recruited Kilmarten, but managed to get the locations of every branch of the Geranin Protocol. That would be much easier for someone within Guard Intelligence itself.”

The General looked like he wanted to hit Gurabe for suggesting it, but he mastered his reaction. “You're right,” he said with manifest reluctance. “I have considered the possibility. It means our internal investigation will have to be stepped up.”

“I would suggest, General, that there may be a problem there,” the Agent said. “To be blunt, any in-house investigation is going to be somewhat blinded, especially if some rogue department is muddying the waters. I would make the suggestion that having an outside agency do the digging might turn over a few more stones.”

“An outside agency like Internal Security, you mean,” ab-Warat said bluntly, his tone flat.

“Yes, sir,” Gurabe said calmly. “However, we also can't dismiss the possibility that ISD is infiltrated as well. Therefore, I would propose a mirror investigation. While we're digging into all your dirty laundry, you'll be digging into ours.”

ab-Warat was silent for a moment, obviously considering the proposal. “Very well, Agent Gurabe. Have Director Klaussen give me a call, and we'll see what we can arrange.” Turning back to Colonel Mendez, he returned to the original topic. “Now, Colonel, I want you to tell me everything this Kilmarten told you. After that...” He faced Alleandre with grudging respect. “I would appreciate it, Your Ladyship, if you could relate your... impressions of the interrogation, no matter how insignificant they might seem.”

“Of course, General,” Lady Alleandre replied with an aplomb that Gurabe envied. “It may be somewhat... confusing, however.”

“I understand that, Your Ladyship. Now, Mendez, do we know for sure that Kilmarten sent the signal?”

“Yes, sir,” Mendez replied. “The altered mission orders were definitely sent from Kilmarten's home computer. He did a good job of erasing his tracks, but the Choir managed to pick up the scent. Also included were a set of passwords and a security key that overrode the satellite's original message and replaced it with the new one. We don't have the entire key, but we're working on it. The problem is that Kilmarten received all the programming on a physical disk that was left in his 'drop-box,' so we have no direct back trail to follow. We're working on determining the disk's origin through investigation of the drop box. Chorus Tladi has also sent the Choir out to try to make a match with the disk image we managed to make, but the chances of that working are low, at best. On the other hand, we've obtained security footage from the drop area, and...”

“So how did it go?” Evelynne asked from her place on the couch.

In response, Ally groaned wordlessly and flopped gracelessly onto the cushions beside her lover, ending up with her head face-down into Evelynne's lap.

An eyebrow quirked, and Evelynne smiled wryly. “That well, huh?” She put the briefing she was reading aside on the side table.

“You know,” Ally mumbled, her face still buried in her partner's lap, “I thought spy stuff was supposed to be all James Bond. Nobody tells you just how tedious it can be. I haven't seen a single laser-watch or invisible plane yet. I feel gypped.”

“Aww, poor Ally,” Evelynne cooed, patting Ally patronisingly on the head. “No supervillains to vanquish.”

“No, just minions. Only a stupid kid so gullible he should probably be shot for the sake of the gene pool.” Ally's head turned and peered up at her partner through one weary eye. “He was the one who sent the fake message to the covert team and nearly got my mother killed.” Evelynne looked shocked, and began a stroking and scratching motion of Ally's scalp. Ally's eyes closed again, and she arched her head into the caress. “The idiot had no idea what he was sending. Thought he was part of some secret Guard operation. So instead of finding a mastermind, all we've got is another basically innocent pawn.” Ally squirmed, her frustration manifesting even over the pleasure of Evelynne's touch. “I don't want to talk about him, okay? I need to get him out of my mind, not let him sink in.”

“Alright,” Evelynne agreed simply. While one hand kept up its scratching, the other went to work on Ally's tight shoulders. “I thought you might like to know that I got a call from Narmin today.”

That perked Ally up. “Really? What did she say?”

“Well, she wasn't asking for money. I think she was just checking to see if the contact number worked.”

“You mean she wanted to see if we actually were who we said we were on that disk.”

Evelynne chuckled. “I suppose so. She was pretty sceptical. I don't think she really believed me until I put za on speakerphone. Then she could hardly talk.”

Ally smiled. “Well, you've got to admit, your Dad can be a little intimidating the first time you talk to him.” She smirked. “Of course, now I know he's just a big, fuzzy pussycat.”

“I'll be sure to tell him you said that,” Evelynne said wryly. She frowned as her massaging fingers barely began to make a dent in the tightness of Ally's shoulders. “Isis, you're tense, love.”

“I know,” Ally muttered. “It's just so...”

“Frustrating, I know. You've been restless the last couple of weeks. However, I think I have something that will help release some of that tension.” The eye opened again and looked up with obvious interest. “Not that, you horndog,” Evelynne scolded, slapping her partner lightly on the shoulder. “Or, at least, not that yet. Come on, get up. I have a surprise for you.”

With some prodding and coaxing, Evelynne managed to pry Ally from her warm haven and to her feet, then tugged her towards the bedroom.

“When you said, 'Not yet,' I didn't realise you meant so soon,” Ally teased.

“Well, you can either have sex now and no present, or a present now and sex later,” Evelynne said archly.

“Ooh, that's a tough one. Still, anticipation is good, isn't it? Gimme present.”

Eveynne sighed. “Sometimes it's like living with a ten-year-old.”

In reality, Ally's unpredictable playfulness was a relatively recent phenomenon. The ritual that she and her lover had participated in almost two months previously had been intended, at least in part, to break down the formidable wall that Ally's psyche had erected around itself in response to the horrific events of her drugging. That ritual had been far more successful than any of them had imagined, smashing not only the reactive barrier, but many of the more conventional restraints built up naturally over a lifetime. The result was a woman who was being forced to relearn many of the inhibitions and restrictions that were a normal and necessary part of social interaction. Interestingly, though, these new aspects of self-control seemed to be something that the new Ally could turn on and off almost at will. She remained shy and uncertain much of the time, but whereas before her interactions in even the most comfortable of social situations had most often still been somewhat guarded, now she was practically childlike amongst those she trusted.

“Alright, stand here and close your eyes,” Evelynne instructed. “And no looking with your eyes closed, either.” Ally's powers sometimes made much more explicit instructions necessary.

“Are you sure this isn't sex?” Ally asked, obeying.

She heard Evelynne crossing the room, and then returning, this time accompanied by the very faint squeak of a wheel.

“Alright, you may open your eyes.”

Ally did so, and her face passed from surprise to awed delight as she looked at the object before her. “Oh, wow.”

It was quite an unusual garment that was hanging from the portable rack in front of her. Part of it looked like a black wetsuit, but with odd padding in places. A series of accessories hung beside it: a wide, flat belt; a pair of high black boots; a pair of supple gloves; and finally a long black hooded cloak.

“Oh, wow,” Ally breathed again. She reached out almost reverently and tugged one of the gloves free from its hanger. Carefully she slipped it on, holding it up to examine it closely as she flexed her fingers and twisted her hand back and forth. The material was thin and flexible, but displayed a surprising strength.

“I take it you like it,” Evelynne said softly with a smile in her voice.

“It's... amazing,” Ally said, enraptured. “You made me a Suit.” She came back to herself slowly and looked down at her lover. “How did you make this? Why did you make this?”

“The 'how'... I told Maĩda what I wanted, drew her a few sketches, specifications. I don't know how she did it or who she talked to, but yesterday it was ready. As for why...” Evelynne looked up at her partner seriously and took her face in her hands. “I've seen you the last while, love, how cooped up and frustrated you've been. I remembered how it was back in Vancouver, when you would... go out and fly over the city. And even though it was such a terrible time, I also saw how much you loved it. Whenever you came back you were always just slightly more at peace for a time.” Evelynne pulled Ally's lips to hers for an almost chaste kiss, before turning to stroke the long material of the cloak still hanging. “I know you feel free when you're up there, and that you haven't gone out since we got back. And so I wanted to give you that opportunity. This is to say that I understand, and that you have my... not my approval, because you don't need that, but my blessing. And, to be honest, so that when you do go out you'll be just that much safer.”

Evelynne touched the breast of the hanging bodysuit. “It's as bulletproof as we could make it without full hardshell body armour, and it's fire-resistant. Don't think I've forgotten your little stunt back in Horton City. It's insulated so that you can keep warm, and the insulation can be removed if necessary. It's completely waterproof. There's a vocal disguiser built into the collar along with an encrypted two-way radio, and there's an integrated audio enhancement system that'll let you increase your hearing. That's basically just a sensitive hearing aid, actually. And there are two sets of auto-polarising glasses so that your eyes will be protected from light and anything else. One is for when you're wearing your contacts, and the other is made to your prescription. We're working on building in some kind of heads-up display, but that's still in the prototype stage. The glasses will also prevent the use of a retinal scanner from identifying your pattern. We know for a fact that the American military has a device that can read a retinal pattern from a range of one metre, and from what I'm told, ours are slightly better.” She squeezed Ally's waist, around which her arm was wrapped. “I don't want anyone figuring out who you are just by looking in your eyes, love. Of course, DNA is something we can't do too much about, but since most of your body will be covered hopefully that will not be too much of an issue. The glasses also act as a somewhat limited low-light enhancer. Not quite up to full military light-enhancing goggles, but quite good for their size.”

Ally just stared at the outfit with a stunned gaze as the description went on. “Jesus,” she muttered finally. “My old suits were the product of second-hand ski outfits and multiple trips to the bargain bin of Sewing World. I got my gloves at Zellers for fifteen dollars, and the most expensive single item was my boots. They cost two hundred bucks, and I only had one pair. And they were half a size too big. I think I've upgraded.” She managed to tear her gaze away to look down at Evelynne with an awe-struck expression. “Thank you,” she said with utter seriousness. “I don't know how...”

Evelynne smiled back. “You're welcome. Think of it as a gift for the anniversary of the day you became my Knight. Every Knight needs a suit of armour.”

“Oh my God. That was nearly a year ago, wasn't it? December twenty-first. That's the day after tomorrow.”

“It's also the first anniversary of the day we became a couple,” Evelynne added. “The first time I kissed you.” She looked up with a mock-severe expression on her face. “You didn't forget our first anniversary, did you?”

“Of course not,” Ally said quickly. She grinned cheekily. “Not any more.”

“You know the second part of your present...” Evelynne said threateningly.

“Oh no, I remember,” Ally hastened to say. “I already have a gift. It's not quite as much as... this, but I hope you like it.” There was just a hint of uncertainty in her tone.

“I know I will.”

“You realise,” Ally mused, looking once more at the elaborate outfit, “that Dicky is going to go into conniptions when she sees this.”

That was true. No professional bodyguard wanted his charge slipping out into the night, much less deliberately putting herself in the paths of criminals, accidents, and disasters.

Evelynne grinned and released her lover, signalling for her to stay put. She disappeared once more into the room's huge walk-in closet. “In that case,” she said, voice slightly muffled before she re-emerged, pulling a second rack on which hung a very similar uniform several sizes smaller, “maybe we shouldn't tell her.”


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